As the auto crisscrossed the snaky Agra road, I was peeping out of the back seat, viewing with curiosity, the busy lanes of the city. In one locality the leather workers were busy making shoes, in the other, the laborers were carrying a whole cart load of ash gourd, to be converted into Agra’s most famous sweet, the petha. I and my wife were going to Agra fort station to catch the Ajmer-Sealdah train which could carry us 1250 kilometres away, to Calcutta. Agra fort station is a busy station opposite the famous Agra fort. Tourists who come by train from the Eastern parts of India, to this city, are welcomed by the magnificent view of the Agra fort, when the train crosses the Jamuna River.
We arrived at the station an hour ahead, to avoid getting late in the messy traffic of Agra. The train arrived at the right time, at seven past twenty in the evening, we boarded the train, relaxed on our seats, and after five minutes it kicked off. There was nothing to do inside the train, except to stare other passengers or talk trivial matters with wife. So I had kept one option open, I pulled out a book from my backpack, it was Ruskin Bonds-All Roads Lead to Ganga, and this would be my dinner for the night.
“You know Tavernier?” he asked. The next day turned to be interesting, I was sitting on the side lower seat, with my wife, and watching outside, as the train speeded past different stations and places. This train will take us to Calcutta in nineteen hours; I wondered how much months were spent on a journey from Agra to Calcutta in Mughal times. As I discussed with my wife, the long procession of camels, mules, oxen, elephants with the thousands of men in their march from Agra to Bengal. It was a very tiring journey I said to my wife, in scorching heat of the sun, in the dust and scanty water supply. My wife wanted to know the exact duration of this journey, I could only wonder, until someone came to my rescue. The man was our fellow passenger who was on the lower berth, attentively listening to our conversation.”It took Tavernier almost three months from Agra to Dhaka.”
Yes I do know Tavernier, what does he think of me, a blinking idiot? I confidently said,” Yes, Jean- Baptiste Tavernier, the French diamond merchant and traveler.”
“Tavernier, was a very resourceful man. He left Agra on 25th November 1665 for Dhaka; that is where I come from.”
“So you are from Dhaka?”
“Oh yes, I am professor of history in the Dhaka University. I actually came on a visit to Ajmir, it is a kind of a religious journey for me. This has also been a very memorable journey, I could see all that I read in history.”
“Did he travel in the same route as we are going?” my wife asked.
“No,no, the route was different then, usually they travelled by the side of the river.” I clarified.
“Tell me more of Tavernier,” my wife pressed.
“Ok let’s divide his voyage into two parts, since when he travelled this was one country under one Empire, now it is two countries, so I will explain the journey on the Indian side, and Professor Alam will cover the Bangladesh part.” Professor Alam (he told his name at the end of the conversation) nodded his head, with a smile. I continued enthusiastically,” Tavernier left Agra on 25thNovember 1665, as Professor Alam says. He crossed Etawah in next two days, and on the third day, i.e 1stof December arrived in Musanagar. Here he made an interesting observation. He saw a train of 110 wagons, each drawn by 6 oxen, and each wagon carrying 50,000 Rupees. This was the revenue of the province of Bengal that was carried to Agra. “
“So in total 55,00,000 Rupees in revenue!”
“Yes indeed,” agreed Professor Alam, “in fact Bengal was a very rich province; it had flourishing trade with all the known parts of the World.”
“I wanted to know one more thing; when we travel we take mineral water bottle with us, in those times how did they manage to take drinking water,” asked my wife.
“Well,” I tried to organize myself, “in those days people choose to live near the river, or where water was sufficient. As a matter of fact Mughal nobles, the Emperor, the Amirs, the Omrahs, all liked to drink the water from the Ganges. You could see hundreds of camels lined up on the banks of the Ganges fetching water. Although for Europeans the water of Ganges was not heavenly. Tavernier on this trip, on nearing the Ganges, had a glass of wine mixed with the river of Ganges, he proved a bit troublesome for his stomach. But he mentions that the Dutch always use to boil the water of Ganges before consumption.”
