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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

Part IV: The Heera-Wallah of Golconda

Something about the Deccan kingdom – the exotica, the ‘public women’, the gigantic diamonds – kept Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Tavernier coming back for more. Jonathan Gil Harris writes...

brunch Updated: Dec 03, 2011 19:01 IST
Text and photo: Jonathan Gil Harris
Text and photo: Jonathan Gil Harris
Hindustan Times

Bouncing in an auto-scooter on the pot-holed roads of the purana shahar of Hyderabad, inhaling thick black exhaust fumes while arguing with the paan-spitting driver about what he wanted to charge, I wondered: what would bring a firangi back, again and again and again, to this place?

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-89) is a little different from the other firangis I have written about in this series. He was a firangi in the literal sense – a French visitor to India. But unlike Thomas Coryate, Augustin Hunarmand, or Thomas Stephens, he didn’t die here. What he did do, however, was to keep coming back, as the title of his celebrated travel narrative The Six Voyages of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1676) makes clear. In particular, he kept coming back to Golconda, the kingdom in the Deccan ruled by the Qutb Shahi dynasty. I visited Hyderabad, the Golconda capital founded by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah in 1591, to find out why.

Golconda fortLike Tavernier, I am a serial visitor to India. But in an age of jet airliners, luxury hotels, and air-conditioned cars, travel means for me something quite different from what it meant for Tavernier. We tend to associate travel with a welcome respite from the rigours of work. But the original meaning of "travel," derived from "travail" and the French verb "travailler" (to work), tells a different story.

In the seventeenth century, one had to work particularly hard – and at substantial risk to one’s life – to reach India from Europe. If you took the long sea route (as did Stephens), you faced the possibility of shipwreck, piracy, and scurvy. If you travelled overland on the Silk Route (as did Coryate and Hunarmand), you were likely to encounter bandits and all manner of deadly illnesses. And in India itself, you had to reckon with intense heat on top of everything else. To travel once from Europe to India, and live to tell the tale, meant you were lucky. To travel half a dozen times meant you were mad – or driven by a passion bordering on love.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier caught the travel bug early: he probably inherited it from his father, a Protestant refugee from Antwerp who mesmerised his son with absorbing tales about faraway lands. In his teens, Tavernier roamed around Europe, but he hungered to see more exotic places. Between 1631 and 1633, he journeyed to Asia, getting only as far as Isfahan in Persia before returning to Paris. His next journey was from 1638 until 1643, during which he visited Golconda for the first time. Upon returning to France, he stayed only a few months. His third voyage, from 1643 to 1649, took him all the way to Java, with lengthy stays again in Golconda. His subsequent trips (1651-55, 1657-62 and 1664-68) also featured Golconda prominently in their itineraries.
The author donned Hyderabadi aristocratic attire for a photo-op at the Chowmahalla Palace. Tavernier would have approved

So what kept bringing Tavernier back to the Deccan?

The obvious answer is heera: diamonds. Golconda was famous for its diamond mines; virtually every major diamond at the time – including the Koh-i-Noor – is supposed to have come from them. The mines may be fallow now, but to this day Hyderabad remains a clearing house for precious jewels and pearls, available in the throng of bangle stores in the old city’s Laad Bazaar. Tavernier was fascinated by the size of the Golconda diamonds, which he describes at length in his travel narrative. The profit motive certainly loomed large for him: the money he made from selling Golconda diamonds to both Mughal and European kings not only helped bankroll his ourneys but also made him fabulously wealthy. He was, by the 1660s, rich enough to buy a castle in Switzerland, and the French King Louis appointed him a baron.

Yet the prospect of financial gain was clearly not the only reason that Tavernier kept coming back to Golconda. With the capital he amassed, he could have easily paid middle-men to do the dangerous work of travelling to India and purchasing diamonds. Something else must have kept tugging him back. A quick look at his biography suggests another possibility: in the 1660s, by which time Tavernier was in his late fifties, he was still a bachelor, against the will of his family. Indeed, one wonders if the short durations of his stays at “home” in Paris were prompted by family pressure on him to marry; every time a potential bride was brought for his inspection, he seems to have been on the next boat or caravan to India. Did business take precedence over romance? Or did he have a love in Golconda?

