Among the many people and races who have come in contact with and influenced India’s life and culture, the oldest and most persistent have been the Iranians. Indeed the relationship precedes even the beginnings of Indo-Aryan civilization, for it was out of some common stock, that the Indo-Aryans and the ancient Iranians diverged and took their different ways. Racially connected, their old religions and languages also had a common background. The Vedic religion had much in common with Zoroastrianism, and Vedic Sanskrit and the old Pahlavi, the language of the Avesta, closely resemble each other. Classical Sanskrit and Persian developed separately but many of their root-words were common, as some are common to all the Aryan languages. The two languages, and even more so their art and culture, were influenced by their respective environments. Persian art appears to be intimately connected with the soil and scenery of Iran, and to that probably is due the persistence of Iran’s artistic tradition. So also the Indo-Aryan artistic tradition and ideals grew out of the snow-covered mountains, rich forests, and great rivers of north India.
Iran, like India, was strong enough in her cultural foundations to influence even her invaders and often to absorb them. The Arabs, who conquered Iran in the seventh century A.A., soon succumbed to this influence and, in place of their simple dessert ways, adopted the sophisticated culture of Iran. The Persian language, like French in Europe, became the language of cultured people across wide stretches of Asia. Iranian art and culture spread from Constantinople in the west right up to the edge of the Gobi Desert.
In India this Iranian influence was continuous, and during the Afghan and Moghul periods in India, Persian was the court language of the country. This lasted right up to the beginning of the British period. All the modern Indian languages are full of Persian words. This was natural enough for the languages descended from the Sanskrit, and more especially for Hindustani, which itself is a mixed product, but even the Dravidian languages of the south have been influenced by Persian. India has produced in the past some brilliant poets in the Persian language, and even today there are many fine scholars of Persian, both Hindu and Muslim.
There seems to be little doubt that the Indus Valley civilization had some contacts with the contemporaneous civilizations of Iran and Mesopotamia. There is a striking similarity between some of the designs and seals. There is also some evidence to show that there were contacts between Iran and India in the pre-Achaemian period. India is mentioned in the Avesta and there is also some kind of a description of north India in it. In the Rig Veda there are references to Persia—the Persians were called ‘Parshavas’ and later ‘Parasikas,’ from which the modern word ‘Parsi’ is derived. The Parthians were referred to as ‘Parthavas.’ Iran and north India were thus traditionally interested in each other from the most ancient times, prior to the Achaemian dynasty. With Cyrus the Great, king of kings, we have record of further contacts. Cyrus reached the borderlands of India, probably Kabul and Baluchistan. In the sixth century B.C. the Persian Empire under Darius stretched right up to north-west India, including Sind and probably part of western Punjab. That period is sometimes referred to as the Zoroastrian period of Indian history and its influence must have been widespread. Sun worship was encouraged.
The Indian province of Darius was the richest in his empire and the most populous. Sind then must have been very different from the desiccated desert land of recent times. Herodotus tells us of the wealth and density of the Indian population and of the tribute paid to Darius: ‘The population of the Indians is by far the greatest of all the people that we know; and they paid tribute proportionately larger than all the rest—(the sum of) 360 talents of gold dust’ (equivalent to over a million pounds sterling). Herodotus also mentions the Indian contingent in the Persian armies consisting of infantry, cavalry, and chariots. Later, elephants are mentioned.
From a period prior to the seventh century B.C., and for ages afterwards, there is some evidence of relations between Persia and India through trade, especially early commerce between India and Babylon, which it is believed, was largely via the Persian Gulf. From the sixth century onwards direct contacts grew through the campaigns of Cyrus and Darius. After Alexander’s conquest Iran was for many centuries under Greek rule. Contacts with India continued and Ashoka’s buildings, it is said, were influenced by the architecture of Persepolis. The Graeco-Buddhist art that developed in north-west India and Afghanistan has also the touch of Iran. During the Gupta period in India, in the fourth and fifth centuries A.C., which is noted for its artistic and cultural activities, contacts with Iran continued.
The borderland areas of Kabul, Kandahar, and Seistan, which were often politically parts of India, were the meeting place of Indians and Iranians. In later Parthian times they were called ‘White India.’ Referring to these areas, the French savant, James Darmesteler, says: ‘Hindu civilization prevailed in those parts, which in fact in the two centuries before and after Christ were known as White India, and remained more Indian than Iranian till the Mussulman conquest.’
