Travellers in history

Lakshmi Rameshwar Rao

We learn more than we realize from stories, both fact and fiction. So what better way to learn about days past and lands far away than through the stories of those who have been there? Travelogues provide important insights into the details of historical times as this article reveals.

Travellers provide a very valuable source of descriptive historical evidence for study by future generations. They make the reconstruction of history possible. As K. C. Khanna the noted historian says in his As They Saw India, an account by four foreign travelers (NBT), “With accounts of the splendor of the royal court, descriptions of religious ceremonies and details of petty conspiracies, we are transported into an alien world of gracious living, dancing girls, pomp, ruthless murders and rough justice.”

Some of the most stunning accounts of ancient India are provided by visiting foreigners. The Greeks who accompanied Alexander the Great on his Indian campaign recorded their encounters of this “mystical, magical” land. Although many of these works are now lost, the details have percolated into subsequent Greek literature. Special reference is to be made to the Indica by Megasthenes who lived in the court of Chandragupta Maurya (305 B.C.) and to The Geography of India by Ptolemy (about 130 A.D.)

After the spread of the Buddhist religion, Chinese travelers came to India in big numbers to collect religious books and to visit holy places of Buddhism. During A.D. 399-414, Chinese scholar Fa-Hien travelled to India in search of great Buddhist books of discipline. The faithful integrity of his notes and observations are an invaluable resource available to researchers of Buddhist period studies, and of ancient India. It provides exact dates of when Buddhism was introduced to China, the many Indian dynasties, and of the austere life led by the sages and monks of the period. His book, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms tells us about India 700 years after Megasthenes.

Hiuen-Tsiang (Huen Tsang, 603-664 A.D.) was one of the outstanding Chinese scholars who visited India in search of knowledge. We have his records in Travels in Western Lands. Huen Tsang was born at Ch’in Liu in the province of Hunan. At the young age of thirteen he was ordained as a Buddhist priest, in the Tsing-tu temple. He travelled extensively in China in search of an able teacher and when he failed he decided to visit India. This was 200 years after Fa-Hien.

In 1017, at the behest of Sultan Mahmud of Persia, Alberuni (Al-Briuni) travelled to India to learn about the Hindus, “and to discuss with them questions of religion, science, and literature, and the very basis of their civilization.” He remained in India for thirteen years, studying and exploring the social institutions of India and his memoirs are a treasure of historical evidence. One of the most accessible documents is Alberuni’s India.

Marco Polo passed through southern India and visited the Pandya ruler on his way from China to Persia in 1288 and back in 1293. He has left a very interesting narration of social manners and customs of South India.

travellers Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, also known as Shams ad-Din, was twenty one years of age when he left Morocco, the country of his birth. He crossed the Hindukush Mountains via the 13,000 ft Khawak Pass into Afghanistan and passing through Ghani and Kabul entered India. After visiting Lahri (near modern Karachi), Sukkur, Multan, Sirsa and Hansi, he reached Delhi. For several years Ibn Battuta enjoyed the patronage of Sultan Mohammad Tughlaq and was later sent as the Sultan’s envoy to China. Passing through Central India and Malwa he took a ship from Kambay for Goa, and after visiting many thriving ports along the Malabar Coast he reached the Maldive Islands, from which he crossed to Ceylon. Continuing his journey, he landed on the Ma’bar (Coromandal) coast and once more returning to the Maldives he finally set sail for Bengal and visited Kamrup, Sylhet and Sonargaon (near Dhaka). The mere extent of his travels is estimated at no less than 75,000 miles, a figure which is not likely to have been surpassed before the age of steam. His travels lasted for about thirty years, after which he returned to Fez, Morocco, to the court of Sultan Abu’Inan and dictated accounts of his journeys to Ibn Juzay. These are known as the famous Travels (Rihala) of Ibn Battuta. He died in Fez in 1369.

Ibn Battuta was the only medieval traveler who is known to have visited the lands of every muslim ruler of his time. A Russian merchant traveler, Athanasius Nikitin, visited the Bahamani kingdom during the years 1470-74. He has left an account of what he saw and this account throws much light on the condition of the common people who we are told lived a miserable life while the nobles were extremely rich and delighted in luxury.

As a matter of fact, the emergence of the modern world is probably the result of travel. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 led to the search for new trade routes by merchants and traders, leading to the discovery of the “New World”. Voyages of exploration and discovery became common soon after, with European rulers vying with one another for control over trade routes and the riches that such trade brought. Many of the ships that set out from Europe also carried adventurers along to different parts of the world. Some of them were ordinary traders who came and settled in the new lands, while others took their experiences back with them.

Very often these travelers were scholars, writers and artists too. Their letters, journals, logbooks and other writing as well as their drawings and paintings tell us a great deal about the lands they have visited. We are also curious about what other people think and thought about us. And so we read on…

It was not men alone who visited India, although travel was for long a male domain. Especially during colonial times, a number of Englishwomen visited India. Eliza Fay set out for India in the late 18th century, and her Original Letters from India (1817) gives, among other things, her views of suttee, which she saw as a way to render women subservient to authority. Other early accounts of life under the Raj are provided by Maria, Lady Callcott (1785-1842) and Anne Katherine Elwood (1800s). Emily Eden (1797-1869), who visited India when her brother was Governer-General, depicts India through the eyes of the colonizers. Mrs. R.M. Coopland, another visitor to India in the mid 19th century wrote of the breakdown of British authority during the mutiny of 1857. Some of the best accounts of life in India in the 19th century can be found in novels written by residents who used fiction to satirize imperial society and rule, among them Flora Annie Steel, Charlotte Maria Tucker (1821-1893), Bithia Mary Croker (1849-1920) and Sara Jeanette Cotes (1861-1925). There are also anonymous advice books concerning life in India and a History of the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East (1847) detailing missionary work.

This article first appeared in Teacher Plus, September-October 2004, Vol II, No .5.