The Travels of Marco Polo.
Penguin Books, 1958. [PM]
MARCO POLO was born in 1254. the son of Niccolo Polo, a Venetian merchant. His father and uncle had already made one visit to China in 1260 when Marco joined them for the second journey in 1271. They spent the next twenty years travelling in the service of Kubilai Khan. There is evidence that Marco travelled extensively in the Mongol empire, and, although the course of his later travels is open to debate, it is fairly certain that he visited India and made at least one journey from Peking southwest as far as Burma. The Polos' isolation from the West was not total, however, as there was some commerce with the West and an infiltration of Christianity; the barriers only came down again between East and West with the resurgence of Chinese nationalism c.1368. The Polos returned home to Venice by a long route in 1292, and in l298-9 Marco was a prisoner of war at Genoa. It was probably in prison that he met Rustichello of Pisa, a romance-writer. Together they wrote The Travels; a product of an observant merchant and a professional romancer. Marco Polo died in 1324 and left the bulk of his possessions accrued on his travels to be divided between his three daughters.
[PM 78] The people of Kashmir are also idolaters, speaking a language of their own. Their knowledge of devilish enchantments is something marvellous. They make their idols speak. They change the weather by enchantment and bring on thick darkness. They accomplish such marvels by magic and craft that no one who has not seen them could believe them. I may say that they are the past masters of idolatry and it is from them that idols are derived. From this country there is a route leading to the Indian Sea. The inhabitants are brown-skinned and thin; the women are very beautiful, with such beauty as goes with a brown skin. Their diet is flesh and rice. They enjoy a temperate climate, without extremes of heat and cold. They have cities and towns in plenty, as well as forests and deserts and fastnesses so strong that [PM 79] they have no fear of any foe. They maintain their independence under their own kings, who are the upholders of justice. They have hermits according to their own usage, who dwell in their hermitages, practising strict abstinence in eating and drinking and avoidance of all unchastity and taking the utmost pains to commit no sin that is contrary to their law. They are accounted very holy by their own people, and I assure you that they live to a great age; and this avoidance of sin is all exercised for love of their idols. They also have abbeys and monasteries in plenty of their own faith, where the brethren live an austere life and wear tonsures like Dominican and Franciscan friars. The men of this country do not kill animals or shed blood; but certain Saracens who live intermingled with them kill their animals to provide them with food.
[PM 109] You must know that, when the Great Khan was staying in his palace and the weather was rainy or cloudy, he had wise astrologers and enchanters who by their skill and their enchantments would dispel all the clouds and [PM 110] the bad weather from above the palace so that, while bad weather continued all around, the weather above the palace was fine. The wise men who do this are called Tibetans and Kashmiris; these are two races of men who practise idolatry. They know more of diabolic arts and enchantments than any other men. They do what they do by the arts of the Devil; but they make others believe that they do it by great holiness and by the work of God. For this reason they go about filthy and begrimed with no regard for their own decency or for the persons who behold them; they keep the dirt on their faces, never wash or comb, but always remain in a state of squalor. These men have a peculiar custom, of which I will tell you. When a man is condemned to die and is put to death by the authorities, they take the body and cook and eat it. But, if anyone dies a natural death, they would never think of eating him. [Reminds one of the Aghoris]
Here is another remarkable fact about these enchanters, or Bakshi as they are called. [Would Bakshi be a corrupt form of bhakti?] I assure you that, when the Great Khan is seated in his high hall at his table, which is raised more than eight cubits above the floor, and the cups are on the floor of the hall, a good ten paces distant from the table, and are full of wine and milk and other pleasant drinks, these Bakhshi contrive by their enchantment and their art that the full cups rise up of their own accord from the floor on which they have been standing and come to the Great Khan without anyone touching them. And this they do in the sight of l0,000 men. What I have told you is the plain truth without a word of falsehood. And those who are skilled in necromancy will confirm that it is perfectly feasible.
