Updated: May 31, 2011 16:55 IST

Voyage beyond the Three Seas

Rajan Gurukkal
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The well-known Russian Indologist, Ivan Minayev's work on Voyage Beyond the Three Seas, a 15th century travelogue by Afanasy Nikitin (a Russian merchant and adventurer), developed the original so beautifully as to reflect contemporary India in all its diverse, but integrated, economic, social and cultural facets.

The book starts with two notes: one by Irina Chelysheva on Minayev's contributions to Indian studies, and the other by Minayev himself, briefly introducing Nikitin's manuscript. Chelysheva's note sharply brings out Minayev's heritage that continues as leavening influence on the Russian Indologists, even after 120 years.

The first of the seven chapters in the book is on Nikitin's voyage from Hormuz, a tiny island of Persia, 20-30 miles in perimeter with barren land and inhospitable climate, but with one of the most strategic ports. It is followed by a narration of his trading experience in Cambay, a port from which ships sailed all over the Indian seas. Nikitin had a sojourn in Chaul, a commercial town in the Bhamini kingdom, situated 23 miles to the south-east of Bombay.

Bidar, where Nikitin arrived from Junnar via Kulungir and Gulbarga, is discussed extensively. The prominent role Bidar played as a medieval point of exchange and a transactional centre of contemporary politico-cultural life; the Shah and his court; and his campaigns and excursions — all these are dealt with in detail. The contextualised note of the editor, given towards the end, helps the reader a great deal in comparing Nikitin's travelogue with contemporary sources.

The manuscript

The English translation of Nikitin's manuscript, given as an annexure, provides the reader a feel of his long, arduous, and eventful journey from the Volga. The other annexure presents Chelysheva's study of the manuscript and its elucidation undertaken in India in the 19th century on the basis of archival material in Maharashtra.

Nikitin's travelogue comes across as a thoroughly unprejudiced account of Indian reality. It is argued that Nikitin's account, though naïve and inadequate sometimes, has immense historical value for the Russian and Indian researchers.

If the original is remarkably objective, the fact that it has been contextualised and supplemented by Minayev's historical scholarship makes the book an important source of information on medieval India. It transports the reader from the harbour of Hormuz to the shores of Gujarat and enables him to experience the life and culture of the ruling aristocracy, the splendid courts, the militia and the rank and file, the market place, holy places, food habits, fairs, festivals, rituals, local traditions, and superstitions that prevailed during that period in the kingdom of Bidar.

Minayev's commentary

By way of commenting on Nikitin's observations, Minayev has traced the genesis and development of the socio-economic, political, and cultural history of India up to the 19th century, comparing the picture emerging from the travelogue with the one that prevailed in British India. In the hands of Minayev, Nikitin's manuscript has acquired an intellectual depth.

Minayev differed from his European colleagues on two points. First, he did not share their preferential focus on the ‘classical ancient', which they considered glorious, or their prejudiced neglect of the ‘post-classical' as degenerative, and hence disgraceful. He found it important to study the Indian historical process as a whole. Secondly, unlike theirs, his approach to contemporary Indian civilisation was open and without any reservation.

Russia is perhaps the only country to express sympathy for India's struggle for Independence and cast doubts on the “progressive mission” of British colonialism in India.This perception, left as Minayev's legacy, deserves to be shared with the people of the country he studied insightfully and affectionately. This book does serve that purpose.

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