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Sunday, April 25, 1999
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Telling the tale of a voyage
By Manohar Malgonkar

I MUST have read the book at least three times. It is as full of excitingly romantic stories as The Arabian Nights, except that in Marco Polo they all happen to be true. Here is a sample.

Marco Polo lived in the thirteenth century, a Merchant of Venice who, with his father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo, travelled all the way from Venice to Beijing which, then as now, was the capital of China.

Only a few years earlier, much of the heartland of this great continent was under a single empire, stretching from the borders of Europe — from Poland all the way to the Pacific coast, and from the Arctic lands to the Himalayan range in the south; which means that only India, Burma and what is called lower South East Asia, were not a part of it.

In the year 1275,when the three Polos reached Beijing, this vast empire had been split into two parts among the heirs of its founder, Changez Khan. The greater portion, which included China, was ruled by that fabled Kublai Khan and another branch of the family ruled its western territories from Iran. Its head was a great grandson of Changez called Argon. Even though he had not so much as sent a military column towards the subcontinent, Argon had styled himself Emperor of India.

The three Polos remained in the court of Kublai Khan for all of 17 years; the Great Khan showered them with honours and gifts and sent them on responsible missions. But whenever they broached the subject of going back to their own land Kublai Khan refused to countenance the proposal.

"Why do you want to undergo the risks of the journey?" he would demand. "You might even lose your lives. If it is for gain that you want to leave my court, I shall give you double of whatever you possess".

Marco Polo, who had left his own country as a youth, was now in his mid thirties, his father and uncle in their late fifties. They had made a lot of money and they were anxious to go back to Venice. But with the Great Khan so insistent on their staying on, it looked as though they were fated never to see their home town again.

But rescue came in the strangest manner.

Bolgana the favourite queen of King Argon of Persia died. She was from a Mongol tribe, and it was her dying wish that her place in the King’s household should be taken by a suitable girl from her own tribe. Determined to honour her behest, King Argon "deputed three discreet men....attended by numerous retinue, as his ambassadors to the court of the Great Khan "requesting His Majesty to send with them another bride from the same tribe to which Queen Bolgana had belonged."

The embassy took a year to reach Beijing. The Great Khan barked orders and snapped fingers. Soon a suitable bride was found, a 17-year-old girl named Kogatin, whom the Persian representatives pronounced to be "extremely handsome and accomplished." A full compliment of maid-companions as well as maidservants had to be found for her. She was given all the clothes and ornaments that would befit her for her role as queen, and an armed escort to serve as a protective force. All this took nearly a year, and only then could the party set out on its journey back to the court of King Argon.

But, "having travelled for eight months, their further progress was obstructed by ....fresh wars that had broken out among the Tartar princes." Instead of risking a clash with the barbarians of some warlord, they decided to go back to the safety of Beijing.

By now three years had passed since the death of the old queen and two since the selection of a substitute, and the three elderly noblemen were getting panicky about their chances of ever seeing their homeland again. That was when they heard that one of the three Venetian traders who had been ennobled by the Great Khan, man named Marco Polo, had been entrusted by the Khan to take a trade mission to the islands in the South China Sea, had returned from the expedition and the court was agog with his tales of the ease, speed and safety of making long sea voyages by boat.

What follows can only be seen as a plot. The three ambassadors from Persia were desperate to get back to their land: their interests coincided with those of the three merchants of Venice who had little or no hope of seeing their country again. Pleading the case for the Persian noblemen was the intended bride for King Argon. The Great Khan, no matter how disinclined he was to letting his Venetian merchants leave his court, could hardly say No to a would-be Mongol Queen.

The Great Khan gave in. He called up the three Polos and told them that they were to take Queen Kogatin to her new home. After that, they could go to their own country, but that he hoped that after spending a year of so with their families, they would return to Beijing and remain there. That while in Europe, the three "were to act as his ambassadors to the Pope, and the kings of France, Spain and other Christian princes." He equipped them with gold tablets inscribed with his orders that they should be given safe conduct through every part of his empire.

Then Kublai Khan got busy assembling a suitably regal barrat party: "Fourteen ships, each having four masts ... (and) ... nine sails." Five of these ships had "crews of more than 250" the total number of seamen on this little armada was around 3,000. On them were embarked the three barons, having the queen under their protection," and of course, the three Polos. Before parting "the Great Khan presented them with many rubies and other handsome jewels of great value. He also gave directions that the ships should be furnished with stores and provisions for two years."

Except for the size of the fleet and the ceremonial nature of the voyage, there was nothing particularly remarkable about this expedition: Trade between China and what we today call South-East Asia had been going on for centuries. It is just that few ships, if any, had gone all the way from the East China Sea to the Persian Gulf. Marco Polo has kept a careful record of this journey and it forms a special section of his memoirs. They sailed almost directly south and took three months to reach Java. They touched Sumatra, the tail of Burma, and Bengal to reach Sri Lanka and then travelled along the west coast of India all the way to the Persian Gulf. It must have been a fairly rough voyage because Marco Polo records that, of the ship’s company of 3000, as many 600 men died on the way, and that, of the three Persian noblemen, only one survived. Surprisingly, of the hundred or so ladies on board, "one only died".

When they reached their port of debarcation, their voyage had taken two years. The bride who had been selected at the age of 17, was now aged 230 and then, even before she landed, word was received that King Argon to whom she had been affianced, had died some years earlier. Luckily, his courtiers were sensible people. Between them they decided that the lady who had been brought from China with so much trouble and expense, "should be presented to his son Kasan, who was their new Khan."

Marco Polo, his father and his uncle lingered for nearly a year at the court of the Persian King, and then, loaded with more presents, proceeded to Constantinople and thence to Venice. Along the way they received news that their patron in China, Kublai Khan, had died.

Finally, the three merchants of Venice, arrived in their own town in the year 1295, after an absence of 26 years. Not surprisingly, no one recognised them or thought of them to be European merchants, and "the dogs of Venice barked as the travellers knocked on the door of their family home."Back

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