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Al-Biruni and the Kitab-ul-Hind

1. Al-Biruni was born in 973, in Khwarizm in present day Uzbekistan. Khwarizm was an important centre of learning, and Al-Biruni received the best education available at the      time. He was well versed in Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Sanskrit.

2. In 1017, when Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni invaded Khwarizm, he took several scholars and poets as hostage to his capital and Al-Biruni was one of them. In Ghazni , Al-       Biruni developed an interest for India.

3. When the Punjab became a part of the Ghaznavid Empire, Al-Biruni came to India and spent years in the company of Brahmana priests and scholars, learning Sanskrit, and studying religious and philosophical texts.

4. He travelled widely in the Punjab and parts of northern India. He collected various  information and wrote a book called Kitab-ul-Hind.

5. Al-Biruni’s Kitab-ul-Hind, written in Arabic, is simple and lucid. It is divided into 80 chapters on subjects such as religion and philosophy, festivals, astronomy, alchemy, manners and customs, social life, weights and measures, iconography, laws and metrology.

6. Al-Biruni adopted a distinctive structure in each chapter, beginning with a question, following this up with a description based on Sanskrit traditions, and concluding the chapter with a comparison with other cultures.

Problems or barriers obstructed Al-Biruni in understanding India

1. Al-Biruni, discussed several “barriers” that he felt obstructed in understanding India.

2. The first amongst these was language. According to him, Sanskrit was so different from Arabic and Persian that ideas and concepts could not be easily translated from one language into another.

3. The second barrier he identified was the difference in religious beliefs and practices.

4. The self-absorption and consequent insularity of the local population constituted the third barrier.

5.  He was aware of these problems so Al-Biruni depended almost exclusively on the works of Brahmanas, often citing passages from the Vedas, the Puranas, Bhagavad Gita, the works of Patanjali, the Manusmriti, etc., to provide an understanding of Indian society.

Al-Biruni and His description of the caste system

1. According to Al-Biruni the highest caste is the Brahmana, who were created from the head of Brahman. The next caste is the Kshatriya, who were created from the shoulders and hands of Brahman. After them the Vaishya, who were created from the thigh of Brahman. At last the Shudra, who were created from his feet.

2. As these classes differ from each other, they live together in the same towns and villages, mixed together in the same houses and lodgings.

3. Al-Biruni tried to explain the caste system by looking for parallels in other societies. He noted that in ancient Persia, four social categories were recognized a)knights and princes; b)monks, fire-priests c) lawyers, physicians, astronomers and other scientists; and d) peasants and artisans.

4. He attempted to suggest that social divisions were not unique to India. At the same time he pointed out that within Islam all men were considered equal, differing only in their observance of piety.

5.  In spite of his acceptance of the Brahmanical description of the caste system, Al-Biruni disapproved of the notion of pollution. As we have seen, Al-Biruni’s description of the caste system was deeply influenced by his study of normative Sanskrit texts which laid down the rules governing the system from the point of view of the Brahmanas. 

Ibn Battuta and His book Rihla

1. Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan traveler.  He was born in Tangier into one ofthe most respectable and educated families. Ibn Battuta considered experience gained through travels to be a more important source of knowledge than books.

2. Before he come to India, he had made pilgrimage trips to Mecca, and had already travelled extensively in Syria, Iraq, Persia, Yemen, Oman and a few trading ports on the coast of East Africa.

3. Ibn Battuta reached Sind in 1333. He had heard about Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the Sultan of Delhi. The Sultan was impressed by his scholarship, and appointed him the qazi or judge of Delhi. He remained in that position for several years, until he fell out of favour and was thrown into prison.

4. Once the misunderstanding between him and the Sultan was cleared, he was restored to imperial service, and was ordered in 1342 to proceed to China as the Sultan’s envoy to the Mongol ruler.

5. With the new assignment, Ibn Battuta proceeded to the Malabar Coast through central India. From Malabar he went to the Maldives. He took a ship to Sumatra, and from there another ship for the Chinese port town of Zaytun (now known as Quanzhou). He travelled extensively in China, going as far as Beijing and returned home in 1347.

6. Ibn Battuta’s book of travels, called Rihla, written in Arabic. His account is often compared with that of Marco Polo, who visited China (and also India) from his home base in Venice in the late thirteenth century.

Why was travelling more insecure in the medieval period according to Ibn Battuta?

1. Ibn Battuta was attacked by bands of robbers several times. In fact he preferred travelling in a caravan along with companions, but this did not deter highway robbers.

