In the ancient world, one explorer stood out for his remarkable journey to the distant lands of India. Megasthenes, an officer in the court of Greece’s ruler Nicator, was chosen as an ambassador to the Mauryan kingdom in India. His detailed account of this expedition, documented in his book Indica, provides valuable insights into the ancient Indian civilization. In this article, we will delve into Megasthenes’ expedition, his observations, and his significant contributions to the understanding of Indian history.
The Journey Begins:
Born in 350 BC, Megasthenes embarked on his journey as an ambassador to India, under the command of Nicator. Nicator’s failed attempt to conquer India led him to seek a friendly alliance with King Chandragupta Maurya, prompting the decision to send Megasthenes as an envoy. Megasthenes, known for his deep interest in various cultures, was well-equipped to explore and document the intriguing Indian civilization.
Exploring the Royal Road:
Megasthenes arrived in Peshawar via Kabul, approximately in the 4th century BC, and set out on the renowned Royal Road, also referred to as ‘Shahi Sadak’ and ‘North Road.’ This crucial route connected Peshawar to Takshila, traversing through notable cities like Hastinapur, Kannauj, Prayag, and eventually reaching the capital, Patliputra (modern-day Patna). Over time, this road would expand and become renowned as the Grand Trunk Road.
During his journey on the Royal Road, Megasthenes discovered that many Greeks held misconceptions about India. Contrary to popular belief, he witnessed a diverse and multilayered society in India, comprising various castes and cultures. Megasthenes noted that Indians warmly welcomed people from other countries and peacefully coexisted with them. Additionally, he observed that India was not a landlocked country as believed by the Greeks but rather a quadrilateral landmass with oceans in the South and East.
The Magnificence of Patliputra:
Upon reaching Patliputra, Megasthenes was warmly received by King Chandragupta Maurya. In his book Indica, Megasthenes lavished praise upon Chandragupta’s effective governance. He spent a considerable amount of time in Patliputra, which he regarded as one of the world’s finest cities. The architecture of the city amazed him, as he described Patliputra as a sprawling city, measuring 15 km in length and 3 km in width. The city was fortified with a 45-foot-deep and 900-foot-wide moat, along with wooden walls featuring 570 towers and 64 gates. Most of the houses in Patliputra were constructed using wood.
The Mauryan Society:
Megasthenes extensively studied the Mauryan society, which he found to be divided into seven categories based on occupation. These categories included Brahmins and philosophers, farmers, herdsmen, businessmen and artisans, overseers and spies, and ministers and soldiers. Notably, he marveled at the Mauryan army’s use of battle-ready elephants, a sight unfamiliar to the Greeks. Megasthenes was astounded by the massive size of the elephants and the Mauryan army’s skill in taming them.
Encounters with Unique Creatures:
India’s abundant wildlife captivated Megasthenes. He encountered various creatures that were new to him, such as lions, tigers, rhinoceroses, and pythons. His descriptions also included extraordinary creatures like flying snakes, winged scorpions, and mysterious gold-digging ants. He recounted that these ants were as large as foxes and were bred by a tribe known as Derdai in Kashmir. Remarkably, these mythical ants were mentioned even before Megasthenes’ time, in the epic Mahabharata.
Similarities Between Indian and Greek Mythology:
During his travels, Megasthenes discovered intriguing parallels between Indian and Greek mythology. In Mathura, upon hearing stories about Krishna’s brother Balram, he became confused and likened Balram to Hercules. Both figures wielded maces and possessed immense power, leading Megasthenes to draw a connection between the two.
The Legacy of Indica:
Megasthenes returned to Greece with his invaluable work, Indica. Regrettably, the original manuscript of Indica has been lost over time. However, fragments of Megasthenes’ work were quoted by later Greek writers such as Diodorus, Pliny, Strabo, and Arrian. These excerpts serve as the only remaining parts of Indica. Today, Indica stands as a vital historical source, offering valuable insights into ancient India and the Mauryan era. Consequently, Megasthenes is rightly hailed as the father of Indian history.
Megasthenes’ journey to ancient India as a Greek ambassador has left an indelible mark on the understanding of Indian history. His meticulous observations, recorded in his book Indica, shed light on the rich cultural, societal, and architectural aspects of the Mauryan kingdom. Megasthenes’ work serves as a significant bridge between the ancient Indian civilization and the Western world, allowing us to appreciate the historical and cultural tapestry of India’s past.