William Dalrymple

As English spread over the subcontinent, India lost forever its rich Persianate literary heritage

Richard M. Eaton describes the successful merging and diffusion of Sanskrit and Persian cultures after 1000 — until the arrival of the East India Company

In the seventh century, the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang made an epic journey through the Gobi desert and over the Himalayas to the holy places of Buddhism in India. On the way, he noted to what extent the world he passed through was dominated by Indic ideas, languages and religions. ‘People of distant places, with diverse customs,’ he wrote, ‘generally designate India as the land they most admire.’

The account that Xuanzang wrote of his journey, Buddhist Records of the Western World, makes it clear that the places he saw on his 17-year, 6,000-mile pilgrimage looked to India as the centre of world learning. In particular, its huge Buddhist universities, such as Nalanda and Vikramashila, with their tens of thousands of learned monks, were regarded with deepest reverence — as though they were a sort of cross between Oxbridge, the Ivy League and the Alexandria Library.

For around 1,000 years, from c. 200 to 1200 AD, India was a confident exporter of its own civilisation in all its forms. At the same time, the rest of Asia was the willing and eager recipient of a startlingly comprehensive mass transfer of Indian soft power — in culture, religion, art, music, technology, astronomy, mythology, language and literature. Just as Greece had radiated its philosophies, political ideas and architectural forms over an entire continent — first to Aegean Turkey and Rome and then to the rest of Europe — not by conquest but by sheer cultural sophistication, so at this period the sophistication of Indian civilisation and thought won devotees not just in south-east and central Asia but also, to some degree, in east Asia too.

Out of India came not just artists, sculptors, traders, astronomers and the occasional fleet of warships, but also missionaries of three rival Indic forms of religion:

Shaivite and Vaishnava Hinduism, and Buddhism.

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