5, 000 years of Civilization & Culture
Herodotus of Greece, the “Father of History”, had a most vague and meagre knowledge of the Indian subcontinent. He knew that it was one of the remotest provinces of the Persian Empire towards the east, but he had never traveled there himself, and of its extent and exact position he had no proper conception. Still, the description of India from Herodotus’ monumental work, “Histories”, written between 450 – 420 BCE, is one of the oldest surviving “outsider” records we have of present-day Pakistan.
Below are excerpts of the Histories, taken from South Dakota State University’s Project South Asia, where Herodotus’ describes Peshawar Valley, the Indus River, Hindu ascetics, cotton plants, and the famous “gold-digging ants” of Deosai Plateau.
BOOK IV. 44. A great part of Asia was explored under the direction of Darius I. He being desirous to know in what part the Indus, which is the second river that produces crocodiles [after the Nile, to the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks], discharges itself into the sea, sent in ships both others on whom he could rely to make a true report, and also Scylax of Caryanda. They accordingly setting out from the city of Caspatyrus and the country of Pactyice [identified with Gandhara, or modern-day Peshwar Valley, by archaeologist Aurel Stein], sailed down the river towards the east and sunrise to the sea [the Indian Ocean]; then sailing on the sea westward, they arrived in the thirtieth month at that place where the King of Egypt despatched the Phœnicians [the Red Sea], whom I before mentioned, to sail round Libya. After these persons had sailed round, Darius subdued the Indians and frequented this sea.
BOOK III. 89-96. [In these chapters Herodotos relates that Darius I, on ascending the throne of Persia, divided his empire into twenty governments called Satrapies, and fixed the amount of tribute which each of these should pay into his treasury. India stands last in his enumeration of these Satrapies.]
97. Of the Indians, the population is by far the greatest of all nations whom we know of, and they paid a tribute proportionately larger than all the rest, 360 talents of gold dust; this was the twentieth division.
98. The Indians obtain the great quantity of gold from which they supply the beforementioned dust to the king, in the manner presently described. That part of India towards the rising sun is all sand; for of the people with whom we are acquainted, and of whom anything certain is told, the Indians live the farthest towards the east and the sunrise, of all the inhabitants of Asia, for the Indians’ country towards the east is a desert by reason of the sands. There are many nations of Indians, and they do not speak the same language as each other; some of them are nomads, and others not. Some inhabit the marshes of the river, and feed on raw fish, which they take going out in boats made of reeds; one joint of the reed makes a boat. These Indians wear a garment made of rushes, which, when they have cut the reed from the river and beaten it, they afterwards plait like a mat and wear it like a corselet.
100. Other Indians have the following different custom: they neither kill anything that has life, nor sow anything, nor are they wont to have houses, but they live upon herbs, and they have a grain the size of millet in a pod, which springs spontaneously from the earth. This they gather, and boil it and eat it with the pod. When any one of them falls into any disorder, he goes and lies down in the desert, and no one takes any thought about him, whether dead or sick [Herodotus is probably talking here about Brahmins, ancient Hindu ascetics, who were strict vegetarians].
102. There are other Indians bordering on the city of Caspatyrus and the country of Pactyice [identified as Gandhara, or the land of the “Pakhtun”, an ethnic group that still inhabits most of modern Peshawar Valley], settled northward of the other Indians, whose mode of life resembles that of the Bactrians. They are the most warlike of the Indians, and these are they who are sent to procure the gold; for near this part is a desert by reason of the sands. In this desert, then, and in the sand, there are ants in size somewhat less indeed than dogs, but larger than foxes.
103. Some of them are in possession of the King of the Persians, which were taken there. These ants, forming their habitations underground, heap up the sand, as the ants in Greece do, and in the same manner; and they are very like them in shape. The sand that is heaped up is mixed with gold. The Indians therefore go to the desert to get this sand, each man having three camels, on either side a male one harnessed to draw by the side, and a female in the middle. This last the man mounts himself, having taken care to yoke one that has been separated from her young as recently born as possible; for camels are not inferior to horses in swiftness, and are much better able to carry burdens.
[The “giant ants” mentioned here by Herodotus may have been Himalayan marmots of the Deosai Plateau in present-day Gilgit–Baltistan, Pakistan. Much like the province that Herodotus describes, the ground of the Deosai Plateau is rich in gold dust, and the Minaro tribal people who live in the Deosai Plateau confirmed in interviews that they have, for generations, collected the gold dust that the marmots bring to the surface when digging burrows].
104. The Indians then adopting such a plan and such a method of harnessing, set out for the gold, having before calculated the time, so as to be engaged in their plunder during the hottest part of the day, for during the heat the ants hide themselves under the ground. Amongst these people the sun is hottest in the morning, and not, as amongst others, at mid-day, from the time that it has risen some way, to the breaking up of the market; during this time it scorches much more than at mid-day in Greece, so that, it is said, they then refresh themselves in water. Mid-day scorches other men much the same as the Indians; but as the day declines, the sun becomes to them as it is to others in the morning; and after this, as it proceeds it becomes still colder, until sunset; then it is very cold.
105. When the Indians arrive at the spot, having sacks with them, they fill them with the sand, and return with all possible expedition. For the ants, as the Persians say, immediately discovering them by the smell, pursue them, and they are equalled in swiftness by no other animal, so that the Indians, if they did not get the start of them while the ants were assembling, not a man of them could be saved. Now the male camels (for they are inferior in speed to the females) slacken their pace, dragging on, not both equally, but the females, mindful of the young they have left, do not slacken their pace. Thus the Indians, as the Persians say, obtain the greatest part of their gold; and they have some small quantity more that is dug in the country.
106. The extreme parts of the inhabited world somehow possess the most excellent products; as Greece enjoys by far the best tempered climate. For in the first place, India is the farthest part of the inhabited world towards the east, as I have just observed: in this part, then, all animals, both quadrupeds and birds are much larger than they are in other countries, with the exception of horses; in this respect they are surpassed by the Medic breed called the Nysæan horses. In the next place, there is abundance of gold there, partly dug, partly brought down by the rivers, and partly seized in the manner I have described. And certain wild trees there bear wool instead of fruit, that in beauty and quality excels that of sheep; and the Indians make their clothing from these trees [cotton].
Source: “Ancient India as Described in Classical Literature” by J. W. McCrindle