Post-classical history



BY THE TIME the explorers arrived, India’s civilization was already four millennia old. Age had endowed the subcontinent with three major religions, a complex caste system, countless architectural marvels, and an intellectual culture that had transformed the world. Even the most jaded travelers were apt to gush.

In the 1440s, the Persian ambassador Abd al-Razzaq struck out from Calicut for Vijayanagar, the city that gave its name to the dominant empire of southern India. Along the way he came across an eye-boggling temple cast entirely from solid bronze but for a giant humanoid figure sitting above the entrance, which was made from gold with two prodigious rubies for eyes. It was just a foretaste of what was to come. Vijayanagar was set at the foot of a steep mountain range and was enclosed by triple walls that reached for sixty miles around. Inside the great gates, avenues lined with richly embellished mansions stretched toward the imposing backdrop; Abd al-Razzaq was particularly taken by an enormously long prostitutes’ bazaar that was decorated with outsize animal sculptures and featured a seemingly endless selection of bewitching girls posing outside their chambers on thrones. The simplest artisans sparkled with pearls and precious stones, while the chief eunuch went around accompanied by parasol bearers, trumpeters, and professional panegyrists whose job was to fill their employer’s ears with ever more artful praise. The king, reported the Venetian traveler Niccolò de’ Conti, who reached Vijayanagar at about the same time, “is by far more distinguished than all the others: he takes as many as twelve thousand wives, of whom four thousand follow him on foot wherever he may go and are employed solely in the service of the kitchen. A like number, more handsomely equipped, ride on horseback. The remainder are carried in litters, of whom two or three thousand are selected as his wives on condition that they will voluntarily burn themselves with him.”

The Vijayanagar Empire had been founded a century earlier, when a Hindu monk had inspired the fractious rulers of southern India to band together against the Islamic powers that were encroaching from the north. It was still the ruling power when the Portuguese arrived. For all its resplendence, though, it was a land empire, and its authority was patchy at best along the coasts. Many of its three hundred ports were independent city-states in all but name, and Muslim merchants were the key to their wealth.

Islam had arrived in India in 712, but mass invasions had begun at the end of the tenth century. Rampaging Turkish and Afghan armies, drawn like the Persians and Greeks before them by the subcontinent’s fabled riches, had smashed Hindu power and had gradually folded their culture into India’s rich skein of civilization. Only southern India had stayed out of reach of the Islamic empires, but even there, Muslim traders had flourished from the early years of Islam. Merchants arriving from Mecca, Cairo, Hormuz, and Aden had settled on the Malabar Coast and had married local women; their children, known as Mappilas, crewed the Arab fleets. Calicut, in particular, had been home to a rich and powerful Muslim community for so long that its beginnings were lost in legend. One Arab story held that it all started when a Hindu ruler named Cheruma Perumal—or Shermanoo Permaloo—converted to Islam and set off on the hajj to Mecca. Before leaving he divided his lands among his relatives, but he left the patch of land from which he embarked to a simple cow herder. The land grew into Calicut and the cowherd became the Zamorin, the first among the coastal kings. More likely it was the city’s open-market tradition that had made it popular with Arab merchants, but either way, they had taken control of the kingdom’s foreign trade, were ruled by their own emir and judge, and had forged a close alliance with the Zamorins.