In the north, trade and travellers came overland to India. South India depended more on the sea and sea-borne trade connected it with other countries. There is record of an exchange of ambassadors between a southern kingdom and the Persia of the Sassanids.
The Turkish, Afghan, and Moghul conquests of India resulted in a rapid development of India’s contacts with central and western Asia. In the fifteenth century (just about the time of the European Renaissance’) the Timurid Renaissance was flowering in Samarkand and Bokhara, powerfully influenced by Iran. Babar, himself a prince of the Timurid line, came out of this milieu and established himself on the throne of Delhi. That was early in the sixteenth century when Iran was having, under the Safavis, a brilliant artistic revival—a period known as the golden age of Persian art. It was to the Safavi king that Babar’s son, Humayun, went for refuge, and it was with his help that he came back to India. The Moghul rulers of India kept up the closest of contacts with Iran and there was a stream of scholars and artists coming over the frontier to seek fame and fortune at the brilliant court of the Great Moghul.
A new architecture developed in India, a combination of Indian ideals and Persian inspiration, and Delhi and Agra were covered with noble and beautiful buildings. Of the most famous of these, the Taj Mahal, M. Grousset, the French savant, said that it is ‘the soul of Iran incarnate in the body of India.’
Few people have been more closely related in origin and throughout history than the people of India and the people of Iran. Unfortunately the last memory we have of this long, intimate and honourable association is that of Nadir Shah’s invasion, a brief but terrible visitation two hundred years ago.
Then came the British and they barred all the doors and stopped all the routes that connected us with our neighbours in Asia. New routes were opened across the seas which brought us nearer to Europe, and more particularly England, but there were to be no further contacts overland between India and Iran and central Asia and China till, in the present age, the development of the airways made us renew the old companionship. This sudden isolation from the rest of Asia has been one of the most remarkable and unfortunate consequences of British rule in India.*
There has, however, been one continuing bond, not with Iran of modern times but with old Iran. Thirteen hundred years ago, when Islam came to Iran, some hundreds or thousands of the followers of the old Zoroastrian faith migrated to India. They found a welcome here and settled down on the western coast, following their faith and customs without being interfered with and without interfering with others. It is remarkable how the Parsis, as they have been called, have quietly and un-ostentatiously fitted into India, made it their home, and yet kept quite apart as a small community, tenaciously holding on to their old customs. Intermarriage outside the fold of the community was not allowed and there have been very few instances of it. This in itself did not occasion any surprise in India, as it was usual here for people to marry within their own caste. Their growth in numbers has been very slow and even now their total number is about one hundred thousand. They have prospered in business and many of them are the leaders of industry in India. They have had practically no contacts with Iran and are completely Indian, and yet they hold on to their old traditions and the memories of their ancient homeland.
In Iran there has recently been a strong tendency to look back to the old civilization of pre-Islamic days. This has nothing to do with religion; it is cultural and nationalistic, seeking and taking pride in the long and persistent cultural tradition of Iran.
World developments and common interests are forcing Asiatic countries to look at each other again. The period of European domination is passed over as a bad dream and memories of long ago remind them of old friendships and common adventures. There can be no doubt that in the near future India will draw closer to Iran, as she is doing to China.
Two months ago the leader of an Iranian Cultural Mission to India said in the city of Allahabad. ‘The Iranians and Indians are like two brothers, who, according to a Persian legend, had got separated from each other, one going east and the other to the west. Their families had forgotten all about each other and the only thing that remained in common between them were the snatches of a few old tunes which they still played on their flutes. It was through these tunes that, after a lapse of centuries, the two families recognized each other and were reunited. So also we come to India to play on our flutes our age-old songs, so thai, hearing them, our Indian cousins may recognize us as their own and become reunited with their Iranian cousins.’
* Prof. E. J. Rapson writes : ‘The power which has succeeded in welding all the subordinate ruling powers into one great system of government is essentially naval; and since it controls the sea-ways, it has been forced in the interests of security, to close the land-ways. This has been the object of British policy in regard to the countries which lie on the frontiers of the Indian Empire—Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Burma. Political isolation has thus follow-ed as a necessary consequence of political unity. But it must be remembered that this political isolation is a recent and an entirely novel feature in the history of India. It is the great land-mark which separates the present from the past.‘
(‘The Cambridge History of India,’ Vol. I, p. 52.)