Walking through the streets of Calicut (III)

— Susanne Rau

It’s been a while since I wrote about Calicut. Since my departure at the end of March I haven’t returned to India. Until further notice, my research visa is still suspended. But the situation is now also completely different than in March: While India was not considered a “high risk country” at that time, it is currently one of the countries with the highest recorded corona infection rates, as can be seen from the COVID 19 dashboard of John’s Hopkins University. The approximately 8 million infected (cumulatively) and more than 100,000 dead must be seen against the background of a population of approximately 1.3 billion inhabitants. Statistically, therefore, the spread seems limited. On the other hand, I just heard an Indian doctor on television (Weltspiegel, 4.10.2020) argue that the real number of cases is assumed to be ten times higher, at that time an estimated 63 million people with mild symptoms or not symptoms at all. In any case, the number of infections continues to rise. After almost 10,000 new cases were registered in Kerala (with its approx. 34 million inhabitants) on a single day at the beginning of October, the state tightened its measures again a few days ago: any gatherings of five or more people is prohibited until 31 October. Colleagues from the region write to me that they have had no access to archives, libraries, and in some cases to universities and colleges for weeks. The district of Kuttichira, the old town of Calicut with its strong Muslim influence, in which a colleague wanted to do field research, has not been accessible to people without a residence there for weeks, some access roads are completely closed off. One may discuss about sense and nonsense of such measures, they are political decisions, which we as historians at the moment (still) have little influence over, but with which we have to learn to deal. Martin Christ recently wrote about his experiences in the Munich archives in August and September. There, it was basically possible to work again, albeit under special conditions such as wearing masks, keeping distance, washing hands, prior registration or booking of half-day slots only. Of course, it is tedious, one feels slowed down, significantly limited, but with clever organization it is possible to work the whole day – at least in big cities, where there are many places of historical research.

For the current situation in India, however, neither flexible space-time management nor real alternatives are helpful. It makes only a minimal difference whether you are inside or outside the country, because my colleagues on site have almost no access to the historical sites and the places of their research. What remains is to deal with printed, digitized or even those documents that were already recorded by the time the lockdown began in March 2020. Therefore, I am lucky to be part of a long tradition of Europeans who have explored the city of Calicut and left their notes. Among them is Ludovico de Varthema from Bologna, whose records I would like to deal with here.

Very little is known about Ludovico de Varthema. He was born in Bologna in 1470 and died sometime between 1510 and 1518. In 1501, he set off from Venice on a journey to the Holy Land, from there he travelled via “Arabia Felix” to South Asia. Whether the author ever got further, as far as Southeast Asia (the Moluccas, Sumatra, about which he also reports), has long been doubted (Reichert 1996, p. 11; Juncu 2015, p. 165f.). He probably did not travel to all the cities he described, but especially in the case of the Malabar coastal cities, the descriptions are so detailed and do not only use the topoi handed down in the ethnographic literature, that he probably saw most of it himself or made inquiries on site. He was by no means able to travel freely and unhindered at the time, but it required some preparation and constant adaptability to new situations. In order to communicate, but also to understand, he learned Arabic and Malayalam, which is spoken on the Malabar Coast. To be able to visit Mecca and Medina, he dressed up as a Mamluk. In other respects, too, he had to move carefully, not to get in between hostile groups, fight in battles if he had no choice, and in meanwhile he had to get into positions where he could earn some money for himself.

“Cambaia” (Khambhat) was his first city in India. According to his report, he then went on to Chaul, Dabhol and “Goga” (Goa). In 1505 he reached Calicut, where he stayed for a while and then spent the winter in Cannanore and the spring and summer of 1506 in Cochin. In 1507 he fought for the Portuguese in the naval battle of Cannanore, for which he was granted a knighthood on the spot (Reichert 1996, p. 12, 16). In the same year he was able to board a Portuguese ship to return to Portugal, where he immediately visited King Manuel I. in his winter residence, who asked him about his experiences in India (Varthema 1996, p. 278). No wonder, with a king who was in the process of building a colonial empire, the Estado da Índia. In return for his information, the Portuguese king confirmed his knighthood. Then he continued on his way to Rome. In the same year, he was granted the printing privilege for his travel report called “Itinerario”, which is highly readable not only because of the adventurous descriptions, but also because of the wealth of information on trade routes, potential trade goods (plus the botanical descriptions that are always interspersed), prices, geographic and nautical data and communication methods. In 1510 the Italian version of his itinerary was published, in 1515 a German translation was published in Augsburg, with pictures by Jörg Breu. It was included in one of the collections of travel literature by Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1550); until 1550 31 editions in different translations are known. The cosmographer Sebastian Münster even immortalized him on his world map of 1532 as a wanderer – globetrotter, one might say. On the lower right edge of the map he can be seen as “Vartomus”:

Sebastian Münster’s World Map (Typus Cosmographicus Universalis) from 1532. (Copyright-free because author has died more than 70 years ago. See here for details and the map in higher resolution).

