ABOUT THE BOOK:
An account of the grandeur of ancient India as perceived by her foreign visitors from hoary times, and their wonder at her rich philosophical efflorescence and material abundance. The foreigners marvelled at the deep spiritual convictions that allowed yogis and widows to ascend a burning pyre without murmur; the social harmony of myriad tribes and castes; and above all, the common culture and love of justice permeating and binding all in seamless unity. Beginning with the Greeks and especially those who accompanied Alexander, these accounts comprise our first records into the social, moral, legal, and economic life of the Indian people, and the early development of the civilisational paradigm of dharma, artha, kama and moksa. The rise of Christianity pushed Europe into a cocoon. Thereafter, Buddhist pilgrims from China traversed the land between the fourth and the eighth centuries, visiting the major monasteries and sites associated with the Buddha, and left interesting memoirs behind. This uninhibited intellectual and spiritual exploration of India’s Sanskritic or Indic culture ended abruptly with the rise of Islam in Arabia in the seventh century, and its outward thrust into Europe, north Africa, Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, where it fought to establish political and religious supremacy. Possibly the last Buddhist monk to take the land route to India was the Korean pilgrim Hye Ch’O, who arrived as the armies of Islam began cutting through Central Asia...
The classical accounts of Greek and Roman writers, and subsequently, the works of Chinese pilgrims portrayed the splendour of civilization in ancient India. By the seventh century, the world scenario had altered significantly with the advent of Islam and the attendant era of Arab expansion. The age of Arab travellers, geographers, merchants and historians commenced with the Islamic ascendancy.
India was then at a high point in her intellectual and cultural attainments. The Arabs transmitted knowledge of Indian numerals, mathematics, philosophy and logic, mysticism, ethics, statecraft, military science, medicine, astronomy and astrology to the outside world. Arab travellers described the grandeur and wealth of the kings of India, singling out for special mention the Palas, the Gurjara Pratiharas and the Rashtrakutas.
Politically, while north India was being subjected to Arab and Turkish invasions which culminated in the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in A.D. 1206, the south moved on a different trajectory. In the last quarter of the tenth century, the mighty Cholas on the Coromandel Coast replaced the Rashtrakutas as the paramount kings of India. By A.D. 1200, the Chola kingdom had withered away. In A.D. 1336, was established the Vijayanagar kingdom, which stood as a bulwark against Muslim attacks from the north for over two centuries.
Meanwhile, several European missions and missionaries undertook the journey to China, visiting India en route, or on their return journey. European merchants took advantage of the land routes opened by the Mongol conquests and some of them managed to visit India.
Besides the works of European travellers, traders and merchants, several Chinese accounts of India are also available from the twelfth century.
The arrival of Vasco da Gama on the western coast of India, near Calicut, on 27 May 1498, heralded the restoration of Europe’s links with the subcontinent after an interval of almost eight centuries. With his landing, India became accessible to Portuguese conquistadors, traders, travellers, scholars and clergymen. The sixteenth century could, in a sense, be termed the Portuguese century, for no European power could challenge its mastery of the sea route to India.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by Holland and England, however, signaled the end of this monopoly and in 1595, the first Dutch fleet entered the Indian Ocean. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, with their British camp followers, seriously undermined the Portuguese. The French also entered the Indian trade in the second half of this century.
While several Portuguese accounts of India in the sixteenth century are available, for the seventeenth century, we also have the writings of travellers, scholars and missionaries from the latter three countries. Additionally, Jesuits of various nationalities wrote regular letters to home, providing valuable information on facets of Indian life, albeit tempered by their religious bias.
This volume confines itself to European writings of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It does not claim to be exhaustive but presents glimpses of the Indian reality as recorded by contemporary European visitors. Only English translations have been used. A sizeable number of accounts in European languages still await translation.
In the wake of the commercial and political expansion of Europe in the eighteenth century, there was a remarkable increase in the number of Europeans visiting India, not merely for trade but also in search of her fabled ancient wisdom. The European rediscovery of India's cultural heritage led to the emergence of Orientalist scholarship and a belief that India was the original home of the arts and sciences.
In India the great patron of Indie studies was the Governor-General, Warren Hastings. He gathered around himself a select group that included Charles Wilkins, Nathaniel Halhed, and William Jones, the most famous of the Orientalists.
But the growing political ascendancy of the British in India dampened the early exuberance for Indie studies. As conquerors, the British began to feel the need to justify their conquests and exalt their own race and religion. Several other forces were at work to turn the tide against India. The Industrial Revolution in England had created the need to convert India into a market for machine-made British goods. Meanwhile, the Evangelicals pressed for the Christianization and Anglicization of India, which, they felt, would lead to permanent British rule and also change Indian lifestyle to the advantage of British manufacturers. The Evangelicals allied with the Utilitarians to launch a tirade against Indian culture and force the retreat of the Orientalists.
This volume covers the period from A.D. 1700 to 1850. A significant number of travellers visited India during this century and a half. The accounts available to us are primarily those written in English. A considerable amount of the work in French and the rich accounts of the early Danish missionaries on the Coromandel Coast, for instance, have yet to be translated into English.
ABOUT THE EDITOR:
SANDHYA JAIN is a contemporary affairs analyst and independent researcher; she writes a fortnightly column for the daily newspaper, The Pioneer, and edits the web portal. A post-graduate from Delhi University, Jain is the author of Adi Deo Arya Devata: A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface and Evangelical Intrusions. Tripura: A Case Study.
MEENAKSHI JAIN is an associate professor of History at Gargi College, University of Delhi. She was Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, Teen Murti. Her recent works include Parallel Pathways. Essays on Hindu-Muslim Relations (1707-1857). She is the co-author of The Rajah Moonje Pact. Documents on a Forgotten Chapter of Indian History.