Niccolao Manucci, a traveller from Italy lived in India for a significant part of the 17th and 18th centuries. During this period he wrote a memoir chronicling his journey through and observations of India. These observations give a fascinating look into medieval India, some of the observations are discussed in this article.
Food and caste are inexorably connected in India and the same was observed by him. The caste system is reflected by the higher caste’s abstention from eating meat about which Manucci says –
He also had interesting observations about the clothing styles in India, most probably a reference to widows and religious mendicants or a funeral procession –
He goes on to say “mostly Hindus, do not conceal the face as in Persia and Turkey, where women go about with their faces hidden. It is true that the Mahomedan woman do not allow their faces to be seen by anyone…” pointing out the difference in the way Hindus and Muslims dress.
During his extensive travels, he spend time in the famed Mughal sarais and had the following observation about them, “Each one of them might hold, more or less, from 800 to 1000 persons, with their horses, camels, carriages; and some of them are even larger.”
He came to India during tumultuous times when Aurangzeb had imprisoned Shah Jahan and taken over the throne. Aurangzeb had also executed his brother Dara Shukoh, beloved by all. About this incident, Manucci had the following observation about Dara’s place in the court which helps one to understand Shahjahan’s preference for Dara as the successor –
About the execution of Dara, Manucci narrates the following take –
He spent considerable amount of time in the Mughal court and “The most sumptuous of European courts cannot compare in richness and magnificence with the lustre beheld in Indian courts” is what he thought about it.
He observed many Hindu kingdoms in southern India and wasn’t very favourable towards them –
This may be factual but also shows his disaffection towards the locals as well as the influence of Catholic missionaries which whom he spend his last years in Pondicherry and Madras.
He observed many rituals, festivities and festivals while in India, one of the most remarkable being Holi –
The Mango is a fruit which has fascinated visitors since time immemorial and this is what Manucci had to say about it –
Despite being in their service for a long period of time, he wasn’t very kind in describing the Portuguese –
He was much kinder to the English and remarked that the people of Madras were the best disposed of any city he had encountered.
The memoirs are a fascinating mix of history and gossip and need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Many of the observations in his texts have been refuted by scholars as being inaccurate and one can also see that his own prejudices and perceptions also come in the way of presenting an unbiased view of the world. Having said that, there are many peeks into medieval India that his work provides and makes for a fascinating read.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest novel, The Last Queen, is an exquisite love story of a king and a commoner, a cautionary tale about loyalty and betrayal, and a powerful parable of the indestructible bond between mother and child. Here’s an excerpt-
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