The Vikings certainly knew how to travel. Archeological and genetic evidence indicates their presence in a dazzlingly wide range of far-flung places, from Canada and Greenland to the Azores, Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
But did they ever make it to India?
The presence of isolated Indian artifacts in Norse graves has led to speculation that some of the most adventurous Vikings may have made it to this remote country.
But is there any hard evidence to show this may have been so?
Given the tremendous distances, was it even realistic for the Vikings, renowned for their maritime journeys, to have reached India?
Here, The Viking Herald examines these questions and another intriguing possibility: that the people from India themselves visited and settled in Scandinavia many centuries before the Viking Age.
Among the notable discoveries on Helgö, a Swedish island with a rich archaeological history, is a small Buddha statuette from North India, dating back to the 6th century. Photo: The Swedish History Museum / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Exploring to the East
There can be no doubt that the Vikings made it to the Byzantine Empire, which stretched as far East as Mesopotamia and the Euphrates River.
The Vikings even formed most of the Varangian Guard, which operated as the personal bodyguard of the emperor.
It is also believed that the Swedish explorer Ingvar the Far-Traveled reached the lands of Persia, not an awfully long way away from the borders of Pakistan, with India beyond.
There are also a number of artifacts of apparently Indian origin that have been found on Viking territory.
The small statue, 8.4 cm in length, is believed to date from around the 6th century and may have been made in Kashmir, which today sits on the border between India and Pakistan.
The presence of an object from near India, of course, does not prove that the Norse ever visited the area or even had any direct interaction with its people.
Though it is unusual to find this particular kind of artifact so far West, it was more likely purchased through an intermediary operating in mainland Europe.
Indeed, there has been no historical or archeological evidence yet that would indicate that any Vikings made it as far as India itself.
Originating from India, the Jats gained significant prominence in the 17th century through their resistance against the Mughal Empire and are linked by some speculative theories to the Norse inhabitants of Jutland. Photo: Ministry of Defence (GODL-India)
The Jats and Jutland
There is also, however, a group of people in India, the Jats, who claim a brotherhood with a band of Norse people who resided in Jutland, the large peninsula that contains the mainland regions of Denmark.
The Jats of India, with a longstanding presence in the region, notably rose to prominence in the 17th century when they rebelled against the Mughal Empire.
The Jats of India only rose to prominence in the 17th century when they took up arms against the Mughal Empire.
The theory goes – in some admittedly obscure circles – that the link between the Jats and the original people of Jutland – possibly the Jutes – dates back to the pre-Roman era when Indo-European tribes inhabited a large part of central Eurasia.
While one group settled in Scandinavia, others moved further East towards India.
The idea that the people of India share a common history with the Norse may seem far-fetched to many.
Still, extensive links have been identified between the peoples of Europe and the Indian subcontinent in the fields of linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, and genetics.
Similarly, historians believe the mythology of the Norse and many other Western cultures are of a shared Indo-European origin.
Some have argued for parallels between the Poetic Edda, the collection of Old Norse poems, and the Vedas, the ancient Hindu texts, though this view is not widely accepted in academic circles.
At the same time, there has not yet been any compelling evidence identified to demonstrate a more direct, explicit connection between the Norse and any part of Indian culture, including that of the Jats.
While not universally accepted, some scholars have drawn parallels between the Poetic Edda, a treasure trove of Old Norse poetry, and the Vedas, the revered ancient Hindu scriptures. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
A step too far
Of course, the absence of evidence alone cannot conclusively rule any theory out. Yet, there is also no compelling reason to accept the claims of a connection between the people of Scandinavia and the Jats of India.
Yes, some of the myths and gods of the Norse indeed bear some similarity with those found in India, but that is true for many ancient religions.
We also know that Viking ancestry is highly attractive – it represents a brand of fearlessness, adventurousness, and bravery that many have sought to lay claim to over the centuries.
Similarly, although there is evidence of some indirect trading links between the Norse and India, there is no real indication that anyone from Scandinavia ever reached the lands of India during the Viking Age.
Had they ever done so, we would surely expect to read some detail or clue of such a tremendous feat.
We also know that whenever the Vikings traveled tremendous distances in the name of exploration or plunder, they did so with the aid of sea power – a long land journey appears unlikely.
There is nothing to say that the odd isolated Norse traveler may have made the trip, of course, but it still seems unlikely that a larger group ever did so and lived to tell the tale.
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