Seydi Ali Reis: The Delightful Misadventures of a Turkish Admiral in India

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    Imagine crossing the Khyber Pass on your way to Afghanistan and encountering two rhinoceroses, “each the size of an elephant, with a horn on their nose about two inches long”. Or, under every palm tree, in today’s dry state of Gujarat, imagine finding a “drinking booth selling arrack called ‘tari’ “. It’s hard to imagine these scenarios but these are the recollections of a man who ‘accidentally landed in India under even stranger circumstances, in 1554 CE, and left a detailed travelogue of what he saw here.

    Seydi Ali Reis (1498-1563 CE) was the Admiral of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, who accidentally landed on the Indian coast in 1554 CE, when his fleet was hit by a typhoon.

    He landed on the Gujarat coast, where the Gujarat Sultanate was in the middle of a civil war.

    From here, he travelled to Sindh, which was in the throes of an uprising, and then onward to Delhi exactly at the time when Mughal Emperor Humayun slipped and fell down a staircase and died. Seydi recorded what he witnessed on this extraordinary adventure in his travelogue titled Mir’ât ül Memâlik (The Mirror of Countries, 1557), which gives us a valuable account of India of those times.

    Places like Surat, Ahmedabad, Lahore and Peshawar were probably beyond Seydi‘s imagination, when one day, in 1552 CE, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, summoned him to his winter palace in Aleppo in present-day Syria. A captain who had previously served in the Ottomans’ Mediterranean Sea fleet, Seydi was promoted as Commander of the Ottoman Indian Ocean Fleet, based in the Suez and with ports in Aden (Yemen) and Basra (Iraq). The mandate was to fight the Ottoman Empire’s greatest enemy on the seas, the Portuguese.

    The Ottoman state of the 16th century was one of the three ‘Gunpowder Empires’ of Asia, the other two being the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India. They were thus called as they made large-scale use of gunpowder and artillery to win battles. But while these empires controlled the land, the sea routes were completely in the control of the Portuguese. There had been several attempts by the Asian powers to break Portuguese dominance, most notably in 1509 CE, when a joint armada of the Mamluks of Egypt, the Gujarat Sultanate and the Zamorin of Calicut had unsuccessfully fought the Portuguese fleet in the Battle of Diu in 1509 CE.

    In 1554 CE, Seydi engaged the Portuguese fleet in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman, with limited success. After the second naval engagement, his ships drifted from the Arabian coast into the open sea and reached the port of Gwadar (Balochistan province in present-day Pakistan). With the assistance of the friendly Governor there, Seydi was able to replenish and repair his fleet and sail to Yemen. But on his way back, he ran into a great storm, which he calls “Fil Toofani” or the “Elephant of Typhoons”.

    The storm raged for ten days and when it abated, they realized they were heading straight into an enormous whirlpool “that are found …. in the neighbourhood of Sind ….., and hardly ever a ship has been known to escape their fury”. That’s when they realized they were near the coast of India. Passing through the islands of Diu and the temple town of Somnath, they managed to land two miles off the port of Daman, in the Sultanate of Gujarat.

    In the Sultanate of Gujarat

    "You have come to Gujarat in troubled times…” is not something you want to hear after you have survived a naval battle, a typhoon and a whirlpool, but that’s how Seydi Ali Reis was greeted in Gujarat by its prominent citizens. The Sultanate of Gujarat was in the middle of a civil war, between Sultan Ahmed Shah III (1554 – 1561CE) and the rebel chief, Nasir-ul-Mulk, who had seized the fortress of Burudj (modern day Bharuch). Sultan Ahmad Shah asked Seydi for help, and he loaned him 200 Ottoman gunners and infantrymen. The Sultan defeated his rival and in gratitude invited Seydi to Ahmedabad.

    Seydi wanted to return to his homeland, but there were difficulties. The Portuguese had heard of the arrival of the Ottoman fleet and were determined to capture its Commander as a prize. Besides, Seydi’s own men had taken up service in the Sultanate of Gujarat saying, "It is now nearly two years since we have received any pay, our goods are lost, and the ships dismantled; the hulks are old, and our return to Egypt is practically made impossible."

    Over the next year, Seydi travelled to Surat, Ahmedabad, and later Delhi and Lahore, hoping to get a ‘permit’ to cross borders. He also recorded his recollections of his experiences as he travelled from one place to another. In his recollections of Gujarat, Seydi mentions the easy availability of arrack or toddy from palm trees. He writes: “There is in Gujarat a tree of the palm tribe, called tari agadji. From its branches cups are suspended, and when the cut end of a branch is placed into one of these vessels a sweet liquid, something of the nature of arrack, flows out in a continuous stream; and this fluid, by exposure to the heat of the sun, presently changes into a most wonderful wine. Therefore at the foot of all such trees drinking-booths have been placed.”

