Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta (1304-1378) Moroccan traveller who visited Bengal in 1346 AD. His full name is Shaykh Abu Abdullah Muhammad. The purpose of his sojourn in Bengal, as related by the traveller himself, was to pay a visit to a Muslim saint of renown, Shaykh Jalaluddin (Hazrat Shahjalal Mujarrad-i-yemeni), who had taken up his abode in the mountainous region of Kamrupa.

The African globe-trotter started on his travels in 1325 AD at the age of twenty one, and during the next eight years explored whole of northern Africa, Arabia, Persia, the Levant (the eastern part of the Mediterranean) and Constantinople, whence he came by the overland route to India. He reached Delhi in 1334 AD. Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq appointed him Qazi (judge) of Delhi, which office he held about eight years. He was afterwards sent as an ambassador to China (1342). Shipwrecked on the way he proceeded to the Malay Islands where he worked as a judge for one year. About 1345, he set out for Ceylon, whence he repaired to southern India and stayed at Madura. From Madura he proceeded towards Bengal.

The first town of Bengal which Ibn Battuta entered, as the treveller relates, was Sudkawan (Chittagong, 9 July 1346). From there he proceeded direct to the mountains of Kamaru (Kamrupa) which was according to him a month's journey. He then met the sufi saint Shaykh Jalaluddin at his abode. After a three-day halt in the hospice of the saint he went towards the town of Habank on the bank of the river An-Nahr ul-Azraq (the blue river). He sailed on this river for 15 days and at the end reached the town of Sunurkawan (Sonargoan, 14 August 1346). At Sonargoan he boarded a Chinese junk bound for Java. The period of Battuta's travel in Bengal, from his arrival at Sudkawan (Chittagong) to his departure from Sunurkawan (Sonargoan) for Java, seems to cover a period of less than two months, between July and August 1346.

The story of the travel of Ibn Battuta was compiled in a book in the year 1355 AD. On completion of his journey, beginning from 1325 down to 1353 AD he returned to his homeland Morocco, and settled there for the rest of his life (d. 1378 AD). It was there at the instance of Abu Inan Marini, the sultan of Morocco, that Ibn Battuta dictated the experience of his journey to Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Muhammad, commonly known as Ibn Juzayy, literary secretary of the Sultan, who edited them in Arabic as the Rehla (journal). The full name of the book is 'Tuhfat-un-Nuzzar fi Gharaib-il-Amsar wa Ajaib-il-Asfar' (An excellent book on visit through the wonders of cities and the marvels of travels).

Ibn Battuta in his report places geographical account of some important places and rivers. The places are Sudkawan, Kamaru, Habank and Sunurkawan, and the rivers are Ganga, Jun and An-Nahr ul-Azraq. Sudkawan is described as a vast city of Bangala situated on the shore of the vast ocean in the vicinity of which the river Ganga and the river Jun have united before falling into the sea. Kamaru, the incomplete version of Kamrupa, is described as a mountaineous region of vast expanse ranging from China to Tibet. The site visited by Ibn Battuta was probably Sylhet in Assam, bounded by the Khasia, Jaintia and Tippera hills. Habank is described by Ibn Battuta as one of the most glorious and beautiful cities on the bank of the river An-Nahr ul-Azraq (the blue river) which may be identified with Bhanga, a place about fifty miles up, to the east of Sylhet. No trace of the ruins of the described town is found to day. Sunurkawan, the historic city of Sonargoan, is described as a very inaccessible city. He has occasionally mentioned the country of Lakhnauti which he did not visit.

Ibn Battuta mentions three rivers, Ganga, Jun and An-Nahr ul-Azraq. The Ganga and Jun are reported to be united near Sudkawan before falling into the sea. The traveller had referred to here the Ganges (modern Padma) and Jamuna (Brahmaputra). An-nahr ul-azraq (the blue river) which flows near the town of Habank and by which one can go to Bangala and the country of Lakhnauti, is identified with the Surma which really reached the Lakhnauti country, as well as Sonargoan.

Ibn Battuta gives description of the climate and natural view of the country in his itinerary. He was enamoured of the picturesque landscape, the wealth of green in every possible shade, and burst out saying, 'we sailed down the river for fifteen days passing through villages and orchards as though we were going through a mart. On its banks there are water-wheels, gardens and villages to right and left like those of the Nile in Egypt. Thus while the abundance of the necessaries of life and its soothing scenery made it a very attractive country to live in, the foggy atmosphere (cloudy and gloomy weather) aided by vapour bath particularly the steaming inhaulation from the creeks and inlets during the summer were so oppressive that the traveller justifies the attitude of the Khorasanis (foreigners) calling it dozakh-i-pur az n'imat, that is 'inferno full of gifts.'

