It was not merely the land of spices, but the land of many philosophies and cultural forms. Arab travellers came here not only in search of merchandise, but knowledge and information. Each discovery has had its own identity. Hence there are many discoveries of India. A reading of Arab geographers’ Knowledge of Southern India reveals it.
Islam became the religion of the Arabs in the 7th Century A.D. This spiritual awakening was accompanied by tremendous consolidation among the Arabs, who were soon attempting to establish their supremacy by overthrowing their two powerful opponents, the Persians in the east and the Romans in the west. The first Muslim invasion of India was in 711 A.D. under the command of Qasim4 from Basra, and secured the temporary conquest of Sind. With the advent of Islam came a great impetus for travel, commerce and adventure, which persisted until the 14th Century when the Muslims receded into the background and lost their trade supremacy. During these seven centuries the Muslims were the chief carriers by land as well as by sea. Many books relating to kingdoms, roads by sea and land, the fauna and flora of various countries, came to be written at the instance of the ruling powers and by enthusiastic travellers. There are also many compilations of such information by men of learning and leisure who, induced by love of knowledge of unknown countries, took pains to meet and enquire from many a traveller to distant lands.
There are materials available for this work from about the ninth to the fourteenth Century A.D. Greek and Roman sources carry us only to the sixth Century A.D. and first hand Chinese accounts to the middle of the eighth Century. After this nothing can be gathered except from Arabic sources until the close of the twelfth Century A.D. Then the Sung annals of the Chinese make their appearance and a century later we have Marco Polo’s account of his famous voyage. Thus during the intervening period we are restricted exclusively to Arab writers; hence the importance of the present study. Some recent scholars have consulted Arabic authorities in connection with their study of Indian geography and ethnology, but as yet their conclusions have remained isolated. No attempt has been made hitherto to consolidate the sum total of all the information that can be obtained from these writers. Hence the present attempt to bridge this gap.
Some recent scholars have consulted Arabic authorities in connection with their study of Indian geography and ethnology, but as yet their conclusions have remained isolated. No attempt has been made hitherto to consolidate the sum total of all the information that can be obtained from these writers. Hence the present attempt to bridge this gap.
But first it may be advisable to ask ourselves what the Arabs’ conception of India was. For, there is evidence in their accounts to show that it differed considerably from our idea of India today. For general purposes the contemporary scholar defines India as Mid-Southern Asia. It falls naturally into two main divisions which form, as it were, two triangles with opposing bases, and show differences in their physical structure. The apex of the northern triangle penetrates deeply into the interior of the Asiatic continent where it is for the most part bordered by lofty mountains while the base is traversed by two great rivers which, rising in these mountains flow one to the east and one to the west. The second triangle forms a peninsula surrounded by the sea and contains mountains of moderate elevation, table-lands and a minor river system. Ancient writers regarded the Ganges as the natural division between the North and the South of India. But the moderns, with more reason, divide it into these two triangular portions at a line drawn from the Narbada River on the west to the Mahanadi on the east. The Arabs, however, had no idea of any divisions of India into North or South. They considered Sind as a separate country and had no clear idea of the geographical extent of the rest of India. Of the many writers only six5give a general description of the country as a whole. This in itself argues some idea on their part of the vastness of the land with its many rivers and mountains contemporary foreign accounts. The rest stand by themselves and we must accept them at their face value, though a comparative study of these accounts with available indigenous sources may be of great interest.
Arab Geographers’ Knowledge of Southern India
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