Afanasii Nikitin was a Russian merchant who came to India in the sixteenth century, and left a volume of reminiscences, his Voyage over Three Seas. In time, he has come to symbolize India's relationship with the territories of the former Russian Empire and the Soviet state, as well as with modern Russia.
This volume provides an account of the Nikitin Expedition, which was organized in 2006-7 by the Adventurers and Explorers Society, Delhi, and which covered much of Nikitin's route. The expedition was sponsored by various agencies, including the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India, and undertook a survey of impressions of India in the Eurasia region, past and present. It also dealt with impressions of Eurasia in India. The Nikitin Expedition was a motor car expedition that began in St. Petersburg and continued through northern Russia after a flag off at Niktin's hometown of Tver'. The expedition travelled to the Volga by way of Moscow, moved along the river to Astrakhan, and diverted to the Black Sea, which the cars crossed from Sochi. The expedition then proceeded by way of north east Turkey, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea coast, and Iran to Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. A second 'leg' of the expedition covered parts of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka in India.
The account of the expedition is set out in diary form, with introductory material on Nikitin's journey and the perspectives with which the expedition was undertaken. The diary incorporates impressions of the current state of the countries the expedition covered and significant aspects of their history.
Hari Vasudevan is Professor, Dept. of History, Calcutta University. He is a specialist on Russian and European history and politics and Indo-Russian relations, and has published in India and elsewhere on these subjects. Prof. Vasudevan has held visiting appointments in UK, France, Finland, various countries of the former Soviet Union and the USA. He was Director, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Calcutta, and is the author of Shadows of Substance: In do- Russian Trade and Military Technical Cooperation Since 1991 (Delhi 2010).
This book is a record of the Nikitin Expedition of 2006-7, which travelled through Eurasia and India. It presents the basic facts of the expedition, and provides those with a taste for history and current politics with background details about the region travelled and the nature of India's relations with Russia and her neighbourhood. The book also provides an account of the celebrated fifteenth century traveller Afanasii Nikitin, his journey to India (which acted as a reference for the expedition) and what remains of his world in the landscape around us.
I have come to owe a number of debts while preparing and writing this book, and I must mention three in particular. The first is to Phalguni Matilal, the organizer of the Nikitin expedition. The expedition would have not been possible but for the tenacity, imperturbable temper and dynamism of Mr. Matilal. To organize an expedition over the scale of territory that the Nikitin Expedition covered with the resources that could be mobilized in India was an exceptional feat. To maintain composure and a sense of philosophy through the ups and downs of the project, while occasionally playing the martinet in a world that was alien to him, was equally a feat. Mr. Matilal was able to achieve this, and to provide expedition members with an exceptional experience. Mr. Matilal also planned the documentary that was produced on the basis of the expedition and drew me in to assist with the script, a task which enabled me to bring my thoughts together on the subject after the expedition was completed. He has also provided the sole photograph of the Eurasia group of the expedition in the book - a photograph that indicates a sense of the wholeness of the project that he always retained.
My second debt is to my fellow members on the Nikitin expedition whose names will feature often in the text - and the members of the Embassy of India in Moscow and the many on the Nikitin route who helped in the forming of my impressions. Since the expedition, the regular interest of those who travelled with me, and their generous sharing of memories, have been valuable. Ramakant has been especially important in this regard. Sudha has kept me in touch with her later travels - and I have had encouragement from Sunrita and Sharmistha when we have been in touch. With Bani, I shared the initial reconstruction of the journey, when I was required to assist for the documentary of the expedition. Shirin and Anirban have always been at hand.
My third debt is to Manohar Publishers and, in particular, to my friend Ramesh J ain, who agreed to publish a book, that falls into no clear category - neither history, travel account or reflection on politics, but somewhere is all these. Our discussions at Ansari Road about the writing in India on Eurasia gave me the confidence to pursue the project - and he has provided me with the ultimate support in bringing it out as a book. Siddharth Chowdhury has provided valuable editorial inputs and regular encouragement.
Otherwise, I have academic debts that are almost as numerous as the themes touched in the book. Institutionally, three libraries have provided me with information: the National Library, Kolkata, the State Library, Moscow and the Central Library, Calcutta University. I began my work on Nikitin at the India International Centre, New Delhi where Geeti Sen encouraged me to write on Nikitin in the first place. Premola Ghosh has kept me informed of anything on travel and the Byzantine world as only a person with a passion for it can. Thethe has always been a source of encouragement.
