Marco Polo's diaries

Timeless Travel


Silky Way : Smriti’s paper, silk and more.

Rewind to the earth as it was about 750 years back; AD 1271. A time when man did not know that the continents of America and Australia existed; a time when Europe was the centre of the universe, or so thought the men living in these lands; though they did have the inkling, that far away, existed the mysterious lands of India and China. Lured by this scent of mystery, a 17-year-old boy set out from Venice to these distant lands on a fascinating trail — a journey that was to last 26 years.

Marco Polo is easily the most famous of adventurous travellers of all times. Though controversies surround the travel chronicle he penned, and also on his very travels, his travelogue revealed an enthralling world that Europeans had never known of. In fact, so informative were the observations in Marco Polo’s diaries that it was translated and copied by hand into several languages, and the likes of Christopher Columbus consulted it during their voyages. It is another matter that many did not believe Marco’s wild descriptions about the strange lands he visited. Towards his end, when Marco Polo was asked to confess his lies and tell the truth, he had replied, “I have not told half of what I saw.”

Marco Polo’s famous travel diaries, which he had originally titled ‘Descriptions of the World’ narrates the observations he made in those 26 years of travel. A travel he had undertaken, fuelled by the thrill of the unknown and armed with the paiza — a special pass gifted by the great Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan to Marco’s father. The paiza ordered everybody in the kingdom to provide the carrier of the pass with food, lodging and travel facilities, and even more importantly — protection of his life.

Marco’s was an incredible journey that revealed to the west a strange new world where, to the amazement of the Europeans, ‘people could purchase paperback books with paper money, eat rice from fine porcelain bowls, wear silk garments, lived in a prosperous city that no European town could match.’  The idea of paper money, for instance was a total surprise.

What do artists do to illustrate such a fantastic book? The outlandish is very much expected in such a scenario, and that is what was witnessed at an interesting group show at Chennai on Marco Polo’s famous diaries. Farhan Mujib’s grandiose collages, Benitha Perciyal’s austere installations, BO Shailesh’s small format ceramic works, and Varun Gupta’s grainy photographs of lonely terrains and solitary travellers across unfriendly terrain.

Silk route

Then there are Rahul and Gunjan’s fabric and fibre murals which bring nuances of the ancient and famous silk trade route dating back to the second century BC that Marco Polo too traversed through; artist and sculptor George K’s parcels that speak of gifts and treasures from distant lands; Nilofer Seth Siddharth’s colourful work bring before us the spectacular colours that Marco Polo might have seen at Kublai Khan’s court, N Ramachandran’s mixed media works of monks which make us think of the monks Marco Polo would have met on the wayside.

All the works come accompanied with an excerpt from Marco Polo’s diaries, on the lines of a footnote. Well, not quite a foot note, actually. The works were conceived by the artists or chosen from their repertoire of previous works, purely to illustrate Marco Polo’s fascinating chronicles.

Marco’s quotes evoke the intellect while the supporting art works invoke the sensual feel or nuances of those bygone times. For instance, Varun’s photographs of vast spaces and rolling terrains give us a sense of the lonely and risky endeavour that Marco Polo had attempted as he meandered through the hostile terrain of Central Asia dotted with war-mongering tribal fiefs. Says Varun, “In search for Marco Polo, I journeyed into Tibet from the bustling over-modernised streets of Lhasa to the highest motorable passes, and into the depth of the vast vistas around Mt Kailash. The spirit of the fearless traveller was reborn inside me almost 800 years after his time. Through my viewfinder, I try to see the world around me, as he would have. The stark jagged landscapes, the weather-beaten people, so incredibly different from all experiences past. Among the locals, one comes across people torn between holding on to a beautiful heritage and embracing modernity.”

Marco Polo’s awed description of Kublai Khan’s summer palace is what has caught Farhan Mujib’s attention. And, Mujib’s spectacular collages of monuments do generate a sense of this summer palace, that Marco described as, “the greatest palace that ever was” and “fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts... all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.”

“We also learn that 30 years after his return home, Marco still owned a quantity of cloths, valuable pieces, coverings, brocades of silk and gold, exactly like those mentioned several times in his book, together with other precious objects. Among them there was ‘golden tablet of command’ that had been given him by the Great Khan on his departure from the Mongol capital,” notes Farhan.

Though a trader, Marco was an earnest and careful observant of everything ranging from financial transactions, transport, economy, obstacles, sources of food and water, trading centres, towns and cities, their quality, religious conditions, local laws and customs, local people, the governance there, the geography, topography of these areas, and even the legends, history and tales of native to the area. He was a traveller who met more kinds of people in his lifetime than what generations of Europeans had ever met collectively until then — he met Christians, Mohammedans, Idolaters, Nestorian Christians… Unfortunately, the original manuscript has been lost to us and we understand Marco Polo’s travels from later translations. The art works here give us a glimpse into the world Marco discovered.

Though Marco’s initial quest was to reach Jerusalem to collect oil from the Holy Sepulchre and present it to Kublai Khan, it eventually turned into an explorer’s travel discovering new lands and people. The two friars sent by the Pope to accompany him soon gave up on the travel, though Marco Polo’s father and uncle pressed along with him.

The greatest pitfall in Marco’s chronicles is that he seems to have gaily mixed fact with fiction. While later geographical and historical surveys confirmed Marco’s observations there are also passages by Marco that do raise eyebrows. Consider this: Travelling through a province called Tunocain, Marco describes a great plain, where, “according to the inhabitants, took place the battle between Alexander and Darius.” Further on he describes a place where horses were said to have directly descended from Alexander’s horse, Bucephalus; “they were all born with a horn on their head, like their descendant, Bucephalus.” Bequeathed to a vengeful widow, the breed was destroyed “so that it is now extinct.”  

Pitfalls, there might be. But the road that Marco took has made the world a different place.

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