On Memory Road

Shamik Bag

Kolkata Newsline, India
April 29 2007

India from the Cold War days, of Muslim and Buddhist traditions, and
of Shahrukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan – India survives in the foreign
mind, finds a team that retraced the route taken to the country five
centuries back by Russian trader, Afanasy Nikitin

When Afanasy Nikitin, the Russian trader of the 15th century, set off
from his hometown for India in 1469, he did not have to travel too
far to be confronted by human strife. Twice during his trip he was
plundered, the Tartars were a real problem and borders were neither
porous nor conflict-free.

"I’m afraid, well over five centuries later, ethnic conflicts continue
to prevail . The political confusion is still there and regions and
countries are frequently at war between themselves," admits Professor
Hari Vasudevan of Calcutta University’s history department.

Vasudevan, along with Phalguni Matilal, president of the Delhi-based
Adventurers and Explorers Society, recently returned to India
after leading a 14-member Indian expedition team that retraced the
route taken by Nikitin during his two year long journey to India. By
re-examining the route of the famous Russian explorer, whose journey
to India preceded that of Vasco da Gama and whose 30-page chronicle of
Indian mores and morals of that era is often eclipsed by the stature
of Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang or the Portuguese trader, "we were going
back to the old trading routes that exist even today," says Vasudevan.

The boats, camels and horses that Nikitin – travelling alone, unlike
Vasco da Gama who enjoyed royal support – took to reach India while
travelling over Russia, Persia, the Caspian Sea, Iran, Oman and the
Arabian Sea, had, in the case of the Indian team, got replaced by
sponsored Scorpios and airlines. "The world of rivers and seas have
made way for highways, with their roadside motels and highways. But
Nikitin travelled alone in an era when one could lose oneself in the
forests or flat countries with 360-degree horizon. For us, Nikitin
came as the symbol of the ordinary citizen," Vasudevan says.

But like Nikitin, whose short but meticulously detailed account
of medieval India was published by historian Nikolas Karamzin as
the Journey Beyond the Three Seas, the Indian adventurers too have
returned with newer inferences and perspectives.

"We had decided that we would undertake the expedition to understand
the reasons why India has always interested and attracted people
down the ages. It is true even now in these times of greater trade
interactions. It is a question of the present as well as the past,
and using Nikitin’s journey, we ask the question of India’s pulling
power over time," says the history professor whose interactions with
Matilal and the Adventurers and Explorers Society led to the idea
behind the expedition.

In trying to unravel the truth behind India’s appeal over the
foreign psyche, the country had introduced itself to the team through
diverse ways. After the formal flag-off at Tver, Nikitin’s hometown
in Russia, on November 12, 2006, while the Indian team comprising
academics, adventurers and journalists, travelled through the Russian
countryside, the impression of India was borne out of the legacy
of the Soviet Union, feels Vasudevan. "Then in the Musilm majority
republic of Tatarstan, India is known as a country with a huge Muslim
population. In the Buddhist Kalmyk republic, the main temple in the
capital city of Elista has been designed under instructions from the
Dalai Lama, and the Bodh Gaya-trained monks there can speak in Hindi."

While Bollywood veteran, Raj Kapoor, has his following in Russia, the
likes of Shahrukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan dominate popular culturescape
from Iran onwards, the team witnessed. "Hindi films are very popular
and we say film posters at provincial towns. Each time we mentioned
India, locals would start singing Hindi film songs." In the small town
of New Djulfa, the team discovered the place from where the Armenian
community migrated to India, with Vasudevan adding that some of the
old epitaphs at the Armenian graveyard in Kolkata mention New Djulfa
as the place of origin of the deceased.

The Indian leg of the expedition, which explored Nikitin’s entry
through the Malabar coast and his visits to the Vijaynagar and
Bahamani kingdoms, began on March 23, 2007 and ended on April 2 in
Mumbai. People in Bidar in northern Karnataka, knows about the old
Russian who had visited their ancient town, and the Jindal steel
plant in Karnataka’s Bellary has Russia as an important client. The
connections between people in places as distant as Tver and Vijaynagar,
and often hidden behind fading memories or thick shrubbery, continue
to survive. By retracing Nikitin’s route, Vasudevan and the Indian
expedition team, "only wanted to revive memories of the man who laid
the first milestone".

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