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Women and men have travelled in search of work, to escapefrom natural disasters, as traders, merchants, soldiers,priests, pilgrims, or driven by a sense of adventure.Those who visit or come to stay in a new landinvariably encounter a world that is different:in terms of the landscape or physicalenvironment as well as customs, languages,beliefs and practices of people. Many of themtry to adapt to these differences; others,somewhat exceptional, note them carefully inaccounts, generally recording what they findunusual or remarkable. Unfortunately, we havepractically no accounts of travel left by women, thoughwe know that they travelled.
The accounts that survive are often varied in terms oftheir subject matter. Some deal with affairs of the court,while others are mainly focused on religious issues, orarchitectural features and monuments. For example, oneof the most important descriptions of the city ofVijayanagara (Chapter 7) in the fifteenth century comesfrom Abdur Razzaq Samarqandi, a diplomat who camevisiting from Herat.
In a few cases, travellers did not go to distant lands. Forexample, in the Mughal Empire (Chapters 8 and 9),administrators sometimes travelled within theempire and recorded their observations. Someof them were interested in looking at popularcustoms and the folklore and traditions oftheir own land.
In this chapter we shall see how ourknowledge of the past can be enrichedthrough a consideration of descriptions ofsocial life provided by travellers who visitedthe subcontinent, focusing on the accounts of threemen: Al-Biruni who came from Uzbekistan (eleventhcentury), Ibn Battuta who came from Morocco, innorthwestern Africa (fourteenth century) and theFrenchman François Bernier (seventeenth century).
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Fig. 5.1bA coconutThe coconut and the paanwere things that struck manytravellers as unusual.
As these authors came from vastly differentsocial and cultural environments, they were oftenmore attentive to everyday activities and practiceswhich were taken for granted by indigenouswriters, for whom these were routine matters, notworthy of being recorded. It is this difference inperspective that makes the accounts of travellersinteresting. Who did these travellers write for? Aswe will see, the answers vary from one instanceto the next.
1. Al-Biruni and theKitab-ul-Hind
1.1 From Khwarizm to the PunjabAl-Biruni was born in 973, in Khwarizm in present-day Uzbekistan. Khwarizm was an important centreof learning, and Al-Biruni received the besteducation available at the time. He was well versedin several languages: Syriac, Arabic, Persian,Hebrew and Sanskrit. Although he did not knowGreek, he was familiar with the works of Platoand other Greek philosophers, having readthem in Arabic translations. In 1017, when SultanMahmud invaded Khwarizm, he took severalscholars and poets back to his capital, Ghazni;Al-Biruni was one of them. He arrived in Ghazni asa hostage, but gradually developed a liking for thecity, where he spent the rest of his life until hisdeath at the age of 70.
It was in Ghazni that Al-Biruni developed aninterest in India. This was not unusual. Sanskritworks on astronomy, mathematics and medicine hadbeen translated into Arabic from the eighth centuryonwards. When the Punjab became a part of theGhaznavid empire, contacts with the local populationhelped create an environment of mutual trust andunderstanding. Al-Biruni spent years in the companyof Brahmana priests and scholars, learning Sanskrit,and studying religious and philosophical texts. Whilehis itinerary is not clear, it is likely that he travelledwidely in the Punjab and parts of northern India.
Travel literature was already an accepted part ofArabic literature by the time he wrote. This literaturedealt with lands as far apart as the Sahara desertin the west to the River Volga in the north. So, while
Al-Biruni’s expertise in severallanguages al lowed him tocompare languages andtranslate texts. He translatedseveral Sanskrit works, includingPatanjali’s work on grammar,into Arabic. For his Brahmanafriends, he translated theworks of Euclid (a Greekmathematician) into Sanskrit.
Al-Biruni described his work as:
a help to those who want todiscuss religious questionswith them (the Hindus), andas a repertory of informationto those who want toassociate with them.
Ü Read the excerpt from
Al-Biruni (Source 5) anddiscuss whether his workmet these objectives.
few people in India would have read Al-Biruni before1500, many others outside India may have done so.
1.2 The Kitab-ul-Hind
Al-Biruni’s Kitab-ul-Hind, written in Arabic, is simpleand lucid. It is a voluminous text, divided into80 chapters on subjects such as religion andphilosophy, festivals, astronomy, alchemy, mannersand customs, social life, weights and measures,iconography, laws and metrology.
Generally (though not always), Al-Biruni adopteda distinctive structure in each chapter, beginningwith a question, following this up with a descriptionbased on Sanskritic traditions, and concludingwith a comparison with other cultures. Somepresent-day scholars have argued that this almostgeometric structure, remarkable for its precision andpredictability, owed much to his mathematicalorientation.
Al-Biruni, who wrote in Arabic, probably intendedhis work for peoples living along the frontiers of thesubcontinent. He was familiar with translationsand adaptations of Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit textsinto Arabic – these ranged from fables to works onastronomy and medicine. However, he was alsocritical about the ways in which these texts werewritten, and clearly wanted to improve on them.
THROUGH THE EYES OF TRAVELLERS
Metrology is the science ofmeasurement.
The term “Hindu” was derivedfrom an Old Persian word,used c. sixth-fifth centuriesBCE, to refer to the region eastof the river Sindhu (Indus).The Arabs continued thePersian usage and called thisregion “al-Hind” and itspeople “Hindi”. Later theTurks referred to the peopleeast of the Indus as “Hindu”,their land as “Hindustan”, andtheir language as “Hindavi”.None of these expressionsindicated the religious identityof the people. It was muchlater that the term developedreligious connotations.
Ü Discuss...If Al-Biruni lived in thetwenty-first century, whichare the areas of the worldwhere he could have beeneasily understood, if he stillknew the same languages?
