Nicolo` de' Conti, a Venetian merchant, is believed to be the earliest visitor to the kingdom of Vijayanagar. The remnants of the historic city of Vijayanagar can be found at present-day Hampi in Karnataka.
It was not Conti's own choice to compose an account of his travels; rather, he was compelled to do so. It happened in this way: upon his return to Italy in 1444, Conti was granted absolution from Pope Eugenius IV on the condition that he would provide an accurate account of his travels to the Pope's secretary, Poggio Bracciolini. Conti had earlier been forced to convert to Islam upon his arrival in Mecca in order to protect his family and ensure their safety.
The ruins of Vijayanagar - Watercolour drawing by Colin MacKenzie - 1801
Pero Tafur, a Spanish traveler, encountered Conti at Mount Sinai, noted that Conti's wife was an Indian woman. Sadly, Conti's wife and two of his four children died of Plague in Egypt.
Poggio Bracciolini documented Conti's travels in Latin in his 'Historia de Varietate Fortunae', which was later translated into English by J. Winter Jones for the Hakluyt Society in 1857.
At a young age, Conti went to Damascus, Syria, where he established himself as a merchant. It was from Damascus that he began his 25-year journey (1419), visiting India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Sumatra, Java and Southern China. His first destination in India was Cambay in Gujarat. After a few days of travel, he made his way to the kingdom of Bizenegalia (Vijayanagar).
It is believed that Nicolo Conti visited the great city of Vijayanagar in 1420-21, during the reign of King Deva Raya I. Conti described the city as being situated near towering mountains, spanning a circumference of sixty miles and boasting a population of 90,000 men capable of bearing arms. Furthermore, men were permitted to have multiple wives and it was customary for the women to be cremated alongside the men upon their death (Sati).
The king of Vijayanagar was the most powerful ruler in India. He had 12,000 wives, of whom 4,000 followed him constantly on foot and served in his kitchen, 4,000 rode on horseback, and the rest went in carts and wagons. Of these 2,000-3,000 were taken on condition that they would burn with their lord on his death, which is considered by them as a great honour. This indicates that Sati was a common custom in the Vijayanagar period.
Human Sacrifices: Idol Chariot, Hook Swinging: Once a year, an idol is carried through the city in a grand procession, placed between two chariots accompanied by a large crowd of devotees, in which beautiful young women sing hymns to the god. Some devotees even go so far as to lay themselves on the ground so that the wheels of the carts may pass over them and they may be crushed to death, believing that this mode of death is acceptable to their God. Other devotees, in a further display of devotion, make holes through the sides of their bodies, putting a rope through it, and tie themselves to the carts, and so hanging dead in the procession, accompany the Idol, believing that they cannot do greater worship or sacrifice to their Gods.
Festivals: Conti presents a description of three annual festivals of 'especial solemnity'. One of the occasions appears to resemble New Year's Day celebration, where people bath in rivers or seas, put on new garments, and spend three days in singing, dancing and feasting.
On another festival, countless lamps of oil of susimanni are lit within temples and on the outside of roofs, burning day and night. According to the description, this could be Deepavali, the festival of lights.
On the third festival, which lasts nine days, large beams resembling the masts of small ships are erected along the highways. Attached to the upper part of these beams were pieces of various kinds of beautiful cloths, interwoven with gold. Each day, a religious man of pious aspect, capable of enduring all things with equanimity, was placed atop each beam to pray for the favour of God. These men are assailed by the people, who pelt them with oranges, lemons and other fruits, all which they bear most patiently. This is most probably the Mahanavami festival, also known as Dasara, [Dussehra] and Navaratri.
There is also a three-day festival, during which saffron-water is ceremonially sprinkled upon passers-by, even the king and queen. This is welcomed by all with much laughter. Conti here mentions the Holi festival, a joyous celebration of color and merriment.
Marriage Customs: In his account, Conti detailed the specific roles of music during social functions. He notes that weddings are typically accompanied by trumpets, flutes, and other instruments, excluding organs. Furthermore, rich banquets are held throughout the day and night, featuring instruments, dances, and songs. Conti also describes the popular folk-stick dance [dandiya]: Some sing while dancing in a circle; while others sing in a line, one after the other, exchanging little painted rods, of which each person carries two, with those whom they meet on turning.
Conti has given a description of the life and customs of the Indians. But this post contains particulars on Vijayanagar only.
The Travels of Nicolo Conti, in the East, in the Early Part of the Fifteenth Century, as related by Poggio Bracciolini, in his work entitled "Historia de Varietate Fortune" translated by J. Winter Jones, In 'India in the Fifteen Century'