Category Archives: Travel

Sri Lanka, the Island Paradise with a Colourful Heritage


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Sri Lanka map

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The “Island In The Sun” is the title song of the 1957 movie bearing the same name. It was written by Irving Burgie and sung by Harry Belafonte.

Oh island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest waters, your shining sand

As morning breaks, the Heaven on high
I lift my heavy load to the sky
Sun comes down with a burning glow
Mingles my sweat with the earth below

Oh island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest waters, your shining sand

I see woman on bended knee
Cutting cane for her family
I see man at the waterside
Casting nets at the surging tide

Though this song addresses the island of Jamaica, it is equally applicable to Sri Lanka the pearl of the Indian Ocean and nature’s treasure chest.

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Sri Lanka, also known as India's Teardrop and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is an extension of peninsular India that got separated from the mainland.
Sri Lanka, also known as India’s Teardrop and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is an extension of peninsular India that got separated from the mainland.

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The island paradise, formerly known as Ceylon until 1972,  is in the northern Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent in South Asia. Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest.  It is one of the most delightful destinations in the world to visit.

Sri Lanka is the home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Though the island’s documented history spans over 2,550 years, evidence shows that it had prehistoric human settlements dating back to at least 125,000 years. Its history boasts of planned cities, magnificent palaces, temples, and monasteries, expansive reservoirs, green forests and gardens, monuments and works of art.

Sri Lanka due to its geographic location and endowed with natural harbours has been the cynosure of strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II.

Today, Sri Lanka is a republic and a unitary state governed by a presidential system. The capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city.

Sri Lanka is home to many races speaking diverse languages, and following different religious faiths. It is the land of the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs and the aboriginal Veddas.

The island has a rich Buddhist heritage spanning from the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BC) of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all the Indian subcontinent from circa 269 to 232 BCE. The first known Buddhist writings of Sri Lanka, the Pāli Canon dates back to the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE.

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Stilts or Pole fishermen, Sri Lanka (Source: agmisgpn.org))
Stilts or Pole fishermen, Sri Lanka (Source: agmisgpn.org))

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The island is one of the most beautiful and delightful destinations in the world for tourists to visit. Its historical planned cities, magnificent palaces, temples, dagobas, monasteries, monuments, sculptures and other works of art, expansive artificial reservoirs, green gardens, etc., illustrate the characteristic rich history of its ancient rulers.

Here is a video titled “Heritage of Sri Lanka” produced by The Ministry of National Heritage Sri Lanka, which I enjoyed viewing and I hope you too will be delighted to view it as well.

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The Hadith of Gabriel


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Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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In Arabic, the word ḥadīth (Arabic: حديث‎) means a “report, account, narrative”. To Muslims, the word Hadīth connotes “report on the words and actions of Prophet Muhammad”.

The Hadith of Gabriel (ḥadīth Jibrīl) in Sunnī Islām, is the single most important Hadīth. It is found in both the Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī and the Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim.

The five pillars of Islam

Though not mentioned in the Quran, but summarized in the famous hadith of Gabriel are the Five Pillars of Islam (arkān-al-Islām أركان الإسلام; also arkān ad-dīn أركان الدين “pillars of the religion”) which are the foundation of Muslim life – five basic acts in Islam, considered obligatory by believers. They are:

  1. Shahadah (belief, confession, or declaration of faith – Muslim life)
  2. Salat (obligatory worship in the form of prayer)
  3. Zakat (compulsory alms or charitable giving or concern for the needy)
  4. Sawm Ramadan (self-purification by fasting during the month of Ramadan)
  5. Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime)

The Arabic word Ṣawm (Arabic: صوم‎; plural: صيام ṣiyām), regulated by Islamic jurisprudence literally means fasting – to abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours.

The Muslims of Iran, Central Asia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh use the words roza/rozha/roja/oruç, derived from Persian.

The Muslim communities in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines call it puasa, the word derived from Sanskrit, upauasa.

Annually, Muslims, worldwide, observe self-purification by fasting during the month of Ramadan which lasts 29–30 days based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon.

The word Ramadan derived from the Arabic root ramiḍa or ar-ramaḍ, means “scorching heat” or “dryness.” It is “obligatory” for adult Muslims to fast, except those who are ill, diabetic, traveling, pregnant, breastfeeding, or during menstrual bleeding.

