Nikitin Expedition From St. Petersburg to Shiraz Through Six Countries (2006)
10,000 kms, 6 Weeks Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Baharain
The Russian Leg – St.Petersburg, Tver, Moscow, Nizhny, Kazan, Samara, Saratov, Volgograd, Kalmykia, Kropotkin, Astrakhan, Sochi
The Caucuses – Georgia, Azerbaijan
Tracing Nikitin’s Footsteps
More than five centuries ago, in an era when contours of lands beyond one’s own borders were at best hazy reconstructions from hearsay accounts of wayfarers; this was before Vasco da Gama enthralled the world with extraordinary tales from his extensive travels in Asia, when all you had was bush telephony and even that reached no further than the next province; when one’s own two feet were the most reliable means of transport – a solitary Russian trader undertook a fascinating voyage into the unknown, without the aid of satellite mapping or global positioning systems. He sailed across three seas, down many rivers, crossed mountain ranges, trudged through thick jungles and vast steppes and marched across blazing deserts. And all because he had an extraordinary sense of adventure, a desire to know the unknown, see the unseen and experience the exotic.
The original traveller
In 1471, Afanasy Nikitin, a Russian trader, journeyed all the way from Tver, 150 km north of Moscow, along the Volga and further south along the Black Sea and the Caspian into Iran and Oman and finally reached India’s western shores near Mangalore in what was then the Bahmini and Vijayanagar kingdoms. Nikitin lived in India for three years from 1471 to 1474, and went back via Turkey, but died before he reached his hometown, Tver. In fact, Nikitin’s voyage predates that of Vasco da Gama and he didn’t even have any of the means or the royal support that the latter enjoyed. It was the sheer determination of a single individual backed by vision, courage and persistence that brought Nikitin to our shores. No wonder then, Bollywood was inspired to make a film on his life and times. “Pardesi”, an Indo-Russian production directed by K.A. Abbas in 1957, starred Nargis and Balraj Sahni alongside Russian actor Alex Stryzhenov.
The modern followers
Earlier this month, a motley group of 13 Indians, including this writer, landed in St. Petersburg to retrace Nikitin’s footsteps. The Nikitin expedition will travel through five countries to Bander Abbas in Iran and again resume the journey from Mumbai and travel to parts of Karnataka, the location of the erstwhile Bahmini and Vijayanagar kingdoms. Apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the expedition will journey through Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Saratov, Volgograd, Astakhan, Sochi on the Black Sea (all in Russia), Trabzon in Turkey, Tbilisi in Georgia, Baku in Azerbaijan, and through Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz in Iran. The expedition will travel primarily by road in three four-wheel drive Mahindra Scorpio cars, but occasionally sail in ships as well – as through the Black Sea from Sochi to Batumi.
The team comprises a Russian historian of repute, a Central Asian expert, a photographer, a journalist, an energy professional, a film crew and a Kathak dancer and professional drivers. Unlike Nikitin, the expedition will have some of the appurtenances of modern life such as cell phones, cameras and tape recorders; but, more importantly, the diplomatic support of Indian missions in all the countries through which it will pass. While Nikitin took three years to complete the journey to India, the present expedition will take just a little over six weeks, five of it overseas and the last leg within India. While Tver administration officials will officially flag off the expedition, the journey has already begun here at St. Petersburg where Indologist Nicholas Karamzin – the one who translated the epic drama Shakuntalam from Sanskrit to Russian – first found the Nikitin manuscripts.
Nikitin was the quintessential adventurer, a solitary explorer and an engaging chronicler. His journey is the earliest record of Indo-Russian friendship. During his long journey spanning more than 18 months, Nikitin was robbed, roughed up and ridiculed, but he not only survived to reach his destination, but also kept a daily journal that gives such valuable insights into the demography, politics, social structure, institutions, legal systems and practices in the regions along his route.
Nikitin’s talents were many, not least among them, his storytelling abilities. “On the big ship we reached the sea, but ran aground in the mouth of the Volga. Thereupon, the Tartars seized us and towed the ship back to the weir. There they took the big ship away from us and led four Russians away captive; having robbed us, they let us proceed beyond the sea. They did not let us sail upstream lest we should send word.” And again: “Bidar is a big city and it took us a month to arrive there; and from Bidar, it is five days to Kulungir and as much from Kulungir to Gulbarga. There are many other towns between these two big ones… At Bidar, horses and various goods are sold: brocade, silk and all kinds of other good: black people too are on sale there. Nothing else is sold. And all the goods come from Hindoostan. And as for food, nothing else is sold but vegetables.” And then he pronounces, “There are no good lands for the land of Rus.” Yet, Nikitin chose to stay for three full years around Bidar.
The expedition draws inspiration from the foundation of Indo-Russian friendship laid down by Afanasy Nikitin. Despite the many political and economic upheavals since the days of Nikitin, Indo-Russian friendship has survived and even flourished. The large presence of Indologists in St. Petersburg today is testimony to this. The venture hopes to reaffirm, strengthen and expand this relationship. Afanasy Nikitin has again become relevant in a globalising world that is forever searching for new routes and new markets for exchange of goods and people. Now that Russia has emerged as the biggest oil producer in the world, the Russian Jevushka literally edging out the Saudi Begum as it were, what are the possibilities of physically getting Russian energy to flow to India? For instance, can a pipeline be built from Iran’s Neka terminal to Bander Abbas and Russian oil sent down the Caspian in tankers to Neka to be picked up at Bander Abbas and sent to our western shores? These are questions that will be examined during the course of the expedition.
The Caspian and Central Asian Republics along the Nikitin route are just emerging from their decades-long isolation from the rest of the world imposed by accident of history and conspiracy of geography. They can become stakeholders in the trade ties if a land-route can be opened between the two regions. India’s ties with Iran are historic and span the entire spectrum – civilisational, cultural, linguistic, religious and economic. Now India is looking at strengthening the relations through energy ties, through a gas pipeline that could ferry Iranian gas from South Pars all the way to our western shores as well as in the form of liquefied natural gas which will come in containers to light up our homes, fire our factories etc. Yet another exciting prospect for the exNopedition would be meetings with the Indian diaspora along the way. There is, for instance, an Indian diaspora in Russia, mostly students studying in Patrice Lumbumba University in Moscow and several other universities in St. Petersburg. The expedition will also interview members of the Roerich Society in St. Petersburg and investigate other Indian connections.