Varthema was not a flaneur avant la lettre, but rather an ethnographer (participating and observing); furthermore, he was described as “curiosity-driven” (Rubiés 2004, p. 125-163; Chaudhuri 2020, p. 23, 31). That he was not a “flaneur” means that one cannot really follow him through the streets in his narrative. But he was as interested in geography, flora and fauna as he was in people, their appearance, their clothing (or nudity), their homes and their behaviors and rituals. Since this is an early and in many respects novel travelogue about South Asia, his descriptions became, among other things, models for the European visualization of Indian pagan gods (Chaudhuri 2020, p. 29; Leitch 2010, p. 101-145). But if you follow him into the cities he describes in more detail, you will at least learn something about the location and rough layout of the city or the construction of the houses. What interests me in the following is his view of the city of Calicut and his analysis of the local urban society.

At the beginning of the second book he reports on his arrival in Calicut, which he calls the “head” of India in the first sentence (Varthema 1996, p. 149; Varthema 1970, p. 135). Of course, India did not have the same borders as it does today and was certainly not a unified state, but in the south of India there was a large empire, Vijayanagar, which he might have had in mind. Calicut, however, was the capital of a smaller principality on the west coast, ruled by a Zamorin, who at that time claimed sovereignty over other smaller dominions. Calicut was also the most important trading center for goods in the region. Meera Juncu also considers this aspect to be an important explanation for the fact that Calicut was raised from Varthema to the capital of India: On the one hand, Varthema has a broad concept of India, ranging from the Indus region (Gujarat) to Pegu (today’s Myanmar). On the other hand, Calicut was very close to the place where Vasco da Gama landed a few years earlier, and where, it was suspected or known, there was great wealth. Calicut had much to offer for describing the “exotic strangeness” of pagan cultures to the European readership. And so Calicut was treated by Varthema as a kind of cultural norm (Juncu 2015, p. 168), as if the way of life in Calicut was exemplary for the whole of India. And only there, where things were different, did he occasionally make a separate remark.

The beginning resembles a city description or chorography as it was written at that time by humanists for European cities: Location, geographical features, a brief description of the city, a river running through the city. Only statements about the (historical) origin of the city are missing – probably because nobody really knew about it. 

The chapter concerning Calicut, a very large city of India

Calicut is on the mainland, the sea beats against the walls of the houses. There is no port here, but about a mile from the place towards the south there is a river, which is narrow at its embouchure and has not more than five or six spans of water. This stream flows through Calicut and has a great number of branches. This city has no wall around it, but the houses extend for about a mile, built close together, and then the wide houses, that is, the houses separate one from the other, cover a space of about six miles. The houses are very poor. The walls are about as high as a man on horseback, and the greater part are covered with leaves, and without any upper room. The reason is this, that when they dig down four or five spans, water is found, and therefore they cannot built large houses. However, the houses of a merchant is worth fifteen or twenty ducats. Those of the common people are worth half a ducat each, or one or two ducats at the most.

Varthema 1970, p. 135-136.
Woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder from the German translation of the Itinerario (1515) (taken from: Geisberg 1930, vol. 1, image 215).

The Augsburg painter and woodcutter Jörg Breu visualized this description for the German edition. According to this depiction, the city did not have a wall, consisted of low and detached houses, which did not have a proper floor because of the high level of groundwater. And one gets information about the value of the houses: that of the merchants and that of the common people. Varthema apparently assumed that the structure of society was also reflected in the ownership of houses or in the way people lived. Accordingly, he is also interested in the social classes, or rather castes, of Calicut’s urban society, with the Brahmins at the top, who are compared to European priests:

The chapter concerning the Brahmins, that is the priests of Calicut

It is a proper, and at the same time a pleasant thing to know who these Brahmins are. You must know that they are the chief persons of the faith, as priests are among us. And when the king takes a wife he selects the most worthy and the most honoured of these Brahmins and makes him sleep the first night with his wife, in order that he may deflower her. Do not imagine that the Brahmin goes willingly to perform this operation. The king is even obliged to pay him four hundred or five hundred ducats. The king only and no other person in Calicut adopts this practice. We will now describe what classes [or castes] of Pagans there are in Calicut.

Varthema 1970, p. 141.

The text is somewhat more differentiated than the title suggests, because the Brahmins are not only priests, but basically all those people who are responsible for knowledge, especially religious knowledge: “the chief persons of the faith”. In Kerala, they are often called Namboothiri. It is also the group that owned most of the land before the great land reform.

The chapter concerning the pagans of Calicut, and of what classes they are

The first class of Pagans in Calicut are called Brahmins. The second are Naeri, who are the same as the gentlefolks amongst us; and these are obliged to bear sword and shield or bows or lances. Then they go through the street, if they did not carry arms they would no longer be gentlemen. The third class of Pagans are called Tiva, who are artizans. The fourth class are called Mechua, and these are fishermen. The fifth class are called Poliar, who collect pepper, wine, and nuts. The sixth class are called Hirava, and these plant and gather rice. These two last classes of people, that is to say, the Poliar and the Hirava, may not approach either the Naeri or the Brahmins within fifty paces, unless they have been called by them, and they always go by private ways through the marshes. And when they pass through the said places, they always go crying out with a loud voice, and this they do in order that they may not meet the Naeri or the Brahmins; for should they not be crying out, and any of the Narei [!] should be going that way and see their fruits, or meet any of the said class, the above mentioned Naeri may kill them without incurring any punishment: and for this reason they always cry out. So now you have heard about these six classes of Pagans.

