Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Classic travels

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If we read classical writers, the first thing that strikes is how the subcontinent of India intrigued the western mind. From about the year 500 BCE, India rode the minds of thinkers of the world power of the time: Greece. One could say that they were interested because of the reports of high culture and learning emanating from this great and truly wonderful land of the Maha Sapta Sindhu, Ganga and Yamuna. But then Persia was no less cultured with which the Greeks had closer contact. And what of China? It was another centre of culture where such great minds as Confucius were saying things that seem to belong to the 20th century. They may have been interested, but these were not countries the Greeks raved about, places that they wished to learn more of. That was a place reserved only and only for India.

In or about the year 520 BCE, Darius the Great sent a Greek sea captain, Skylax by name, to explore the Sindhu River. This man put himself in a boat near Peshawar, sailed down the Kabul River and into the Sindhu which took him all the way down to the Ocean. Upon returning home to the Persian king, Skylax wrote out a detailed report for royal perusal. This report is now sadly lost but we know of it from the work of Herodotus who wrote his Histories about seventy years later, in the middle of the 5th century BCE. Already at that time we see a great degree of romance connected with the subcontinent. Either Skylax created wonderful creatures to people the wild and desolate regions of this unknown country or Herodotus embellished the captain’s account of what he saw.

Barely thirty years later, about 415 BCE, we have Ctesias of Cnidos, a doctor by training, serving the king of Persia as his personal physician. Ctesias seems to be young and impressionable at the time he was at court. And he was intrigued no end by India as is clearly evident from his book Indika. Now, this was a book Ctesias wrote without ever having set foot in our country.

There was in those days a regular stream of Indians at the Persian court and I can just see Ctesias waiting behind the pillars for them to finish their business with the king to pounce upon them and breathlessly ask to be told about India. They would have brushed him off initially. But the man persisted, so some told him how great and wonderful their country was. Others, Lahori types I suspect, would have told him tall tales. No wonder then that strange and mythical beasts run wild across the pages of his Indika. We have dog-faced men who bark, we have flying scorpions, and men with ears so long that they use them as mattress and coverlet (recall our own Yajuj-Majuj tradition of long ears), and we have a race that lives in trees, and we have an animal called the manticore the likes of which are seen nowhere else in the world. And these are only a few.

The book was taken lightly and considered facetious and unreliable even at the time it appeared in those long ago days. But Megasthenes who wrote his Indika about 280 BCE copied much of the fancy stuff from Ctesias. For this we can fault him because he lived in Patliputra (Patna, Bihar) for fifteen years as the ambassador of Seleucus Nicator (Alexander’s general and then king of Syria, Persia and Afghanistan etc) and travelled widely around the country, visiting Rajastan and Taxila etc. He should have known that Ctesias was writing fiction – much like our Urdu travel writer, yet he copy-pasted the doctor. And so did Arrian who wrote his Indika in the 1st century CE.

Note that the Greeks could think of no name other than Indika which again tells me how romantically they were involved with our country.

The one common thread from Herodotus down to Arrian is the immense sense of wonder. India was a country that made the Greeks breathless with awe and admiration. Her philosophers, her learned men, the landscape, the fabulous creatures (ants the size of foxes?) living here, the gold to be found, the wealth and sophistication of its common citizen, and, above all else, the knowledge and learning of science, mathematics and philosophy was like found nowhere else in the civilised world of that time.

Much later, when the Arabs came down on our land, even they who had already laid low cities like Cairo and Damascus and acquired a culture of sorts, were floored by the wealth and commerce of places like Turbat, Punjgur (Balochistan) and Multan and the glory of Nerunkot (Hyderabad) and Alor (near Sukkur). Ours was a superior country that the west aspired to possess.

Reading all this, bred a sense of pride and belonging in me that is far too deep to be swayed by anything now. I am a child of the land nurtured by the Maha Sapta Sindhu. I grew from this good dust as did more than a thousand generations of my ancestors before me. I belong here.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 12 July 2013 at 12:56, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

That may be stuff travel writers like. That is why I think so high of you. But truth is that it is so tough for me :)

At 12 July 2013 at 17:24, Anonymous Sultana said...

I first heard about "Yajuj-Majuj ki qoum" form my mother and now from you.

At 12 July 2013 at 17:37, Anonymous M Behzad Jhatial said...

Such a brief but composed account of history of subcontinent. I enjoyed every moment of reading this post. I must say "Alexander! please have a break and come to subcontinent again. You are still alive here as a invader but a defeated general :) "....

At 12 July 2013 at 22:02, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ya, that is tough read. It will be easier for less knowledgeable me and so many other like me if you relate this with present. I keep wondering how much is there to learn?

You have very very deep knowledge of this land. Thanks for sharing this.


At 12 July 2013 at 22:07, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Mention of Sapta Sindhu always fscinates me......Good write up

At 12 July 2015 at 12:41, Blogger pilgrim said...

A great wealth of information .
It was books like these printed in Greek Macedonia that when the Macedonian Alexander became young he became restless to travel to this land Indiska .
My take is that ever since childhood his aim was to travel to Indiska and since a Prince in those times could not travel without his army to protect him he had an army all along .If one sees Alexander's trail sees he arrived at shores of the Indus but didn't go in plains and to its fabolous cities ..not even Lahore ,Delhi ,Banares etc ..His was a travel entourage and not an army of annexation ..In Shiraz at Persepolis when the guide spitted after narrating Alexander's destruction ( they never say in Persia Alexander The Great to date ) I had to tell him it is unfortunate your nation ,your city laid in the path between Macedonia and India that Alexander just only wished to go and see for himself .
This is just not my fancy-Alexander at young age was a philosopher king ..very uncommon but he had his eyes set on Indiska to see like many of us, you included, globe-trotters quenching their thirst for far off lands stories about which we have been reading and sharing .


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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