The importance of the accounts of Chinese and Arab travelers in the reconstruction of the history of India

Question – Assess with examples the importance of the accounts of Chinese and Arab travelers in the reconstruction of the history of India. 9 February 2022

AnswerThe Indian subcontinent was never a separate geographical region. Since ancient times, merchants, travellers, pilgrims, settlers, soldiers, goods and ideas were carried across its borders, covering vast distances on land and water.

It is therefore not surprising that there are many references to India in foreign texts. Such texts reveal how people from other countries saw India and its people, what they saw and found worthy of description.

The accounts of Chinese and Arab travelers visiting India at different stages of India’s past are examples. While Arab travelers were eager for India’s wealth and its distinctive cultural traditions, Chinese travelers frequented India in search of Buddhist scriptures and monasteries.

Chinese Accounts:

Many Chinese monks made long and arduous journeys to India to collect authentic manuscripts of Buddhist texts, to meet Indian monks, and to visit Buddhist teaching and pilgrimage sites. The most famous of those who wrote accounts of their Indian travels are Faxian (Fa Hien) and Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang).

They throw light on the socio-political conditions of India at that time: For example:

  • Fa-Hien presents a pleasant and idealized picture of Indian society in the 5th century. He describes a happy and contended people, enjoying a life of peace and prosperity. According to him people in India were not required to register their homes, or appear before a magistrate. The farmers working on the royal land had to pay a certain part of their produce to the king.
  • Xuanzang gives a vivid description of the beauty, grandeur and prosperity of Kannauj, the capital of Harsha’s empire in 7th century. His work ‘Si-Yu-Ki’ throws light on almost all aspects of India during the 7th century. Apart from the doctrines and practices of Buddhist monks, stupas, monasteries and places of pilgrimage, his accounts detail India’s landscape, climate, crops, cities, caste system and various customs of the people.

Historians and archaeologists have used the works and itineraries of Chinese travelers to India to locate the location of various Buddhist monasteries in the subcontinent. For example, the British historian Gordon Mackenzie extensively used the accounts of Hiuen Tsang to locate Buddhist monasteries in South India.

The history of Buddhism in India is extensively documented by these accounts, and historians have immensely relied on these accounts to trace development of Buddhism in late ancient and early medieval period of India as well as eventual demise of Buddhism from the land of its origin.

Therefore, accounts of Chinese travelers are very important for the formation of the history of Buddhism in the subcontinent and the socio-economic conditions of ancient and early medieval India. Very importantly, they have been instrumental in locating diplomatic and trade relations between India and China as well as trade along the Silk Route.

Arab Accounts:

  • Al-Biruni traveled to India to satisfy his curiosity about ‘India and its people’ and to study their ancient texts in the original language. His ‘Taqeeq-e-Hind’ covers a large number of subjects, including Indian scripts, science, geography, astronomy, astrology, philosophy, literature, beliefs, customs, religions, festivals, rituals, social organization and laws. In addition to the historical value of his description of 11th-century India, al-Biruni helped modern historians identify the early years of the Gupta era.
  • The travelogue of Ibn-Batuta, written in Arabic called ‘Rihla’, provides extremely rich and interesting details about social and cultural life in the subcontinent in the fourteenth century. His account provides a vivid account of Indian cities during the medieval period. According to him Indian cities are full of exciting opportunities for those who had the necessary drive, resources and skills. They were densely populated and prosperous.

Thus, travel details can help historians reconstruct the past by linking them with other contemporary sources of history, such as the Court Chronicles.

Travelers wrote about what really attracted them or what was unique to them from the point of view of their own land. Building history from foreign accounts requires significant examination and verification of the veracity of the related accounts, the author’s background, and the fact with other existing sources, then only the historical importance of these sources can be established.

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