Knowingly and unknowingly I began my studies of Nikitin with his best modern biographer - the late Leonid Sergeevich Semenov, my first teacher in the Russian world of history research, a person of great knowledge, wit and generosity, whose love of India came naturally to a generation of Soviet scholarship. More recently, Sergei Serebrianny provided me with material that would have taken me a long time to find - with the generosity and modesty that is natural to him. He also provided critical perspectives on Indo-Russian relations. Serebrianny stands Out among Russians who have inspired fundamental debates regarding Russian and Soviet Orientalism, firmly projecting a post-Soviet prism, yet open to international methodological departures. His ideas and the inputs of Tatiana Zagordikova and Pyotr Shastitko at the Institute of Oriental Studies (IVAN) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) provided me with fascinating detail that I have included in the account.
I have floated my ideas with friends in Russia - especially with Tatiana Shaumian, Fred and Masha, who always gave me a home and affection at difficult times. Tatiana Shaumian's colleagues at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow, also provided me with an academic atmosphere that I could always fall back on. I have benefited from the memory of others, some at the Institute, some elsewhere: especially Felix Iurlov, Mira Sagalnik and my late friend Natalya Pirumova. Tatiana Liubina has been my 'informant' on Tver' over the years. Marina Baldano, Boris Bazarov, Viktor Diatlov, Vladimir Lamin, Evgenii Vodychev, Valentin Shelokhaev and Vladirnir Shishkin have provided insights on Orthodoxy and Buddhism and aspects of Russian politics past and present.
In India, I have picked up detail and references from Purabi Roy and Shobhanlal Dutta Gupta - my colleagues on Calcutta's 'Indo- Russian Relations' project - and from Amartya Mukhopadhyay. My fellow Russianists/Eurasianists in India, Madhavan Palat, Arup Banerji, Nirmal Chandra and, among a younger generation Suchandana Chatterji, Anita Sengupta and Sreemati Ganguly have given me a hearing on Indo- Russian relations without which any work of this type is impossible. This has also been true of Choi Chatterji, Dominic Lieven, Animesh Basu and Nandan Unnikrishnan. Outside this group of my 'fellow travellers', the late Prof. Barun De and Lakshrni Subramaniam - with whom I have discussed the politics of the Bahmanis and the nature of Indian Ocean history respectively - have been important to the way this book has developed.
My colleagues at the Department of History have always held fort for me when I needed them to, and Suranjan Das, Bhaskar Chakrabarty, Kingshuk Chatterji and Suparna Gooptu require special mention as does Jayanta Kumar Ray at the Azad Institute.
Of these, Suranjan, despite the enormous official demands on him, has helped me in ways whose value is difficult to assess, but were crucial to getting a job done. Bhaskar has been a stimulating and attentive friend; and what little I know of the Islamic world comes from Kingshuk, who has made it his life. On Islam in India, I have had the best of advisors - Mushirul Hasan. Krishnan Srinivasan has been a source of lively, informed conversation, and encouragement.
I hope all of them find that I have used their help to a worthwhile end.
This book has been written with a personal as well as a public and academic readership in mind. It is seldom that a specialist is in a position where he or she can write anything that may interest those closest to him or her. I hope I have been able to do this here.
This book is dedicated to my mother, with whom my journeys began and who taught me how to value them as we roamed India, Europe and Africa with my father, the late Methil Vasudevan and my brother, Ravi Vasudevan. I hope she will find this book to her taste.
The book is also for other members of my family. It is for my Saradavaliamma, who has been my godmother in the wings throughout the whole of my life. It is also for Narayaniedathi and Rumzi who encouraged me repeatedly to write it. Without Chiddu's time and help my participation in the Nikitin expedition would have been impossible. I hope he will approve of how I spent his time. Otherwise, I hope the book will be of interest to many friends and relatives with whom I have talked about the journey. Not least here is Dharu. But I must also mention Gokurnama, Induammayi, and Chittu; Ammayi, Mickeyettan, Latha, Santala and Lakshana; Hari Ettan, Ushaedathi and Kochchu; Annanettan, Gopal and Prema; Radhika, Manu, Iaya, Triya, Babu, Raja, Mila and Tara; Viren, Amita and Douglas.
Tapati will see some of her questions and traces in this book. Mrinalini may see the odd touch of humour that she has imparted to it unknowingly. I hope they find the time to glance through it during their busy schedules.
Of the many whom I have lost who may have found this book interesting, I need to mention two. A.K. Damodaran was India's preeminent Russianist to his last days - and would have had a host of details to add that regretfully he was never able to record. Dev Murarka was India's man in Moscow for an important part of his professional life and would certainly have had more to add and been insistent that more should have been added.
