Travels that transformed humanity
Ambika Sharma

Journeys, Heroes, Pilgrims, Explorers
edited by Geeti Sen and Molly Kaushal.
India International Centre, New Delhi.
Pages 300. Rs 495

Hanuman Crosses the Ocean. by Manjit Bawa, oil on canvas, 1979
Hanuman Crosses the Ocean. By Manjit Bawa, oil on canvas, 1979

Apart from exploring the geographical terrains, some journeys have the distinction of marking a turning point in a life. Containing in-depth accounts of some of the famous voyages undertaken by mythological figures, trekkers, lensmen, explorers etc., the book has enough to tickle the taste buds of those having a penchant to dig into the details of journeys which transform a mere event into a historical date.

The book has emanated in the form of essays divided in five sections covering some voyages ranging from holy excursions, adventurous trips, explorative visits and journeys which set the trend of transformation of humanity. While Geeti Sen is a cultural historian and a visiting lecturer at several institutes in India and abroad having procured her doctorate degrees from Chicago and Calcutta, Molly Kaushal is an Associate Professor at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The book contains pieces from other renowned names like Navtej Sarna, spokesperson for the Foreign Office in New Delhi; Mark Tully, for long BBC’s voice in India; and Guy Trouveroy, former Belgian Ambassador to India.

Symbolising the mythological journeys reminiscent of a decisive event in the history, the book compiles the accounts with an undeterred mission. Dispelling all myths, revered figures like Lord Hanuman and Guru Nanak Dev have been described in their most subtle form. Evoking some sense of atheism even from the most theist, this section contains some legendary tales of Kesar to China based on the Tibeto-Himalayan epic, which extend much beyond the scope of mere travel.

Stark differences between hero and hero-renounce have been brought about by various illustrations from some of the religious figures like Puran Bhagat, whose journeys hovered around pain, violence for the sake of love. Emphasising that the two, while pursuing contrary goals, are akin in achieving a desire, the writer views them as contrary, yet co-related ideas.

The second section takes a reader centuries back, into the era of explorative voyages. Ranging from Afanassii Nikitin, first prominent Russian traveller to India, to the Indo-Persian travel accounts of Evilya Celebi and Ottomans, the write-ups observes South–Asian travel literature to be abound in semi-divine imaginary devices and hagiographic accounts to be its main sources. The voyages of discovery mark the third section. This includes the rigours of a journey across Leh; Mustang reminiscent of the pristine kingdom excite a reader’s curiosity. The revered Buddhists monks and the Tibetans, with their ancient tradition etched in religion, remind one of an isolated kingdom in the Himalayas.

The innocent pleasures of a young schoolboy, as he travels down the Darjeeling Hill Railway from Calcutta to Sealdah station, recounted by Mark Tully, where he personifies a journey as his own life’s voyage, make for an interesting account. Tully terms the pleasures as nothing less than paradise on Earth.

Another account of a traditional dance of the Dervishes, described as a journey dwelling deep from the periphery of conscience to the core is an involved description of the age-old religious ritual. Journeys of transformation mark the final section, where an apt use of dialogue and woodcut prints symbolise a global journey cutting across nations.

An ardent and liberal use of pictures and poetry, especially translated excerpts, has added to the otherwise bland and monotonous language. While the text has not been very successful in conjuring up the same enthusiasm about the historical accounts, an excessive mention of places and minute accounts has adversely affected the otherwise well-conceived theme.