Anuradha: Namaste, Sumedha Verma Ojha is a former IRS officer which means She understands the economy, taxes, etc. and also She has translated Valmiki Ramayan and written a spy thriller Urnabhih based on Mauryan Era bringing back to us the time when Chanakya was setting up the Mauryan Empire. I am eagerly waiting for the sequel. Travel In Ancient India – How did they travel in those times is our subject in the conversations.
So, Sumedha Ji Welcome to the Detours.
Sumedha: Thank you so much.
Travel in ancient India
Anuradha: So, Sumedha Ji you are an expert on Ancient History and I am a traveler. Our paths meet at a place where we want to talk about travel in Ancient India. How did people travel? Today most of the tourism and hospitality industry is based on leisure and pleasure travel. Of course, there are business travelers and other people who travel for various other reasons but the industry basically thrives on leisure and pleasure travel.
I want to know what were the primary reasons for which the people traveled in Ancient India?
Sumedha: Thank you Anuradha for inviting me to this session which I promise you it is going to be very interesting. So, why did people travel? Humans started traveling on concomitant on existence, migration was the first reason to travel. People moved locations to get better places to stay or to access better resources. As humankind established itself, what was the reason people traveled? The first to travel was Trade. Trade was in the beginning with the people near them and later with the people who were further away from them. The entire system became more complex, with roads, modes of transport, places to stay, etc.
Another reason was the Basic human tendency of aggression, war, and fighting which was even stronger in the Ancient age. So, routes for armies, for the people who could move on to conquer other territories and could get newer resources for themselves. Sometimes, it was a benign intention and sometimes not but this how the big countries and national system have come into existence.
Another reason for travel was Tirthyatras. People traveled to visit the Tirthas. It has a very complex and multifaceted meaning. One meaning of course is a place of religious importance and another reason for which the people traveled in ancient was to gain knowledge. People traveled from ashram to ashram, rishi to rishi to gain knowledge and also to get pear view of their own theories, own Grantha’s that they composed. These ashrams were often in very inaccessible places, away from the hustle and bustle of the cities sometimes in the forests or near the river.
We tend to think ancient India is a very serious place but there was a lot of entertainment and fun going on. So, Natya Mandalis undertook a lot of travel. There were amazing stories about travel by Natya Mandalis and how people used them to send messages to people they wanted to speak to or to look for the people they had lost. The leisure and pleasure aspect of travel was very small but there is a tiny mention of it. If you think of Cruises as leisure travel, they have been mentioned in Arthashastra with great prominence.
Anuradha: Ashram to Ashram seems like travel to disengaged from the common world.
Sumedha: I would tend to think like conferences and seminars then. You had a patronize these scholars for example Raja Janak. He was a famous scholar king and Shashtrath that he organized was absolutely famous. Students also traveled to gurukuls and universities. This is was all knowledge travel but the biggest reason to travel in the past was only trade. Trade and trade routes are kinds of veins and arteries of the body politic of the past.
Anuradha: It is very interesting that you mentioned Natya Mandalis traveling because I did a post on the best professions to pick up if you love traveling. I had actually put performing artists as one. Performing artists get to travel to the remotest part of the world. They showcase their art, carry their culture, as they travel the world. So, it is good to know that we are carrying forward which used to exist 2000 years ago.
Sumedha: Actors, actresses, acrobats, and performers of all kinds traveled not only in urban areas but also in smaller regions.
Anuradha: How do you get this information about how people traveled in ancient India? What are your sources? Which are the texts which tell us about?
Sumedha: It is a good question. One is archaeological remains. There are people who have done a lot of work on the trade routes of Ancient India and they have analyzed remains of things that were traded. They analyzed the paths that were made trade routes. Through this, they built up and told us where exactly the trade routes went. What kind of cities and settlements were there and things were exchanged off.
Another very big source is Numismatics that means coins which we have found in different places and they have also been analyzed and give us much information on travel and trade in the past.
