India Through the Ages


The following is an excerpt from Pragati, a national interest review magazine. It describes India at various stages in history through the eyes of various foreigners who visited the nation in those times.

Excerpts from perspectives on India.

Megasthenes, c. 288 BC

(From Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian, translated by J W McCrindle.)

The inhabitants,  in  like manner,  having abundant means  of  subsistence,  exceed  in  consequence  the ordinary  stature,   and  are  distinguished  by  their proud  bearing.  They  are  also  found  to  be  well skilled  in  the  arts,  as  might  be  expected  of  men who  inhale  a  pure  air  and  drink  the very  finest water.

It is accordingly affirmed that famine has never   visited India, and that there has never been a general scarcity in the supply of nourishing food.  For, since there is a double rainfall in the course of each year,—one in the winter season, when the sowing of wheat takes place as in other countries, and the second at the time of the summer solstice—the inhabitants of India almost always gather in two harvests annually: and even should one of the sowings prove more or less abortive they are always sure of the other crop.

But, farther,  there  are usages  observed by the Indians  which  contribute to prevent  the  occurrence of famine among them; for whereas among other nations  it  is usual,  in the contests of war,  to ravage the soil,  and  thus to reduce  it  to an uncultivated waste, among the Indians, on the contrary, by whom  husbandmen  are regarded as a class that is sacred and inviolable, the tillers of  the soil, even  when  battle  is  raging  in  their  neighbourhood,  are undisturbed by any sense of danger, for the combatants on either side in waging the conflict make  carnage  of  each other, but  allow  those engaged in husbandry to remain quite unmolested. Besides, they neither ravage an enemy’s land with fire, nor cut down its trees.[The Ganges] which at  its source  is  30  stadia broad, flows  from north  to  south,   and  empties  its  waters  into  the ocean  forming  the eastern  boundary of  the Gangaridai, a  nation which possesses  a  vast  force of the  largest-sized  elephants.  Owing to this, their country has never been conquered by any foreign, king:  for all other nations dread the overwhelming number and strength of these animals.  [Thus Alexander the Macedonian, after conquering all Asia, did not make war upon the Gangaridai, as he did on all others; for when he had arrived with all his troops at  the  river  Ganges,  and  had  subdued all the other Indians, he abandoned as hopeless  an  invasion  of  the  Gangaridai  when  he learned  that  they  possessed  four thousand  elephants well trained and equipped for war.]

It  is  said  that  India,  being  of enormous  size when  taken as a whole, is peopled by races  both numerous and diverse,  of which not even one was originally of  foreign descent,  but  all  were  evidently  indigenous; and moreover  that  India  neither received a colony from abroad, nor sent out a colony to any other nation.

Xuanzang, c. 629 AD

(From  Si-Yu-ki by Hiuen Tsiang, translated by Samuel Beal.)

On examination, we find that the names of India (T’ien-chu) are various and  perplexing as to  their authority.  It  was  anciently  called  Shin-tu,  also Hien-tau; but now,  according to  the right pronunciation,  it  is  called  In-tu. The people of In-tu call their country by different names according to their district.  Each country has diverse customs. Aiming  at  a  general  name  which  is  the  best sounding, we will  call  the  country  In-tu.  In Chinese this name signifies the Moon.

The countries embraced under this  term of  India are generally spoken of as the five Indies. The entire land is divided into seventy countries or so. As  the  administration  of  the  government  is founded  on  benign  principles,   the  executive  is simple.  The families are not entered on registers, and the people are not subject to conscription. The private demesnes of the crown are divided into four principal parts; the first is for carrying out the affairs of  state and providing sacrificial offerings ; the second  is  for providing subsidies for  the ministers  and chief  officers  of  state;   the  third  is  for rewarding men  of  distinguished  ability;  and  the fourth  is  for charity to  religious  bodies, whereby the  field  of  merit  is  cultivated.   In this way the taxes on  the  people  are  light,   and  the  personal service  required  of  them  is  moderate. Each one keeps his own worldly goods in peace, and all  till the ground for their subsistence.

Those  who  cultivate  the  royal  estates  pay  a sixth part of the produce as tribute. The merchants who engage in commerce come and go in carrying out  their  transactions.  The river-passages  and  the road-barriers are open on payment of a small toll.When  the  public  works  require  it,  labour  is  exacted  but  paid  for. The payment is  in  strict  proportion to the work done.

Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, 932 AD

(From The Baburnama—Memoirs of Babur.)

Most of the provinces of Hindustan are located on flat terrain. So many cities and so many provinces—yet there is no running water anywhere. The only running water is in the large rivers.  Even in cities that have the capability of digging channels for running water do not do so.

The cities and provinces of Hindustan are all unpleasant.  All cities, all locales are alike.   The gardens have no walls, and most places are flat as boards.

In Hindustan the destruction of building and villages and hamlets, even of cities, can be accomplished in an instant.  Such large cities, in which people have lived for years, if they are going to be abandoned, can be left in a day, even half a day, so that no sign or trace remains. If  they have a mind to  build  a  city,  there  is  no  necessity  for  digging irrigation canals or building dams.  Their crops are all unirrigated. There is no limit to the people. A group gets together, makes a pond, or digs a well. There is no making of houses or rising of walls. They simply make  huts  from  the  plentiful  straw and  innumerable  trees,  and  instantly a village  or city is born.

Most of the people of Hindustan are infidels, whom the people of India call Hindu.  In our country the people who move about the countryside have clan names, but in India even those who dwell in towns and villages have clan names. Every craft and trade is passed from father to son.

Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manliness.  The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry. There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is  no  ice,  cold  water,  good  food  or  bread  in  the markets.   There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches or candlesticks.

The one nice aspect of Hindustan is that it is a large country with lots of gold and money.  Another  nice  thing  is  the  unlimited  numbers  of craftsmen  and  practitioners  of  every  trade.  For every labour and every product there is an established group who have been practicing that craft or professing that trade for generations.

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, 1904

(From  Lord  Curzon  in  India,   a  selection  of  his speeches,  compiled  by Thomas Raleigh,  Macmillan, 1906)

(India)  is  like a fortress with the vast moat of  the sea  on  two  of  her  faces,  and with mountains  for her  walls  on  the  remainder.  But beyond those walls, which are sometimes of by no means  insuperable  height  and  admit  of  being  easily  penetrated,  extends  a  glacis  of  varying  breadth  and dimensions. We do not want to occupy it, but we also cannot afford  to  see  it  occupied  by our  foes. We are quite content  to  let  it remain in the hands of  our  allies  and  friends;  but  if  rival  and  unfriendly influences creep up to  it,  and lodge themselves  right under our walls, we are compelled  to intervene,  because a danger would  thereby grow up that might one day menace our security. This is the secret  of  the whole position in Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet, and as far eastwards as Siam.

He would be a  short-sighted commander who merely manned his ramparts  in India and did not look out beyond;  and the whole of our policy during the past  five years has  been directed towards maintaining  our  predominant  influence  and  to preventing  the  expansion  of  hostile  agencies  on this area which  I  have described.   It was for this reason that I visited that old field of British energy and  influence  in  the Persian Gulf:  and  this also  is in part  the  explanation of  our movement  into  Tibet  at  the  present  time;  although  the  attitude  of the  Tibetan Government,   its  persistent  disregard of  Treaty obligations, and its  contemptuous  retort to  our  extreme  patience, would  in any  case  have compelled  a more active vindication of  our  interests.

I have had no desire to push on anywhere, and the history of the past five years has been one, not of aggression,  but of consolidation and restraint.  It is enough for me to  guard what we have without hankering for more.

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