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Conti, Nicolo de


Conti, Nicolo de a Venetian traveler who has left behind a reliable description about India (and Bengal). Born of a noble family in Venice, Nicolo de Conti had gone to Damascus as a trader in his youth in 1429. From there he travelled further east (date not mentioned), went overland to Persia and took a dhow (ship) to go to Malabar. From there, he came to the Vijayanagar kingdom. He then sailed, along with his wife and two children, to the Islands of Ceylon, Sumatra and Java. Then he reached the south of China and returned through the Red Sea along the Coast of Ethiopia. He crossed the desert and reached Cairo, where his wife and two children died from causes not very clear.

Nicolo became a Muslim to save his life and reached Venice in 1444. He got absolution from the Pope Eugene IV on condition of relating his adventure to the Secretary of the Pope. The latter wrote it in Latin. It appears that it was printed at Lisbon in Portuguese, from which the Italian version was made. The original Latin version surfaced at Paris in 1723, from which the first English translation was made.

Conti's account of Vijayanagar is of paramount importance. From Vijayanagar he moved towards the Coromandel Coast to reach a maritime city, called by him Malepur (Meilapur) in the coast of Bay of Bengal. Here he saw the beautiful Church in which the body of St. Thomas lay buried. The Nestorian Christians were the residents and worshipped there. Conti then moved to a city, called Cabila by him, where pearls were found. He also mentioned palmyra tree with long leaves. Conti next reached Ceylon, where he found the cinnamon trees. Leaving Ceylon, he moved on to Sumatra, a rich emporium and a city that was of six miles in circumference. There he remained for one year. Then Conti reached the Andaman Islands after twenty days of sailing. Here he found the inhabitants as cannibals. Both men and women wore earrings of precious stones and used cotton and silk dress that reached the knee. They lived in low houses. They were all idolaters. The Island produced pepper, camphor and gold. In one part of the Island, human flesh was eaten and heads of the enemies were considered valuable property.

Sailing through the stormy seas, Conti entered the Ganges River, where he found a large and wealthy city, called by him Cernova. He found the river extremely large, in some places exceeding fifteen miles. On both banks, he saw bamboo trees along with villas, plantations and gardens. Sailing for three months up the Ganges and leaving four big cities on the route, Conti reached a very big city, called by Maarazia, where he found plenty of aloe-wood, gold, silver precious stones and pearls. From there he moved towards the eastern mountains and returned to the city of Cernova. From there he proceeded to the city of Buffetania. From here he took the ship to reach the city of Arakan. One may identify Cernova with sonargaon and Buffetania with chittagong. He then moved through the mountains to reach the Irrawadi River in Myanmar on which he had left a detailed account.

Niccolo then had gone to Peking, called by him Kambala and had seen the Great Wall of China. After going through Pegu he arrived at Quilon, a big city of twelve miles in circumference. Here he saw the python among other snakes. Then he came to Cochin and proceeded to Calicut, a city of eight miles in circumference. It had pepper, ginger and cinnamon in abundance. He had noticed polyandry and wrote in details about it, mentioning that that the inheritance goes to the grand children. After visiting Cambay, he went to the Island of Socotra and then sailed to Jedda in the Red Sea. From there he reached Venice.

This remarkable account in the middle of the fifteenth century shows an opulent India (and Bengal) with different social customs and manners. The identifications of some of the places mentioned create problems, but Major's suggestion of the identification of Maarazia with Mathura and Buffetania with Burdwan may not be certain. [Aniruddha Ray]

Bibliography RH Major (ed.), India in the Fifteenth Century, New Delhi, 1994 reprint of 1857 ed; EF Oaten, European Travellers in India, Lucknow, 1973, reprint of 1909 ed.