Field of Bones
Charles Nicholl writes about the last journey of Thomas Coryate, the English fakir and legstretcher
The old fortress city of Mandu stands high on a rocky plateau above the plains of central India. It is entered from the north; after a tortuous dusty ascent from Dhar, the road squeezes between two stone bastions and enters through the Delhi Darwaza, or Delhi Gate, where the remains of inset blue enamel can be seen on the dilapidated sandstone archways. Up this road and through this gate, on a day in late August or early September 1617, came the eccentric English author, polyglot and traveller Thomas Coryate. He was a smallish, bearded man with a long, rather lugubrious face – ‘the shape of his head’, according to one description, was ‘like a sugar-loaf inverted, with the little end before’. He wore simple native clothes, and was thin to the point of emaciation. He had travelled down from the city of Agra, four hundred miles to the north, and it is a fairly safe bet that he had done so on foot.
Coryate is not much heard of nowadays, but in his time he was famous. I have always been curious about him, and finding myself in India earlier this year I decided to visit some of the cities associated with his last journey, of which very little is known. He had, and still has, a paradoxical reputation. On the one hand, he was a kind of comedian, a learned buffoon, a butt for courtly wits and poets like John Donne and Ben Jonson, who both knew him well. On the other hand, he was the immensely tough and courageous traveller, whose remarkable journeys through Europe and Asia were made almost entirely on foot. This is the boast entailed in his favourite description of himself as a ‘legstretcher’; he also styled himself a ‘Propatetique’, in other words ‘a walker forward on feete’ (as opposed to a ‘peripatetic’ who merely walks around). Both these reputations, the comic and the adventurer, were diligently cultivated by Coryate – he was a great self-publicist – and both are expressed in his best-known book, Coryats Crudities, published in 1611. The Crudities gives an exhaustive account of his travels in Europe, but his long peregrinations in the East are more sparsely documented. His last extant writing is a letter from Agra to his mother, dated 31 October 1616. By the time he reaches Mandu he is travelling – textually at least – in silence.
Having completed whatever formalities were required by the Mughal guard at the gate, he made his way to a disused mosque close to the southern escarpment of the plateau. Here he found other Englishmen, about half a dozen of them, with assorted servants and stragglers. Though you would not think it to look at them, this bedraggled little band constituted the first official English embassy to India. The flag of St George fluttered above their bivouac. The Ambassador was Sir Thomas Roe, a tough, intelligent, rather prickly man – a kind of blueprint for future administrators of British India. He had been in Mandu six months, grappling with exhaustion and acute dysentery, and dancing attendance on the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the ‘World Grasper’, whose whimsical progress he was forced to follow. Roe knew Coryate quite well. They had first met in England, in the courtly ambit of Henry, Prince of Wales, and Coryate had been loosely attached to the Embassy since Roe’s arrival in India two years previously. The Ambassador had an ambivalent attitude to this eccentric but deeply experienced traveller. Also in the English party was the embassy chaplain, a young man called Edward Terry. Years later, Terry published a memoir of his Indian travels, and this obscure volume – A Voyage to East India (1655) – contains almost the only information we have about Coryate’s last months.
Coryate was by then in his early forties, but his years in India had taken their toll. Already the omens were bad, as a recollection of Terry’s shows:
Upon a time, he being at Mandoa with us, and there standing in a room against a stone pillar, where the Embassadour was, and myself present with them, upon a sudden he fell into such a swoon that we had very much ado to recover him out of it. But at last come to himself, he told us that some sad thoughts had immediately before presented themselves to his fancy, which (as he conceived) put him into that distemper; like Fannius in Martial, Ne moriare mori: to prevent death by dying.
These intimations of mortality proved accurate, for it was from Mandu that Coryate set out on his last journey, which ended in his death, at the Indian port of Surat, in December 1617.
Thomas Coryate or Coriat was a Somerset man, born in about 1576 in the village of Odcombe, where his father was rector. He habitually attached the adjective ‘Odcombian’ (or ‘Odcombiensis’) to himself and his productions, both out of genuine local pride and because the name accorded so well with his own celebrated oddity: ‘Tom of Odcombe, that odd jovial author,’ Jonson calls him. After schooling at Winchester he went up to Oxford, where he ‘attained to admirable fluency in the Greek tongue’ but left without taking a degree.
What we know of the Elizabethan Coryate is unremarkable. As an example of self-fashioning, he is an essentially Jacobean product. Sometime after the accession of King James in 1603, he gained entry to the court of the precocious young Prince of Wales. According to Bishop Fuller, ‘Prince Henry allowed him a pension and kept him for his servant. Sweetmeats and Coryate made up the last course on all court entertainments.’ In fact, his status was probably not as formal as this implies: no record remains of any pension, and his name does not appear on the extant check-rolls (1603 and 1610) of the Prince’s household. He did, however, find some kind of niche in Henry’s circle as a jester or entertainer.
