Babur [right] and Humayun with Courtiers (Detail), Late Shahjahan Period, ca. 1650.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bits and pieces from a Persian Ambassador's travelogue!

My observations of Abd-ur Razzak's, if I may call it 'voyage' into Hindoostan tends to focus upon the socio-cultural and economic conditions prevailing in the country in the 15th century, and in course of doing this I'll try to bring forth certain points which hints upon Razzak's political purpose in the country.

Abd-ur Razzak happened to be a native of Samarqand, and was entrusted with an embassy by the Persian monarch Mirza Shah Rukh to Calicut. It was during his stay in Calicut that he received an invitation of visiting the great ‘Hindu’ kingdom of south, Vijayanagara or Bidijanagar as he called it. He commenced his journey on 13th of January 1442, which was the first day of the month of Ramazan. Razzak was a devout Muslim and believed the role of creator in every occurrence, and thus the commencement of his journey on that particular day might have been a sign of good omen. He took the route of Kohistan and arrived at Ormuz by mid February. Ormuz was essentially a port & Razzak had produced a graphic description of the bustling commerce of Ormuz. He had the impression that there was no other equivalent port, however after reaching Calicut, this notion of his changed. Razzak found Ormuz inhabited by persons of all religions, even ‘infidels’ in great numbers,and found it rather astonishing of how no injustice was permitted towards any person, irrespective of their religion, and because of this the city was also called ‘Daralaman’ or the ‘abode of security’. This might have been an indicator of the treatment of ‘infidels’ in his part of the world. Also, Lakshmi ma’am had rightly suggested that this might have hinted towards the amount of security provided to merchants of various religions in West Asia.

Razzak despite climatic adversities continued upon his journey and reached Calicut sometimes in around May 1442, and was awed by the thriving commerce around the port. He called it a ‘secure harbour’ and compared it with Ormuz. However, the description of the inhabitants of Calicut made by Razzak portrayed a rather dismal picture. Razzak’s tone hinted upon a racially biased sentiment, as he called the black skinned people neither ‘men nor devils’, who were nearly naked except for a ‘lankoutah’, whereas the Muslims there wore magnificent dresses.

It was from Calicut that Razzak set sail for Vijayanagara, the kingdom whose grandeur awestruck Razzak. He reached the port of Mangalore, which formed the frontier of the kingdom, sometimes in April 1443. He did not fail to describe explicitly a beautiful temple in Mangalore. From there he continued his journey via the land route. In Vijayanagara he saw a place extremely large, densely populated, and having prosperity which dazzled observers, with a king possessing greatness & sovereignty to the highest degree. Razzak’s narrative surprisingly presented a pretty picture of Vijayanagara, despite the kingdom being pre-dominantly occupied by ‘infidels’, and having a ‘Hindu’ monarch at the crown. Razzak’s stay in Vijayanagara was during the reign of Deva Raya II.

Razzak’s narrative described in great detail of the seven lines of fortification, which uniquely enclosed the total agricultural fields, a feature absent in most medieval kingdoms. This was probably a measure against sieges which were very frequent during the period under view. Usually kingdoms opted for large granaries to store food grains during sieges, but it looked like Vijayanagara chose a more expensive and difficult process of protecting its complete agricultural belt instead.

Leaving aside the obvious amount of exaggeration that Razzak’s account might have had, we get a mavellous description of Vijayanaraga’s numerous palaces, shops and bazaars which openly sold precious stones and jewels. According to Razzak, the inhabitants, both of those of exalted rank & of an inferior class wore pearls or rings adorned with precious stones, and the colour of their skin was olive, unlike the blacks of Calicut. We also get a glittering description of the King’s throne, which was of extraordinary size, made of gold, & enriched with precious stones of extreme value. Razzak had also provided a graphic description of the sacred centre of Vijayanagara, consisting of numerous magnificently carved temples, which displayed exquisite works of delicacy and perfection. Abd-ur Razzak had also pointed out that the books of ‘Kalilah’ and ‘Dimna’, were the most beautiful Persian works, depicting stories of a rai (king of Vijayanagara was called a rai) and a Brahmin , and was probably a product of the talent of the literati of the country. These Persian works might have had influenced Razzak’s notion of Vijayanagara and its people.

Razzak had also talked of the political conflict and tension between the Vijayanagara rulers and the Mohammedan rulers of the neighbouring Bahamani kingdom, and the military might of the former, who used a large number of elephants in all their battles. Elephants were also a magnifier of royal authority. He had also given vivid description of the festival of ‘Mahanadi’.

Abd-ur Razzak’s stay in Vijayanagara not only brought out the highs of the kingdom, it also elaborately described the house of prostitution.
The portrayal of the kingdom’s military strength, prosperous economy and territorial expanse, might have been an indicator of the necessity of being in good terms with such a mighty kingdom for the Persian monarch, as Razzak being a diplomat would have had wanted friendly terms with such a potentially, if I may call it, beneficial kingdom. Maybe that’s why despite being a condemner of ‘infidels’ he had described the temples in glowing terms, but one must also not overlook an observer’s objectivity which often takes over his pre-conceived notions, as Razzak had also praised whole-heartedly the beautiful work of craftsmen.
Even many more bits and pieces put together would not suffice Razzak’s elaborate narrative of Hindoostan. However, I’ve tried to encompass my favourite bits here.

