It is so hard to find out the truth by looking at the past. The process of time obscures the truth and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist out of malice or flattery. — Plutarch

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle

Marco Polo Among the Hindoos

India, at the me hat Marco visited it, was divided into a great many independent states, some Hindoo and some Mohammedan, each ruled over by its own sovereign. It was not, as now, the dependency of a great foreign power. But as India was six centuries ago manners and customs, and the character of its people, so it is very much to-day. Many of the manners and customs which Marco observed, still exist and we find in the Hindoos of the present very much the same peculiar vices and virtues as those he described, Marco found the Hindoos, like most of the Orientals he had seen, very much under the influence of magicians and astrologers. They were very superstitious, and there were many omens the warnings of which they always took care to obey, believing that if they did not do so, misfortune would fall upon them. A man who set out on a journey, if he met with what he considered an evil omen. would turn back and go straight home again, no matter how near he might be to his destination, or how pressing his business. The day, hour and minute of the birth of every child were recorded, simply to enable the magicians to make predictions concerning his future life.

As soon as a boy reached his thirteenth birthday he became independent of his parents, and went out into the world to make his own living; having received a small sum of money from his father with which to make a start. They did very much as poor boys, dependent on themselves, do in our day; found something to hawk about the streets and sell, on which they could make a little profit. Near the seashore they were in the habit of watching on the beach for the pearl-boats to come in, and would buy a few small pearls of a fisherman, and carry them into the interior and sell them to the merchants. Having made a little money, they would go and buy some provisions for their mothers, who still prepared their food for them.

Marco saw many monasteries, nestling amid the mountains and hills, as he progressed through the country; and learned that these monasteries were full of idols, adorned with gold and precious stones. To the care and worship of these idols large numbers of lovely young girls were sacrificed by their parents and these girls were in the habit, every day, of cooking very savory dishes, and placing them, with great reverence, before the hideous idols. As the idols did not descend from their pedestals and partake of the food, Marco wondered what became of it. He soon found out; for, having been admitted to one of the monasteries as a great favor, he saw the girls offer the idols their daily meal after which they began to dance some very quick and graceful dances singing the while a loud, wild, joyous chorus. When they ceased dancing and singing, they went up to the dishes; and, supposing the idols had eaten as much as they desired, the girls themselves devoured the contents of the plates. Marco was told that these girls remained in the monasteries until the very day of their marriage.

The priests of the monasteries at one attracted Marco's attention, so singular was their aspect, and so strange their mode of living. Many of them seemed to be very old men, with long snowy beards and bent forms yet they had fresh, dark complexions, and were very active in their movements. Marco was told that they often lived to be a hundred and fifty or even two hundred years old; but he had now been in India long enough not to believe everything he heard. The priests lived on nothing but rice, apples and milk, and for a beverage drank a curious mixture of quicksilver and sulphur. In some of the monasteries the priests always went perfectly naked even in winter, and slept in the open air and led a very severe and self-denying life. The only symbol of their sacred office was a little copper or bronze ox (an animal they worshipped), which they wore on their foreheads.

These priests were always very careful not to kill any living thing; for they thought that not only animals and insects, but even fruits and flowers, had souls. They would not harm so much as a fly or a worm and would not eat apples until they were all dried up, for they supposed them when fresh to be alive, and only dead when they were shriveled.

When a young man sought to become a priest in the monasteries, he underwent what seemed to Marco a very amusing trial. On arriving at the monasteries, the fairest young girls belonging to it came forth to meet him and gathering around him overwhelmed him with kisses and embraces. The old priests, meanwhile, stood by and keenly watched him. If he betrayed any pleasure at the caresses of the girls, he was at once rejected and sent into he outer world again; but if he submitted to them coldly, and with unmoved countenance, he was admitted to the priesthood.

As the envoy of the khan, Marco was admitted into "the best society" of the places that he visited and he was much struck with the manners and virtues of the higher class of Hindoos. These comprised the class which we know as Brahmins. He could not fail to notice their high sense of honor in their dealings with each other; their truthfulness and probity; the temperance and purity of their lives. They ate no flesh and drank no wine, and as husbands were models of fidelity. The Brahmins, to designate their rank, wore a long silk thread over the shoulder and across the breasts; and so do the Brahmins of our own time. The only habit they had which Marco did not like, was that of chewing betel leaves. This made their gums very red, and was thought to be healthy but it caused them to be constantly spitting.