The Quran states:

The month of Ramadan is that in which the Quran was revealed, a guidance to men and clear proofs of the guidance and the distinction; therefore whoever of you is present in the month, he shall fast therein, and whoever is sick or upon a journey, then (he shall fast) a (like) number of other days; Allah desires ease for you, and He does not desire for you difficulty, and (He desires) that you should complete the number and that you should exalt the greatness of Allah for His having guided you and that you may give thanks. [Quran 2:185]

Bowling Green is a small public park in Lower Manhattan at the foot of Broadway next to the site of the original Dutch fort of New Amsterdam. Built in 1733, originally including a bowling green, it is the oldest public park in New York City surrounded by its original 18th-century fence. At its northern end is the Charging Bull sculpture, which is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull or the Bowling Green Bull.

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green - 1
Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

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While my wife and I were in New York, we saw a faithful Muslim in the Bowling Green at 1:23 pm unmindful of the blaring noise surrounding him, perseveringly reciting the Dhuhr (Noon) prayer. We were spellbound by his faith in God and his steadfast adherence to his religious duties.

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The Hanging Column in the Veerabhadra Temple in Lepakshi, AP, India


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Lepakshi is a small village in the Anantapur District in Andhra Pradesh, India. It is about 9 miles (15 km) east of Hindupur and about 75 miles (120 km) north of Bangalore.

This village is historically and archaeologically significant. It has three shrines dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva, Vishnu and Veerabhadra built during the period of Vijayanagara Kings (1336–1646).

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The Hanging Column in the Veerabhadra temple at Lepakshi, Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh, India (Source: images.worthview.com)
The Hanging Column in the Veerabhadra temple at Lepakshi, Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh, India (Source: images.worthview.com)

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The famous 16th-century Veerabhadra stone temple constructed in Vijayanagar style has about 70 pillars, but only one of these pillars is best known as the Aakaasa Sthambha (Hanging Column). It is a tribute to the engineering genius of the temple builders of medieval India. The pillar does not rest on the ground fully.

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The Hanging Column in the Veerabhadra temple at Lepakshi, Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh, India.
The Hanging Column in the Veerabhadra temple at Lepakshi, Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh, India. (Source: wikimapia.org)

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Cloth under the Hanging Column in the Veerabhadra temple at Lepakshi, Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh, India.
Cloth under the Hanging Column in the Veerabhadra temple at Lepakshi, Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh, India.

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A cloth can slide smoothly underneath this Hanging pillar.

During the British era, a British engineer tried to move it to uncover the secret of its support. His attempt was unsuccessful and the pillar got slightly dislodged from its original position.

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The Silk Road


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy's Map of the "Old World" by Jacob d'Angelo.
A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy’s Map of the “Old World” by Jacob d’Angelo.d’Angelo.d’Angelo.d’Angelo.

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Archeologists and Historians use the term “Old World” in the context of, and to contrast with, the “New World” (North and South America). The Old World, also known as Afro-Eurasia, consists of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Most countries of the Old World in the area of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Persian plateau, India, and China are in the temperate zone, roughly between the 45th and 25th parallels.

Herein emerged the cultural, philosophical and religious developments that produced the Western (Hellenism, “classical”), Eastern (Zoroastrian and Abrahamic) and Far Eastern (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism) religious and cultural spheres.

The Qin Empire

Qin was an ancient state in China during the Zhou dynasty. On May 7, 247 BC, Ying Zheng assumed the throne of the Qin state at age 9. Upon his ascension, Zheng became known as the King of Qin or King Zheng of Qin.

The Qin state had a large, efficient army and capable generals. They utilized the newest developments in weaponry and transportation and had a superior military power than the other six warring states. By the 3rd century BC,  the Qin state under King Zheng of Qin emerged as one of the dominant powers of the Seven Warring States.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

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Instead of maintaining the title of king borne by the Shang and Zhou rulers, Ying Zheng created a new title of “huángdì” (emperor) for himself. This new title combined two titles – huáng of the mythical Three Sovereigns (三皇, Sān Huáng) and the dì of the legendary Five Emperors (五帝, Wŭ Dì) of Chinese prehistory.

Ying Zheng ruled from 220 to 210 BC as the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty bearing the name Qin Shi Huangdi.

After the death of Qin Shi Huang in 210 BC, the Qin empire became unstable. Though the Qin empire was short-lived, it had a great influence over Chinese history.

The Han dynasty

Within four years after the death of Qin Shi Huangdi, the Qin dynasty’s authority collapsed. In the face of rebellion, the empire fissured into 18 kingdoms. Two rebel leaders, Xiang Yu of Chu and Liu Bang of Han, engaged in a war to decide who would become the next person to exercise hegemony in China. Each of the 18 fissured kingdoms claimed allegiance to either Xiang Yu or Liu Bang. In 202 BC, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu at the Battle of Gaixia.