    Seydi left Surat for Ahmedabad at the end of November 1554 CE. En route, probably passing by an area that is today’s Vadodara, he was amazed to see Banyan trees. He writes, “The most curious part about the trees, however, was that the roots hung down from the branches and, when touching the ground, planted themselves and produced new trees.”

    In Ahmedabad, Seydi was received by the Sultan, who offered him a position as the Governor of Bharuch. But Seydi politely declined, saying he had to reach Istanbul at the earliest.

    The following day, the Sultan permitted his visitor to leave, after making sure he was amply provisioned.

    Seydi makes an interesting note of how the ‘Bhatt’ community of Gujarat used to escort travellers. He writes: “Amongst the learned of this land of Banians, there is a tribe which they call the ‘Bats’, whose business it is to escort merchants or travellers from one land into another, and for a very small remuneration they guarantee their perfect safety.”

    Whenever a caravan was attacked, the Bhatt escorts, who were Brahmins, would threaten to commit suicide. The fear of ‘Brahman Hatya’ or ‘Killing of a Brahmin’, a taboo in Hinduism, would make the thieves allow the caravan to pass!

    In the Court of Mughal Emperor Humayun

    From Ahmadabad, Seydi Ali Reis passed through Radhanpur (in Patan district of North Gujarat) before reaching Sindh, which was then ruled by a Turco-Mongol Arghun dynasty, and was also in the midst of a civil war. Seydi had hoped for a permit to cross the border to Iran, but he wouldn’t be able to get one till peace was restored in Sindh. But Seydi did get a Letter of Recommendation from the ruler of Sindh, Shah Hussein Mirza, addressed to Mughal Emperor Humayun in Delhi.

    In 1555 CE, Mughal Emperor Humayun had regained his throne from the Afghans, with the assistance of the Safavids of Iran, and made Delhi his capital. Seydi writes in his travelogue that he was welcomed with “...spectacular pomp and circumstance”, as an entourage of some 400 elephants and all the magistrates of the realm greeted him as he approached Delhi. The noted Mughal General, Bairam Khan (1501-1561 CE), gave threw a great banquet in his honour.

    Seydi desperately wanted a permit to return home, but Emperor Humayum made every effort to keep him in Delhi.

    He even offered him Governorship of a Mughal province. Despite his polite refusal, Emperor Humayun told Seydi: "We are now close upon the three months of continuous Birshegal, (the rainy season). The roads are flooded and impassable, remain therefore till the weather improves. Meanwhile, calculate solar and lunar eclipses, their degree of latitude, and their exact date in the calendar. Assist our astrologers in studying the course of the sun, and instruct us concerning the points of the equator. When all this is done, and the weather should improve before the three months are over, then thou shalt go hence."

    Seydi cursed his fate but he had no choice but to do as the Emperor decreed. He spent his time in Delhi visiting shrines of Sufi saints, making astrological calculations and composing ghazals. Finally, at the end of the rainy season, he received his permit to leave and letters of safe conduct – but there was more drama to follow.

    Before Seydi could depart, on 24th January 1556 CE, Emperor Humayun fell down the stairs of his library (in Delhi’s Purana Qila) and died of his wounds two days later. Seydi writes how Humayun’s son Akbar was away from Delhi and there was chaos among the nobles. He suggested that the death of Humayun be kept a secret till Akbar returned to the Mughal capital. Bairam Khan wanted Seydi to stay back in India, but Seydi showed his exit permit that the late Emperor had signed. Finally, Seydi began his journey back home!

    After crossing the Khyber Pass, where he encountered two rhinoceroses, Seydi passed through Kabul, Bukhana and Khiva. He reached Istanbul in 1556 CE. He met Sultan Suleiman in Edirne (Adrianople-Turkey). The latter received him most graciously and appointed him to the office of Muteferrika (Special Officer in Attendance on the Sultan). The Sultan returned to Istanbul at the end of July 1556 CE and appointed Seydi the Daftardar (Revenue Officer in Charge of Finances) of the province of Diyar Bakir (South-Eastern Turkey).

    In 1557 CE, Seydi wrote his travelogue called Mir’ât ül Memâlik (The Mirror of Countries) and died in the 1560s CE. He left behind memories of his fascinating adventure, all because of a quirk of fate.

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