Intelligent as the Brahmins seemed, they were as completely under the influence of superstition and magic as the lowest and most ignorant of their country folk. When a Brahmin merchant was about to make a bargain for some goods, he rose at sunlight, went out, and caused his shadow to be measured. If it was of a certain length, he went on with the trade if not he postponed it to another day. This is perhaps the origin of the Eastern greeting, “May your shadow never be less!" If a Brahmin proposed to buy an animal, he went where it was, and observed whether the animal approached him from a lucky direction. If so, he bought it; but if not, he would have nothing to do with it. If, when a Brahmin issued from his house he heard a man sneeze in a way which seemed to him of bad omen, he turned around, went into his house again, and waited till the man who had sneezed unluckily was quite out of sight. In the same way a Brahmin who, walking along a road, saw a bird approaching from the left, at once turned on his heel and went the other way.

On his journey northward, Marco passed through the famous valley of Golconda, from whence came, and still come, the largest and most beautiful diamonds in the world. He found an aged queen reigning there who, though she had been a widow for forty years, was still mourning for her husband. She received Marco with a cordial welcome, and entertained him with feasts, dances and music in her palace. He delighted to wander in the picturesque valleys from which the most beautiful gems in the world were procured; to see the swift mountain torrents, as, after a storm, they swept through the declivities and to watch the diamond-hunters who, when the freshet was over, hunted for their precious merchandise in the valleys through which the waters had passed. He was told, at Golconda, the same story about the eagles and the diamonds, that we read in Sinbad the Sailor’s adventures in the "Arabian Nights;" how the people threw huge pieces of meat into the deep, inaccessible pits, to which the diamonds lying on the bottom stuck; how the eagles swooped down, caught the jewelled flesh in their talons, and on rising again were so frightened by the cries and frantic gestures of the men, that they let their precious prey drop; and how the men thus secured the diamonds which they could not otherwise reach. But Marco knew how fond the Hindoos were of telling marvellous tales; and did not give too easy a belief to what he heard.

Marco saw some of the white eagles that were said to render this great service to the diamond-hunters; but observed that most of the eagles in India were black as jet, like crows, and were much larger than those he had seen in Europe. He also saw some curious bald owls, with neither wings nor feathers; peacocks, larger than he had ever before seen; parrots of every hue and size, which he greatly admired, especially some very small red and white ones and chickens, altogether different from European fowl.

On reaching the province of Coilon, where he found many Christians and Jews, as well as Mohammedans and Hindoos, he was deeply interested in seeing the growth of pepper, and especially of indigo, the latter being very plentiful. It was made, he observed, of an herb, which was soaked a long time in water; after which, being exposed to the hot sun, it boiled, grew solid, and thus became the indigo which everybody knows. The people of this province were very black, many shades darker than most of the Hindoos, and were less civilized than the natives Marco had hitherto seen. As he passed through the vast forests of this part of India, he espied innumerable herds of monkeys of every shape and hue, which threw down branches and nuts at him as he went along and now and then he saw leopards, enormous wildcats, and even lions, prowling about on the edge of the woods, and in the neighboring jungles.

After travelling for many weeks in the interior of India, Marco at last reached the seashore again, and found himself on the western coast of the continent. He then went on shipboard, and passed from place to place by water, thus traversing the same coast along which, two hundred years later, Vasco da Gama sailed, and established the dominion of Portugal.

Marco soon became aware that he was in a dangerous part of the world for the coast of Malabar was swarmed, at that time, with pirates, who had it pretty much their own way with strange vessels. Once or twice the ship in which Marco sailed was hotly pursued by these freebooters of the sea; but happily she was able to make port safely each time. Marco learned that the pirates were in the habit of signaling to each other, when a merchant vessel appeared, all along the coast, by means of brilliant lights. They were stationed five miles apart, on a line a hundred miles long; and these lights, appearing first on one corsair ship, and then on the next, telegraphed the news of a coming prize throughout this distance so that the poor merchantman had usually but little chance of escape. The merchantmen, therefore, always went strongly manned and armed and more than one desperate sea-fight did Marco witness on his way northward to Bombay. He was told that the pirates, on seizing a ship, took all her goods, but did not harm the crew saying to them, "Go and get another cargo, so that we may catch you again and rid you of it."

