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The story of India, told and re-told

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FAMOUS WAYFARERS: (L) Ibn Battuta meets Muhammad bin Tughlaq;(R) Vasco da Gama

From the time of the Greek invasion in fourth century BC, India has been written about extensively by those travelling through the country. Each account has added to the narrative of the subcontinent's people and places.

Gulliver's Travels explores lands and customs unknown to its narrator. Yet through his parody, author Jonathan Swift also pokes fun at assumptions in travelogues. While the author assumes one's own normalcy, the 'other' is either fantastic or beastly. Early descriptions of India too, such as those during the Greek invasion, are replete with fanciful description. Memoirs and fantasy seam together in Nearchus' travelogue about his journey to India with Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The inhabitants of "Indika" are uncanny creatures, described in a manner not much different from Gulliver recounting his travels. Nearchus' chronicles, which have survived through the historian Arrian's accounts, reveal the other-worldly creatures of India. "Those captured were hairy, not only their heads but the rest of their bodies;their nails were rather like beasts' claws. . . For clothing, they wore skins of animals, some even the thick skins of the larger fishes. "

Megasthenes' ethnographic studies reflect a more structured society. Instead of the usual four social castes that are written about, the Greek scholar outlined seven castes defined by profession: philosophers, farmers, shepherds, artisans, militarymen, overseers, and councillors. Megasthenes also kept records of their ethnic groups, their possessions, and occupations. Some consider him the father of Indian history.

Much after the Greek historians' accounts, comes the Memoir on the Pilgrimage to the Five Regions of India. While primarily on a religious expedition, the Korean monk Hye Cho nonetheless reflected on the social and political life in India in the 7th century. The document provides an insight of a Buddhist monk into daily life in India before the onset of Islam. His memoirs also reflect on the decline of Buddhism in India.

The 14th century Arabian scholar Ibn Battuta, who first entered the Delhi sultanate of Muhammad bin Tughluq as a judge, has even walked into a '70s Indian nursery rhyme - "Ibn Battuta pehen ke joota" More recently, the peripatetic restlessness of the traveller was also the subject of a song in the movie Ishqiya. Ibn Battuta was in fact not the scribe of his own travels. It was the Moroccan Sultan Ibn Anan Faris who commissioned Ibn Juzayr to document Ibn Battuta's "Rihla" (travels).

While Arabs had already established trade ties with the Indus valley, the Muslim conquest of the Indus valley was led by Muhammad bin Qasim in the 8th century. The conquest of Sindh was chronicled in Tarekh-e-Hind wa Sindh by the Sakifi family, said to have been appointed to the task by the general.

Qasim is said to have practiced religious tolerance, even incorporating the Hindu ruling elites into his administration. Subsequent Muslim conquests, such as that of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni's 300 years later, operated differently. Persian historian Ferishta (author of Tarikh-e-Firishta ) notes, "The King caused an account of his exploits to be written and sent to the Caliph who ordered it to be read to the people of Baghdad, make a great festival upon the occasion. " Arab historian al-Utbi, who wrote these dispatches compiled in his Tarikh-i-Yamini justified the sultan's attacks on idol-worshippers.

Meanwhile, writing in the same times, the scholar and polymath Al-Biruni described Sultan Mahmud's conquests differently. Though Al-Biruni calls his work Kitab fi Tahqiq ma li'l-Hind (Researches on India), his writing belies a dislike of the sultan's methods. Through his exploits, Al-Biruni says the sultan damaged India's prosperity, "scattering the Hindus in all directions. " Biruni's accounts are considered the first apolitical and non-military account of the history of that era.

Travel writing of the colonial era ranges from political and social observations to official documents such as letters to rulers. Vasco da Gama was a crucial go-between in Portugal's success as a colonising power in India. His journals from the 15th century reveal private and unflattering thoughts on Calicut's inhabitants, yet also document his diplomatic dealings with royalty.

Correspondence by Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied the explorer James Cook, was equally instrumental in Britain's relationship with India. He kept a journal of his observations as a naturalist and a philosopher. Following his voyage, he advised the British government and tradesmen in developing their ventures.

A long skip ahead: contemporary travelogues grapple with the vestiges of a long history witnessed by the subcontinent. Among writers of Indian origin, V S Naipual's India: A Wounded Civilisation finds the country unable to recover from years of foreign rule. Unlike positive narratives of rediscovery of the homeland, Naipual's work is full of scathing criticisms. Two recent publications covering India's 2009 elections attempt to explore an inexplicable India. One of them, Manoj Kewalramani's political travelogue, Voterfiles, is a one-man-journey through the election year, where the author seeks to learn what drives people to participate in the electoral exercise. Speaking to TOI- Crest, Kewalramani admits that there was no one simple answer as to why people choose to vote. He observes that for many, voting is like prayer, a habit passed on through generations. As any other land, India remains forever complex. The observations of writers are driven by aims, be they at the behest of a certain religion, empire, or ideology.

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