Posted in UPSC

GS 1 Mains 2018/2

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2. Assess the importance of the accounts of the Chinese and Arab travellers in the reconstruction of the history of India.

Approach

1. Introduce by placing the travel accounts in historical sources. (30-40 words)

2. Illustrate with examples usefulness of Chinese traveller’s for constructing India history. (50-60 words)

3. Illustrate with examples usefulness travel accounts of Arabs for constructing Indian history (50-60 words)

4. Conclude briefly (30-40 words)

Hints:

Indian subcontinent was never an isolated geographical area. Since early times, traders, travellers, pilgrims, settlers, soldiers, goods and ideas moved to and fro across its frontiers covering vast distances over 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 lands viewed India and its people, what they noticed and found worthy of description. The accounts of Chinese and Arab travellers who visited India at different stages of India’s past are examples of such corpse of travel accounts. While the Arab travellers were curious of India’s riches and its distinct cultural traditions, the Chinese travellers came to India more often in search of Buddhist scriptures and visiting monasteries.

Chinese Accounts:

Many Chinese monks made long and arduous overland journey to India in order to collect authentic manuscripts of Buddhist texts, meet Indian monks, and visit places of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage. The best known among those who wrote accounts of their Indian travels are Faxian (FaHien) and Xuangzang (Hiuen Tsang). Faxian’s travels extended from 399 to 414 CE and were confined to northern India. Xaungzang left his home in 629 CE and spent over 10 years travelling across India. Yijing another 7th century Chinese traveller lived for 10 years in great monastery of Nalanda. The importance of these accounts for the construction of India’s past can be understood by underlining that:

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

– Faxian presents a idyllic 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 did not have to register their households or appear before magistrates. Farmers who worked on royal land had to give a certain portion of their produce to the king.

 – Xuangzang gives a vivid description of the beauty, grandeur and prosperity of Kanaunj, the capital of Harsha’s empire in 7th century. His work Si-Yu-Ki throws light on almost all the aspects of Indian life during 7th century. Apart from the account of doctrines and practices of Buddhist monks, stupas, monasteries and pilgrimage sites his account include description of India’s landscape, climate, produce, cities, caste system and various customs of the people. His travel to India and subsequent description of India to his king led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and China.

  • Historians and archaeologists have used works and itinerary of Chinese travellers India to trace the location of various Buddhist monasteries across the subcontinent. For example Gordon Mackenzie the British chronicler used extensively the accounts of Xuanzang to trace the 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. For example the accounts of Faxian focuses mainly Buddhist monasteries in various parts of north India, the number of monks and their practices, descriptions of the places of Buddhist pilgrimage and legends associated with them.

Therefore the accounts of Chinese travellers are immense importance for the construction of history of Buddhism in the subcontinent, the socio-economic conditions of the late ancient and early medieval India and lastly but very importantly tracing the diplomatic and trading ties between India and China as well as trade along the silk route.

Arab Accounts:

Arab accounts are useful source of information for early medieval India. The important Arab works on India include the 9th-10th century writings of travellers and geographers such as Sulaiman, Al-Masudi, Al-Biduri and Haukal. Later Arab writers include Al-Biruni, Al-Idrisi, Muhammad Ufi and IbnBatuta. Of all these ‘AlBiruni’s Tahqiq-i-Hind’ and Ibn Batuta’s ‘Rihla’ are outstanding in terms of covering almost all the aspects of Indian life including social, political, economic and religious aspects of the medieval India.

  • Al-Biruni travelled India to satisfy his curiosity about the land and its people and to study their ancient texts in original language. His Taqiq-i-Hind covers a large number of topics including Indian scripts, sciences, geography, astronomy, astrology, philosophy, literature, beliefs, customs, religions, festivals, rituals, social organisation and laws. Apart from the historical value of his descriptions of 11th century India, Al Biruni helped modern historians identify the initial years of the Gupta era.
  • Ibn-Batuta’s book of travels, called Rihla written in Arabic provides extremely rich and interesting details about the social and cultural life in the subcontinent in the fourteenth century. His account provides a vivid description of Indian cities during the medieval times. According to him Indian cities are full of exciting opportunities for those who had necessary drive, resources and skills. They were densely populated and prosperous.
  • Since India and Arabs had developed trading relations in Indian Ocean in early medieval times, the Arab accounts have extensively covered the trade relations between India and Arabs as well as that of Indian Ocean region.

Thus, travels accounts can help historians to reconstruct the past by juxtaposing them with other contemporary sources of history such as court chronicles. These accounts become of immense importance given the paucity of historical sources in the early and late medieval India. While as the court chronicles and other sources rarely provide any description of ordinary people, foreign accounts provides an insight into the ordinary lives of the people. Travellers were not the historians. They wrote about what actually attracted them or what was unique to them from the perspective of their own lands. Constructing history out of the foreign accounts needs critical examination and veracity of the respective account, the background of the writer and corroboration of the fact with other existing sources. It is then only historical importance of these sources can be established.

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