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

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