Escape from Delhi to the Maldive Islands and Sri Lanka: 1341 - 1344

Ibn Battuta route from India to Sri Lanka and Maldives

"It is easy to marry in these islands because of the smallness of the dowries and the pleasures of society which the women offer... When the ships put in, the crew marry; when they intend to leave they divorce their wives. This is a kind of temporary marriage. The women of these islands never leave their country."

Escape from Delhi

Ibn Battuta had feared for his life working as a judge under the moody and tyrannical Sultan of India, Muhammad Tughluq. But the Sultan had a task in mind, one that Ibn Battuta found fascinating. He wanted to make Ibn Battuta his ambassador to the Mongol court of China. He would accompany 15 Chinese messengers back to their homeland and carry shiploads of gifts to the emperor. Now he could get away from Muhammad Tughluq and visit more lands (in and out of Dar al-Islam) in a grand style!

In 1341 Ibn Battuta set out from Delhi at the head of a group bound for China. Gifts from Muhammad Tughluq to the Mongol Emperor included 200 Hindu slaves, singers and dancers, 15 pages (boy servants), 100 horses, and great amounts of cloth, dishes, and swords. There were about 1,000 soldiers under his command to protect the treasure and supplies until they could board ships to China.

A few days outside of Delhi the group was attacked by about 4,000 Hindu rebels. Although vastly outnumbered, Ibn Battuta claimed that they defeated the rebels easily. Later, there was another attack and Ibn Battuta was separated from his companions. Suddenly a force of Hindus jumped out of the woods. Ten horsemen chased him at full gallop across the fields. He was able to outride three of them, and then hid from the rest in a deep ditch. After escaping, he was again confronted, this time by forty Hindus who robbed him of everything except his shirt, pants, and cloak. Some robbers kept their prisoner in a cave overnight and planned his death in the morning. Fortunately, Ibn Battuta (who now had almost nothing more to rob), was able to convince his captors to let him go in exchange for his clothes.

camel image to indicate side trip Side Trip: Was conflict between religious groups a common Problem?

Eight days later, exhausted, barefooted and wearing nothing but his trousers, Ibn Battuta was rescued by a Muslim who carried him to a village. Two days later he rejoined the party and was ready to proceed on his original mission to China.

The group continued to Daulatabad without further trouble. There they entered the city's fort which was surrounded by a wall 80 to 120 feet high on all sides and two and a half miles long. Here they were safe. In two years this fort would be taken over by rival officers in rebellion against Sultan Muhammad Tughluq and they would start an independent Muslim kingdom.

After a few days rest they continued to the coastal city of Cambay filled with foreign traders who lived in fine homes. Within days the group was at Gandhar where they boarded four ships. Three were large dhows to carry to the gifts, including the 100 horses and 215 slaves and pages. The fourth was a war ship which carried soldiers to defend them against attack from pirates. (About half of the soldiers were from Africa and were skilled archers and spear throwers.)

Devagiri-Daulatabad Fort

These are the ruins of the Dalautabad fort, where Ibn Battuta's party stopped.

By Jonathanawhite at English Wikipedia, Public Domain


Song Dynasty JunkUsing the monsoon winds to propel them, the four ships headed south and arrived in the port of Calicut. There they were received with "drums, trumpets, horns, and flags... We entered the harbor amid great ovation [cheering] and pomp, the likes of which I have not seen in these parts." In the same harbor were 13 Chinese junks, probably much like the Song-era ship shown in this drawing. The junks were much larger ships than the dhows he had sailed on in the Indian Ocean. Ibn Battuta was impressed with the Chinese junks. They were much larger than a dhow, some with five decks and five masts or more! They had interior cabins and even private lavatories! The crew of a junk might be up to 1,000 workers! (Ibn Battuta did note that they weren't as safe as a dhow when travelling close to the shore). It would be on three of these large ships that they would continue to China. So the crew transferred the gifts including horses and slaves to the junks. Ibn Battuta spent the day in the mosque and planned to board the ship that afternoon.

But before he got on his ship, a terrible event occurred. A violent storm came up. Because the harbor was not very deep, the captains of the junks ordered the ships to wait out the storm in deeper water out to sea. Ibn Battuta waited helplessly on the beach all night and the next morning watched in horror as two ships were pushed onto shore, broke apart, and sank. Some of the crew on one of the junks were saved, but no one survived from the other ship - the one that he was supposed to be on.

"The slaves, pages, and horses were all drowned, and the precious wares either sank or washed up on the beach, where the [governor's soldiers] struggled to prevent the townsfolk from making off with the loot." [Dunn, pg. 225.]

The other ship carried Ibn Battuta's luggage, servants, and slave-girls - one of whom was carrying his child. The captain of that ship had set sail for China without him or the goods that he was to present to the Emperor of China.

