Sir Richard F. Burton (1821-1890) was a colourful Victorian gentleman. He is best known for his translation of the The Book of the One Thousand Nights and One Night (otherwise known as the Arabian Nights), the Perfumed Garden and of course, Kamasutra. He was so versatile that the Wikipedia entry on him describes him as an 'English explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer and diplomat'.
Burton started his career in the East India Company in 1842 when his family had to purchase him a commission after his expulsion from Oxford University for unruly behaviour. He was posted in the Sindh where he devoted himself to the study of Indian languages. He also spent the time in India to learn wrestling, horsemanship and snake-charming. Because of his close proximity with the ordinary people of the country and his sympathy for them he could sense the impending threat to the British rule :'...the greatest danger in British India is the ever-growing gulf that yawns between the governors and the governed; they lose touch of one another, and such racial estrangement leads directly to racial hostility'. Coming from one whom his fellow officers would call contemptuously as 'the white nigger', this was one warning which the rulers had ignored at their peril.
Burton fell a victim to the cholera epidemic which swept Sindh in 1846, but was lucky to survive. The Bombay Medical Board granted him a convalescence leave of two years to be spent at Ootacamund which had already earned a name as a destination for British rest and recuperation. Ordinarily, British offcers travelling on r&r to Ooty would take a steamer to Calicut and then take the road vis Nadukani. But not so Burton, the inveterate seeker of thrills. He took a 'pattimar' (a country raft used for coastal trade) and broke journey in Goa where he spent considerable time studying the Portuguese
outpost and its history. Then he took another 'pattimar' and proceeded to Calicut. Although he devotes almost 80 pages of his book to describing Calicut and Malabar, he chose to give the title Goa and the Blue Mountains; or six months of sick leave giving no indication of the time he spent at Calicut.
Burton's first view of Calicut as seen from the 'pattimar' was disappointing. 'Can those three or four bungalows, with that stick-like light-house between them and the half-dozen tiled and thatched roofs peeping from amongst the trees, compose Calicut – the city of world-wide celebrity which immortalised herself by giving a name to calico? 'He asks.
Burton's keen eye soaks in the details of the town which he faithfully recorded in this first of the many books that he was to write. He notes, for instance, that Calicut did not have much of a harbour – 'Nature has made no attempt at a harbour, and the ships lying in an open roadstead, are constantly liable to be driven on the sand and mud-banks around them'. Yet trade continued to flourish there with export brisker than imports. The principal commodities exported were spices, drugs, valuable timber and cotton cloths. Imports consisted mainly of European piece goods and metals. Between September 1846 and May 1847 he noted that no less than 80 ships, besides an immense number of pattimars and native crafts touched at Calicut.
The bazars of Calicut, he notes, appeared to be well stocked with everything but vegetables and butcher's meat – these being procured from neighbouring stations (as even now!) He visits the Varakkal Temple but unlike Vasco da Gama who was ceremoniously ushered into the shrine, he does not attempt to enter the temple : 'We will not venture in, as the Hindoos generally in this part of the world, and the Nairs particularly, are accustomed to use their knives with scant ceremony'.
He visits the Samiry Rajah who he finds 'a proud man, who shuns Europeans, and discourages their visiting him on principle'. The then Zamorin, 'Mana Vikraman', apparently belonged to the Padinhare Kovilakam for Burton and company preceed to Mankavu (spelt Mangaon) 'through lanes lined with banks of laterite, and over dykes stretching like rude causeways along paddy fields invested with a six-foot deep coating of mud'. On reaching the Palace, the party did not find the Raja hostile to Europeans, as they were received warmly, with a caparisoned elephant and a troop of half-naked armed Nairs receiving them at the gate. Burton found the Raja 'injudiciously attired in a magnificent coat of gold cloth, a strangely shaped cap of the same material, and red silk tights '(!). The Raja met them with a warm, moist, and friendly squeeze of the hand and engaged the visitors in 'the small-talk of an Oriental visit'.
The piece de resistance of the visit was, however, the chance encounter of Burton with 'a crowd of dames belonging to the palace'. The translator of Kamasutra turns poetic while describing the 'sight of Nair female beauty' : 'The ladies were very young and pretty-their long jetty tresses, small soft features, clear dark olive-coloured skins, and delicate limbs, reminded us exactly of the old prints and descriptions of the South Sea Islanders. Their toilette, in all save the ornamental part of rings and necklaces, was decidedly scanty.'
We have no means of verifying whether the encounter described so graphically by Burton did indeed take place. It is difficult to believe that visitors and women of the house shared a common path causing the visitors to meet 'in the gateway a crowd of dames belonging to the palace'. It is also doubtful whether the twenty-something lieutenant of the East India Company on furlough would be so readily granted an audience by the Zamorin Raja. According to K.V.Krishna Ayyar, the Zamorin who occupied the throne between 1845 to 1848 had P.K. as initials, suggesting that he belonged to the Thiruvannur Kovilakam. It is also possible that Burton had visited the second in line the Eralpad Raja who may have been from the Padinhjare Kovilakam at Mankav.
The scepticism is prompted by some of Burton's other claims which were later proved to be rather exaggerated. For instance, his claim that he studied Hindu culture in such depth that his Hindu teacher officially allowed him to wear the Brahmanical thread (janeu) was found to be a figment of his imagination. Similarly, the oft repeated claim of Burton that he was deputed by Sir Charles Napier, the Governor of Sindh to investigate the homosexual brothels of Karachi has been found to be an unsubtsantiated claim by subsequent research. His recent (1990) biographer, James A. Casada goes so far as to suggest that Burton had invented the story. Did he also invent the story of his encounter with the Nair beauties of Mankav Palace? One wonders.
Ref: Wikipedia article on Burton
Goa and the Blue Mountains; or six months of sick leave by Richard F.Burton with an introduction by Dane Kennedy, published by University of California Press (1991)