Rituparna Das,
Second Year, Presidency University

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fourth Session of the Medieval History Club

Prof. Ranabir Chakravarti has agreed to do a session with us sometime in the second half of March. He wishes to discuss Chola state-formation and the position of maritime trade and naval expeditions in its political economy. I think this will be a good exposure to a topic that although extremely rich and complicated, we more often than not tend to neglect. Such a discussion, while bringing you all in touch with the rich gamut of historiographical literature and historical evidence of the period, will also help you to keep a watch for the broader medieval world outside the more-cultivated areas like Mughal history. Ranabir wants us to read a few Chola inscriptions as well as some Chinese records pertaining to Chola military expeditions and maritime endeavours in South East Asia, of course in translation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Southern India, especially the Malabar Coast and the kingdom of Vijayanagara, received many European visitors during the transition from the middle ages to modern times. Descriptions of Southern India by foreign writers and travellers are often both instructive and interesting. Their travel narratives and chronicles provide a unique insight into the encounter between Europeans and a non-Christian, non-Muslim civilization, which they neither wished to ignore nor were able to dominate. We have a significant number of non-European narratives, which makes it possible to develop a comparative analysis of travellers’ attitudes that goes beyond sociological and national categories exclusively related to Europe. Obviously, of all non-Europeans, Muslim writers provide the sources better suited for a systematic comparison with western descriptions of South India.

The rise of Vijayanagara in the 14th century and the flowering of the Renaissance in Europe at about the same time drew many foreigners to India. An interesting narrative is the personal account of a journey to Vijayanagara undertaken in 1443 by the Persian ambassador Kamal-ud-Din Abdur Razzak ibn Ishaq Samarqandi (1413-1482), who was at the service of the Timurid ruler Shah Rukh since 1437. His father Jalal-ud-Din Ishaq was the qazi and imam of the Shah Rukh's court in Heart. A Persian chronicler and Islamic scholar, he chronicled in his Matla-us-Sadain wa Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Rise of the Two auspicious constellations and the Confluence of the Two Oceans), which is an elaborate history of Timur and his family, the account of his voyage: the life and events in Calicut under the Zamorin and also of the Ancient City of Vijayanagara at Hampi, describing their wealth and immense grandeur. He also left vivid accounts of the thriving shipping trade in the Indian Ocean during the 14th and 15th centuries. The sending of Razzak to India was undoubtedly linked to Mirza Shah Rukh’s own desires to create a larger web of semi-formal and suzerain relations, going beyond the domains of his inheritance. K.A.N. Sastri in his A History of South India remarks: “The record of his (Razzak’s) mission is the testimony of a trained official on the state of administration and society at the time.” His travel-narrative, probably written some two decades after the actual voyage, ir remarkable for its vividness and precision, and the beginnings of the section on travel is characterized by clarity of expression, and is set down in elegant literary Persian. The complexity of this narrative makes a detailed comparison with European sources particularly enlightening.

This paper makes a detailed assessment of the travel account of Abdur Razzak. For the purpose of analysis, the paper has been divided into three sections. The first section will deal with Razzak’s journey from his native land to Hindustan (more precisely, Vijayanagara) - the perils of the journey, the obstacles he faced on the way, and the unfamiliar lands he touched upon: its peoples and customs. It will highlight some essential features of his writing. The second section will deal with the ambassador’s stay at the great Hindu capital. Through Razzak’s eyes we will see the city of Vijayanagara: its sovereign, administrative institutions, economy, society and religious festivals. It will also touch upon a few noteworthy incidents witnessed by the traveller. Simultaneously, it will also bring out the strengths and weaknesses of the description given by Razzak. The third and final section, chiefly based on Joan-Pau Rubies arguments, will bring out the characteristics of Persian travel accounts and compare and contrast it with that of European travellers.


Abdur Razzak began his journey from Herat towards the province of Ormuz situated on the shores of the ocean on the first day of the month of Ramzan (13 January 1442) heading due south for the Persian Gulf through the route of Kohistan. He passed through the vast desert of Kerman where he witnessed the ruins of an ancient deserted city. His first halted at the city of Kerman; then at the port of Ormuz, where, after a 2 month long stay, he departed for Calicut at the end of the monsoon. His voyage from Ormuz was a perilous one and he was forced to adjourn at Kariat where the cruel summer led to the death of his brother. Though the grief of this loss was unbearable, it failed to kill his determination to reach Hindustan. He continued with his voyage and finally reached the port of Calicut where he stayed from November 1442 to mid-April 1443. This stay, which he detested and made no attempt to conceal, was thankfully cut short when he received a message from the Raja of Vijayanagara asking him to be send to the great Hindu capital immediately. The visit to Vijayanagara was not on the cards when Razzak left Heart. He reached Vijayanagara by the end of April 1443 through the port of Mangalore, via the Malabar Coast (the port of Bendinanch and the city of Belur).

During the course of his long, hectic journey, Abdur Razzak touched upon a number of places. A distinct feature of his narrative is that it offers a detailed, graphic description of these lands and its peoples and gives us an insight into contemporary economy, society and ways of life. He reached the city of Ormuz (also referred to as Djerrun) located on the shores of the Sea of Oman in mid-February 1442. The port of Ormuz was a trading point where merchants from Egypt, Syria, Azerbaijan, Arabia, Turkey, China and India exchanged various commodities, all of which were exempt from duties, apart from gold and silver. Ormuz was also known as Daralaman (the abode of security) where people of diverse religions resided and the government was tolerant of the religious practices of its people.

