If history proves anything, it proves that in ancient times, India was
the richest country in the world. The fact that she has always been the
cynosure of all eyes, Asiatic or European, that people of less favored
climes have always cast longing looks on her glittering treasures, and
that the ambition of all conquerors has been to possess India, prove
that she has been reputed to be the richest country in the world. Her
sunny climate, unrivalled fertility, matchless mineral resources and
world-wide exports in ancient times helped to accumulate in her bosom
the wealth which made her the happy hunting grounds of adventurers and
Strabo (c. 63 BC-3 BC) Greek historian in his book Geography II, 5, 12.
Describing the location of India and calls it “the greatest of all
nations and the happiest in lot.”
(source: India and World Civilization By D. P. Singhal Pan Macmillan
Limited. 1993. p. 385).
Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeran (1760-1842) says: “India has been
celebrated even in the earliest times for her riches.” The wealth,
splendor and prosperity of India had made a strong impression on the
mind of Alexander the Great, and that when he left Persia for India, he
told his army that they were starting for that “Golden India” where
there was endless wealth, and that what they had seen in Persia was as
nothing compared to the riches of India. Chamber’s Encyclopedia says”
“India has been celebrated during many ages for its wealth.” The writer
of the article “Hindustan” in the Encyclopedia Britannica remarks that
India “was naturally reputed to be the seat of immense riches.” Milton
voiced the popular belief when he sang of the wealth of India:
“High on a throne of royal state which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind (India)
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric, pearl and gold.”
To Shake the Pagoda Tree
William Finch who came to India in 1608-11, first described Hindu
temples as "pagods, which are stone images of monstrous men feareful to
behold. He mentioned the temples in Ajmer, "three faire Pagodes richly
wrought with inlayd works, adorned richly with jewels. Domingo Paes has
left a valuable account of the great Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar. He
saw outside the city very beautiful pagodas, the chief among them was
the temple of Vitthalasvamin which was begun by Krsnadeva Raya. Edward
Terry, the chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, King James's emissary described
the temple of Nagarkot as 'most richly set forth, both scaled and paved
with plate of pure gold." The wealth of the temples stirred Jean
Thevenot imagination and he wrote about the temples of Benares and Puri
that 'nothing can be more magnificent than these Pagodes...by reason of
the quantity of gold and many jewels, wherewith they are adorned."
GDP in 1500s.
For India 's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the company lay at
the root of the oppression that he had fought against. "The corruption,
venality, nepotism, violence and greed of money of these early
generations of British rule in India ", Nehru thundered in The Discovery
of India, "is something which passes comprehension". Looking back at the
company's conquest of India , Nehru noted "it is significant that one of
the Hindustani words which has become part of the English language is
Most foreigners came to India in search of her fabulous wealth. No
traveler found India poor until the nineteenth century, but foreign
merchants and adventurers sought her shores for the almost fabulous
wealth, which they could there obtain.
'To shake the pagoda tree' became a phrase, somewhat similar to our
modern expression 'to strike oil' or to get rich quick.
(source: Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to
Indian Art - By Partha Mitter p. 1 - 45).
An idea of the immense wealth of India could be gathered from the fact
that when Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi destroyed the far famed temple of
Somnath he found such immense riches and astonishing diamonds cooped up
in the single “Idol of Shiva” that it was found quite impossible to
calculate the value of that booty.
Gold, the emblem of wealth, was first found in India. India was the home
of diamonds and other precious stones in ancient times. Periplus says
that “the Greeks used to purchase pieces of gold from the Indians.”
Nelkynda or Neliceram, a port near Calicut on the Malabar Coast, is said
to have been the only market for pearls in the world in ancient times.
The pearls presented by Julius Ceasar to Servilia, the mother of Brutus,
as well as the famous pearl earring of Cleopatra, were obtained from
India. The most famous diamonds in the world are natives of India.
Though the Pitt (or the Regent as it is now called) weights 136 carats
and is larger in size, yet the Kohinoor, weighing only 106 carats,
hallowed by ages of romantic history, is the most famous diamond in the
world. Both were taken from India by the British. But the mythological
and historical value of the Kohinoor is untold.
The Priceless Peacock Throne
What is the costliest single treasure made in the last 1,000 years?
