Great Journeys – Marco Polo

October 7, 2012 at 8:02 pm (Education, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Title: The Customs of the Kingdoms of India

Author: Marco Polo

Publisher: Penguin Books

Length: 86 pages

Inspired by the Great Ideas series, Penguin Books printed a Great Journeys companion series as well.  From Herodotus to George Orwell, the series chronicles twenty of the most famous and intriguing adventurers in history.  Third in this series is Marco Polo’s journey to South Asia, where he discusses the culture, the economy, the industry, religious practices and more.

I picked this book up for two simples facts: 1. I am collecting all of Penguin Books Great Ideas publications and 2. There are elephants on the front cover.  I adore elephants.  They are powerful, dignified, trustworthy, humorous, and endearing.  Marco Polo’s The Customs of the Kingdoms of India has little do with elephants.  Actually, I’m pretty sure it has absolutely nothing to do with elephants.  Of course, that’s not the point, elephants are broadly recognized as a symbol of India/ South Asia, so naturally they would be an image of choice for the front cover of an Indian travel book.

Marco Polo does not go into great detail about how the elephants are used as means of transportation, status symbols, work beasts, and more.  He mentions them in passing, but says in the places he visits, they are not indigenous to the area but imported from other islands.  He does, however, discuss the art of physiognomy, which immediately made me think of the science fiction piece by Jeffrey Ford called The Physiognomy, a weird but interesting read.  Marco Polo talks about the tarantulas, infestations of lizards, mentions the giraffes and lions, and talks very highly of their hens which he considers “the prettiest hens to be seen anywhere.”

Did Marco Polo’s “prettiest hens” look like these?

Apparently, in South Asia, hens represent prosperity, and today you can buy ‘prosperity hens,’ little talismans similar to a rabbit’s foot. Of course, Marco Polo again does not go into detail regarding this, he merely mentions their beauty and moves on. Marco Polo’s writing is that of traveling merchant. He chronicles quick and simple descriptions that would be useful for a businessman, but avoids the great detail of a philosopher or anthropologist. The things that strike his fancy for elaboration are the rituals that would intrigue a vendor, rather than those that would fascinate a theology student. Where he does talk about religion, it seems to be in a political and historically informative way to help you understand a province as a whole, moving quickly to the supplies they live on because of their past. Like a professional trader, he wishes to dwell on the rice, the wheat, and the growth of cotton.  Respect for various people groups and villages he encounters is highly dependant on how much they function on industry and marketplaces.

I don’t believe Marco Polo to be much of a writer, and I think his accounts would have benefited from being written while on his voyage.  But according to historians, he dictated these adventures of sailing the Indian Ocean later to a fellow inmate in prison.  This practice of dictation could have played a role in his style of often informing his reader “I will tell you how” and “I will describe to you,” as well as “let me tell you why” and so on; repetitive and unnecessary phrases that, quite frankly, annoyed me.

Still, this concise 86 page piece is interesting, and a great addition to any young scholar’s library.  It would be a wonderful supplement to a world geography study on South Asia for a middle grade student and could open up a lot of dialogue between teachers and students regarding history, religious practices, other cultures, world economies, and more.

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1 Comment

  1. Great Journeys – Marco Polo | Home Far Away From Home said,

    […] The Customs of the Kingdoms of India Author: Marco Polo Publisher: Penguin Books Length: 86 psource This entry was posted in asia by poster. Bookmark the […]

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