Razzak’s stay at Calicut lasted six months. The port, one of the most important in the east-west trade of the Indian Ocean, had emerged into prominence after the decline of the earlier centre of Kollam (Quilon). It served two functions: it gave access to the rich pepper-growing lands on the Western Ghats (that accounted for its flourishing pepper trade with Mecca) and it was also a major entrepot in terms of long-distance maritime trade. It was a secure harbour for ships from Africa and Arabia. Razzak speaks of security and justice that was firmly established which was an incentive to the wealthy merchants who came from maritime countries, especially Abyssinia, Zirbad and Zanguebar. The officers of the custom house took care of the merchandise. A duty of 1/40 was levied on sales and unsold articles were not charged. The port was celebrated for its reception of strangers and straying vessels were not plundered in this port unlike elsewhere, where they were plundered. This is corroborated by Duarte Barbosa, the Portuguese ambassador (1500-1516), who more than six decades later, found that the trade of Calicut was prosperous and natives of diverse lands- Arabs, Persians, Guzerates, Khorassanians and Daquanis- settled there. Razzak does not, however, mention the items of trade: he vaguely mentions the “abundance of precious articles” to be found in that country. This insufficiency of his account is covered by Barbosa. He refers not only to the strict system of justice and the details of shipbuilding but also mentions the principal items of export and import.

Razzak presents us with a picture of the society of Calicut; its laws, customs and practices. His first impression of Calicut is a rather pessimistic one: he considered this to be a land of hostile men. His racist attitude is evident in his verse where he writes “…I could never fall in love with a negress”, in his description of the ‘Infidels’ as blacks and in his description of the king as a “man with his body naked, like the rest of the Hindus”. Thus colour prejudices run through the description. Worse is the absence of proper hierarchy as expressed through appropriate dress-codes, which would form a part of civilized society. Razzak draws a distinction between the Hindus and the Muslims in terms of their costume. The costume of the ‘Infidels’ referred to as ‘bandages’ called lankoutah stands in sharp contrast to the Muslims, who, if we are to believe Razzak, dress themselves in magnificent apparel and manifest luxury in every particular like the Arabs. At court, the lack of etiquette displeases Razzak. Hailing from the Timurid court, he expected better treatment. However, the inflated claims imposed by the Timurid inheritance rather exacerbated matters here. He states that Calicut had a considerable Muslim population who belonged to the orthodox sect of Schafei and had built two mosques for themselves. They had a Kadi (priest) who conducted prayers every Friday.

The inhabitants of Calicut were brave seafarers (Teheni-betehegan). The Infidels, who believed in the fundamental principles of polytheism and idolatry, were divided into a number of classes, such as Brahmins and Djoghis (Hindu ascetics), each class with customs and practices peculiar and unique to itself. He cites the example of a class whose women practiced polyandry and where each husband had a certain duty assigned to him. The Sameri (sovereign of the city) belonged to this class. According to the law of succession, the Sameri was succeeded by his nephew. Razzak’s failure to make any headway in the manner of conversion of the Sameri coloured his vision of the infidels of the town. The cow was immensely respected so much so that killing a cow and devouring its flesh was an offence punishable with death.

Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam in Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries 1400-1800 argue that whereas “Ormuz is a city within the proper sphere of Islam, with a population of infidels; in Calicut the roles are reversed.” In each case, mutual tolerance is described as the rule, and the “security and justice” in Calicut are praised by him unstintingly. Razzak had a honourbale exchange with the prince of Calicut. He also had a chance meeting with few of his fellow countrymen who had narrowly escaped with their lives after their ships were plundered. The passage from the coast to the inland political centre immensely impressed Razzak. Even his criticism of local religious observances is limited to a few passing remarks. He highlights the flourishing state of nature and of rural life and the brilliant craftsmanship produced in that area. Razzak was overwhelmed by a huge temple of cast bronze that he came across in the outskirts of Mangalore. He gives a graphic description of the enormous structure of the temple and its massive idol made of gold and rubies.

Razzak paints a romantic picture of the city of Belur. Its houses were like palaces and he was infatuated by its beautiful women. He compares the vast open spaces in the city with the garden of Irem. The land abounds in roses and greenery. Everything was perfect about the natural beauty of this city according to Razzak. He also points out to the beautiful Hoysala architecture of the city as was evident in its magnificent temples. Such temples date as early as 1117 A.D. He was awe struck by the pillared halls, their recessed ceilings and the pagoda-like shrine. He must have been referring to the temple of Chennakeshava. The dominant tone is of wonder where all is “beyond description”, with decorations that are “of extreme delicacy.” These idol-houses are portrayed as great centres of riches. He also notes down the ceremonials of these temples- the daily devotional exercise, the playing of musical instruments and concerts and feasts.