Finally, I must mention the encouragement for my interest in Eurasia that I have had in the last many years from Hamidsahib and my gratitude to him for this. The encouragement has been more important than he may realize.
I regret that I have not been able to make of this account of the Nikitin expedition a fuller account of India's relations with Russia and her neighbourhood, both in terms of ' great matters' and 'lesser matters'. But the expedition drew its own circle in terms of time and space - and it would have been unfair to its record to go beyond that circle too far. I hope though that with all its limitations, this small volume will help others to go the extra distance and provide a deeper record of the relationship.
Afanasii Nikitin, the celebrated Russian merchant who came to India in the fifteenth century, was an accidental traveller, an accidental writer and an accidental legend. Yet, despite the accidental character of his destiny, he has come to stand above many travellers: to represent a natural connection between India and the Russian neighbourhood.
Nikitin undertook a journey guided by circumstances which made and remade his intentions and drew him to destinations that were wholly unforeseen. Although he kept notes and attempted to give them shape, it was only by chance that they survived and became a minor classic, his Voyage over the Three Seas. Initially regarded as a useful source on India's medieval past and evidence of the large horizons of Russians generally, the Voyage gradually acquired a different status. Both book and author came to symbolize the age and depth of India's connections with Russia and its Eurasian neighbourhood, becoming features of public pronouncements and the rhetoric of statesmen.
In 2006-7, the Adventurers' and Explorers' Society of Delhi, with the assistance of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India, the Mahindra Group and other sponsors, organized the Nikitin Expedition through Russia, Turkey, the Caucasus, Iran and India. Members took as their reference the journey made by Afanasii Nikitin, and, like him, set out from the neighbourhood of Moscow, ultimately concluding their work in Mumbai. The expedition surveyed the changing profile of India in this region of Eurasia and the profile of the latter in India, after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, noting the major concerns of the countries through which it travelled.
This book provides a record of the expedition, as it took stock of the remains of powerful relationships that had formed and unformed since Nikitin's journey and set out to see whether they held together over time. Through this the expedition attempted to find historical gloss and ground level comment to provide perspectives to the goodwill and agreement displayed at meetings of heads of states (whether Boris Yeltsin and Narasimha Rao or Vladimir Putin and Atal Behari Vajpayee or Dimtri Medvedev and Manmohan Singh).
The Nikitin Expedition: Basic Facts
The Nikitin Expedition was a motor car expedition. It was, in Urdu/Hindi parlance, a safar (or journey of grand scale, with major travails, both in a literal and metaphorical sense). This is appropriately the equivalent of khozhdenie-the Russian word used to describe Nikitin's voyage-which also implies a demanding experience whose narrative conveys a message. One of the main aims of the expedition was to present its experiences of travel as well as other impressions to an Indian audience and an international readership through newspaper articles and films.
The expedition was initially composed of a 14-member team, but the composition and number was to change. For travel through Eurasia, three Mahindra vehicles were used. These were Scorpio jeeps that were the prototype of the Marshall vehicles marketed by Mahindra, Sun Mahendra and GAZ in Russia. The vehicles were provided by Mahindra themselves. To cope with problems of everyday travel in the region, the Nikitin expedition worked through a local travel agent. In India, two hired Scorpios were used - along with local agents and internet bookings.
In Eurasia, the expedition's route combined Nikitin's outward and return journeys. Arriving in Moscow by air from New Delhi, members travelled by rail from Moscow to St. Petersburg. They took stock of St. Petersburg, the capital of Tsarist Russia. The expedition members received the Mahindra vehicles at the port and proceeded to Tver', Nikitin's home town, where the expedition was flagged off from the Afanasii Nikitin statue on the banks of the Volga. The expedition then went on to Moscow, the capital of Russia, and, to reconnect with the Nikitin route, which passed north of Moscow, the cars drove to Nikitin Novgorod, a key river port on the Volga through which Nikitin sailed.
Thereafter, the expedition followed the Nikitin route, moving along the river. The cars passed through Kazan, Samara, Saratov, and Volgograd to Astrakhan, Russia's main port on the Caspian Sea. As a result of political problems on the Dagestan-Azerbaijan frontier, and also to obtain a sense of the neighbourhoods that featured in Nikitin's return as well as outward journeys, the expedition cut across steppe country north of the Caucasus to the Black Sea and to Sochi (passing through the Buddhist Kalmyk republic).
The expedition took the ferry to Trabzon in Turkey (which Nikitin touched on his way home). The cars then drove through the Caucasus via Batumi and Tbilisi to Baku, thereafter visiting towns in Iran mentioned in the Nikitin travel account (Esfahan, Shiraz). Closely linked with India and Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia have figured in India's links with Eurasia.