Here is a further fact about these Bakshi. When the feastdays of their idols come round, they go to the Great Khan and say: 'Sire, the feast of such-and-such of our idols is approaching.' And they mention the name of some idol, whichever they [PM 111] may choose, and then continue: 'You are aware, Sire, that it is the practice of this idol to cause bad weather and damage to our property and to cattle and crops unless it receives oblations and holocausts. We accordingly beseech you, Sire, that we may be given so many black-faced sheep, so much incense, so much aloes wood, so much of this and so much of that, so that we may offer great worship and sacrifice to our idols in order that they may save us, our bodies, cattle, and crops.' This they say to the barons who surround the Great Khan and to those who hold authority under him. And these repeat their words to the Great Khan, so that the Bakshi have everything they ask for in order to celebrate the feast of their idol. Thereupon they proceed to perform their rites with much chanting and festivity. For they regale their idols with fragrant incense from these sweet spices; and they cook the meat and set it before them and sprinkle some of the gravy here and there, declaring that the idols are taking as much of it as they want. That is how they do honour to their idols on their feastdays.
You may take it for a fact that all the idols have their own feasts on the days assigned to them, just as our saints have. They have huge monasteries and abbeys, of such a size that I assure you that some resemble small cities inhabited by more than 2,000 monks according to their usage, who are better dressed than other men. They wear their heads and chins cleanshaven. They make the most magnificent feasts for their idols with the most magnificent hymns and illuminations that were ever seen.
A further point about these Bakshi is that among their other privileges they are entitled according to their order to take wives. And so they do, and rear children in plenty.
Besides these there is another order of devotees who are called Sien-seng. They are men of extreme abstinence according to their own observances, and lead a life of great austerity which I will describe to you. The plain truth is that all their lives long they eat nothing but bran, that is to say the husk left over from wheat flour. For they take wheaten grain and put it in hot water and leave it there a little while till all the kernel or marrow is separated from the husk; then they eat the bran that [PM 112] has been washed in this way, without anything to give it a flavour. They fast many times in the year, besides eating absolutely nothing but this bran of which I have told you. They have huge idols, and many of them, and sometimes they worship fire. The other devotees declare that those who live this life of abstinence are heretics, as it were Patarins, because they do not worship their idols in the same manner as the rest. There is one great difference between the two orders of devotees; those who observe the stricter rule would not take a wife for anything in the world. They also have their heads and chins shaven. They wear black and blue robes of sackcloth; if they should happen to wear silk, it is still of the same colours. They sleep on mats of wicker-work. Altogether they lead the most austere lives of any men in the world.
Their idols are all female, that is to say they all bear the names of women.
[PM 158] You must understand that the Tartars according to their ancient customs, before they became familiar with the doctrines of the idolaters, never used to give any alms. Indeed, when a poor man came to them, they would drive him off with maledictions, saying: 'Go with God's curse upon you ! If he had loved you as he loves me, he would have blessed you with prosperity !' But since the sages of the idolaters, in particular the Bakhshi of whom I have spoken above, preached to the Great Khan that it was a good work to provide for the poor and that their idols would be greatly pleased by it, he was induced to make such provision as I have described. No one who cares to go to his court in quest of bread is ever turned away empty-handed. Everyone receives a portion. And not a day passes but twenty or thirty thousand bowls of rice, millet, and panic are doled out and given away by the officials appointed. And this goes on all the year round. For this amazing and stupendous munificence which the Great Khan exercises towards the poor, all the people hold him in such esteem that they revere him as a god.