Ibn Battuta was now alone, penniless, and ashamed - a failure as the leader for the trip to China for the Sultan of Delhi - but lucky to be alive. There was still a chance that he could catch up with the other ship, so he tried to track it down. After ten days he arrived in another port and waited for the ship which never turned up. (About three months later he learned that it had reached Indonesia and was seized by an "infidel" (i.e. non-Muslim) king of Sumatra. The slave-woman who was carrying Ibn Battuta's child had died. His other slaves and his possessions were taken by the king of Sumatra.)

Where was he to go? He wanted to return to the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq, but he feared that he would be executed for his failed trip. He decided it was safer to seek employment and protection from another Muslim sultan in southern India. To gain favor with this sultan Ibn Battuta actually joined in a day-long battle:

"On Monday evening we reached Sandapur and entered its creek and found the inhabitants ready for the fight. They had already set up catapults. So we spent the night near the town and when the morning came drums were beaten, trumpets sounded and horns were blown, and the ships went forward. The inhabitants shot at them with the catapults, and I saw a stone hit some people standing near the sultan. The crews of the ships sprang into the water, shield and sword in hand... I myself leapt with the rest into the water... We rushed forward sword in hand. The greater part of the heathens took refuge in the castle of their ruler. We set fire to it, whereupon they came out and we took them prisoner. The sultan pardoned them and returned them to their wives and children... And he gave me a young female prison... Her husband wished to ransom her but I refused." [Dunn, p. 227]

But when the next battle seemed to be an inevitable defeat, Ibn Battuta somehow managed to escape through the battle lines and headed down the coast reaching Calicut for the fifth time. Here he decided to continue on to China on his own. He knew that he could find hospitality in the Muslim communities along the way.

So he decided to continue on to China on his own. But again, he chose to take the long way - this time to make a brief tour of the Maldive Islands, then continue to Sri Lanka to make a pilgrimage to the sacred Adam's Peak. After that he would go on to China.

Map of Ibn Battuta's route in Maldives and Sri Lanka

The Maldive Islands

The Maldive Islands are a tiny nation located in the Indian Ocean southwest of India and Sri Lanka. The country is an archipelago of 26 small atolls. These islands rise only a few feet above the surface of the sea and stretch for about 475 miles like a white pearl necklace.

cowrie shellsThe Maldive Islands were important in medieval times for their exports: coconut fiber used to make ropes and cowrie shells (shown to the left) which were used as currency (money) in Malaysia and in parts of Africa. About the middle of the twelfth century the people of Maldives converted from Buddhism to Islam when a pious Muslim from north Africa rid the land of a terrible demon. (The demon had demanded a young virgin each month - and the Muslim hero offered to take the place of the girl. Before the sacrifice, he recited the Qur'an throughout the night, and the demon could do nothing out of fear of the Sacred Word.) 

Ibn Battuta had not planned to spend much time here as he arrived at the capital, Male. But the rulers happened to be looking for a chief judge, someone who knew Arabic and the laws of the Qur'an. The rulers were delighted to find a visitor that fit their requirements. They sent Ibn Battuta slave girls, pearls, and gold jewelry to convince him to stay. They even made it impossible for him to arrange to leave by ship - so like it or not, he stayed. He agreed to remain there with some conditions, however: he would not go about Male on foot, but be carried in a litter or ride on horseback, just like the king or queen! He even took another wife after staying there less than two months, a noblewoman related to the queen. It seems as though Ibn Battuta was playing politics. He was now part of the royal family and the most important judge.

He set about his duties as a judge with enthusiasm and tried with all his might to establish the rule of strict Muslim law and change local customs. He ordered that any man who failed to attend Friday prayer was to be whipped and publicly disgraced. Thieves had their right hands cut off, and he ordered women who went "topless" to cover up. "I strove to put an end to this practice and commanded the women to wear clothes; but I could not get it done."

He took three more wives who also had powerful social connections, and seems to brag: "After I had become connected by marriage ... the [governor] and the people feared me, for they felt themselves to be weak."

And so he began to make enemies, especially the governor. After nasty arguments and political plots, Ibn Battuta decided to leave after almost nine months in the islands. He quit his job as qadi, though he really would have been fired. He took three of his wives with him, but he divorced them all after a short time. One of them was pregnant. He stayed on another island, and there he married two more women, and divorced them, too. 

Creeping seas threaten tiny island chain of Maldives

You may be familiar with the Maldives because of the vocal activism of their former President, Mohamed Nasheed. He made appearances on numerous American talk shows, as well as in numerous venues around the world, to try to raise awareness of the dire effects of sea-level rise on his nation. This video describes the issue.