Fig. 5.2An illustration from a thirteenth-century Arabic manuscriptshowing the Athenianstatesman and poet Solon, wholived in the sixth century BCE,addressing his studentsNotice the clothes they areshown in.
2.1 An early globe-trotterIbn Battuta’s book of travels, called Rihla, written inArabic, provides extremely rich and interestingdetails about the social and cultural life in thesubcontinent in the fourteenth century. ThisMoroccan traveller was born in Tangier into one ofthe most respectable and educated families knownfor their expertise in Islamic religious law or shari‘a.True to the tradition of his family, Ibn Battutareceived literary and scholastic education when hewas quite young.
Unlike most other members of his class, IbnBattuta considered experience gained through travelsto be a more important source of knowledge thanbooks. He just loved travelling, and went to far-offplaces, exploring new worlds and peoples. Before heset off for India in 1332-33, he had made pilgrimagetrips to Mecca, and had already travelled extensivelyin Syria, Iraq, Persia, Yemen, Oman and a fewtrading ports on the coast of East Africa.
Travelling overland through Central Asia, IbnBattuta reached Sind in 1333. He had heardabout Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the Sultan of Delhi,and lured by his reputation as a generous patronof arts and letters, set off for Delhi, passing throughMultan and Uch. The Sultan was impressed byhis scholarship, and appointed him the qazi or judgeof Delhi. He remained in that position for severalyears, until he fell out of favour and was throwninto prison. Once the misunderstanding between
him and the Sultan was cleared, he wasrestored to imperial service, and wasordered in 1342 to proceed to China as theSultan’s envoy to the Mongol ruler.
With the new assignment, Ibn Battutaproceeded to the Malabar coast throughcentral India. From Malabar he went tothe Maldives, where he stayed for eighteenmonths as the qazi, but eventually decidedto proceed to Sri Lanka. He then went backonce more to the Malabar coast and theMaldives, and before resuming his missionto China, visited Bengal and Assam as well.He took a ship to Sumatra, and from thereanother ship for the Chinese port town of
My departure from Tangier,my birthplace, took place onThursday ... I set out alone,having neither fel low-traveller ... nor caravanwhose party I might join, butswayed by an overmasteringimpulse within me and adesire long-cherished in mybosom to vis i t theseillustrious sanctuaries. So Ibraced my resolution to quitall my dear ones, female andmale, and forsook my homeas birds forsake their nests ...My age at that time wastwenty-two years.
Ibn Battuta returned home in1354, about 30 years after hehad set out.
Zaytun (now known as Quanzhou). He travelledextensively in China, going as far as Beijing, but didnot stay for long, deciding to return home in 1347.His account is often compared with that of MarcoPolo, who visited China (and also India) from hishome base in Venice in the late thirteenth century.
Ibn Battuta meticulously recorded his observationsabout new cultures, peoples, beliefs, values, etc.We need to bear in mind that this globe-trotter wastravelling in the fourteenth century, when it wasmuch more arduous and hazardous to travel than itis today. According to Ibn Battuta, it took forty daysto travel from Multan to Delhi and about fifty daysfrom Sind to Delhi. The distance from Daulatabadto Delhi was covered in forty days, while that fromGwalior to Delhi took ten days.
Robbers were not the only hazard on long journeys: the traveller could feel homesick,or fall ill. Here is an excerpt from the Rihla:
I was attacked by the fever, and I actually tied myself on the saddle with a turban-cloth in case I should fall off by reason of my weakness ... So at last we reachedthe town of Tunis, and the townsfolk came out to welcome the shaikh ... and ...the son of the qazi ... On all sides they came forward with greetings and questionsto one another, but not a soul said a word of greeting to me, since there was noneof them I knew. I felt so sad at heart on account of my loneliness that I could notrestrain the tears that started to my eyes, and wept bitterly. But one of the pilgrims,realising the cause of my distress, came up to me with a greeting ...
Travelling was also more insecure: Ibn Battutawas attacked by bands of robbers several times.In fact he preferred travelling in a caravan alongwith companions, but this did not deter highwayrobbers. While travelling from Multan to Delhi,for instance, his caravan was attacked and manyof his fellow travellers lost their lives; thosetravellers who survived, including Ibn Battuta,were severely wounded.
2.2 The “enjoyment of curiosities”As we have seen, Ibn Battuta was an inveteratetraveller who spent several years travelling throughnorth Africa, West Asia and parts of Central Asia(he may even have visited Russia), the Indiansubcontinent and China, before returning to hisnative land, Morocco. When he returned, the localruler issued instructions that his stories be recorded.
Map 1Places visited byIbn Battuta inAfghanistan,Sind and PunjabMany of theplace-nameshave been spelt asIbn Battuta wouldhave known them.
Sketch map not to scale
Ü Use the scale on the map to
calculate the distance in milesbetween Multan and Delhi.
This is what Ibn Juzayy, who was deputed to write whatIbn Battuta dictated, said in his introduction:
A gracious direction was transmitted (by the ruler)that he (Ibn Battuta) should dictate an account ofthe cities which he had seen in his travel, and ofthe interesting events which had clung to hismemory, and that he should speak of those whomhe had met of the rulers of countries, of theirdistinguished men of learning, and their pious saints.Accordingly, he dictated upon these subjects anarrative which gave entertainment to the mindand delight to the ears and eyes, with a variety ofcurious particulars by the exposition of which hegave edif ication and of marvellous things, byreferring to which he aroused interest.
In the footsteps of Ibn Battuta
In the centuries between 1400 and 1800 visitors to Indiawrote a number of travelogues in Persian. At the sametime, Indian visitors to Central Asia, Iran and the Ottomanempire also sometimes wrote about their experiences.These writers followed in the footsteps of Al-Biruni andIbn Battuta, and had sometimes read these earlier authors.