Varthema 1970, p. 141-142.

In Varthema’s description, Indian society was divided into six castes that stood in a hierarchy from top to bottom: the priests, the warriors, the artisans, the fishermen, the agricultural workers or harvesters and additionally those who worked in rice cultivation. By elevating Calicut to the rank of the “head of India”, he suggested that this social order applies everywhere. But it is somewhat more complicated, because beyond the gradual development and advancement of this system – by referring back to old Vedic scriptures – there were also regional differences (for an overview, see: Jati 2020). And the social order described by Varthema is a regional caste system with some peculiarities and its own designations. It is striking, for example, that he does not name any “untouchables” (or “outcasts”). Later, the caste system was often described as an order with four main castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras) and the “untouchables”, to which the Poliar and Hitava would belong. European missionaries and scholars were involved in the development of such a “system”, which due to its dynamic nature was perhaps never a single system. Varthema was also involved, without knowing it, because his explanations were adopted by some later travelers (Varthema 1996, p. 155, n. 8).

Another regional peculiarity is that there were no merchants among the higher Keraleian castes. This, however, is quite important, perhaps even a problem, for a trade region and something that we will return to. It is also noticeable that Varthema does not mention strangers like himself, Muslims (who were certainly living in the city at the time) or Jews. This can best be explained by the fact that the caste system refers to Hinduism or, in Varthema’s vocabulary, to the “pagans”. On the other hand, he describes all the more vividly the birth and social demarcation mechanisms that he observed. An explicit commentary on this is not found here. But with the drastic description of what could happen when social boundaries are crossed, i.e., when the lower castes come too close to the higher castes, he might also have wanted to inform his readership that his own, European society itself was not very egalitarian and that he, as a traveler, possibly had no longer any place in it.

On another level, Varthema’s description of the 50-step distance rule reminds us today of keeping a distance (1.5 meters) as a protective measure against SARS-CoV-2. One might ask whether viruses today create physical and thus ultimately social distance. But on closer inspection, we quickly realize that it is not the viruses but the people who define the protective measures.

I would like to thank my colleague Sara Keller for reading an earlier version of this post and for her comments.

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


Varthema, Ludovico de, Reisen im Orient. Eingeleitet, übersetzt und erläutert von Folker Reichert, Sigmaringen 1996.

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

Varthema, Ludovico di, The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopa, A.D. 1503 to 1508, transl. John W. Jones, edited by George Percy Badger, New York 1970.

Research literature:

Chaudhuri, Supriya, “‘Not fit for any other pursuit’: Shifting places, shifting identities in Ludovico de Varthema’s Itinerario.”, in: Eastern Resonances in Early Modern England, edited by Claire Gallien and Ladan Niayesh, London 2020, p. 17-34. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-22925-2.

Flüchter, Antje, “Die Nairen der Malabarküste zwischen Adelsstand und Kriegerkaste. Praktiken des Vergleichens und die europäische Weltaneignung”, in: HerStory. Historical Scholarship between South Asia and Europe. Ed. Rafael Klöber and Manju Ludwig. Heidelberg: CrossAsia E-Publishing, 2018, p. 3-41.

Geisberg, Max (ed.), Die deutsche Buchillustration in der ersten Hälfte des XVI. Jahrhunderts, 2 vols., München 1930-1932, Reprint Doornspijk 1987.

Jati: A History of the Caste System in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern India. Posted on September 9, 2020. URL: https://brewminate.com/jati-a-history-of-the-caste-system-in-ancient-medieval-and-modern-india/ (21.10.2020)

Juncu, Meera, India in the Italian Renaissance. Visions of a contemporary pagan world 1300-1600, London 2015. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315696737 [chapter 9]

Leitch, Stephanie, Mapping Ethnography in Early Modern Germany. History of Text Technologies, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2010, chapter 5: “Recuperating the Eyewitness: Jörg Breu’s Images of Islamic and Hindu Culture in Ludovico de Varthema’s Travels (Augsburg: 1515)”, https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230112988_5

Reichert, Folker, „Ludovico de Varthema und sein Itinerar“, in: Ludovico de Varthema 1996, p. 7-31.

Rubiés, Joan-Pau, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance. South India through European Eyes, 1250–1625, Cambridge 2004.

Zeißig, Alexander, Indien in der Wahrnehmung Europas. Die Darstellung der Malabarküste in den Reiseberichten Balthasar Sprengers und Ludovico di Varthemas am Beginn des 16. Jahrhunderts, Masterarbeit Universität Erfurt, 2020.

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