Afanasy Nikitin – First Russian Traveller to India
Afanasy Nikitin: Business takes people from one city to another but today’s story is about a businessman who crossed three seas in search of trade opportunities and became the first Russian to come to India.
What did he set out to sell from Russia? What was the first thing he bought when he reached Gujarat? And which temple from the South left him shocked?
Come, let us learn all this today. Afanasy Nikitin was born in Tver, Russia in 1433. Situated on the banks of the Volga river, Tver was a big trading centre of Russia and a business hub.
Afanasy Nikitin was also influenced by this business environment and he got a business idea. The idea was simple: selling horses he had heard from somewhere that India did not have a good breed of horses. So, he set out from Russia with one horse and a diary, in a small, tiffin-shaped boat to try his luck in India.
Now, there were three seas between Nikitin and India: the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, and the Arabian Sea. He had assumed that he’ll complete this journey in six weeks. But it actually took him almost 52 weeks to cross these three seas. Finally, in 1469, he reached the Gulf of Khambat.
Khambat was an important Port of Gujarat that was known for its clothing business. Indigo Dye was the first thing Afanasy Nikitin bought in India because he had heard a lot about this special Indian dye in Russia. After Gujarat, Nikitin reached Chaul to sell his horse. He learned about the Bahamani Sultanate here which was a big Islamic state of Deccan at the time.
Nikitin anticipated the success of his business idea in Chaul and luckily, he found a customer for his horse. The customer was Asad Khan. Asad said he would buy the horse if Nikitin comes with him to Junnar. Nikitin was very happy and agreed to go with him. But on reaching Junnar, Asad Khan gave him a big shock! He said that he would buy the horse only if Nikitin converted to Islam.
Nikitin did not know what to do. He was trapped. But right then, a minister of Turkey, Mohammad Khorasan came there. He saved him and scolded betrayer Asad Khan. He said, “You should not compel one to accept our faith.””It does no good for the religion and rather dilutes its importance.”Not only Nikitin thanked Khorasan for the help, but they also became good friends as well.
Nikitin now joined Khorasan and started travelling towards Bahamani’s capital, Bidarin the hopes of finding a customer for his horse there. Nikitin writes that people at the time allowed businessmen to rest in their verandahs.
The woman of the house would make adequate arrangements for their food, rest, and other comforts. He drank wine made from coconuts and jackfruits for the first time here, which he liked. And he absolutely loved desi ghee. In Bidar, when he got to know that India already has horses and people here prefer domesticating cows and bulls, he was very disappointed. Still, he stayed in Bidar for some more time. Luckily, he found a customer and sold his horse for a good price.
He went to other cities to buy things with the money he earned by selling the horse. After Bidar, Nikitin went to the Vijay Nagar Dynasty. Vijay Nagar was the South’s second biggest empire at the time. There, he saw Raichur and Goloconda’s diamond mines as well. Diamonds from here were famous all over the world and one of the most precious diamonds in the world, Kohinoor, is also from the Golconda mines.
From there, he went to Srisailam and was shocked to see the size of Mallikaarjuna Temple. He has written in his diary that this temple is equal to half the size of his city Tver. He also realized here that Indians prefer cows and buffaloes more because they hold religious significance to them.
Cow waste was used as fuel. Businessman Nikitin then went to one of South’s major markets, Kozhikode which is in Kerala. He writes that Kozhikode was a big port from where spices like black pepper, Ginger, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Clove, and many more spices were exported. He also bought spices from here. Three years had passed since Nikitin came to India.
He had achieved his goal the horse was sold and now he was feeling very homesick. He set sail for Russia with the items and his diary from Maharashtra’s Dabhol in 1471. Unfortunately, his wish of seeing his city again remained unfulfilled. He managed to reach Russia but died of an illness before reaching his birthplace Tver in 1472. He continued writing his diary till his last breath.
Fortunately, that diary reached Russia’s prince Ivan III and Nikitin became immortal through the book, The Three Seas. The people of Russia developed a special interest in India through Nikitin’s diary. And slowly people of both nations developed friendly relations with each other.
A film, Pardesi, based on Nikitin’s life in 1957, further solidified this friendship. Lastly, a song from Pardesi aptly fits here until next time, my friend! ”See you again!’
Do svidaniya, Nikitin! The next story is of a traveller who had an intense passion for travelling and made sure his shoes saw the world. He was so fond of travelling the world that he was always ready to go somewhere. There are a lot of such legends about Ibn Batuta. How did he reach India? Which method of delivering messages did he find unique? Which Sultan from Delhi wanted to behead him? All this is in the next article.