Among the best known of these writers were AbdurRazzaq Samarqandi, who visited south India in the 1440s,Mahmud Wali Balkhi, who travelled very widely in the1620s, and Shaikh Ali Hazin, who came to north India inthe 1740s. Some of these authors were fascinated by India,and one of them – Mahmud Balkhi – even became a sortof sanyasi for a time. Others such as Hazin weredisappointed and even disgusted with India, where theyexpected to receive a red carpet treatment. Most of themsaw India as a land of wonders.
THROUGH THE EYES OF TRAVELLERS
Fig. 5.5An eighteenth-century paintingdepicting travellers gatheredaround a campfire
Ü Discuss...Compare the objectives of Al-Biruni andIbn Battuta in writing their accounts.
Once the Portuguese arrived in India in about 1500,a number of them wrote detailed accounts regardingIndian social customs and religious practices. A fewof them, such as the Jesuit Roberto Nobili, eventranslated Indian texts into European languages.
Among the best known of the Portuguese writersis Duarte Barbosa, who wrote a detailed account oftrade and society in south India. Later, after 1600,we find growing numbers of Dutch, English andFrench travellers coming to India. One of the mostfamous was the French jeweller Jean-BaptisteTavernier, who travelled to India at least six times.He was particularly fascinated with the tradingconditions in India, and compared India to Iran andthe Ottoman empire. Some of these travellers, likethe Italian doctor Manucci, never returned to Europe,and settled down in India.
François Bernier, a Frenchman, was a doctor,political philosopher and historian. Like manyothers, he came to the Mughal Empire in search ofopportunities. He was in India for twelve years, from1656 to 1668, and was closely associated with theMughal court, as a physician to Prince Dara Shukoh,the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, and later asan intellectual and scientist, with DanishmandKhan, an Armenian noble at the Mughal court.
3.1 Comparing “East” and “West”Bernier travelled to several parts of the country, andwrote accounts of what he saw, frequently comparingwhat he saw in India with the situation in Europe.He dedicated his major writing to Louis XIV, theking of France, and many of his other works werewritten in the form of letters to influential officialsand ministers. In virtually every instance Bernierdescribed what he saw in India as a bleak situationin comparison to developments in Europe. As wewill see, this assessment was not always accurate.However, when his works were published, Bernier’swritings became extremely popular.
Fig. 5.6A seventeenth-century paintingdepicting Bernier in Europeanclothes
Fig. 5.7A painting depicting Tavernier in Indian clothes
Bernier often travelled with the army. This is an excerptfrom his description of the army’s march to Kashmir:
I am expected to keep two good Turkoman horses, andI also take with me a powerful Persian camel and driver,a groom for my horses, a cook and a servant to gobefore my horse with a flask of water in his hand,according to the custom of the country. I am alsoprovided with every useful article, such as a tent ofmoderate size, a carpet, a portable bed made of fourvery strong but light canes, a pillow, a mattress, roundleather table-cloths used at meals, some few napkins ofdyed cloth, three small bags with culinary utensils whichare all placed in a large bag, and this bag is again carriedin a very capacious and strong double sack or net madeof leather thongs. This double sack likewise containsthe provisions, linen and wearing apparel, both ofmaster and servants. I have taken care to lay in a stockof excellent rice for five or six days’ consumption, ofsweet biscuits flavoured with anise (a herb), of limesand sugar. Nor have I forgotten a linen bag with itssmall iron hook for the purpose of suspending anddraining dahi or curds; nothing being considered sorefreshing in this country as lemonade and dahi.
Bernier’s works were published in France in1670-71 and translated into English, Dutch, Germanand Italian within the next five years. Between 1670and 1725 his account was reprinted eight times inFrench, and by 1684 it had been reprinted threetimes in English. This was in marked contrast tothe accounts in Arabic and Persian, which circulatedas manuscripts and were generally not publishedbefore 1800.
The creation and
circulation of ideas
The wri t ings of Europeantravellers helped produce animage of India for Europeansthrough the pr int ing andcirculat ion of their books.Later, after 1750, when Indianslike Shaikh Itisamuddin andMirza Abu Talib visited Europeand confronted this imagethat Europeans had of theirsociety, they tried to influencei t by producing their ownversion of matters.
Ü Discuss...There is a very rich travelliterature in Indianlanguages. Find out abouttravel writers in the languageyou use at home. Read onesuch account and describethe areas visited by thetraveller, what s/he saw, andwhy s/he wrote the account.
4. Making Sense of an Alien WorldAl-Biruni and the SanskriticTradition
4.1 Overcoming barriers to understandingAs we have seen, travellers often compared whatthey saw in the subcontinent with practiceswith which they were familiar. Each travelleradopted distinct strategies to understand what theyobserved. Al-Biruni, for instance, was aware of theproblems inherent in the task he had set himself.He discussed several “barriers” that he feltobstructed understanding. The first amongst thesewas language. According to him, Sanskrit was sodifferent from Arabic and Persian that ideas andconcepts could not be easily translated from onelanguage into another.
The second barrier he identified was the differencein religious beliefs and practices. The self-absorptionand consequent insularity of the local populationaccording to him, constituted the third barrier.What is interesting is that even though he was awareof these problems, Al-Biruni depended almostexclusively on the works of Brahmanas, often citingpassages from the Vedas, the Puranas, the BhagavadGita, the works of Patanjali, the Manusmriti, etc., toprovide an understanding of Indian society.
4.2 Al-Biruni’s description of the caste systemAl-Biruni tried to explain the caste system by lookingfor parallels in other societies. He noted that inancient Persia, four social categories wererecognised: those of knights and princes; monks,fire-priests and lawyers; physicians, astronomersand other scientists; and finally, peasants andartisans. In other words, he attempted to suggestthat social divisions were not unique to India. Atthe same time he pointed out that within Islam allmen were considered equal, differing only in theirobservance of piety.