The Zamorins had prospered accordingly. By one count they had a hundred thousand armed men—an entire caste of noble warriors called Nairs—at their command, and their lives had become a perpetual round of ceremonies, feasts, and festivals that started at their investiture and continued long after they had been cremated on a fragrant pyre of sandalwood and aloeswood. As a mark of respect for a dead Zamorin, every man in the kingdom shaved his body from head to foot, leaving only his eyebrows and eyelashes unpruned; for a fortnight all public business ceased, and anyone who chewed paan risked having his lips cut off. Since the women of the Zamorin’s caste enjoyed an unusual degree of sexual freedom—and since by custom the Zamorin paid a Brahmin, a priest or scholar from the highest caste, to deflower his wife—inheritance passed through the sister’s line, and the new Zamorin was usually a nephew of the deceased. His induction began with a sprinkling of milk and water and a ceremonial bath. The ancestral ankle bracelet—a heavy gold cylinder encrusted with jewels—was clasped into place, and he was blindfolded and massaged with meadow grasses. His attendants filled nine silver censers representing the nine planets that determined human destiny with sap and water, heated them over a fire into which they threw ghee and rice, and emptied them over his head. As a mantra was whispered into his ear, he proceeded to his private temple to worship his guardian goddess and the golden dynastic sword. He moved on to his private gymnasium, where he bowed before each of the twenty-seven tutelary deities and was presented with his own sword of state by the hereditary instructor-at-arms. After prostrating himself before the high priest and receiving the royal benediction three times—“Protecting cows and Brahmins, reign as king of the hills and the waves”—he returned to his dressing room to put on the rest of the ornaments of state. Finally he sat on a white rug spread on a black carpet, and in the twinkling light of hundreds of gold lamps, the Brahmins threw rice and flowers over his head. For a year he mourned his predecessor, letting his nails and hair grow wild, never changing his clothes and eating only once a day, until at last he came into his own.

Each day of his reign began with a prayer to the sun and an hour-long massage with perfumed oils. He bathed in the palace pool while his nobles buffed him from the side, and when he emerged, his attendants dried him off and massaged him with more precious oils. His valet daubed him with a paste of sandalwood and aloeswood pounded with saffron and rosewater, sprinkled him with leaves and flowers, and smeared the moistened ashes of his ancestors on his forehead and chest. While the grooming rituals were going on, a dozen of the comeliest teenage girls of the realm mixed fresh cow dung with water in large gold basins and handed them to an army of women cleaners, who disinfected every inch of the palace by rubbing in the diluted dung with their hands. Following a visit to his temple the Zamorin retired to his dining pavilion for three hours, and after briefly seeing to the affairs of state, he installed himself in his audience chamber. If no one came he passed his time with his lords, buffoons, and mountebanks, playing a game of chance with dice, watching his soldiers spar, or simply chewing paan.

Very occasionally he went out in a silk-lined palanquin slung on a bamboo pole studded with jewels; whenever he had to walk, baize was laid beneath his feet. A brass band headed up the procession, followed by archers, spear carriers, and swordsmen staging bravura displays of fencing. Four attendants walked in front of the royal litter holding parasols made of fine cotton and embroidered silk, pairs of servants fanned the royal person on either side, and the paan page was always ready with his golden cup and spittoon. More page boys followed, bearing the golden sword of state, a selection of gold and silver ewers, and piles of towels. “And when the king wishes to put his hand to his nose or eyes or mouth,” one astonished Portuguese onlooker noted, “they pour some water from the ewer on his fingers, and the other hands him the towel, which he carries, to wipe himself.” Bringing up the rear were the royal nephews, governors, and officers, while all around acrobats tumbled and jesters jested. If the procession took place at night, great iron lamps and wooden torches lit the way.

It was into this ancient, intricate, and rich civilization that the Portuguese had blundered. They had never heard of Hindus, never mind Buddhists or Jains. In Mombasa, Gama’s emissaries had mistaken a picture of a Hindu pigeon god for the Holy Spirit. In Malindi, his crews had misheard chants of “Krishna!” for cries of “Christ!” In Calicut, the landing party had assumed that Hindu temples were Christian churches, they had misconstrued the Brahmins’ invocation of a local deity as veneration of the Virgin Mary, and they had decided the Hindu figures on the temple walls were outlandish Christian saints. The temples were also crammed with animal gods and sacred phalluses, and the Indians’ devotion to cows was deeply puzzling, but the Portuguese merely looked askance at anything that failed to fit their preconceptions. Since it was well known that Muslims abhorred the worship of the human form, it was clear to them that most of the Indians they met could not be Muslims; and since Europe’s with-us-or-against-us world picture allowed for only two religions, Christians they had to be. As far as the Indians were concerned, it was a mark of respect to invite visitors to their temples, and if the visitors felt a kinship with their religion, they were not going to protest. To be called Christians was strange, to be sure, but perhaps the language barrier was to blame. In any case, it was not something to pursue because in Calicut the discussion of religion was frowned on from high. “It is strictly forbidden,” one European visitor reported, “to talk, dispute, or quarrel on that subject; so there never arises any contention on that score, every one living in great liberty of conscience under the favor and authority of the king, who holds that to be a cardinal maxim of government, with a view to making his kingdom very rich and of great intercourse.”

