Sri Rishaparudar and Amman, indicating dress codes and
beauty ideals of 11th-century Tanjore. Photo: Namit Arora / Himal Southasian (December 2009)
Sri Rishaparudar and Amman, indicating dress codes and beauty ideals of 11th-century Tanjore. Photo: Namit Arora / Himal Southasian (December 2009)

Polo on the Coromandel

Seven centuries have passed since Marco Polo opened Western eyes to the Subcontinent, yet his account continues to resonate.

Namit Arora is a Delhi-based essayist, travel photographer, documentary filmmaker, and former Internet technologist. He is also the author of 'Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization'. (

Returning home from China in 1292, Marco Polo arrives on the Coromandel Coast of India in a typical merchant ship, with over 60 cabins and some 300 crewmen. He enters the kingdom of the Tamil Pandya near modern-day Tanjore (on the coast south of Chennai), where, according to custom, "the king and his barons and everyone else all sit on the earth." He asks the king why they "Do not seat themselves more honorably." The king replies, "To sit on the earth is honorable enough, because we were made from the earth and to the earth we must return." Marco documented this episode in his famous book, The Travels, along with a rich social portrait of 13th-century India that still resonates today.

What kind of a man was Marco Polo? Raised in the cosmopolitan and mercantile city-state of Venice, Marco embraced something of its spirit, and certainly brought a merchant's pragmatic eye to bear on the world. His father and uncle – both enterprising Venetian merchants, who accompanied him on his famous journey but left no records of their own – were early role models. When Marco Polo began this journey, he was only 17. He returned in his late 30s and, a few years later, in 1298, he teamed up with a romance writer, Rustichello of Pisa, to tell his story – a vast panorama of nations largely unknown to his fellow Venetians.

Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica
Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica

As borne out by his writings, Marco was supremely inquisitive, attentive to a region's geography and natural resources, birds and beasts, climate and flora, foods and drinks. He was also drawn to the local arts and crafts, and assessed their commercial value for fellow Venetians. In Marco's day, travellers from the West classified cultures primarily by religion. As such, when arriving in a new place, he described the locals simply as Christians, Jews, Saracens (Muslims) or idolaters, the latter a catchall term for Tartars, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and others. He admired hardworking, law-abiding people, and criticised communities he perceived to be indolent or unruly. Although there are almost no personal incidents included in The Travels, what makes his account worthwhile are his vignettes of social life: how the tartars pitch their tents or go to war, how some Central Asians extract musk from gazelles, how a girl's virginity in Cathay (China) is verified before marriage, why men in a Tibetan province prefer to take as wives women with significant sexual experience, or how the Great Khan's "admirably contrived" postal service works.

Marco was no scholar, however, and had scant interest in history, philosophy or language (unlike, say, Alberuni, the famous Arab traveller to India in the early 11th century). He was a pious Christian, and admired other cross-cultural expressions of piety. He believed in magic, incantations and the power of astrologers to "bring on tempests and thunderstorms when they wish and stop them at any time." He was prone to using superlatives and wild exaggeration. For example, he claimed the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou had 12,000 bridges, that the Great Khan went hunting with 10,000 falconers, and that every tree on the 7500 islands in the China Sea gave off "a powerful and agreeable fragrance." He was gullible, too, lending credence to hearsay about giant birds that lift up elephants, men with tails as thick as a dog's, and a legendary Christian king of Asia called Prester John. He could also be naive about human relationships, relying excessively on surface appearance – claiming, for example, that the multiple wives of Tatar chieftains lived together happily, without any conflict.

In Ceylon, Marco relates the story of the Buddha with admiration, adding that "had he been Christian, he would have been a great saint with our Lord Jesus Christ." While largely tolerant towards idolaters, particularly those with a developed material culture, he betrays a garden-variety prejudice towards Muslims, best assessed in light of a post-Crusades Christendom. For instance, he deems Christians "far more valiant than Saracens". Taking sides in a conflict, he declares that "it is not fitting that Saracen dogs should lord it over Christians." But these and other expressions of contempt – the "quite repulsive" women of Zanzibar, Tatars who live like "brute beasts" because they smear food on the mouths of their gods, Indians being "paltry creatures and mean spirited" – are vastly outnumbered by expressions of admiration, fair-mindedness and wonder. Marco had no role models in his writing, after all, and the result – such as it is, warts and all – is a wondrous gift from the past.

Tales too long
The world traveller ultimately spends many months, perhaps the better part of a year, in India. The climate in the Pandya kingdom, he finds, is so hot that the locals, men and women, wore nothing but a loincloth. This includes the king, except that his loincloth is studded with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other gems. Merchants and traders abound; the king takes pride in not holding himself above the law of the land; and people travel the highways safely, with their valuables, in the cool of the night. Marco calls this "the richest and most splendid province in the world," one that, together with Ceylon, produces "most of the pearls and gems that are to be found in the world."

He goes on to catalogue many local customs, some of which have continuity today. He reports that the sole local grain produced in this area is rice. People use only their right hand for eating, saving the left for "unclean" tasks. Most do not consume alcohol, and drink fluids "out of flasks, each from his own; for no one would drink out of another's flask." Nor do they set the flask to their lips, preferring to "hold it above and pour the fluid into their mouths". They are addicted to chewing a leaf called tambur, sometimes mixing it with "camphor and other spices and lime", and go about spitting freely – using it also to express serious offence by targeting the spittle at another's face, which can sometimes provoke violent clan fights.

