Herodotus’s Histories is probably the first text to refer to Indians by that name, as ‘Indon’

The first reference we have to the pyramids of Giza, and in fact great detail about how they were made and what they look like, is here

April 14, 2018 06:01 pm | Updated 06:01 pm IST

By Indus A map of the world as Herodotus saw it.

By Indus A map of the world as Herodotus saw it.

The word ‘history’ comes from the Greek ‘historia’, to inquire. We also think of history as a record of the past because The Histories is the name of the first such work of record. It was written 2,400 years ago and its author was a man called Herodotus.

His work fills over 600 of our pages, and it can only be imagined how long it would have been in the rolled-up papyrus scrolls used then. Though there cannot have been many copies of it in Herodotus’ time, when there was no printing, The Histories was familiar to most Athenians and Romans, both highly literate societies. It was the most famous book in its time and for many centuries after. The story of King Croesus is from Herodotus, as is the plot of Hollywood’s 300 .

The first reference we have to the pyramids of Giza, and in fact great detail about how they were made and what they look like, is here, and Herodotus tells us he measured them himself. The great orator and senator Cicero called Herodotus ‘the father of history’. Plutarch, the Roman historian (of Greek origin), wrote a famous essay called ‘The Malice of Herodotus,’ angered among other things by Herodotus’ claim that the Greeks brought pederasty and homosexuality to the Persians.

Gold dust

On India, Herodotus has plenty to say. So far as I know, his use of the word ‘Indians’ (‘Indon’ in Greek) on page 187 is the first reference to us by that name in a text, many centuries before we called our land India.

That first reference is to a story in which a tribe he calls Callatiae, probably from the word kaala or black, is said to eat the charred flesh of their dead parents. A few pages later he lists the nations that pay tribute to the Persian king Cyrus, and the last entry is: “The Indians, the most populous nation in the known world, paid the largest sum: 360 talents of gold dust.” (A talent is about 35 kg.)

He then describes Indians and their wealth. “To the east of the Indian country is sand. Of all the people of Asia whom we know… the Indians dwell nearest to the dawn and the rising sun…”

“There are many Indian nations, none speaking the same language; some of them are nomads, some not; some dwell in the river marshes and live on raw fish, which they catch from reed boats. Each boat is made of one joint of reed. These Indians wear clothes of bullrushes; they mow and cut these from the river, then weave them crosswise like a mat, and wear them like a breastplate.”

Much of this he gets from hearsay. But look at this paragraph:

“Other Indians dwell near the town of Caspatyrus and the Pactyic country, north of the rest of India; these live like the Bactrians; they are of all Indians the most warlike, and it is they who are sent for the gold; for in these parts all is desolate because of the sand. In this sandy desert are ants, not as big as dogs but bigger than foxes; the Persian king has some of these, which have been caught there. These ants live underground, digging out the sand in the same way as the ants in Greece, to which they are very similar in shape, and the sand which they carry from the holes is full of gold.”

By the river

This sounds absurd and it is absurd. So where would Herodotus have got such a story from? Some believe from Indian texts. The Mahabharata , a work we today date much later than Herodotus, has this in chapter 51 of the Sabha Parva: “Duryodhana said: ‘O sinless one, listen to me as I describe that large mass of wealth consisting of various kinds of tribute presented unto 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 drona jars and raised from underneath the earth by ants and therefore called ant gold after these creatures.”

Herodotus has many other references to India. He describes the Indian mercenaries who fought (and acquitted themselves well) in the battle of Plataea in 498 BC.

Many Greeks and Romans were fascinated by and wrote about India, though today we would not consider this history. No matter, it is interesting to know about them just the same.

Herodotus wrote his histories, but the Iliad , like our Rig Veda , was not written. It was recited, again like the Vedas, in a particular meter and cadence and passed on through memory. Next month, a look at Iliad , the first epic poem of the West.

(The first instalment of a monthly series on the world literary classics.)

The writer is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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