The third thing is the inscriptions. For example, there was a famous religious and spiritual guru whose name was Makardhwaj Yogi. He used to live in the first millennium before the common era. He had a band of travelers or followers who traveled with him wherever he went. Wherever they went they left a small inscription about themselves and today we can find those inscriptions in a museum in Bangladesh or a small village in India. Interestingly, most of the followers who traveled with him were women.
There is a very interesting inscription because it is interpreted in two different ways, is in the Ramgarh Caves. Some people say it is the first love inscription in the world and other people interpreted it as it was a rest house for women travelers. It is Jogi Mara Inscription. Earlier interpreted as it was theatre but fresh interpretation tells us that it was a rest house for travelers. This little inscription suddenly gives insight and you feel that you know that people. This makes fun to be a historian.
Mainly we get our information from Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tamil, etc compositions. Our three big story complexes i.e Ramayana, Mahabharta, and Badhkaha. The Badhkaha is a complex of stories composed around the 6th or 7th centuries BCE. It is the storehouse of stories of the societies of that time. It is from Badkaha that most of the Jataka tales have taken. We also have stories written by Jains and Buddhists so Jataka tales are a very big source of information.
Anuradha: My next curiosity is about the modes of transportation. Did they have roads like we have expressways, highways, etc? What kind of vehicles they had? How did they travel? I want to know about travel infrastructure.
Sumedha: We did not start with the roads. Roads came to us later in time. Remember, water was always there. So, Waterways have come before roadways because human beings discovered how to make boats much before. Some inscription of Indus valley civilization tells us types of boats and how they were made. So, waterways with the infrastructure of ships, navigators, navigating instruments, etc. have all been mentioned not only in Rigveda but also in Jatak Katha. Interestingly, Rigveda not only mentions hundred oars boats but also technical names like Artya for oar, Aritri for the sailor, and Dyumna for floatel of boats. So, there are all kinds of technical terms of navigation through water mentioned. I do believe that the word navigation comes from the Sanskrit word Navik.
Anuradha: I always used to wonder that how did Adi Shankaracharya travel across India in 24 years. I figured out that he was traveling through waterways. Right from Kalady in Kerala to Omkareshwar in MP to all nooks and corners. He was primarily using waterways to travel.
Sumedha: Yes right. I also want to tell you about Tholkappiyar who lived 2300 years ago. He was from Kanchipuram but he went to Salatura to learn from the greatest sages of the day. So, he used the riverways and then came to roadways. He followed the Dakshin Path, then Uttar Path, and then up again.
In this map, you can see the number of rivers shown and all the rivers is navigable. All the roadways are the capillary roads which lead to ports are there in the Eastern and Western coast.
They also made pleasure boats often mentioned in Arthashastra. It is like a treat given by the king to a minister for doing something.
Mode of travels
Anuradha: What kind of vehicles did they use to travel on roadways?
Sumedha: Of course, two feet. We have always used animals like horses, oxen, camels, etc. Surprisingly, they used goats. Some of the toughest and roughest parts navigated by the goats, laden them with small stuff or bundles. These goat paths were the smallest paths. We also had oxcarts and they were also very common in Indus valley civilization. Other than oxcarts, we also had chariots but mostly they used in the contexts of fighting or armies. They were neither used for fun activity nor for trade. For trade, they used pack animals and bullock carts.
We also the palanquins or Dolis which were carried by the people. It was the rich person’s privilege and were used by both men and women. This was more remark of prestige because more people carrying you on shoulders but for the long-distance, they used bullock carts where large caravans moved.
Anuradha: Today wherever we travel we have hotels, resorts, etc. We can just click, book, go, and stay. So, where did people stay given that they used to travel in the slow mode for multiple days? Where did they stay on the way and where when they once reached the destination?
Sumedha: These vehicles traveled on roads. These roads were the feature of Indus Valley civilization, Vedic civilization, and other historical time periods. Even when we look at the Rigvedic references, even roads were made slightly raised so that bullock carts could move on them. Trees were planted on both sides of the roads. So, there were many names of the types of roads. For example, when we read Panini, a great grammarian mentioned so many average things about the social life of the people. Starting from Ajapathika – the paths only for goats, then he talks about Devpath, Hanspath, Karipatha, Rajpatha, and Sankhpatha. So, Roads were made, repaired, and constructed. They were taken care of very carefully. There was a whole infrastructural team to look at the condition of the road.
