Friday, February 12, 2010

The adventures of Ibn Batutua

"Ibn-e-batuta ta ta
Bagal mein joota ta ta
Pehne to karta hai churrr"

Through those lyrics from Ishqiya, Gulzaar's zany mind conjures up an improbable road song, full of carefree spirit and an imagery of freedom and lust for travel. Yet who was Ibn-batuta, what was his story, and why is he remembered even today (at least by a few) in distant India?

Now somewhat forgotten by history, Ibn-batuta might well have been one of the greatest travelers of all time. A few years before Marco Polo set off on his memorable voyage to Cathay, Ibn-Batuta, born in Morocco in the then backwater trading town of Tangier, set upon a voyage which took him almost his entire life, and by the end of which he had travelled across north Africa and Asia all the way to China and back. A staggering distance, more than twice that of what Marco Polo accomplished, and all because he wanted to see all places on earth that comprised of "dar-ul-Islam", the lands where Islam had spread and where Islamic law took prominence. At the end of his journey the ruler of Morocco told him to write the story of his travels to the very ends of the earth, in the form of the classic travel chronicle of the time in Arabic, the Rihla. And the result is a rollicking adventure across the lands that were the richest and most prosperous in the world at that time, in the early 14th century.

While his story remained unknown to the west until the last couple of centuries, his rihla had been widely read in the wider "Islamic world" which covered most of Asia. Since then, translations into English and French brought his story to the west. Reading Ross E. Dunn's version of Ibn-Batuta however puts his story into marvellous perspective. Dunn uses his considerable knowledge of medieval Islamic civilizations across the world to describe the Sindbad like adventures of Ibn-Batuta, while simultaneously describing the conflicts, rulers and political climate of the time in the various lands travelled by Batuta. Through the story of Ibn-batuta Dunn is able to describe how even very diverse lands would have been easily traversible by a muslim of learning. Ibn-Batuta was an educated muslim, trained from childhood in arabic, Islamic law, religion and practice. So when Ibn-Batuta set off on his first journey (ostensibly to perform his "haj", his pilgrimage to Mecca), his knowledge of Arabic and the quran alone would have sufficed for him to be sure to be welcomed (or at least offered shelter) in all the lands he travelled through. Yet, the time of his journey was also one of the most remarkable times in human history. A few centuries earlier Islam had spread rapidly, through both trade and the sword, across Asia, North Africa and a large part of Europe. This was partly because the Arabs were intrepid travellers and traders, and sat right at the middle of a great trade network that connected Europe from ancient times to the wealth of India and China. The Arabs ruled both the land (through their horse and camel caravans) and sea routes (with dhows that plied across the Indian ocean and Arabian sea). Yet, at that time, various events had taken place to make the world a place of great innovation, trade and prosperity as well as political turmoil. The Al-mohads had lost their hold on Spain and Iberia (al-Andalus), and the caliphate had collapsed. In Asia, the hurricane-like forces of Genghis Khan and his vast Turko-mongol armies had swept down the central Asian steppes and overrun the lands of the Khwarizm, Babylon and Persia. After his death, Genghis' descendants squabbled (while still ostensibly under a great Khan), and the empire split into many smaller pieces. Many of these, in Central Asia, came under the strong Persian and Arabic influences, and under these influences converted to Islam. Meanwhile the Mamluks remained strong in Egypt and parts of Arabia and held off the mongols, so while Baghdad had been destroyed by the mongols, Cairo and Damascus and Shiraz remained (and grew) as great centers of Islamic learning. With the fall of Islamic Spain, muslim scholars and men (women, unfortunately, got the short end of the straw in those days) came to these cities, helping their growth as vibrant places of culture. At this same time, the great trading cultures of Venice, Genoa, Florence and what was left of the Byzantine kingdom sent fleets across the Mediterranean, and central Asia, the heart of Islam, became the great melting pot of people and ideas. And finally, even though there were so many kingdoms, it was a rare time of relative peace. The Mongols were still somewhat united under the great Khan, they had made peace with the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, Arabia and Syria, the mongol invasion had made peace possible between Christian Europe and the muslim Arabs, and India itself was largely united under the new Islamic Delhi Sultanate. It was across these lands that Ibn-batuta travelled.

Of course, Batuta dictated his rihla when he was old, at the end of his travels, so some of his dates are slightly off, or the precise place where he met certain people of that time a little skewed. Yet, his accounts remain amongst the best and most descriptive of all the lands he traversed through at that time. Batuta perhaps did start out only to complete his haj, but as he went from what was then a provincial town (Tangier) into the magnificent metropolis that was Cairo (perhaps the largest city in the world then), and then Damascus and into Persia, there was no stopping his wanderlust. For a man of some learning, these places were the wonders of the world. Ibn-Batuta was also an odd mix of scholar, pilgrim, muslim puritan, sufi believer, curious traveller, rogue, yet person of the pleasures of the world. Thus, his descriptions contain an amusing, sometimes conflicting mixture of all these attributes. Yet what made him such a great traveller was undoubtedly what must have been an engaging and friendly personality. He made friends, often with eminent people of the region, with ease. And while imagining himself to be very proper and correct, Batuta appeared to have an extraordinary ability to flatter persons of importance, who were often so pleased with him that they showered him with generous gifts. Through his traveling acquaintances, he was also able to meet most of the rulers of the realms he passed through. And with each subsequent destination, his renown as a great traveller increased, thereby enabling him to command even greater respect. An indication of his abilities particularly with flattery is seen even in his rihla, when the ruler of Morocco asked him to name the great kings of the time. Without blinking an eyelid, Batuta clubbed the relatively minor kingdom of Morocco with the great kingdom of the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria, and the grand Sultanate of Delhi and the Khanate of Mongol China. Similarly, when he met the Chagatai ruler (then one of the smaller Mongol Ilkhanates), he told him that all these kings were equally great, and all were magnificent, earning himself great rewards.

