Religions of al-Hind

Posted by sepoy on March 08, 2005 · 4 mins read

The Barmakid Yahya b. Khalid [d. 805] sent an envoy to India to draw up a report on religions of al-Hind.
The Arabic geographer, Ibn Khurdadhbih [d. 912] used this report on al-Hind in his Kitab al-Masalik wa'l Mamalik. His longer work, in turn lost, exists in Persian historian al-Gardizi's, Zayn al-Akhbar. Until al-Biruni, this was the only report on the religious beliefs of the people of al-Hind wa'l Sind. V. Minorsky translated al-Gardizi on India in 1948. S. Maqbul Ahmed has tackled Ibn Khurdadhbih more recently. I won't type up all that al-Gardizi writes on India, but let me give a brief summary. He identifies ninety-nine divisions and 42 varities of Indian religions. There is no text for their faith, he writes. He describes the Brahmans [they believe in the Creator who manifests as an idol and they worship the cow], the Mahadevis [they believe in Prophets and are mendicants], the Kali and the Ramani. Below is the smaller text from Ibn Khurdadhbih:

The Indians are divided into seven castes:
Al-Shakthariya. These are the most noble of them all. The king belongs to them. All the other casts bow to them, while they bow to no one.
Al-Barahima. They do not drink wine or any fermented liquors.
Al-Ksatriya. They drink up to three bowls of wine only. The Brahmins do not marry into them. But they marry into the Brahmins.
Al-Shudariya. They are the cultivators of land.
Al-Bayshiya. They are the artisans and the craftsmen.
Al-Sandaliya. They are the entertainers and musicians. Their womenfolk are beautiful.
Al-Dhunbiya. They are storytellers and entertainers and play musical instruments and games.

The Indians have forty-two religious sects: there are some amongst them who believe in the Creator, the Glorious and Powerful, and in the Prophets; again, there are some who reject the Prophets; and there are some who reject all.

The Indians claim that they can acheive their objectives with the help of magic. With its help they can cure poison and remove it from anyone who has been poisoned. They also practice telepathy and with its help they cause things to happen or prevent them from taking place and also cause harm or benefit. Again, they produce phantoms to the bewilderment of the sage. Then they claim that they can control the rains and cold.

*There are some people in India who are dedicated to a life of wandering in the forests and the mountains. They seldom communicate with human beings, and sometimes eat the herbs and fruits of the forests. They wear iron rings through their penis, so that they may not be able to cohabit with women. There are some others who are naked. Then some of them set themselves up towards the sun and encounter it naked except that they put on something made of the leopard skin. I saw one of these men just as I described and then departed. After sixteen years, I returned once again and [to my surprise] I found him in the same state [as I had left him]. I was surprised that his eyes did not melt away due to the heat of the sun. Both the Chinese and the Indians assert that the idols converse with them. In fact, it is their priests who talk to them. [*This is from the travels of the merchant Suleyman]


Nitin | March 08, 2005

Sepoy, Looks like our friend Ibn Khurdadhbih had a rather good experience with the al Sandaliya womenfolk :-) Good post, as usual.

BridalBeer | March 09, 2005

How fascinating. Thanks for the great selection. I am now inspired to read more historical narratives of the early caste system.