Liu Bang assumed the title “emperor” (Huangdi), known as Emperor Gaozu after his death. Thus, Emperor Gaozu found the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China. He chose Chang’an as the new capital of the reunified empire under Han.

Spanning over four centuries, the Han period was a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script as “Han characters”.

To the north of China, the nomadic Xiongnu chieftain Modu Chanyu conquered various tribes inhabiting the eastern part of the Eurasian Steppe. Towards the end of his reign, the Xiongnu chieftain controlled Manchuria, Mongolia, and the Tarim Basin, subjugating over twenty states east of Samarkand.

Chinese merchants sold iron weapons to the Xiongnu along the northern borders. Emperor Gaozu imposed a trade embargo to stop the illicit sale of arms. Although the embargo was in place, the Xiongnu found Chinese traders willing to supply their needs. Chinese forces then mounted surprise attacks against the Xiongnu who traded at the border markets. The Xiongnu retaliated by invading what is now Shanxi province and defeated the Han forces at Baideng in 200 BC. After negotiations, the heqin (“peace marriage”) agreement in 198 BC held the leaders of the Xiongnu and the Han as equal partners in a royal marriage alliance. Yet, the Han was forced to send large amounts of items such as silk clothes, food, and wine as a tribute to the Xiongnu.

Emperor Wu of Han

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Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han of the Western Han dynasty from an ancient Chinese book.
Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han of the Western Han dynasty from an ancient Chinese book.

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Emperor Wu of Han (June 30, 156 BC – March 29, 87 BC), born Liu Che, was the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of China. He reigned 54 years from 141 BC to 87 BC. His reign resulted in the vast territorial expansion. By reorganizing the  government, he developed a strong and centralized state.  He promoted Confucian doctrines. Emperor Wu, known for his religious innovations was a patron of poetic and musical arts. During his reign, cultural contact with western Eurasia increased.

As a military campaigner, Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion.  At its height, the Empire’s borders spanned from modern Kyrgyzstan in the west to Korea in the east, and to northern Vietnam in the south.

In 133 BC, Emperor Wu launched a series of massive military invasions into Xiongnu territory and captured one stronghold after another. The Chinese assault ended in 119 BC at the Battle of Mobei. The Han commanders Wei Qing (the half-brother of Emperor Wu’s favorite concubine) and Wei’s nephew, Huo Qubing expelled the Xiongnu from the Ordos Desert and Qilian Mountains and forced them to flee north of the Gobi Desert and then out of the Gobi Desert.

The Silk Road.

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Statue of Zhang Qian in Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an.
Statue of Zhang Qian in Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an.

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Zhang Qian was an imperial envoy to the world outside China under Emperor Wu of Han. He played an important pioneering role in the Chinese colonization and conquest of the region now known as Xinjiang. He was the first official diplomat to bring back reliable information to the Chinese imperial court about Central Asia. This helped the Han sovereignty in territorial acquisitions and expansion into the Tarim basin of Central Asia. Today, the Chinese revered and consider Zhang Qian as a national hero for the key role he played in opening China to the world of commercial trade.

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Main routes of the Silk Road/Silk Route. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)
Main routes of the Silk Road/Silk Route. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

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The Han sovereignty established the vast trade network known as the Silk Road or Silk Route, which reached as far as the Mediterranean Sea. The Silk Road or connected the various regions of the Old World. Extending 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers), the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out by Chinese merchants along its routes during the rule of the Han dynasty.

Around 114 BC, the Central Asian sections of the Silk Road routes were expanded. The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their merchants and their products. To ensure the protection of the trade route, Emperor Wu reinforced this strategic asset by establishing five commanderies and constructing a length of fortified wall along the border of the Hexi Corridor, colonizing the area with 700,000 Chinese soldier-settlers.

The Silk Road helped  establish political and economic relations between the various nations. Besides economic trade, the Silk Road served as a major factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Arabia, the Horn of Africa, and Europe and carrying out cultural exchanges among the nations along its network.

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Somalis, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians. From the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians joined the bandwagon. After the emergence of Islam, Arab traders became prominent users of the Silk Routes.

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A European in the Orient: Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Marco Polo died at his home in Venice on January 8, 1324. Before his death, friends and readers of his book visited him and urged him to admit that his book was a fiction. Marco would not relent. He told them:

I have not told half of what I saw!

​Marco Polo has been long regarded as the earliest and most distinguished of European travelers of all times for traversing Asia from one extremity to the other. He surpassed every other traveler of his time in the extent of the unknown regions he visited, as well as in the amount of new and important information he had collected. His description of the Chinese imperial court and the Chinese empire under the most powerful of the Asiatic dynasties, and tales of the adjacent countries in the Far East, forms a grand historical picture not painted by any other traveler of his period.

