The Journeys of Ibn-Battuta

Sometimes even Hindi films may serve the cause of history! Gulzar’s song, Ibn-e-Battuta, bagal mein joota, has caught public imagination like anything. Hopefully, it may even generate some interest in the life and times of Ibn-Battuta who came to India in 1333 after travelling for eight years, having left his home in Tangiers, Morrocco in 1325, at the age of 21 years, to undertake Hajj at Mecca and Medina. He returned home only after 30 years, having completed 75000 miles all across Africa, Europe and Asia. It must have been some journey! His book “the Rihla” describes his voyage across much of the then known Muslim world most vividly and is fascinating to read.

He reached India when Muhammad Tuglak was the Sultan at Delhi. He favoured foreigners over Indians and most of his courtiers, officers, generals and relatives were foreigners. Battuta appears to have heard of this and came in the hope of benefitting from his largesse. He was not disappointed as the Sultan was pleased with him and appointed him the qazi of Delhi on an annual salary of 12000 dinaars and other gifts.

Battuta lived in Delhi for nine years, married several times and fathered many children. He admits in his book that he was perpetually in debt and the Sultan had to bail him out from time to time. He was generally well received by the Sultan, but feared for his life from his eccentricities. Battuta thought that the Sultan was generous, well read and religious but ruthless and blood-thirsty. He had people beheaded, quartered, trampled upon by elephants or even skinned alive routinely.  Battuta has described several incidents of his blood lust when many well-known and respected persons were killed at the slightest pretext. He served the Sultan for many years but still feared for his life. So he begged leave of the Sultan to go on Hajj, which was actually a polite way of running away. However, he was appointed ambassador to China and was ship wrecked at Calicut while on his way there. Having lost all the gifts that the Sultan had sent with him, he did not return to Delhi fearing his wrath and went to Maldives instead.

Battuta must have been a keen observer with a fantastic memory as he has commented minutely on what he saw or heard when he was in India.He marvelled at the excellent postal system then prevailing in India. It was of two kinds- through horse and on foot. Horses were provided by the Sultan and were changed every four kos or miles. For the other type, there were Dawah or stage posts every 1/3 Kos or mile where runners or Harkaras would be waiting. They carried bamboo poles, on one end of which were tied brass bells. They would start running the moment they received a letter and on reaching the next stage hand it over to the next person who having been alerted by the sound of bells, would carry the letter at full speed. This was even faster than sending post by horses and it reached the sultan at Delhi in five days from Multan. If it were true, it must be said that the system was quite efficient!

He recalled having seen a rhinoceros after crossing the Indus. This is quite remarkable as rhinoceros are now found only in north-eastern India. He has described Indian fruits like mango, jack-fruit, jamun, mahua and pomegranate; grains like rice, wheat, and barley; lentils like moong, moth, chana etc. He wrote that khichri with ghee was a popular dish and samosas, chapattis, pooris, and halwa were served at meals. The diet of the commoner was of coarse grains like barley and maize. Indians used to eat pickles and relishes also. They used to put mustard oil in their hair and offered betel leaves and nuts as mark of respect. Coal was unknown then, sati was prevalent, Ganga was revered and Hindus were obsessed with purity and pollution. He has described Indian coins, weights and measurements and a thousand other details about the daily lives of Indians which make for wonderful reading.

 Though Battuta wrote ( or rather dictated) his book in the fourteenth century, he remained generally obscure till the nineteenth century when he was rediscovered and translated in English and other languages. Now thanks to Gulzar he may gain another lease of life. Amen!

2 Responses to “The Journeys of Ibn-Battuta”

  1. It did strike my head that something I read way back 11 years. And when I heard this song, the name stuck. Thanks for providing the extra info. Where did you got this, are you a History student.

  2. No, I am not a student in the sense of being at a school. But, yes, history interests me, especially when I do not have to mug up dates and events for examinations!

    Thanks for your visit and the comment.

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