A Virtual Tour of Mughal India

I don’t write book reviews. But sometimes, I write about a book or share my excitement about a book that enthralled me. You may call it a book review if you chose so. In fact this article was first published as a Book Review in the September 1999 issue of ‘Bengaluru Review’. I am sharing it here with some modifications. I made a brief mention of this book in my earlier blog post the missing history of Hindustan.

Going to a physical library sometimes throws 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 – Beyond the Three Seas – Travellers’ Tales of Mughal India. It aroused curiosity about not only the life of the common man during the Mughal period but also what it was like to travel in those times when mechanical vehicles and Google maps were not invented even in dreams.

The book is a compilation of extracts from the firsthand accounts of ten travellers who visited India during different periods from 1470 to 1670. It is Edited by Michael H. Fisher and William Dalrymple’s preface is as interesting as the account of the travellers who belonged to different nations of Europe and were from different professions. Someone was a doctor, someone was a merchant, and another was a Christian evangelist and so on. Thus, they viewed India through the prism of both their own local cultures and their professions. The travel accounts are also chosen in such a way as to cover as much area of the undivided India as possible. The travels also cover all the seasons.

Our historical text books base their contents about the Mughal period on the 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 ‘Travel Beyond the Three Seas’ augment, validate, and provide the missing links for 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 counter point 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.”

Alfansy Nikitin, a horse trader from Russia, is the first of the ten travellers whose account is included in the book. He travelled in west and central India during 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 was promised to be restored with the horse if he agreed to convert to Islam. He became a part of Hindu pilgrimage to a mountain to witness rituals like shaving of head by both men and women. He observes that while travelling, the Hindus ate with their right hand and did not know the use of a spoon. They cooked meal in separate pots and took care that any Mohammedan did not look into it. He mentions that Hindu Sultan of Vijayanagar known as Kadam was a powerful King. During his travels Nikitin 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.

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 practised 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 him 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 practised to protect the honour of women in view of Mughal atrocities. But Casear Federici’s account shows that it was practised in many other parts of India and was not restricted to the warrior class. Further, it was practised irrespective of the cause of the death of the men.

A decade later, invited by Akbar, Antonio Monserate, a Portugese Catholic Priest travels 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 goes in vain in spite of following Akbar even during his harsh war campaigns. It seems destruction of Hindu temples was a very common practice 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 entrusted him to negotiate with Jahangir for trade concessions and permissions to establish a permanent base for its merchants. While travelling from Surat to Agra he survives a plot to be killed by his coachman. Emperor Jahangir bestows him with an enviable official position and he meets his future wife – Mariam in the palace. An interesting thing 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 carts. 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 Sebstein Manrique narrates his journeys in Odisha and undivided Bengal and Bihar. 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 due to his efforts prospered after his initial years of struggle. He describes his life and struggle in his first months in India and also 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 subsequently was part of the entourage of Aurangzeb’s courtier Danishmand khan. Through his accounts one can have an idea about what it was like travelling long distance with the royal entourage of Aurangzeb. He describes how it was difficult and dangerous to try to have a glimpse of the royal female contingent that accompanied Aurangzeb.

Traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavarnier was French military officer turned merchant- banker. His writing selection includes details of modes of travel in India. Even he 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 in travelling in India. To avoid extreme heat one had to mostly travel during night which increased the risk of being robbed and killed. Hence he advises 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 undertakes parts of his journey 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 in the areas between Madras and Hyderabad in 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 tamarine 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 cum time travel for me to go through this book. I found myself sharing a meal and worshiping the stone idols of the tribes who professionally undertook to transport goods through bullock cart 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 after the decline of the Mughal Empire.

PS : This is the alphabet M post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.

All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.

22 thoughts on “A Virtual Tour of Mughal India

  1. Wow, I am always interested in Indian history. Mughal empire is vast like ocean, still many facts are buried in mystery. Loved your post, I really enjoyed reading it. I am a big Indian history buff.

    Liked by 1 person

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