The Russian merchant’s impressions of 15th-century India

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In Tver, a picturesque and historic town where the Tvertsa and Tmaka rivers join the traditional lifeline of European Russia – the Volga, an adventurous merchant decided to set sail down the water and cross the Caspian Sea to Persia. This merchant, a deeply religious man by the name of Afanasy Nikitin, had already tried his luck trading in Crimea, Georgia, Asia Minor and Walachia. His journey, starting in 1466, is now called the “Voyage Beyond Three Seas”. It took him to Shirvan in present-day Azerbaijan and to Baku and Persia, before leading him finally to India, a country he became fascinated with.

It was in Hormuz that Nikitin first began to hear about the riches of India and the products it offered that were not available in his own country. On finding out that horses were not bred in India at that time, he took a horse and set sail on a dabba, a small ship, for western India in 1469.

In his notes, Nikitin mentions that his dabba arrived in a place called Dega, which Russian historians assume is Diu. “From Dega we sailed to Gujarat, and thence to Cambay, where there are indigo and lac, and from Cambay to Chaul.” The journey from Muscat to Chaul, which is near Alibaug in Maharashtra, took six weeks. “And that is where the land of India lies,” he wrote on arriving in Chaul, adding that everyone there was “naked” and that the women “go bareheaded and with breasts uncovered, their hair plaited into one braid”. He noted that he was an item of curiosity in Chaul, and where he went, people followed him around.

He almost immediately came in contact with the local rulers in Chaul, commenting on their appearance: “And their prince wears a dhoti upon his head and another about his loins; their boyars (aristocrats) wear a dhoti round their shoulders and another about their loins; their princesses wrap a dhoti round their shoulders and another round their loins. As for the servants of the prince and the boyars, they wear a dhoti wound about their loins, and carry shield and sword in their hands, while others have spears or knives or sabres, or bow and arrows.”

From Chaul, Nikitin travelled to Pali and then to Umra and Junnar, a town near modern-day Pune. At the time of his visit, Junnar came under the Bahmani Empire, which was ruled by Muhammad Shah III. The Russian merchant wrote, “And at Junnar there lives the Indian Asad Khan, a servant of Malik-at-Tujjar, they say he has 70,000 men from Malik-at-Tujjar. And Malik-at-Tujjar has 200,000; for 20 years he has been fighting kaffirs, sometimes they beat him, but he beats them oftener.” The term kaffir in this case refers to Hindus and this is how the Muslim rulers referred to them when talking to Nikitin.

Rural Life

The Russian was so rivetted by life in India that he keenly observed and wrote about the day-to-day occurrences. “Throughout four months there was water and mud everywhere, both by day and at night. That is the season of ploughing and sowing wheat and rice and pulse, and all the other foods.” He also seemed to take an interest in local alcohol: “Wine is made in big coconuts, and beer is brewed from Tatna.”

He could not help but make repeated references to the dressing habits of Indian royalty and commoners. “In winter people there wear a dhoti round their loins, another above their shoulders, and a third round their heads,” Nikitin wrote. “As for the princes and boyars, in that season they put on trousers, a shirt and a caftan; they also wrap a dhoti about their shoulders, girdle themselves with another, and wind a third round their heads.”

A 1956 film jointly directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and Vasili Pronin, titled Pardesi in Hindi, showed Nikitin (played by Oleg Strizhenov) falling in love with an Indian woman named Champa (Nargis). Nothing in the merchant’s notes indicated that he was in a relationship when in India. He did, however, write frequently about Indian women in his notes: “In India strangers put up at inns, and the food is cooked for them by women, who also make the guests’ beds.”

A poster of Pardesi.

Wanting to sell his stallion in India, Nikitin observed that what he heard about horses in the country was true. “No horses are bred in India, but oxen and buffaloes are,” he wrote. “They are used for carrying persons and sometimes goods. They serve all purposes.”

Horses were indeed a prized commodity in the country and the Russian noted how they were fed pulse and khichdi, made with sugar and ghee, as well as rice cakes. The ruler of Junnar took away his stallion and offered to return it under one condition. “When he learnt that I was a Russian and not a Muslim, he said: ‘I shall give thee back they stallion and pay thee a thousand pieces of gold, if only thou wilt adopt the Mohammedan faith, (if not) I shall keep the stallion and exact a ransom of a thousand pieces of gold from thee.’”

