Chapter : 5

What Are Through The Eyes Of Travellers ?

  • In this chapter we shall see how our knowledge of the past can be enriched through a consideration of descriptions of social life provided by travellers who visited the subcontinent, focusing on the accounts of three men: Al-Biruni who came from Uzbekistan (eleventh century), Ibn Battuta who came from Morocco, in
    northwestern Africa (fourteenth century) and the Frenchman François Bernier (seventeenth century).
  • As these authors came from vastly different social and cultural environments, they were often more attentive to everyday activities and practices which were taken for granted by indigenous writers, for whom these were routine matters, not worthy of being recorded.

Al-Biruni and the Kitab-ul-Hind

  • Al-Biruni was born in 973, in Khwarizm in present day Uzbekistan. Khwarizm was an important centre of learning, and Al-Biruni received the best education available at the time.
  • He was well versed in several languages : Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Sanskrit. Although he did not know Greek, he was familiar with the works of Plato and other Greek philosophers, having read them in Arabic translations.
  • In 1017, when Sultan Mahmud invaded Khwarizm, he took several scholars and poets back to his capital, Ghazni. Al-Biruni was one of them. He arrived in Ghazni as a hostage, but gradually developed a liking for the city, where he spent the rest of his life until his death at the age of 70. It was in Ghazni that Al-Biruni developed
    an interest in India.
  • When the Punjab became a part of the Ghaznavid empire, contacts with the local population helped create an environment of mutual trust and understanding.
  • Al-Biruni spent years in the company of Brahmana priests and scholars, learning Sanskrit, and studying religious and philosophical texts.
  • Al-Biruni’s Kitab-ul-Hind is written in Arabic. It is a simple and lucid book. It is a voluminous text, divided into 80 chapters on subjects such as religion and philosophy, festivals, astronomy, alchemy, manners and customs, social life, weights and measures, iconography, laws and metrology.
  • Generally, Al-Biruni adopted a distinctive structure based on Sanskritic traditions, and concluding with a comparison with other cultures.
  • Some present-day scholars have argued that this almost geometric structure, remarkable for its precision and predictability, owed much to his mathematical orientation.

Ibn Battuta’s R ihla

  • Ibn Battuta’s book of travels, called Rihla was written in Arabic. It provides extremely rich and interesting details about the social and cultural life in the subcontinent in the fourteenth century.
  • This Moroccan traveller was born in Tangier into one of the most respectable and educated families known for their expertise in Islamic religious law or shari‘a.
  • He just loved travelling, and went to far-off places, exploring new worlds and peoples. Before he set off for India in 1332-33, he had made pilgrimage trips to Mecca, and had already travelled extensively in Syria, Iraq, Persia, Yemen, Oman and a few trading ports on the coast of East Africa.
  • Travelling overland through Central Asia, Ibn Battuta reached Sind in 1333. He had heard about Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the Sultan of Delhi, and lured by his reputation as a generous patron of arts and letters, set off for Delhi, passing through Multan and Uch.
  • The Sultan was impressed by his scholarship, and appointed him the qazi or judge of Delhi. He remained in that position for several years, until he fell out of favour and was thrown into prison.
  • Once the misunderstanding between him and the Sultan was cleared, he was restored to imperial service, and was ordered in 1342 to proceed to China as the Sultan’s envoy to the Mongol ruler.
  • Ibn Battuta was an inveterate traveller who spent several years travelling through north Africa, West Asia and parts of Central Asia (he may even have visited Russia), the Indian subcontinent and China, before returning to his native land, Morocco.
  • When he returned, the local ruler issued instructions that his stories be recorded.

Francois Be rnier : A Doc tor with a Difference

  • After 1600, we find growing numbers of Dutch, English and French travellers coming to India. François Bernier, a Frenchman, was a doctor, political philosopher and historian. Like many others, he came to the Mughal Empire in search of opportunities.
  • He was in India for twelve years, from 1656 to 1668, and was closely associated with the Mughal court, as a physician to Prince Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, and later as an intellectual and scientist, with Danishmand Khan, an Armenian noble at the Mughal court.
  • Bernier travelled to several parts of the country and wrote accounts of what he saw, frequently comparing what he saw in India with the situation in Europe. His works were published in France in 1670-71 and translated into English, Dutch, German and Italian within the next five years.
  • The writings of European travellers helped produce an image of India for Europeans through the printing and circulation of their books.
  • Later, after 1750, when Indians like Shaikh Itisamuddin and Mirza Abu Talib visited Europe and confronted this image that Europeans had of their society, they tried to influence it by producing their own version of matters.