Authenticity is important in any travel narrative, otherwise it altogether becomes a worthless romance. A profound ignorance veiled  Europe when the Polos returned from the East. Doubts of the authenticity of Marco’s tales arose since most of the regions he had traversed were wholly unknown at that time. And his discoveries far transcended the knowledge of his age. Also, many editions of Marco Polo’s travelogue proliferated in an age when printing was unknown. The narratives varied from one another, often corrupted to a great extent.

Even now, some argue that Marco Polo never reached China, but cobbled together secondhand accounts of what he had heard. They say there are inaccuracies in the tales. They point out that he never mentioned the basic elements of Chinese culture, such as drinking tea, the use of chopsticks, the Chinese characters, or the tradition of foot-binding.

Responders to such skeptics have stated that if the purpose of Marco Polo’s stories of travels was to impress others with tales of his high esteem for an advanced civilization, then it is possible that Polo shrewdly would omit those details that would cause his readers to scoff at the Chinese with a sense of European superiority. Marco lived among the elite Mongols. Foot-binding was almost unknown among the Mongols and was rare even among Chinese during Polo’s time.

Some observers, who have only a cursory view of the history of China, say he never mentioned the Great Wall in his book. These people are ignorant of the fact that the Great Wall, familiar to us today, is a Ming structure constructed, about two centuries after Marco Polo’s travels in China, to keep out northern invaders.

New Evidence

It is odd that Marco Polo never produced a single map to accompany his narrative accounts in the ghostwritten book. Hence, scholars have long debated its the veracity. Now, there is new evidence in favor for this historical puzzle of whether Marco Polo did indeed visit China and the Far East. The proof is in the form of a curious collection of fourteen little-known maps and related documents purported to have belonged to the family of Marco Polo.

In the 1880s, Marcian Rossi, an Italian, immigrated to the United States. He brought along with him a collection of sheepskin vellum he said were of the 13th and 14th century. There were 14 little-known maps and related documents detailing Marco Polo’s journey to the Far East. These  documents bear the signatures of the three daughters of Marco Polo — Fantina, Bellela and Moreta.

The existence of these parchments came to light only in the 1930s, when Marcian Rossi contacted the Library of Congress. He explained that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian Admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family. But the collection did not undergo exhaustive analysis.

Are the maps forgeries or facsimiles?  They created a problem for the historians of cartography. Did Marco Polo’s daughters, whose names appear on some of these artifacts, preserve in them geographic information about Asia as told by their father? Did they inherit the maps created by him? Did Marco Polo entrust the maps to a Venetian admiral who had links to Rossi’s family line? Or, if the maps have no connection to Marco Polo, who made them, when, and for what purpose?

While some historians discounted the 14 parchments as mere fantasy, forgeries, or facsimiles, others wanted a balanced, detailed study of the documents.

Benjamin B. Olshin, a historian of cartography and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, spent more than a decade studying the artifacts. He translated the Italian, Latin, Arabic and Chinese inscriptions found therein. All but one of the original documents, a map Marcian Rossi donated to the Library of Congress, remain in the possession of Rossi’s great-grandson Jeffrey Pendergraft in Texas. Olshin is the first scholar in decades to see those originals.

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Marco Polo's 'Map with Ship' (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Marco Polo’s ‘Map with Ship‘ (Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

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The map donated by Marcian Rossi to the Library of Congress, dubbed “Map with Ship,” is a curious one. It has an illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel and a sketch of what appears to be outlines of Japan, Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and the coastlines of present-day Alaska and British Columbia. The map was not a navigational aid because it lacks longitude and latitude reference lines.

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The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin
The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin

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Olshin has detailed the results of his intensive research in his book, “The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps.” The book is the first credible book-length analysis of these parchments. It is a balanced, detailed, and a non speculative work of cartographic scholarship, not another ‘who discovered?’ sensation. Olshin charts the course of the documents from obscure origins in the private collection of the Italian-American immigrant Marcian Rossi in the 1930s. He describes the investigations by the Library of Congress, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI for their authenticity. Olshin describes his own efforts to track down and study the Rossi maps.

After a  thorough tracing of Marcian Rossi’s ancestry, Olshin asserts that Rossi’s explanation that Marco Polo had bestowed the documents upon a Venetian admiral, Ruggero Sanseverino, and that they had been passed down through generations of the Rossi family was credible.

