The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

You may recall I translated Afanasii Nikitin's medieval account of his journey from Rus to India. It turns out that owing to some carelessness and also because of my lack of knowledge of old Russian, there are some errors in my translation. Professor Sebastian Kempgen was kind enough to read through it and point out the lacunae. (I should make the corrections shortly, but the caveat still remains that my version still can't be considered complete as I'm unable to match it with the original old Russian.)

Of course, the only reason he knew of my blog-post was that I had written to him, having seen that he is the author of several works analysing Nikitin's journeys. In a set of three papers, Professor Kempgen reveals the actual places behind Nikitin's names. Remarkably, several cities Nikitin visited and named had not been previously identified by scholars. Concluding his investigation, he was able to produce a map of the Nikitin's itinerary through India.

As it turns out, Professor Kempgen's papers are in German, but he has provided an English synopsis to two of them, and those, along with Google's Translate toolbox, serve me in this brief summary.

Professor Kempgen shows how it is possible to solve philological, historical, or geographical problems1 by using Google Earth and other web sources. In the first paper, he traces the route Nikitin took from arrival in India at Chaul to Pali, Umri and Junnar.

There is no mystery about Nikitin's town of Pali. Using Google Earth, Professor Kempgen identifies Umri with Pimpri Chinchwad by showing that any other candidates en route from Pali were either too close to Pali or too close to Junnar to agree with the travel times Nikitin mentions in his text. It is possible to discern a route following the Amba river and passing close to the Western Ghats, both of which are alluded to in the text. Why Chinchwad, though? Professor Kempgen reveals that a great temple was established there, in honour of Morya Gosavi, a worshipper of Ganesh, and the Ganesh Chaturti festival would have coincided with Nikitin's journey on the pilgrim route thither from Pali.

Junnar is the next stop on Nikitin's itinerary. While this is readily identifiable today, Nikitin's assertion that it is on a stone island created by God and reachable only via a mountain path so narrow that two people cannot walk together on it, serves to confuse the geographer. He is a writer notably accurate in his notes, so what does he mean by this business of a stone island? Professor Kempgen suggests that Nikitin was referring to the fact that Junnar is situated on a rocky plateau, and the narrow path is the Naneghat pass, much in favour for trekkers today.

And where is the port of Sabat? There has been controversy regarding its location, some scholars even placing it in Indochina. Professor Kempgen believes that this coincides with Sopatma, itself either Mylapore in present-day Madras, or Markkanam, a spot 30km south. This great port on the Coromandel has been listed in, amongst others, documents such as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, and previous travellers, such as Marco Polo and Niccolò de Conti, had made references to it. In addition, the journey times Nikitin quotes to Sabat from Dabhol or from Ceylon do make sense.

In his second paper2, Professor Kempgen tries to identify Nikitin's return path through India as he planned to go home to Tver. In this instance, the mapping of Nikitin's names to actual place names appears trickier, and can only be made 'probabilistically.' The endpoints of the route, Sheikh Aladdin and Daby have been long known to be Aland and Dabhol respectively. Another known site en route is Kollur, which came to be famous for its diamond mines in later centuries, but going by Nikitin, already productive in the 15th century. Comparing the travel times for the onward route that criss-crossed the Western Ghats, and the travel times on the return route, Professor Kempgen is able to offer a simple yet plausible possibility for the unidentified towns of Kamendri, Naryas, and Suri. Kamendri, he says, could be Chandrabhaga, not only because Nikitin's Russification of the name would have modified the 'Ch' to 'K' and so on, but also because the Russian 'kamen' - meaning 'stone' - might have helped Nikitin memorise the name. (I am no philologist and very likely Google Translate is playing tricks, but this makes no sense at all to me. I really need to get a German speaker to interpret this correctly.) Chandrabhaga is the older name of present-day Pandharpur, situated on a half-moon shaped bend of the Bhima river and where the famous Vithoba temple is sited. As for Naryas/Kinaryas, Professor Kempgen speculates on the common root 'nar' in these names: does it stem from the Sanskrit 'nar' meaning 'man', or the Arabic 'nar' meaning 'fire'? Is there a Mewari influence on these names? The only large town in these parts is Satara, and it's difficult to glean any connection between Nikitin's names and this. The puzzle remains unsolved, as far as I can see. Lastly, what of Suri? Again, the simplest possibility for Nikitin's route suggests the town of Chiplun, but how this squares with 'Suri' defeats the good professor, and, I readily confess, me as well.

The third paper3 investigates Nikitin's round-trips from Bidar, where he visits Kulongir, Parvat, and describes (from hearsay) Vijayanagar. The two unidentified place-names here are Kulongir and Parvat. Professor Kempgen suggests Basavakalyan for the former, based on an analysis of the distances and traversal times Nikitin reports for his trip between Bidar and Aland. Basavakalyan was the capital of the 12th century Kalyana Chalukya kingdom and, indeed, a pilgrimage site during Nikitin's time. Professor Kempgen points out that Kulongir could be Kalyangiri or Kalyangarh, the latter meaning 'fort of Kalyan', and indeed there is a fortress in Basavakalyan dating from the 12th century. But what is one to make of Parvat, according to Nikitin a major Hindu temple? The temple is said to be near the river Krishna, far from any major city, in the middle of a densely wooded area. Professor Kempgen suggests Srisailam for Parvat: the Mahabharata, for instance, alludes to Srisailam as Sri Parvata, the blessed hill.

And there you have it. The complete Indian itinerary of Afanasii Nikitin with modern identifications can be summarised in this map, which Professor Kempgen created for his third paper. Good stuff, what?


1. S. Kempgen (2008). Zu einigen indischen Städten bei Afanasij Nikitin: die Hinreise (Chaul - Pali - Umri - Junnar, und Šabat). In: Brehmer, B., Fischer, K. B., Krumbholz, G. (Eds.): Aspekte, Kategorien und Kontakte slavischer Sprachen. Festschrift für Volkmar Lehmann zum 65. Geburtstag. Hamburg, 249-263.

2. S. Kempgen (2009). Zu einigen indischen Städten bei Afanasij Nikitin: die Rückreise (Scheich Aladin - Kamindrej - Kynarjas/Narjas - Suri - Dabhol). In: T. Berger et al. (eds.), Von grammatischen Kategorien und sprachlichen Weltbildern – Die Slavia von der Sprachgeschichte bis zur Politsprache. Festschrift für Daniel Weiss zum 60. Geburtstag. München-Wien 2009, S. 319-333.

3. S. Kempgen (2009). Zu einigen indischen Städten bei Afanasij Nikitin: die Rundreisen (Kulonger, Parvat) und Vijayanagara. Die Welt der Slaven LIV, 2009, 150-164.


km said...

I had missed your original post. Brilliant stuff.

Why were we not exposed more to stories of his travels in India?

Fëanor said...

KM: Thanks. You might find this summary useful.

Lots of history to cover, not enough time. Perhaps that's why the NCERT texts didn't have any references to European visitors to our shores?

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