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Nikitin - The first Russian traveler to India

by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: July 13, 2005
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014

Afanasy Nikitin 1466-1472

There existed cultural contacts between central Asian countries and Russia from ancient times. Buddhist missionaries and traders traveled beyond stormy seas, enormous deserts and high mountain ranges and had established religious and commercial links. But there is no written record about these pioneers and adventurers.

Afanasy Nikitin who lived in the second part of the 15th century was the first Russian to record his unique experiences in India. He was born in the principality of Tver (now Kalinin) where two small rivers meet the great Volga. Tver was a prosperous region and major trading center. Merchants traveled far and wide and brought exciting news about the fabulous lands, which had diamonds, gold, silks, spices in plenty. India being the major country, Afanasy Nikitin set out to try his luck. He had heard that India did not breed good horses. He purchased a very good horse and reaching Hormuz a great trade-center of Middle East, started his voyage in a Dabba, frail small sea-ship to India.

After a stormy and troublesome journey he reached Chaul on the west coast of  Arabian sea. At that time the local ruler was a Muslim and a subordinate of Bahamani king Muhammad Shah III (1463-1482). Mohammed Gawan was the Vizier "or Prime Minister and all powerful. He held the title of Malik et-Tuzzar. Nikitan calls him Tuzzar. The Bahmani kings had Gulburga and later Bidar as their capital cities. Nikitin visited both the cities. He then visited parts of Vijayanagar as also Raichur and Golkonda.

He writes that he was misled by accounts of Muslim merchants that India was land of abundance. But he found nothing useful for his countrymen. All toll-free goods were for Muslim lands and people. Pepper and dye were cheap. Toll was very high for these. There were pirate ships everywhere. All pirates were pagan!

He calls Hindus, Kafirs (non-believers). "In India everyone goes naked and women go bare headed and bare-breasted (!)" --  was his observation. Intensity of heat in the southern parts, especially coastal regions, makes people use scanty clothes. Perhaps this practice made Nikitin think that they went 'naked'. He however admits that they wore jewelry and ornaments. Little boys and girls went bare till the age of seven. All were barefoot, walked fast and were strong.

There were many people coming from Khorassan (north east of Iran) Bahmani kings kept close link with the region and scholars were invited to settle in Bidar by Muhammad Gawan. This is a historical fact corroborated by Nikitin.

The land was very populous and the country people were very poor. But the nobles lived in great luxury. Nikitin was amazed to see the king and the nobles ride on men ! Perhaps he refers to palanquins carried by four to twenty men on special occasions. Good horses were all imported 'oxen' i.e., bullock-carts were the main mode of transport. He describes elephants being used to carry "castles” (howdas) which at times carried twelve men. Elephants were used in battles. Long swords were tied to tusks and they rushed in the enemy-ranks killing hundreds. A trained elephant clad in damask with a big iron chain in its mouth struck at people and horses to keep them away when the Sultan went into procession. Nikitin gives picturesque description of the royal procession during Ulu Bayram (Great feast – Id).

At Bidar, horses, brocade silk and black people were sold in the market. The palace had seven gates with hundred armed guards at each gate. Hundred scribes registered the names of entrants. The palace was beautifully decorated with golden designs.

He sold the high-bred horse he brought from Hormuz at a good price in Bidar.

Nikitin interacted with Hindus and told them he was a Christian and his name was Afanasy. "They did not hide from me when eating, trading, praying etc. nor did they conceal their wives” he observed. Hindus ate mutton, fowl, eggs, pork but not beef. They did not drink though refers to Tatna (Toddy) and wine from coconuts. "The Kafirs (Hindus) worshipped different 'Buths' (Idols) of different shapes and  Elephant-man (Ganesh) and Monkey-human forms" -- he writes.

The common food was (and still is) rice, khichri, vegetables, ghee and milk.

Nikitin went to Parvat (Shri Shaila) where pilgrims went in thousands on foot and in oxen carts. They call ox as their father and cow as their mother in India ! He referred to cow dung being used a fuel to cook food and to smear forehead and bodies with ashes.

Nikitin provides details of the army of the Bahmani and Vijayanagar kings. (He calls the latter as Indian Governor!) They were at war frequently. He calls the Vijayanagar ruler very powerful and the capital city lying in a beautiful valley surrounded by high mountains on one side, thick jungles at another side and three big moats on the third side. "Vijayanagara is good for everything!" he declared.

He visited the diamond mines round about Raichur and Golkonda, where the cut diamonds had world-market. He mentions Ceylon and Pegu but does not appear to have visited them. Cambay and Calicut were international ports. Calicut had good quality pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves which were sold abroad. He also saw slaves sold there. Ceylon was famous for gems and fine elephants.

Nikitin started for his return journey from Dabhol (in today's Maharashtra) after three year stay and continuous travel. He was away from Russia for six years. He sailed for Hormuz via Ethiopia, reached Persia and them a Russian Settlement at Kafla in Crimean Port. He seems to have died before reaching his hometown.

Nikitin's observations are relevant and noteworthy even after five hundred years. A devout Christian, he tactfully avoided several moves to convert him to Islam. He changed his name to Khwaja Yusuf Khorassani, knew Turkish language very well, dressed and ate like a Muslim and observed their fasts and feasts when occasion demanded. But he had a liberal mind. "As for the true faith, God alone knows it, and the true faith is to believe in one God, and to invoke His name in purity in every pure place" -- he declared.

See Also:

The History of India
History of India

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