Olshin describes himself as an “evidence guy” and makes no claims that the document “Map with Ship,” depicts Alaska for certain although there are similarities. Olshin also admits, the authenticity of the ten maps and four texts is not settled. The ink on the parchments remains untested. A radiocarbon study of the sheepskin vellum of one key map, the only one subjected to such analysis, dates it to the 15th or 16th century, making it at best a copy.

Regardless of the origin of the documents, Olshin offers insights into Italian history, the age of exploration, and the wonders of cartography. He then takes his readers on a fascinating journey to the early legendary lands of the Chinese.

Alessandro Scafi said in Times Literary Supplement (UK):

“Olshin plays with the idea that Marco Polo’s relatives may have preserved geographical information about distant lands first recorded by him, or even that they may have inherited maps that he made. If genuine, Olshin argues, these maps and texts would confirm that Marco Polo knew about the New World two centuries before Columbus, either from his own experience or through hearing about it from the Chinese … Fascinating material … Olshin himself admits that there is no hard evidence to support his thrilling speculations. Including translations of every annotation and inscription, Olshin’s study and description of the fourteen parchments are exhaustive. His analysis, however, leaves many questions open … A fascinating tale about maps, history and exploration.”

The parchments in the Rossi collection may not only back up Marco Polo’s claim that he journeyed to the Orient, but also could reveal he might have set foot on the North American continent, 200 years before Christopher Columbus. It is purported that Columbus carried a well-worn copy of “The Travels of Marco Polo” with him on his historic 1492 voyage. It is conjectured that the travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus to seek a westward sea route to the riches of East Asia, but instead landed in the New World.

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A European in the Orient: Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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When Niccolò, Maffeo, and Marco Polo,  arrived in Italy they found the Republic of Venice at war with the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, that had one of the most powerful navies in the Mediterranean.

Marco Polo joined the Venetians in the war. He commanded a galley equipped with a trebuchet, a type of catapult that used as a siege engine in the Middle Ages. The Genoans captured Marco in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta, and imprisoned him.

While spending several months in prison between 1298–1299, Marco became a friend of a fellow prisoner Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian writer of romance. Marco told Rustichello about his time in Asia. Rustichello soon committed his stories to paper in Old French. The romance writer also incorporated into it tales of his own as well as other collected anecdotes and current affairs from China.

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Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo
Le livre des merveilles du monde. Marco Polo

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After his release in 1299, Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa together turned the written notes into a travelogue titled “Livre des Merveilles du Monde” (Book of the Marvels of the World) or “Devisement du Monde” (Description of the World). In Italian the account appeared as “Il Milione” (The Million) or Oriente Poliano and was published later in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China.

Marco Polo was the first to leave a detailed popular chronicle of his experience in medieval China to the world, but he definitely was not the first European to travel to the Far East.

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John of Plano Carpini's great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the "Historical Atlas" by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)
Giovanni da Pian del Carpine’s great journey to the East. His route is indicated, railroad track style, in dark blue. From the “Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923 (2nd edition)

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During the time of the great Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, the Battle of Legnica on April 9, 1241, proved disastrous. The loss threatened to cast European Christendom under the rule of Ögedei Khan, the 2nd Khagan of the Mongol Empire.

Four years later, with the dread of the Mongols still on the mind of the people in eastern Europe, Pope Innocent IV, dispatched the first formal Catholic mission to the Mongols. It was partly to protest against the latter’s invasion of Christian lands, partly to gain trustworthy information about Mongol armies and their intention for the future. The Pope chose 65-year-old Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine to head this mission.

The mission started on Easter day April 16, 1245, from Lyon, where the Pope then resided. Giovanni bore a letter “Cum non solum” dated March 13, 1245, from the Pope to Ögedei Khan, the Mongol Emperor. Another friar, Stephen of Bohemia, accompanied Giovanni, broke down at Kaniv near Kiev. Another Minorite, Benedykt Polak, appointed to act as interpreter joined Giovanni at Wrocław.

Their journey was perilous. The Papal legate wrote that they were, “so ill that we could scarcely sit a horse; and throughout all that Lent our food had been nought but millet with salt and water, and with only snow melted in a kettle for drink.

Friar Giovanni and his companions rode an estimated 3000 miles in 106 days. By the time they reached their destination Ögedei Khan was dead.

On August 24, 1246, Giovanni and his companions witnessed the formal enthronement of Güyük Khan as the Third Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The new emperor refused the invitation to become a Christian, but demanded that the Pope and rulers of Europe should come to him and swear  their allegiance to him.

When Güyük Khan dismissed the expedition in November, 1246, he gave them a letter to the Pope, written in Mongol, Arabic, and Latin. It was a brief imperious assertion of the Mongol emperor’s office as the “scourge of God.”

