When I was in Georgia, I visited the tomb of King Erekle II, King of Kartli and Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) located in the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, this king came to India when he was a prince as a hostage of Nadir Shah, the Emperor of Iran, who was at the time invading India. We can learn more about his Indian connections from a travelogue called “The travels of Rafail Danibegashvili in India, Burma and other Asian countries, 1795-1827,” written by Georgian statesman and traveler Rafail Danibegashvili. Who was this traveler, and what did he see in India, a country known for its diversity? I will try to answer these questions in this article.
India is a civilizational state with huge diversity, and for centuries, travelers from different parts of the world have been coming to India to explore its diverse landscape and learn about the Indic religions. Georgia’s relations with India have their roots in remote antiquity. Trade flourished between them long before the new era set in. The great trade route linking India with the Mediterranean countries passed through the Transcaucasus, in particular, through Mtskheta, Fazis (now Poti) and other towns. In the town of Varanasi, India, there is a gravestone, the inscription on which, in Georgian, says there lies the Georgian merchant Tamaz Khuduashvili of the village of Kojori (near Tbilisi), who died in 1782.
Some of the travelers who came to India in the past were Al-Masudi, Fa-Hien, Hiuen-Tsang, Marco Polo, Abdul Razak and the aforementioned Georgian nobleman, Rafail Danibegashvili, in whose travelogue it is mentioned that in Madras (now known as Chennai), there lived a wealthy Armenian (Shakhamiryan), who sent King Erekle II gifts every year in order to help him create an independent Georgian-Armenian kingdom. In reward, the king presented him with the large village of Loris and directed Danibegashvili to take the title-deed to him, and in order to follow the order of the king, the nobleman left for India on 15 March 1795. Unfortunately, the Armenian he was supposed to meet passed away a year before his arrival, and so he gave the title-deed to the Armenian’s son.
But what was Danibegashvili’s background? He was a wealthy merchant and nobleman from Tbilisi who came to the author’s country India; he set sail from Muscat in Oman and 22 days later, he disembarked in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, the financial capital of Maharashtra state in India. What did he see in Bombay? He wrote in his travelogue that “…because of its position, it may be called the chief English port. From here, ships sail to China, Persia and India. Another source of the fame enjoyed by Bombai (Mumbai) is that the finest English ships are built there.”
Mumbai was indeed then under the control of the English East India Company, and an Indian conglomerate that even exists today, Wadia Group, constructed the first ships for the British navy outside England in Mumbai, the city that Rafail Danibegashvili visited. The Wadias are Zoroastrians or Parsis, and Georgian readers likely know that there are the remains of a non-functional Zoroastrian fire temple in Tbilisi today. Of the Zoroastrians and Mumbai, Danibegashvili wrote in his travelogue that “This town (Mumbai) is particularly famous for its merchants, who are extraordinarily rich. Generally, all the local inhabitants are fire worshippers and call themselves Kabers or Farses.”
While Mumbai, located on the western coast of India, was colonized by the English, another settlement on the eastern coast of India, Pondicherry, now known as Puducherry, was colonized by the French. Of this settlement, Danibegashvili wrote “…I sailed to the town of Bondochery or Kost-Malvar (Puducherry). This town was formerly ruled by the French, but is now in the possession of the English. It is built after the model of European towns. A fairly large part of the inhabitants are French, who may be called old-timers. The native inhabitants, like those in the surrounding towns, are fire-worshippers and black-skinned.”
Another big city in India is Chennai, which was a former presidency town during the British rule in India. Chennai was then known as Madras, and Danibegishvili visited it, writing that “…In this town there are numerous and rare fruit, one of which is the pineapple. The water is good and the soil fertile. Some three versts from this town is the grave of St. Thomas, and six versts from there is the desert where the apostle lived and where now stands a monastery with a splendid church.”
India has had a thriving community of Eastern Orthodox Christians, their church being an Apostolic Church brought by Saint Thomas the Apostle to India, the traditions of Malabar, Coromandel and the Persian Church held that Thomas the Apostle died near the ancient town of Mylapore in India. St. Thomas became a martyr in A.D.72 and was buried in Mylapore, the very place visited by the Georgian traveler Danibegashvili.
Like Chennai, another erstwhile presidency town in India is Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, about which Danibegishvili wrote “…Kalcada is a very beautiful and rather magnificent town. There are many rich people in it. It is situated on the shore of the bay of the Ganges River. Many Armenians reside there. They live a rich and sumptuous life and pursue a thriving trade with foreigners. In addition to Indians, all of whom are generally idolaters, and Mohammedans, the natives proper, there are Englishmen, French and, most of all, Portuguese.”
Benaras is an ancient India city which Danibegishvili visited, and an important center of Shiva worship in Hinduism and Buddhism. Danibegishvili wrote about it in his travelogue that “…This town is revered by the Indians as a Holy City, and for that reason rich Indians who live to an old age leave their families and all their wealth, save for the amount of money required to maintain them for the rest of their lives, and, bidding farewell to their wives and children and to all their kin, go to this town with the intention of dying there. This tradition has become so deep-rooted that they say whoever dies in this town is delivered from all suffering in the future life, even if he deserves such suffering. All the local inhabitants are generally idolaters. They hold the cow in great esteem; even its urine is used to smear on the face and cleanse defiled vessels.”
Danibegishvili also visited the current capital of India, Delhi, and the mountainous region of India known as Kashmir. During my trip to Georgia, I saw the beautiful views of Caucasus mountains in Stepantsminda, where I stayed for two days, visiting the Gergeti Trinity Church and Icon of Elias of Stepantsminda (Saint George of Khedenish). I found Stepantsminda to be very similar to the Kashmir region of India when it comes to nature: while Stepantsminda is located in the Caucasus mountain range, Kashmir is located in Himalayas, and both have amazing natural beauty. Danibegishvili wrote about Kashmir in his travelogue that “…The environs of Kashmir are pleasing to the eye. In summer, the mountains round the town are covered with bright verdure. In the town itself, there are numerous canals, and in the middle is a lake which is nineteen versts in circumference. Near the lake is a mountain on which a stone fort has been built. The water in the lake is very pure, and the lake itself is fairly deep. On Fridays, the people sail on the lake in boats.” Even today, Georgian visitors can see Kashmiris rowing their boats in the Dal Lake.
As per Levan Iosifovich Maruashvili, “Danibegashvili unequivocally sided with India. His sympathies lay with the courageous struggle of the Indian people against invaders, and on two occasions he noted with satisfaction that the English had failed to capture a town.”
The relations between India and Georgia are indeed very old. In 2018, a wall painting titled “Travels of Rafail Danibegashvili” was gifted to the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi.
I hope the people of India and Georgia travel more to each other’s country and learn about each other’s culture, and in this way the diplomatic relations between these two countries will become even stronger. God bless the India-Georgia friendship.
Blog by Arunansh B. Goswami, Historian and Advocate in Supreme Court of India