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

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


Pratyay said...

very elaborate, detailed and reflective, sohini. good work.

Subhomoy said...
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