Ignorance leavened with wishful thinking had driven Europeans halfway around the globe, and the success of the entire Portuguese scheme rested on two deeply Western-centric assumptions. The first was that India was peopled with Christians who would be so overjoyed to be reunited with their Western brothers that they would send their Muslim allies packing. The second was that, for all their inestimable riches, the Indians were simple people who would hand over their valuable goods for a song.

Only a handful of Europeans had made it to the Malabar Coast before, and to the people of Calicut the foreigners, with their pale skin and cumbersome clothes, were a curiosity worth witnessing. Despite their uncouth and dirty appearance they had been welcomed with due ceremony, and in return they had made an offering that would have been perfectly acceptable if it had come from a common grocer. In short, they had made themselves look ridiculous, and even worse, compared to the city’s rich Muslim merchants they had made themselves look poor.

Vasco da Gama was way out of his depth, and he had no idea where to turn.

AFTER HIS GIFTS had been snubbed, Gama waited all day for the two officials to reappear. They never did, but news of his gaffe had clearly traveled fast. A steady trickle of Muslim merchants showed up at his lodgings and made a great show of ridiculing the rejected goods.

By now the captain-major was glowering at all around him. The Indians, he complained, had turned out to be an apathetic and unreliable people. He got ready to go to the palace, then at the last moment decided to bide his time. As usual, his men were less burdened with the need to maintain their dignity. “As to us others,” the Chronicler recorded, “we diverted ourselves, singing and dancing to the sound of trumpets, and enjoyed ourselves much.”

The next morning the officials finally showed up and led the Portuguese party to the palace.

The courtyard was lined with armed guards, and Gama was kept waiting for four hours. By midday it was ferociously hot, and temperatures were rising all around by the time the ushers emerged and told the captain-major he could only take two of his men inside.

“I expected you yesterday,” the Zamorin rebuked his visitor as soon as he was within earshot.

Not wishing to lose face, Gama mildly replied that the long journey had tired him.

The captain-major, the Zamorin sharply rejoined, had said that he came on a mission of friendship from a very rich kingdom. Yet he had brought nothing to prove it. Just what sort of friendship did he have in mind? He had also promised to deliver a letter, and he had not produced even that.

“I have brought nothing,” replied Gama, robustly ignoring his frosty reception, “because the object of my voyage was merely to make discoveries.” It had been uncertain, he added, whether he would reach Calicut by a way never before attempted. When other ships followed, the Zamorin would see how rich his country was. As to the letter, it was true that he had brought one, and he would deliver it forthwith.

The Zamorin refused to be swayed. What was it, he asked, that the captain-major had come to discover? Was it stones, or men? If he had come in search of men, why had he not brought gifts with him? Perhaps he had, but he did not want to deliver them. Aboard one of the ships, he had been informed, was a golden statue of a St. Mary.

The statue, Gama indignantly replied, was not made of gold but of gilt wood. Even if it were gold he would not part with it. The Holy Virgin had guided him safely across the ocean, and she would lead him back to his own country.

The Zamorin backed off and instead asked to see the letter.

First, Gama begged, he should send for a Christian who spoke Arabic; since the Muslims wished to do him harm, they would no doubt misrepresent its contents.

The Zamorin assented, and everyone waited until a young translator appeared.

He had two letters, Gama explained when they resumed: one written in his own language and the other in Arabic. He was able to read the first, and he knew there was nothing in it that might cause offense; as to the other, he could not read it, and while it might be perfectly good, it might contain misleading errors. Presumably he expected the “Christian” to confer in Arabic with Fernão Martins, whom he had brought with him into the court, in order to check the contents of the letter before rendering it into Malayalam. His careful plan was thwarted when it turned out that the young translator, though he spoke Arabic, was completely unable to read it, and in the end Gama was forced to hand his letter to four Muslims. They looked it over among themselves and translated it aloud into the king’s tongue.

