A virtual journey to the Mughal era

“As we know, official records are usually one-sided. In this context, books like Beyond the Three Seas augment, validate, and provide the missing links to our fair appreciation of history,” writes Durga Prasad Dash.

Going to a physical library sometimes throws a few surprises that you do not get from search engines or auto suggestions of algorithms, however smart these may be. It was a pleasant surprise to find this book which aroused curiosity not only about the life of the common man during the Mughal period, but also about what it was like to travel in those times, when mechanical vehicles and Google maps had not been invented, even in dreams. 

The book is a compilation of extracts from the firsthand accounts of ten travellers who visited India during different periods between 1470 to 1670. They belonged to different nations of Europe and were from distinct professions. One was a doctor, one was a merchant, another was a Christian evangelist and so on. Thus, they viewed India through the prism of both their own local culture and their profession. The travel accounts have also been chosen in such a way as to cover as much area of the undivided India as possible. In addition, the travels cover all the seasons. 

Our history textbooks base their contents about the Mughal period on official records kept by emperors like Shah Jahan or court historians like Abul Fazal. As we know, official records are usually one-sided. In this context, books like Beyond the Three Seas augment, validate, and provide the missing links to our fair appreciation of history. 

William Dalrymple, who has written the foreword, puts it like this: 

“… the dissonant witness provided by European travellers to the Great Moghul court provide a perfect counterpoint to the Moghul court’s own writings. Travel accounts like the ones collected in this book, for all their flaws and errors and occasional fictions and tall stories, and despite the prejudices and sometimes outright bigotry of their authors, do nevertheless tend to provide sharper and certainly livelier pictures of the reality of Mughal India than the fawning pages Abu’l Fazl’s paean of praise to his paymaster, the Emperor Akbar, or the even more unctuous pages of the Shah Jahan Nama.” 

Beyond the Three Seas, edited by Michael Fisher, Random House India, 2008

Alfansy Nikitin, a horse trader from Russia, is the first of the ten travellers whose accounts have been included in the book. He travelled around west and central India between 1471 and 1473. He was awed by the wealth of the Muslim Sultan of Bidar. He recounts how his horse was confiscated by a local Muslim chieftain, and how he was promised that the horse would be returned to him if he agreed to convert to Islam. He became a part of Hindu pilgrimage to a mountain to witness rituals like shaving of the head by both men and women. He observes that while travelling, the Hindus ate with their right hand and did not know of the spoon. They cooked meals in separate pots and took care that any Mohammedan did not look into it. He mentions that the Hindu Sultan of Vijayanagar known as Kadam was a powerful King. During his travels he was always afraid of losing his Christian faith. 

About the social situation, he observes: “The land is overstocked with people; but those in the country are very miserable, whilst the nobles are extremely opulent and delight in luxury.” After more than four centuries, I think, there is hardly any change in the situation. 

The Portuguese traveller Cesare Federici visited India a century later, spending three years mostly in central and south India. He has narrated firsthand the cruel practice of sati practiced in the Vijaynagar Empire. He writes, “I have seen many burnt in this manner, because my house was nearer to the gate where they go out to the place of burning; and when dyeth any great man, his wife with all his slaves with whom he has had carnal copulation, burned themselves together with him.” 

Usually, sati is associated with the royalty of Rajasthan and is glorified by some even to this day, saying that it was practiced to protect the honour of women in view of Mughal atrocities. But Cesare Federici’s account shows that it was practiced in many other parts of India and was not restricted to the warrior class. Further, it was practiced irrespective of the cause of death of the men. 

A decade later, invited by Akbar, Antonio Monserate, a Portugese Catholic Priest traveled from Goa to Fatehpur along with Mughal officials. On the way to Fatehpur, “the entourage, came to a fort built out of the debris of some Hindu Temples which the Musalmans had destroyed.”  His efforts to convert Akbar to Catholicism went in vain, in spite of the fact that he followed Akbar even during his harsh war campaigns. It seems that the destruction of Hindu temples was a very common practice in those days. While Monserate is full of praise for cities like Delhi and Lahore, he does not hide his disdain for the Hindus, Muslims and the Protestant Christians. 