“Yes, that’s very old technique of killing the germs in water, but what about cold water, it is big relief in Indian summer.”
“Tavernier wasn’t travelling in summer, it was rather winter. Generally cold water was rarely obtainable except in certain springs.Since it was rare, they use techniques to keep water cold. Every noble had a water carrier who was specialist in keeping the water cold. They used flagons, made of tin, round and lock necked ones, and use to drop a handful of saltpeter into it. Then it was stirred for seven or eight minutes, saltpeter is easily soluble in water, and after some time the water gets enough cold. It was not one of the greatest techniques, since it affects bowels.”
“How ingenious,” exclaimed my wife, “but there is another simple method too, to keep the water in an earthen pitcher. You know, and then covering it with a wet cloth, quite simple and effective.”
“Yes, they used pitchers too, but not when they were travelling, since pitcher is fragile and if handled carelessly it may break, so tin flagon was the best idea.”
“Oh we are going out of track; please continue with Tavernier’s story.”
“Yes, so we come back to Tavernier, after Musanagar, he went through a numbers of places, Jahanabad, Aurangabad, Allahabad, Benares and then to Sasaram.”
“Sasaram, I hope we will go past it!” she exclaimed.
“Right, Sasaram, the birthplace of Sher-Shah Suri who defeated Humayun and displaced the Mughals for quite some time. Next he went towards Patna, by crossing the river Sonne. Patna was then one of the biggest Indian cities, and Dutch businessmen inhabited that place, trading saltpeter.”
“It is quite fascinating to know about this isn’t it? I mean nowadays Indians go abroad, to Europe and America to make a living, for better career, back then it was entirely opposite. ”
“Sure, India was the main centre of attraction; it had almost everything necessary for Europe. Diamonds, gold, silver, jewels, muslin, silk, handicrafts, saltpeter, you name it and have it in India. The basic idea for business was the same, take goods from here and sell at higher price in Europe. In fact in Chapra, Bihar there was big factories or refineries of saltpeter. Saltpeter is a very important constituent of gunpowder, and these areas were producing it in huge quantities. And not only there were the Dutch, but French, Portuguese had their establishments too. I read somewhere that at the end of the seventeenth century; Bihar produced about 4250 tons of saltpeter! It was of high quality that is what attracted these traders, and India remained the single largest producer and exporter of saltpeter in the world.”
Taverniers route map in India
“After Patna, where did he go next?”
“He descended southwards from Patna and after few days reached Suti, in Murshidabad. Although he visited many places in between, not many are recognizable, I guess the names have changed now, or it was Tavernier’s failure to write exactly what was pronounced. This is a usual trouble faced by Europeans while writing names of Indian town and cities. From Suti he took a route to Dhaka, he mentions a number of places in the middle, many of it cannot be traced. When he reached Suti, he talks about a great sand bank which obstructed navigability. Which actually forced him to travel Dhaka by land. I hope Professor Alam may carry on the discussion now.”
Professor Alam took a long sip of coffee, before he began,” You left one crucial point,” he said to me. “In this entire journey Monsieur Bernier was accompanying Tavernier, on reaching Suti the two parted ways. Tavernier went towards Dhaka while Bernier to Cossimbazar. “
“Who is Bernier?” my wife asked.
The Pagla Bridge,photographed in 1885,by Johnston and Hoffman source British Library
“Bernier is a famous French traveler and physician who spent almost 12 years in Mughal court. He was contemporary to Tavernier. On the way to Dhaka he did some interesting things. He shot a crocodile in the jaw to make sure whether bullets penetrate their tough skin. The theory proved to be wrong, as blood gushed out and it crawled to take shelter in water. He mentions of a place called Jatrapur from where one can travel by land to Dhaka, which made the journey shorter, since by river it takes longer because of many curves. Just before entering Dhaka he talks about a relic, a fine Mughal bridge constructed by Mir Jumla, which is on the river Pagla. Finally he entered Dhaka, and meet Shaista Khan, the uncle of the Emperor Aurangzeb and Governor of the Province of Bengal.”