In spite of his acceptance of the Brahmanicaldescription of the caste system, Al-Biruni disapprovedof the notion of pollution. He remarked thateverything which falls into a state of impurity strivesand succeeds in regaining its original condition ofpurity. The sun cleanses the air, and the salt in thesea prevents the water from becoming polluted. If it
A language with an
Al-Biruni described Sanskrit asfollows:
If you want to conquer thisdif f iculty (i .e. to learnSanskrit), you will not findit easy, because thelanguage is of an enormousrange, both in words andinflections, something likethe Arabic, calling one andthe same thing by variousnames, both original andderivative, and using oneand the same word for avariety of subjects, which,in order to be properlyunderstood, must bedistinguished from eachother by various qualifyingepithets.
God knows best!
Travellers did not always believewhat they were told. Whenfaced with the story of a woodenidol that supposedly lasted for216,432 years, Al-Biruni asks:
How, then, could woodhave lasted such a length oftime, and particularly in aplace where the air and thesoil are rather wet? Godknows best!
were not so, insisted Al-Biruni, life on earth wouldhave been impossible. The conception of socialpollution, intrinsic to the caste system, wasaccording to him, contrary to the laws of nature.
The system of varnas
This is Al-Biruni’s account of the system of varnas:
The highest caste are the Brahmana, of whom thebooks of the Hindus tell us that they were created fromthe head of Brahman. And as the Brahman is onlyanother name for the force called nature, and the headis the highest part of the … body, the Brahmana are thechoice part of the whole genus. Therefore the Hindusconsider them as the very best of mankind.
The next caste are the Kshatriya, who were created,as they say, from the shoulders and hands of Brahman.Their degree is not much below that of the Brahmana.
After them follow the Vaishya, who were created fromthe thigh of Brahman.
The Shudra, who were created from his feet . . .
Between the latter two classes there is no verygreat distance. Much, however, as these classesdiffer from each other, they live together in thesame towns and villages, mixed together in the samehouses and lodgings.
As we have seen, Al-Biruni’s description of thecaste system was deeply influenced by his studyof normative Sanskrit texts which laid down the rulesgoverning the system from the point of view ofthe Brahmanas. However, in real life the systemwas not quite as rigid. For instance, the categoriesdefined as antyaja (literally, born outside the system)were often expected to provide inexpensive labour toboth peasants and zamindars (see also Chapter 8).In other words, while they were often subjected tosocial oppression, they were included withineconomic networks.
Ü Discuss...How important is knowledgeof the language of the area fora traveller from a differentregion?
Ü Compare what Al-Biruni
wrote with Source 6, Chapter 3.Do you notice any similaritiesand differences? Do you thinkAl-Biruni depended only onSanskrit texts for hisinformation and understandingof Indian society?
5. Ibn Battuta and the Excitementof the Unfamiliar
By the time Ibn Battuta arrived in Delhi in thefourteenth century, the subcontinent was part of aglobal network of communication that stretched fromChina in the east to north-west Africa and Europein the west. As we have seen, Ibn Battuta himselftravelled extensively through these lands, visitingsacred shrines, spending time with learned men andrulers, often officiating as qazi, and enjoying thecosmopolitan culture of urban centres where peoplewho spoke Arabic, Persian, Turkish and otherlanguages, shared ideas, information and anecdotes.These included stories about men noted for theirpiety, kings who could be both cruel and generous,and about the lives of ordinary men and women;anything that was unfamiliar was particularlyhighlighted in order to ensure that the listener orthe reader was suitably impressed by accounts ofdistant yet accessible worlds.
5.1 The coconut and the paan
Some of the best examples of Ibn Battuta’s strategiesof representation are evident in the ways in whichhe described the coconut and the paan, two kinds ofplant produce that were completely unfamiliar tohis audience.
Read Ibn Battuta’s description of the paan:
The betel is a tree which is cultivated in the samemanner as the grape-vine; … The betel has no fruitand is grown only for the sake of its leaves … Themanner of its use is that before eating it one takesareca nut; this is like a nutmeg but is broken up until itis reduced to small pellets, and one places these in hismouth and chews them. Then he takes the leaves ofbetel, puts a little chalk on them, and masticates themalong with the betel.
Nuts like a man’s head
The following is how Ibn Battutadescribed the coconut:
These trees are among themost peculiar trees in kindand most astonishing inhabit. They look exactlylike date-palms, withoutany dif ference betweenthem except that the oneproduces nuts as its fruitsand the other producesdates. The nut of a coconuttree resembles a man’shead, for in it are what looklike two eyes and a mouth,and the inside of it when it isgreen looks like the brain,and attached to it is a fibrewhich looks like hair. Theymake from this cords withwhich they sew up shipsinstead of (using) iron nails,and they (also) make from itcables for vessels.
Ü What are the
comparisons that IbnBattuta makes to give hisreaders an idea aboutwhat coconuts lookedlike? Do you think theseare appropriate? Howdoes he convey a sensethat this fruit is unusual?How accurate is hisdescription?
Ü Why do you think this attracted Ibn
Battuta’s attention? Is there anything youwould like to add to this description?
5.2 Ibn Battuta and Indian citiesIbn Battuta found cities in the subcontinent full ofexciting opportunities for those who had thenecessary drive, resources and skills. They weredensely populated and prosperous, except for theoccasional disruptions caused by wars andinvasions. It appears from Ibn Battuta’s account thatmost cities had crowded streets and bright andcolourful markets that were stacked with a widevariety of goods. Ibn Battuta described Delhi as avast city, with a great population, the largest in India.Daulatabad (in Maharashtra) was no less, and easilyrivalled Delhi in size.
