From the 13th century, a handful of Italian merchants travelled eastwards to Asia, often documenting their voyages and sharing their impressions of the landscapes, peoples, customs and traditions of what were exotic lands for Europeans. More than 200 years after Venetian explorer Marco Polo’s late 13th century visit to India came Florentine merchant Andrea Corsali. Then followed Filippo Sassetti, another resident of Florence, who travelled to India in the 16th century and studied Sanskrit.

But it wasn’t just medieval merchants from the Bel paese who ventured as far as India. Among the visitors who came calling from Italy was one romantic adventurer whose story and chronicles of the visit stand out. A privileged man, born into immense wealth and travelling the world to recover from heartbreak, may not seem outlandish in the 21st century, but it was quite unique 400 years ago. The man who would undertake this journey was Pietro Della Valle, born in 1586 to Giovanna Alberini and Pompeo Della Valle. Such was his lineage that the Sant’Andrea Della Valle church and street in Rome get their name from his illustrious family, which also boasted of two cardinals.

Like any person born into an elite family in Rome in that era, Della Valle learned Latin, Greek, the classics as well as the Bible. Historical records indicate that he enrolled at the Academy of Umoristi, a prestigious scientific and literary academy in Rome. He even served in the military. By the time he was 25, Della Valle was already a well-known composer and musicologist, writing librettos and texts for musical spectacles.

This life of a typical Italian nobleman would change after a disappointment in a love affair. Della Valle moved to Naples, where Mario Schipano, a professor of medicine, convinced him of the idea of travelling to the East. And travel he did, making a vow to visit the Holy Land. In 1614, aged 28, he left for Constantinople and Asia Minor from Venice, and visited Egypt, Palestine and Iraq before travelling across Persia and then to India. His letters to Schipano were later compiled into books.

First Impressions

Travelling to the western coast of India from Persia on an English ship, Della Valle first arrived in Daman and headed to Surat. Coastal India in 1623 was the theatre of a massive rivalry between the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The northern parts of the country were under the reign of Mughal Emperor Jehangir.

The court of Jehangir. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license].

Della Valle’s letters describe his routine encounters with fellow Europeans, but his real fascination was with the Indians he met and the uniqueness of Indian cities. He seemed to be particularly impressed with Surat: “The city of Surat is of a handsome greatness, and for these countries: ‘Tis very populous, as all other cities and places are in India, which everywhere abounds with people.”

The Italian also noted the communal harmony and fraternity between Hindus and Muslims during the reign of Emperor Jehangir. He wrote: “The inhabitants are partly Gentiles and partly Mahometans, and if I am not deceived, the former are the greater number. However they all live mixt together and peaceably, because the Gran Moghel to whom Guzerat is now a subject, (having sometimes had a distinct King) although he is a Mahometan, (but not a pure one as they report), makes no difference in his Dominions between the one sort and the other, and both in his Court and Armies, and even amongst men of the highest degree, they are of equal account and consideration.”

Since Della Valle had already interacted with Muslims in Turkey and Persia, he paid more attention to the customs of those he termed as “gentle idolaters”. He first met Hindu traders in Isfahan, Persia, and was interested in their beliefs of the “transmigration of the soul”.

Questions Of Morality

In India the Italian traveller wrote in detail of the morality and values of the Hindus. He made a serious attempt to understand the caste system and how it was practiced, and interacted with a wide section of society wherever he travelled.

After his heartbreak in Rome, Della Valle managed to find love in Baghdad, where he married a beautiful Assyrian Christian woman named Maani Georida. She travelled with him as far as Persia, but died there on account of the rigours of travel. The Italian would marry a second time. His second wife Mariuccia was the orphaned child of Georgian nobles, who was adopted in Persia by Maani. The couple had 14 children.

He took a keen interest in Indian weddings and the outlook that the country had towards the institution of marriage. Della Valle noted that Hindus and Muslims had distinct ideas and values when it came to marriage and sex. About Hindus, he wrote: “They hold not only adultery, but even simple fornication a great sin; nor do they account it lawful, as the Mahometans do, to have commerce with female slaves or with others besides their own wives. Yes, slaves of either sex they no-wise admit, but hold it a sin; making use of free persons for their service and paying them wages as we do in Europe…” According to the Italian’s letters, Hindus detested “Sodomy” and were unhappy with Muslims, “whom they observe addicted to it”.

