India through Manucci’s eyes

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    Niccolao Manucci, a traveller from Italy lived in India for a significant part of the 17th and 18th centuries. During this period he wrote a memoir chronicling his journey through and observations of India. These observations give a fascinating look into medieval India, some of the observations are discussed in this article.

    Food and caste are inexorably connected in India and the same was observed by him. The caste system is reflected by the higher caste’s abstention from eating meat about which Manucci says -

    “…..Brahmins, ascetics, monks, nor the learned eat any meat or fish in this country…….I think it as well to state the food and manner of eating of the other castes. None of those I have hitherto spoken of ever eat cow’s flesh…but they eat all the other meats consumed in Europe….these people hold it an abomination to eat of the cow…”

    He also had interesting observations about the clothing styles in India, most probably a reference to widows and religious mendicants or a funeral procession -

    “I was much amused when I landed to see the greater number of the inhabitants dressed in white clothes, also the many different kinds of people, as well men as women”

    He goes on to say “mostly Hindus, do not conceal the face as in Persia and Turkey, where women go about with their faces hidden. It is true that the Mahomedan woman do not allow their faces to be seen by anyone…” pointing out the difference in the way Hindus and Muslims dress.

    During his extensive travels, he spend time in the famed Mughal sarais and had the following observation about them, “Each one of them might hold, more or less, from 800 to 1000 persons, with their horses, camels, carriages; and some of them are even larger.”

    He came to India during tumultuous times when Aurangzeb had imprisoned Shah Jahan and taken over the throne. Aurangzeb had also executed his brother Dara Shukoh, beloved by all. About this incident, Manucci had the following observation about Dara’s place in the court which helps one to understand Shahjahan’s preference for Dara as the successor -

    “All those who were present before the king were standing; only one man was seated at the side of the throne, but his seat was lower, and this was the prince Dara, the king's son”

    About the execution of Dara, Manucci narrates the following take -

    “During the time that Aurangzeb was in Kashmir his usual diversion was going out to hunt, of which he was always very fond. It happened once that, tired out, he sat down in the shade of a tree, having with him only one huntsman, a great favorite, who had formerly served Dara in the same capacity. They held together conversation on various subjects, and encouraged thereby, the huntsman asked Aurangzeb why he ordered Dara's head to be cut off. Such a question put the royal person into some fear, and so he answered that it was his (Dara's) ill luck.”

    He spent considerable amount of time in the Mughal court and “The most sumptuous of European courts cannot compare in richness and magnificence with the lustre beheld in Indian courts” is what he thought about it.

    He observed many Hindu kingdoms in southern India and wasn’t very favourable towards them -

    “It is quite normal amongst the Rajas of this Empire to conclude their wars through money, and the one who is the weakest is frequently the one who gains the greatest advantage, and money alone is what they love, for so far as men are concerned, none of the natives of these lands has any love, either for grandeur or for secrets”

    This may be factual but also shows his disaffection towards the locals as well as the influence of Catholic missionaries which whom he spend his last years in Pondicherry and Madras.

    He observed many rituals, festivities and festivals while in India, one of the most remarkable being Holi -

    “their merry-making or carnival, on which occasion Mahomedans also resort to pranks and filthy sports.... It is their custom to disport themselves by throwing on each other's clothes scented oils and odoriferous dust, if they are personages of position, or dirty water and other stinking things if they are low people. They run about in all directions, just as with us in Europe is done at carnival time, with noisy cries and obscene words”

    The Mango is a fruit which has fascinated visitors since time immemorial and this is what Manucci had to say about it -

    “The mango is a little bit heating and laxative, and how much you may eat them, you still desire to eat more and they do you no harm...they also make the fruit into preserves which are exported to various places...”

    In his estimation the best mangoes were grown in Goa.

    Despite being in their service for a long period of time, he wasn’t very kind in describing the Portuguese -

    “I have noticed with this nation [the Portuguese] that if anyone gives them good advice, they are suspicious, and betray their feeling that there was no necessity for it. Sometimes they do the very contrary to what has been suggested, in order not to admit that advice has been received.”

    He was much kinder to the English and remarked that the people of Madras were the best disposed of any city he had encountered.

    The memoirs are a fascinating mix of history and gossip and need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Many of the observations in his texts have been refuted by scholars as being inaccurate and one can also see that his own prejudices and perceptions also come in the way of presenting an unbiased view of the world. Having said that, there are many peeks into medieval India that his work provides and makes for a fascinating read.

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