Megasthenes was a Greek ethnographer and explorer in the Hellenistic period, author of the work Indika. He was born in Asia Minor and became an ambassador of Seleucus I Nicator of the Seleucid dynasty possibly to Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra, India. However the exact date of his embassy is uncertain. Scholars place it before 298 BCE, the date of Chandragupta’s death.
Indika is an account of Mauryan India by Megasthenes. The original book is now lost, but its fragments have survived in later Greek and Latin works.
India according to the reconstructed text
According to the text reconstructed by J. W. McCrindle, Megasthenes’ Indica describes India as follows:
India is a quadrilateral-shaped country, bounded by the ocean on the southern and the eastern side. The Indus river forms the western and the north-western boundary of the country, as far as the ocean. India’s northern border reaches the extremities of Tauros. From Ariana to the Eastern Sea, it is bound by mountains that are called Kaukasos by the Macedonians. The various native names for these mountains include Parapamisos, Hemodos and Himaos (the Himalayas). Beyond Hemodos, lies Scythia inhabited by the Scythians known as Sakai. Besides Scythia, the countries of Bactria and Aryans bordered India.
At the extreme point of India, the gnomon of the sundial often casts no shadow, and the Ursa Major is invisible at night. In the remotest parts, the shadows fall southward, and even Arcturus is not visible.
India has many large and navigable rivers, which arise in the mountains on its northern border. Many of these rivers merge into Ganges, which was 30 stadia wide at its source, and runs from north to south. The Ganges empties into the ocean that forms the eastern boundary of Gangaridai. Other nations feared Gangaridai’s huge force of the biggest elephants, and therefore, Gangaridai had never been conquered by any foreign king. Indus also runs from north to south, and had several navigable tributaries. The most notable tributaries are Hupanis, the Hudaspes, and the Akesines. One peculiar river is Sillas, which originates from a fountain of the same name. Everything cast into this river sinks down to the bottom – nothing floats in it. In addition, there are a large number of other rivers, supplying abundant water for agriculture. According to the native philosophers and natural scientists, the reason for this is that the bordering countries are more elevated than India, so their waters run down to India, resulting in such a large number of rivers.
In the primitive times, the Indians lived on fruits and wore clothes made of animal skin, just like the Greeks. The most learned Indian scholars say that Dionysus invaded India, and taught Indians several things including how to grow plants, make wine and worship. He founded several large cities, introduced laws and established courts. For this reason, he was regarded as a deity by the Indians. He ruled entire India for 52 years, before dying of old age. His descendants ruled India for several generations, before being dethroned and replaced with democratic city-states.
The Indians who inhabit the hill country also claim that Herakles was one of them. Like the Greeks, they characterize him with the club and the lion’s skin. According to them, Herakles was a powerful man who subjugated evil beasts. He had several sons and one daughter, who became rulers in different parts of his dominion. He founded several cities, the greatest of which was Palibothra (Pataliputra). Herakles built several places in this city, fortified it with water-filled trenches and settled a number of people in the city. His descendants ruled India for several generations, but never launched an expedition beyond India. After several years, the royal rule was replaced by democratic city states, although there existed a few kings at the time Alexander’s invasion of India.
Flora and fauna
India has several mountains with fruit trees of every kind. There are a large number of animal species in India. The Indian elephants are far stronger than the Libyan elephants, because of the abundance of food on the Indian soil. The elephants are domesticated in large numbers, and trained for war. The gestation period of the elephants ranges from 16 to 18 months, and the oldest of the elephants live up to 200 years.
Gold, silver, copper and iron are abundant on Indian soil. Besides tin and other metals are used for making a number of tools, weapons, ornaments, and other articles.
India has very fertile plains, and irrigation is practised widely. The main crops include rice, millet, a crop called bosporum, other cereals, pulses and other food plants. There are two crop cycles per year, since rain falls in both summer and winter. At the time of summer solstice, rice, millet, bosporum and sesamum are sown. During winter, wheat is sown.
No famines have ever occurred in India because of the following reasons:
- The Indians are always assured of at least one of the two seasonal crops
- There are a number of spontaneously growing fruits and edible roots available.
- The Indian warriors regard those engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry as sacred. Unlike the warriors in other countries, they do not ravage farms during war conquests. Moreover, the warring sides never destroy the enemy land with fire or cut down its trees.
Because of its large size, India is inhabited by many diverse races, all of which are indigenous. India has no foreign colony, and Indians have not established any colonies outside India. The Indians are of above average stature, because of abundant food, fine water and pure air. They are well-skilled in art.
A law, prescribed by ancient Indian philosophers, bans slavery. The laws treats everyone equally, but allows the property to be unevenly distributed.
The population of India is divided into 7 endogamous and hereditary castes:
- Not numerous compared to other castes, but most prominent
- Exempted from all public duties
- Neither masters, nor servants
- “believed to be most dear to the gods, and to be the most conversant with matters pertaining to Hades”
- Engaged by others to offer sacrifices and perform funerary rites, for which they received valuable gifts and privileges
- At the beginning of the year, they make prophecies about droughts, rain storms, propitious winds, diseases and other topics. Based on these prophecies, the citizens and the rulers make adequate preparations. A philosopher whose prophecy fails receives strong criticism and has to observe silence for the rest of his life, but otherwise incurs no penalty.
- Most numerous of all castes
- Live in villages, and avoid visiting towns
- Exempted from fighting and other public duties
- Regarded as public benefactors, and protected from damage during wars, even by enemy warriors
- Pay a land tribute to the ruler, the official land owner
- In addition, they remit 1/4th of their produce to the state treasury
- Live in tents, outside villages and towns
- Hunt and trap crop-destroying birds and animals
- Create weapons as well as tools for farmers and others
- Exempted from paying taxes, and receive a maintenance from the state exchequer
- Second most numerous among the castes
- Well-organized and equipped for war
- Indulge in amusements and idleness during peaceful times
- Maintained at state expense, along with war horses and elephants
- Carry out administrative tasks
- Report to the king or (in states not ruled by kings) magistrates
- Councillors and Assessors
- Composed of wise people with good character
- Deliberate on public affairs; included the royal advisers, state treasurers, dispute arbitrators; the army generals and chief magistrates also usually belonged to this class.
- Least numerous, but most respected
The foreigners are treated well. Special officers are appointed to ensure that no foreigner was harmed, and judges handed out harsh punishment to those who took unfair advantage of the foreigners. Sick foreigners are attended by physicians and taken care of. Foreigners who died in India are buried, and their property is delivered to their relatives.