Along these roads, there were guest houses. These guest houses are mentioned in the Rigveda, Arthashastra, Jataka tales, and also by Panini. Mauryans specially started making guesthouses on a very large scale for the people to make their travel easier in those days. Atharveda called guest houses as Avasat, Rigveda as Prapat, or Prathma. There were so many good foods and drink facilities available there and mostly these were run by the state. The other places that functioned like guest houses were Ashrams. These Ashrams welcomed travelers and they took full care of them. We have so many stories of travelers including Rishis. Remember the Ashram of Kanva because of certain traveling Rishi Shakuntala was cursed and her entire life was changed.
Most importantly, each person’s house was in a way a guesthouse because Atithaya was very important. So, if you are near the village and there was no guest house. People of that village will take care of you as you are part of their family or more than that. Therefore, Atithya made it very easy for people to get shelter at night.
Suppose, all these would not there then people also camped out in the open. For example, these big caravans in which people used to travel would stop at a place to stay. Either they used to sleep inside their cart or make any bed under the tree but all these were not very safe. There were many dangers of robbers, highwaymen, animals, etc.
I also want to mention one Prasang of Ramayan when Shri Ram leaves for exile and Bharat after coming to Ayodhya discovers that his brother has gone for exile. He decides to follow his brother immediately and to bring him back to Ayodhya. He starts with the entire Army of Ayodhya. In the context of today, it is an excellent detailed inscription of how the roads were dug, maintained, repaired, and created. There was a huge labor force.
Guides – Travel in ancient India
We also had topographers, surveyors, masons, engineers, carpenters, tree planters, builders of huts, etc. and one special person guides. These guides were very important for traveling in an unknown area. Even though the roads were straight but due to dense forests on both sides anything and anyone could come. If the roads were a little narrower you could be lost. So, guides were always needed. The head of the Caravan known as Satvahak was an expert in it. So, in Valmiki Ramayan read this Prasang of How roads were prepared and how armies used to travel on it.
Anuradha: My next question is – Did women travel in Ancient India?
Sumedha: Yes, women traveled in Ancient India in various ways. Many of the merchants who traded moved with the entire family because it was not a matter of a day or two. So, they traveled with their families. Women were also scholars. They traveled for the sake of knowledge like anyone else. They were also in the Natya Mandalis therefore also traveled for their theatre performances etc.
Solo Women Travelers – Travel in ancient India
There was also a very special category of solo women travelers and knowledge seekers who completely became free like a wind. They were kind of free flow of nature and became absolutely Swatantra travelers. We have an example of Sulabha from the wonderful dialogue of Raja Janak and Sulabha in the Mahabharata and an example of Madhavi, Yayati’s daughter who after a very long adventurous life became a traveler. So, these women drifted the entire country in search of self-realization and knowledge. Their description said they were more with nature.
So, these were solo travelers but there was a different category of solo travelers who were very serious about reaching Moksha. They were not belonging to any place, not staying at any place for more than one night. They would cut their societal ties etc and simply pursue Gyan and Moksha.
Books to read
Anuradha: A lot of literature on pilgrimage also talking about very similar and therefore, probably we have most sacred places were remote and easily reachable by a common person.
I want to ask one question if I had to read about travels in ancient India. What are the books that I should read?
Sumedha: I would recommend Moti Chandras’s Trade and Trade Routes. This book is more dated and he goes too much into description and justifications of Aryan Invasion theory which sounds very sorry if you read it from today’s context but otherwise it has good information on all aspects of travel.
Anuradha: Thank you so much for coming today.
Sumedha: Thank you for calling me. We had a wonderful discussion.
Transcription of Travel in ancient India by Harshil Gupta as part of IndiTales Internship Program