Here is an excerpt from Ibn Battuta’s account of Delhi, often spelt as Dehli in textsof the period:
The city of Dehli covers a wide area and has a large population ...The rampart round the city is without parallel. The breadth of its wallis eleven cubits; and inside it are houses for the night sentry and gate-keepers. Inside the ramparts, there are store-houses for storing edibles,magazines, ammunition, ballistas and siege machines. The grains thatare stored (in these ramparts) can last for a long time, without rotting... In the interior of the rampart, horsemen as well as infantrymenmove from one end of the city to another. The rampart is piercedthrough by windows which open on the side of the city, and it isthrough these windows that light enters inside. The lower part of therampart is built of stone; the upper part of bricks. It has many towersclose to one another. There are twenty eight gates of this city whichare called darwaza, and of these, the Budaun darwaza is the greatest;inside the Mandwi darwaza there is a grain market; adjacent to theGul darwaza there is an orchard ... It (the city of Dehli) has a fine cemetery in which graves havedomes over them, and those that do not have a dome, have an arch, for sure. In the cemetery
they sow flowers suchas tuberose, jasmine,wild rose, etc.; andflowers blossom therein all seasons.
Ü What were the architectural
features that Ibn Battutanoted?Compare this description withthe illustrations of the cityshown in Figs. 5.8 and 5.9.
THROUGH THE EYES OF TRAVELLERS
Fig. 5.8 (top)An arch in Tughlakabad,Delhi
Fig. 5.9 (left)Part of the fortificationwall of the settlement
The bazaars were not only places of economictransactions, but also the hub of social and culturalactivities. Most bazaars had a mosque and a temple,and in some of them at least, spaces were marked forpublic performances by dancers, musicians and singers.
While Ibn Battuta was not particularly concernedwith explaining the prosperity of towns, historians haveused his account to suggest that towns derived asignificant portion of their wealth through theappropriation of surplus from villages. Ibn Battutafound Indian agriculture very productive because ofthe fertility of the soil, which allowed farmers tocultivate two crops a year. He also noted that thesubcontinent was well integrated with inter-Asiannetworks of trade and commerce, with Indianmanufactures being in great demand in both West Asiaand Southeast Asia, fetching huge profits for artisansand merchants. Indian textiles, particularly cottoncloth, fine muslins, silks, brocade and satin, were ingreat demand. Ibn Battuta informs us that certainvarieties of fine muslin were so expensive that theycould be worn only by the nobles and the very rich.
Music in the market
Read Ibn Battuta’s description of Daulatabad:
In Daulatabad there is a market place for male andfemale singers, which is known as Tarababad. It is oneof the greatest and most beautiful bazaars. It hasnumerous shops and every shop has a door whichleads into the house of the owner ... The shops aredecorated with carpets and at the centre of a shopthere is a swing on which sits the female singer. She isdecked with all kinds of finery and her female attendantsswing her. In the middle of the market place there standsa large cupola, which is carpeted and decorated andin which the chief of the musicians takes his place everyThursday after the dawn prayers, accompanied by hisservants and slaves. The female singers come insuccessive crowds, sing before him and dance untildusk after which he withdraws. In this bazaar there aremosques for offering prayers ... One of the Hindu rulers... alighted at the cupola every time he passed by thismarket place, and the female singers would sing beforehim. Even some Muslim rulers did the same.
Fig. 5.10Ikat weaving patterns such as thiswere adopted and modified atseveral coastal production centresin the subcontinent and inSoutheast Asia.
Ü Why do you think Ibn
Battuta highlighted theseactivities in his description?
5.3 A unique system of communicationThe state evidently took special measures toencourage merchants. Almost all trade routes werewell supplied with inns and guest houses. IbnBattuta was also amazed by the efficiency of thepostal system which allowed merchants to not onlysend information and remit credit across longdistances, but also to dispatch goods required atshort notice. The postal system was so efficient thatwhile it took fifty days to reach Delhi from Sind,the news reports of spies would reach the Sultanthrough the postal system in just five days.
On horse and on foot
This is how Ibn Battuta describes the postal system:
In India the postal system is of two kinds. The horse-post, called uluq, is run by royal horses stationed at adistance of every four miles. The foot-post has threestations per mile; it is called dawa, that is one-third of amile ... Now, at every third of a mile there is a well-populated village, outside which are three pavilions inwhich sit men with girded loins ready to start. Each ofthem carries a rod, two cubits in length, with copperbells at the top. When the courier starts from the cityhe holds the letter in one hand and the rod with itsbells on the other; and he runs as fast as he can. Whenthe men in the pavilion hear the ringing of the bell theyget ready. As soon as the courier reaches them, one ofthem takes the letter from his hand and runs at topspeed shaking the rod all the while until he reachesthe next dawa. And the same process continues till theletter reaches its destination. This foot-post is quickerthan the horse-post; and often it is used to transportthe fruits of Khurasan which are much desired in India.
Ü Discuss...How did Ibn Battuta handle the problem ofdescribing things or situations to people whohad not seen or experienced them?
A strange nation?
The travelogue of Abdur Razzaqwritten in the 1440s is aninteresting mixture of emotionsand perceptions. On the onehand, he did not appreciatewhat he saw in the port ofCalicut (present-day Kozhikode)in Kerala, which was populatedby “a people the likes of whom Ihad never imagined”, describingthem as “a strange nation”.
Later in his visit to India, hearrived in Mangalore, andcrossed the Western Ghats. Herehe saw a temple that filled himwith admiration:
Within three leagues (aboutnine miles of Mangalore, Isaw an idol-house the likesof which is not to be foundin all the world. It was asquare, approximately tenyards a side, five yards inheight, all covered with castbronze, with four porticos.In the entrance portico wasa statue in the likeness of ahuman being, full stature,made of gold. It had twored rubies for eyes, socunningly made that youwould say it could see.What craft and artisanship!