We find reference to the political situation of Bengal in the report of Ibn Battuta. He describes the reigning sultan Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah as a distinguished sovereign, loving strangers particularly the fakirs and sufis. He has furnished a clear picture of the bitter conflict between Fakhruddin and Ali Shah of Lakhnauti. The traveller has given assessment of the political events of Bengal preceding the rise of Fakhruddin, beginning from the time of Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud till the assumption of sovereignty by Fakhruddin and Alauddin Ali Shah. It goes to the credit of Ibn Battuta that himself being an envoy of Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq he rose above the prejudice of condemning Fakhruddin as a rebel against the emperor, and reveals in giving extremely good character and felicitation to him.

The narratives of Ibn Battuta throw light on some social aspects of Bangala. He has mentioned the influence of the sufi saints on both the Hindus and Muslims. He has told that the people of the country, Muslims and non-Muslims, used to come and visit Shaykh Jalaluddin, and bring for him gifts and presents. It was on them that the fakirs and travellers lived. Under royal orders, the fakirs were exempted of the freight charges on the river and were entitled to provisions free of costs. It was customary that a fakir arriving in a town was to be given a half dinar.

Ibn Battuta has left for us a sketch of the life and works of Shaykh Jalaluddin, even his physique, age, food and dress, habit and way of living, meditation and penances, spiritual power and miracles, his hospitality, achievements and popularity, and a description of the environs of his dargah.

Ibn Battuta's report bears clear testimony to the existence of slavery system in the country. From his evidence it is obvious that the slave boys and girls used to be sold and purchased in the open market. While furnishing the list of prices of commodities the traveller related that a pretty young girl fit to serve as concubine was sold in his presence for one gold dinar. He himself purchased at nearly the same price a young slave woman named Ashura who was endowed with exquisite beauty. One of his companions bought a pretty slave boy of tender age named Lulu (pearl) for two gold dinars.

While describing the river Ganges, Battuta has mentioned its importance as a sacred river to which the Hindus go in pilgrimage. In his narratives we find for the first time the mention of the practice of magic and witchcraft of the people of Kamrupa, their skill in and addiction to the art.

Battuta's report throws light on the economic condition of the people of Bangala at the period in view of the abundance of food grains and cheapness of the commodities of daily use, the parallel of which he had seen nowhere in the world. He has left an account of the inland trade and foreign trade-links of the people of Bangala. He has mentioned the plying of innumerable boats in the river carrying men and merchandise, market places on the bank of the river, and anchorage of Chinese junk at the port of Sonargoan bound for Java. He has also noted Bangala's trade on rice with Maldive islands. Battuta has noted that on board of every merchant-boat there was a drum. When two of the boats met, the sailors of each struck the drum and transmitted their mutual greetings. The practice of beating drums is perhaps a signal for identifying the genuineness of the inland merchant boats and a skill for detecting the stranger-boats from outside as a safeguard against piracy.

Ibn Battuta has left for us a list of the price of commodities of daily use at the time of his visit to Bangala. The list of prices of commodities furnished by him is the result of his personal observation of the market. Ibn Battuta tabulated the price of commodities in terms of dinar and dirham, and his measurement was based on the weight of Delhi ratl. As the price mentioned by him would be of no meaning without their relation to present value, a computation of prices in terms of modern money is extremely desirable. We furnish below a computation table of prices current at the time when Ibn Battuta visited Bengal in terms of modern money and weight. We preferably accept silver as standard and compute the following table taking the weight of one Delhi ratl equivalent to approximately 14 seers (around 14 kilogram) of our time, one silver dinar equivalent to one taka approximately. The price thus runs as follows:

Rice : per maund 11 paisa
Paddy : per maund 3 paisa
Sugar : per maund 1.42 paisa
Rose water : per maund 2.85 paisa
Ghee or butter : per maund 1.42 paisa
Sesame oil : per maund 71 paisa
Finest thin cotton cloth : per yard 13 paisa
One milch cow (buffalo) : 3 taka
8 fat fowls : 12 paisa
15 pigeons : 12 paisa
One fat ram : 25 paisa
A pretty young slave girl : 10 taka
A pretty slave boy of tender age : 20 taka

Ibn Battuta is undoubtedly our earliest authority in providing intimate knowledge of the life of the people of Bengal who had the occasion to collect his material from the soil he traversed through and the people he met with. Though brief in outline and in detail, the narratives of Ibn Battuta cover almost all aspects of life in Bengal. His living sense of observing the beauty of nature, keen perception, and his lucid style of expression, made his description of the picturesque view of the natural phenomenon quite lively. [Muazzam Hussain Khan]

Bibliography Rehla, English translation by Mahdi Husain as the Rehla of Ibn Battuta, Boroda, 1953; Muazzam Hussain Khan : Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah of Sonargan, Dhaka, 2005.