Abdur Razzak begins his account by invoking the Koran; the omniscience of God is equally invoked thereafter. An interesting feature of Razzak’s writing as can be discerned from his narrative is the acute sense of time that he has. He gives the exact dates when he touches down or leaves a place and the duration of the journey from one place to another. Yet another noteworthy feature of his writing is that as the narrative progresses, when enthusiasm seizes him, his poetic spirit takes flight. Throughout the text, a fairly large number of verses and hemistichs are interwoven, usually taken rather deftly from the great masters of medieval Persian poetry (such as Anwari), including those from India, notably Amir Khusrau. His account also brings out the difficult conditions of a voyage in those days. There was the ever-existing threat of foul weather and plundering attack from the pirates. The attitude of his fellow travellers was also a case in point. As a consequence of the severity of the weather and ‘adverse manifestations of a treacherous fate’ his season of relaxation became a tiring one. He started feeling home sick. Yet another obstacle presented itself in the form of the lands where he was forced to adjourn. The summer of Kariat is an instance. The scorching heat of May was unbearable: he was bedridden for several days and his brother was a fell victim to the extreme conditions. He himself fought with death and somehow managed to survive. The most marked characteristic of his narrative is the immense exaggerations of events and entities. This is evident when he describes the extreme summer of Kariat: “the heat of the sun was so intense that it burnt the ruby in the mine and the marrow in the bones; the sword in its scabbard melted like wax.” He even breaks out into a verse. His immense exaggerations are also evident in his account of the magnificent temples in the city of Belur and the vicinity of Mangalore.  He heightens the magnitude of whatever he comes across. It reflects a failure on his part to give a precise, true description to explain a particular. He also resorts to comparison in order to bring out the proper description of an entity. Above all, his writing is interspaced by verses to the Almighty and the assertion of his unflinching faith in Him. In fact, this strengthens his determination to carry on with the journey and helps him overcome all obstacles on his way. He abounds in nauseating praise of God and surrenders his fate to Him.


Razzak arrived at the city of Vijayanagara in the end of April 1443 and took abode in a huge house that had been reserved for him. His narrative brings out the grandeur of the kingdom and gives it a highly positive flavour. The kingdom was huge extending from the Krishna River to Cape Comorin; from the frontier of Bengal to the environs of Malabar. During this time Deva Raya II was the sovereign of Vijayanagara. Razzak describes him as an ‘absolute’ monarch bearing the title of rai “possessing greatness and sovereignty to the highest degree.” The vast number of ports the rai controls and the large number of huge elephants he possesses is a measure of his power. Razzak’s narrative proves that Vijayanagara was a well fortified city and the area occupied by it was very extensive.

As usual Razzak exaggerates on the majesty of the city and proceeds to its description. He employs an ingenious method to superimpose the imagined city of Vijayanagara on that of Herat. Robert Sewell in his A Forgotten Empire opines that Razzak must have approached the city from the south west. Razzak’s description of the seven walls of defence and gates of the city have long been a puzzle to historians. Sewell mentions the exact location of each of these walls and shows how strong they were. Regarding the citadels, Razzak describes the outer citadel as a “fortress of round shape, built on the summit of a mountain, and constructed of stones and lime. It has very solid gates, the guard of which are constantly at their post, and examine everything with severe inspection.”  The guards at the gates were the officers entrusted with the collection of the octroi duties. Razzak also describes the seven fortresses that he saw: the spaces between these fortresses are filled with cultivated fields, houses, gardens and the palace of the king.

The country had numerous elephants that were very well maintained and taken care of. The house of the elephants (fil-khaneh) was opposite the diwan-khaneh. The largest elephants were kept near the palace between the first and second fortress. Each elephant had a separate compartment which was made as strong as possible so as to prevent the elephants from running away. Razzak gives a vivid description about the mode of catching an elephant if it flees. We also form an idea about the diet of the elephant from razzak’s narrative; khichri is the prime meal taken twice a day and extreme precaution is taken while preparing the food. Defaulters were severely punished by the king. The white elephant was a happy omen for the king. Hunting an elephant was also a pastime for the sovereigns. Elephants were also used for meeting out capital punishment to criminals who were crushed under their feet. Elephants also formed an item of trade.

The structure of the city as depicted by Razzak consisting of citadels, fortresses, walls and gates; war elephants and a huge army makes it evident that Vijayanagara was a strongly fortified city. One gets the hint that a hostile kingdom must have been situated on its frontier and the country was vulnerable to frequent attacks. In fact the rais of Vijayanagara were always involved in a struggle with the neighbouring Muslim kingdom of Bahamani. Indeed, Vijayanagara was perhaps the nearest approach to a war-state ever made by a Hindu kingdom; and its political organization was dominated by its military needs. The emperor maintained a large standing army consisting of elephants, cavalry and infantry. Razzak notes that the soldiers received their pay every four months and no payment was made by draft upon the revenues of any province. Moreover, military fiefs studded the whole empire, each under a nayaka (military leader) entrusted with collection of revenue and administration of a specified area provided he maintained an agreed body of contingent ready to join the imperial forces in war.

Razzak gives us a sound idea regarding the administration of the kingdom. The houses of administration were the diwan-khaneh (the palace of the council) and dafter-khaneh (court house). The former, situated on the left of the sultan’s portico, is extremely large and looks like a palace. It resembles a ‘forty pillared hall’. The lofty walls with watch towers at the angles which surround the enclosure were most probably erected for the protection of the royal archives and the officers of the kingdom. The huge hall in front of it is the dafter-khaneh where the scribes work. The dafter-khaneh was the usual working office of the ministers and his colleagues where the necessary documents and records were brought to and from the central offices. The danaik (eunuch) presides over the diwan. He settles people’s affairs and his or theirs petitions. Danaik is actually a word which the traveller took for a proper name. It meant simply “the commander”- Dhannayaka. The person referred to appears to be Lakkana Dannayaka- ‘the lord of southern ocean’. Razzak also mentions chobdars who were officers with staves, generally covered with silver. However, he hardly speaks anything about the nayanakara system- the mammoth system on which the military and administrative system of the kingdom was based. This is a marked shortcoming of the traveller’s account.

