Ludovico’s ludicrousness

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Ludovico di Varthema (1470-1517) is a well known Italian traveler and adventurer. Nearly everything that is known of the life of Ludovico di Varthema comes from his own account. Evidently a native of Bologna and a soldier, he left a wife and child in 1502, when, slightly over the age of 30, he left to visit the East. An independent source reveals that he was in Venice in November 1508 relating his adventures to the Signory. Nothing more is known of him other than that he spent his remaining years in Rome and was referred to as dead in June 1517. His travel book, Itinerario de Ludovico de Varthema Bolognese …, was published at Rome in 1510.

Richard Francis Burton said - For correctness of observation and readiness of with Varthema stands in the foremost rank of the old Oriental travelers. In Arabia and in the Indian archipelago east of Java he is (for Europe and Christendom) a real discoverer. Even where passing over ground traversed by earlier European explorers, his keen intelligence frequently adds valuable original notes on peoples, manners, customs, laws, religions, products, trade, methods of war.

Varthema’s visit to Arabia and India is considered to be a fine document, providing if not accurate in specifics, detailed general accounts of social life in the places he visited. While most travelers concentrated on the wars, the relationships and the rulers themselves, Varthema talked extensively about the life in the locales he frequented, and keen understanding based on his claim to have mastered most of the tongues of the said places.

He is probably the only medieval traveler who has quoted Malayalam sentences or what purports to be Malayalam in his writings. Let us see what he has to say in Malayalam, hastening to inform here that this was just one of the many historians (another was Ibn Batutah) who was particularly interested in the sexual relations practiced by the inhabitants of Malabar. However he probably carried the ruse too far when he claimed to have understood and documented the same tongue Malayalam in far away Orissa or Andhra Pradesh (MachiliPatanam) unless of course he chanced on a Marakkayar Moplah visiting the port. Let us look at this famous and oft quoted paragraph which shows how absolutely ludicrous it is (like his chapter of his providing medical service at Calicut) and what a stupid image it provides to an avid reader not otherwise familiar with Malabar.

Varthema gives flight to his Malayalam fantasies twice in his accounts, once while accounting his first visit to Calicut and once while visiting Tarnassari (presumably Masulipatanam or Machilipatana where of course Malayalam was never spoken – Read on and take in a lot of mumbo jumbo which actually is absolute rubbish save a couple of words.

The original account, in Italian, was published at Rome on the 6th December 1510 at the request of Lodovico de Henricis da Corneto of Vicenza by Stephano Guillireti de Loreno and Hercule de Nani, both of Bologna. The translation used here was made by John Winter Jones in 1863, edited by G. P. Badger, and published under the title of “The Itinerary of Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna from 1502 to 1508”.



Pg 145, 146, 147 - The Pagan gentlemen and merchants have this custom amongst them. There will sometimes be two merchants who will be great friends, and each will have a wife; and one merchant will say to the other in this wise: " Langal perganal monaton ondo ?" that is, " So-and-so, have we been a long time friends ? " The other will answer: " Hognan perga manaton ondo ;" that is, " Yes, I have for a long time been your friend." The other says: "Nipatanga ciolli ? " that is, " Do you speak the truth that you are my friend ? " The other will answer, and say : " Ho ; " that is, " Yes." Says the other one: "Tamarani ? " that is, " By God ? " The other replies: " Tamarani ! " that is, " By God ! " One says: " In penna tonda gnan pcnna cortu; " that is, " Let us exchange wives, give me your wife and I will give you mine." The other answers: " Ni pantagocciolli? " that is, " Do you speak from your heart ? " The other says: "Tamarani!" that is, " Yes, by God!" His companion answers, and says: " Biti banno ; " that is, " Come to my house." And when he has arrived at his house he calls his wife and says to her: " Penna, ingaba idocon dopoi ; " that is, " Wife, come here, go with this man, for he is your husband." The wife answers: "E indi?" that is, "Wherefore? Dost thou speak the truth, by God, Tamarani?" The husband replies : " Ho gran patangociolli; " that is, " I speak the truth." Says the wife: " Perga manno ; " that is, " It pleases me." "Gnan poi;" that is, " I go." And so she goes away with his companion to his house. The friend then tells his wife to go with the other, and in this manner they exchange their wives; but the sons of each remain with him.

(JOHN WINTER JONES the translator’s note - I had hoped to have been able, by the assistance of others, to reduce this and the subsequent native words and phrases introduced by Varthema into readable Malayalam, in the same manner as I have treated his Arabic sentences; but the attempt has proved unsuccessful. Two Malayalam scholars, to whom they were submitted, concur in forming a very low estimate of our traveler’s attainments in that language. One of the gentlemen states that the majority of the words are not Malayalam, or, if they are, the writer has trusted to his ear, and made a marvelous confusion, which I defy anybody to unravel." This is not to be wondered at; on the contrary, there would have been reasonable ground for surprise if, under his peculiar circumstances, Varthema had succeeded in mastering, even to a tolerable extent, any one of the native languages.