Tavernier doesn’t mention love in his writings. But he demonstrates a surprising amount of knowledge about the prostitutes and courtesans of Hyderabad. He notes, without any hint of moral condemnation, that the city boasts an unusually high number of “public women” – 20,000 by his reckoning. And he is impressed by how they ply their trade in concert with toddy-retailers, who get potential customers in the mood for love. At first glance, the Hyderabad of 2011 could not be more different. In this city where Shi’a is the dominant Muslim sect, there are few traces of “public women.” But there are countless women in public: although many are clad in full black chador and hijab, they shop unfettered in the streets of the old city. To this extent, they are in the tradition of their seventeenth-century ancestors, who – as another French visitor, Jean de Thevenot, observed in 1666 – moved through town with “great Liberty.” Maybe Tavernier was attracted, temperamentally and even sexually, to this liberty.

Item girl? In an extraordinary painting by Nicolas de Largillère, Tavernier looks more like a languorous Bollywood item girl than a rugged traveller

Or maybe it wasn’t Hyderabad’s women but its men who attracted him. Tavernier makes a point of saying that “All the people of GOLCONDA, both men and women, are well proportioned, of good stature, and of fair countenance.” This is no mere ethnographic observation: he seems to have spent a lot of time looking at Indian men, their bodies, and how they comported themselves. He was particularly fascinated by the sumptuous dress of rich Indian gentlemen; after receiving from a Mughal aristocrat a gift of khil’at (clothes as a token of imperial favour), he insisted on wearing turban and flowing robes everywhere he went – as depicted by Nicolas de Largillère in an extraordinary painting where Tavernier looks more like a languorous Bollywood item girl than a rugged traveller. With my travelling companion, I too donned Hyderabadi aristocratic attire for a photo-op at the Chowmahalla Palace (the former abode of the Nizams). Tavernier would surely have approved. And asked me where I got my necklaces.

Tavernier did finally marry, between journeys in 1663. But within a year he had fled for yet another trip to India. Whether or not he had another love interest in Golconda, he seems by this time to have fallen deeply in love with its culture, including its food. He praises in particular a Hyderabadi whitefish that he calls “smelt.” I wasn’t able to identify what it was, but I feasted at the Jewel of Nizam restaurant on a tasty dum ki machli, its fish seasoned to perfection and accompanied by a dessert of khubani ka meetha (sweet stewed apricots) and supaari.

Tavernier was equally starry-eyed about the design of Golconda’s cities. What we now call the old city of Hyderabad was then still a new metropolis; Tavernier marvelled at the famous Charminar in the city centre as well as Hyderabad’s wide boulevards and bridges, which probably looked much more impressive a mere fifty years after their construction than they do today. He was also dazzled – as was I – by the old Golconda fort, the huge walled hill-city hewn from the granite boulders that everywhere dominate the Deccan landscape. First built in the thirteenth century, it was substantially upgraded by the Qutb Shahi rulers before its destruction in 1687 by Aurangzeb. Even in its current ruined state, it is a haunting wonder.


The culture of Golconda owed much to the rule of the Qutb Shahis. Indeed, Tavernier couldn’t have felt as comfortable as he did in Hyderabad without the unique cosmopolitan world the Qutb Shahis had fostered there. Golconda’s immensely cultured ruling dynasty was of Persian origin, blended with Arab and Turkish – a heritage reflected in the distinctly western Asian designs, so different from Mughal architecture, of the Qutb Shahis’ magnificent tombs next to Golconda Fort. And the Qutb Shahis also invited, for purposes of trade, huge numbers of Europeans into Hyderabad. As Thevenot wrote, “there are many Franks in this city,” and by this he meant firangis of many nations: Portugal, Holland, and England as well as France. Vestiges of Golconda’s cosmopolitan culture remain in modern Hyderabad where signs are written in four languages – Telugu, Urdu, Hindi and English.

Even in the days before Tavernier’s death in 1689, at the ripe age of 84, he was probably still dreaming of Golconda. The heera-wallah died in Russia, on one last expedition; rumour has it he was trying to make his way back to India.

Next week: Niccolao Manucci, the Siddha Vaidya of Madras.

Jonathan Gil Harris is Professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, DC. The author of five books on William Shakespeare’s plays and culture, he is currently spending a year in India researching a new book about European travellers to India in the time of Shakespeare.

From HT Brunch, December 4

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First Published: Dec 01, 2011 15:23 IST