The marvels Marco Polo saw in India

"The nobles and great folks have their beds made of very light canework, and when they have got in and are going to sleep, they are drawn up by cords nearly to the ceiling and fixed there for the night."

(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)

By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia

Who hasn’t heard of Marco Polo? The Venetian, famous for his travels to Asia in the 13th century, returned to Italy 24 long years after he left, bursting to tell his countrymen about the amazing sights he had seen. He was in for a rude shock, though. Far from clamouring for more details, he was jeered at for telling tall tales and earned a new nickname of ‘Marco Millions’, because they were sure he was grossly exaggerating the wealth of the Chinese and the Indians!

In India, Marco Polo stopped by in both Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Here are 6 interesting things he saw there.

1. The Emperor’s New Clothes

Prudish Marco was quite shocked when he landed in Kerala: “In all this province of Malabar, there is never a tailor to cut a coat or stitch it, seeing that everybody goes naked! For decency only do they wear a scrap of cloth; and so ’tis with men and women, with rich and poor, and with the King himself…who goes as bare as the rest, only round his loins he has a piece of fine cloth.”

2. But Who Needs Clothes When You Have Bling-Bling

Marco Polo goes on to describe the scantily-clad monarch: “Around his neck, the king has a necklace entirely of precious stones – rubies, sapphires, emeralds and the like. He wears also hanging in front of his chest from the neck downwards, a fine silk thread strung with 104 large pearls and rubies of great price.

The King wears on his arms three golden bracelets thickly set with pearls of great value, and similar anklets on his legs, and rings on his toes. So let me tell you, what this King wears, between gold and gems and pearls, is worth more than a city’s ransom!”

3. Paan and Duels

Many foreign visitors were perplexed by the enduring Indian addiction to paan, and some even thought Indians kept spitting blood in the streets due to a weird disease!

Marco Polo describes an amusing custom: “All the people of this city, as well as of the rest of India, have a custom of perpetually keeping in the mouth a certain leaf called Tembul (paan)…continually chewing it and spitting out the saliva that it excites. The lords and gentlefolks and the King have these leaves prepared with camphor and other aromatic spices, and also mixed with quicklime. This practice was said to be very good for the health.

If anyone desires to offer a gross insult to another, when he meets him, he spits this juice in his face. The other immediately runs before the King, relates the insult that has been offered him, and demands leave to fight the offender. The King supplies the arms, which are sword and target, and all the people flock to see, and there the two fight till one of them is killed.”

4. Things Your Grandma Taught You

Some things he noted are still very recognisable to us today:

“Everyone, male and female, washes their whole body twice every day; and those who do not wash are looked down on.

In eating they use the right hand only, and would on no account touch their food with the left hand.

Every man hath his own drinking vessel and will not drink from another’s vessel. When they drink, they do not put the vessel to the lips, but hold it up high and let the drink spout into the mouth. No one would ever touch the vessel with his mouth. If a stranger have no vessel of his own, they will pour the drink into his hands and he may thus drink from his hands as from a cup.”

Also Read: 5,000 year old things Indians still use from the Harappans

5. They Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly…

About Jain monks, Marco wrote in tones of wonder: “They would not kill an animal on any account, not even a fly, or a flea, or a louse, or anything in fact that has life; for they say these have all souls, and it would be sin to do so. They eat no vegetable in a green state, only such as are dry. And they sleep on the ground stark naked, without a scrap of clothing on them or under them, so that it is a marvel they don’t all die, in place of living so long as I have told you.”

6. Bunk Beds, Indian Style

“The nobles and great folks have their beds made of very light canework, and when they have got in and are going to sleep, they are drawn up by cords nearly to the ceiling and fixed there for the night. This is done to get out of the way of tarantula spiders which give terrible bites, as well as of fleas and such vermin, and at the same time to get as much air as possible in the great heat which prevails in that region. Not that everybody does this, the less wealthy sleep on the streets.”

(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the newly released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India, which is now available online and in bookstores across the country.)

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