During his sojourn in the country, which was comparatively short, and seldom lasting more than a few days at each place, he must have heard several different dialects spoken, without any definite knowledge, perhaps, that they were such. Moreover, as his most intimate associates appear to have been the Arab traders, who, however long their intercourse with India, seldom speak any of the native languages correctly, he most probably acquired most of his vocabulary from them, jumbling that up with words and phrases which he had picked up here and there along the coast. The specimens of his Arabic are undoubtedly far superior to his essays in Malayalam, and, although strongly Italianized, by no means inferior to the colloquial of the majority of his countrymen at the present day after a much longer residence in the East where that is the vernacular language).


Page 202, 203 - We met by chance three or four merchants, who began to speak to my companion in this wise: “Langalli ni pardesi” that is, “Friend, are you strangers?” He answered: “Yes.” Said the merchants: “Ethera nali ni banno,” that is, “How many days have you been in this country?” We replied: “Mun nal gnad banno,” that is, “It is four days since we arrived.” Another one of the said merchants said: “Biti banno gnan pigamanathon ondo,” that is, “Come to my house, for we are great friends of strangers;” and we, hearing this, went with him. When we had arrived at his house, he gave us a collation, and then he said to us: “My friends, Patanci nale banno gnan penna periti in penna orangono panna panni cortu,” that is, “Fifteen days hence I wish to bring home my wife, and one of you shall sleep with her the first night, and shall deflower her for me.” We remained quite ashamed at hearing such a thing. Then our interpreter said: “Do not be ashamed, for this is the custom of the country.” Then my companion hearing this said: “Let them not do us any other mischief, for we will satisfy you in this;” but we thought that they were mocking us. The merchant saw that we remained undecided, and said: “O langal limaranconia ille ocha manezar irichenu,” that is, “Do not be dispirited, for all this country follows this custom.”

Finding at last that such was the custom in all this country, as one who was in our company affirmed to us, and said that we need have no fear, my companion said to the merchant that he was content to go through this fatigue. The merchant then said: “I wish you to remain in my house, and that you, your companions and goods, be lodged here with me until I bring the lady home.” Finally, after refusing, we were obliged to yield to his caresses, and all of us, five in number, together with all our things, were lodged in his house. Fifteen days from that time this merchant brought home his wife, and my companion slept with her the first night. She was a young girl of fifteen years, and he did for the merchant all that he had asked of him. But after the first night, it would have been at the peril of his life if he had returned again, although truly the lady would have desired that the first night had lasted a month. The merchants, having received such a service from some of us, would gladly have retained us four or five months at their own expense, for all kinds of wares cost very little money, and also because they are most liberal and very agreeable men.


So much for Varthema’s ludicrousness, make your own conclusions…

Let us now look at this a bit more seriously (especially his stay in Calicut). Varthema first came to Calicut in the guise of an Arab traveler Yonus haji, in January 1505 coming there from Dharmapatanam near Cannanore. He spent probably a week in Calicut, before moving hastily south to Ceylon via Quilon when the Zamorin’s warlike activities commenced..

He came back after a ‘disputed’ Far East travel to Calicut around 1505 where he meets the two Milanese gunners that I had written about earlier. The fact that a set of Yogi’s or mendicants were used to kill the Milanese in Varthema’s accounts is also rather far fetched.

He then moves to Cochin, finally to Cannanore and boards a ship ‘San Vincenzo’ to Lisbon. He reaches Italy in 1508. Now imagine how one could master Malayalam in so few days and remember it until 1510 or for that matter make copious verbatim notes of conversations, at a time of strife and in these late night amorous sessions. Though he spent around a year or so in Calicut, all the information he would have got was from his Arab friends who accompanied him and the other Arab speakers of Calicut who obviously passed a dim view of the ‘kafirs’ of Calicut which Varthema probably recorded (acc to Jones & badger).

While at Calicut, he was in the company of ‘pardesi’ Arab’s, not local Moplahs, so it is highly unlikely that he was in close contact with the Nair populace though he may have walked around here & there. He would have associated with the trading Chettiyars and other pardesis like Turks, Somalis and Tunisians to get their insight about life in Calicut. He would have been exposed to Moppila dialects or Arabic dialects mixed with Malayalam and Tamil. And in some cases he would have come across Arabic interpreters. He must have lived near the markets and in the beach area. While at Calicut he also provides the strangest of medical treatments to a friend of his companion, but we will look at that in detail some other day.

