India and China enjoyed more than a thousand years of uninterrupted trade and cultural exchanges during the first millennium CE. This enduring engagement flowed across the Central Asian bridgehead, through the Tibetan plateau and the maritime links connecting peninsular India with the eastern seaboard of China. The spread of Buddhism in China became the prism through which China perceived India. India was the western paradise, the birthplace of Buddha and a centre of advanced knowledge and philosophy. This challenged the notion of Chinese centrality and was for this reason rejected by intellectuals at times as an alien influence but this did not prevent its embrace by the populace as a comforting faith. These inter-connections were often interrupted by political turmoil and transitions in both countries as well as in intermediary realms.
However, during the second millennium CE, these interruptions became more extended and relations more distant. Engagement continued but at a lower pitch and often through their peripheries. Even during the 16th century Jesuit missionaries such as Matteo Ricci passed themselves off as monks visiting from India or Tianzhu guo (the western treasure country) since India was still esteemed in China as a civilized and sacred land. They even dressed in Buddhist robes. During the medieval era the port of Calicut maintained a flourishing maritime trade with China. It was described as a pivot point for the 7 voyages undertaken by the Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He who died in Calicut in 1433 at the end of the last voyage. There are interesting descriptions of Calicut and Cambay ports in the chronicles of Ma Huan, who accompanied Zheng He on the voyages, entitled “The Triumphant Visions of the Ocean’s Shores”. They are testimony to the great wealth and cosmopolitan character of these great cities.