The coastal people, he observes, "pay more attention to augury than any other people in the world and are skilled in distinguishing good omens from bad." They rely on the counsel of astrologers, he continues, and have enchanters called Brahmans, who are "expert in incantations against all sorts of beasts and birds". For instance, they protect the oyster divers "against predatory fish", and for this service they receive one out of every 20 pearls. The people "worship the ox", do not eat beef (except for a group with low social status), and daub their houses with cow dung. In battle, they use lances and shields and, according to Marco, are "not men of any valor." They say that "a man who goes to sea must be a man in despair," and Marco draws attention to the fact that they "do not regard any form of sexual indulgence as a sin".

The 11th-ce uryllrihadishwara Temple, Tanjore, a temple that Marco Polo would almost certainly have seen. Photo: Namit Arora / Himal Southasian (December 2009)
The 11th-ce uryllrihadishwara Temple, Tanjore, a temple that Marco Polo would almost certainly have seen. Photo: Namit Arora / Himal Southasian (December 2009)

The Pandya monasteries have both male and female deities, prone to being cross with each other. And since estranged deities spell nothing but trouble in the human realm, bevies of spinsters gather at these temples several times each month with "tasty dishes of meat and other food" and "sing and dance and afford the merriest sport in the world" – leaping and tumbling, raising their legs to their necks and pirouetting to delight the deities. After the "spirit of the idols has eaten the substance of the food," they "eat together with great mirth and jollity". Pleasantly disposed by the evening entertainment, the gods and goddesses then descend from the temple walls at night and "consort" with each other – or so the priest announces the next morning – bringing great joy and relief to all. "The flesh of these maidens", adds the adventurer, "is so hard that no one could grasp or pinch them in any place … their breasts do not hang down, but remain upstanding and erect." For a penny, however, "they will allow a man to pinch [their bodies] as hard as he can."

Dark skin is highly esteemed among the Pandya. "When a child is born," Marco explains, "they anoint him once a week with oil of sesame, and this makes him grow much darker." No wonder their gods are all black "and their devils white as snow." Meanwhile, a group of their holy men, the yogis, eat frugally and live longer than most, some allegedly as much as 200 years. In one religious order, men even go stark naked, and "lead a harsh and austere life" – these men believe that all living beings have a soul, and take pains to avoid hurting even the tiniest creatures. When asked why they do not cover their private parts, they respond, "It is because you employ this member in sin and lechery that you cover it and are ashamed of it. But we are no more ashamed of it than of our fingers." Among them, only those who conquer sexual desire become monks – "so strict are these idolaters and so stubborn in their misbelief."

Marco reports that while the Pandya king has 500 wives, he covets a beautiful wife of his brother's, who rules another kingdom nearby and, as kings are wont to, also keeps many wives. One day, the king succeeds in "ravishing her and keeping her for himself." When war looms, as it has many times before, their mother intervenes, knife in hand and pointing at her breasts. "If you fight with each other," Marco records her warning her sons, "I will cut off these breasts which gave you both milk." Her emotional blackmail succeeds once again, as the brother who had lost his wife is forced to swallow his pride and war is averted.

But it is only a matter of time, thinks the author, before the mother is dead and the brothers destroy each other. The elder of these two is now believed to be the historical king Sundara Pandya Dewar, who eventually had to flee to Delhi to escape his brother, Vira Pandya.

After the eastern Coromandel Coast, Marco sails up the western Malabar Coast with a brief stop in Ceylon. But from here on his observations become sparser, partly because most of the same customs – the kind accessible to a foreign traveller – prevail in this area as well. Of the flora and fauna, he says, "everything there is different from what it is with us and excels both in size and beauty … lions, leopards, and lynxes abound," as do peacocks and scarlet-and-blue parrots, of which there is "no lovelier sight in the world". Some monkeys in the region have "such distinctive appearance that you might take them for men."

Marco makes note of the pepper and indigo plantations, incense and a date wine that is "a very good drink". Further north, workshops make cotton and leather goods, shiploads of which go west to the African and Arabic coasts every year. With such precious cargo plying the sea, pirates too operate on a large scale. In Aden, the cargo is transferred to smaller ships and carried via rivers and camels to the Nile and downriver to Alexandria and beyond. These goods include cushions and "mats of scarlet leather, embossed with birds and beasts and stitched with gold and silver … of more consummate workmanship than anywhere in the world … so exquisite that they are a marvel to behold."

While insightful, Marco's account is limited. Except for a brief mention of an inland kingdom that is ruled by a queen (identified as Rudrama Devi of Warangal) and is known for its "high standard of justice and equity", and which produces all of the diamonds in the world (at Golconda and elsewhere in Hyderabad), Marco's account of India is ultimately focused solely on the coastal belt. While there is no evidence that he ventured deep into the interior, he does end with this tantalising remark: "Of the inland regions I have told you nothing; for the tale will be too long in the telling." We would have happily read on, Marco.

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