„The Travels Beyond the Three Seas“

Alam Muzaffar; Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400-1800, [Cambridge University Press] 2007, p. 84.

European travelers in India before the circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope by Vasco da Gama in 1498 are a rare sight, but they do exist. While most pilgrims just claimed to have reached the mythical Christian ‘wonderland’ – as for instance the travel account of John de Mandeville shows – some travelers apparently made it to different places on the Indian subcontinent or at least listened to one or more persons who did so. Due to its geographical position the west coast of India was a more frequently visited place for Europeans than the Eastern Coromandel Coast of India. Especially the travel accounts of Italian merchants like Marco Polo (1254-1324) and Niccolo di Conti (1395-1469) proved early that there were possibilities for Europeans to set foot in unknown or at least unfamiliar cultural spaces. Like the North African traveler Ibn Battuta (1304-1368/1377) in the 14th century, they spent several years (or even decades) travelling through Europe, Asia, Africa and the seas and oceans by which they are surrounded.

In connection with my research on the first travel accounts about India after the arrival of the Portuguese, I would like to introduce the impressions of a rather unpopular travel account of the Russian merchant Afanasij (or Athanasius, Afanassi) Nikitin (from 1466 to 1472) named The journey beyond three Seas.[1] Although the interest in dealing with this travel account increased in the last decades, for a long time it was ignored almost entirely (especially by Western scholars) during the global events of the second half of the 20th century.

In 1957, the account inspired a Russian-Indian film production which was even nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes in the following year. It was produced in two languages (Russian and Hindi) and soon afterwards English and German translations were available. Although the film obviously transfigures the real everyday life in the 15th century to a euphoric stereotype of both cultural encounters and Indian lifestyle, it is quite interesting in showing a foreigner’s view of unfamiliar cultures at that crucial time.

Film Poster for “The Journey Beyond the Three Seas” (see here for copyright details).

In the following I would like to point out some of Nikitin’s early contributions to the image of India in the principality of Moscow, especially his observations concerning maritime mercantile interests and the Indian people.

But first I need to describe his historical setting on the way to India. Unfortunately, we do not know as much as we would like. But we can assume that he was around 30 to 35 years old and travelled in a small merchant company on a trading ship from Tver to Astrachan. Though we do not know if he or his companions had any specific orders, he might have had some experience in covering great distances. Since the disintegration of the Golden Horde and the conquests of the Russians at the end of the 14th century, travelling was still unsafe and dangerous, but possible nonetheless.

Although our Russian merchant and his companions did not travel for the first time to distant places, one can say that he did not plan to travel so far. It seems that he was travelling with his colleagues and they were robbed en route. The primary reason for their travels is not clear, but maybe the Tver merchants were looking for economic connections on the Silk Road, for instance to the town of Shamakhi.

After Nikitin and his travel companions had sailed from Tver down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea they were robbed by tartars and only Nikitin seems to have been able to escape. Later he went to modern-day Azerbaijan, Baku to be precise, and stayed after that for nearly a year in Persia where he took some time to learn rudimentary language skills. In spring 1469 he entered Ormuz from where he set over the Arabian Sea to India – specifically the Bahmani sultanate of Deccan. During the next three years he travelled through different places and had the opportunity to receive and write down impressions about the Indian lifestyle, people and their habits.

How he managed to stay there for so long is not documented, though he claimed to be a very successful horse trader. While he was not a philosopher or scholar, Nikitin’s writings display a clear sense of observation. He analyzed what he saw (and what he felt in seeing foreign people and culture) and made comparisons with his home country Russia.

The first external characteristics of the Russian merchant about Indian society refer to clothing and skin color. Nikitin also notices that his own skin color was remarkable for the Indian inhabitants. Arriving in Chaul, he notes:

„This is an Indian country. People go about naked, with their heads uncovered and bare breasts; the hair tressed into one tail, and thick bellies. They bring forth children every year and the children are many; and men and women are black. When I go out many people follow me, and stare at the white man.“ (in “The Travels of Afanasij Nikitin”, in: Henry Richard Major: India in the fifteenth century (Hakluyt Society), 1857, p. 9.)

Concerned by the question how the people go to war, Nikitin describes their warrior caste, the Nayar, which did not ride on horses unlike, for instance, the Mongols.

„The Hindoos walk all on foot and walk fast. They are all naked and bare-footed, and carry a shield in one hand and a sword in the other. Some of the servants are armed with straight bows and arrows.“ (Hakluyt-Society, 1857, p. 12)

It is remarkable for a European traveler at that time to use the term “Hindoo” to describe Indian society. Most European travelers (even centuries after Nikitin) made use of the term ‘pagan’, ‘heathen’ or ‘Gentile’ – resulting from Christian education and socialization, which was only acquainted with this formulation (beside the three monotheistic religions). Noteworthy in this context is the reliability of the English translation from 1857, which has its difficulties in regard of specific terms and notions. Walther Kirchner already noted this issue in his article from 1946.[1] Besides the English translation, the only remaining handwritings in Russian are situated in the library of the St. Sophia cathedral in Novgorod and the library of the Tratsa Monastery near Moscow.[2]

Besides the Hindoos, Nikitin often gives insight about his impressions of Muslim merchants.

