Afanasy Nikitin: India Through the Eyes of a Russian Traveller

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    Like all globe-trotters, Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin packed everything he needed for an extended overseas trip, but he didn’t travel light. The Russian merchant, who journeyed all the way from Tver in Russia to India via land and sea, took with him an unusual piece of cargo – a horse.

    Nikitin was a canny merchant and he had heard that India did not breed good horses. So he figured he would get a good price for it. These were medieval times and a trip like Nikitin’s was fraught with uncertainty, so carrying valuables was not an option. Besides, there was a good chance he would be attacked and robbed by pirates. And indeed he was. The horse would be his only insurance in a foreign land.

    The reason Nikitin was prepared to risk so much was the reputation India had acquired. To the medieval world, India was a land of wonder and many foreign travellers journeyed here in search of spices, silk, precious stones and even religion. We are familiar with the names Megasthenes from Greece, Hiuen Tsang from China, Al Biruni from Persia, Ibn Batuta from Morocco and Marco Polo from Italy, whose accounts have been referred to throughout history.

    Nikitin arrived in India in the 15th century CE, and his travelogue gives us vital clues to Indian society of those times. It also tells us about 500-year-old links between India and Russia.

    A Long, Long Journey

    Afanasy Nikitin was born in the Russian principality of Tver, a prosperous trading centre. Merchants from far and wide flocked to Tver, bringing news of various commodities, and India featured prominently in their stories. This was a time when India was ruled by the Bahmani Sultanate (1347 - 1518), which was actively trading with Persia. On hearing these stories, Nikitin decided to try his luck.

    He, along with this precious horse, travelled along the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea into Iran and Oman, and to the harbour of Hormuz in the Middle East. From here, he started his voyage across the Arabian Sea to India, making several prolonged stops along the way and documenting everything in his journal, which he called Journey Beyond Three Seas.

    Nikitin reached the west coast of India in 1469, and landed at the port of Cambay (Khambhat) in present-day Gujarat. He purchased some indigo here and continued towards Maharashtra, where his final destination was the village of Chaul, in Raigad district. When he landed in Chaul, he wondered why the people were near-naked, their heads and chests bare, and showing round bellies. He adds that they wore jewellery and ornaments. Just as they were a source of wonder to him, so was he to them, for they ran after him, staring.

    At that time, the local ruler was a subordinate of Bahmani Sultan Muhammad Shah III (1463-1482). Since the Sultan was only a child when he ascended the throne, the powerful Mahmud Gawan acted as his vizier or Prime Minister. He held the title of Malik et-Tuzzar. In his account, Nikitin calls him ‘Tuzzar’. Bidar served as the capital city of the Bahmanis and Nikitin decided to visit it.

    He wrote in his book that in Bidar, horses, brocade silk and “black people” were sold in the market. Nikitin’s hunch had paid off. He sold his thoroughbred horse here at a good price and used the money on the rest of his tour. He says the palace at Bidar had seven gates with a “hundred” armed guards at each gate. A “hundred” scribes registered the names of entrants. The palace was beautifully decorated with golden designs. He describes elephants being used to carry “castles” (howdas or a seat with a canopy) which at times carried 12 men.

    Nikitin provides a picturesque description of the royal procession during Ulu Bayram (‘great feast’ or Eid). He witnessed the pompous outing of the Sultan and of his dignitaries, with 300 elephants and men armed with muskets. Horses in golden harnesses, trumpeters and dancers, and harem wives accompanied the train. A trained elephant clad in rich fabric with a big iron chain in its mouth struck at people and horses to keep them away from the Sultan. His journal also mentions the wars between the Bahmani Sultanate and the Vijayanagara Empire (1336 – 1646), which were vying for power in the Deccan.

    However, Nikitin was not impressed by everything he saw. He observed that the upper castes wore silk but most of the others wore little. He wrote that he was misled by accounts of Muslim merchants that India was a land of abundance. Nothing of interest could be bought which was useful for his countrymen! Though pepper and indigo were cheap, the duties were high for foreigners and transportation across the seas too dangerous due to pirates, he wrote.

    As for eating habits, Nikitin noted that men ate mutton, fowl, eggs and pork but not beef. Common food was rice, khichri (a preparation of rice and lentils), vegetables, ghee and milk, and wine was made from coconuts. He wrote that “from the excrement of the oxen, they baked bread and cooked meals, and with its ashes, they painted their faces, foreheads and bodies”.

    Nikitin also writes that he went to the holy town of Parvat and admired the great temple there (possibly Mallikarjuna Jyotirlinga in Andhra Pradesh). He said the temple complex was about half the size of that of his hometown, Tver! Pilgrims here came in thousands, on foot and in oxen carts.

    The wide-eyed Russian was fascinated by the devotion he saw in the people. He observed, “Altogether, there are 84 faiths in India and everyone believes in God. People worshipped different buths (idols) of different shapes, and Elephant-man (Ganesh) and Monkey-human (Hanuman) forms. People of different faiths do not eat or drink together, nor do they intermarry.”

    Nikitin also visited the diamond mines around Raichur (in present-day Karnataka) and Golconda (in present-day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), where the cut diamonds had a world market. He wrote about their prices and quality. He also wrote about Calicut and Ceylon but scholars doubt he actually visited these places. Of Calicut (Kozhikode), he mentions that it was the centre of all trade across the Indian Ocean. Pepper, dyes, nuts, camphor, cinnamon, ginger and all kinds of spices grew around Calicut and were sold abroad. Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was famous for gems and fine elephants.

    After all this time in India, Nikitin had grown homesick. He notes that it was the “fourth time that Easter had gone by” since he left home, and on this day, “his eyes sought consolation in the stars”. Though he was a devout Christian, there were times when he was forced to convert to Islam but he “evaded them all”, as noted in his book. But he also wrote that he adopted the Muslim name ‘Khoja Yusuf Khorasani’ in India.

    After staying in India for three long years, Nikitin started his long journey home. He sailed from Dabhol (in Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra) to Ethiopia, and then onwards to Muscat and further to Russia. Since his book ends abruptly, it has been assumed that Nikitin died near Smolensk in Russia in 1472, just 400 km from his home in Tver.

    While he was no philosopher or scholar, Nikitin’s writings display a keen sense of observation. He studied India’s social system, economy, religion, lifestyles and much more, and is a valuable source of information even today. His fascinating glimpse of Indian life was, in 1957, made into a movie, in both Hindi and in Russian. The Hindi version was named Pardesi, with Prithviraj Kapoor playing the role of Mahmud Gawan. The plot tells us about the journey of Afanasy Nikitin (played by Russian actor Oleg Strizhenov), who travelled to India and falls in love with a native girl, Champa (played by Nargis Dutt).

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