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Hercules lived here: Megasthenes’s ‘Indika’

The ancient Greeks knew little about India though they were familiar with its produce. They did not know much about the actual country. Many of them thought India was a place to the east of Ethiopia. Being that much closer to the sun, Indians would be as dark-skinned as the Ethiopians.

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The first real interaction between the two nations came 500 years before Christ. This was when the Persian emperors waged war on Greece and invaded Athens. The Greek historians record Indian mercenaries fighting for the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. Herodotus describes the contingent, what it wore and was equipped with and how it fought (the Indians acquitted themselves well).

Flying serpents

A century and a half later, Alexander’s Macedonians came to Punjab and went back with a lot of men having recorded their time in Punjab and down the Indus. Of these the most complete account is that of Arrian, whose main source was the text of Ptolemy, the general who would found the last dynasty of Egypt ending with Cleopatra. But because Alexander was held by Porus at the Jhelum and forced to turn back, there is nothing of what we would consider to be ‘India’ in this or other related works.

This changed a few years later when, after the death of Alexander, one of his generals, Selecus Nikator (meaning ‘victor’, from the same root word which gives us Nike) sent his envoy, Megasthenes, to the court of Chandragupta Maurya in Patna around 300 BC. Megasthenes’s work, Indika, is available to us only through its quoted portions in other works but it is the best source for the India of 2,300 years ago. Megasthenes describes India as a quadrilateral, with seas on both sides, many large rivers and huge mountains — a very accurate description of our country. The Greeks were particularly interested in geography: it seems that the most republished part of Indika is where Megasthenes talks of India’s location, dimensions and topography.

On food he writes that India grows a lot of millet (bajra), and that it has two crops and a monsoon. He believes India to be the place from where Dionysus and Hercules came, referring to Mount Meru as the place where the former rests. Megasthenes encounters lions, tigers, rhinos and pythons, none of which would have been seen in Europe, but also speaks of flying serpents and winged scorpions.

Megasthenes says Indians were divided into seven castes, with Brahmins, the smallest in number, being engaged by others to perform sacrifices, and Kshatriyas, among others. But he doesn’t have a word for the Vaish, probably because the economy didn’t have much trade or banking at the time (he says that lending was unknown in India). He divides the rest of the castes into peasants, herdsmen, artisans, administrators and councillors. The justice system had no jail but amputation of limb or death.

There are some wild things in Indika, such as a tribe of Indians with eight toes and feet pointing backwards, others who have no noses, and still others with snake-like legs. Megasthenes repeats Herodotus’s story (written 150 years before Alexander) about India having gold-digging ants the size of animals.

Rings true?

Amazingly, this claim also occurs in the Mahabharata. In chapter 51 of the Sabha Parva, Duryodhana says: “O sinless one, listen to me as I describe wealth consisting of various kinds of tribute given to Yudhishthira by the kings of the earth. They that dwell by the side of the river Sailoda flowing between the mountains of Mer and Mandara and enjoy the delicious shade of topes of the Kichaka bamboo, the Khashas, Ekasanas, the Arhas, the Pradaras, the Dirghavenus, the Paradas, the Kulindas, the Tanganas, and the other Tanganas, brought as tribute heaps of gold measured in jars and raised from underneath the earth by ants and therefore called after these creatures.”

Did one work influence the others? Which? It would be fascinating to know.

Many of the things Megasthenes writes about ring true today. In manners, he says, Indians are simple and frugal, though they like ornaments. Their food is a rice pottage. Much of the work will please the Indian reading it today.

The line that shocked me the most was this: “Indians dislike mobs and consequently they observe good order.”

Aakar Patel is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 7:30:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/hercules-lived-here-megastheness-indika/article32292473.ece

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