Technology, History, and Travel

Tag: Akbar


Chittaurgarh’s 700-year-old bridge

For at least a thousand years, people have been building large structures out of stone in northwestern India. The modern Indian state of Rajasthan is full of the remains of these monuments. Most of the monuments—fortresses, palaces, tombs, cenotaphs, and the like—have no real use anymore, except maybe as tourist attractions. There are plenty of pre-modern temples still in use, although many of them have been altered beyond recognition over centuries of use. And then there are some pieces of infrastructure that, with proper maintenance, still serve their original function hundreds of years after they were built.

One example is a bridge over the Gambhiri River in the town of Chittaurgarh in southern Rajasthan. The bridge is located on the main road into town. It is built entirely of stone, with nine slightly-pointed arches and one semicircular arch. (The river flows through eight of the arches, while the remaining two are on the shore. There are also two additional arches on each side of the bridge, but these are made in a different style and seem to have been added later.) The piers founded in the river have triangular projections on the upstream side, to help the river water, and any debris that might be floating in it, flow smoothly around the bridge.

The Rajasthan state Department of Archaeology and Museums has set up a Hindi interpretive plaque on the western side of the bridge. According to the plaque, the bridge was built early in the fourteenth century by Khijra Khan, after his father Alauddin Khilji captured Chittaurgarh in 1303. The bridge is built partly of stone blocks appropriated from other buildings. Inscriptions of Tej Singh and Samar Singh, two late-thirteenth-century rulers of Mewar, are still visible on the bridge. There are also some surviving architectural flourishes from the original structures, including designs of flowers and leaves. (None of this is visible to the casual observer from the shore, but I trust that the state archeologists know where to look.)

The Gambhiri River Bridge has been modified a little over the past seven hundred years. Although it was designed for horses and carts, it is strong enough to support motor vehicles. In modern times, a three-foot railing was added to the side of the bridge; when this proved inadequate for whatever reason, an eight-foot fence was also added. The bridge also carries several pipelines and some cables. Just downstream, a newer bridge has been built for eastbound traffic. The medieval bridge now just carries westbound traffic away from Chittaurgarh.

For readers who aren’t familiar with Chittaurgarh: The place is famous for the fortress by that name, a massive structure stretching five kilometers along the top of a ridge. The fortress was defensible, thanks to its position, but it was also a highly sought-after strategic prize, and it was captured and re-captured several times throughout its long history. Emperor Akbar won the fort for the Mughal Empire in a long and bloody siege in 1567-68. The fortress is now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, although it is so huge that inhabited villages exist within the walls alongside the historical monuments. Architectural highlights inside the fort include the Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory, 1457-68), Kumbha Shyam Mandir (magnificent Nagara-style temple), Mira Bai Mandir, and Gaumukh Kund (rainwater storage tank).

Ralph Fitch: A Merchant’s Report

Ralph Fitch was one of the first English merchants to visit India and carry his report home. The account of his eight-year voyage was first published in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, a multi-volume compendium of English travel narratives.1 No manuscript of the account survives, and it is impossible to know if, or how much, Hakluyt edited Fitch’s report.2 Like any early-modern English text, Fitch’s report has idiosyncratic spelling, especially in the rendering of Indian proper names, which in most cases vary considerably from modern usage. Additionally, Fitch referred to Muslims as “Moors”; the “Gentiles” he described were presumably Hindus.

As Fitch relates, he and three companions (John Newberry, William Leedes, and James Story) were sent by two London financiers (Sir Edward Osborne and M. Richard Staper) to investigate trade possibilities with India. They departed in 1583 on the ship Tyger, which bore them to the eastern Mediterranean. There they crossed overland to the Red Sea. At Ormus, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, they were imprisoned by the Portuguese, who took them to their colonies in India—first Diu, then Daman, and lastly Goa. Fitch and two of his companions escaped from Goa and trekked across the Deccan in central India. They passed by Gulconda (near present-day Hyderabad), which Fitch noted was a source of diamonds. About the Deccan, Fitch added, “We found it here very hote.”3

The Englishmen’s destination was the kingdom of the “Great Mogor” (Mughal), “Zelabdim Echebar” (Jalaluddin Akbar), in northern India. Fitch visited the Mughal cities of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. In his account, he marveled at the cities’ grandeur. Of the former he said, “Agra is a very great citie and populous, built with stone, having faire and large streetes, with a fair river running by it…”4 As Ram Chandra Prasad has noted, Agra in Fitch’s time had none of the great monuments that would make it a world-famous city. The Taj Mahal was yet unbuilt, and the Red Fort had not reached its present form.5 Fatehpur Sikri was recently completed by the time Fitch visited. Although he praised the cities for their grandeur, the account that survives provides only sparse descriptions and little evidence of what he actually thought of the places he visited.

