Cultural Relations between Ancient India and Egypt

  By Sreenivasarao Subbanna, 30 March 2007; Revised 02 April 2007
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I noticed a number of articles written on interesting subjects pertaining to a given country or a region. I thought that discussion of issues that span over countries – regions could also be interesting. Hence, this short write-up on the Cultural relations between Ancient Egypt and India. I hope this will provoke more learned persons on the forum to contribute well-researched papers on serious issues.


1. Books

1.1 Peter Von Bohlen (1796 – 1840), a German Indologist, in his two volume monumental work Ancient India with special reference to Egypt compared, at length, ancient Egypt with India. He thought there was a cultural connection between the two in ancient times. Egypt being at the receiving end.

1.2 Many others have also written on similar lines (e.g. El Mansouri, Sir William Jones, Paul William Roberts, and Adolf Eramn).

2. Anthropology

2.1. Many Anthropologists have observed that the Egyptians as a race (type ‘P’) are more Asiatic than African.

2.2 As per the legends and lore, the early Egyptians were from PUNT, an Asiatic country to the east of Egypt. Going by the description given of its coastline washed by the great seas, its hills and valleys, its vegetation (coconut trees among others), its animals (including long tailed monkeys) the Punt, the scholars surmise, may in fact be the Malabar Coast. (Hurray Mallus!).

3. Sphinx and Buttocks

There is very a delightful finding about the Sphinx. Joshua T Katz of Princeton University in his scholarly paper “The riddle of the Sp (h) ij and her Indic and her Indo-European Background” has come up with a view that the name Sphinx is related to a Greek noun which in turn is derived from a Sanskrit word Sphij, meaning  “Buttocks”. Now you know to where it all comes down.

Interestingly, when you type in sphij in Google search, it shoots back “Did you mean Sphinx?”

No, I am not joking. Mr. Katz’s research paper is a very serious work though a pedantic one.

Check this link:


4. Emperor Ashoka’s Contacts with Egypt

4.1 A very authentic record of India’s links with ancient Egypt is, of course, Ashoka’s 13th rock edict (3rd century B.C). Here in, the Emperor refers to his contact with Ptolemy II of Egypt (285-246 B. C) in connection with the expansion of Dharma (Buddhism) into Egypt and its neighboring lands.

4.2 Ashoka,  in his Second Edict refers to philanthropic works (such as medical help for humans and animals, digging wells, planting trees etc.) taken up by his missionaries in the lands ruled by Theos II of Syria (260 to 240 B. C) and his neighbors , including Egypt.

4.3. Pliny (78 A, D) mentions that Dionysius was Ptolemy’s ambassador in the court of Ashoka. The Emperor’s rock edict records that Dionysus was one of the recipients of Dharma (Buddhism).

5. Gnostics and Buddhism

5.1 Coming to the present era, Dio Chrysostum (1st century A. D.) and Clement (2nd century A. D) have written that at Alexandria, in Egypt, Indian scholars were a common sight.

5.2 Many scholars have has pointed to a number of similarities between Mahayana Buddhism and the Gnosticism of the early Christian centuries that developed in ancient Egypt. The Greek term Gnosis is a derivative of the Sanskrit term Jnana both meaning knowledge.  In both Gnosticism and Buddhism, the emphasis is on Wisdom, compassion and eradication of the opposite of gnosis/consciousness, that is, ignorance the root of evil.

5.3 In the Gospel of Thomas (translated by Peterson Brown), at verse 90, Yeshua says Come unto me, for my yoga is natural and my lordship is gentle—and you shall find repose for yourselves. It is startling to find term “Yoga” in a first century Christian document written in Egypt Perhaps he was  referring to Sahja Yoga. Check the following link

6. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus

During the early years of the 20th century a number of fragments of papyri –dating from 250 B.C. to 100 A.D- were discovered at Oxyrhynchus (now called el Bahnansa) in Egypt. The excavations yielded enormous collections of papyrus from Greek and Roman periods of Egyptian history. Among the finds was an incomplete manuscript of a Greek mime ( a skit) .For purpose of identification this fragment of papyrus it is called Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 413 .The scene of action of the skit is India and there are a number of Indian characters who speak dialogue in an Indian language. Dr. E. Hultzsch (1857-1927), a noted German Indologist, identified some words of the dialogue as an archaic form of Kannada, one of the four major languages of South India. Recent studies have supported Dr. Hultzsch’s finding. The papyrus is dated first or second century A.D. This seems to prove that there were cultural and trade contacts between India and the Mediterranean region at least as far back as in the early part of the first millennium CE.

7. Quseir

7.1 The excavation of the Quseir (a Red Sea port, Egypt) shipwreck also point to trade links between Egypt and India in the early Roman Imperial period.  The wreck site revealed Campanian- amphoras (A cylindrical two-handled amphora with oval-section handles and an almond-shaped rim) from Italy dated to between the 1st Century BCE and 1st Century AD.  Perhaps the ship was outbound for India and was part of a fleet sent by Augustus to capture a controlling interest in the Indian Ocean trade

7.2 Further, three of inscriptions, one in a Prakrit and two in Old Tamil, found in Qusei also support the likelihood of flourishing trade between India and the Roman Empire. This Suggests South India may have been the origin of the Indian merchants in Egypt in the early centuries of the Christian era.

8. Nile–Neela–Kali

John .H. Speke (1827 – 1864) an officer in the British Indian Army , who discovered the source of the Nile , in 1844 , attributed his success , among other things , to the guidance he received from an Indian. The advise given was to look for the Neela (meaning Blue in Sanskrit, hence the Nile) flowing between the peaks of Chandra-giri, (Mountains of the Moon) below the country of Amara. To his wonder, what Speke discovered fitted with the location indicated by the Indian.

9. What Next?

7.1 Both the old countries have been through thick and thin of things over the ages. It is not surprising if they interacted over a number of issues.

7.2 However, there have been no serious studies, in the recent past, on the subject of cultural relations between ancient Egypt and India. In case such studies are taken up, recently, can someone please enlighten me?