“Now, Christian brethren of Russia, whoever of you wishes to go to the Indian country may leave his faith in Russia, confess Mahomet, and then proceed to the land of Hindostan. Those Mussulman dogs have lied to me, saying I should find here plenty of our goods; but there is nothing for our country. All goods for the land of Mussulmans, as pepper and colours, and these are cheap.” (Ibid. 11)

Here we can see that travelling in disguise was an obvious option for European travelers in the Far East, as the journey of Conti already showed who spent almost 30 years on his journey. Nikitin gives his readers and hypothetic future travelers the hint to do so. Besides people, goods and directions, strange animals had an astonishing effect on the merchant. Nikitin himself does not mention the elephants ‘mercantile value’ but is impressed about how the people use these animals in war.

„Elephants are greatly used in battle. The men on foot are sent first, the Khorassanians being mounted in full armor, man as well as horse. […] They [the elephants] carry a citadel, and in the citadel twelve men in armor with guns and arrows.“ (p. 12)

It is obvious that Nikitin seemed more impressed by the fact that the elephants were used for war than he was impressed by their size or appearance. Maybe it was not the first time he encountered an elephant. After he spent some time around Bidar, he reached Pervota – “which is their Jerusalem” (p. 16) and Bootkhana, where Nikitin tries to give a personal reception of non-Muslim religious habits of the people.

“And I asked them about their religion, and they said: “We believe in Adam;” and they hold Budhs to be Adam and his race. There are in all eighty-four creeds, and all believe in Boot, and no man of one creed will drink, eat, or marry with those of another. Some of them feed on mutton, fowls, fish, and eggs, but none of beef.” (p. 16)

As we see, the Muscovy merchant tried to describe the religious habits of those people. He showed up similarities between Indian people and European believes, although it seems quite unlikely that the Hindoos (as he calls them) believed in Adam.

“People from all parts of the land of India congregate at Bootkhana, to witness the wonders of Boot. Old women and girls shave their hair at Bootkhana, and everyone coming there shaves his beard and head and whatever hair is on his body […].” (p. 16)

“At Bootkhana, Boot is sculptured in stone of an immense size, his tail rising over him […] Some other budhs (idols) are naked, without anything on their hinder parts, and the wives of Boot and their children are also sculptured naked. A huge bull, carved in black stone and gilded, stands before Boot; people kiss his hoof and adorn him with flowers as well as Boot. The Hindoos eat no meat […].” (p. 17)

He mentions decorated sculptures and worshipped idols, but never dismisses their habits as ‘gentile’ or anything pagan like most European travelers of that time did. Even though it seems tempting to interpret ‘Boot’ (or sometimes written as ‘Budh’) as sculpture of Buddha – it is neither accurate nor verifiable which god or sculpture Nikitin is talking about.

But even more interesting are his attempts in giving the reader a closer look on directions in India – especially by ‘framing’ the Muslim-dominated regions.

„Dabul is the least seaport in Hindostan belonging to the Mussulmans. From there to Colecot (Calicut) you have to travel twenty-five days, and from Colecot to Ceylan fifteen; from Ceylan to Shibait one month; from Shibait to Pewgu twenty days; and from Pewgu to China and Mecheen one month: all this by sea.“ (Hakluyt, p. 19)

As we can see, Nikitin tries to describe more than India and more than he might have seen. Nevertheless, he gives information about cities, islands and trading connections in the Indian Ocean, which will become important for the Portuguese in their approach in establishing the ‘Estado da India‘ in the 16th century. As we know the main focus in India lied upon Calicut (or modern Kozhikode):

„Calecot (Calicut) is a port for the whole Indian sea, which God forbid any craft to cross, and whoever saw it will not go over it healthy. The country produces pepper, ginger, colour plants, muscat, cloves, cinnamon, aromatic roots […] and every description of spices, and everything is cheap, and servants and maids are very good.“ (p. 20)

This passage clearly sums up the associations of the Muscovy merchant with India – the pursuit of diverse (and in particular cheap!) spices and other commodities in combination with the difficulty in getting access to it. Going southward, he mentions another rich land, which was often called Taprobane (or Ceylon, Sri Lanka).

„Ceylon is another not inconsiderable port of the Indian Sea. There, on a hill, is the tomb of Adam, and in the vicinity are found precious stones, antimony, fastisses, agate, cinchai, crystal, sumbada. Elephants and ostriches live there and are sold, the former by the size, the latter by the weight.“ (p. 20)

By placing the valuable goods beside or near the tomb of Adam, he tries to claim the legitimacy of possession to the Christian world – even though the port is “inconsiderable”. The last station, which he describes, but most likely never visited, was Pegu in South East Asia.