2. While travelling from Multan to Delhi, his caravan was attacked and many of his fellow travellers lost their lives; those travellers, who survived, including Ibn Battuta, were severely wounded.

3. He suffered from home sick and in many places he was not welcomed by the people.

Ibn Battuta and the Excitement of the Unfamiliar

1. The coconut –

Coconut trees looked like date palms. It resembles a man’s head. Inside of it looks like a brain. Its fibre looks like human hair. Its fibre used for making rope which is used for pulling ships.

2. The paan-

 Betel plant looked like grape plant. It is grown for the sake its leaves. People chew betel leaves with areca nut and lime.

3. Indian cities

a.  Ibn Battuta found cities in the subcontinent full of exciting opportunities , resources and skills. They were densely populated and prosperous, except for the occasional disruptions caused by wars and invasions.

b. Most cities had crowded streets and bright and colourful markets that were stacked with a wide variety of goods. Ibn Battuta described Delhi and Daulatabad as vast cities, with a great population, the largest in India.

c. The bazaars were not only places of economic transactions, but also the hub of social and cultural activities. Most bazaars had a mosque and a temple, and in some of them at least, spaces were marked for public performances by dancers, musicians and singers.

d. Ibn Battuta explains that towns derived a significant portion of their wealth through the appropriation of surplus from villages because of the fertility of the soil, which allowed farmers to cultivate two crops a year.

e. He also noted that the subcontinent was well integrated with inter-Asian networks of trade and commerce, with Indian manufactures being in great demand in both West Asia and Southeast Asia, fetching huge profits for artisans and merchants. Indian textiles, particularly cotton cloth, fine muslins, silks, brocade and satin, were in great demand.

4. A unique system of communication

Almost all trade routes were well supplied with inns and guest houses. Ibn Battuta was also amazed by the efficiency of the postal system(by horse and human runners) which allowed merchants to not only send information and remit credit across long distances, but also to dispatch goods required at short notice.

5. Use of slaves-

a)  Slaves were openly sold in markets, like any other commodity, and were regularly exchanged as gifts. When Ibn Battuta reached Sind he purchased “horses, camels and slaves” as gifts for Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq.

b) There was considerable differentiation among slaves. Some female slaves in the service of the Sultan were experts in music and dance, and Ibn Battuta enjoyed their performance at the wedding of the Sultan’s sister.

c)  Female slaves were also employed by the Sultan to keep a watch on his nobles. They were generally used for domestic labour.

d) Ibn Battuta found that men slaves were used for carrying rich women and men on palanquins or dola.

e) The price of slaves, particularly female slaves required for domestic labour, was very low, and most families who could afford to do so kept at least one or two of them.

Francois Bernier

1. François Bernier, a Frenchman, was a doctor, political philosopher and historian. He came to the Mughal Empire in search of opportunities. He was in India for twelve years, from 1656 to 1668,

2. He was closely associated with the Mughal court, as a physician to Prince Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, and later as an intellectual and scientist, with Danishmand Khan, an Armenian noble at the Mughal court.

3. Bernier travelled to several parts of the country, and wrote accounts of what he saw, frequently comparing what he saw in India with the situation in Europe.

4. He dedicated his major writing to Louis XIV, the king of France, and many of his other works were written in the form of letters to influential officials and ministers.

5. In virtually every instance Bernier described what he saw in India as a bleak situation in comparison to developments in Europe. This assessment was not always accurate.

Bernier and the “Degenerate”East- Travels in the Mughal Empire

A. The question of landownership (crown ownership of land)

1. Bernier, one of the fundamental differences between Mughal India and Europe was the lack of private property in land and crown ownership of land as being harmful for both the state and its people.

2. He thought that in the Mughal Empire the emperor owned all the land and distributed it among his nobles, and nobles to the peasants.

3. Owing to crown ownership of land, landholders could not pass on their land to their children. So they were averse to any long-term investment in the sustenance and expansion of production.

4.  Bernier saw the Mughal Empire – its king was the king of “beggars and barbarians”; its cities and towns were ruined and contaminated with “ill air”; and its fields, “overspread with bushes” and full of “pestilential marshes”.

5. And, all this was because of one reason: crown ownership of land. Curiously, none of the Mughal official documents suggest that the state was the sole owner of land.

B.  A more complex social reality (No care for artisans)

1. Bernier’s descriptions occasionally hint at a more complex social reality. Artisans had no incentive to improve the quality of their manufactures, since profits were appropriated by the state. Manufactures were, consequently, everywhere in decline.