If Ibn Battuta chose to describe everything thatimpressed and excited him because of its novelty,François Bernier belonged to a different intellectualtradition. He was far more preoccupied withcomparing and contrasting what he saw in Indiawith the situation in Europe in general and Francein particular, focusing on situations which heconsidered depressing. His idea seems to have beento influence policy-makers and the intelligentsia toensure that they made what he considered to be the“right” decisions.
Bernier’s Travels in the Mughal Empire is markedby detailed observations, critical insights andreflection. His account contains discussions tryingto place the history of the Mughals within some sortof a universal framework. He constantly comparedMughal India with contemporary Europe, generallyemphasising the superiority of the latter. Hisrepresentation of India works on the model ofbinary opposition, where India is presented as theinverse of Europe. He also ordered the perceiveddifferences hierarchically, so that India appeared tobe inferior to the Western world.
6.1 The question of landownershipAccording to Bernier, one of the fundamentaldifferences between Mughal India and Europe wasthe lack of private property in land in the former.He was a firm believer in the virtues of privateproperty, and saw crown ownership of land asbeing harmful for both the state and its people. Hethought that in the Mughal Empire the emperorowned all the land and distributed it among hisnobles, and that this had disastrous consequencesfor the economy and society. This perception wasnot unique to Bernier, but is found in mosttravellers’ accounts of the sixteenth andseventeenth centuries.
Owing to crown ownership of land, argued Bernier,landholders could not pass on their land to theirchildren. So they were averse to any long-terminvestment in the sustenance and expansion ofproduction. The absence of private property in landhad, therefore, prevented the emergence of the classof “improving” landlords (as in Western Europe) with
Pelsaert, a Dutch traveller, visitedthe subcontinent during the earlydecades of the seventeenthcentury. Like Bernier, he wasshocked to see the widespreadpoverty, “poverty so great andmiserable that the life of thepeople can be depicted oraccurately described only as thehome of stark want and thedwelling place of bitter woe”.Holding the state responsible,he says: “So much is wrungfrom the peasants that even drybread is scarcely left to fil ltheir stomachs.”
a concern to maintain or improve the land. It hadled to the uniform ruination of agriculture, excessiveoppression of the peasantry and a continuous declinein the living standards of all sections of society, exceptthe ruling aristocracy.
The poor peasant
An excerpt from Bernier’s description of the peasantry inthe countryside:
Of the vast tracts of country constituting the empire ofHindustan, many are little more than sand, or barrenmountains, badly cultivated, and thinly populated.Even a considerable portion of the good land remainsuntilled for want of labourers; many of whom perish inconsequence of the bad treatment they experiencefrom Governors. The poor people, when they becomeincapable of discharging the demands of theirrapacious lords, are not only often deprived of themeans of subsistence, but are also made to lose theirchildren, who are carried away as slaves. Thus, ithappens that the peasantry, driven to despair by soexcessive a tyranny, abandon the country.
In this instance, Bernier was participating incontemporary debates in Europe concerning the natureof state and society, and intended that his description ofMughal India would serve as a warning to those who didnot recognise the “merits” of private property.
As an extension of this, Bernier described Indiansociety as consisting of undifferentiated masses ofimpoverished people, subjugated by a small minorityof a very rich and powerful ruling class. Betweenthe poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich,there was no social group or class worth the name.Bernier confidently asserted: “There is no middlestate in India.”
Ü What, according to Bernier, were the
problems faced by peasants in thesubcontinent? Do you think his descriptionwould have served to strengthen his case?
THROUGH THE EYES OF TRAVELLERS
Fig. 5.11Drawings such as thisnineteenth-century exampleoften reinforced the notion ofan unchanging rural society.
This, then, is how Bernier saw the Mughal Empire– its king was the king of “beggars and barbarians”;its cities and towns were ruined and contaminatedwith “ill air”; and its fields, “overspread with bushes”and full of “pestilential marishes”. And, all this wasbecause of one reason: crown ownership of land.
Curiously, none of the Mughal official documentssuggest that the state was the sole owner of land.For instance, Abu’l Fazl, the sixteenth-centuryofficial chronicler of Akbar’s reign, describes the landrevenue as “remunerations of sovereignty”, a claimmade by the ruler on his subjects for the protectionhe provided rather than as rent on land that heowned. It is possible that European travellersregarded such claims as rent because land revenuedemands were often very high. However, this wasactually not a rent or even a land tax, but a tax onthe crop (for more details, see Chapter 8).
Bernier’s descriptions influenced Westerntheorists from the eighteenth century onwards. TheFrench philosopher Montesquieu, for instance, usedthis account to develop the idea of oriental despotism,according to which rulers in Asia (the Orient or theEast) enjoyed absolute authority over their subjects,who were kept in conditions of subjugation andpoverty, arguing that all land belonged to the kingand that private property was non-existent.According to this view, everybody, except the emperorand his nobles, barely managed to survive.
This idea was further developed as the concept ofthe Asiatic mode of production by Karl Marx in thenineteenth century. He argued that in India (andother Asian countries), before colonialism, surpluswas appropriated by the state. This led to theemergence of a society that was composed of a largenumber of autonomous and (internally) egalitarianvillage communities. The imperial court presidedover these village communities, respecting theirautonomy as long as the flow of surplus wasunimpeded. This was regarded as a stagnant system.
