Deconstructing Colonial Historiography: A Case Study of Afanasy Nikitin

Awadhesh Kumar Jha is a Research Scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at awadhesh4jnu[at]

Awadhesh Kumar Jha
Awadhesh Kumar Jha

India was visited by travellers of different land during the pre-modern period. Almost each one of them had their personal experiences recorded in their account, which has been interpreted time and again by the later scholars. No doubt the personal experiences of these foreign travellers were different from one another, but historians of nineteenth and twentieth century have often tried to see a pattern of historical development in all those contemporary foreign travellers account, so that it could help in deeper understanding of the pre-modern Indian history. It was during the time of colonial rule in India, in the later 18th and early 19th Century that efforts were made by the British scholars to engage with the historical sources of pre-modern India. Many historically authentic and contemporary indigenous and foreign sources were consulted and on the basis of which India’s history was written. In this endeavour of writing India’s history, the accounts of western travellers to India, were given more prominence than those other travellers who also had visited India during medieval period and observed India impartially and recorded them in their account. One of those neglected foreign travellers account in the scheme of colonial scholars were the accounts of Russian travellers who visited India during 15th to 18th Century.

The western travellers have been found through their account, of being too critical of India’s socio-political and religious-cultural aspects of day to day life, while the Russian travellers tend to do efforts to understand and appreciate the same.  The reason behind such selection of sources by the British scholars is not difficult to understand, as the primary aim of colonial study of India’s past was to establish the notion of ‘uncivilized’ and ‘barbarous’ India during pre colonial period, which could help colonialists to establish empire in Indian subcontinent to ‘civilize’ them, same as was the case with Africa where it was ‘white men’s burden’ to civilize the people of Africa. These neglected accounts were also not taken into serious consideration by the historians of twentieth Century and they seemed to follow the same set of sources as were used by their predecessors. Recently there has been a new trend wherein the non-conventional sources of history are seriously engaged with to have a better and holistic idea of India’s pre-modern times. It is necessary to learn pre-modern India from the prism of Russians who had their own view about the then contemporary India in the time and space they visited.  Echoing same sentiment, Ivan Minayev had suggested that the time had come to do away with the writing of India’s history within the framework of some “grand theories and pre-built structures of some Western Scholars”, and look into the alternatives, based on often regarded less important sources.

Afanasy Nikitin
Afanasy Nikitin

The first Russian who visited India was Afanasy Nikitin in 1468-69, much before the Portuguese Vasco Da Gama landed in Calicut in 1498. However P M Kemp argues that Nikitin was not the first Russian to have come to India. There were number of slaves who must have come to India before Nikitin, though they do not have any account of their own. His argument is premised upon the notion that the Russian caravans were undertaking long journeys during the 15th Century. Nikitin had recorded his Indian experience in a diary called “Voyages beyond three Seas”. The account is available to us and is the first hand account by any Russian about India based on his personal experience. During 15th Century India had no direct relation with Russia, so Nikitin had not much idea about the commercial prospects which this subcontinent could provide to him. But he was advised by some of his Muslim friends for better prospects in India, and with this hope he landed in the Indian subcontinent. But he was dissatisfied with that advice, thus he recorded that “they talked about a multitude of goods, but it turned out that there is nothing for our land…pepper and colouring are cheap but the duty is high”.

To construct the history of India- Russia relation during the fifteenth Century, Nikitin’s travelogue is an important source. The account is not lengthy, but short. However it covers almost all aspects of India’s pre-modern history, particularly of 15th Century, so much so that many new things can be added to the whole narrative of 15th Century India. Nikitin visited India with a commercial motive, but according to Minayev, this did not prove an impediment to his recording of those facets of Indian life which had no direct link with his profit consideration. Thus he recorded all those facets of socio- religious and politico-cultural aspects of 15th Century India with which he encountered with. For Minayev he was a genius who had recorded things which finds less mention in other contemporary sources, like things such as, what and how Indians ate?  How they prayed to their gods? What they did with the relatives who die? How they dressed? How different was the standard of living between the rulers and the ruled? Etc.