[PM 279] Among them [the Brahmans] are certain men living under a rule who are called Yogis. They live even longer than the others, as much as 150 or 200 years. And their bodies remain so active that they can still come and go as they will and perform all the services required by their monastery and their idols and serve them just as well as if they were younger. This comes of their great abstinence and of eating very little food and only what is wholesome. For it is their practice to eat chiefly rice and milk. Let me tell you also of a special food they eat, which I am sure will strike you as remarkable. For I assure you that they take quicksilver and sulphur and mix them together and make a drink of them, which they then drink. They declare that this prolongs life, and so they live all the longer. They drink this mixture twice a month, and make a practice of it from childhood in order to live longer. And certainly those who live to such a great age are habituated to this drink of sulphur and quicksilver.
There is a regular religious order in this kingdom of Maabar, of those who are called by this name of Yogi, who carry abstinence to the extremes of which I will tell you and lead a harsh and austere life. You may take it for a fact that they go stark nČked, wearing not a stitch of clothing nor even covering their private parts or any bodily member. They worship the ox, and most of them carry a little ox made of gilt copper or bronze in the middle of the forehead. You must understand that they wear it tied on. Let me tell you further that they burn cow-dung and make a powder of it. With this they anoint various parts of their body with great reverence, no less than Christians display in the use of holy water. If anyone does reverence to them while they are passing in the street, they anoint him with this powder on the forehead in token of blessing. They do not eat out of platters or on trenchers; but they take their food on the leaves of apples of paradise or other big leaves — not green leaves, but dried ones; for they say that the green leaves have souls, so that this would be a sin. For in their dealings with all living creatures they are [PM 280] at pains to do nothing that they believe to be a sin. Indeed they would sooner die than do anything that they deemed to be sinful.
When other men ask them why they go nČked and are not ashamed to show their se+ual member, they say: 'We go nČked because we want nothing of this world. For we came into the world nČked and unclothed. The reason why we are not ashamed to show our member is that we commit no sin with it, so we are not more ashamed to show it than you are when you show your hand or face or any other member which you do not employ in sinful lechery. It is because you employ this member in sin and lechery that you cover it and are ashamed of it. But we are no more ashamed of it than of our fingers, because we commit no sin with it.' Such is the justification they offer to those who ask them why they are not ashamed of their nČkedness. I assure you further that they would not kill any creature or any living thing in the world, neither fly nor flea nor louse nor any other vermin, because they say that they have souls. For the same reason they refuse to eat living things because of the sin they would incur. I assure you that they do not eat anything fresh, either herb or root, until it is dried; because they declare that while they are fresh they have souls. When they wish to relieve their bowels, they go to the beach or the sea-shore and there void their excrement in the sand by the water. Then, after cleansing themselves in the water, they take a stick or rod, with which they spread out their excrement and so crumble it into the sand that nothing is visible. When asked why they do this, they reply: 'This would breed worms. And the worms thus created, when their food was consumed by the sun, would starve to death. And since that substance issues from our bodies - for without food we cannot live - we should incur grievous sin by the death of so many souls created of our substance. Therefore we annihilate this substance, so that no worms may be created from it merely to die of starvation by our guilt and default.' Let me tell you further that they sleep nČked on the ground with nothing under them and nothing over them. It is truly marvellous that they do not die and that they live as long as I have told you. They also practice great abstinence in eating; for they fast all the year round and never drink anything but water.
 Here is something else worth relating. They have their monks who live in monasteries to serve the idols. And this is the probation they must undergo before appointment to the office, when one has died and another is to be chosen in his place. The maidens who are offered to the idols are brought in and made to touch the probationers. They touch them on various parts of the body and embrace and fondle them and instil into them the uttermost of earthly bliss. If the man thus caressed lies completely motionless without any reaction to the maiden's touch, he passes muster and is admitted to their order. If on the other hand his member reacts to the touch, they will not keep him, but expel him forthwith, declaring that there is no place among them for a man of wantonness. So strict are these idolaters and so stubborn in their misbelief.
The reason they give for burning their dead is that if a body were not burnt it would breed worms; and when the worms had eaten it, they would inevitably die. And they say that by their death the souls of the deceased would incur great sin. That is their justification for cremating the dead. And they firmly maintain that worms have souls.