2. At the same time, he conceded that vast quantities of the world’s precious metals flowed into India, as manufactures were exported in exchange for gold and silver. He also noticed the existence of a prosperous merchant community, engaged in long-distance exchange.

C. Mughal Cities (Camp towns)

1. In fact, during the seventeenth century about 15 per cent of the population lived in towns. This was, higher than the proportion of urban population in Western Europe in the same period.

2. Bernier described Mughal cities as “camp towns”. He believed that these cities came into existence and grown when the imperial court moved in and rapidly declined when it moved out.

3. There were all kinds of towns: manufacturing towns, trading towns, port-towns, sacred centres, pilgrimage towns, etc. Their existence is an index of the prosperity of merchant communities and professional classes.

4. Merchants often had strong community or kin ties, and were organised into their own caste-cum occupational bodies. In western India these groups were called mahajans, and their chief, thesheth or nagarsheth.

5. Urban groups included professional classes such as physicians (hakim or vaid), teachers (punditor mulla), lawyers (wakil ), painters, architects, musicians, calligraphers, etc. While some depended on imperial patronage, many made their living by serving other patrons,

D. Sati and women Labourers

1. European travellers and writers often highlighted the treatment of women as a crucial marker of difference between Western and Eastern societies. Bernier chose the practice of sati for detailed description.

2. He noted that while some women seemed to embrace death cheerfully, others were forced to die. However, women’s lives revolved around much else besides the practice of sati.

3. Women labour was crucial in both agricultural and non-agricultural production.

4. Women from merchant families participated in commercial activities, sometimes even taking mercantile disputes to the court of law.

5. Therefore it seems unlikely that women were confined to the private spaces of their homes.

Travelers who wrote detailed accounts regarding Indian social customs and religious practices

Jesuit Roberto Nobili- He translated Indian texts into European languages

Duarte Barbosa- , He wrote a detailed account of trade and society in south India

Jean-BaptisteTavernier- He was particularly fascinated with the trading conditions in India, and compared India to Iran and the Ottoman Empire.

Italian doctor Manucci- He wrote detailed accounts regarding Indian social customs and religious practices and settled in India.

How did François Bernier’s accounts influence policy-makers and the intelligentsia in Europe? 


How did François Bernier’s descriptions influence Western theorists from the eighteenth century?

1. Bernier’s Travels in the Mughal Empire is marked by detailed observations, critical insights and reflection. His account contains discussions trying to place the history of the Mughals within some sort of a universal framework. He constantly compared Mughal India with contemporary Europe.

2. Abu’l Fazl, the sixteenth-century official chronicler of Akbar’s reign, describes the land revenue as “remunerations of sovereignty”, a claim made by the ruler on his subjects for the protection to the crops he provided rather than as rent on land.

3. Bernier’s descriptions influenced Western theorists from the eighteenth century onwards. The French philosopher Montesquieu, for instance, used this account to develop the idea of oriental despotism, according to which rulers in Asia enjoyed absolute authority over their subjects, who were kept in conditions of subjugation and poverty.

4. This idea was further developed as the concept of the Asiatic mode of production by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century. He argued that in India surplus was appropriated by the state. This led to the emergence of a society that was composed of a large number of autonomous and egalitarian village communities.

5. However, this picture of rural society was far from true. In fact, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rural society was characterised by considerable social and economic differentiation.

Important Question 

1. Write a note on the Kitab-ul-Hind.

2. Compare and contrast the perspectives from which Ibn Battuta and Bernier wrote their accounts of their travels in India.

3. Discuss the picture of urban centres that emerges from Bernier’s account?

4. Analyse the evidence for slavery provided by Ibn Battuta?

5. What were the elements of the practice of sati that drew the attention of Bernier?

6. Discuss Al-Biruni’s understanding of the caste system?

7. Do you think Ibn Battuta’s account is useful in arriving at an understanding of life in contemporary

    urban centres? Give reasons for your answer.

8. Discuss the extent to which Bernier’s account enables historians to reconstruct contemporary rural society?

9. How and when did Al-Biruni come to India?                                                                       

10. What were the barriers of Al-Biruni? Explain Al-Biruni’s description of the caste system?

11. How and when did Ibn Battuta come to India?                                                       

12. Explain Ibn Battuta’s description on life in Indian cities?                                         

13. How and when did Francois Bernier come to India?                                                

14. Explain Francois Bernier’s description on land ownership in Mughal India and rural society?

15. Explain Ibn Battuta’s description on use of slaves in Indian cities?              

16. Explain Francois Bernier’s description on Practice of sati?                  

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