Later on, other Catholic emissaries followed. In the 1250s, William of Rubruck, traveled east on a quest to convert the Mongols to Christianity. These early missionaries were largely inspired by the myth of Prester John (Latin: Presbyter Johannes), Christian patriarch and king popular in European chronicles and in the tradition of the 12th through the 17th century.

The accounts about this mythical king vary. They are just a collection of medieval popular fantasy. One such account depicts him as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. Polo mentions the fictional monarch in his book, and even asserts that Prester John fought a great battle against the Mongol ruler Genghis Kahn.

A Lombardian surgeon also had reached the city of Khanbaliq in 1303. A merchant named Petro de Lucalongo, had accompanied the monk John of Montecorvino to Khanbaliq in 1305.

In his work “Histoire de l’Empire Mongol,” Jean-Paul Roux,  a French Turkologue and a specialist in Islamic culture says that a person named André de Pérouse had mentioned that there was a small Genoese colony, in the harbor of Zaytun in 1326. Andolo de Savignone was the most famous Italian resident of the city. In 1336, Toghon Temür, the 15th Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the 11th Emperor of the Yuan dynasty sent him to the West to buy “100 horses and other treasures.

In 1339, a Venetian named Giovanni Loredanoto returned to Venice from China during the reign of  Emperor Toghon Temür.

A tombstone with the name of Catherine de Villioni, daughter of a Dominici, who died in 1342 during the reign of Toghon Temür was discovered in Yangzhou.

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An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo's fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)
An illuminated manuscript on Marco Polo’s fascinating and adventurous travels (Source: facsimilefinder.com)

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Well-known master artists of the medieval times steeped the manuscripts like the one shown above in enchanting colors.

The Travelogue, “The Travels of Marco Polo” soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form.  It gave the curious Europeans in the Middle Ages craving to know more about the marvels of the Orient,  the first comprehensive look into the inner workings of the Far East, including China, India, and Japan. Rarely have secular topics had such an intense echo.

The Travelogue is divided into four books:

Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco Polo traveled through on his way to China.

Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai Khan.

Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India, and the East Coast of Africa.

Book Four describes some of the then-recent wars among the Mongols, and some of the regions of the Far North, like Russia.

No authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book exists. The early manuscripts differ much from one another. Also, inadvertent errors and discrepancies crept in during the process of copying and translating.

The published editions of the travelogue either rely on single manuscripts, or a blend of many versions. For example, the popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 is the handiwork of R.E. Latham, who blended several manuscripts together to make a readable whole.

A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot based their  1938 English translation on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50 percent longer than other versions.

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Probable view of Marco Polo's own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)
Probable view of Marco Polo’s own geography drawn by H. Yule, 1871. (Source: The Book of Ser Marco Polo. London, 1871, vol. I, p. cxxxv)

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Some published editions carry notes to clarify, as exemplified in the English translation by Henry Yule.

To date, approximately 150 manuscript copies exist in various languages.

After his release from prison, Marco Polo returned to Venice. He married and raised three daughters. During the next 25 years, he carried on the family business.

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Next → Part 3 – Did Marco Polo Really Travel to the Far East?

← Previous: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo.

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A European in the Orient: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 13th-century travelogue titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) or Devisement du Monde (Description of the World) introduced Europeans to the geography of the Orient and the ethnic customs of its indigenous peoples.

The book described the travels of the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo between 1276 and 1291, through Asia: Persia, China, Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire. The book described Cathay (present-day China) in great detail and its abundance of riches. Though Marco Polo was not the first European to have visited the Far East, he still became famous after the publication of the book.

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Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

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Marco Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant named Niccolò Polo. Marco’s father and his uncle Maffeo Polo being merchants had established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire in Asia.

In 1264, the Polo brothers joined up with a diplomatic mission sent by  Hulagu, the ruler of Il-khanate to his brother Kublai Khan, both grandsons of Gengis Khan. They reached the seat of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in Dadu (present day Beijing, China) in 1266.

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Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.

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Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor, received the Polos well and expressed his interest in Christianity. He then sent them back to Italy with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to Pope Clement IV. They carried a letter from the emperor requesting the Pope to send 100 educated people to teach Christianity and western customs to his people. He also requested oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The emperor also gave them  the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, to signify certain privileges and authority, allowing them to acquire lodging, horses and food throughout  his dominion.

Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, the Polos sailed to Saint Jean d’Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Pope Clement IV died on November 29, 1268. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, and the election of a new pope delayed the Polos from fulfilling Kublai Khan’s request.

In 1269 or 1270, Teobaldo Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt suggested that the brothers return to Venice and wait for the nomination of the new Pope.

