The Famous Foreign Travelers Who Visited Ancient India

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India has always been the dream destination for people who want to explore one of the earliest civilizations in the world. Since time immemorial, India has received a number of keen travelers who came here and fell in love with its traditions and colors. While the British travelers were actually the hidden form of imperialists, the earlier travelers came to India for the sake of attaining knowledge, learning and customs. These travelers documented their experiences of the country and became the earliest chroniclers of history. Infact, the most of what we know of ancient India today is through the accounts of these travelers. Here is the list of foreign travelers who visited India and explored its varied cultural terrain:

1. Hiuen Tsang from China (629-645)

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One of the earliest and the most celebrated travelers to India, Hiuen Tsang came from China to India in search of Buddhist belief and practice. He has been described as the "prince of pilgrims” and his accounts carry a lot of information on the political, social and religious set up of India. Hiuen Tsang visited Kashmir, Punjab and proceeded to Kapilavastu, Bodh-Gaya, Sarnath, and Kusinagara. He studied in the University of Nalanda and travelled through the Deccan, Orissa and Bengal. Since he stayed in India for 14 long years, his accounts reflect what ancient India must have been once.

Also Read: 10 Ancient Places in India

2. Al Beruni from Persia (1000-1025)

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Al Beruni was an Islamic scholar who was "commissioned" by Mahmud of Ghazni to write his monumental commentary on Indian philosophy and culture Kitab fi tahqiq ma li'l-hind. In the words of the historians today, "His observations on Indian conditions, systems of knowledge, social norms, religion ... are probably the most incisive made by any visitor to India." Born in Uzbekistan, this traveler remained in India for thirteen long years to understand its culture and literature.

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3. Ibn Battuta from Morocco (1333)

Its unbelievable that a person could have traveled so much in times where no travelling paraphernalia was available. Meet Ibn Battuta who had a passion for travel unparalleled in history, inimitable by any individual. It is hard to believe that Ibn Battuta  journeyed more than 75,000 miles (121,000 km), a figure unsurpassed by any individual explorer until the coming of the Steam Age some 450 years later. He was the only medieval traveller who is known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. His journeys include trips to North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in the West, Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China in the East, a distance surpassing threefold his near-contemporary Marco Polo.

Also Read: Lesser Known Historical Sites in India

4. Marco Polo from Italy (b.1254-d.1324)

Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler, is perhaps the most celebrated traveler even till today. He is said to have visited South India twice, in 1288 and 1292, where he saw a tomb of St. Thomas "at a certain little town” which he does not name. Many historians accept these dates and visits without question, and identify the little town that he speaks of with Mylapore.

5. Abdul Razzak from Persia (1442-1445)

One of the earliest mention of Vijaynagar empire in India comes through Abdul Razzak, the Persian traveler who visited it around 1440. His accounts of the Hampi marketplace, its architecture and grandeur have left a lot of corpus of history for later historians to work on. Abdul Razzak was the ambassador of Shahrukh of Timurid Dynasty.

Also Read: Hampi Travel Blog

6. Megasthenes from Greece

Megasthenes was a Greek historian who came to India in the fourth century B.C. as an ambassador of Seleucus Nicator. He lived in the court of Chandragupta Maurya for about five years (302-298 B.C.). His experience of India is written in his book entitled "INDIKA”. Through his accounts, we come to know everything that he had seen in India- its geography, government, religion and society.

Must Read: Oldest Languages in the World Still in Use

7. Fa Hien from China (399 A.D.-412 A.D.)

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Fa-Hien was the first Chinese monk to travel to India in search of great Buddhist scriptures. At the age of sixty-five, he travelled, mostly on foot, from Central China taking the southern route through Shenshen, Dunhuang, Khotan, and then over the Himalayas, to Gandhara and Peshawar.

8. Nicolo Conti from Italy (1420-1421)

Nicolo De Conti' (fl. 1419-1444) was a Venetian explorer and writer who visited the west coast of India to Ely, and struck inland to Vijayanagar, the capital of the principal Hindu state of the Deccan. Of this city Conti gives an elaborate description and one of the most interesting portions of his narrative. From Vijayanagar and the Tungabudhra he travelled to Maliapur near Madras, present day Chennai

9. Afanasy Nikitin from Russia (1469-1472)

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Nikitin, the Russian merchant, spent more than two years in India traveling to different cities, getting acquainted with local residents and carefully describing everything he saw. The notes of the merchant were compiled in the form of a so-called "Journey," that is more like a traveler’s log. This work accurately described the nature and political organization of India as well as its traditions, lifestyle and customs.

10. Domingo Paes from Portugal (1520-1522)

After the conquest of Goa in 1510 and its rise as capital of the Portuguese Estado da India, several Portuguese travellers and traders visited Vijayanagara and wrote detailed reports about the glory of Bisnaga or Vijayanagara. Most valuable are that of Domingos Paes written in c. 1520-22. The report of Paes, who visited Vijayanagara during Krishnadeva's reign, is based primarily on careful observation as he describes in detail the so-called feudal nayankara system of Vijayanagara's military organisation and the annual royal Durga festival.  

11. Fernao Nunes from Portugal (1535-1537)

Fernao Nuniz, a Portuguese horse-trader, composed his account of India around 1536-37. He was in the capital of Vijaynagara, during the reign of Achyutaraya and may have been present at earlier battles fought by Krishnadevaraya. This visitor was particularly interested in the history of Vijayanagara, especially the foundation of the city, the subsequent careers of three dynasties of rulers, and the battles that they fought with the Deccan sultans and Orissan Rayas. His accounts also give an insight into the Mahanavami festival, where he notes admiringly the extravagant jewels worn by the courtly women, as well as the thousands of women in the king’s service.

Also Read: Lesser Known Facts of Hampi

12. Vasco De Gama

Vasco De Gama was the first Portuguese or infact the first European to reach India.  He is an important traveler to India whose history is closely intermeshed with that of Goa. After sailing down the western coast of Africa and rounding the Cape of Good Hope, his expedition made numerous stops in Africa before reaching the trading post of Calicut, India, in May 1498. For his second journey, Da Gama arrived in Goa with the task of combating the growing corruption that had tainted the Portuguese government in India. 

The question arises as to whether we had any travelers in the past who left their domestic hearth and left to travel abroad? The answer would be very few. Even if they are, there accounts and narratives don’t add much to our travel corpus today. The reason was that India had not been much of a travelling nation like Persia, Britain, Italy and many more. Indians considered themselves to be a satisfied lot with their country and rarely went across the borders. However, with the growing trend of tourism, today Indians are making a lot of travel journeys and planning trips, thereby becoming the observers rather than the subjects of narratives. Let us travel, explore and know the world and write it down in our words forming our own travel diaries.

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A lover of literature, Neha wants to understand world through the prism of books. Nuances of words, spoken or written, entice her to delve into the human psyche ...