Monday, September 6, 2010

Cultural clones - the beginning

Alexander hit a snag in his world conquest when he could not penetrate far into India. Suffering serious setbacks, he had to retreat. He died at 32. Soon after that his empire was divided up by one of his generals, Diadochs. Later, Seleukos I Nikator (358-261 BC) set up his dynasty between Syria to the Hindukush mountains that bordered India. He entered into a peace treaty with Chandragupta Maurya which involved exchanging ambassadors. One of them was Megasthenes.

Megasthenes (350-290 BC), by all accounts was highly educated and had experience in administration. He travelled in India far and wide and recorded every aspect of India he could in the 11 or so years he was here. Sadly most of his works have not survived in the original. However a lot of it has been preserved and reproduced in the Hellenic accounts. Because of his authentic and first hand accounts, it was natural for Megasthenes to be the source for most of the Hellenic writings on India. Diamachos succeeded Megasthenes as ambassador who did his won writing on India.

These early accounts by the Greeks show their curiosity, their interest in observing and studying India. The writings covered flora, fauna, geography, peoples, administrations, military, culture, customs, food and much more. Everything they saw, they recorded in vivid detail. One can actually picture what everyday life was like in the Mauryan period. The freedom they had in traveling, observing and recording India indicates the wonderful working conditions they operated under without bother.

The richness and depth of the writings is indeed remarkable. However, what is even more striking is the complete lack of innuendo. This was the BC era, pre-Christian times. None of the "missions" were born yet. The writings come across as purely objective, observational in nature. There were no comparisons. There were no judgements passed. They were chronicles of educated ambassadors who were not sent on "missions" to India, who were not under any pressure to carry out some "good work", who were not under any pressure to produce weekly, monthly, annual reports or accounts to promote interests. (to be continued...)

In the next post we shall see the change in narrative, who changed it, what changed it, how did it get coloured.

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