Niccolò Polo once again saw his son Marco, now a teenager, who had been living with his aunt and another uncle in Venice since the death of his mother at a young age.

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Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.
Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.

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In 1271, Theobald Visconti was elected as Pope Gregory X. He received the letter from Kublai Khan brought by the Polo brothers.

The Polo brothers left Venice on their second voyage to the Orient along with a 17-year-old Marco. Unable to recruit the 100 people that Kublai Khan had requested to teach his people, the Polos left with only two Dominican friars:  Niccolò de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. They set sail to Acre.

At Acre they joined a caravan of merchants travelling to the Persian port of Hormuz. Soon, bandits attacked their caravan using the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The marauding bandits killed many members of the caravan and enslaved the rest, but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby town.

Marco reveled in the adventure, but the two monks after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home.

When they reached Hormuz they wanted to sail straight to China, but the ships in Hormuz were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road.

The journey was challenging and at times they had to traverse harsh terrain. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco fell ill. He had to retreat to the mountains to recuperate from the illness.

Crossing the Gobi desert, proved long and, at times, arduous. Marco told later: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.

In 1274, three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos reached Kanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty (present day Beijing). Kublai Khan who welcomed them into his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder. The Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to the Mongol Emperor.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China under the patronage of Kublai Khan. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in Kublai Khan’s Court. The Mongol Emperor took a liking to Marco, an engaging storyteller. Marco’s immersed himself into the Chinese culture and mastered four languages. He served as an official in the salt administration and made trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. At one stage, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.

Marco Polo marveled at the use of paper money in the Mongol empire, an idea that had not reached Europe at that time.

Kublai Khan employed Marco Polo as a special envoy.  He sent Marco to Burma, India, Tibet and other far-flung areas hitherto never explored by Europeans. Marco was promoted again and again for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council.

The Polos asked permission on many occasions to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan liked them so much that he would not agree to their departure.

In 1291, Kublai Khan entrusted the Polos with their last duty. It was to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Il-khan Arghun of the breakaway state of the Mongol Empire in Persia, ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu.

The Polos departed from the southern port city of Quanzhou with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. They sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon and India. They visited Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey in India. Marco Polo nicknamed Alleppey as the “Venice of the East.”

The journey was harrowing due to storms and disease. Many perished. By the time they reached Il-khanate in Persia in 1293 or 1294, only 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive.  They came to know that Il-khan Arghun to whom the princess was betrothed had died. They left the Mongol princess Koekecin with the new Il-khan Gaykhatu. The Polos then moved to Trebizond . From there they sailed to Constantinople and then reached Venice in 1295. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).  The Polos returned to Venice with thier fortune converted in gemstones. In Venice, the Polos struggled to converse in their native tongue. Above all, they were unfamiliar to their family.

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Marco Polo's Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)
Marco Polo’s Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)

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Next → Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”

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We Wish You All A Happy New Year 2015!


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Myself  

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Happy New Year 2015

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May Love, Joy, Happiness be bestowed on all our relatives and friends Around the World!

My wife and I Wish You All
A Happy New Year 2015!

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Turntable for Buses in a Village in Spain


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Myself  .

By T.V. Antony Raj

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General view of Elantxobe town in Biscay, Basque Country. (Source: argazki.irekia.euskadi.net)
General view of Elantxobe town in Biscay, Basque Country. (Source: argazki.irekia.euskadi.net)

In many villages and small towns around the world, the streets are not wide enough to reverse a bus for the return journey. So, in most cases the respective municipal authorities would not allow any bus to ply into these places.

Elantxobe is a beautiful village located on a steep cliff face on the coast in the province of Biscay in the autonomous community of Euskal Herria (Basque Country), northern Spain.

Despite the narrow streets, its citizens wanted a bus to come to their village.

BizkaiBus is the name of the bus services serving the province of Biscay, Spain. The BizkaiBus and the Elantxobe municipal authorities borrowing the idea from the railway yards came up with the novel turntable manoeuvre. They installed it the village plaza.

After positioning the bus in the centre of the turntable, the driver uses a remote control device to start the turning process.

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Anandibai Joshee: First Indian Woman to Qualify as a Doctor in USA in 1886 – Part 2


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Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj

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Photograph of Anandi Gopal Joshee with her signature (Source: columbia.edu)
Photograph of Anandi Gopal Joshee with her signature (Source: columbia.edu)

When the news about Anandi’s plans to study medicine in America spread, orthodox Hindus censured her. Anandi addressed the Hindu community at the Serampore College Hall, in Serampore Town. She explained her decision to go to America and obtain a degree in medicine. She stressed the need for Hindu female doctors in India. She told the assembly the persecution she and her husband had endured. She spoke to them about her goal of opening a medical college for women in India. She also pledged that she would not relinquish her religion and convert to Christianity.

