Westernmost India

On this weblog, there is sometimes a silly debate between Hindu nationalists and anti-Hindu anti-nationalists about the scope and size of Indian and Hindu cultural spheres (the terms “Indian” and “Hindu” being interchangeable for much of history). I stumbled onto this comment from Isidorus of Charax (a Greek subject of the Parthian Empire) in his Parthian Stations:

19. Beyond is Arachosia, 36 schoeni. And the Parthians call this White India; there are the city of Biyt and the city of Pharsana and the city of Chorochoad and the city of Demetrias; then Alexandropolis, the metropolis of Arachosia; it is Greek, and by it flows the river Arachotus. As far as this place the land is under the rule of the Parthians.

Here Isidorus is alluding to the Indo-Greeks who were dominant in much of Afghanistan and Bactria to the north. “White India” in the first few centuries A.D. seems to have meant the Helmand Valley, modern southern Afghanistan.

Apparently in the Avesta this region is asserted to be staunchly Zoroastrian. Either there is confusion and misrepresentation, or, Zoroastrianism retreated during this period. Though this specific case can be dismissed, it does seem to be a fact that under the Parthians and Sassanids the eastern and northeastern fringe of the Iranian world was coming under strong Buddhist influences. In the early period, Buddhism was, of course, the “Indian religion” (just as Islam was and is the “Arab religion”), so presumably, it was a vector for Indian cultural influence.

15 thoughts on “Westernmost India”

  1. “Buddhism is not a religion. It is a practice”-this is what my mongoloid Buddhist-born Barua friend told me. May be he was right.

    Once people started seeing it as a religion though originally may be Buddhism is not exactly a religion.

      1. Indeed, Sam Harris is of this opinion too. There is enough theology, ritual and gurus in Buddhism for it to be classified as a religion by any sense of the word. What was heterodox 2500 years ago is a mainstream religion today.

        1. I was lucky enough to be in India during the first 3 weeks of November. One stop on the tour was Sarnath near Varanasi. We saw the ruins of an ancient monastery and a shrine built to honor Siddhartha Gautama’s first sermon. There were several groups of pilgrims from Tibet, Burma, Thailand, and Japan. They were engaged in activities such as prayer, chanting, listening to instruction, processions. It was quite moving and very religious.

    1. There is little doubt that over time Buddhism has become a religion – with rituals, priesthood, mythology and supernatural claims.

      But if you compare the founding figures of Islam and Christianity with the Buddha, the difference is stark. The first two made claims of special access to God and of miraculous powers. Buddha, on the other hand, simply promised his followers a reproducible path to escaping sorrow.

  2. Interesting post. More interesting how greeks left little genetic impact. was their because of their small numbers and most of their army being local recruits ?


    India is a concept invented by British recently and Hinduism too lol

  3. “India is a concept invented by British recently and Hinduism too lol” , I agree with you on that. However, the concepts of “bharata” and “SanatanaDharma ” are very much native.

  4. ‘White India’, according to some scholars, may actually have referred to the rocky, barren landscape, rather than the race of its inhabitants (eg. cf. etymology of the word ‘blank’). It’s better to see the exact Greek term that was used. I doubt ‘white’ as a racial classification even existed back then, they would have used ‘fair’ and ‘dark’, and Indians are generally described as being dark (confused with Ethiopians at one point but that’s another story). The Bactrian regions were clearly Indo-Greek ruled at this time, as numismatics will attest, but racially/phenotypically they probably looked no different from their present day inhabitants. In the pre-Buddhist period, these people would not have been particularly Hindu, at least not in the way we would like to describe Hindus today. The earliest sculpture of the very Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha was found in Kabul, but that is from the post-Kushana period. Indian texts refer to the people of this region as drunkards and orgiasts, and outside the pale of Hinduism.

      1. Saurav,

        Was thinking of Sanchi Torana Yakshini, but apparently 1st AD.

        Does the Harappa Dancing Girl and other statues count. Obviously not Buddhist or Hindu


        There is record (Mahavamsa) of statues being made of gold. When the South Indian invasions occured, they probably got looted and melted

        3rd BCE king Devānampiya Tissa is credited to creating the first Buddha image (Mahāvamsa)

        2nd BCE king Dutugamunu -relic chamber of
        Mahāthupa was decorated with a golden Buddha image, Bodhi tree, paintings of the life of Bodhisattva and various deities and etc. (Mahāvamsa)

      2. I have no idea how the author backs this snippet
        Nearly 2, 000 miles north of Sri Lanka, the first stone structure built in India featured a lady from Lanka, a yakshi that swung from the gate found on the stupa at Sanchi. Four tribes—the Raksha, the Yakshi, the Deva and the Nagas inhabited Sri Lanka about twenty five centuries ago. In the 3rd century B.C., Emperor Ashoka commissioned and built the famous stupa at Sanchi in India using knowledge of those who lived in Sri Lanka at that time. The travel of Buddhist ideas between the two nations resulted in the transmission and exchange of knowledge in various arenas including art, architecture and sculpture.


        Ha, knew there had to statues of Yakshas and Yaksinis.

        Several monumental yakshas are known from the time the Mauryan Empire period. They are variously dated from around the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century BCE. These statues are monumental (usually around 2 metres tall), and often bear inscriptions related to their identification as yakshas. They are considered as the first known monumental stone sculptures in India. Two of these monumental yakshas are known from Patna, one from Vidisha and one from Parkham, as well as one female Yakshi from Besnagar.


      3. One of the finest examples of popular Mauryan Sculpture is the Yakshi figure from Didarganj, Patna. This is a tall, well built, well-proportioned, free-standing sculpture in sandstone with a polished surface, reflecting the sophistication in the treatment of form and medium.

        it is now usually dated to approximately the 2nd century CE, based on the analysis of shape and ornamentation,[1][2] or the 1st century CE.[3] The treatment of the forelock in particular is said to be characteristically Kushan


  5. The westernmost boundary of India was established by Chandragupta when he defeated Seleucus Nicator in a decisive battle sometime around 300 BC which lead to Seleucus ceding the territories of Paropamisadae, Arachosia, Gandhara and likely Gedrosia.


    This is one of the great battles of ancient history which is little researched but probably was a major event of its time. It’s also a battle that should be much celebrated by Indians but they know little of it unfortunately.

    After this battle, the territories from Hindu Kush to Arachosia and the Makran desert right upto the region known as Tiz to Arabs which is close to the Chabahar port, remained largely Indian right upto the annexation of Sindh in 711 CE. The Afghan border remained in place right upto the dismantling of the Kabul Shahi Dynastly by Mahmud of Ghazni around the turn of the 1st millennium.

    Besides the testimony of Isidore, you have the early Greek authors as well as later Romans like Pliny the Elder who testify to these western boundaries of historical India.

    We have the Chinese sources dating to the later Han period which say that before the conquest of Kushans the region south of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan (I forget the exact placename), often passed under the authority of either the Parthians, Indians and a 3rd power which possibly was Kashmir.

    We also have Chinese pilgrim and early Arab accounts to back up, which clearly suggests that the western political but more importantly cultural boundary of India remained stable from the time of Chandragupta to the fall of Sindh in 711 CE after which the Indian political and cultural boundary gradually began receding.

    Infact, right from the time of Kushans to the Arab conquests, Bactria was also under heavy Indian influence and so were the states of the Tarim Basin for much of the pre-Islamic antiquity. Sogdia which was apparently the least influenced by India nevertheless shows strong Hindu religious influence in its iconography.

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