Razzak draws the picture of a flourishing economy with the description of its brimming market place and stable currency system. The country was fertile and well cultivated. It was dotted with harbours and ports through which trade and commerce was carried out. Other features of the economy also highlighted upon such as the payment of soldiers, the abundance of precious stones, roses and betel leaf. If we have to believe Razzak, there was a long bazaar along the road leading from the palace gate northwards towards the great humpy temple. Close to the gate of the palace proper these roads would intersect at right angles, and would form four separate bazaars or streets. It seems from Razzak’s narrative that roses and ornaments (precious stones) were a basic necessity for the people of Vijayanagara considering that they were sold in huge quantities. Razzak’s immense fascination with the betel leaf is evident in its graphic description: its ingredients, the manner of eating it and the intoxication that it excites. It is amusing that he equates the sensual excitement stimulated by the leaf to the number of women in the harem. He also mentions the royal mint (darab-khaneh). Three kinds of money, made of gold and mixed with alloy, were minted. They were varaha, kopeki and fanom. Razzak considered the latter to be most useful. Tar was a special kind of coin cast in pure silver which valued one-sixth that of the fanom. Djitel was a copper coin worth a third of the tar. This stable currency system was the chief reason behind the flourishing economy of the kingdom.

The city was immensely populated. The Brahmins were at the top wrung of the social ladder. Razzak refers to two contemporary Persian works of the country- Kalilah and Dimna- which forms our basic source of information regarding the king and the Brahmins. All the inhabitants had a fetish for ornaments. However, despite certain positive comments about the people, he continues to call them as ‘infidels’ throughout his account. He also mentions the style and pattern of writing practiced by the people. Prostitution was freely practiced in Vijayanagara. There were special houses which had their own peculiar practices. Each prostitute had a couple of slaves to assist her. In the royal harems there were innumerable young and beautiful women. Even these harems had special codes of conduct.

A few notable incidents that took place during Razzak’s stay at the great Hindu capital are worth mentioning. It is also important to record Razzak’s response to these incidents. Chronologically speaking, the first such incident was the coup to assassinate the sovereign Deva Raya II by his brother at a banquet. Nuniz, however, states that the attempt was made by the king’s nephew. However, the plot was a failure because the king excused himself on the score of health. But many noblemen fell into the trap and lost their lives. The vizier was fortunate enough to escape as he was then on a voyage to Ceylon. The king mercilessly put to death all those who had assisted his brother in the attempt. Historians consider Razzak’s story to be undoubtedly the more reliable of the two accounts since he was a contemporary witness. Yet another discrepancy between the two accounts is that whereas Nuniz states that the king died six months later and was succeeded by his son, Razzak declares that he was presented in person to Deva Raya II sometime in December 1443. This was followed by an expedition to the kingdom of Kalberga. The Sultan of Bahamani, Alauddin Bahaman II, evidently knowing of the conspiracy, tried to take advantage of the confusion by demanding from Deva Raya II the payment of ‘seven lakhs of varahas (pagodas).’ The latter returned a defiant answer which he soon followed up by an invasion of the Raichur doab. Firishtan also describes this war of 1443. We come to know from both accounts that the “danaik” did not return covered with glory but merely having “taken several unfortunate prisoners, had retraced his steps.” The campaign must have been of short duration since, according to Firishtah, it was over before December 1443 when Abdur Razzak left Vijayanagara. Nevertheless, such accounts show that times were troubled and long-lasting peace was an illusion. The frontiers of the two warring states were always in a flux and just a pretext was required to launch an offensive. The prime motive of such wars was to acquire booty.

Abdur Razzak also gives a glowing account of the brilliance of the great festival of Mahanavami (which he calls Mahanadi) of which he was a spectator while at the capital. He states that it was celebrated with extreme devotion amongst the infidels. According to him, this was the idolaters’ show of power, tyranny, glory and pride. He proceeds with a detailed narrative of the manner in which the celebrations were carried out. The land was elaborately decorated, enormous elephants from all over the province were brought together and jugglers gave numerous performances displaying these marvellously trained elephants; pavilions were constructed for the royal men to watch the proceedings. During three consecutive days, from sunrise to sunset, the royal festival was prolonged in a style of the greatest magnificence. Fireworks, games and amusements were an integral part of it. The king awarded all performers- jugglers, musicians, orators, dancing women- with gold and suits of apparel. It is interesting to note Razzak’s take on idolatry. While image worship was prohibited in Islam, he encountered a culture where the practice was absolutely fundamental. Though he sneers upon that custom, he can’t help but sing in praise of this grand festival.

However, Robert Sewell raises a few doubts about Razzak’s observations. He considers Razzak mistaken since the latter declares that the festival took place in the month Rajab (October 25 to November 23, 1443). Sewell remarks: “Either, therefore, the festival which he (Razzak) witnessed was the New Year’s Day festival, or the traveller was in error giving the month “Rajab.” It seems most probable that the former was the case, because he apparently makes the festival one of only three days’ duration, whereas the Mahanavami, as its name implies, was a nine days’ feast.” He points out to yet another difficulty: the Mahanavami celebrations began with the new moon, whereas Razzak says that the festival he saw began with the “full moon”. However, Sewell dismisses this error as “a slip of the pen.”

