Indians didn't do much exploring or even much traveling outside of India. In ancient times Hindus were forbidden from "crossing the waters" (traveling abroad) out of fear they would lose their caste rank and have to begin again at the bottom. They were quite generous to foreign visitors. In the Middle Ages, it was customary for Indians to provide a female companion for distinguished travelers.

By contrast, ancient people, Europeans and Arabs were quite interested in India and there is a long history of them visiting India. The English visitor Swithelm, or Sigelinus, was an envoy sent by King Alfred to visit the tomb of St. Thomas in A.D. 884. He reportedly returned safely. Columbus was trying to reach India and his mistake has the left the world confused about whether someone is talking about Native American Indians or Indians from India.


St. Thomas and Early History of Christianity in India

Although there is little evidence to back up the assertion, some people believe that Christ's apostle, St. Thomas, went to India. According to tradition he landed in A.D. 52 at Maliankara near Cranganore on the Malabar Coast of India. It is said he preached the gospels, traveled through southern Indian and converted many Hindu, including some upper-caste Brahmins. After evangelizing and performing miracles in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, he is believed to have been martyred in Madras and buried on the site of San Thomé Cathedral..

Saint Thomas is the famous "doubting Thomas" of the New Testament. He reportedly left Palestine for Asia after the crucifixion of Jesus with a mission to covert India's Jews. He is said have founded seven churches in Kerala. The present population of Syrian Christians claims to be descendant of the people that attended these churches. There are a number of other stories with connections to Christianity in India. Kashmiri Christians believe that Christ died in Srinagar. A synagogue in Cochin contains scrolls of the New Testament.

Christianity is believed to have been introduced to Kerala around the A.D. 4th century by Syrian merchants. Nestorian Christianity is believed to have been introduced by missionaries to same region in the 6th century. One of the first Europeans to reach India was Cosmmas Indicopleutes ("India Traveler"), a well traveled Christian mystic. He visited India in the 6th century. Members of the Syro-Malabar Church, an eastern branch of the Roman Catholic Church, adopted the Syriac liturgy dating from fourth century Antioch. They practiced what is also known as the Malabar rite until the arrival of the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century.

Syrian Christians thrived in Kerala under the liberal and tolerant rulers of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar. Impressed by the behavior of these Christians, these rulers gave the Christian land to build churches and helped them in other ways. The Syrian Christians were an independent group and were supplied with bishops and religious guidance from the Eastern Orthodox Church in Antioch in Syria.

Indian Trade with the Ancient World

The ancient Egyptians obtained goods from India and China. A strand of silk has been found on a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy. This astonishing discovery provides evidence of trade between ancient China and the Mediterranean 1,800 years before Marco Polo traveled the famed Silk Road.

The Romans obtained pepper and cotton from India. By the 2nd century, the Romans had a well developed trade network with China and India. Silks, rich brocades, cloth of gold and jeweled embroideries made their way to Rome from China and Persia. Caravans loaded with perfumes from Arabia, spices and rare woods from India, and silk from China passed through Palmyra in Syria and other oasis towns and made their way to the Roman Empire. along what would later be called the Silk Road

Ibn Battuta in India

Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) is regarded as the greatest traveler of all time. He was an Islamic scholar from Tangier in present-day Morocco who traveled 120,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) through more than 40 present-day countries Africa, the Middle East and Asia during a 27 year period 700 years before trains and automobiles. He described his adventures in “Travels in Asia and Africa”. Ibn Battuta was a contemporary of Marco Polo (1254-1324). His journeys preceded those of Columbus by about 150 years. Although he is little known in the West he is as well known as Marco Polo and Columbus in the Arab world.

Ibn Battuta arrived in India in 1333. In Delhi, he met the sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq in the Hall of a Thousand Pillars in one of his palaces in Jahanpanah. The sultan was surrounded by dozens of chamberlains, officials and slaves, including the "keeper of the fly whisk." In attendance were 200 armored soldiers, 60 horses in royal harnesses and 50 elephants dressed in silk and gold.

Ibn Battuta was employed by the Sultan of Delhi, who he described as generous, pious, courageous and unpredictable and "of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood. His gate is never without some poor man being enriched, or some living man executed...Every time he said any encouraging word I kissed his hand." Ibn Battuta also described how the sultan killed his father by using elephants to collapse a pavilion on top of him.