His Arab companion was Cogniazanor or Cazazionor (Khadjeh Djoneyd) a Persian merchant. By the end of 1505 he had by cheating his traveler friend obtained papers to go to Cannanore and moved into Portuguse possessions at Malabar & Cochin, changed back to Christianity and provided the Portuiguese information about the Zamorin and his fortifications. Later he was fighting the Zamorin with the Portuguese in many naval and land wars that followed..

Varthema also accounted for the strange fact that he saw many red, yellow & white roses for sale in Calicut. See my notes about this in the Van Rheed article. Now his accounts state that he saw Roses at virtually every place he spent time at 9 Damascus, Jizan, Batachala, Calicut, Ceylon). So were Roses so important for the Portuguese & Italians? Was it because of the Christian association with Mary?

Prof Dr Jarl Charpentier a Swedish scholar and expert who has written books & articles on Indian antiquity, dismisses Varthema’s descriptions of temples & Calicut as such, with the comment ‘The author knew very little about the topic’. However the author of the Ludvico travels English translation Winter Jones & badger do find some descriptions of other places rather accurate. Varthema’s travel beyond Calicut to the Far East and back is considered questionable and is apparently full of vague accounts (I have not yet covered those in detail) as we saw about the Malayalam spoken in Masulipatanam. Some historians feel (Literature of Travel and Exploration: R to Z, index By Jennifer Speake Page 1235) he sailed to Calicut, traveled to Cochin & Cannanore and went back, with the rest of the accounts fictional, others do not and vouch for their correctness at that time. Some even feel he was a mercenary sent by a Mamaluke Sultan to support the Zamorin (Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance - By Joan-Pau Rubiés (Pg 129)) but that he broke off the engagement . Incidentally he is also the first Christian known to have made Islamic pilgrimage to holy city of Mecca.

About the portrait - On top of the engraved title we see a panorama of Cairo, from the West bank of the Nile. In the centre sits Varthema, presenting the title of his travelogue to his readership. Behind him we see a globe. He is seconded by two indigenous warriors. At left a Mamluk, a reference to the Arabian adventures, at the right an ‘Indian’, apparently a native of a South-East Asian region. The authenticity of Varthema’s portrait which is reproduced here from the engraved title of this Dutch translation of the Itinerario is doubtful, if only because of the long interval between the author’s lifetime and the date of publication.
The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopia, A.D. 1503 to 1508. By Lodovico de Varthema; Edited by George Percy Badger; Translated by John Winter Jones.
Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance - By Joan-Pau Rubiés ( Pg 129)
Literature of Travel and Exploration: R to Z, index By Jennifer Speake Page 1235


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Very interesting! Hats off to the research!!
    To be fair to Vartema, it is possible that he, in the guise of an Arab, was taken by his fellow travellers to a brothel or one of those places specialising in temporary marriages to Arab traders. Some words like 'penn' 'ethra naalai nee vannu', 'cortu (koduthu)' 'oranganu' etc are indeed Malayalam. Significantly, the use of 'Tamrani' for God (Thampuran) indicates a low-caste origin for the user. In any case, we dont expect grammatical correctness in such transactions! The fact that Vartema spent only a few days in Calicut supports the argument that he must have visited some place of ill-repute. One must give credit to the Bolognese for remembering and reproducing verbatim conversation which took place under rather embarrassing circumstances!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CKR..

    The 'ratna churukkam' in my mind was as follows

    1. yes, indeed he visited a brothel and as Conti (or was it Nikitin) state there were plenty of such places in Calicut.But then why generalize it as a custom of the heathen people of Malabar? That is not exacting right?

    2. Chettys & Vanias are very tight knit and would not have shared/sold their wives, in my opinion. Nor would Moplah traders or Arab traders. Polyandry is not indicated in those groups.

    Yes, it is very possible that the traders and the Italian shared a new entrant (not a wife though) into the flesh trade, with glee..

    Varthema should then have recorded it so. But as we know, some of these visitors like Correa, Castenheda etc were wont to wild exaggeration at times. They just spun it the way their lords wanted to hear it.

    Just like TV stations do it today...

  1. Anonymous

    Hi Maddy... I really enjoy reading your blog. Wish I could write as good as you!. Like our hero Ludovico, once there was a Mallu who heard a song in Russian and wrote it down in Malayalam. Result: 500 years later hopefully a russian historian will write about this ;-)

  1. Maddy

    Hey - anonymous.. I really enjoyed that. That was a typical case of malayali-fying sounds...Quite ingenious, the guy who figured out the words...