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Indica by Megasthenes

India as described by Megasthenes

Megasthenes was an ambassador sent by Seleukos Nikator to the court of the Mauryas at Pātaliputra. He was stationed at Arachosia ( Kandahar) and from there went to Pātaliputra, to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. Megasthenes account is very important, as it tells us about the general conditions of India in around 300 BCE. This is for the first time that any foreigner has written about India while staying in the country.


  1. Whereas among other nations it is usual in the contests of war, to ravage the soil, among the Indians on the contrary, by whom husbandmen are regarded as a class that is sacred and inviolable, the tillers of the soil, even when the battle is raging in their neighborhood are undisturbed by danger, for the combatants make carnage of each other, but allow those engaged in husbandry to remain unmolested.
  2. Besides, they neither ravage an enemy’s land nor cut down its trees.
  3. The husbandmen appear to be far more numerous than others. Being moreover exempted from fighting & other public services, they devote their entire time to tillage; nor would an enemy coming upon a husbandman, do any harm, for men of their class, being regarded as public benefactors, are protected from all injury.
  4. the land thus remaining undamaged, & producing heavy crops, supplies the inhabitants all that is required to make life very comfortable.
  5. The husbandmen themselves, with their wives & children, live in the countryside, & entirely avoid going to cities either to take part in its tumults or for any other purpose.

King (Chandragupta Maurya)

  1. The king may not sleep during day time. He leaves his place not only in times of war but also for the purpose of judging causes.
  2. He then remains in court for the whole day without allowing the business to be interrupted, even though the hour arrives when he must need to attend to his person
  3. The palace is opened to all, even when the king is having his hair combed & dressed. It is then he gives audience to ambassadors and administers justice to his subjects.
  4. the care of the King’s person is entrusted to women. When he goes hunting, it is in a kind of Bacchic procession, surrounded by women who form a circle. Some of the women are in chariots, some on horseback, some on elephants, fully armed as in war.
  5. The king leaves the palace on three occasions. One is for hearing cases that occupy him throughout the day.
  6. The second occasion is when he goes hunting. A rope is stretched to mark the road, & it is death for anyone to go past it among the woman.
  7. Drummers and bell-ringers lead the way. In his hunting enclosures, the king shoots with a bow from an elevated place, two or three armed women standing beside him.
  8. When hunting in a place not enclosed, he shoots from an elephant.

Royal Processions

  1. In the processions at their festivals, many elephants adorned with gold & silver are in the train, as well as four-horsed chariots and yokes of oxen.
  2. Then comes a great host of attendants in their attire, with vessels of gold, such as large basins & goblets, six feet in breadth, tables, chars of state, drinking cups & layers all made of Indian copper, & precious stones - emeralds, beryls, & garments embroidered with gold.

Courtly Pomp

  1. When the king shows himself in public, his attendants carry in their hands silver censors & perfume with incense all the road by which it is his pleasure to be conveyed.
  2. He lolls in a golden palanquin, garnished with pearls that dangle all around it.
  3. He is robed in fine muslin embroidered with purple & gold. Behind his palanquin follow men-at-arms, & his bodyguards, of whom some carry boughs of trees on which birds are perched, trained to interrupt business with their cries.

Gifts are given to the King

  1. A form of presents favored by the king was the presence of animals, like deer, antelopes, or rhinos, also birds like cranes, geese, ducks & pigeons.
  2. The Indians bring to their king tigers, domesticated Panthers, oxen, yak, pigeons, apes.
  3. People send him great gifts on his birthday, each person seeking to outrival his neighbor in displaying his wealth.

Elephant Guard

  1. The king has a guard of 24 elephants, & when he goes out to administer justice, the first elephant was trained to do him obeisance.
  2. As the king passed, the elephant gave him a sort of military salute on a hint from the driver & a stroke of his goad.

King’s Journeys

  1. He rides on horseback when making short journeys, but when bound on a distant expedition, he rides in a chariot mounted on elephants and, huge as these animals are, their bodies are covered completely over with trappings of gold.

The Royal Palace at Pātaliputra

  1. The palace is adorned with glided pillars clasped round with a vine embossed in gold, while silver images of those birds that most charm the eye diversify the workmanship.
  2. The palace is full of tame peacock & pheasants, shady groves & trees set in clumps with branches woven together by some special cunning of horticulture, trees that are always green, they never grow old and never shed their leaves.
  3. Some trees are native, and some are brought from other lands with great care & these adorn the palace and give it glory. Birds are there free and unconfined.
  4. The birds come of their own accord, and have their nests and resting places on branches, birds of various kinds.
  5. In this Royal Palace, there are lovely tanks made by the hand of men, in which they kept fish of enormous size, but quite tame.
  6. No one has permission to fish for these except the King’s sons while yet in their boyhood.
  7. These youngsters amuse themselves without the least risk of being drowned while fishing in the unruffled sheet of water and learning how to sail their boats.
  8. It must be noted that the palace of the Mauryas was still standing 650 years after Ashoka, as Fa-Hien, who visited India between 399-412 AD, mentions the Mauryan palace in his travelogue.

