Celebrating 400 years of Pietro Della Valle’s visit to Ikkeri: Glimpse into the past

In 1624, the Italian traveler, Pietro Della Valle embarked on a remarkable journey that led him to southern India. He visits Ikkeri during the reign of Hiriya Venkatappa Nayaka of Ikkeri, providing us with invaluable insights into the region’s rich cultural and historical heritage.

As we mark the 400th anniversary of this significant event, it is fitting to reflect on Della Valle’s observations and their enduring impact on our understanding of 17th-century India.

Pietro Della Valle: The Traveller ,composer, author  and Musicologist:

Pietro Della Valle, born in 1586 in Rome, was not just a traveler but a man of letters and curiosity. His extensive travels took him through the Middle East, Persia, and India, documenting his experiences in detailed letters that offer a vivid account of the places and people he encountered.

Ma‘ani Della Valle, who died in Minab, near Hormuz, in 1621 at the age of 23,her funeral in Rome was in 1626

During his expedition in Baghdad, he married a Babylonian girl named Maani, an Arabic word meaning intelligence. For both, it was love at first sight. He described her beauty, explaining how her eyes were elongated with kohl (kajal). He described her as being from an excellent family, Christian born in Mardin, Turkey, her mother Armenian. Arabic was her native tongue, but she was also well-versed in Turkish.

There was a whirlwind in Pietro Della Valle’s life in 1621 when his beloved wife died in Minab near Hormuz. She was only 23 years old. He felt he couldn’t bear to leave Maani in such a place, so he carried her on his expedition. With the help of locals, he mummified her and sealed her in a coffin to take with him for burial in Italy.

Pietro Della Valle landed at Honnavara (which he calls Onor) on October 18, 1624, coming from Goa. He waited for Venkatappa Nayaka’s firman (official visa) to enter the capital city of Ikkeri. In October, there was news that Venkatappa Nayaka lost his chief wife, Bhadramma. During that time, it was the Deepavali festival.

Della Valle mentioned, ‘They say that 12 or 13 years ago, when she was about 50 years old, Bhadramma heard that Venkatappa Nayaka, her husband, was having an affair with a Moorish woman whom he kept secretly near his palace. Bhadramma first complained to him not only about the wrong he did to her but also about the fact that the woman was from a strange and impure race, drank wine, ate flesh, and indulged in all sorts of uncleanliness. If he had a mind for other women, he need not have wanted for those from our race (Shivabhaktar/Lingavanthar) caste itself.

She swore that she would not be a wife to her husband but instead become his daughter. She followed this vow until her death. Soon after, she fell ill. Although Venkatappa had great affection for his wife and tried to divert her from her purpose and persuade her to continue their marital life, he offered many donations to the temples, including 20,000 pagodas of gold coins. However, all his efforts were in vain, as she adhered to her oath until her death.

Until November 22nd, he will remain in Honnavar until he receives the firman (an official confirmation/visa) to enter Ikkeri.

During his expedition to Ikkeri, he was accompanied by an ambassador of Keladi and a translator, Vittala Shenoy (Vitula Sinay). On his expedition, he first visited Gersoppa and learned about the last queen of Gersoppa, Channa Byradevi, and her relationship with a mean man and a stranger, which led people to blame her character. Seizing this opportunity, the neighboring king Venkatappa invaded Gersoppa and defeated the Portuguese who came to defend it. He took the last queen as a prisoner and carried her to Ikkeri, where she was kept captive and eventually died.

Till Gersoppa, they traveled by boat. However, their large boats couldn’t land at the ordinary landing place in Gersoppa because the river, which discharged into the sea in one stream, divided into many streams and hills started from there.

During his expedition to Ikkeri, he encountered a beautiful river valley, woods, and temple rituals. He saw the practice of coating the pavements of cottages with a mixture of cow dung and water and witnessed a customary temple procession.

On November 6th, he reached the capital house of Venkatappa Nayaka in Ikkeri and described the city. He lodged where the king of Biligi, a close relative of Venkatappa, also stayed. He described the lodging as having small and dark rooms that barely provided enough light to read a letter; they built them this way as a remedy for the intense summer heat.

