Nicolo` de' Conti was a Venetian merchant and perhaps the earliest visitor to the kingdom of Vijayanagar. The ruins of the great city of Vijayanagar are found at present day Hampi in Karnataka State.
Nicolo Conti didn't write the account of his travels on his own. On his return from India when he reached Mecca, Conti was forced to convert in order to save his family; and on his arrival in Italy in 1444, he sought absolution from Pope Eugenius IV. This was granted on condition that he would truthfully relate his travels to the Pope's secretary Poggio Bracciolini.
The ruins of Vijayanagar - Watercolour drawing by Colin MacKenzie - 1801
Pero Tafur, a Spanish traveler, who had met Conti at Mount Sinai, notes that Conti's wife was an Indian woman. Conti's wife and two of his four children died of Plague in Egypt.
Poggio Bracciolini recorded Conti's travels in Latin in his 'Historia de Varietate Fortunae'. J. Winter Jones translated the portion containing Conti's Travels into English for the Hakluyt Society in 1857.
Conti went to Damascus [in Syria] and settled there as a merchant when he was young. From Damascus he set out upon his 25 years' travel in the East, including India, Ceylon [Sri Lanka], Sumatra, Java and the South of China in 1419. The first Indian city which he touched was Cambay in Gujarat. After a journey of few days he reached the kingdom of 'Bizenegalia' (Vijayanagar). He also visited many places in India including Mylapore and Quilon [Kollam], Cochin & Calicut on the Malabar coast in Kerala.
Description of Vijayanagar:
It is assumed that Nicolo Conti visited Vijayanagar in the year 1420-21 and at that time the king was Deva Raya I. Conti narrated that the great city of Vijayanagar was situated near very steep mountains. The city was sixty miles round and there are 90,000 men able to bear arms. Men can take as many wives as they like, and are burnt with them when the husbands die.
The king of Vijayanagar was the most powerful in India. He had 12,000 wives, of whom 4000 followed him constantly on foot and served in his kitchen, 4000 rode on horseback and the rest went in carts and wagons. Of these 2000-3000 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 in a year their idol is carried through the city in procession, placed between two chariots accompanied by a great crowd, in which beautiful young women sing hymns to the god. Out of devotion many lay themselves upon the ground so that the wheels of the carts may go over them and they may be crushed to death, saying that this mode of death is acceptable to their God. Some other devotees, for the better adorning of the carts, 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 their Idol, thinking that they cannot do greater worship nor sacrifice to their Gods.
Festivals: Conti gives an account of three yearly festivals which are of 'especial solemnity'. On one of the occasions people having bathed in the rivers or the sea, clad themselves in new garments, and spend three days in singing, dancing and feasting. This might be New Year's Day.
On another of the festivals they fix up innumerable number of lamps of oil of susimanni within the temples, and on the outside on the roofs, which are kept burning day and night. This could be Deepavali.
On the third, which lasts nine days, they set up in all the highways large beams like the masts of small ships to the upper part of which are attached pieces of various kinds of beautiful cloths, interwoven with gold. On the top of each of these beams is each day placed a religious man of pious aspect, capable of enduring all things with equanimity, who is 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 Mahanavami festival, also known as Dasara, [Dussehra] and Navaratri.
There is also a three-day festival, during which they sprinkle the passers by even the king and queen themselves, with saffron-water and this is received by all with much laughter. This might be Holi.
Marriage Customs: Conti describes how music was associated with social functions in Vijayanagar. Weddings are celebrated with songs, feasts and playing trumpets, flutes and other instruments except organs. They make sumptuous feasts both day and night, with instruments, dances and songs. Conti also describes the popular folk-stick dance [dandiya]: Some sing dancing in a circle; while others sing forming a line in single file, one after the other, and 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'