He was given four days to make up his mind. Luckily for him, Khoja Mohammed Khan of Khorassan rode into Junnar before the ultimatum expired and Nikitin asked him for help. The Khan of Khorassan managed to convince the ruler of Junnar not to convert Nikitin and got him to return the stallion. Nikitin seemed traumatised by the episode and wrote, “And so, my Christian brothers of Rus, those of you who want to go to the land of India must leave their faith in Rus and invoke Mohammed before setting out for the land of Hindustan.”

Deccan Plateau

Nikitin travelled south from Junnar and wrote about Bidar and Gulbarga. “At Bidar, horses and various goods are sold: brocade, silk, and all kinds of other goods: black people, too, are on sale there,” he wrote, adding that there was nothing in Bidar’s market that would be of use in Russia.

The merchant was welcomed to the ruler’s palace, where he seemed impressed with the architecture. “The Sultan’s palace has seven gates, with a hundred guards and a hundred kaffir scribes at each gate; some of them register those coming in and others, those going out; but strangers are barred from the palace,” he wrote. “And the palace is very beautiful, with fretwork and gilt all over it, and its every stone is fretted and very beautifully painted in gold, and inside the palace, there are sundry vessels.” Nikitin noted that a thousand men guarded Bidar by night and that the city’s streets had 14-foot-long snakes. The Russian also documented a battle between the Bahmani Empire and Vijayanagar.

Hindu Pilgrimage

Nikitin managed to befriend some Hindus in Bidar and said they treated him well when they found out that he was not a Muslim. “They did not hide from me when eating, trading, praying or doing something else, nor did they conceal their wives.” He wrote that there were 84 different faiths in India. “People of different faiths do not eat or drink together, nor do they intermarry; some eat mutton, fowl, fish and eggs, but of no faith do the people eat beef.”

After spending four months in Bidar, Nikitin went with his new Hindu friends on a pilgrimage to Parvat (Srisailam), a group of temples by the Krishna River, around 215 kilometres to the southeast of Hyderabad. He compared the pilgrimage spot to Mecca and Jerusalem.

“It took us a month to reach the butkhanah (temple complex),” Nikitin wrote. “The market by the butkhanah lasts for five days. And the butkhanah is very large – half the size of Tver – and is built of stone, in which the deeds of But (the deity) are carved; in all there are 12 carvings that show But working wonders, or appearing before Indians in many shapes; first, in the shape of a man, second, of a man with an elephant’s trunk; third, of an ape-like man; fourth of a man having the form of a ferocious beast. He has always appeared before them with a tail, and his tail, which is carved in stone, is seven feet long.”

He noted that crowds of up to 100,000 came from all over India to the pilgrimage spot. What he saw in the temple complex impressed him. “In the butkhanah, But is carved in stone, and is very big indeed, his tail is slung over his shoulder, and his right arm is raised high and stretched out like Emperor Justinian’s in Constantinople, while in his left hand he holds a spear; and he wears no clothing, save that his buttocks are wrapped in a cloth; his face is that of an ape.” This was the first Russian description of a Hanuman idol.

The merchant paid close attention to Hindu prayer rituals. “And they pray facing eastwards, in the Russian manner; they raise high both hands and put them on the crown, and lie face downwards on the ground and stretch out on it – that is how they worship,” Nikitin wrote

Information Source

In his writings, the merchant describes what he heard about places he did not visit, such as Ceylon, writing about its monkeys, rubies and crystals. He also mentioned pepper, nutmeg, clove, areca nuts and dyes of Calicut, as well as indigo from Gujarat. His notes became the most important source of information about India in Russia at that time.

Nikitin spent close to three years in India, but was eager to return home. The trip took a physical and mental toll on him and his notes indicated a great degree of homesickness. He wrote, “May God protect the Russian land! There is no land in the world like it, although the boyars in the Russian land are unjust. May the Russian land be well-ordered, and may there be justice there.”

In 1472, he left India from Dabhol for Ethiopia. From there, he managed to get back to Russia via Persia and Asia Minor. He passed away before reaching his hometown of Tver.

In 2001, Afanasy Nikitin’s notes were translated into Hindi and English by Suniti Deshpande, who had an illustrious career as a Russian language professor. A special edition booklet with the notes in Russian, English and Hindi was published before the foundation stone for a monument to Nikitin was laid in Chaul.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.

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