In India, the expedition set out from Mumbai, travelled through the region of Pune, and stopped at towns in northern Karnataka, which Nikitin visited. It diverted to Hampi, to examine the remains of the most powerful Hindu kingdom of Nikitin's time, Vijayanagar, and concluded in Mumbai.
The expedition team came from different backgrounds. In Eurasia professional drivers took stock of travel on Russian roads and the performance of Indian vehicles in Russian conditions (Sudhir Kashyap, Sanjeev Thakur and Abhineet Mehta). The film crew gathered the material for one or more films (Rajesh Jhala, Bani Dhillon and Sajji John) while a record of the journey in stills was the focus of a photographer of distinction (Ashok Dilwali). Emergencies during the journey were to be handled by a doctor and an adventurer (Dr. Rajinder Iain). To raise questions about the terrain and push the range of the travel in different directions was the task of an energy expert and travel writer (Sudha Mahalingam), a journalist (Sunrita Sen), a dancer and observer of cultural profiles (Sharmistha Mukherjee) and a geopolitics expert (Ramakant Dwivedi). The leader of the expedition, a seasoned organizer of expeditions, was Phalguni Matilal, formerly of the Indian Railways Accounts Service. Hari Vasudevan of the Department of History, Calcutta University, was the expedition's consultant.
Except Ramakant Dwivedi and Hari Vasudevan, who were specialists, among the expedition members knowledge of the region travelled represented a fair cross-section of the educated Indian public. To most, the history and the names en route were exotic - though they would bring special knowledge to bear on what they saw. In all cases, some places stood out in imaginations well trained by Indian schools, universities and the Indian media - the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and Red Square in Moscow, for instance. Some historical experiences were also well known - the campaigns of Genghis Khan, the October Revolution of 1917 and the battle of Stalingrad during the Second World War - or historical phenomena such as Tsarism in Russia or communism in the Soviet Union. The Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, as well as great archaeological sites, such as Persepolis in Iran - were part of the standard sensibility of the modern educated Indian. An awareness of how all this had changed, or its aura had been reinforced, would be one of the experiences of the expedition. That experience would be crystallized in the film for which material was gathered en route. In India, the drivers and some in the team dropped out. Hired drivers drove the Scorpios - young men who had little interest in the concerns of the expedition. The film group had a new sound specialist. Phalguni Matilal and Hari Vasudevan remained. A journalist and travel writer - Anirban Das Mahapatra - and a historian of medieval India - Shirin Maswood - joined the expedition.
The Perspective of The Nikitin Expedition
In conceiving the expedition, the organizers were determined to deal with the current state of affairs as well as questions of history - to establish a timeline for today's relationships between India and the section of Eurasia covered by the expedition. They set out to integrate an estimate of earlier connections with India in this region and their prevailing significance: and examine how far these meant anything in Russia and her neighbourhood today.
To do this, they were committed to a reconstruction of the circumstances of Nikitin's travel - but to be accompanied by an examination of links between Eurasia and India in the centuries that followed. This examination would include the experience of the Soviet state which came to an end in 1991- and take the story to the time of the expedition. Such a timeline would not merely put place to date. It was to be a critical timeline, providing an evaluation of how memory and history were formed and re-formed - and how far they survived, if at all, in aspects of the Indo- Russian relationship.
To achieve this, an understanding of current circumstances on their own terms, independent of the Indo- Russian relationship, was essential- both to fix the contemporary record and to evolve a sense of its distorting influence for any attempt to know the past. Post-Soviet Russia was a major concern. Among the countries formed after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, the Russian Federation was a multi-ethnic highly novel entity that had formal state to state relations yet intimate connections with a number of countries with which it was once closely linked in the Soviet Union (the Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus states and the states of Central Asia). Although not a super power in the manner of the USSR from which it emerged, the Federation was a powerful state that was one of the major military and energy hubs of the world. Unlike the Soviet Union or Russian Empire to which its territories once belonged, it was centred firmly on 'cold lands' with long winters, with strong interests in the Arctic, the Sea of Okhotsk and the northern Pacific Ocean. These areas were flanked by 'warm' peripheries round the Caspian and the Black Seas which continued to have an important draw. Russia was an industrialized country associated with vast material resources found in an expanse stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, over nine time zones. The resources were primarily at the disposal of populations located in the region west and south of the Urals. The country had inherited from the USSR a number of networks with Central Asia, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, China, South Asia, South-east Asia (primarily Vietnam), Africa, Latin America, Western Europe and the USA. From these, Russia availed itself of a cosmopolitan character to add to a new-found national awareness.
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