Coryate is part of a definable sub-group of Elizabethan and Jacobean entertainers, who were not wholly actors or writers or orators or clowns, but a little of each, and who achieved a brief popularity as ‘characters’ playing a kind of burlesque version of themselves. These are men like the braggadocio Peter Shakerly; the railer Charles Chester, who was the model for Carlo Buffone in Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour; Humfrey King, the poetic tobacconist; the barber-surgeons Tom Tooley and Richard Lichfield; the tavern joker John Stone. These loquacious oddballs found a small economic niche as ad hoc entertainers; they are haunters of St Paul’s Churchyard and the Inns of Court, of revels and convivia.
We have no first-hand record of a Coryate entertainment, but we have plenty of clues. Fuller says: ‘he was the courtiers’ anvil to try their wits upon, and sometimes this anvil returned the hammers as hard knocks as it received . . . Few would be found to call him fool, might none do it save such who had as much learning as himself.’ Learning was probably the chief feature of Coryate’s act – classical tags and jocular neologisms abound in his published texts. His speciality was the comic oration. In a letter to Sir Edward Philips, the Somerset landowner who probably introduced him to Prince Henry, he refers to his ‘linsey-wolsey orations’ and ‘extravagant discourses’. Elsewhere he mentions a certain ‘harangue’ he delivered to the Prince. He was fond of a tiresome literary game called ‘Macaronicks’ – doggerel verses full of foreign words and mock-Latinisms – and this was probably part of his patter, too. He comes across as a combative, bombastic, scruffy, garrulous figure, the scatterbrain among the smoothies of the Jacobean court.
In 1608, at the age of 32, he set out on the European journey which made his name. (It may have been the death of his father in the previous year that made this financially possible.) There was an element of the publicity stunt about it. Will Kemp, the comic, had morris-danced from London to Norwich in 1599 and published a book about it, Kemps Nine Daies Wonder; Coryate walking through Europe was a similar stunt. This is not to deny the genuine hunger for travel that impelled it. ‘There hath itched a very burning desire in me,’ he wrote, ‘to survey and contemplate some of the chiefest parts of this goodly fabric of the world.’
By his own estimate, Coryate covered 1975 miles in a little over five months, and visited 45 cities. He then settled back in his study at Odcombe, and painstakingly relived the journey on paper. The book took him three years to write and in the first edition runs to 654 pages. Its full title is itself a small masterpiece:
Coryats Crudities, Hastily gobled up in five Moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Grisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of High Germany and the Netherlands; Newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the County of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this Kingdome.
‘Crudities’ is to be taken in the French sense, crudités – pieces of raw food, or in this case pieces of raw experience, ‘hastily gobbled up’ on the journey and now ‘digested’ back home and ‘dispersed’ to his readers. The metaphor inescapably suggests the travel book as a kind of post-prandial fart.
The title page is adorned with engravings depicting noteworthy comic events during the journey – his seasickness on the crossing to Calais, the time he slept in straw and was pissed on by a horse, his altercation with certain Jews in Venice from whom he fled in fear of being forcibly circumcised. In pride of place is the portrait of Coryate engraved by William Hole; around its cartouche lounge a trio of bosomy courtesans, one of whom is shown vomiting over his head. Another illustration by Hole, inserted in the text, shows Coryate bowing in greeting to a famous Venetian courtesan, Margarita Emiliana. The picture suggests a misplaced gravitas which is comic and slightly poignant. This diminutive cavaliere (‘Il Signior Tomaso Odcombiano’) with his solemn, elongated face and his Jimmy Hill beard has his eyes lowered, for the point of it all is his pilgrim-like abstinence from her proffered charms: ‘As for thine eyes,’ runs the text nearby, ‘shut them and turn them aside from these venerous Venetian objects; for they are the double windows that convey them to thy heart.’
Various literary luminaries contributed verses to the Crudities, among them Donne, Jonson, Hugh Holland and John Davies of Hereford. Other contributors included Lionel Cranfield, later Earl of Middlesex; Sir Henry Goodyer, the patron of the poet Drayton; and the architect Inigo Jones. The vein is one of mock-commendation, but the sheer bulk of the endorsements gives the publication the buzz of a literary event. In the autumn of 1611, Coryate was guest of honour at a gathering at the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street. This ‘Convivium Philosophicum’ is celebrated in a dog-Latin poem which was read out on the occasion. Most of it is a mock-heroic eulogy of Coryate himself, but many who contributed verses to the Crudities are also addressed in it, and were perhaps present at the party (Donne is ‘Factus’, Cranfield is ‘Gruicampus’). Following the success of the Crudities, Coryate hastily knocked up a sequel, a second course which he called Coriats Crambe Biscoctum – ‘Coryate’s Twice-cooked Cabbage’.