Ibn Battuta served for seven years as judge for the sultan and was rescued by the sultan from debt but was almost arrested and executed for his association with a rebellious Sufi mystic. "I fasted for five days, reciting te Koran cover to cover each day." In the end the mystic was spared and Ibn Battuta was selected ro represent the sultan as an ambassador to China.

Marco Polo in India

Paul Lunde wrote in Saudi Aramco World, “Marco Polo landed from Sri Lanka on the southeastern, or Coromandel, coast of India, and his long account of the country is filled with information on local customs, religion, dress and diet. He describes the pearl-fishing industry in the Gulf of Manaar and the importation of Arabian horses from Hormuz, Kais, Dhufar, Shihr and Aden. The king of Coromandel purchased an average of 2000 horses a year, paying a bit less than 250 grams of gold (about 8 oz) for the finest. As they did not survive long in the climate, the demand was constant.So important a trading center was Hormuz in the late 12th century that Marco Polo passed through it twice, once on his overland journey to China and again on his sea voyage home. [Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005 =\=]

“Marco Polo had much to say about the thriving trade in ports like Kayal, Comorin, Quilon, Thana, Somnath and Cambay, all of which he visited. For several he gives the latitude by indicating the height of the Pole Star above the horizon, the same method used by Ahmad ibn Majid. These ports were linked to both China and the Mediterranean: There is great abundance of pepper and also of ginger, besides cinnamon in plenty and other spices, turbit and coconuts. Buckrams are made here of the loveliest and most delicate texture in the world. In return, when merchants come here from overseas, they load their ships with brass, which they use as ballast, cloth of gold and silk, sandal, gold, silver, cloves, spikenard and other such spices that are not produced here…. Goods are exported to many parts. Those that go to Aden are carried thence to Alexandria. =\=

“To the northwest, in Gujarat, Marco Polo notes the region’s independence and its own form of Indo-Aryan speech; he is one of the few medieval travelers to remark on linguistic diversity. He mentions the famous cotton of Gujarat and the export of leather goods to Arabia and other countries: “Suffice it to say that in this kingdom are produced leather goods of more consummate workmanship than anywhere in the world and of higher value.” The ships that called at Cambay brought gold, silver and brass, exchanging them for leather goods, cotton textiles and indigo. =\=

”He then crossed the Indian Ocean to the island of Socotra, a Nestorian outpost off the coast of southern Arabia that still had an archbishop appointed from Baghdad. Socotra was famed in the Middle Ages for the export of “dragon’s blood,” an astringent resin used for treating wounds. The island also exported ambergris, salt fish and fine cotton cloth. Ships bound for Aden called here to trade and reprovision.” =\=

Silk Road Sea Routes

India was an important stop on the Silk Road sea routes. Taking advantage of seasonal monsoon winds, trade began more than 2000 years ago between India and the Arab world. Arabs later served as middlemen for Asia-to-Europe trade. Large numbers of Muslims, Jews and Christians came from the Middle East to India. Proof of the ancient trade includes a cache of 1,200 ancient Roman gold coins discovered in Northern Kerala in 1984. Until the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century, the spice trade was controlled almost exclusively by Arab merchants.

Ports on India’s eastern coast dominated trade with Southeast Asia. Indian-Hindu culture spread throughout Southeast Asia. Hinduism is still alive on Bali. The scripts used in Thailand and Cambodia were derived from Sanskrit. A Sanskrit-derived writing was used in the Philippines until the Spanish replaced it with the Roman alphabet.


Spice Trade and Products from India

Pepper, which originates from the Malabar Coast in southwest India, was one of was one of the most sought after commodities in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and was known in Rome. The best Roman cookbooks required pepper for nearly every recipe." In the A.D. first century, the satirist Persius wrote: The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run/ To the parch'd Indies and the rising sun/ From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear, /Bart'ring for Spices their Italian ware. In the Renaissance pepper was the most important of all spices and the ships that transported it were heavily armed. Meat was preserved by "salting," a process that required large quantities of pepper in addition to salt to counteract the "unpalatable effects of the salt itself."