Capital at Pātaliputra

  1. Pālibortha is situated at the confluence of the Ganges and Sonus rivers.
  2. It is in the shape of an oblong, with a length of 60 sides ( 15 km) & a breadth of 15 states (2.5 km).
  3. The city is protected by a moat which had a depth of 30 cubits (60 feet), and a width of 6 plethra ( 200 yards).
  4. The moat received the sewage of the city
  5. The city was protected by a massive timber palisade surrounding it along the moat.
  6. The palisade was pierced by loopholes through which archers were to shoot. The city had 64 gates and 570 towers.
  7. The chief material of construction of the city is wood, as it is near the rivers and has to be protected against floods.

Administrative Departments & Officers

District Officials (Agronomoi)

The duties were to supervise irrigation, land measurement, hunting, industries connected with metal foundries, mines, & they had to maintain the roads and see that at every 10 stadia (1.5 miles) there was a mile-stone indicating the distance.

Town Officials (Astynomoi)

The second kind, the Astynomoi, were divided into six boards of five. Their functions are:

Supervision of factories, care of strangers, registration of birth and deaths, an inspection of weights, inspection of manufactured goods, provision for their sale with the accurate distinction of new and second-hand articles, collection of tax.

The six boards acting together exercised a general superintendence over public Works, prices, harbors, and temples.


The philosophers who are engaged by private persons to offer the sacrifices due in life-size and to celebrate the obsequies of the dead. In requital of such services, they receive valuable gifts and privileges.


The Overseers whose province is to enquire into and that goes on in India, and make reports to the king, or to the magistrates.

Other Officers

Herdsmen and hunters, who alone are allowed to hunt, and to keep cattle, and to sell draught animals or let them out on hire. In return for clearing the land of wild beasts & fowls, they receive an allowance of grain from the king. The armor-makers and shipbuilders receive wages and their victuals from the king, for whom alone they work.

Of these, some are armorers, while others make the implements which husbandmen & others fine useful in their daily callings. This class is not only exempted from paying taxes but even received maintenance from the Royal Exchequer. Officers who superintend the rivers measure the land as is done in Egypt, and inspect the sluices by which water is let out from the main canals, so that everyone may have an equal supply of it. Fighting men who are maintained at the King’s expense and hence they are always ready, when occasion calls, to take the field; for they carry nothing of their own with them but their own bodies.

Officers who collect the taxes & superintend the occupations connected with lands, like those of the wood-cutters, the carpenters, the black-smith & the miners.

Officers who construct roads & at every ten stadia, set up a pillar to show the by-roads & distances. Officers in charge of Royal stables for elephants & horses and also the Royal magazine for arms. A private person is not allowed to keep either a horse or an elephant. These animals are to be special property of the king and persons are appointed to take care of them.

They are professional trainers of the horses, who break them in by forcing them you gallop round & round in a ring, especially when they see them refractory. Such work requires a strong hand and thorough knowledge of horses. The great proficients test their skill by driving a chariot round and round in a ring & it is not a mean feat to control steeds when whirling round in a circle.


That the number of cities in India is so great that it cannot be stated with precision… Cities on the banks of rivers or on sea coasts, or on commanding situations, or on lofty eminences.

Law & Order

  1. An Indian has never been convicted of lying.
  2. Indians are not litigious. Witnesses and seals are unnecessary when a man makes a deposit. He acts in trust. Their houses are usually unguarded.
  3. The Indians neither put out money at usury nor know how to borrow. It is contrary to established usage for an Indian to do or suffer a wrong and therefore they neither make contracts nor require securities.
  4. A person convicted of bearing false witness suffers mutilation of his extremities.
  5. He who maims another not only suffers in return the loss of the like limb, but his hand is also cut off
  6. If he causes a workman to lose his eye or hand, he is put to death.

Megasthenes on India as a Country

  1. India has many huge mountains which abound in fruit trees of every kind and many vast plains of great fertility, intersected by a multitude of rivers.
  2. The greater part of the soil is under irrigation and bears two crops a year. The country teems at the same time with animals of all sorts, beasts of the field & fowls of the air, of all different degrees of strength and size.
  3. The Indians are well skilled in arts. They inhale pure air and drink the very finest water.
  4. And while the soil bears on its surface all kinds of fruits which are known to cultivation, it has also underground numerous veins of all sorts of metals, containing much gold & silver, and copper & iron in no small quantity which is employed in making articles of use & ornaments, as well as the implements and armory of war.
  5. In addition to cereals, there grow in India much millet which is kept well watered by the profusion of river streams, and many pulses of different sorts & rice also, as well as many other plants useful for food.
  6. It is accordingly affirmed that famine has never visited India and that there has never been a general scarcity in supply of nourishing food.
  7. The fruits moreover, of spontaneous growth, and the succulent roots which grow in marshy places & are of varied sweetness, afford abundant sustenance for man.
  8. The fact is that almost all the plains in the country have moisture which is alike genial, whether it is derived from the rivers or from the rains of the summers, which fall at a stated period with surprising regularity.