Ibn Battuta and the E xcitement of the Unfamiliar

  • By the time Ibn Battuta arrived in Delhi in the fourteenth century, the subcontinent was part of a global network of communication that stretched from China in the east to north-west Africa and Europe in the west.
  • Ibn Battuta himself travelled extensively through these lands, visiting sacred shrines, spending time with learned men and rulers, often officiating as qazi, and enjoying the cosmopolitan culture of urban centres where people who spoke Arabic, Persian, Turkish and other languages, shared ideas, information and anecdotes.
  • Some of the best examples of Ibn Battuta’s strategies of representation are evident in the ways in which he described the coconut and the paan, two kinds of plant produce that were completely unfamiliar to his audience.
  • Ibn Battuta found cities in the subcontinent full of exciting opportunities for those who had the necessary drive, resources and skills. They were densely populated and prosperous, except for the occasional disruptions caused by wars and invasions.
  • Ibn Battuta described Delhi as a vast city, with a great population, the largest in India. Daulatabad (in Maharashtra) was no less, and easily rivalled Delhi in size.
  • The bazaars were not only places of economic transactions, but also the hub of social and cultural activities. Most bazaars had a mosque and a temple, and in some of them at least, spaces were marked for public performances by dancers, musicians and singers.
  • While Ibn Battuta was not particularly concerned with explaining the prosperity of towns, historians have used his account to suggest that towns derived a significant portion of their wealth through the appropriation of surplus from villages.
  • Ibn Battuta found Indian agriculture very productive because of the fertility of the soil, which allowed farmers to cultivate two crops a year.
  • He also noted that the subcontinent was well integrated with inter-Asian networks of trade and commerce, with Indian manufactures being in great demand in both West Asia and Southeast Asia, fetching huge profits for artisans and merchants.
  • He was also amazed by the efficiency of the postal system which allowed merchants to not only send information and remit credit across long distances, but also to dispatch goods required at short notice.
  • The postal system was so efficient that while it took fifty days to reach Delhi from Sind, the news reports of spies would reach the Sultan through the postal system in just five days.

Bernier and the ‘Degene rate’ East

  • If Ibn Battuta chose to describe everything that impressed and excited him because of its novelty, François Bernier belonged to a different intellectual tradition.
  • According to Bernier, one of the fundamental differences between Mughal India and Europe was the lack of private property in land in the former.
  • He was a firm believer in the virtues of private property, and saw crown ownership of land as being harmful for both the state and its people.
  • He thought that in the Mughal Empire the emperor owned all the land and distributed it among his nobles, and that this had disastrous consequences for the economy and society. This perception was not unique to Bernier, but is found in most travellers’ accounts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
  • While Bernier’s preoccupation with projecting the Mughal state as tyrannical is obvious, his descriptions occasionally hint at a more complex social reality.
  • For instance, he felt that artisans had no incentive to improve the quality of their manufactures, since profits were appropriated by the state. Manufactures were, consequently, everywhere in decline.
  • At the same time, he conceded that vast quantities of the world’s precious metals flowed into India, as manufactures were exported in exchange for gold and silver.
  • He also noticed the existence of a prosperous merchant community, engaged in long-distance exchange. In fact, during the seventeenth century about 15 per cent of the population lived in towns. This was, on average, higher than the proportion of urban population in Western Europe in the same period.
  • Bernier is perhaps the only historian who provides a detailed account of the working of the imperial karkhanas or workshops.

Women Slaves, Sati and L abourers

  • Slaves were generally used for domestic labour, and Ibn Battuta found their services particularly indispensable for carrying women and men on palanquins or dola.
  • The price of slaves, particularly female slaves required for domestic labour, was very low, and most families who could afford to do so kept at least one or two of them.
  • Not surprisingly, Bernier chose the practice of sati for detailed description. He noted that while some women seemed to embrace death cheerfully, others were forced to die.
  • However, women’s lives revolved around much else besides the practice of sati. Their labour was crucial in both agricultural and non-agricultural production.
  • Women from merchant families participated in commercial activities, sometimes even taking mercantile disputes to the court of law. It therefore seems unlikely that women were confined to the private spaces of their homes.