April 22

Megasthenese – the Greek ambassador


Indika – the record of Megasthenese


Megasthenese was the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta. He is considered crucial due to his writings that are used as some of the most important sources of information about ancient India and the Mauryan Empire. He described India in his book – Indika which has been lost over time, but reconstructed by the derivations arrived through the fragmented works of authors who quoted his works in the later period.

Megasthenese was the first person from the west to provide a written description of India. He was sent to the court of Chandragupta by Seleucus Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid Empire. Along with being the ancient Greek historian he also played an important role of the diplomat, ethnographer, and explorer of the Greek period.

Megasthenese’s early life and arrival in India:

It is an unfortunate part of history that we have not been able to retrieve the writings of Megasthenese – Indika, in their original form. Due to the same reason, we have not been able to know much about Megasthenese. It is known from the accounts of other Greek writers that before coming to India, he was at the court of Sibyrtius, who was a satrap of Arachosia (initially under Antigonus and later under Seleucus).

Then he was sent as the ambassador on behalf of the Seleucid Empire for King Seleucus Nicator to the court of Mauryan emperor Chandragupta Maurya. This was after the Seleucus attacked the North-Western part of India and signed a treaty with Chandragupta. It is assumed that the appointment of the Greek ambassador in the Mauryan court might have been part of the treaty.

Megasthenese as the source of Information:

According to the historians, though the records provided by Megasthenese might not be fully accurate, they still provide a lot of information about the administration and culture that prevailed during that time in India. The reason behind historians doubting the records is that Megasthese was not aware of any Indian language and stayed in India for a short period. Further, he did not have complete exposure to the Indian subcontinent and was acquainted only with Punjab and the royal road to Patliputra. Therefore, his accounts have to be cautiously studied before utilising the information as legitimate.

Still, his accounts have provided a lot of information about the contemporary period. Megasthenese’s account mentions that King was always in fear for his life and hence was guarded by women bodyguards. Further, he never slept in the same house even for two consecutive days.

He mentions that the king was fond of hunting, which was conducted as a great ceremony. The king went to forests or the countryside for open hunting and was accompanied by female guards. He also mentions the luxury and richness of the king. The king was fond of luxury, and this could be seen in the royal palaces and their gilded pillars, adorned with golden vines and silver birds. Even the basins and glasses were of gold, richly carved, and precious tables and chairs along with the copper vessels embroidered with precious stones and jewels.

The King was very fond of animals. For making short journeys he preferred horses, while for the long ones he was mounted on an elephant. He conducted the fights of bulls, rams, elephants, etc., and ox races were also conducted.

Military system:

Megasthese provided a detailed overview of the military system of the Mauryan Empire. He mentioned that Chandragupta had a big and powerful army of 60,000 infantry, 60,000 horsemen, 3,000 chariots, and 9,000 elephants. The military system of Chandragupta was completely under the direction of a war office that consisted of 30 officers, who were divided into 6 boards of five members each. These boards were:

    i.            The first board was in charge of the navy and worked in cooperation with the appointed admiral. They navigated the rivers and ventured into the sea. This board was also given the responsibility of the collection of taxes by merchants.

  ii.            The second board was in charge of the commissariat. Its work was the complete arrangement of transport and supply services. They arranged bullock trains for transportation, arranged food for the soldiers, provided food for cattle, and arranged entire military requisites.

  iii.            The third board was in charge of infantry, managed by an officer named Pahvadhayaksha. The soldiers were equipped with bows and arrows, swords, and Javelins.

   iv.            The fourth board was related to cavalry.

  v.            The fifth board managed the war chariots. This board was probably under the officer named Rathadhayaksha.

   vi.            The sixth board took charge of the elephants. The superintendent of this board was an officer named Hastyadhyaksha

Megasthenese further mentions the high-security management of the capital – Patliputra. It was the city that was at the convergence of rivers – the Ganges and Son. The city was protected by timber fencing, pierced by loopholes through which archers could shoot. It had 64 gates and 570 towers.

About Indian Population:

The population of India was also divided into seven classes. The first class consisted of philosophers, the second of husbandmen, the third of shepherds and herdsmen, the fourth class consisted of artisans, the fifth class of the military, the sixth one of the overseers, and the seventh class of Councillors and Assessors. Megasthenese highlights that no one was allowed to practice any other profession and to marry in another class.

He tells us that the law in India was very simple, and people occasionally went to courts. The entire thing in the Indian market depended upon word of mouth. They did not believe in the art of writing, nor the suits regarding pledges or deposits. The entire livelihood was based upon memory, and trust among each other. The house and property were generally unprotected and even after this, there were very few instances of theft. They never drank except for the sacrifices.

Indians always had their food alone but had no fixed hours for their meals. Truth and wisdom were very important. The men married many times. The garments of Indians were made of fine muslin that was hardly available anywhere else at that time. There were no famines in India and farmers were prosperous. The riding animals were horses, camels, asses, elephants, and tigers. The Indus and Ganges were the most important river systems.

He also mentions that Indians believed in the theory of the transmigration of souls, and that Indians were an indigenous race and did not come from outside.

These records and information provided by Megasthenese, have helped the historians to track the administration and has also acted as a great piece of information about the local culture and tradition.


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