Razzak’s account of his first meeting with the King Deva Raya II brings out the stateliness and grandeur of the court. Exchanging gifts between ambassadors and monarchs was a mark of respect in those days. He gives an elaborate description of the appearance of the king and of his exquisite dress. It is interesting to note that after every meeting, the king, pleased with Razzak, presented him with packets of betel leaf and camphor and showered money. It is therefore no doubt that Razzak always speaks highly about the king. He eulogizes the king stating that he is “of perfect rule and hegemony.” However, Abdur Razzak’s happy and peaceful stay was soon upset by the rumour spread by certain inhabitants of Ormuz that he was not the embassy of the Sultan of Persia. The vizier immediately fell for this rumour and suppressed the daily allowance which had been assigned to him. Unfortunately, even the king yielded to such a rumour but this did not change his attitude towards Razzak. He bid him farewell with kind words which points out to his noble nature. A point worth mentioning is that the king never dined with Razzak but presented him gold coins as a token of respect. This proves that it was against the custom of the land and the court to dine with a foreigner, that too of a different religion. However, one expects a more detailed description of the court etiquettes and practices. Since Razzak stayed for quite a long time in the capital, it is presumable that he spend considerable time with the King. So the reader also expects a deeper probe into the nature of the king. However, the narrative falls short of such expectations.


To what extent did differences in cultural background affect a traveller’s ability to see and tell? Joan-Pau Rubies in his Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250-1625 argues that there was a general interpretative framework common to Persian and Western sources on Vijayanagara, centred on city, kingship and ritual, the literary elaboration of which by diverse observers was dependent neither upon a mere inter textual borrowing, nor in any simple sense on common cultural assumptions. It relied, rather, on a basic human capacity to decode and interpret an indigenous cultural system, a capacity related to the observer's training in understanding structurally similar language-games in his own culture. The logical assumptions of the natural world as an ordered one, and of history as a succession of events following an irreversible arrow of time, sustain Abdur Razzak’s empirical description no less than those of any European writer. In fact, the thematic emphases of this description of Vijayanagara- a large city in a large empire, a powerful king, a well-cultivated and fertile land, a huge army with awesome elephants- are almost identical to those offered by Italian and Portuguese observers. While the Europeans established comparisons with Paris or Milan, Abdur Razzak referred to Herat, the Khorasani capital. He also introduced a theme which was particularly relevant to the traditions of political discourse at the Persian courts: an idealized model of monarchical rule in which a powerful king was surrounded by wise men, was able to command full authority, and brought about collective prosperity.

Perhaps the most significant result of this analysis is that, here as with many European sources, the emphatic selection of information and its literary elaboration was perfectly compatible with a fundamental reliance on the language of a common-sense description of natural and social realities. In effect, Abdur Razzak’s description is also a significant example of the fact that within Islam the dismissal of foreign societies on the grounds of incompatible religious ideologies was not a serious impediment to the elaboration of a descriptive discourse on human laws and customs, whenever such a need was felt. Indeed the Arabic ethnological tradition was not only very rich, but also prior to, and the source for, many European texts. It was the product of a ‘cultivated urbanity’ associated with courtly high culture and basically independent of religious concerns. The idea of civilization in tenth and eleventh-century Arab ethnology involved a conventional hierarchy from the admirable Chinese to the barbarism of cannibals which was almost identical to the one used by European writers of the 15th century. From an intellectual perspective, for example, within Islam there was no real language of mediation between the concepts of civility and religion. Abdur Razzak’s implicitly idealized treatment of Vijayanagara kingship thus stood in a peculiar tension with his open condemnation of Hindu idolatry. Abdur Razzak’ narrative thus went beyond the mere empirical description of human diversity in order to send a political message which had more to do with conditions at Shah Rukh's court than with those in South India. In order to do so the author had to recognize among the Indians the same political ideals he desired for his countrymen, and implicitly needed to transcend a simplistic classification of peoples based on traditional religious definitions. The fact that a single narrative combined informative and apologetic aims explains the emphasis with which the kingdom of Vijayanagara was decoded, rather than just invented, as a system of justice and power.

Shreejita Basak
Shounak Ghosh

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Travels of Conti to the East

Bracciolini describes the experiences of Nicolo Conti, who was a Venetian Merchant as he undertakes his sojourn from Syria to India. From Damuscus, Conti travelled to Persia, after visting Arabia and Baghdad. From Persian Gulf, he made his way to India through Cambay, follwed the Western Coast.Then turning inward ,he encountered the Capital and various other cities of Bizenegalia, the Vijaynagar Empire. Then, perhaps he reached Coromandel coast, crossed the sea to Ceylon and set sail for Sumatra .Upon reaching it, he sailed Northward for the port of Tenasserim and then to Bengal. He travelled up the Ganges ,reached many important cities and even visited the Northern Mountains of India.He then returned to the Bay Of Bengal and sailed up the river Aracan, crossed the interior mountains and reached Irawaddi and the city of Ava in Burma. He then seemed to have sailed down to the river Pegu towards the islands of Indonesia which he calls Greater and Lesser Java. Later he returned to the Malabar coast and from Cambey he sailed to the Red sea and Ethiopia and then reached Egypt.

This was perhaps the route which Conti took to visit the East.Along the way,he came across myriad Indian cultural and religious practices,social customs and conventions like “Satti”.His vignettes narrate us about the Fan Palms,about the snakes of Malabar,Fortresses of the city of Ava in Burma,birds of beautiful plumage in Sumtara and Indonesia and also the Rhinoserous of India,which he describes in a peculiar manner as an animal with a head resembling that of a pig,a tail like that of an ox and on it’s forehead a horn similar to that of the Unicorn.It resembles the elephant in size and colour. He also left us with vivid descriptions of voyages and certain rituals he observed on board his ship.