However, as we will see (Chapter 8), this pictureof rural society was far from true. In fact, duringthe sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ruralsociety was characterised by considerable social andeconomic differentiation. At one end of the spectrumwere the big zamindars, who enjoyed superior rightsin land and, at the other, the “untouchable” landless
A warning for Europe
Bernier warned that i fEuropean kings followed theMughal model:
Their kingdoms would bevery far from being well-cultivated and peopled,so well built, so rich, sopolite and flourishing aswe see them. Our kingsare otherwise r ich andpowerful; and we mustavow that they are muchbetter and more royallyserved. They would soon bekings of deserts andsolitudes, of beggars andbarbarians, such as thoseare whom I have beenrepresenting (the Mughals)… We should f ind thegreat Cities and the greatBurroughs (boroughs)rendered uninhabitablebecause of ill air, and tofall to ruine (ruin) withoutany bodies (anybody) takingcare of repairing them;the hi l locks abandon’d,and the fields overspreadwith bushes, or f i l l ’dwith pestilential marishes(marshes), as hath beenalready intimated.
Ü How does Bernier depict
a scenario of doom?Once you have readChapters 8 and 9, returnto this description andanalyse it again.
labourers. In between was the big peasant, who usedhired labour and engaged in commodity production, andthe smaller peasant who could barely produce for hissubsistence.
6.2 A more complex social realityWhile Bernier’s preoccupation with projecting theMughal state as tyrannical is obvious, his descriptionsoccasionally hint at a more complex social reality. Forinstance, he felt that artisans had no incentive toimprove the quality of their manufactures, since profitswere appropriated by the state. Manufactures were,consequently, everywhere in decline. At the same time,he conceded that vast quantities of the world’s preciousmetals flowed into India, as manufactures were exportedin exchange for gold and silver. He also noticed theexistence of a prosperous merchant community,engaged in long-distance exchange.
A different socio-economic scenario
Read this excerpt from Bernier’s description of bothagriculture and craft production:
It is important to observe, that of this vast tract of country,a large portion is extremely fertile; the large kingdom ofBengale (Bengal), for instance, surpassing Egypt itself, notonly in the production of rice, corn, and other necessariesof life, but of innumerable articles of commerce which arenot cultivated in Egypt; such as silks, cotton, and indigo.There are also many parts of the Indies, where thepopulation is sufficiently abundant, and the land pretty welltilled; and where the artisan, although naturally indolent,is yet compelled by necessity or otherwise to employ himselfin manufacturing carpets, brocades, embroideries, goldand silver cloths, and the various sorts of silk and cottongoods, which are used in the country or exported abroad.
It should not escape notice that gold and silver, aftercirculating in every other quarter of the globe, come atlength to be swallowed up, lost in some measure, inHindustan.
Ü In what ways is the description in this excerpt
different from that in Source 11?
THROUGH THE EYES OF TRAVELLERS
Fig. 5.12A gold spoon studded withemeralds and rubies, anexample of the dexterity ofMughal artisans
In fact, during the seventeenth century about15 per cent of the population lived in towns. Thiswas, on average, higher than the proportion of urbanpopulation in Western Europe in the same period.In spite of this Bernier described Mughal cities as“camp towns”, by which he meant towns that owedtheir existence, and depended for their survival,on the imperial camp. He believed that these cameinto existence when the imperial court moved inand rapidly declined when it moved out. Hesuggested that they did not have viable social andeconomic foundations but were dependent onimperial patronage.
As in the case of the question of landownership,Bernier was drawing an oversimplified picture.There were all kinds of towns: manufacturingtowns, trading towns, port-towns, sacred centres,pilgrimage towns, etc. Their existence is an indexof the prosperity of merchant communities andprofessional classes.
Merchants often had strong community or kin ties,and were organised into their own caste-cum-occupational bodies. In western India these groupswere called mahajans, and their chief, the sheth. Inurban centres such as Ahmedabad the mahajanswere collectively represented by the chief of themerchant community who was called the nagarsheth.
Other urban groups included professionalclasses such as physicians (hakim or vaid), teachers(pundit or mulla ), lawyers (wakil ), painters,architects, musicians, calligraphers, etc. Whilesome depended on imperial patronage, many madetheir living by serving other patrons, while stillothers served ordinary people in crowded marketsor bazaars.
The imperial karkhanas
Bernier is perhaps the onlyhistorian who provides a detailedaccount of the working ofthe imperial karkhanas orworkshops:
Large hal ls are seenat many places, cal ledkarkhanas or workshopsfor the artisans. In one hall,embroiderers are busilyemployed, superintendedby a master. In another,you see the goldsmiths; in athird, painters; in a fourth,varnishers in lacquer-work;in a fifth, joiners, turners,tailors and shoe-makers; ina sixth, manufacturers of silk,brocade and fine muslins …
The artisans come everymorning to their karkhanaswhere they remainemployed the whole day;and in the evening return totheir homes. In this quietregular manner, their timeglides away; no one aspiringfor any improvement in thecondition of life wherein hehappens to be born.
Ü How does Bernier
convey a sense thatalthough there was agreat deal of activity,there was little progress?
Ü Discuss...Why do you think scholars like Bernier chose tocompare India with Europe?
It is the habit of the emperor ... tokeep with every noble, great orsmall, one of his slaves who spieson the nobles. He also appointsfemale scavengers who enter thehouses unannounced; and to themthe slave girls communicate all theinformation they possess.
Most female slaves were captured inraids and expeditions.
7. WomenSlaves, Sati and Labourers
Travellers who left written accounts weregenerally men who were interested in andsometimes intrigued by the condition ofwomen in the subcontinent. Sometimes theytook social inequities for granted as a“natural” state of affairs. For instance,slaves were openly sold in markets, like anyother commodity, and were regularlyexchanged as gifts. When Ibn Battutareached Sind he purchased “horses, camelsand slaves” as gifts for Sultan Muhammadbin Tughlaq. When he reached Multan, hepresented the governor with, “a slave andhorse together with raisins and almonds”.Muhammad bin Tughlaq, informs IbnBattuta, was so happy with the sermon of apreacher named Nasiruddin that he gave him“a hundred thousand tankas (coins) andtwo hundred slaves”.