In Fatehpur Sikri, Fitch parted with his two companions. John Newberry traveled westward to Lahore and made his way thence back to Europe, while William Leedes stayed and worked as a jeweler for Akbar. For his part, Fitch continued his commercial explorations by following the Ganges river down to Bengal with boats loaded with trade goods. After reaching the mouth of the river, he traveled north to Couche (Cooch Behar) and investigated trade routes into Tibet. He later traveled even farther afield to Pegu (in present-day Myanmar), Siam, and the eastern coast of the Indian peninsula. After eight years abroad, Fitch returned to England in 1591.

  1. I have primarily used a 1904 reprinting of Principal Navigations: Ralph Fitch, “The Voyage of M. Ralph Fitch marchant of London…” in The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, Made by Sea or Over-land to the Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at any time within the compasse of these 1600 Yeeres, ed. Richard Hakluyt (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1904), 5:465-505. Another useful version of Fitch’s account is the Hakluyt Society’s edition: J. Horton Ryley, Ralph Fitch: England’s Pioneer to India and Burma (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1899). []
  2. Michael Edwardes, Ralph Fitch: Elizabethan in the Indies (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1972), 8. For other secondary sources that discuss Fitch, see: “Ralph Fitch,” in Ram Chandra Prasad, Early English Travellers in India: A Study in the Travel Literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Periods with Particular Reference to India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsi Dass, 1965), 24-65; “Ralph Fitch,” in William Foster, ed., Early Travels in India, 1583-1619 (1921; repr., New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1985), 1-47. []
  3. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 5:472. []
  4. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 5:473-74. []
  5. Prasad, Early English Travelers in India, 53. Also see Philip Davies, The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India: Islamic, Rajput, European (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 186-97, 212-18. []

Early English Travelers to India

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a variety of English travelers set out from England for India. Some, like Ralph Fitch, went to scout out what commercial opportunities might exist if England set up direct trade with the countries of India. Others, like William Hawkins and Thomas Roe, went as ambassadors to represent their monarchs in the courts of the Indian rulers. Reports by these travelers, along with accounts by other non-English European travelers in India, were all circulated in printed form in England. The reports vary in content and quality—from the dry, straightforward account of Fitch to the sensationalist narrative of W. Glanius, who relates how his expedition purportedly was shipwrecked in Bengal and forced by hunger to pilfer human graves for flesh.1 These accounts were filtered through the European travelers’ worldviews and are therefore of limited use as sources for sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Indian history. But the accounts can tell us what European travelers thought of the lands and peoples they encountered in their eastward travels. In the following blog posts, I will explore some of these European travel accounts, looking for the ways that travelers viewed Indian civilization.

The early English travelers to India were part of a broader trend known as the European age of exploration. The Iberian kingdoms of Spain and Portugal had kicked off the age of exploration in the late fifteenth century, when they set out to make permanent and direct commercial contacts with the resource-rich countries of the East. In 1498, Vasco da Gama’s fleet became the first European fleet to reach India.2 Although da Gama’s first expedition was less than successful, in subsequent expeditions the Portuguese gained trade concessions and annexed small territories in western India.

The British got into the act of exploration a century later. In 1600, the British East India Company was founded in London, to promote commercial contacts between England and India. At this time, the dominant political power in north India was the Mughal Empire. The third Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Akbar, was largely responsible for the empire’s ascendancy. Akbar reigned from 1556 to 1605, first at Agra, then at a new capital known as Fatehpur Sikri. By the 1580s, the Mughal empire controlled much of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, parts of the Deccan, and parts of modern-day Afghanistan. The European travelers who visited north India came into contact with the Mughals and could not help but be impressed by the civilization’s strength and grandeur.

  1. W. Glanius, A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala (London, 1682). []
  2. Prior to da Gama’s expedition, Europe had already had commercial contact with India for hundreds of years, albeit through Arab traders and other intermediaries. By establishing direct commercial connections with India, the Portuguese hoped to eliminate the cost of relying on intermediaries. []

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