“They told me that one of the Hindu infidels had died, that a fire had been kindled to burn him, and his wife would burn herself along with him.” Describing the practice of sati in 14th century Hindustan, Ibn Battuta observes that, “The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; but when a widow burns herself her family acquire a certain prestige by it…”
Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta is undoubtedly the greatest traveller in world history. Born in Tangier, Morocco in 1304, he set out for Mecca and Medina at the age of 22 and returned home a quarter of a century later, having visited much of the old world from Hangzhou in China to Timbuktu in Mali, and traversed an estimated 75,000 miles between 1325 and 1354. On his return he wrote his epic travelogue wherein he mentioned more than 1500 persons by name. Ibn Battuta (that’s his family name) was a Sunni Muslim and a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence.
He described Al Iskandariya (Alexandria) in Egypt as one of the most beautiful places he has ever seen. “Among all the ports in the world I have seen none to equal it except the ports of Kawlam (Quilon) and Qalicut (Calicut) in India……..and the port of Zaitun (Quanzhou) in China.” [Alexandria is still beautiful, but Kollam and Calicut are ports no longer.] Ibn Battuta observed the famed lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos), one of the wonders of the ancient world, on his outward journey and also on his return. When he saw it for the first time, only one face had been ruined but when he returned in 1349, it had virtually become inaccessible.
At Delhi, Sultan Muhammad bin Tugluq appointed him as Maliki Qadi and he spent six years there, referring to his benefactor as king of Al-Sind and Al-Hind. His description of the Qutub Minar and the metal pillar are revealing. There are some descriptions that would make painful reading for devout Hindus. “At the eastern gate of the mosque there are two enormous idols of brass, prostrate on the ground and held by stones, and everyone entering or leaving the mosque treads on them. The site was formerly occupied by a budkhanah, that is an idol temple, and was converted to a mosque on the conquest of the city.” (Delhi was sacked by Muhammad Ghori in 1192, Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated, and a few years later Qutbuddin Aibak established the Slave Dynasty.)
Of the holy man Shaikh Ala al-Din he wrote, “He preaches to the people every Friday and multitudes of them repent before him and shave their heads and fall into ecstasies of lamentation, and some of them faint.” Sounds familiar? These practices persist even today, but not necessarily in the Islamic world.
“No person eats with another out of the same dish,” Ibn Battuta noted. He also spoke of the Indian habit of eating betel leaves with areca nuts, sprinkling rose water and eating samosas. He recounted the common scenes in the capital, telling us a great deal about life in Delhi in the 14th century. “Every day there are brought to the audience hall hundreds of people chained, pinioned and fettered, and those who are for execution are executed, those for torture tortured, and those for beating beaten.” The shifting of the capital from Delhi to Daulatabd in the Deccan is recounted, probably with a little exaggeration.
Of the Syrian city of Aleppo he said, “The spirit feels in the environs of the city of Halab (Aleppo) an exhilaration, gladness and sprightliness which are not experienced elsewhere, and it is one of the cities which is worthy to be the seat of the Caliphate.” Well, if Ibn Battuta were to see the state of Aleppo today he would just sit down amidst the rubble and weep.
These teeny-weeny tales are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s lots more! Overall Assessment: Very, very interesting.
The Travels of Ibn Battuta
Author : Ibn Battuta (Abridged and Edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith from the translation by Sir Hamilton Gibb and C F Beckingham)
Date of Publication: December 2002
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.