The Crudities is a triumph of self-advertisement. In a year not short of literary achievements – The Tempest and The Alchemist were on stage, Donne was writing the Holy Sonnets, the King James Bible was published – this big bubble of a book was noticed. But it also has more solid virtues. After the extended badinage of the prefatory matter, the actual travelogue is delivered in a direct, unfussy style. Jonson hits the right note when he calls Coryate a ‘bold carpenter of words’. Much of the text is practical, indeed statistical (journey times, populations, dimensions of notable buildings). It was a useful book as well a caper; travellers carried it with them as a vade mecum or guidebook. Coryate met the adventurer Sir Robert Shirley in the hinterlands of Persia, and was chuffed when he took ‘both my bookes neatly kept’ from his luggage.
In the autumn of 1612 Coryate left England, for what would prove to be the last time, en route for the East. Sometime before leaving he bequeathed his old travelling shoes to the parish church at Odcombe. They were still to be seen hanging there in the 18th century. Having meandered around Asia Minor and the Holy Land for some time, he set out from Jerusalem for lesser-known territories in April 1614. At Aleppo he waited for a caravan; he wrote up some notes on his journey, a few of which survive, and some letters which are lost. He set out, en caravane, in September 1614, and within a few days crossed the Euphrates into Mesopotamia. He visited Ur (or Orfah), ‘a very delicate and pleasant city’. It was the birthplace of the biblical Abraham, but the diligent enquirer ‘could see no part of the ruins of the house where that faithful servant of God was born’. Four days out of Ur he waded across the Tigris, finding it ‘so shallow that it reached no higher than the calf of my leg’. From there he travelled through Armenia and Persia to ‘Spahan’ (Isfahan), where he waited once more ‘for an opportunity of caravans to travel withal’. The caravan he joined consisted of two thousand camels, fifteen hundred horses, eighteen hundred mules and asses and six thousand people.
Four months out of Isfahan, Coryate crossed ‘the famous river Indus which is as broad again as our Thames at London’ and not long after arrived at Lahore, which he found to be ‘one of the largest cities in the whole universe, for it containeth at least xvi miles in compass, and exceedeth Constantinople itself in greatness’. Having rested here he set off for Agra, the capital of the Mughal empire. He found it a ‘goodly city’ (although he could not see its chief attraction of today, the Taj Mahal, which was only built in the 1620s by Emperor Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan). From Agra he turned west to Ajmer, where the itinerant Mughal court was currently established. He arrived around the middle of July 1615, and was hospitably received by the small group of English merchants resident there. Here, at the English ‘factory’, he set up his staff and settled in to rest – and to write – after this incredibly tough journey.
From Jerusalem to Ajmer, he estimated, was a distance of 2700 miles, and he had ‘traced all this tedious way afoot’. It had taken him ‘fifteen months and odd days’, though nearly six months of this was spent waiting for caravans in Aleppo and Isfahan. He was on the road for about nine months, covering an average of seventy miles a week in extremely harsh conditions. He is particularly emphatic about the economies of his travel. ‘Betwixt Aleppo and the Mughal’s court’, he spent just three pounds, ‘yet fared reasonably well every day’. Of that three pounds, moreover, he was ‘cozened of no less than ten shillings by certain lewd Christians of the Armenian nation’.
In November 1615, he despatched four long newsletters to England giving the details of his itinerary. One of them is addressed to the ‘Fraternitie of Sireniacal Gentlemen that meet the first Fridaie of every month at the signe of the Mere-maid in Bread streete in London’. This is the only documentary reference to the much-bruited Mermaid ‘club’, whose membership has been imaginatively expanded to include Shakespeare. These newsletters were collected and printed in a short pamphlet entitled Thomas Coriate, Traveller for the English Witts: Greeting. The title-page has a woodcut of Coryate riding an elephant.
