Imagine stepping onto the Indian soil with no context whatsoever — with no warning about the sensory overload you’re going to experience or the sea of diversity that you can’t help but lose balance and fall into. Experiencing India, its heritage, its people, its flavors, the varied languages, and just the sheer number of ways in which people experience life can be overwhelming – even for someone who has already acquainted themselves with the countless nuances of this country.
So imagine what it must be like for those who come in with absolutely no clue of what’s going to unfold. Of course, there’s no single book, film, or anecdote that can capture this country in its entirety, but there are many who have tried to do just that. And while digging through these narratives, we decided to put together a list of epic historical travellers and their sometimes intriguing, sometimes hilarious and always amusing accounts of India.
I. Marco Polo
Once just tales narrated to a cellmate in prison some time in the 13th century, The Travels of Marco Polo is an indelible piece of travel literature. Carrying out his family business, just like the rest of the men in his family, Marco Polo headed to China with the aim of trading in the kingdom of Kublai Khan. This was just the beginning for Polo, who later , made his way to myanmar followed by India. Polo visited parts of India including Malabar, Gujarat, and Golconda, which at that point was ruled by Kalkatiyas. After spending almost twenty years in the East, Polo returned to Venice only to be imprisoned by Geonoans, which is where The Travels of Marco Polo was conceived.
You can now tune into Netflix to know more about Marco Polo’s adventures.
Did you know that lambs came from plants? Or at least that is what ancient Greeks thought in the 14th century. They believed that lambs were attached to stems of plants through their navels, so essentially, they thought that sheep were fruit. All of this was thanks to Megasthenes description of cotton plants in his book Indica, in which he described cotton as “trees on which wool grows”.
Indica was a travel log maintained by Megasthenes as he explored India, and wool growing on trees was just one of the problematic aspects of it. The earliest known account of India written by a foreigner, Indica described India as a wealthy nation with fertile land and no traces of famine or slavery. A misrepresentation to say the least, this description did not go down too well with historians who came after the time of Megasthenes. He travelled across India from Punjab all the way to Madurai, all this while carefully taking note of everything that roamed the land and all that sprouted out of the ground, including lambs of course. Not just a wanderer, Megasthenes served an important role in Chandragupta Maurya’s court as a Greek diplomat. His accounts could be inaccurate and misleading, his observation of cotton plants definitely skewed, but Megasthenes will always remain the first person who told tales of India to the rest of the world.
You can find Megasthenis Indica..., which is the a reproduction of the original text, on the Amazon India website.
III. Ibn Battuta
Born to a family of Islamic judges, 21-year-old Ibn Battuta left his Moroccan hometown Tangier and set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca. A pilgrimage that lasted all of 29 years. Through the course of almost three decades, Ibn Battuta travelled and how. From Somalia to China to India, all that he experienced, the people he met, and the truckloads of observations he made, if not more, are preserved in his book titled Rihla, which is Arabic for journey.
His travels weren’t just threads waiting to be woven into tales, but a testament of a seasoned man who has been exposed to an abundance of cultural diversity, which wasn’t too common in the 14th century. This was probably the reason behind Ibn Battuta’s immense popularity in royal courts of the likes of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. While being associated with Tughlaq, Ibn Battuta spent six years of his life in the capital city of New Delhi. If alive today, Ibn Battuta would probably be a prolific travel writer giving everyone else a run for their money.
We recommend you read Travels of Ibn Battutah for a detailed account of Ibn Battuta’s life.
IV. Niccolao Manucci
A physician, a soldier, a historian — Manucci’s life is anything but boring and is spanned across a considerable part of the Indian geography. The adventure that was his life begins when Manucci, a teenager at the time, ran away from home and found himself wandering the lanes of Surat that somehow led him to become a soldier of the Mughal army serving Dara Shikoh. Manucci managed to fit in a lot between his stint in the army and when he finally wrote his memoir titled Storia do Mogor in Madras. If you’re one who is intimidated by talented multifaceted individuals and like me, question the purpose of your existence ever so frequently, now is when you should stop reading because this man seemed to live lives of a couple of handful of people in one lifetime. After working under Dara Shikoh, manucci travelled to Goa with brief stays in present-day Dhaka and Delhi. He then practiced medicine as a physician in Lahore with Emperor Shah Alma I’s wife as one of his more famous patients. It was after this that he got down to writing his memoir, which is equivalent to unedited CCTV footage of Aurangzeb’s court.
Visit Amazon India’s website to get a hold of a translated version of Storia do Mogor.
From one genius to another. Born in 973 AD in present-day Uzbekistan, Al-Biruni cannot be spoken about without mentioning his mastery in what seem like all the fields of study ever discovered — linguistics, astronomy, natural sciences, mathematics, geology, sociology, economics, medicine, calendar systems and physics. With a keen interest in culture and inclination towards typography, Al-Biruni is the first know scholar who tapped into the world of South Asian studies. Verifying All That the Indians Recount, the Reasonable and the Unreasonable is a translation of the Persian title of the book he authored, which paints a picture of India as seen through his eyes with emphasis on studying Hinduism.
With groundbreaking work in the field of astronomy, Al-Biruni is known to be one of the first people who thought about calculating the speed of light.
Click here to know more about Al-Biruni’s life.