Conti describes the religious rituals of the East in an alienated manner.He describes the ritual of “Satti” as he has seen in various parts of India,first in the city of Cambey and then in Central India.He also describes an event in Vijaynagar where an idol is placed between two chariots.Many people who follow the chariots and are carried away by the fervour of their faith,cast themselves on the ground before the wheels,considering it as a way of death very acceptable to god.Conti seems to have used the words,”They Say” and “They Consider” where “They” refers to the people dying.He seems to have used these words as rhetorical devices to indicate the distance which separates his own Christian and European beliefs from Indian ones.

It is natural for a man like Conti, who comes from a Christian background to find the customs of India and various other aspects of this land a bit alien,at times.For instance, he has noticed that anterior India has excelled others in the care and magnificience displayed in the burial of the dead. On the other hand, he regards the residents of the ‘greater and lesser Java’ as more inhumane and cruel than any other nations because they sustain their living on the flesh of mice, dogs, cats and all other kinds of unclean animals. They regard killing a man a mere jest and no punishment is alloted for such a deed. He talks of an island called Batcch where the inhabitants eat human flesh and regard human heads as valuable property which serves as their currency. He talks of an island called Zeilan which was governed by persons of the race of Brahmins, reputed to be wiser than other people. He talks highly of these brahmins and refers to them as great philosophers devoting the whole of their lives to the study of astrology and cultivating the virtues and refinements of life. One gets the description of the island of Andamania or the island of gold where resides people whom Conti has attributed as cannibals. Conti attributes the men of this island as cruel and their customs as brutal.Conti says that these man were idolators.Coming from a Christian background, this feature of Indians must have struck him as very unfamiliar and also one of the primary point of difference among Indian Religion and that of his own land.Also, it It surprised him to see that their houses were extremely low and that too for the purpose of protecting them from the heat of the sun. unlike the people of his own land, Conti had noticed that the people of this country were not familiar with the use of the compass but somehow managed to measure their courses and the distances of places by the elevation and depression of the Pole. He also observes the weddings of Indians and recognizes all the instruments except the organ to be in vogue in his own native land. He mentions more than once the absence of vines from most of the regions of India, which struck him as odd. Conti has made an observation that pestilence was unknown among the Indians. Neither were they exposed to those diseases which carried off the population in his own country. Conti has also amused himself by being present in a battlefield as a spectator, watching the nitty-gritty of the art of war of the Indians but without taking the side of any and was recognized by both parties as a stranger and was able to escape unscathed.

Conti has also closely observed the religious festivals that seemed strange and remarkable to him. He was surprised to see that in a particular festival men and women of all ages having bathed in the river dressed in new garments, spent three days in singing, dancing and feasting. On another festival he noticed that the people fix up innumerable lamps of oil of susi mauni within the temples and on the outside, on the roofs. He must have also noted that in the West,the church being primarily a religious institution in due course of time became so powerful that it subverted the power of the monarch,but in the East,the religious institutions and the priest were not so powerful and always remained under the control of the monarch. It seemed strange to him that the Indians instead of Wine use a drink which consists of pounded rice,water and the juice of a certain tree with red colour being added to it.This implies Conti was acquainted with the use of wine in his native land.

Nicolo Conti being a merchant himself deals with the nitty gritty of economic conditions of India. In almost all the places he has been, he never failed to mention to us the valuable commodities available there in abundance that were important for trading purposes; for example, the precious stones found in Cambay, ginger in the districts if Pacamuria and Helly, red sandalwoods of Odescheria and Cenderghiria..But also ,on the other hand ,he makes a detailed study of the socio-cultural aspects of the in the East. He had noticed the marital diversity in India. Apart from describing polygamy which was mostly prevalent in India, he had also noticed regions in central India where monogamy was in vogue. He talks of Calicut, where, contrasting normal conventions, a woman was allowed to marry several men.And she was looked after by her husbands. Details like that of the dresses and costumes of people in the East also drew his attention.

After reading the account of Conti, a few questions remain unanswered …..

Conti refers to a class of priests who were known as Bacchali. These priests were allowed to marry. It is questionable whether he was trying to draw any kind of comparison between the priests of this country and those of his own country as the latter practiced celibacy. Is it that he was surprised to see the difference in the way the priests of the two countries led their lives?

He has elucidated many socio cultural and religious and economic aspets of the East. His account aptly describes aspects as degrading and brutal as the “satti” and the vile practice of Cannibalism prevalent in some parts of the East and the glorious aspects like the wealth and resplendent culture and prosperity of the Vijaynagar Empire. So what was the ultimate impression that was imprinted in the mind of Conti about the people of this country? about their culture? about the ideas they cherish and the customs they nurture?

Also,as the account has been narrated to us by Poggio,a certain doubt remains as to how much of the account is based on Conti’s observations and how much additions have been attached to it by Poggio.

And the last question which impels the reader to contemplate most is, what was the conclusion that he reached about the East?

Conti has tried to depict the civilization in the East in an unbiased manner, but in his own mind and musings did he try to draw any line of comparison between his own native culture of Venice and that of the East?or did he see the East in a completely different light incomparable to any other civilization?

- By Siddhartha Mukherjee and Subhranil Roy Chowdhury, Second Year, Presidency University

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My rather lengthy perception of Nicolo de Conti's account

The east meets west brouhaha is a celebrated concept often translating into money-minting movies. But the world is only one world after all. There is a level of fluidity between the two, which is essential to interpret several aspects of cross-cultural histories.

