to your account
Create an account
16 January 2019 l 04:37:29 PM      New Delhi, -18°C/ °F
What's New
Home >> What's New >> Tourism In Ancient India

Tourism In Ancient India

Clock back to history and watch the traveler roughing it out through forests and dusty highways, exposing himself to the hazard of bandits and beasts. The tedium of trotting on horse-back or jolting in a bullock-cart on uneven terrain was relieved by respite at roadside ’sarais’ and ‘dharamshalas’ (rest houses). Tourism in ancient India was not a pleasure–hunt and holidays were sans dreams of lotus eating on golden sands. The traveler of yore was a merchant, a devout pilgrim, a serious scholar in search of ancient texts or a curious wayfarer looking forward to new experiences in a wonderland.


The opening of trade routes, perhaps, gave birth to tourism. The early centuries of the Christian era hailed merchant caravans from the Roman Empire, Central Asian and South-East Asian countries. These caravans did not comprise solely of traders lured by lucre but an assortment of people such as a priest to pray for a safe journey, entertainers, scholars as well as people who wished to broaden their experience. Thus early tourists from abroad came via land routes. Sea fearing was restricted solely to trade even though there were regular service between China and India since the beginning of the Christian era. The interminable voyage from western lands, which took six months, was, perhaps, a deterrent to the development of tourism. Another factor depended on the vagaries of the weather and direction of the seasonal winds.


Spread of Buddhism in China sent the devout from there to India – the land of Buddha. Emperor Ming Ti of the Han Dynasty sent a goodwill mission to India in 65 A. D to gain first-hand knowledge of Buddhism. The third century of the Christian era started the exodus of Chinese pilgrims to India and it has been stated that Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang were only two prominent names in a million. Both these Chinese monks have in the account of travels provided an authentic source for Indian history. Till the Muslim conquest, Buddhism was a cementing force between India and China and the monk’s bowl was a symbol of free travel between the two countries.


No travel formalities existed in the reign of Chandragupta II and Fa-hsien, the Chinese pilgrim travelled between 401 and 410 A. d, without a passport. However , as early as the third century B. C, according to Kautilya’s Arthasastra’ a passport ‘mudra’ was a must for all travelers and those without it were fine 12 ‘panas’. Each passport had the stamp of a high government official or ‘Mudradhaksha’ and ‘mudras’ were checked at various points on the way by orders of the officer of local ground or ‘Vivitadhaksha’.
One great threat to tourists was that of ‘Thugs’ or ‘bandits who waylaid caravans and ransomed lonesome travelers. To avoid such mishaps, caravans usually hired a brave and experienced guide who was familiar with dangerous tracts. Senior officials known as ántapala’ were duty- bound to protect travelers from robbers and the cost thus incurred by the state was realized by charging toll-tax. To ward off dangers lurking enroute, the ancient traveler took refuge in superstitions such as setting off right foot first, smearing his cart with ghee from the ritual offering or wearing a boat shaped amulet round his neck if travelling by river or sea. Before taking to the highway it was customary to propitiate the domestic fire and pray for one’s safety.


Each caravan has a ‘sarthavaha’or leader on whom depended the successful completion of the journey. Generally they travelled by day and rested at nightfall when carts were parked and camp fires lit to cook a meal and to keep away wild animals. In desert areas caravans wended during the cool dark hours the heat of the day restricted movement. Hence caravaneers set up camp at day-break and remained there till evening. The ‘sarthavaha’ commanded obedience from fellow travelers who were supposed to move together as a group. There was also a ‘land-pilot ’known in Pali as ‘Thalaniyyamaka’,  who gauged the position of the stars, guided the column from an open vehicle. The pilot had to keep vigil all through the night to avoid straying off course.


Fore-runners of modern day hotels were roadside inns called ‘serais’and ‘dharamshalas’, ideal for a night’s halt. Accommodation was provided either free of cost or at a very nominal rate. Sarais buzzed with people from different walks of life who shared experiences. Among the important halting points during the Mughal period were Yusuf Sarai in South Delhi, Mughal Sarai in U.P. These places still retain the suffix ‘sarai’. A famous caravan-sarai had been built in Jahanara, the daughter of Emperor Shahjahan in Delhi near the erstwhile Begum ka Bagh today known a Gandhi ground. This two-storeyed building was known to have been built in the style of Shah Abbas’s caravan sarai in Isfahan. Meant for travelers from far-off lands, Jahanara’s caravan sarai was popular with the rich Persians and Uzbecks. In the early part of 18th century another sarai was built near Khari Baoli in Delhi by Bibi Saheba, the chief wife of Mohammad Khan Bangash. Known as Bangash Ki Serai it received travelers and merchants from Afghanistan. The city of Firuzabad, too, boasted of several caravan-sarais and according to a historian, people went to pleasure from Delhi to this city and vice versa. Guru Nanak also made a contribution in this direction by establishing many dharamshalas as he travelled through the region which now encompasses the states of Kerala, Mysore and Maharashtra.


As early as the 17th century,  only the royalty of the Mughal dynasty could indulge in the luxury of escaping the summer heat by visiting the Kashmir Valley and the Pinjore hills of Punjab, known for their scenic beauty. The British rulers as well as the local Maharajas popularized and frequented hill resorts some of which like Mussoorie, Darjeeling, Dalhousie and Simla were also discovered by them. Thus Simla became the summer capital of India and Nainital, the seat of U.P Government.


During the days of The British rule travelling was more organized. Palanquins, carrying the ‘White Man’s Burden’, were a popular mode of dawk travel controlled by the Postal Department under the East India Company. A person wishing to undertake a journey had to initiate about his plans and itinerary to the Post Master General about a fort-night in advance. There were dawk bungalows on the road for the convenience of dawk travelers. In summer, travelling was done by night and the way was lit by a torch bearer who ran along. Besides the four palanquin bearers were an equal number of men to relieve the former at intervals. Travelling at less than 3 miles an hour, the palanquin proved to be a slow and expensive mode of transport, and was replaced in 1850 by the horse carriage dawk. About this time a number of transport companies emerged but the person chiefly responsible for introducing the horse dawk was Tanti Mull who set up the island Transit Company.


Enough water has gone down the Ganges and with it the traveler has progressed from a pilgrim of the past to a pleasure seeker of today, Tourism’s narrow undulating path has a broadened to bridge time and distance and bring the world closer.


The article was first published in Delhi Diary in 1977, written by Aruna Sachdev, the then Associate Editor of Delhi Diary

delhi diary newsletter

Subscribe Our Newsletter for FREE Updates.
Home | About Us | Privacy Policy |Site Map| Contact Us
Delhi Diary © 2013. All Rights Reserved. Designed, Developed and Web Maintained by DEZIGN SMITH