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28 November 2023

India seen through eyes of Ibn Battuta and other Arab travel writers

By Wam

The Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) has taken advantage of their participation at the 27th New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF 2019) - where Sharjah is guest of honour - to highlight the enduring connections between India and the Arab world, as presented in the wide ranging travel writings of several Arab explorers and merchants, including master chronicler and traveller Ibn Battuta.

At a session held yesterday, January 7th, entitled ‘India in Arab Travel Literature’, leading Emirati authors Nasser Al Dhaheri, Sultan Al Amimi, and Dr. Mohammad bin Jarsh emphasised how Arab travellers frequented India beginning in pre-Islamic times, chronicling everyday life in the nation until the medieval period, when Ibn Battuta entered the subcontinent through Afghanistan, as well as in the years that followed.

"What have these Arab travellers said about India and its culture?" session moderator Shaikha Al Mutairi asked the panellists.

In his response, Al Dhaheri shed light on how important a role these historical travel writings have played in comparing India’s relations to the UAE and larger Arab world since the pre-Islamic era, compared to what they are today.

He noted, "When Indo-Arab relations are compared to the relations between other countries, we see consistency through the ages. How Arabs see Indians hasn’t changed. Our friendship pre-dates the propagation of Islam and our ties are based on several pillars, including trade, culture and exchanges of knowledge."

Al Dhaheri also mentioned Kalila wa-Dimna (Kalila and Dimna), the widely circulated collection of Oriental fables of Indian origin, composed in Sanskrit, possibly dating to the 3rd century BC and translated into Arabic in the 8th century by the Persian Ibn al-Muqaffa, a highly educated writer.

Dhaheri went on to focus on examples of the mention of the Indian subcontinent by Ibn Battuta, noting, "His travel writing extends focus into territories, like Bangladesh, Maldives, and others, and offers us a great glimpse of traditional Indian practices, wedding customs and celebrations, down to the details of India’s famous paan-eating tradition."

He pointed to the large quantities of Arabic literature hosted in libraries in the UAE and the Gulf that describe, in great detail, India’s navigation history, customs, traditions and lifestyles practiced across several cities in the country.

Dr. Mohammad bin Jarsh read excerpts from three to four works of Arab travel writers chronicling their own personal journeys and the experiences of merchants, pilgrims and others in India and the larger subcontinent. "Saudi Arabian author Mohammed bin Nasser Al Aboudi wrote Al Rehalat Al Hindiya Fi Wassat Al Hind (Indian Journeys in Central India), which beautifully describes journeys taken by our people in the past and stories passed on from one person to another," he said.