“I have heard about Shaista Khan?” my wife remarked.
“Yes the same Shaista Khan, who was defeated by Shivaji and was transferred to Bengal as a punishment. However Shaista Khan really made some great progress in this part of the country. He constructed many monuments, led many conquests, in other words he was quite successful. Tavernier met him in his palace and offered him some gifts, a mantle of gold brocade, a fine scarf of gold and silver, jewel consisting of very beautiful emerald. He was staying with the Dutch businessmen there, and after he returned from Shaista Khan’s palace, it was actually a tent, he received pomegranates, Chinese oranges, two Persian Melons, and three kinds of apples.”
“Hmm, quite instructive, that means the trade around this area went well.”
“Yes, and on the fifteenth of January Tavernier showed him all the goods that he had brought. He presented to Shaista Khan’s son, a watch having a case of enameled gold, a pair of pistols inlaid with silver, and a telescope. On the following day he again met the Nawab, and made final agreement with the goods sold. He was sent to the Vizer, who was the officer of treasury and since he was warned about the dangers in the road he asked for a draft issued in his favour, payable at Cassimbazar.”
“What, there was bank draft in those times, “my wife asked.
“Yes, why not, take this case for example. Tavernier, if he accepted the money in cash in Dhaka and had to travel with the huge amount of cash. He could well be robbed in the road, or betrayed by his own men, so it was much clever to take drafts; it was called hundi, and make it payable somewhere safer. You wouldn’t believe that eventually during the high time of Jagatseths, in the time of Fatehchand, the entire revenue of Bengal was paid by drafts. A draft was issue from Murshidabad, of such and such amount, payable at Agra, and there the agent of Fatehchand paid the entire sum in cash to the Imperial treasury. There is no need to carry all the cash in huge chests from Bengal to Agra; it was an important innovation in trade. However sometimes the agreement made in the draft was not complied with. Tavernier paid a big price for this.”
“What was it?” I asked.
“Well he left Dhaka, and arrived in Nadiya, and from there he went Hugli, and finally from there after three days of stay with the Dutch, he sailed to Murshidabad. When he presented the draft to the receiver in Cossimbazar, the man who was supposed to pay the cash, refused to make a payment. Tavernier became restless, he wrote a letter to Shaista Khan, adding a note from the Director of Dutch factories, that he was a respectable businessman and if he was treated in such a manner, no European trader would aspire to trade in India. It was obviously an empty threat, but a reply came from Shaista Khan. In that letter it was written that Tavernier has to accept twenty thousand Rupees less than what is written in the draft, else come to Dhaka and take his goods back.”
“Oh dear, it was a big loss,” said my wife.
“Surely, but in business one has to be ready to bear such losses, and Tavernier was an experienced businessman he was not to be let down so easily. However making money was not all for him in this great travel, he had some great experiences too. When he was in Hugli, with the Dutch there, he was given a great welcome. He was served with all kind of amusement which the country has to offer. He found that the Dutch had made their little home here. In their gardens grew cabbages, asparagus, peas, beans the seed for which comes from Japan. So overall it was a nice journey. He started form Agra on 25th of November, and arrived in Cossimbazar on 5thMarch, it is almost 100 days of journey!”
“It was wonderful journey, surely he made some loss at the end, but the experiences he gathered can never be compared with any gold, or silver,” my wife made the concluding remark.
I felt good especially by the last statement she made, and our lunch had arrived, the only thing of concern was the train was about six hours late, and the following station was Sasaram.
**Please note the blue lines in the map does not denote the actual route, refer the map only to look for the probable places he went through.