5. Travels of Ibn Battuta.


The Travels of Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1325–1354… Volume III, Cambridge, 2nd series, 141, 1971. Covering Turkestan, Khurasan, Sind, north-western India and Delhi, including an account of the reign of Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq.

The Travels of Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1325–1354… Volume IV. The translation completed with annotations by C. F. Beckingham, 2nd series, 178, 1994. Covering South India, South-East Asia, China, Morocco, Spain and West Africa.

Ibn Battuta, born in 1304 in Tangier into a family with a tradition of judicial service as qadis, arrived in Delhi in March 1334. India clearly made a strong impression on him and his account fills volume III and most of volume IV. He had originally set out for Mecca, but his pilgrimage turned into a desire to ‘travel through the earth’.

ibn battutta travels

When volume V was published in 2000 , this translation had taken more than twice as long as the author’s twenty-eight years of travel. The eminent Arabist, H. A. R. Gibb, who died in 1971, turned to the Islamic scholar, Charles Beckingham, to help him finish volume III. The Indo-Persian world had not been his speciality. His notes, judicious but limited, give way to fuller assistance in volume IV which Beckingham also completed. There are maps and photographs of relevant sites and pictorial representations.

Despite the attractive fluency of the translation, some critics felt that A. Mahdi Husein’s version (Baroda, 1953) with its much fuller annotation had not been totally superseded. Gibb followed the Arabic text, published with a French translation in 1853–8 by C. Defremery and B. R. Sanguinetti. These two scholars had led the modern rediscovery of Ibn Battuta. Unlike the work of his older contemporary, Marco Polo, The Travels (Rihla) seem to have dropped out of circulation soon after his death in the Islamic world and were not known to European readers until, in limited form, the later eighteenth century.

It is interesting to turn back to volume I and read the preface by the secretary Ibn Juzay(y) whom the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan, ‘who brought back prosperity to the bazaar of learning after it had grown sluggish’, ordered to take down the reminiscences. We know from the great philosopher-historian, Ibn Khaldun, that some of the Indian reports evoked scepticism at the court of Fes, but the Sultan’s vazir sympathetically observed that people find it difficult to conceive what they have not known (trans. Rosental, vol. I, p. 370). Ibn Juzay points out that he hasn’t checked the anecdotes because Ibn Battuta had done so, or, where he could not, he had alerted the reader to points of uncertain reliability.

Historians have found the information about the Delhi Sultanate from the time of Qutb al-Din Aybak until 745/1344 valuable and mostly corroborated by other sources. But the journey from Delhi to Gujarat is erratic and, once beyond Cape Cormorin, a lack of consistent clarity has raised the question as to whether he ever visited Bengal, not to mention China. It is known that in earlier volumes there are passages which incorporate accounts by other travellers. It had been intended that problems of dating and possibly conflated accounts of different journeys would be examined in volume V. Sadly, Beckingham’s death in 1998 left the final volume as merely a substantial index.

In Volume III, Ibn Battuta approaches India through Sindh, where his brief account of the rebellion of Wunar al-Samiri is an important, if not unique, source. Soon after he arrived in Delhi, he became qadi to a city which was a magnet for ambitious men throughout the Islamic world. There are many anecdotes of the ruthless management of these competing elites by that monster of piety, generosity and cruelty, Muhammad Ibn Tughluq. The sultan tried to uphold Shari’a law, and, we are told, that he abolished dues on goods and merchandise, confining his government to the Quranic alms and land tax. With his enthusiasm for talented men from the wider Muslim world, he waived away Ibn Battuta’s reservations about accepting the appointment of qadi: he belonged to the Maliki school of jurisprudence rather than the locally prevailing Hanafi school, and he did not speak the language of Delhi.

There are scattered remarks, with vivid examples, of the Indian world that the author had come to: an encounter with a rhinoceros; the contentious matter of cow-killing; the Indian way of sitting with the left foot tucked beneath the body which the sultan had adopted; the custom that guests should not give presents to musicians – which appears centuries later in Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Jalsa Ghor (The Music Room). His moving and atmospheric account of following a sati was surely never surpassed by the numerous later accounts by western travellers. Having survived a temporary eclipse and threat to his life, he was restored to favour by the sultan and sent, probably in 743/1342 as his ambassador to the Mongol emperor of China.

In Volume IV Battuta sets out for a southern port to depart for China. He later tells us the Dely (Hili) was the farthest town reached by Chinese ships, and he has a detailed description of these vessels and notices the custom of growing vegetables in a tank on board. But long before he had even reached the new capital city of Daulatabad, he was ambushed by robbers near Kovil (Aligarh) and, before being rescued, endured a nightmarish week as a destitute fugitive. Wherever he went he made a point of enquiring about local Muslim holy men and, if he could, of visiting them.

There are many vivid sketches of his experiences: of levitating yogis in Delhi; of the brave Abyssinian slave, Badr, who would eat a sheep at a meal washed down with a pound and a half of ghee. Hindus are occasionally in the narrative; as where he compares Malabar matrilineal succession with Berber custom in his own Maghrib; or praises the city of Calicut (Kozhikode) for its justice and openness to foreigners. But it is a Muslim world that Ibn Battuta is passing through, and nowhere more so than in the Maldive Islands where there were no unbelievers. However, his attempts as qadi there to enforce Shari’a law met with mixed success. Bystanders fainted as hands were chopped off, and he never succeeded in making local women cover up. His information about the islands is as detailed as his political reporting of the Delhi Sultanate.

Battuta then moved on to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ma’abar (the Coromandel coast) where he is an important source for the short-lived Sultanate of Madurai. Unlike Ibn Battuta, the brutal Sultan Ghiyath al-Din was troubled by his flagging sexual powers. A prescribed dose of iron filings seems to have killed him, and Ibn Battuta passed north to Bengal. Whether he really went there himself is uncertain, but he cites a judgment by people from Khurasan on Bengal —‘a hell full of blessings’— which may strike a chord with modern visitors to Kolkata (IV, p. 867). He mentions that commodities are cheaper there than anywhere else he has known, an observation which recurs down the centuries. The last third of the volume recounts his travels through south-east Asia and China and back again via a second visit to the Maldives before finally reaching his Moroccan home in 1354.

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