It was N M Karamzin who discovered the original manuscript of Nikitin, “Voyage Beyond the three Seas”, in 1821. The discovered manuscript was not the original copy written by Nikitin himself, but the copies which were rewritten in the 16th and the 17th Century. Count Wielhorsky translated this manuscript in to English in 1857. He has called the narrative of Nikitin as “an uncouth style of an enterprising but an uneducated man”. Minayev considers Nikitin account as an original account based on his personal interaction with the natives, rather on hearsay. Thus what Nikitin had recorded was no less than the “prevailing reality”. P M Kemp praises Nikitin that he had written a factual, legible and descriptive account of India despite his not being a professional writer.       

Nikitin’s account was not discussed widely among scholars and it remained less talked about for a considerable times. However during the 20th Century the developments at the world stage like cold war, India’s emergence as a neutral power and growing people to people link between USSR and India made possible the renewed efforts of the Russian scholars to engage with Nikitin’s account seriously. He was subsequently portrayed as the founder of the cultural contacts between India and Russia. He was compared with the travellers like Columbus and Magellan, and was made a figure of national importance. A statue of him was placed in his home town, Tver.

Though westerners can take pride in explaining their history of discoveries and search for a new world which commensurate with the end of 15th Century when the Portuguese reached India, the journey of Nikitin to India has shown that the  merchants of  Russia were able to accomplish their journey to Asia without much difficulty. Afanasy Nikitin was the son of Nikita, a merchant from the city of Tver, situated on the bank of River Volga. He started his journey in 1466, sailed through Volga River and reached Astrakhan. He then crossed the Caspian Sea through Baku and Derbent, travelled through Persia and reached Northern shore of Persian Gulf in 1469. Then he sailed to Muscat and after crossing the Arabian Sean reached Chaul, now in Maharashtra in 1469. From the Persian Gulf the Nikitin’s journey to India began on April 4, 1469 and it took him six weeks to reach Chaul.  Nikitin spent the Easter of 1469 in Hormuz, which falls on 2nd April in 1469, and started for India two days after that. The date is important to note the chronology of the sequence of events in the journey of Nikitin. The date becomes important also because the first translator of Nikitin’s account in English, Wielhorsky, has given the date of Nikitin’s stay in India from 1468-1474, which is not true. The same date has been given by many scholars such as E. F. Oaten.

Nikitin has advised his fellow Russians to drop their religion in their own land before coming to India, as in India, the rulers, according to Nikitin, forced foreigners to convert to Islam. Whether Nikitin himself had to convert to Islam partly or fully is a debatable among scholars, however it needs to be researched what exactly was the situation in India, with respect to conversion in the pre modern period.

Nikitin observed about the Hindu religion that “altogether there are eighty four faiths in India and everyone believes in ‘But’ (idol); people of different faiths do not eat or drink together, nor do they intermarry; some eat mutton, fowl, fish and eggs, but none of these people ate beef. They don’t eat or drink with the Moslems”. Nikitin further noted “and they pray facing eastward in the Russian manner and when they sit down to take a meal some wash their hands and feet and also rinse their mouth”. Nikitin very carefully noticed the Hindu customs. “They used the cow dung as fuel to bake breads and cook their food and smear their faces, forehead and bodies with the ashes”. “Wherever I went” Afanasy Nikitin wrote, “I was followed by many people who wondered at me, a white man”. For Kodiyan, it was the heavy costume of Nikitin which was a matter of curiosity for the Indians who usually were dressing as lightly as possible.

Nikitin account is conspicuously unusual in his openness in recording things with which he personally encountered with, such as the food habits of the Hindus and the Muslims, their dressing sense, the mode of prayer etc. It is also extraordinary in its attempt to mention the time duration between two important towns, between two important ports, goods available in each port and towns where he visited along with their price etc. The visit was also remarkable because of the time duration of four years which Nikitin was able to live in an alien land. And also the time in which he travelled i.e. 15th Century when such a long travel was unheard of. However the account of Nikitin did not answer much questions, like his own background, the circumstances that led him to undertake the journey, how and why his journey ended on India? Etc.  What was the nature of his interaction with the Indians? How the interactions help in forming perceptions and consequently ideas? etc. These are the questions which is often a concern for scholars, to understand the true nature of the ‘journey beyond three seas’.

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