Each travelogue is also an autobiography. It tells us as much about the traveller’s intentions, culture and philosophy as it does about the place they’re visiting. The books listed below introduce us to some of the most influential visitors to the Subcontinent and tell us about the India they experienced. From the adventures of a 14th-Century Moroccan explorer to the impressions of a young British woman in Mughal zenanas, this reading list has something for every history-minded wanderer. It complements Sarmaya’s Spotlight on travel, Open Roads.
Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500-1800 by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
The European notion of the East in general, and India in particular, has been criticised for its distorting or superficial nature—and yet, it has endured. Author Sanjay Subrahmanyam provides context for how this came to be and the factors that shaped the idea that was ‘Europe’s India’, from politics, art, and culture to religion and language. He examines the different bodies of knowledge produced by the Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries, through the experiences of traders, missionaries, scholars, and even soldiers who visited the Subcontinent. Europe’s Indiashows us how varied streams of thought coexisted and how their advocates often struggled with each other. It presents European insights on India in relation to the circumstances in which these were produced.
Samuel Bourne’s Photographic Journeys in the Himalayas 1863-1866 edited by Hugh Rayner
Imagine a travel blog from the 1800s and you’ll have a good sense of this biography of a prolific British photographer. Samuel Bourne produced one of the largest collections of landscape photographs from South Asia in the 19th Century. It began when he set out on a Himalayan expedition in the mid-1800s, armed with his camera and accompanied by an entourage of Ladakhis who carried the equipment and occasionally, the photographer too. This travel journal contains his photographs, which are woven through with interesting anecdotes, encounters, poems and an accidental yet ingenious discovery about the photographic qualities of mountain water. Sarmaya houses a large collection of albumen print photographs by Samuel Bourne.
The Travels of Ibn Battutah edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Any list of travel-writing would be incomplete without mention of Ibn Battuta and his travels to the antipodes of the world— from east to west. This is an anecdotal and adventurous account of the 14th-century Moroccan explorer who made his way across Africa to India to China. This travelogue recounts his life not just as a traveller but also as a judge and ambassador in the several countries he visited. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, with his light touch, makes this legendary traveller’s account accessible to readers in the 21st century.
A Venetian at the Mughal Court: The Life and Adventures of Nicoló Manucci by Marco Moneta
Travel back in time to Mughal India with the man who witnessed history being made. Nicoló Manucci arrived from Venice in the mid-1600s as a teenager and over time rose to positions of influence and respect in the durbar of the Mughal rulers. He documented the dramatic events he witnessed in the book, Storia do Mogor. Author Marco Moneta takes us behind the scenes of this epoch-defining work as he traces Manucci’s career and its shifting trajectories. As he went from serving in the Mughal and Rajput armies to becoming court physician, Manucci acquired deep, extensive knowledge about the political landscape of the time, and even managed negotiations between European-Mughal authorities.
Begums, Thugs & White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes selected and introduced by William Dalrymple
Fanny Parkes’s impressions of life in 18th-Century India are illuminating because she was a rare thing for the time: a young woman traveller. The Welsh writer came to the country in 1822 after marrying an officer from the East India company. She spent 24 years here and during that time, she travelled extensively and often by herself. By assimilating into various social circles, she gained access to those aspects of the culture that related to Indian women, from life in a zenana or harem to the practice of sati. She published her observations in the richly illustrated 1850 book, which is part of Sarmaya’s rare books collection, Wanderings of a Pilgrim, in search of the Picturesque. Historian William Dalrymple gives us a glimpse in this travel writer’s intrepid life in this compilation of her journals: “Fanny was a passionate lover of India and, though a woman of her time, in her writing and her travels did her best to understand and build bridges across the colonial divide.”