Despite the pirates, Marco found the west coast of India fairly bustling with commerce. Every harbor seemed full of ships, and every port full of store-houses; the trade of the coast extended to Arabia and Egypt, to Africa, Austral-asia and Cathay. On the wharves of the seaport towns he saw the greatest variety of costumes and features, from the sober Parsee in his long flowing robe, to the heavy-turbaned Arab and the Persian with his gorgeously embroidered sack.

Even used as he was to the great warehouses of China and Cathay, he was astonished at the beautiful cloths and articles of skilful workmanship that he saw at Malabar and Bombay; the finely dressed leather, the rich embroideries, and the luxurious trappings for men, horses, and elephants; the ornaments and knicknacks of brass, gold, silver and precious gems and he was forced to confess that the bazaars of India out-rivaled those of any Oriental land he had yet visited.

Marco again set sail, and his ship now took its course across the Indian Ocean towards the coast of Africa; for his mission would not be wholly fulfilled until he had been to certain islands and kingdoms of that continent. He had already been absent from Cathay for more than a year; and found himself now quite as near his Venetian home as to the court of the great khan. There were moments, as he sped across the Indian Ocean, when he was sorely tempted to order the tailors to turn northward to land in Egypt and make his way across that country to Alexandria, and there watch the opportunity, to take passage in a Venetian galley to the city of his birth.

But his father and uncle were far away in Cathay, and Marco could not desert them. He knew that if he did, the khan would revenge himself for such a desertion upon his kinsmen. Besides, Marco had been overwhelmed with favors, wealth and power by Kublai Khan and to prove false to his pledge that he would faithfully return, was an act of baseness of which the high-souled young Venetian was incapable.

So he kept on his course across the ocean, resolved to see all of the world that he could and, having accomplished all the objects for which he had set out, to return with his report to Cathay. On the way he stopped at two islands, called the "Male" and "Female," whose dusky inhabitants he found to be Christians but they were very different Christians from those to whom Marco had been used in Europe. It appeared that all the men dwelt on the "Male" island, and all the women on the "Female," thirty miles away, and that the men crossed over and visited their wives and daughters once a year, remaining with them for three months and then returning to their own abode. The sons lived with their mothers until they were fourteen years of age, when they were thought to be old enough to join the community of their own sex. The two islands were ruled over, not by a king, but by a bishop, and Marco was much amused to observe that this holy potentate, instead of wearing a mitre and embroidered robes, went almost naked.

Marco landed at another island, several hundred miles south of the "Male" and "Female" islands, where the people were also Christians. They claimed to have all sorts of miraculous powers, such as the power to change the direction of the wind by their enchantments. The island was a very remote, solitary, dismal place, frequented by pirates, and Marco was very glad to get away from it after making as brief a sojourn as possible.

His next stopping place was the great island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, which he found inhabited by two races. One of these was Arab and they were men of light complexions and were well dressed; the other was Negro, as black as Erebus. Marco saw in Madagascar a large variety of animals, wild and domestic, and learned that the favorite food of the people was the flesh of camels which he had never known to be eaten elsewhere. One species of bird he saw, enormous in size, and formidable to men and beasts which, was said, could lift an elephant high in the air. Marco was told that when one of these birds—they were probably what we know as condors—was hungry, he seized an elephant and raising him in the air, let him fall to the earth, crushing him to death and then fed upon his carcass.

Crossing to the main coast of Africa, Marco passed through the country of Zanzibar, where he saw negroes of gigantic size, quite terrible to behold, who could carry as much in their arms or on their shoulders as any four common men. They were very black and savage, and went quite naked; their mouths were huge, their teeth very regular and glistening white. The women struck Marco as singularly hideous, with their big eyes and mouths, and their coarse, clumsy shapes. He heard that this people were very warlike, and fought on the backs of elephants and camels, fifteen or twenty men being mounted on each animal; and that their weapons consisted of staves, spears, and rude swords. As they went into battle, they drank a very strong liquor, which they also gave to their elephants and camels, rendering both the beasts and their riders extremely fierce and blood-thirsty.

Marco saw in Zanzibar, for the first time in his life, an animal with which we are all now quite familiar—the giraffe; and admired exceedingly its beautiful stripes, graceful motions, and gentle actions. He also saw white sheep with black heads, and very large elephants; the latter were hunted for their tusks, which, as ivory, found its way to the remote marts of the world.