I was attempting to give my best shot at interpreting the account of Nicolo De Conti that he gave to Poggio Bracciolini with a pre-conceived notion of a water-tight West meeting the East. Yes, sometimes a sense does prevail in his account that the East is uniform except in diversities in the fields of geography to some extent, marriage practices and the likes, but somewhere down the line I believe Conti's account does not seem to show a high-brow Christian and western tinted-glass with which he judges the sentimentalities of the places he visits.

Of course one must keep in mind the up-bringing and profession of the man who visited: Conti was a merchant from Venice, and that too at a time when the life-line of Venice in terms of commerce was it's Levant trade that resulted in some form of cosmopolitanism in the place itself. Therefore one must keep in mind the importance of Venice in the larger picture of world economy while trying to understand the nuances of Nicolo de Conti's account.

Since he is a merchant, his description of places is often related to the exchangeable commodities available in that place. He regularly mentions spices and precious materials that are so important in the trade with the east- like ginger in Pacamuria, Sardonyxes at the Gulf of Cambay, towns along the river that has gold and pearl, and diamonds in ‘Albenigaras mountains’ (near Bijapur). His accounts can be taken to be guides to future merchants.

Since foreign traders are concerned with the urban centres, his account is devoid of descriptions of village life and uses the cities as the centres of economic and cultural recognition. These new learnings could be combined with, say, the map of Ptolemy to provide an improved edition. Therefore the descriptions of these urban centres’ geography are precise. He is specific with the circumferences and directions. For example, he says that Bizenegalia is 60 miles in circumference, and it takes 8 days’ journey to reach ‘Pelagonda’. So if we calculate with the average walking speed of 3 kmph, and take an average of 10 hours’ walking per day, it boils down to 240 km. therefore whether accurate or not in reality, their in an intention to be precise and accurate.

Considering the Christian background of Conti, there is a certain level of awe, but even though idolatry was considered to be a devil’s job in Christianity, there is no direct criticism on the part of Conti. But the fantastic portrayal of cannibalism in certain eastern lands and how worshippers at Vijayanagar attach themselves to the wheels of the chariot moving half dead betray a sense of amazement and even some exaggeration to spice things up and to drive his point more strongly. Theological value judgement isn’t that highlighted, and he describes the church of St. Thomas as very big and beautiful. However Duarte Barbossa who visited the church some decades later described it as small and insignificant. It seems here that while on his lengthy journey from the 'west' he lost some of his so-called Christian baggages in the process and thus his acquired wisdom could allow him to perceive what he saw with less bias.

Christian customs do not generally have the traits of polygamy and this practice is largely associated with the pagans. Hence the number of wives a person can have has been greatly highlighted by Conti, as he had married more than one himself. Of course he is eager to point out that the heretic Nestorian Christians take only one wife, and cites that men of Arakan and Central India take only one wife.

The nature of kingship in Vijayanagara empire has been the focal point of heated debates. In Conti's account, the king of Vijayanagar has been seen as a powerful ruler, unlike general notion of it being otherwise: because he points out in one sentence that he was the most powerful ruler of the subcontinent. His ritualistic significance is high, and has 12000 wives of which 4000 solely devoted themselves to the kitchen. The emphasis on the ritualistic aspect is significant, as it has supplied an essential fodder to several historians on trying to analyse the nature of kingship in Vijayanagara. His account also deals with certain aspects of warfare, like the armours and the elephants that were used, but surprisingly not the role of king or warlords in the wars.

The account of Conti betrays certain stereotypes of describing a place. He deals with the economic provisions, the area and certain awkward social customs that might seem different from what he’s known of earlier. There is the usual description of area, a typical monarch, availability of resources and some specific findings that add more to the character of the place. However, of all the places he describes, Vijayanagar stands out for the splendour he describes which very well establishes that Vijayanagar was a strong commercial centre in the east.

However, On the other side of the coin, certain descriptions of the east give clue to the contemporary situation in the west. For example, when he points out that the Nestorians were scattered like the Jews, we get his perception that the Jewish Diaspora was scattered in Europe.

So here we have a rather vivid account of a merchant from Venice that was noted down by the humanist Poggio Bracciolini. A question comes to the mind as to how much of the account was the sensibilities of Conti, and how much of it were the interpretation of Poggio.

- Sohini Chattopadhyay, Second Year, Presidency University

Friday, February 4, 2011

Third Session of the Club

ROLE OF CROSS-CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS IN MEDIEVAL HISTORY is the theme of the Third Session. Prof. Lakshmi Subramanian will be leading the discussion. We shall be reading and discussing two travel accounts of Abd-ur-Razzaq and Nicolo Conti, both of whom visited parts of south Asia during the 15th century. Razzaq was a Persian scholar and as the ambassador of Mirza Shah Rukh, son of Timur, visited parts of south India. Conti on the other hand was a Venetian merchant who visited south and south-east Asia and possibly China. Both of them have left candid accounts of the cultures and polities that they encountered during their travels. We shall read these texts in conjunction with a book by Joan-Pau Rubies, which shows how to read and treat such medieval travel accounts and also demonstrates how these foreign travellers viewed whatever they saw in India, how they developed opinions, perceptions and stereotypes about them and shaped those of their readers.

The Third Session will be held at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), Baishnabghata-Patuli, Calcutta at 10 am-2 pm on Saturday, 12 February, 2011.