The next day, he visited King Venkatappa Nayaka dressed in plain black silk as a mourning gesture for his wife. In his writings, he vividly described the palace and his meeting with King Venkatappa Nayaka. During their conversation, the king inquired about the health of the King of Spain. They discussed various business matters, including pepper and horse trading, as well as the construction of a fort at Honnavara. Both sides exchanged gifts as part of their diplomatic interaction.

Representation image : Hampi, Mahanavami Dibba

Pietro Della Valle beautifully describes the customs of the locals in Kolata. The girls adorned their heads with decorations resembling yellow sunbeams and flowers twisted into their hair. They were well-clothed and enjoyed dancing joyfully, singing ‘cole.. cole..’

There, he mentioned a majestic Aghoreshwara temple with chariots accompanied by great music, singing, and dancing. He also described a Jangama sitting in an all-white palanquin, with people honoring him by touching his feet with great respect.”

Sri Aghoreshwara Temple, Ikkeri

The Aghoreshwara temple originally featured a deity with sixteen arms on each side, depicted in human form. Pietro della Valle elaborated on this in his documents. However, now only a Shiva linga remains inside the sanctum, as the original idol was destroyed by Ranadulla Khan of Bijapur’s Adil Shahi army.

He also visited the King’s Garden, a vast field planted with fruit-bearing trees, sugarcane, and other garden plants. Pietro Della Valle also mentions Sadashiva Nayaka, Venkatappa’s sister’s son, who was to succeed to the throne.”

He also mentioned Sagara town and the construction of an artificial lake originally called Sadashiva Sagara, now known as Ganapathi Kere.

He also documented the practice of sati, where he encountered a woman during a horse procession between Ikkeri and Sagara. He described her as elegantly dressed, holding a lemon in one hand and a mirror in the other, as per the customs of the sati system.

Masthi kallu(Sati stone) memorial stone,right hand rising towards heaven which symbolizes blessings to all with lemon and another hand with a pot of oil.

She belonged to the (Telinga)Telugu race. When her husband died, within 11 days she decided to end her life as an honor to him, following the custom of sati prevalent in India at that time. Although he tried to persuade her not to follow this custom as barbaric, the lady insisted on preparing herself for this great sacrifice of her life.

He contributed by documenting her story, believing her name should remain immortalized in the world through his writings.

Pietro Della Valle documented the procession at Aghoreshwara temple on the eve of Karthika masa (an auspicious month in Hinduism), describing the lighting in temples and the abundance of torches lining the streets.

He also wrote about the food customs inside the palace, where abundant sweets, fruits, rice, butter, and milk were served, but no meat. Because the king belonged to the Lingayat caste, they abstained from eating both flesh and fish, as explained by Vittala Shenoy.

He also mentioned that while returning to Honnavara, the highways of Venkatappa Nayaka were very secure, with only himself and a few hired laborers crossing the path without harm from thieves. Furthermore, his expedition included a meeting with the Queen of Ullal, Rani Abbakadevi Chowta.

Pietro Della Valle’s character and actions can be seen in different lights based on historical perspectives:
  • Views on Queen Ullala**: His description of Queen Ullala’s appearance and behavior might be interpreted as culturally insensitive or biased, reflecting common European attitudes of his time towards non-European cultures.
  • Visit to Daiva Temple**: His action of spitting in the Daiva temple((bermer sthaana?)  and his subsequent reflection on the lack of consequence could be seen as disrespectful towards local religious beliefs. However, his observation about the perceived powerlessness of the local spirits might suggest a sceptical or rationalist viewpoint rather than malice.
  • Criticism of Sati System**: His condemnation of the Sati system as barbaric shows a moral stance against certain traditional practices that he found unjust or inhumane.

Ultimately, whether Pietro Della Valle was considered wicked or virtuous depends on the context and the cultural and moral standards of his time. Some of his actions and writings might be viewed as insensitive or disrespectful today, but he also showed empathy and moral conviction in criticizing practices he deemed unjust. His complex portrayal in historical documents allows for differing interpretations of his character.

The Legacy of Della Valle’s Visit Della Valle’s visit to Ikkeri has left an indelible mark on historical scholarship. His detailed accounts have been invaluable to historians and researchers studying the history of southern India. The 400th anniversary of his visit serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving and celebrating our cultural heritage. It also underscores the significance of intercultural exchanges and the enduring value of historical documentation.

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