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

Jun 23, 2009

A Russian In India

After months of sporadic effort, I've translated Afanasii Nikitin's fifteenth century memoirs of his travel to India (Journey Across Three Seas). I can't say I'm completely satisfied with it. As I was not getting very far with the two or three remaining untranslated sentences, I figured I might as well throw in the towel. You can see the result here.

Do we really need yet another translation of this classic? Indeed, will anyone really be interested in mine, considering I'm no expert either in medieval Russian or in history? There are other translations available, some into French, others into English, some considered excellent, and others bowdlerized 0. The only problem is that none of these are in the public domain. At least, I haven't been able to find any, other than the one into modern Russian from which I performed my translation: the one by Ia. S. Lur’e and L.S. Semenov 1.

There are some issues even with Lur'e and Semenov's work. Nikitin often uses a mishmash of Turkic, Arabic and Persian invocations to God when he prays: these have been rendered into modern Russian as though he were venerating the Orthodox Christian divinity. Further translations from this into French and thence into English (e.g. excerpts in the book by Alam and Subrahmanyam) appear to have gotten some of the text wrong. (As an aside, I wrote to Alam and Subrahmanyam asking for clarifications and offering what I thought were correct translations, but didn't hear back from them.)

There's considerable debate about whether Nikitin converted to Islam or not during his travels. Gail Lenhoff 2 says yes, while Lur'e says no, vehemently. Check out M. J. Maxwell's analysis 3 for futher details. Others, such as Alam and Subrahmanyam 4, are non-committal, preferring to analyse his travels as part of a Indo-Persian narrative of the medieval period. Anindita Banerjee 5 further examines the text itself for evidence that Nikitin was informed by Persian storytellers, and concludes that even if he didn't convert to Islam, he certainly absorbed its cultural influences.

Nikitin himself talks about the infidels with disdain, and he rejects conversion even when he is told that he will lose his possessions if he doesn't accept Islam. On the other hand, he has several crises of faith: he claims that he has lost track of the Christian festivals and has to follow Muslim fasts, his prayers often follow the litany of Allah-o-Akbar; he does appear to sympathise more with Muslims than with the Hindus he encounters on his travels, whose idol worship he considers with horrified interest.

Who was Nikitin? He was a merchant of Tver, a principality abutting the Mongol domains in Russia. He set out down the Volga sometime in the 1470s with some merchandise, was robbed by Tartars, and decided that he could not return to Rus without making some money at least. Having heard that there was much demand for horses in India, he took a colt with him over the seas to the Deccan, where he spent much of the next two or three years. He made detailed observations about the peoples he encountered - both the wealthy nobility of Persian origin in the Bahmani Sultanates, and the indigent commoners - often repeating descriptions of their dress and economic conditions, beliefs and legends. He noted that the Bahmanis waged constant war with the neighbouring Hindu kingdom (Vijayanagar), but that its capital was never captured, and the fortunes of war were fickle, with the Muslims sometimes winning and sometimes losing.

There was much to say about the wealth of India. Nikitin saw that the nobility was very well off, whereas the commoners were dirt-poor. But India was a veritable treasure trove of textiles, precious stones, spices. Merchants were well-treated, especially white men like him, often the objects of fascination. He himself loved dark women, and was no hermit during his stay. Religion was constantly on his mind. He couldn't fit in with the Muslim elite despite giving himself the name Yusuf Khorasani, because he was a Christian; the Hindus, on the other hand, had little to do with him, hiding their wives and not eating with him, until he revealed that he was not a Muslim. Religion affected trade, too. He found to his disgust that, as a Christian, any goods he wanted to take back with him to Rus would be heavily taxed, while Muslim merchants were exempt; furthermore, the prevalence of piracy in the Arabian Sea caused him no end of anxiety.

He bewailed the inconstancy in his faith, begging God to forgive his transgressions when he didn't keep the Christian fasts. He cursed the fact that as a Christian he could not trade freely, and adjured his Christian brethren to abandon their faith if they wanted to make money in India. But again and again, his thoughts returned to his homeland. He extolled its grandeur and loveliness, and he lamented its lack of unity and the constant war between its princes that wasted lives and benighted its people.

Eventually he decided to return to Rus. His ship blew off course to Ethiopia. He made his way to the Persian Gulf and Iran and thence to the southern borders of Rus. He was caught in the midst of war and imprisoned as a spy. He managed to escape, but again his ship went off course in the Black Sea. He spent some time in Trebizond and Kaffa. Before he got back to his beloved Tver, however, he died.

[0] Tillett, Lowell R. 1966. “Afanasy Nikitin as a Cultural Ambassador to India: A Bowdlerized Soviet Translation of His Journal.” Russian Review 25/2, pp 160–69.

[1] (Ed.) Ia. S. Lur’e and L.S. Semenov, 1986. Хождение за три моря Афанасия Никитина. (Leningrad).

[2] Gail Lenhoff, 1970. "Beyond Three Seas: Afanasij Nikitin’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Apostasy", East European Quarterly, 13/4, pp 431-447.

[3] Mary Jane Maxwell, 2006. "Afanasii Nikitin: An Orthodox Russian’s Spiritual Voyage in the Dar al-Islam, 1468-1475", Journal of World History, Vol 17, No. 3.

[4] Muzaffar Alam, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, 2007. Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries: 1400-1800 (Cambridge University Press).

[5] Anindita Banerjee, 2003. "By Caravan and Campfire: Chorasani Narratives about Hindustan and Afanasij Nikitin's 'The Journey Beyond Three Seas'", Die Welt der Slaven XLVIII, pp 69-80.


Maddy said...

Something tells me I have seen a version of Nikitin's trip record somewhere. Let me get back to you on that, but it is great that you have a version too and I will check it out, for it gives a different perspective to Islamic and Venetian writings of trade in that period.

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