Wrought out of 1150 kg of gold and 230 kg of precious stones,
conservatively in 1999 the throne would be valued at $804 million or
nearly Rs 4.5 billion. In fact when made, it cost twice as much as the
Tajmahal. On the top of each pillar there were to be two peacocks,
thick-set with gems and between each two peacocks a tree set with rubies
and diamonds, emeralds and pearls. The ascent was to consist of three
steps set with jewels of fine water". Of the 11 jewelled recesses formed
around it for cushions, the middle one was intended for the seat it for
Emperor. Among the historical diamonds decorating it were the famous
Kohinoor (186 carats). It was one of the most splendiferous thrones ever
made. it was encrusted with 26,733 precious stones! Ascended by silver
steps, it was sheeted with gold encrusted with emeralds and rubies. Its
back was a peacock's tail of sapphires, pearls and turquoises. The
throne was completed after seven years of unceasing labour by the best
craftsmen of the empire and was valued at 10 million rupees or Rs 500
(source: As priceless as the Peacock Throne - By K. R. N. Swamy -
tribuneindia.com). For more on the Kohinoor diamond refer to chapter on
It was the wealth of India that impelled the rude Arabs to invade the
country, and led the half civilized Tartans to overrun it. It was the
wealth of India that attracted Nadir Shah, the Portuguese and then the
(source: Hindu Superiority – By Har Bilas Sarda p 427 - 430). For more
refer to chapters on Islamic Onslaught and European Imperialism
India Was Once the Richest Country in the World
Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland (1842-1936) American born, former President of
the India Information Bureau of America and Editor of Young India (New
York). Author of India, America and World Brotherhood, and Causes of
Famine in India. He has written glowingly about India's culture:
"Another cause of India 's impoverishment is the destruction of her
manufactures, as the result of British rule. When the British first
appeared on the scene, India was one of the richest countries of the
world; indeed it was her great riches that attracted the British to her
"The source of her wealth was largely her splendid manufactures. Her
cotton goods, silk goods, shawls, muslins of Dacca, brocades of
Ahmedabad, rugs, pottery of Scind, jewelry, metal work, lapidary work,
were famed not only all over Asia but in all the leading markets of
Northern Africa and of Europe. What has become of those manufactures?
For the most part they are gone, destroyed. Hundreds of villages and
towns of India in which they were carried on are now largely or wholly
depopulated, and millions of the people who were supported by them have
been scattered and driven back on the land, to share the already too
scanty living of the poor ryot. What is the explanation? Great Britain
wanted India 's markets. She could not find entrance for British
manufactures so long as India was supplied with manufactures of her own.
So those of India must be sacrificed. England had all power in her
hands, and so she proceeded to pass tariff and excise laws that ruined
the manufactures of India and secured the market for her own goods.
India would have protected herself if she had been able, by enacting
tariff laws favorable to Indian interests, but she had no power, she was
at the mercy of her conqueror."
(source: The New Nationalist Movement in India - By Jabez T Sutherland -
theatlantic.com). Refer to European Imperialism
According to Economist Angus Maddison (1926 - ) in The World Economy: A
Millennial Perspective, the region that today comprises the Indian
subcontinent held the largest share of the world's gross domestic
product until the beginning of the 16th century, when it was rivaled by
China, and then again throughout most of the 18th century.
At the end of the 16th century, India's great wealth sustained a
population of more than one hundred million people.
In "India, the Silicon Jewel of the East" (Digital Journal, May 13,
2004), Paul William Roberts states, "There was an abundance of arable
land, and the state of Indian agriculture compared favorably with any of
the Western European countries. Right down to the subsistence-oriented
peasant, everyone saw a good return on land and labor. There was a large
and vigorous skilled workforce turning out not just cotton but luxury
items for the barons, courts and ruling classes. Consequently, the
economy produced a fabulous financial surplus."
From the early 18th century until the beginnings of the 19th century,
when India enjoyed a 24.4 % share of the world's gross domestic product
(see table) economic historian Paul Bairoch conforms, the region enjoyed
a 25 % share of the global trade in textiles. It was the world's leading
manufacturer of handicrafts and handloom textiles.
Bairoch writes, "More important, there was a large commercialized sector
with a highly sophisticated market and credit structure, manned by a
skilful and in many instances very wealthy commercial class."
Paul William Roberts adds, "Methods of production and of industrial and
commercial organization could stand comparison with those in vogue in
any other parts of the world. India had developed an indigenous banking
system. Merchant capital had emerged with an elaborate network of
agents, brokers and middlemen. Its bills of exchange were honored in all
the major cities of Asia."
Gross Domestic Product in Millions of Dollars
1000 1500 1600 1700
33.8 60.5 74.3 90.8
China 26.6 61.8 96.0 82.8
Western Europe 10.2 44.3 66.0 83.4
World Total 116.8 247.1 329.4 371.4
Maddison studied numerous sources and derived historical world gross
domestic product (GDP) totals by assembling evidence on changes in
population, retaining the 1990 international dollar as the temporal and
spatial anchor in the estimation of movements in GDP and per capita GDP,
and filling holes in the evidence with proxy estimates.
(source: Hinduism Today - April/May/June 2005 p. 15). For more refer to
chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi and Sacred Angkor