Depictions of India in Ancient Literature


published on 11 January 2011

Herodotus (484 BCE – c. 425 BCE) has been called the Father of History since he was the first historian known to collect his materials in detail, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative. The Histories — his masterpiece and the only work he is known to have produced — is a record of his inquiry. Just as Homer drew mostly on a tradition of oral poetry, sung by wandering minstrels, so Herodotus appears to have drawn on a tradition of story-telling, collecting and interpreting the oral histories he chanced upon in his travels. These oral histories often contained folk-tale motifs.

On the subject of India he recounts an account of ants who threw up mounds of gold dust. This afterwards became a permanent element in the classic conception of India. The facts on which the account was based seem now fairly clear. Gold-dust was actually brought as tribute by the tribes of Dardistaii in Kashmir and was called by the Indians pipilika, 'ant gold'. When Herodotus said that the ants were the size of dogs and fiercely attacked any one carrying off the gold, it had been perhaps suggested that the account was derived from people who had been chased by the formidable dogs kept by the native miners.

World Map of Herodotus
World Map of Herodotus
Bibi Saint-Pol (Public Domain)
Of course, all this was incidental to his writings about the struggle between Greece and Persia. He travelled through Asia Minor to Egypt, and then went back to Greece. He was the first person to imagine India as a certain mystery. India was at the very edge of the oikoumene – the known world. All kinds of fantasies could be found in this land at the edge of earth. Fabulous beasts and spiritual athletes, great wealth – all woven into an amazing mosaic, such an image of India persisted until the time of Alexander's invasion in 326 BCE.

Alexander the Great enters India

Alexander the Great invaded India in 327 BCE, and to this expedition we owe all our real knowledge of Indian history in ancient times. Before Alexander's invasion we have only the Vedas, dating from about 1400 BCE, the Code of Menu (900-300 BCE), the sacred legends of the Ramayana, (400-350 BCE), and the Mahabharata, (500-250 BCE) to depend upon. Neither by Homer, Pindar, nor Euripides, India or its people is mentioned by name. Aeschylus cites "the wandering Indians," and Sophocles "Indian gold" but although they knew its name they really knew nothing of the country. It was not until the Persian war that the Greeks became aware of the existence of the enormous peninsula lying east and southward of the Indus River. It is more than probable; however, that Homer confounded India with Africa under the general name of Ethiopia. Alexander believed that he would find the sources of the Nile in India. In the Bible the only mention of India by that name is in the Book of Esther [circa B.C. 450, ch. i. 1, and ch. viii. 9] wherein we are told that Ahasuerus reigned "from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces." This Ahasuerus was Xerxes, and the feast he held "in Shushan the palace," in the third year of his reign.

Map of Alexander the Great's Conquests
Map of Alexander the Great's Conquests
US Military Academy (Public Domain)
All our real knowledge of India dates from Alexander's invasion of the Punjab, where he crossed the Indus at Attock in April in 327 BCE, the first authentic date in Indian history. A number of Alexander's officers wrote descriptions of different parts of his route, and thus the ancients became possessed of the separate narratives, most of which have since perished. It is to the information collected by the officers of Alexander, Seleucus, and the Ptolemies, condensed, extracted, and reduced to a consistent shape by Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny, and Arrian, during the first century before and the first century after Christ that we owe most of our knowledge of ancient India. Arrian, the author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, almost a contemporary of Arrian the author of the Indica and the Anabasis Alexandri, gives us a minute account of the sea-borne trade of India and of the coasts of the Erythrean Sea generally. Alexander's expedition and the embassies of Seleucus carried our knowledge of India from the Punjab to the mouths of the Indus and the valley of the Ganges; the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea extended it to the whole Malabar coast, and the Coromandel, as far as Masulipatam. Eratosthenes, the Alexandrian geographer, 276-161 BCE, describes India fully.

Nonetheless, the history of Strabo is really the best general account we have of India. Strabo (63/64 BCE – 24 CE) was a Greek historian, geographer and philosopher. Travel throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, especially for scholarly purposes, was popular during this era, and was facilitated by the relative peace enjoyed throughout the reign of Augustus (27 BCE - 14 CE). It is not known precisely when Strabo's Geography was written. Some place its first drafts around 7 CE, others around 18 CE. The India of Strabo is the India of the Maurya dynasty of Magadha, 325-118 BCE, the most brilliant and best known of the early Indian dynasties, to which Saudrocottus (Chandragupta Maurya) belonged, whose grandson, Asoka, established Buddhism as the State religion of India, 250 BCE, at which date the most intimate relations existed between India, Syria and Egypt, and the arts and literature and science of India reached their highest perfection.

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Chinese knowledge of India

The Chinese first knew India during the reign of Emperor Wuti of later Han dynasty in the second century before Christ. They called this land Yuantu or Yin-tu, a variation of Hindu or Sindhu. In the official record of the Tang dynasty in the seventh century CE India was a country of five divisions. Quite often the royal dispatches called India as Magadha, after the name of the best known and the richest province. Some other times, it was known as the Kingdom of the Brahmins.

Of the five divisions or Five Indies, mentioned above in the timeline, the narration confines to northern stretch of India. It included Punjab alongside Kashmir and the adjoining hills with the whole of eastern Afghanistan today beyond the Indus River. The districts of Kabul, Peshawar, Gazni and Banu were all under the ruler of Kapisa whose capital was possibly at Charikar, known today as Alexandria in the Caucasus.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Sanujit, . (2011, January 11). Depictions of India in Ancient Literature. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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Sanujit, . "Depictions of India in Ancient Literature." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 11, 2011.

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Sanujit, . "Depictions of India in Ancient Literature." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 11 Jan 2011. Web. 16 Jun 2024.