Everyday India, Through Ibn Battuta’s Eyes

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    Samosas were a hot favourite in the Tughlaq court, urad dal and black-eyed beans were popular across North India and Indians loved mango pickles along with their meal. As mundane as this information might sound, these nuggets of everyday life chronicled by Muhammad Ibn Battuta give us great insights into the life of the people in medieval India and are a fascinating read!

    Muhammad Ibn Battuta (1304-1377 CE) was a Moroccan traveller and writer, who like Hiuen Tsang (602 - 664 CE) and Marco Polo (1254-1324 CE) braved danger and uncertainty to travel and write extensively about new lands.

    Born in Tangiers, Morocco in 1304 CE, Batutta is said to have left home at the age of 21 and travelled extensively. Over the next 30 years, he would visit North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, India, Central Asia, South-East Asia and China before returning home in 1354 CE. He would chronicle his travels in ‘Tuḥfat an-Nuẓẓār fī Gharāʾib al-Amṣār wa ʿAjāʾib al-Asfār’, meaningA Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling’.

    After travelling across Central Asia and visiting the cities of Bokhara and Samarkhand, Battuta set out to visit the court of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, then considered to be the wealthiest man in the Islamic world. Battuta is said to have crossed the Indus river on 12 September 1333 CE and made his way to Delhi.

    According to Battuta’s records, he and his companions were received by the Vizier (Prime Minister) as Muhammad Bin Tughlaq was away in Kannauj. So impressed was Tughlaq when he finally met the visitors that he is said to have offered Battuta the position as the judge of Delhi with a salary of 12,000 dinars per year. Though Battuta left the city soon after, he has left a fascinating description of life in India at that time.

    It is Battuta’s chronicles which give us an insight into the postal courier system that was operational in India. The system is said to have employed a horse courier stationed every four miles and a foot courier stationed every mile. The courier would be handed a box, which he would run with for a mile and pass it along to the next courier.

    Ibn Battuta’s account also discusses Jogis, who would perform magic tricks on the streets and notes the practice of Sati - the burning of widows. He also includes curious snippets about the supply of the pan and betel nut to the imperial capital, which is said to have come from Chanderi, near Gwalior (now famous for its saris).

    His descriptions of trees and fruits are most interesting, with an adoration for the jackfruit, which he termed the ‘Loveliest of all fruits in Hindustan’.

    Curiously, he was intrigued by the mango. He’d write:

    The fruit [mango] is about the size of a large damask prune, which when green and not quite ripe, of those which happen to fall, they salt and thus preserve them just as lemon is preserved with us. In the same manner, they preserve ginger when it is green, as also pods of pepper and this they eat with their meals’.

    Battuta would chronicle everyday life, noting that a mango and ginger pickle was an accompaniment to meals. He also details various pulses (dals) and chicken cooked in ghee. Royal feasts, noted Battuta, ‘began with round breads (chapattis) followed by roast meat, sambusak (samosas) and chicken served on a bed of rice. Finally, followed by dessert like halwa and almond pudding.’

    Battuta’s descriptions of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq cast the king as an eccentric man, prone to severe fits of temper.

    Ibn Battuta also gave a detailed description of how the magnificent city of Delhi was, after Tughlaq compulsorily moved every resident of Delhi to Daulatabad. Even the blind and the lame were not spared.

    ‘The Sultan was far too free in shedding blood... [He] used to punish small faults and great, without respect of persons, whether men of learning or piety or noble descent. Every day there are brought to the audience-hall hundreds of people, chained, pinioned, and fettered, and are...executed...tortured or...beaten.’

    An opportunity to leave the disturbing court presented itself when the Emperor of China sent a large embassy to Delhi. Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, sought to send an equally grand mission with valuable gifts to China and appointed Battuta as the Ambassador to China. However, on the way, the mission was intercepted and looted by dacoits and Ibn Battuta just about managed to escape and save his life.

    Ibn Battuta then decided to travel south. He mentions the magnificent fort of Deogiri, renamed Daulatabad by Tughlaq, with its massive walls stretching three miles. He makes a mention also of the Marathas living in the region and describes their food ‘the food of Marathas consists of rice, green vegetables and oil of sesame…they carefully wash their food’.

    From the Deccan, he travelled down south to Malabar, which he described in detail: ‘The whole of the way by land lies under the shade of trees and at a distance of every half mile is a house made of wood, in which there are chambers fitted up for comers and goers. To each there is a well out of which they drink… Upon anyone’s arriving they cook and pour out a drink for him on a leaf of Banana and whatever he happens to leave, is given to the dogs’

    Ibn Battuta spoke of the great trade taking place in Malabar through the ports of Calicut and Kollam, where ships from China and Persia came to trade in pepper. He mentions the fabulous wealth of the merchants there and how the favorite food of Kerala Muslims was a dish called rasoi made of rice, meats and coconut milk.

    Ibn Battuta stayed in Calicut for three months before he left for China. On the way, like a dedicated traveler, he took a break in the tropical islands of Maldives calling them ‘one of the wonders of the world’. This is where his travelogue through India ends.

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