In the Country of Gold-digging Ants (Two Thousand Years of Travel in India)

In the Country of Gold-digging Ants (Two Thousand Years of Travel in India)

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Item Code: NAG541
Author: Anu Kumar
Publisher: Puffin Books
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9780143330363
Pages: 212
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 7.5 inch X 5 inch
Weight 180 gm

Foreword

 

We live at a time when travelling means advance booking and the mobile and the Internet. The traveller never loses touch with friends, not even for a day. This book is about travellers who vanished from home for years and decades, and reached places where they knew nobody. The moment you open this book, you become part of their adventure.

 

Reading this book is like boarding an aircraft designed to flyover India's long history. For company you have famous travellers like Megasthenes, Marco Polo and Alexandra David-Neel. As you soar into each new chapter, you see an India which is vaguely similar to how we know it today and strikingly different as well. At times you feel you are watching magic on a grand scale. Common animals and birds look exotic because you see them through the eyes of a stranger. Food and dress, weather and natural scenery, markets and courts and ordinary houses acquire that shiny sharpness which the diary of an observant, tireless traveller gives to everything.

 

No single book of history can teach as much as this little book does, and not only about India and its past. As you read these accounts left by men and women who were so curious to know the world that they didn't worry about distances, languages and food, you feel inspired and reassured. Coming at a time when travelling means running a risk, this book will remind you that travelling is also a great source of joy, that comfort and security are not everything.

Introduction

 

More than 2000 years ago, when a king called Chandragupta Maurya ruled over most of north India, a Greek traveller, Megasthenes, visited India. In his account of his travels, he described many amazing new animals, including these strange ants:

 

In the east, there is a high plateau beneath which there are mines of gold, where there are found the ants that dig for that metal. They are as big in size as wild foxes and run with amazing speed. The time when they dig is winter. They throw up heaps of earth at the mouth of the mines. The heap which they throw up consists of gold, the purest and brightest in all the world. The gold-dust that they dig has to be subjected to a little boiling. The people of the neighbourhood try to secretly steal this gold. If they came openly the ants would attack them. So, to steal without being observed, they place at several places pieces of meat that would distract the ants and the people could then carry off the gold-dust.

 

(excerpt from Indika Book VIII in Arrian's Anabasis Alexandri, translated by E. Iliff Robson (1933) and available at http://www.fordham.edu/HALSALLlancient/arrian- book VIII-India.html.)

 

Nine hundred years after Megasthenes journeyed to India, a Chinese pilgrim by the name of Hiuen Tsang visited India. His objective was to seek the Buddhist holy scriptures and return with them to China where he could translate them. He too travelled extensively across India and had many interesting experiences. While he was on his way to Prayag-the old name for the city of Allahabad-Hiuen Tsang was attacked by river pirates who preyed on unwary travellers on the Ganges. It may be unimaginable today, but the Ganges then flowed wide and serene and robbers infested the areas that came under no kingdom. These men were worshippers of the goddess Durga, and as per their custom, were looking for a man to offer as a sacrifice to the goddess. They were about to kill Hiuen Tsang when a typhoon struck all of a sudden, lashing down the trees and everything around. The huge waves of the river tossed the boats to and fro. The terrified pirates attributed it to the spiritual power of the Chinese pilgrim and repented their sins. Hiuen Tsang completed the rest of his journey untroubled.

 

This story and many others detailing his adventures in India, he later recounted when he returned to China.

 

The Ancient Travellers

The accounts of Megasthenes and Hiuen Tsang are some of the earliest written records of life in ancient India. Other travellers who followed also wrote down their observations of life around them, though what they wrote was much influenced by their own backgrounds and what they believed in. Thus their accounts may not be totally accurate and indeed, as seen from Megasthenes' description of the gold-digging ants, can be wildly exaggerated.

 

Travelling in ancient times was difficult. Much of the world was still undiscovered and means of travelling over dangerous and unknown terrain were primitive. Nevertheless, traders, nomads and warrior tribes did travel and move over wide areas, mostly in group. That condition for travel were still difficult in the 4th century AD, 700 year after Megasthenes'visit, is evident from Fa-hsien's account. At the age of twenty-five, Fa-hsien began his journey from China to learn about Buddhism in India. In his journal, Fa-hsien describes how dangerous it was to cross the river Indus, which originates in the Himalayas and flows through present-day Pakistan.

 

For fifteen days, the travellers followed the foot of the mountain range. The way was difficult and the hill face was steep, rising like a hill-like wall of rock. Just beneath were the waters of the river Indus. In older times men had carved paths along the rocks, and placed ladders along them. Where the river was narrow, there was a suspension bridge of ropes by which it could be crossed.

 

(from A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, by Fa-hsien, translated by James Legge, e-text available as part of Project Gutenberg.)

 

The early travellers used the forbidding mountainou routes through the northern ranges to enter India. They moved in carts drawn by oxen and later horses. Megasthenes took the route that led from central Asia and entered northwest India through the Khyber Pass. Fa-hsien and Hiuen Tsang crossed the Himalayas through the passes from southwest China into India. They then travelled eastwards in India all the way to Bengal and took the ship back towards China. They encountered many kinds of dangers in the course of their journeys.

 

Unlike Megasthenes'work, the original texts of both Fa-hsien and Hiuen Tsang's accounts have survived. Hiuen Tsang, in fact, went on to become a mythical character in Chinese classical literature. Journey to the West, a work that makes Hiuen Tsang a mythical hero, appeared first in the 1590s when the Ming dynasty ruled over China. This book was inspired by Hiuen Tsang's journey along the Silk Route, a road that led from China, across Central Asia, to the very edge of Europe, touching north and northwest India on the way. Journey to the West was later translated into English and made into a popular television series called Monkey.

 

More recent accounts about Hiuen Tsang have tried to trace his journey through India. One of these is Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud by Sun Shuyun (published in 1999) and the other is The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang by Sally Hovey Wriggins (2004). She was inspired by the character of the monk in Journey to the West and followed the route as described in the novel.

 

With time, trade and conquest encouraged the movement of more people. A scholar in Arabic, Alberuni, accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni when he made his repeated invasions in India. Alberuni travelled to different Indian cultural centres in the early 11th century AD. He was a polymath and was familiar with many subjects and languages. He wrote the most widely read foreign account about India around the 10th to 12th century AD.

 

Contents

 

Foreword

xi

Introduction

xiii

A Bewildered Greek in Pataliputra:

Megasthenes

1

The Devout Pilgrim: Fa-hsien

15

The Monk and the King of Kannauj:

Hiuen Tsang

32

The Man of Science and the Invader:

Alberuni

48

The Venetian in India

Marco Polo

63

A Moroccan in the Sultan's Service:

Ibn Batutah

82

The Homesick Russian:

Athanasius Nikitin

101

The Englishman Who Met Akbar:

Ralph Fitch

118

The German in Bombay:

Carsten Niebuhr

136

A Changing India: Halide Edib

154

In Search of Seclusion:

Alexandra David-Neel

174

Bibliography

190

 

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