- Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400–1800
Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have set themselves two ambitious tasks in Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries: to present autobiographical travel narratives written in Persian as a corpus integral to the larger field of travel history and to explore the relation between this corpus and contemporaneous social and historical processes. The texts under consideration are delimited by both genre and itinerary, including only autobiographical travel narratives that either originate in or pass through the Indian Subcontinent. While intra-Asian travel is the focus of the book, it does not reproduce the typical frailties afflicting the history of travel in the age of discovery by replacing Eurocentrism with Persocentrism. A comparative and connective framework enriches the historicized discussion of travel literature and its value for cultural history.
Indo-Persian Travels challenges orientalist assumptions that Asians, before coming under European colonial domination, were not curious about the rest of the world. As "the Age of Discoveries" in the title suggests, the book synchronizes the experience and narrativization of travel as a form of self-definition with similar processes in Europe, thus undermining claims of European exceptionalism. Beginning with the question "to whom does the medieval and early modern travel-account really belong?" the book demonstrates that, from the European to the Chinese traditions, travel as a type of experience and narrative was part of a general acceleration of contact with the wider world, albeit with important variations (2).
Chapters 1, 2, and 8 connect the Indo-Persian travel corpus to the larger generic cannon through comparative analysis, beginning with travel literatures from non-European cultures adjacent to the Persianate world. Chapter 1 reflects on Ottoman Turkish travelogues, the vast body of Chinese travel texts, and a female pilgrim's hajj narrative. This latter serves as an example of the Persianate texts left out of Indo-Persian Travels, since the author travels from Iran through Ottoman domains. This text also provides another type of coverage, since it is a rare travel narrative authored by a woman, though there is little discussion of gender in the book overall. Chapter 2 covers the fifteenth century and outlines the experience of two travelers, one originating in the Persianate world, the other in adjacent Russia, just as the Persianate world of the early modern period is taking shape. We are introduced to figures such as the accidental and reluctant traveler, through which the relationship between larger historical processes and views of travel are explored. The final chapter reflects on the tradition of Indo-Persian travels in the context of a comparative discussion of European travel genres.
Chapters 3 through 7 establish Persian travel texts as a literary tradition and a corpus vital to understanding the cultural self-definition of the Persianate world. Alam and Subrahmanyam define this world as a cultural zone "far cleaner at its centre than its edges," stretching from Anatolia through Southwest, Central, and South Asia (3–4). The chapters are complexly organized according to directional itinerary, chronology, and theme. Chapters 3 through 5 deal largely with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and discuss West to East narratives, including travel from Ottoman, Safavid, and Central Asian domains to Mughal India and beyond. Chapter 3 examines aspects of courtly encounters, while chapter 4 focuses on wonders. These two chapters emphasize positive views of travel and the shared aspects of Persianate culture. In order to address "the limits of sharing," as well as the related negative views of travel, chapter 5 discusses journeys from Safavid Iran to Mughal India up through the eighteenth century (172). Alam and Subrahmanyam point to the struggle over the authority to dictate poetic standards as a source of tension within Persianate culture. Increasingly through the seventeenth century, Iranian travelers and migrants were no longer uncontested authorities for literary norms as they thought they should be, leading to condescending representations of the Mughal Persianate world as hierarchically inferior (228–29). Surprisingly, this chapter does not explore the importance of...