Ox trains through the wild east

Ox trains through the wild east
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First Published: Sat, May 26 2007. 12 21 AM IST

Updated: Sat, May 26 2007. 12 21 AM IST
The first thing that will strike you about this amazing collection of travellers’ tales from Mughal India is how little has really changed: From our penchant for creating traffic jams to, well, our potty habits, to the primacy of the caste system, to our veneration of holy water from the polluted—yes, stretches seemed murky even then—Ganga.
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French jeweller and informal ambassador from King Louis XIV to the Mughals, describes his journey from Agra to Bengal during the “cool season” of 1665-66, during the reign of Aurangzeb. Tavernier explains how all internal trade in the territories of “The Great Mogul” was borne by ox-driven caravans, sometimes using up to 12,000 oxen. The land was densely cultivated and irrigated by tanks, and roads were narrow.
When travellers met these great ox trains, they had to sometimes wait for two or three days till the entire caravan passed, the victims of an Indian style might-is-right traffic enforcement. What if two caravans ran into each other? Then, says Tavernier: “Rather than give way one to the other, they often engage in very sanguinary encounters.” So affected was commerce and the transport of food by such road rage that Aurangzeb himself had to intervene and lecture them—with bribes of Rs1 lakh and a chain of pearls—on the need to give way.
Most travellers in Beyond the Three Seas, edited by Michael H. Fisher, observed the Indian desire for Ganga jal, not just for religious purposes, but for daily potage. Many kings would drink nothing else and carted camel-loads of it on the road. Notes Tavernier: “The principal reason why this water of the Ganges is so highly esteemed is that it never becomes bad, and engenders no vermin; but I do not know whether we should believe what is said about this, taking into consideration the number of bodies which are constantly being thrown into the Ganges.” As for toilet habits, some either travelled with a pot of water or used sand.
This compilation is diverse and painstaking. There are translated accounts from high-flown medieval Spanish, Russian, Edwardian English—which, while quaint, makes for heavy reading—Portuguese and Italian. The preface, fittingly, is written by William Dalrymple, the Scottish author who probably knows more about daily life in Mughal India than most of us. His perspective is most important to the sometimes sensitive Indian reader because many accounts, read in isolation, might smack of colonial Christian mindsets. Hindus are routinely referred to as “idolators” and “infidels”, their personal habits and myriad religious routines bewildering to the medieval European mind.
Some clearly struggled to reconcile their fascination with their faith. Portuguese Father Antonio Montserrate, who in 1579 travelled with fellow Jesuits from Goa to the imperial court at Fatehpur, near Agra, at the request of Akbar, notes: “These tales which I have been writing down are indeed unworthy of the ears of wise and pious and clean-minded men. But I have recorded them in order that my readers may feel pity for the ignorance of these poor people, and pray to God that His light may illuminate their minds.”
Those tales range from funeral processions, superstitions, the “wild and savage” rites of Moharram and the no less “savage and degraded” festival of Holi, which was far cleaner and less poisonous in those days. “They plaster with mud their own bodies and those of any persons they may meet. They also squirt a red dye out of hollow reeds,” observers Montserrate. Such vignettes of daily life mix compellingly with observations of Mughal court life. Imagine, being in the court of a Mughal emperor without the prism of Bollywood and Mughal-E-Azam.
So we see Akbar’s hunting panthers, blindfolded and drawn on horse carts until the hunt. We see the man with the 10ft rod following the emperor on marches and measuring distances from the moment he leaves his court. We see Akbar’s gracious behaviour with European visitors—wearing Portuguese dress, a scarlet cloak with fastenings, and ordering his sons to don Portuguese hats.
India, as it tends to be even today, was a challenge for travellers. Only, the hardships were magnified manifold: Raging rivers with no bridges, cross-country tracks infested with robbers, and the difficulty of travelling on horseback or palanquin with unreliable guides and coolies. So, while the modern traveller may at best talk of the tribulations of an overnight second-class train ride from Surat to Agra, English merchant William Hawkins describes how it took him 74 days to make that journey. Along the way, his 40-man Pathan escort kept him from harm, capturing some outlaws, slaying others.
Once in Agra, Hawkins was made a high official by Jehangir and, as a confidant, offered a remarkable insight into the emperor’s private life. Jehangir was clearly a hedonist, in line with other accounts. After a morning at court dispensing justice, ordering whippings and executions, Jehangir prayed, ate four or five sorts of roast meats and proceeded to spend the afternoon drinking strong wine and eating opium. He had to be woken up for supper and then fed, since he was in no state to feed himself. But whatever he did, sober or drunk, Jehangir always had writers around him, recording every moment of his lifetime.
Obviously, the journeys of these extraordinary explorers lasted years. The first traveller in this book, Russian horse trader Afanasy Nikitin, took two years to reach India before Babur, journeying on horseback, foot and boat in uncharted territory across the Caucasus and Persia. So long was Nikitin away from home that in his three years around western and central India—observing Muslim and Hindu rituals and lives, even experiencing the glory of a fading Vijayanagar—he feared losing his Russian Orthodox faith altogether. “O true believing Christians!” laments Nikitin. “He that travels through many countries will fall into many sins, and deprive himself of the Christian faith.” To put that epic tale in perspective, consider that Nikitin’s 10,000km journey was retraced last year by a bunch of Indian academics and adventurers. They took two months—and they used SUVs.
Samar Halarnkar is Editor, Western region, Hindustan Times. Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, May 26 2007. 12 21 AM IST
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