Reconstruction of Indian history of the ancient and medieval era is a daunting task owing to lack of chronological records, and subjectivity in the interpretation of archaeological and literary sources.
In this context, accounts of foreign travellers, who were eye witnesses to the events that occurred at that time, become an important source to corroborate other sources of history.
Accounts of Fa-hien, Hsuan Tsang, and I-tsing have proved to be a valuable source of information on the Gupta period and the years following the end of Gupta rule. They provided vital information about:
Socio-economic conditions in India – For example, Fa-hien mentions about the Chandalas (untouchables) living outside the village. This shows that untouchablility was prevalent in the society as early as 5th Century AD.
Existing political conditions – For example, Hsuan Tsang’s account shows that during Harsha’s reign (7th Century AD), Pataliputra was in a state of decline and on the other hand, Prayag and Kannauj in the doab had emerged important.
Nature of Buddhist doctrines, rituals, and monastic institutions in India – For example – Hsuan Tsang and I-tsing provided vivid accounts of Nalanda.
Arab travellers such as the merchants – Sulayman, Abu Zaid, etc. provided vivid accounts on Indian culture and science, which are valuable sources for the study of early medieval Indian history.
Abu Zaid noted that most Indian princes while holding court, allowed their women to be seen unveiled – highlighting that there was no system of purdah (veiling) in upper class women in early medieval India.
Arab travellers also provide information about the socio-economic condition through their description of trade contacts and the wealth which was exclusively derived from the trade with India.
Arab travellers of the period like Al-Beruni and Ibn Battuta had direct personal contacts with the people of Indian subcontinent which enabled them to give detailed first hand information in their accounts about the economic, social and other activities of the people.
Though there are issues associated with the reliability of the accounts provided by these travellers owing to their personal biases, still they are key sources for finding out the missing links in the reconstruction of Indian history.