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

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

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