This post was first published as an answer to a Quora question – “Are there any travelogues by ancient travellers who travelled through India available in a book-format for us to read?” An excellent answer was given by Ashutosh Mehndiratta, a History enthusiast and is being republished here with his permission.
While the timeline of ‘ancient’ world isn’t clearly defined, the range generally referred to is 700 BCE to 500 AD.
During this period, few books were written that were either travelogues i.e. first-hand accounts or compilation of experiences of other visitors.
|Indica by Ctesias|
The Persian king Artaxerxes had a Greek physician and historian named Ctesias who served at his court from 400 to 398 BC. He wrote a record detailing the views that the Persians held of India around 400 BC. This book is called Indica (not to be confused with Indica by Megasthenes).
It includes descriptions of the Indus River, god-like people, ferocious and mythical creatures, philosophers, artisans, and unquantifiable gold (a fountain which is filled every year with liquid gold, from which a hundred pitcherfuls are drawn), among other riches and wonders.
It also carries an excellent account of the native tribes of India of the time – Cynocephali (hunter-gatherers), Pygmies, Calystrii (men with a head of dog). Ctesias relates these fables as perfect truth, adding that he himself had seen with his own eyes some of the things he describes.
The book only remains in fragments and in reports made about the book by later authors.
|Indikê by Nearchus|
Nearchus was one of the mentors of Alexander who was also an officer in his army and later became the admiral of Alexander’s fleet.
During the invasion of India, he was one of the two commanders of the Shieldbearers, a heavy infantry unit. He is known for his celebrated voyage from the Indus River to the Persian Gulf following the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great, in 326–324 BC.
Nearchus wrote an account of his journey down the Indus River called Indikê. This text is now lost, but its contents are known from information included Indikê by Arrian of Nicomedia and The Geography by Strabo of Amasia.
It seems to have consisted of two parts: the first half contained a description of India's borders, size, rivers, population, castes, animals -especially elephants, armies and customs; the second half described Nearchus' voyage home.
|Indica by Megasthenes|
Megasthenes was an ambassador of Seleucus I Nicator of the Seleucid dynasty to Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra and visited the Mauryan court somewhere between 302 and 298 BCE.
He also wrote an account of India and also that of Chandragupta’s reign in his book titled Indica that has also been lost, but is partially available, mostly in the form of quotations, in the form of derivative works of later Roman historians and authors like Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny, and Arrian.
Megasthenes’ Indica describes India’s geography, history, flora and fauna, economy, society and administration during the Roman period.
|Periplus of the Erythraean Sea|
The provenance of this book is unknown and it was supposedly written between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. It describes navigation and trading opportunities from ancient Roman-Egyptian ports like Berenice and Southwestern Indian ports like Barygaza (present-day Bharuch in Gujarat) in goods like wine, copper, tin, flint glass, gold, slaves, silk and ivory.
It is undoubtedly a first-hand narration by someone acquainted with the area and is nearly matchless in providing precise insights into what the ancient European world knew about the lands around the Indian Ocean.
|A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms by Faxian|
Faxian (Fa Hien) was a Buddhist monk who travelled from China via Central Asia to India. He stayed in India for 6 years, from 399–414 AD seeking better copies of Buddhist books than were available in China at the time. He visited places like Lumbini and Patliputra.
Faxian's visit to India occurred during the reign of Chandragupta II. However, he mentions nothing about the Guptas in his book. He is known for his famous travelogue - A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Xian of his Travels in India.
Post the ancient era, there were visitors like Xuanzang in the 7th century, Al-Beruni in the 11th century, Marco Polo in the late 13th century, who wrote about India in their travelogues. Travel writing took off in the 17th century with the arrival of British and French in India and there we see hundreds of books and travel accounts being written.