The fourth traveller to be featured in the book is William Hawkins. Unlike other authors of this collection, his accounts are extracted from the reports he sent to his employer – the East India Company, that had trusted him to negotiate with Jahangir for trade concessions and permission to establish a permanent base for its merchants. While travelling from Surat to Agra, he survived a plot to be killed by his coachman. Emperor Jahangir bestowed him with an enviable official position and he met his future wife, Mariam, in the palace. An interesting aspect mentioned by Hawkins is that everything done by Jahangir was recorded by official writers. “… and whatever he doth, either without or within, drunken or sober he hath writers who by turns set downe everything in writing whatever he doth, so that there is nothing passeth in his lifetime which is not noted, no, not so much as his going to the necessary, and how often he lieth with his women, and with whom …” 

Traveller Peter Mundy was also an employee of the East India Company. He narrates his experience of transporting indigo from Agra to Surat by bullock cart. It was a perilous journey with the carts needing frequent repairs, the bullocks facing imminent death due to exhaustion and starvation, and the whole kafila in the danger of being looted on isolated terrains. 

Portuguese Catholic priest Friar Sebastien Manrique narrates his journeys in Odisha and undivided Bengal and Bihar. The everyday life of the common man of those times can be inferred from his recordings. While Peter Mundy narrates the way of travel of the nobility and the large contingents, Manrique narrates the way of travel of the common man and describes life in caramossaras, which were the motels of those days. Manrique found that even though uncivilised, the caretakers of caramossaras were far better than the innkeepers of Europe who, though civilized in behaviour, were greedy and exploitative. 

Unlike other visitors, Niccolao Manucci (1639-1717) stayed back in India for the rest of his life. He came to India as a servant of an English noble, but prospered as a result of his efforts after initial years of struggle. He describes his life and struggle in his first months in India, as well as the transitions of people and places during his subsequent encounters. He served Mughal officials including Aurangzeb’s ill-fated liberal brother Dara Shikoh, and Raja Jai Singh of Rajasthan. 

French doctor Francois Bernier arrived in India in 1658. For some time he served as the personal physician of Dara Sikoh and was subsequently part of the entourage of Aurangzeb’s courtier Danishmand Khan. Through his accounts one can gain an idea about what it was like travelling over long distances with the royal entourage of Aurangzeb. He describes how it was difficult and dangerous to try to catch a glimpse of the royal female contingent that accompanied Aurangzeb. 

Traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavarnier was a French military officer turned merchant-banker. His writing selection includes details of modes of travel in India. He too describes the daily life of the people who specialised in ferrying goods through bullock carts, palanquins, and boats. He refers to the Hindus as the “idolaters.” He also brings out all the dangers of travelling in India. To avoid extreme heat, one had to travel mostly at night, which increased the risk of being robbed and killed. Hence he advised to travel with the help of paid armed men. He describes his journey from Agra to Dhaka via Allahabad, Benaras, Patna, and some other cities of Bengal. With a little bit of amusement and disdain, he describes the religious rituals of the idolaters of Benaras. He undertook parts of his travel by boat on the river Ganges and gives an interesting account of his boat journey.

The last author to be featured in this selection is Spanish Friar Domingo Fernandez de Navarrete, who travelled around the areas between Madras and Hyderabad from 1670-71. Even though he was Spanish, he was saddened by the declining influence of Portuguese in India. It seems South India’s fascination for imlis goes back beyond the Mughal period. He writes “.. the tamarind trees are planted very regularly; the natives make use of their shade to weave their webs in it sheltered in the sun […] They make much use of the fruit in dressing their diet.

Overall, it was an interesting virtual journey for me to go through this book. I found myself sharing a meal and worshiping the stone idols of the tribes who professionally undertook the transport of goods using bullock carts on long arduous kuchcha roads. I was part of the boat journey up in the Ganges going through the trials and tribulations of the travellers and the oarsmen. I was also part of Aurangzeb’s royal entourage that traveled from Delhi to Kashmir with a retinue of servants and soldiers. 

As the editor has rightly mentioned in the introduction, one can sense the seeds of colonisation through these writings even though actual colonisation happened later on, after the decline of the Mughal Empire. Still, the accounts allow a reader to time-travel, in some sense, and experience India during this period from another’s perspective. If traveling provided the opportunity for these voyagers to widen their horizons, this book provides the opportunity for a reader to do the same.

(L) – Beyond the Three Seas (R) – Mughal painting (Source – The Met)

Durga Prasad Dash is a poet, mystic, and a social critic. He has written a volume of poetry, a book of light essays and three other books which are available on Amazon. A taxman by profession, he blogs regularly.

Read more:

An all immersive tale of sea voyage gone horribly wrong

A book that busts many long held beliefs about Hinduism

Poetic and prosaic responses to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre




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