Della Valle also wrote in detail about the practice of sati. “Some widows are burnt alive together with the bodies of their dead husbands, a thing which anciently not only the Indian women did, according to what Strabo writes from the relation of Onesicritus, but also the chaste wives of the Thracians, as appears by Julius Solinus.” The Italian merchants who came to India before Della Valle did not possess such scholarly learning to be able to compare customs in ancient Europe with those in the India they visited.

Della Valle wrote in detail about the stories of sati that were narrated to him, including one of 17 widows of a Rajput prince being cremated with their dead husband.

While he did write about women being forced to do it, Della Valle was made to believe that the practice of sati was mostly voluntary. He noted: “But this burning of women upon the death of their husbands is at their own choice to do it or not, and indeed few practice it, but she who does it acquires in the nation, a glorious name of honour and holiness.”

Throughout his writings, there is an enchantment with the vegetarianism among many Indians, and their love and care for animals and birds.

He wrote, “In their religious rites, the Indians differ widely among themselves, for the most observant and the strictest neither eat nor kill any living thing: indeed they hold it be a great sin to kill even such vermin as fleas and suchlike. Fleas, bugs and other similar insects, noxious to man, are taken between two fingers, as gently as possible and are softly thrown on the ground, care being taken that their necks should not be broken in the fall.” The Italian noted how Hindus even in Persia would buy captive animals and birds from traders, and set them free, something they considered a religious duty.

In Cambay, another city he particularly liked, Della Valle visited a publicly funded bird hospital, where he said birds that were sick, lame, deprived of their mates or otherwise in need food or care were “kept and tended there with diligence”.

The king of Cambay in 16th century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Tracking Monsoon

In Della Valle’s letters we read of the monsoons in Gujarat.

Talking about the season that is India’s lifeblood, the Italian wrote, “Rain likewise very seldom during the whole year, saving in that season, called by them Pansecal, which signifies, the time of rain, being about three months, beginning about the middle of June, and during which time the rain is continual, and very great; whence some upon this account call these three months winter, although the weather be then hottest, as well in India as in all the rest of the northern hemisphere.”

He called the monsoons “proceeds from the Providence of God”, adding that without these great rains India would have been uninhabitable.

In Surat, he observed an artificial lake and how it stored rainwater from the monsoon. “Now, for that the country is in some parts so scarce of water, many cities and inhabited places have no other but the rain-water gathered in these great cisterns which are so capacious that one of them suffices a city for a whole year and more.”

Della Valle also found the multi-purpose use for the artificial lakes amusing. “And it not only affords drink to men and animals but also they wash clothes and beasts in it when occasion requires, and make use of it to all purposes; whereby it comes to pass that in some places the water they have is not over clear; and the rude Indians care not for such delicacies, but ‘tis enough for them if they have what is barely needful.”

He continued to be fascinated with the monsoons and wrote about them from Goa as well. He described the lull in the monsoon before it would pick up with a fury. He seemed to appreciate the way the rains transformed the Goan landscape. “By this rain, as I observed, the heat diminisheth, and the earth which was before very dry and all naked becomes clothed with new verdure and various colours of pleasant flowers, and especially the air becomes more healthful, sweet and more benign both to sound and infirm.” The Italian also write about rice cultivation and the greening of the land.

It is obvious from his writings that Della Valle documented a lot of hearsay, but he also witnessed weddings, funerals and religious festivals like Holi and the month of Ramadan. He came to India with the greatest degree of curiosity and made sure he experienced as much of the country as possible, including temples, churches and mosques.

After spending 21 months in India, Della Valle left for Muscat from Goa in November 1624. He then visited Basra and Aleppo, sailed onwards to Cyprus and Malta, before travelling to Sicily and Naples. He finally arrived in Rome in March 1626. The great traveller passed away in 1652. Della Valle’s sons compiled his letters into a book that was released in three parts. The Travels in Persia were published in two parts in 1658, and the India part five years later. The writing remains a treasure trove for anyone interested in how life was in India in the 1620s.

Writing in the October 1956 edition of East and West, a publication of the Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, the great scholar Giuseppe De Lorenzo had this to say about Della Valle: “He was a patrician belonging to the noble Roman family of the Della Valle, and proud of his quality of civis romanus. He was a man of arms and letters, expert also in music and had taken part in the wars in North Africa before he was crossed in love and decide to undertake his long travels in the East, which lasted over a period of twelve years. He was urged to do so, not in the pursuit of trade, but like the Ulysses of Dante, to pursue virtue and knowledge.”

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.