Inside India #3: Marco Polo in India

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Marco Polo needs little introduction. Remembered today as one of history’s great explorers, the Venetian trader travelled to Asia in the 13th century, spending more than two decades away from his native Italy, and returning with a chronicle of such incredible sights and observations that his name remains synonymous with European travel to the Orient.

Polo trained as a merchant, learning the trade from his father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo, themselves ambitious travellers who had previously set up trading posts in Constantinople, Crimea, and the western part of the Mongolian Empire. Here they met Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, and ruler of the Mongols. 

In 1271, the three men embarked on an epic journey to Asia, travelling largely along the Silk Road until they reached Cathay – modern day China – where they were received by the royal court of Kublai Khan. Khan was so impressed by the younger Polo’s intelligence and humility that he decided to appoint Marco to serve as his emissary to India and Burma. 

Polo soon found himself sent on many diplomatic missions throughout the Great Khan’s empire, including to India, where he visited the southern tip of the subcontinent – specifically, modern day Tamil Nadu and Kerala – between 1292 and 1294 – arriving on the Coromandel Coast in a merchant ship with some three hundred men at his disposal. 

He made landfall at Tanjore, and entered the kingdom of the Tamil Pandyas.

Here Polo began his documentation of the rich social fabric of India: “The climate is so hot that all men and women wear nothing but a loincloth, including the king – except his is studded with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other gems.”

He recorded numerous phenomena that astonished him. For instance, he was perplexed by the Indian addiction to the betel nut leaf. “All the people of this city, as well as of the rest of India, have a custom of perpetually keeping in the mouth a certain leaf… continually chewing it and spitting out the saliva that it excites… If anyone desires to offer a gross insult to another, when he meets him, he spits this juice in his face.”

Another aspect of Indian life that excited his interest was religion. He was particularly taken with Jain monks: “They would not kill an animal on any account, not even a fly, or a flea, or a louse, or anything in fact that has life; for they say these all have souls, and it would be a sin to do so.”

Polo documented his travels in The Travels of Marco Polo, a book that did much to reveal to Europeans the mysteries of the Orient. Such were his descriptions of the enormous wealth that he saw in the Mongol Empire and in India that he was accused of making things up!

Although the Polos weren’t the first Europeans to visit China, Marco Polo was the first European to publish a detailed account of it. His book became an important document for future explorers, including the likes of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama who later made his way to Goa.

Having returned to Venice, Polo never ventured far afield again. Legend has it that, on his deathbed, he said: “I have only told half of what I saw.” 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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