„Pegu is no inconsiderable port, principally inhabited by Indian dervishes. The products derived from thence are manik, iakhut, kyrpuk, which are sold by the dervishes. The seaports of Cheen and Machin are also large. Porcelain is made there, and sold by the weight and at a low price.“ (p. 20-21)

Although Athanasius Nikitin died from unknown reasons shortly before he reached his home country, he was the first proven Russian merchant who was able to give specific geographic, ethnographical and some mercantile information for a Muscovian audience. The reason for his death near Smolensk is not clear. In 1475 the manuscript of Nikitins journey made it to Moscow into the hands of government official Vasily Mamyrev and was later (1489) incorporated into Russian Annals – the Sofia Second Chronicle and the Lvov Chronicle.[3]

The travel report was recovered by Nikolai Michailowitsch Karamzin due to his research on the history of Russia in the 18th and 19th century. We can assume that the rediscovery of the travel account through Karamzin had a bigger impact than the (rather smaller) attention paid to it at the end of the 15th century which soon found its way into the Russian chronicles. Nikitins last words in his journey beyond the three seas were eponymous for his later perception.

” I wrote my sinful journey about three seas: The first sea of Derbent – the sea of Khvalynsk, the second sea of India – the sea of Hindustan, the third sea of black – the sea of Istanbul.”

— Alexander Zeißig

Alexander Zeißig is writing his MA dissertation on European contacts with India in the early sixteenth century. He is also a research assistant in the KFG.

[1] The seas are the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Arabian Sea.

[2] Kirchner, Walter: The American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 5, No. 3/4 (Nov. 1946), p. 46.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica 1911. URL: https://theodora.com/encyclopedia/n/athanasius_nikitin.html [22.4.20].

[4] URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Journey_Beyond_the_Three_Seas [22.4.20]. The original manuscript if his journey disappeared. See Maxwell, Mary Jane. “Afanasii Nikitin: An Orthodox Russian’s Spiritual Voyage in the Dar Al-Islam, 1468-1475.” Journal of World History 17, no. 3 (2006): 243-66. Accessed April 22, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20079384.


Manuscript and it´s translations:

Russian handwriting:

URL: [http://kodeks.uni-bamberg.de/Russia/Texts/AfanasijNikitin-TroickijSpisok1.htm].

English translation:

Major, Henry Richard (Ed.): India in the fifteenth century : being a collection of narratives of voyages to India, in the century preceeding the Portugese discovery of the Cape of Good Hope ; from Latin, Persian, Russian, and Italian sources, now first translated into English (Hakluyt Society), London 1857, pp. 198-230.

The numbering in Hakluyts Edition from 1857 is a little confusing because it starts counting after every travel report. For citations I used the page numbers from the book on archive.org:

URL: https://archive.org/details/indiainfifteenth00majorich/page/n197/mode/2up.

German translation from:

Meyer, Karl H.: Die Fahrt des Athanasius Nikitin über die drei Meere;
Reise eines russischen Kaufmannes nach Ostindien, 1466-1472, aus dem altrussischen übers., mit Einleitung, Anmerkungen und einer Kartenskizze Versehen, Leipzig 1920.

URL: https://digital-beta.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werkansicht?PPN=PPN861643631&PHYSID=PHYS_0005&DMDID=

Meyer decided to use „But” as translation (not Buddha, p. 24)

French translations:

Le Guillou, Jean-Yves: Le voyage au-delà des trois mers d´Afanasij Nikitin (1466-1472), Quebec 1978.

or: – Malamoud, Charles: Le voyage au-delá des trois mers d´Athanase Nikitine in: L´Ethnographie 1980, p. 85-134.

Journal articles:

“Athanasius Nikitin.” Encyclopedia Britannica 1911. URL: https://theodora.com/encyclopedia/n/athanasius_nikitin.html [22.4.2020].

Kirchner, Walther. “The Voyage of Athanasius Nikitin to India 1466-1472.” American Slavic and East European Review 5, no. 3/4 (1946): 46-54. Accessed April 21, 2020. doi:10.2307/2492085.

Lenhoff, Gail D., and Janet L. B. Martin. “The Commercial and Cultural Context of Afanasij Nikitin’s Journey Beyond Three Seas.” Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, 37, no. 3 (1989): 321-44. Accessed April 21, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/41048307.

Maxwell, Mary Jane. “Afanasii Nikitin: An Orthodox Russian’s Spiritual Voyage in the Dar Al-Islam, 1468-1475.” Journal of World History 17, no. 3 (2006): 243-66. Accessed April 22, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20079384.

URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Journey_Beyond_the_Three_Seas [22.4.20].

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.