Anandi’s speech at the Serampore College Hall received wide publicity. Financial contributions started coming in from all over India. The Viceroy of India contributed 200 rupees to a fund for her education.

On April 17, 1883, Anandi sailed from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to New York chaperoned by two female acquaintances of the Thorborns.

Mrs. Carpenter received Anandi in New York in June 1883. The Carpenter family treated her as a member of the family throughout her stay in America. Mrs. Carpenter arranged Anandi’s admission to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Here is an extract from Anandi’s letter of application to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania:

“[The] determination which has brought me to your country against the combined opposition of my friends and caste ought to go a long way towards helping me to carry out the purpose for which I came, i.e. is to to render to my poor suffering country women the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of and which they would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician. The voice of humanity is with me and I must not fail. My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves.”

Anandi’s courage, conviction and her earnestness to study medicine against all odds impressed Rachel Littler  Bodley, the dean of the college. The college offered Anandi a scholarship of US$ 600 per month for three years. She chose the topic “Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindoos” for her specialization.

In America, Anandi remained austere and simple. Her lifestyle did not change and she continued to wear the typical 9-yard Maharashtrian saree.

Her declining health worsened because of the cold weather and unfamiliar diet.

After Anandi’s departure, Gopalrao felt dejected and depressed. He quarrelled with his superior frequently. Eventually, he resigned his job as a postal clerk. He then decided to go to America. Since he did not have enough money to pay for a ticket to America, he purchased a ticket up to Rangoon. There he worked for some time as a porter in the docks. After earning enough money he sailed to America.

Anandi was overjoyed when her husband joined her in Philadelphia after about three years. By that time, she had completed her medical course and passed out obtaining a First Class MD degree. During the Convocation held on March 11, 1886, Anandi received a  standing ovation when the president of the College said:

“I am proud to say that today should be recorded in golden letters in the annals of this college. We have the first Indian woman who is honoring this college by acquiring a degree in medicine. Mrs. Anandi Joshi has the honor to be the very first woman doctor of India”.

Anandibai Joshee and the WMCP received congratulatory messages from Queen Victoria, Empress of India.

In 1886, Anandi and Gopalrao decided to return to India. During the latter part of her stay in America, Anandi often fell sick. She suffered from severe cough.

When Anandi and Gopalrao reached Bombay, a grand reception was arranged to honour Anandi. The princely State of Kolhapur appointed her as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local King Albert Edward Hospital.

Anandi contracted tuberculosis. As the days passed, the disease worsened. Anandi, though a qualified doctor from America, insisted on consulting the then well-known Ayurvedic doctor Dr. Mehendele living in Poona. When she was taken to Poona, Dr. Mehendele refused to see her even though he was told that she was in the throes of death. Adding insult to injury, Mehendele was cruel enough to say:

“This woman went to America. She lived alone with strangers, ate food forbidden to Brahmins by religion and brought shame on Brahmins”.

Anandi returned home dejected.

Members of the elite in Poona came to see Anandi. They praised her for her achievements, but no one came forward with any financial help to the family. Then, she received a letter from Lokamanya Tilak, Editor of “Kesari”:

“I know how in the face of all the difficulties you went to a foreign country and acquired knowledge with such diligence. You are one of the greatest women of our modern era. It came to my knowledge that you need money desperately. I am a
newspaper editor. I do not have a large income. Even then I wish to give you one hundred rupees”. 

After reading Tilak’s letter, Anandi wept. She said:

“This penury, this begging for charity, no, no, I can’t bear it any more. What was I, and what has become of me? I am not a beggar’s daughter. None of my family was ever a beggar. I am a landlord’s daughter. That people should take pity on me and offer me money for my bare existence, how can I live with all this? God is so cruel, why does he not relieve me of all this?”

A few days later, on February 26, 1887, Anandibai died. Her death was mourned throughout India.

The resting place of Anandibai Joshee's ash in Poughkeepsie, New York. (Photo - Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine)
The resting place of Anandibai Joshee’s ash in Poughkeepsie, New York. (Photo – Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine)

Again, breaking with tradition, Gopalrao sent Anandi’s ashes to Mrs. Theodicia Carpenter, who laid the them to rest in her family cemetery at Poughkeepsie, New York.

Anandi Gopal Joshee is still remembered among Indian feminists.

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← Previous –   Anandibai Joshee: Part 1

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