The concept of kalapani – the ancient Subcontinental prohibition against crossing the seas, of which much has been made – does not mean that travel was unknown in earlier times in Southasia. Nor did it mean that those apart from the most highly self-absorbed Brahmins obeyed this stricture. Pilgrimage and trade routes cut across the landscape. Everyone moved, for a million reasons. Supposed religious diktats aside, the Aitareya brahmana of the Rigveda exhorts, ‘There is no happiness for the person who does not travel; living amongst men, even the best man becomes a sinner; for Indra is the traveller’s friend. Hence, travel!’
‘To the stranger in India’, wrote the colonial officer William Crooke in 1906, ‘nothing is more impressive than the constant movement of vast crowds of pilgrims to visit the many sacred places scattered throughout the country.’ Of course, many of the people are motivated by ‘strong religious enthusiasm’, wrote Crooke, but to most ‘the pilgrimage is the one annual outing which breaks the dreary monotony of village life – a chance of amusement and shopping, as a race-meeting or a cattle show is to the English rustic.’ The pilgrimage is perhaps the earliest form of tourism. Penitents went to Hindu temples, Sufi dargahs, Buddhist relics, to the river’s edge for the Kumbh Mela, across the seas or overland on Haj.
Furthermore, the flows of people across the rivers of Central Asia, the mountains of the Himalaya and the waters of the Indian Ocean were constant, a feature of the movement of warriors, traders and intellectuals. Was this ‘travel’ or simply displacement from one place to the other? Did those who moved have to self-consciously know that they were ‘travelling’? To travel implies not just movement from one place to another but to register the journey, to consider the differences in places. Of course, this consciousness is not easy to track, and it is often left to the intellectuals to record for us their ruminations.
We have the great Chinese travellers who marched across the high mountains into the Indus-Ganga plains, and returned home to record their impressions of the lands of the Buddha: Fa-hsien (399-414), Hsuan-tsang (629-645), and I-ching (671-695). We have the great Persian scholar, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1052), who meandered across Central Asia, finding employment with warriors and traders, seeking information and knowledge where he could find it. From him we get his book India, whose Arabic title gives us the full flavour of the writings, Ketab tahqiq maa le’l-hind men maqula maqbula fi’l-aql aw mardula (The book confirming what pertains to India, whether rational or despicable). If you read between the lines of Abu’l Fazl’s 16th-century Ain-e-akbari, you would get a sense of the curiosity about other places, as you would in Nik Rai’s 18th-century Tazkirat al-safar va tuhfat al-zafar (Account of travels and the gift of success). Whether they crossed the waters or the mountains or lingered on the landmass of the Subcontinent, these writers developed a self-conscious understanding of journeys, the safar, the yatra.
By the 19th century, much more self-conscious travel literature was being produced, whether pertaining to travel within the Subcontinent that mirrors colonial travel (Baboo Bholanauth Chunder’s The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India, 1869) or outside the region, often to England and Europe. The latter includes Mirza Shaikh I’tisam al-din’s Shigarf-nama-i vilayat (Wonderbook of England, 1768), Sake Dean Mahomet’s The Travels of Dean Mahomet, a Native of Patna in Bengal (1794), and Protap Chunder Mozoomdar’s, Sketches of a Tour Round the World, (1884). There is also an account of a journey to the United States, Pandita Ramabai’s remarkable United stateschi lokasthiti ani pravasavritta (The Peoples of the United States, 1889).
Silencing the tongue
These travellers went to seek out knowledge about themselves or about other societies. Mozoomdar was confounded by the hustle of industrial London, the ‘perpetual peripatetic restlessness’. To get away from the bewilderment, Mozoomdar went into himself, writing, ‘A man’s only protection against the insanity of centrifugal forces lies here,’ within one’s own imagination and consciousness. Ramabai, on the other hand, reported in great detail about life in America, and saw social possibilities and limits that could help move her agenda in India. The US had its deep problems with racism – ‘racial discrimination and prejudice, which are most inimical to all progress and civility, are not altogether absent in this country,’ she wrote. This had to be registered, but so too social ideas that could benefit life in India. Travel, for people like Ramabai, was not about seeing another place simply to consume it. It was to learn about the wider human experience and derive lessons from it.
These were the well-heeled travellers, but there were also the girmityas, the indentured labourers who went off to the Caribbean and South America, Africa, Malaysia and Fiji. Their journey was often one-way, although with the writings of people such as Totaram Sanadhya, and his 1914 Fiji dvip mein mere ikkis varsh (My 21 years in the Fiji islands), the reading public was able to appreciate the lives and labours of their fellows, now living distant lives. Missionaries from India went back and forth, bringing Hindu and Muslim ideas to the distant girmitiyas and returning back with stories of them. The most famous Southasian arriving in the indentured colonies was Mohandas Gandhi, who is said to have learned the strategy of non-violence from the Tamil-speaking field labourers of Natal province in South Africa. Travel provided the foundation for mass nationalism of the Gandhi era.
Today, travel has become almost routine for a much larger section of society than ever before. No injunction worries anyone; the only problems are money and visas. The new pilgrimages are not merely to the abodes of saints, but more to tourist sites and vistas of commodities, to see what must be seen and buy what must be bought; cameras record the visit instantly. One’s horizons may be expanded, but with easy access to television documentaries and photographic images of the distant, merely going to a place and recording one’s presence does not make for much of a travel experience. This is a luxury to be enjoyed only by those who have time and money, the two ingredients of global self-confidence. Travel then has become routine but is also diminished. It is to see, but not to risk. Meaningful travel is to risk oneself in the mystery of elsewhere, to test one’s limited horizons and to expand them.
In the Ain-e-akbari, Abu’l Fazl recounts a magical happening at Nagarkot (Punjab), ‘Pilgrims from distant parts visit the shrine and obtain fulfilment of their desires. Strange it is that in order that their prayers may be heard favourably, they cut off their tongues. With some it grows again on the spot, with others after one or two days.’ New places silence the tongue. Some find the ability to explain what they have seen with ease, while others have to go deep within themselves to find the means to explain the new horizon opened up for them. This is travel: to have one’s tongue excised for a moment. Then it returns, and we get accounts of the trip.