Through his version of Ibn-Batuta's tale, Ross points out that though Ibn-Batuta travelled through so many different lands, it would have been so easy for a learned muslim to make those travels without knowing any of the local languages or customs. Batuta's background as an arabic scholar of sharia (Islamic law) made him a particularly valuable visitor to those lands where muslim kings ruled over vast majorities of non-muslims (such as the Sultan of Delhi, in India), and where learned muslims were in great demand. And, like most travelers across unknown or dangerous lands, Batuta jumps from situations of great fortune to great misfortune, but emerges out of them only with the desire to see more lands. In his travels he acquires gifts, great wealth, horses and camels, slaves, friends and many wives, only to loose them or abandon them and then promptly acquire new ones or reacquire old ones. Batuta's stories of India were of particular interest to me, and Dunn also does a wonderful job of describing Delhi as records say it was when Batuta landed up there after years of travel in Central Asia. A vast part of the Indian subcontinent, from the fabled Khyber pass through the Gangetic plains all the way down south to the deccan were ruled by the sultans of Delhi, and the current incumbent was Mohammad-bin-Tuglaq. Tuglaq ruled at a time when the Sultanate was at it's zenith, and yet was on the verge of collapse. His kingdom was vast (the largest it would ever be under the Delhi sultans), rich with resources and people, and was bursting at the seams. Tuglaq was an eccentric of the strangest sort; a visionary, a tyrant, a petty ruler, a scholar, a reformer and a deeply religious man all at once. All these qualities were in conflict with each other, so it wasn't a surprise that his rule was becoming increasingly schizophrenic. Much of Batuta's colorful descriptions of the Delhi court have come to us from other historical sources, and there remain so many descriptions of Tuglaqs eccentricities that the word "tuglaq" has become a common noun to describe odd behavior in many Indian languages. The sultan would one day befriend or reward a scholar, and the very next day decide to behead him. Having decided that he couldn't trust anyone around him, Tuglaq decided to appoint only unknown foreigners in his court, and it was here that Batuta presented himself. Tuglaq made Batuta the qadi/kazi (judge) of Delhi, gave him a great salary and set off to suppress some revolt in the Deccan. Batuta paints a colorful picture of the intrigue in the Delhi court, where everyone was unsure of his fate, yet tried to outdo the other in outward pomp, so everyone raked up huge debts. Finally, unable to take it any more, Batuta tries to escape, is prevented from doing so, and then is sent with some visiting Chinese ambassidors to the court of China. So he makes his way to the south Indian coast of Malabar, gets robbed (escaping only with his trousers and nothing else), encounters numerous wars and conflicts between the local chiefs, gets shipwrecked, then makes his way to the Maldive islands. Here he is immediately appointed judge, marries multiple local women of influence, complains about the local customs, tries to overthrow the small kingdom there, fails and still escapes. His writings portray wonderfully the confusion and intrigue that existed amongst all the smaller Indian kingdoms, and the conflict between Islamic lords and smaller Hindu chiefs and the greater population, even though he remains true to himself in his travelogue, and only talks about everything from his own perspective. Even though Batuta cares little about the common population, his occasional references to events involving commoners portray a rare picture of medieval India.

As he continues his travels all the way through south east Asia to China, all the while being welcomed into muslim communities in each of these lands, it becomes increasingly apparent to modern readers like us just how vast, prosperous and powerful the Islamic networks of those times were. And more than just the sword, it becomes increasingly clear how much of a role trade (and trading guilds) played in the spread of this faith. Also, unlike the historians of any particular kingdom (say those of the Mamluks or the Delhi Sultans) Batuta was just a traveler through these lands, and so his own accounts provide a different perspective (sometimes more accurate at least for some aspects) than do official court historians. Yet Batuta is also infuriating as a travel writer, since he remains so focused on the muslim world alone, and ignores the diversity of customs and other cultures he passes through. The various Christians, Buddhists and Hindus he must have encountered remain inconsecuential to him, so we miss out on eyewitness accounts of all these other peoples. Throughout it all though is a rare love for travel and the sights of new lands, which make his accounts all the more readable, and also gives us a glimpse into a vibrant time in human history, enabling us to realize how closely interconnected the world always has been. Dunn's book is particularly readable because it puts all these events in perspective and provides this wonderful picture of the world as it was then.


FĂ«anor said...

Hiya! Good to see you back blogging, I say. Don't know if you were aware of this, but a few years ago Tim Mackintosh-Smith began a series of books following Ibn-Battuta's footsteps around the planet. Check 'em out. I've only read Travels with a Tangerine, which was okay-okay-lah.

Sunil said...

feanor....great link, thanks! The hall of a thousand columns seems to be available in my local library, and I plan to pick it up from there.