Indian calico along with Persian silk and French-worked damask were valuable fabrics in the Renaissance. Blue India dye was derived from a blue powder extracted from the semi-desert “indigofera” bush. Traditionally leaves were crushed to extract the dye. The finished product was thick like porridge and cotton and other clothes were soaked in it for several hours. A beater pounded for hours to work the dye into the cloth. The dye was known to the Greeks and Romans and used by Egyptians to dye mummy cases.

For centuries shellac was made from the resinous secretions of “Laccifer lacca” beetles deposited in trees in southern Asia. It was used as a varnish for coating and preserving wood and later as an electrical insulator. A shellac shortage resulting from demand for electric wires prompted the invention of plastic.

Other Silk Road goods included silk and porcelain from China. Pearls, precious stones, tortoise shell and spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg that came from the East Indies passed through India and their way to the Middle East and Europe. In 1400, China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product.

Europeans Enter India

The Dutch, French and English also set up colonies on the east and west coast of India. Most of the outposts were set up as part of agreements between the Europeans and the Mughal rulers. The Dutch moved in and took possession of many of the Portuguese forts by force, which in turn were taken away from them by the English. See Explorers, Indonesia, Malaysia

Economic competition among the European nations led to the founding of commercial companies in England (the East India Company, founded in 1600) and in the Netherlands (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie — the United East India Company, founded in 1602), whose primary aim was to capture the spice trade by breaking the Portuguese monopoly in Asia. Although the Dutch, with a large supply of capital and support from their government, preempted and ultimately excluded the British from the heartland of spices in the East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), both companies managed to establish trading "factories" (actually warehouses) along the Indian coast. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Dutch, for example, used various ports on the Coromandel Coast in South India, especially Pulicat (about twenty kilometers north of Madras), as major sources for slaves for their plantations in the East Indies and for cotton cloth as early as 1609. (The English, however, established their first factory at what today is known as Madras only in 1639.) Indian rulers enthusiastically accommodated the newcomers in hopes of pitting them against the Portuguese. In 1619 Jahangir granted them permission to trade in his territories at Surat (in Gujarat) on the west coast and Hughli (in West Bengal) in the east. These and other locations on the peninsula became centers of international trade in spices, cotton, sugar, raw silk, saltpeter, calico, and indigo.*

The French set established a trading outpost at Pondicherry in 1673 Pondicherry remained in French hands until 1962. Under the leadership of the French governor Joseph Dupleux, the French extended their influence over the Carnatic and Deccan areas by 1751. But as a whole the French presence was much smaller than that of the British and their contribution was relatively minor and they were generally ignored.

Besides the presence of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French, there were two lesser but noteworthy colonial groups. Danish entrepreneurs established themselves at several ports on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, in the vicinity of Calcutta and inland at Patna between 1695 and 1740. Austrian enterprises were set up in the 1720s on the vicinity of Surat in modern-day southeastern Gujarat. As with the other non-British enterprises, the Danish and Austrian enclaves were taken over by the British between 1765 and 1815. *


Early European Descriptions of India

John Huyghen Van Linschoten, a Dutch sailor on a Portuguese voyage to Goa in 1583 wrote: "The Canriins and Corumbuuns are...the miserablest people of all India, and live very poorly , maintaining themselves with little meat. They dwell in little straw houses, the doors whereof are so low, that men must creep in and out, their household stuff is a mountain upon the ground to sleepe upon, and a Pit or hole in the ground to beat their Rice in, with a Pot or two to seethe it in."

"Children, which crawl and creepe about all naked, until they are seven or eight yeares old, and then they cover their privie members. When the woman are ready to travel with Child, they are commonly delivered when they are all alone; and their Husbands are in the fields...and the Children are brought up in the manner cleane naked, nothing done unto them, but only washed and made cleane in a little cold water."

"I went to one of the Canariins houses to ask some water...I stooped downe and thrust my head in at the doore, asking for some water, where I espied a Woman one within the hoyse, typing her cloth fast about her middle...and washed a Child, whereof as then she had newly beene delivered without any helpe; which having washt, she laid it Naked on the ground upon a great Indian Figge leafe, and desired me to stay and she would presently give me water. When I understood by her that she had as then newly beene delivered of that Childe without nay helpe, I had no desire to drinke of her water, but went unto an another to ask water, and perceived the same woman not long after going about her house, as if there had been no such manner."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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