It appears from Ibn Battuta’s account thatthere was considerable differentiation amongslaves. Some female slaves in the service ofthe Sultan were experts in music and dance,and Ibn Battuta enjoyed their performanceat the wedding of the Sultan’s sister. Femaleslaves were also employed by the Sultan tokeep a watch on his nobles.
Slaves were generally used for domesticlabour, and Ibn Battuta found their servicesparticularly indispensable for carryingwomen and men on palanquins or dola. Theprice of slaves, particularly female slavesrequired for domestic labour, was very low,and most families who could afford to do sokept at least one or two of them.
Contemporary European travellers andwriters often highlighted the treatment ofwomen as a crucial marker of differencebetween Western and Eastern societies. Notsurprisingly, Bernier chose the practice ofsati for detailed description. He noted thatwhile some women seemed to embrace deathcheerfully, others were forced to die.
THROUGH THE EYES OF TRAVELLERS
The child sati
This is perhaps one of the mostpoignant descriptions by Bernier:
At Lahore I saw a most beautifulyoung widow sacri f iced, whocould not, I think, have been morethan twelve years of age. The poorlittle creature appeared more deadthan alive when she approachedthe dreadful pit: the agony of hermind cannot be described; shetrembled and wept bitterly; butthree or four of the Brahmanas,assisted by an old woman who heldher under the arm, forced theunwilling victim toward the fatalspot, seated her on the wood, tiedher hands and feet, lest she shouldrun away, and in that situation theinnocent creature was burnt alive.I found it difficult to repress myfeel ings and to prevent theirbursting forth into clamorous andunavailing rage …
However, women’s lives revolved around much elsebesides the practice of sati. Their labour was crucialin both agricultural and non-agricultural production.Women from merchant families participated incommercial activities, sometimes even takingmercantile disputes to the court of law. It thereforeseems unlikely that women were confined to theprivate spaces of their homes.
You may have noticed that travellers’ accountsprovide us with a tantalising glimpse of the lives ofmen and women during these centuries. However,their observations were often shaped by the contextsfrom which they came. At the same time, there weremany aspects of social life that these travellers didnot notice.
Also relatively unknown are the experiences andobservations of men (and possibly women) from thesubcontinent who crossed seas and mountains andventured into lands beyond the subcontinent. Whatdid they see and hear? How were their relations withpeoples of distant lands shaped? What were thelanguages they used? These and other questions willhopefully be systematically addressed by historiansin the years to come.
Ü Discuss...Why do you think the lives ofordinary women workers didnot attract the attention oftravellers such as Ibn Battutaand Bernier?
Fig. 5.13A sculpted panel from Mathuradepicting travellers
2. Compare and contrast the perspectives from which IbnBattuta and Bernier wrote their accounts of their travelsin India.
3. Discuss the picture of urban centres that emerges fromBernier’s account.
4. Analyse the evidence for slavery provided by Ibn Battuta.
5. What were the elements of the practice of sati that drewthe attention of Bernier?
Write a short essay (about250-300 words) on the following:
6. Discuss Al-Biruni’s understanding of the caste system.
7. Do you think Ibn Battuta’s account is useful inarriving at an understanding of life in contemporaryurban centres? Give reasons for your answer.
8. Discuss the extent to which Bernier’s account enableshistorians to reconstruct contemporary rural society.
9. Read this excerpt from Bernier:
Numerous are the instances of handsome piecesof workmanship made by persons destitute oftools, and who can scarcely be said to have receivedinstruction from a master. Sometimes they imitateso perfectly articles of European manufacture thatthe difference between the original and copy canhardly be discerned. Among other things, theIndians make excellent muskets, and fowling-pieces, and such beautiful gold ornaments thatit may be doubted if the exquisite workmanshipof those articles can be exceeded by any Europeangoldsmith. I have often admired the beauty,softness, and delicacy of their paintings.
List the crafts mentioned in the passage. Comparethese with the descriptions of artisanal activity inthe chapter.
Muzaffar Alam andSanjay Subrahmanyam. 2006.Indo-Persian Travels in the Ageof Discoveries, 1400-1800.Cambridge University Press,Cambridge.
Catherine Asher and CynthiaTalbot. 2006.India Before Europe.Cambridge University Press,Cambridge.
François Bernier. nd.Travels in the Mogul EmpireAD 1656-1668.Low Price Publications,New Delhi.
H.A.R. Gibb (ed.). 1993.The Travels of Ibn Battuta.Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi.
Mushirul Hasan (ed.). 2005.Westward Bound:Travels of Mirza Abu Talib.Oxford University Press,New Delhi.
H.K. Kaul (ed.). 1997.Travellers’ India – an Anthology.Oxford University Press,New Delhi.
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. 1993.Travels in India.Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi.
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THROUGH THE EYES OF TRAVELLERS
10. On an outline map of the world mark the countriesvisited by Ibn Battuta. What are the seas that hemay have crossed?
Projects (choose one)
11. Interview any one of your older relatives (mother/father/grandparents/uncles/aunts) who hastravelled outside your town or village. Find out(a) where they went, (b) how they travelled,(c) how long did it take, (d) why did they travel(e) and did they face any difficulties. List as manysimilarities and differences that they may havenoticed between their place of residence and theplace they visited, focusing on language, clothes,food, customs, buildings, roads, the lives of menand women. Write a report on your findings.
12. For any one of the travellers mentioned inthe chapter, find out more about his life andwritings. Prepare a report on his travels, notingin particular how he described society, andcomparing these descriptions with the excerptsincluded in the chapter.