The letter was full of royal flattery. King Manuel, it said, had learned that the Zamorin was not only one of the mightiest kings of all the Indies but also a Christian. He had immediately sent his men to establish a treaty of friendship and trade with him. If the Zamorin would give them a license to buy spices, he would send him many things that were not to be had in India, and if the samples his captain-major had brought with him were not satisfactory, he was willing to send gold and silver instead.

The Zamorin unbent a little at the prospect of boosting his revenues with a new influx of taxable goods.

“What kind of merchandise,” he asked Gama, “is to be found in your country?”

“Much corn,” replied the captain-major, “cloth, iron, bronze, and many other things.”

“Do you have any of this merchandise with you?” asked the Zamorin.

“A little of each sort,” replied Gama, “as samples.” If he was permitted to return to his ships, he added, he would order the goods to be landed; four or five men would stay at their lodgings as a guarantee.

To Gama’s indignation, the Zamorin refused. The captain-major could take all his people with him right now, he said; he could bring his ships properly into the harbor like a regular merchant, land his cargo, and sell it for the best price he could get.

Gama had no intention of doing anything of the sort. He knew perfectly well that his trade goods were worth next to nothing; he had come to make a treaty directly with the Zamorin, not to barter baubles with Muslim merchants. He bowed out of the court, picked up his men, and returned to his lodgings. It was already late at night, so he made no attempt to leave.

The next morning the Zamorin’s representatives arrived with another saddleless horse for his use. Whether or not they were being mischievous, Gama declined to embarrass himself further and demanded a palanquin. After a detour to borrow one from a wealthy merchant, the party set off on the long trek back to the ships, accompanied by another large detachment of soldiers and more curious crowds.

The rest of the Portuguese went on foot, and they soon fell behind. They were trudging through the mud as best they could when the wali overtook them in his own palanquin, but before long both he and the main group were out of sight. The men lost their way and wandered far inland, and they would have wandered farther if the wali had not sent back a guide to rescue them. Eventually, as the light faded, they regained the path and reached Pantalayini.

The sun had already set when they found Gama in one of the many rest houses that lined the road to the harbor to shelter travelers from the rain. He gave his men a black look and sharply pointed out that he would have been back on board his ship if they had kept up.

The wali was with him, along with a large group of his men, and Gama immediately demanded a boat. The Indians suggested he wait until morning. It was late, they explained, and he might lose his way in the dark.

Gama was in no mood to listen. Unless the wali provided him with a boat at once, he insisted, he would go back to the city and inform the Zamorin that his officials had refused to escort the visitors to their ships. They were clearly trying to detain him, he added; it was a very bad way to behave to a fellow Christian.

“When they saw the dark looks of the captain,” reported the Chronicler, “they said he was at liberty to depart at once, and that they would give him thirty boats if he needed them.”

In the gloom the Indians led the Portuguese to the beach. The boats that were usually pulled up there seemed to have vanished along with their owners, and the wali dispatched some men to find them. Gama was getting increasingly suspicious, and he was convinced the governor was bluffing. As a precaution he quietly told three men to head along the beach and look out for Nicolau Coelho’s boats; if they found him, they were to tell him to make himself scarce. The scouts found nothing, but by the time they came back the rest of the party had disappeared.

As soon as the wali had realized that three sailors were missing, he had escorted the remaining foreigners to the mansion of a Muslim merchant and had left them there, explaining that he and his soldiers were going to search for the stray men. It was late, and Gama had Fernão Martins purchase some food from their hosts. After their exhausting ramble the men were ravenous and, slumping awkwardly on the floor, they started in on dishes of chicken and rice.

The search party did not return until morning, and by then Gama’s mood had improved. The Indians seemed well meaning, after all, he brightly said to his men; no doubt they had been right to warn against setting out in the dark. For once the men were less sanguine than their commander, and they looked mistrustfully around.

It was now June 1. The three scouts had not been found, and Gama assumed they had got away with Coelho. Once again he asked for boats, but rather than agree, the wali’s men began to whisper among themselves. Eventually they said they would provide them, if the captain-major ordered his fleet to anchor nearer the shore.

This was tricky, since the Zamorin had made the same request, but Gama was determined not to put his ships and crews in harm’s way. If he gave any such order, he replied, his brother would assume he was a prisoner and would immediately set sail for home.

