Perennially Fascinating Accounts
Partho Datta
November 2009, volume 33, No 11

Travellers’ tales are a marvellous way to peep into the past and Anu Kumar has written an accessible and very readable book about journeys to India through the ages. There are eleven chapters, each devoted to a famous traveller who left an account of India. All school children read or know something about Megasthenes or Hiuen Tsang or Ibn Batutah but few have a chance to explore these accounts in more detail. This book gives just that opportunity with a judicious mix of both first-hand experiences of the authors and their observations about India as well as their more extravagant stories, some of which were obviously written to impress audiences back home. If school text books have over the years reduced these tales to factual reporting about the pre-modern world, then this book transforms them into great adventure stories. There are also modern accounts in this book from the twentieth century like that by the Turkish woman author Halide Edib who travelled through India in the 1930s.

What makes these accounts perennially fascinating is the picture of a pre-modern world which contrary to modern conceits was closely integrated. Despite our present-day scepticism about the efficiency of pre-mechanized transport, merchants, mendicants, mercenaries, royal ambassadors, curious scholars and pilgrims managed to cover vast distances by foot, on animals and by sea. The possibility that they would never come back home did not seem to deter these motivated travellers. Seafaring was highly developed and the most exciting places were ports where people from far-flung countries happily cohabited and cemented trading relationships. Local rulers welcomed trading communities giving them permission to practice their religions and build places of worship. Foreign traders brought in exotic goods and years of intermingling produced new forms of dress and cuisine. Borders were also porous and although permission to travel was needed through kingdoms, travelling overland or finding passage in a ship was probably easier in the pre-modern world. However this world was frought with dangers as the well-known American historian Natalie Zemon Davis describes in her latest book Tricksters Travels where a sixteenth century Muslim diplomat from Fez, al-Hasan al-Wazan is captured by pirates, gifted to the Pope and rechristened Joannes Leo. More dreadful things happened to those on the frontiers of colonial expansion which too are engagingly discussed in historian Linda Colley’s Captives which includes the story of Sarah Shade who spent almost a year in Haider Ali’s prison.

Many amazing stories too abound in this book. Megasthenes wrote two thousand years ago and his text is lost, but what survives in other accounts can still fills us with wonder. Living in Pataliputra he has left a description of the city with its wooden walls and the privileges of the Mauryan king Chandragupta, who had women guards as companions on royal hunts. Megasthenes is famous for giving a description of gold-digging ants and also less mythical animals like elephants, tigers and scorpions which like the ants he had never seen before. Hiuen Tsang has a dramatic story to tell about a failed assassination attempt on King Harsha at Kannauj. He also lived in Nalanda and met scholars in this university from Persia, Turkey, Japan, Korea and Tibet. It is also nice to know from Ibn Batutah’s account that Sultan Mohammad bin Tughlak liked to eat biriyani and that triangular meat patties were called sambusak which is reminiscent of our samosas. Marco Polo visited Malabar and brought back the soil from the place where St.Thomas had been martyred. He claimed that it had miraculous healing powers. His account though is treated with a great deal of caution by historians, some of whom claim that he was an astute fibber. However this has not stopped popular re-tellings of his dramatic journey and readers will find another complimentary account of Marco Polo in the great Medievalist Eileen Power’s Medieval People which though first published in 1924 is well worth reading. There is yet another version exclusively for children by Marion Koenig with fine illustrations by Mario Logli and Gabriele Santini which was published in the 1960s.

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