Chronicles Of Historical Travelers: Lakshmi Rameshwar Rao
Lakshmi Rameshwar Rao, Hyderabad

Many foreign travelers have visited India over the centuries and have left accounts that give us valuable glimpses of our history. Perhaps the earliest known traveler to India was Megasthenes (302 B.C. – 298 B.C) who was the ambassador of the Greek king Seleucus I Nikator. He visited India during the supremacy of Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta was known to the Greeks as Sandrocottus. Megasthenes returned to his country and authored the book ‘Indica’.

In 957 A.D. the Arab traveler Al-Masudi visited south India and documented his travels in his book “Muruj-ul-Zehab”.

Alberuni/Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni was a remarkable Persian scholar who visited India in 1017, travelled the sub- continent and wrote a book called Tariq-al- Hind describing the culture of the country and the practices of the Hindus of that period.

Fa-Hien was a Chinese monk who visited India during the reign of Chandragupta II (405 -411) on a religious mission to collect ancient Buddhist texts. He travelled on foot from China to India and returned by sea.  He spent some ten years in the country. He visited Pataliputra, Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Varanasi and other places associated with the life of the Buddha. He collected and studied both Buddhist and Sanskrit texts and documented the various Buddhist traditions of that time. His voyage is described in his travelogue “Record of Buddhist Kingdoms”.

Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang (602-664) was another Chinese Buddhist monk who travelled overland during the reign of Harsha Vardhan to obtain Buddhist scriptures. He visited many monasteries in the sub- continent that followed either the Hinayana or Mahayana Buddhist traditions. He studied at the famous Nalanda University in Bihar for some time. He even travelled south and visited Kanchi during the reign of the Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman II. 

He reported that the Pallava empire was prosperous, the climate was hot and the people courageous, honest and truthful. Hiuen Tsang has left an extensive account of his travels across India and neighbouring countries in his great work the ‘Datang-Xiyu-Ji’ (Records of the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty). He carried home many Sanskrit texts. He later translated valuable Mahayana Buddhist texts and his work had a deep influence on Chinese Buddhism.

An early account of trade between India and China was written by a Chinese customs officer Chau-Ju-Kua. He describes how during the thirteenth century there was shipping between the two countries and that Chinese sent porcelain and silk in exchange for cotton and spices, particularly pepper, from the Malabar coast. The records do not make it clear whether he actually visited India or merely recorded his detailed observations of the trade with India and other countries.

The famous Venetian trader and explorer Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) wrote ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ documenting for the western world the wonders of the Orient. He travelled through Asia along the Silk Road and lived for some years in Shangdu under the patronage of the Mongol king Kublai Khan who ruled much of China. He travelled widely across China and other lands.

In 1292 AD he arrived on the Coromandel coast and visited the kingdom of the Pandyas. He wrote a fascinating account of the prosperous kingdom, its, court, temples, customs and food habits. He also wrote briefly of a kingdom ruled by queen Rudramma Devi of the Kakatiya dynasty whose riches included the famed diamond mines of Golconda. He also visited the Malabar coast.

In 1334 the Islamic scholar Ibn Batuta, who had spent years exploring primarily the Muslim world ranging from the Arab kingdoms to those of cental Asia came to Delhi. His scholarship impressed the sultan Mohammed Bin Tughlak who granted him the position of a judge. He enjoyed this position for several years and even married and fathered children. He was later sent as an envoy to China but the trip was disastrous and eventually he returned to his home in Morocco where he wrote a travelogue known as the ‘Rihla’.

Nicolo de Conti, a Venetian merchant and explorer, crossed the Arabian sea and entered India at the port of Cambay in Gujarat in 1420. He visited the Vijayanagara empire during the reign of Deva Raya I. He travelled to many cities including Mallapur near Chennai and records that he saw the tomb of Saint Thomas, the man who brought Christianity to India. Abdur Razzak was an Islamic scholar and historian who visited the Vijayanagara Kingdom in 1442 and spent a year at the court of Dev Raya II, the greatest ruler of the Sangama dynasty.

Abdur Razzak was born in Herat in Afghanistan. His father Jalal-ud-Din Ishaq was the qazi and imam of the Persian king Shah Rukh at his court in Herat. Shah Rukh was the ruler of Persia having succeeded his father Timur. In 1437 after the death of his father Abdur Razzak was appointed the qazi of Shah Rukh’s court under whom he prospered as a loyal courtier and ambassador.

He was a witness of political and military events at the capitals of Herat and Samarqand and went on several diplomatic and military missions. Razzak’s ambassadorial missions took him to various places in Eurasia. His most important task was the official mission to India. He wrote a 45-age travelogue on his visit and the administration, culture and customs of the people of southern India.

In 1520 Domingo Paes journeyed with a group of traders from Portuguese Goa to the Vijaynagara empire. He recorded his impressions of the rule of Krishnadevraya and the prosperity of the capital city of Hampi which he compared to Rome in the book “Chronica dos reis de Bisnaga” (Chronicle of the Kings of Viayanagara).

Sir William Hawkins was a representative of the English East India Company. He was the commander of Hector, the first company ship to anchor at Surat in India on 24 August 1608. Captain Hawkins was charged with letters and presents from the King of England James I. When William Hawkins sailed into Surat he was immediately captured by the Portuguese. 

Hawkins was told that all the ports of India belong to the King of Portugal and no one could come to India without a license from the Portuguese king. Somehow, the Captain managed to receive a pass for his journey to visit the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s Court at Agra. After much toil and many dangers he reached Agra on April 16, 1609. The English East India Company had sent Hawkins to obtain formal permission to establish an English factory in Surat.

Hawkins was an envoy in the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir for two years. He was received with all Indian hospitality and warmth by the new emperor Jahangir. However, he did not succeed in getting Jahangir’s permission to start a factory. Shortly after, in 1615 the East India Company dispatched Sir Thomas Roe to India. Roe’s diplomatic skills enabled him to secure the Emperor Jahangir’s permission for an English factory at Surat.

He also outdid the Portuguese and secured a ‘firman’ that gave the English exclusive trading rights. This was a historic first step towards English-Indian trade relations that was to culminate in the establishment of British rule in India. Roe’s spent three years at the Mughal Court. His experiences are recorded in his “Journal of the Mission to the Mughal Empire” which is a treasured contribution to the history of India during the seventeenth century.

Francois Bernier, a French physician and traveler, lived in India for twelve years from 1658-1670. He was physician to Prince Dara Shikoh and later was attached to the court of Aurangzeb. Bernier travelled widely, including to Kashmir and Bengal and authored the famous work ‘Travels in the Mughal Empire’ writing extensively on the Mughal rulers.

The customs and political intrigues at court and the habits and practices of the people in the provinces he visited. India’s largely oral tradition has meant that there are too few written historical accounts of many kingdoms and peoples. It is through the many foreign travelers’ books and journals that we are able to learn of and recreate much of Indian history over the centuries.

(The writer has a Masters in Adult Education from Jamia Milia Islamia. She has many years teaching experience at the school level as also ten years of experience in book publishing and some published writing in newspapers and more students’ books. Lakshmi has retired and lives in Hyderabad.)

Kingdoms Of The South: Lakshmi Rameshwar Rao

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