Unless he gave exactly that order, the Indians countered, he and his men would not be allowed to leave.

The two sides seemed to have reached an impasse, and Gama reddened with indignation. In that case, he said tersely, the best thing was for him to return to Calicut. If the Zamorin wanted him to stay in his country and refused to let him leave, he added, that was one thing; he would gladly oblige. If not, the Zamorin would doubtless be interested to know that his orders had been blatantly disobeyed.

The Indians seemed to relent, but before anyone could make a move, a large force of armed men appeared in the house and the doors banged shut. No one was allowed out, even to relieve himself, without his own personal detachment of guards.

The officials soon came back with a new demand. If the ships were not going to come in to shore, they said, they would have to give up their sails and rudders.

They would do no such thing, Gama retorted. The Indians could do what they liked with him, but he would give up nothing. His men, though, he added, were starving; if he was going to be detained, surely they could be let go?

The guards refused to be moved. The Portuguese must stay where they were, they answered. If they died of hunger, so be it; it meant nothing to them.

The captain-major and his men were starting to fear the worst, though they did their best to put on a brave face. While they were awaiting their captors’ next move, one of the missing sailors showed up. The three scouts, he reported, had indeed found Nicolau Coelho the night before, but rather than keeping out of the way, as Gama had urged, Coelho was still stationed off the beach and was expecting them.

Gama quietly told one of his men to slip away and pass on to Coelho strict orders to return to the ships and move them to a safer place. The sailor sneaked out, ran down the beach, and jumped in one of the boats, which immediately set off to the fleet. The guards, though, had spotted him, and they raised the cry. Suddenly the missing Indian boats appeared and the guards dragged a sizable flotilla into the water. They rowed furiously after the retreating Portuguese, but they soon realized they could not overtake them. Instead they returned to the shore and directed the captain-major to write to his brother, commanding him to bring the ships into port.

Personally, Gama replied, he was perfectly willing to comply, but as he had already explained, his brother would never go along with it. Even if he did, his sailors were not keen to die and they would not budge.

The Indians refused to believe him. He was the commander, they protested; surely any order he gave would be obeyed?

The Portuguese huddled together and talked things over. Gama was now resolved to keep the ships out of the port at any cost; once inside, he explained, their long-range guns would be useless and they could easily be captured. When the Indians had seized the fleet, he added, they would undoubtedly kill him first and the rest of them after. His men agreed; they had already reached the same conclusion.

The day wore on and the tension rose. That night a hundred guards clustered around the prisoners and took turns to keep watch. They were armed with swords, two-edged battle-axes, and bows and arrows, and they were getting restless. The Portuguese were convinced they would be marched off one by one and roughed up at the very least, though they still managed to make a good supper off more of the local produce.

The next morning, the wali returned and proposed a compromise. Since the captain-major had informed the Zamorin that he intended to land his goods, he should order it done. It was the custom of Calicut for every ship to unload its cargo without delay, and for the crews and merchants to stay on land until their business was over. This time they would make an exception, and he and his men could return to their ships as soon as the merchandise arrived.

Gama had promised no such thing, but since he was in no position to argue he sat down and wrote a letter to his brother. He explained that he was being held, though he was careful to say he was being well treated, and he told Paulo to send over some—not all—of their trade goods. If he failed to return shortly, he added, Paulo should assume that he was still a prisoner and that the Indians were trying to hijack the ships. In that case, Paulo was to sail for Portugal and explain everything to the king. He trusted, he added, that Manuel would dispatch a great war fleet and his liberty would be restored.

Paulo immediately had some merchandise loaded in a boat, though after a heated discussion with the messengers he sent back word that he could not live with the dishonor if he went home without his brother. He trusted, he added, that with God’s help their small force would be able to free him.

The boat arrived at the shore, and the goods were transferred to an empty warehouse. The wali held true to his word, and Gama and his men were let go. They returned to the fleet, leaving behind the clerk Diogo Dias and an assistant to look after the merchandise.

“At this we rejoiced greatly,” the Chronicler recorded, “and rendered thanks to God for having extricated us from the hands of people who had no more sense than beasts.”

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