Coryate stayed at the Ajmer factory for over a year, an honoured guest (or inveterate sponger), ‘not spending one little piece of money’. His hosts included the East India Company’s agent at the Mughal court, William Edwards, and the company chaplain, Peter Rogers, who carried his newsletters back to England. On 22 December 1615, Coryate was among the reception committee assembled outside Ajmer to welcome Roe as the new Ambassador. He insisted on greeting the exhausted Roe – who was in his own words ‘scarce a crow’s dinner’ – with a long oration. Roe describes him in his journal as ‘the famous unwearied walker, Tho. Coryatt, who on foote had passed most of Europe and Asya and was now in India, beeing but the beginning of his travells.’ The nonchalant flourish at the end sounds like a Coryate catchphrase echoed verbatim. In a letter from India to Lord Pembroke, Roe speaks warmly of Coryate, ‘whom the fates have sent hither to ease me’, but it was not long before tensions arose between them. The cause of this was Coryate’s addressing an oration, in his newly acquired Persian, to Emperor Jahangir. He did this without Roe’s permission, knowing the latter would have ‘stopped and barricadoed all my proceeding therein’. Roe was furious when he found out: it was, he said, ‘to the dishonour of our nation that one of our country should present himself in that beggarly and poor fashion to the King, out of an insinuating humour to crave money from him’. Coryate says he answered the Ambassador in ‘stout and resolute’ terms, and so constrained him ‘to cease nibbling at me’.
The text of Coryate’s oration to Jahangir is given, in both Persian and English, in his last letter to his mother. It begins: ‘Lord Protector of the World, all hail to you. I am a poore traveller and world-seer, which am come hither from a farre country.’ In the original Persian, Coryate uses the word fakir to describe himself. A similar idea is found in Edward Terry’s retelling of this episode, which concludes: ‘The Mogul gave him one hundred rupees, looking upon him as a derveese or votary or pilgrim, for so he called him.’ One glimpses here, fossilised in these texts, an emergent new identity. In the context of the Jacobean court he could only be a buffoon; in India he is the wandering fakir or dervish. It is a small shift, but one feels it mattered to him. It is an achieving of dignity.
In early 1617 he was wandering again – to Hardwar, to celebrate the Hindu new year, and to Kangra, where he visited the temples of Mata Devi and ‘Jallamakee’ (Jawala Mukki). He was back in Agra by early July. On 20 July, from Mandu, Roe wrote to the English factors in Agra; he had heard of Coryate’s return, and asked to know what his plans were – ‘for England or stay; or if I take any new course, whither he will go with me.’ The interesting subtext of this note is that Roe seems to need, or anyway value, Coryate’s presence in his retinue.
On the strength of this letter, Coryate decided to head down to Mandu, where he arrived, as we have seen, around the beginning of September 1617.
Mandu today is a ghost city, a reverie of deserted palaces, pavilions, mosques, tombs and great stonework watertanks the size of small lakes. An old Sanskrit inscription shows there was a hill-fort on the site at least as early as the sixth century, but the city’s heyday was in the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was entirely rebuilt by the Muslim sultans ruling the region. The style is Afghan: sumptuous in scale, austere in mood, and – judging by the current state of preservation – remarkably strong in construction. The city’s fortunes changed in 1561, when the last Sultan of Mandu, Baz Bahadur, was defeated by Mughal forces; thereafter Mandu became a distant and increasingly neglected outpost of the Mughal empire. Today there is just a small village, straggling around a crossroads, surrounded by the empty hulks of the old city brooding quietly in the sun.
It seems a suitable place to search for ghosts, but that of Coryate – ‘who while he lived was like a perpetual motion’ – is hard to pin down. Where exactly was the mosque which housed him and the British Embassy in Mandu? Some sketchy information is given in Roe’s journal (or rather in the precis of it published by Samuel Purchas in 1625; Roe’s original journal for this period is lost). He describes the site as a mosque and tomb enclosed within a spacious ‘well-walled courtyard’. He says that it was on the southern side of the settlement, near a precipice leading down to the river Narbada; and that it was some two miles from the palace which housed Jahangir and his court.
There are two mosques in Mandu which broadly fit these specifications, though neither does so completely. They are the Mali Mughid mosque, and a smaller unnamed one to the west of Rupumati’s Pavilion. Neither is two miles from the royal enclave: the small mosque is the further of the two, but it is no more than a mile. Mali Mughid has the ‘well-walled courtyard’ and a large tomb next to it. The small mosque stands on the precipice overlooking the Narbada; Mali Mughid does not, though it does stand near a precipice overlooking a tributary, the Nala. In the heat of the day the colonnades of Mali Mughid are a refuge. I contemplate the rows of honey-coloured columns – earlier Hindu work incorporated into the 15th-century mosque – and wonder if one of them is the ‘stone pillar’ against which Coryate was leaning when he passed out in the presence of Roe and Terry. Physical sensation is the only bridge back to Coryate in Mandu – the flinty pathways beneath his feet, the elephantine trunks of the baobab trees, the moonlight on the water tanks, the chatter of beautiful Bhil tribeswomen, the strident chirruping of the giant fruitbats that rise up over the Kapoor Tank on wings of polished black leather.
On his arrival at Mandu, Coryate shared quarters with Edward Terry. Thereafter, says Terry, ‘he was either my chamber-fellow or tent-mate, which gave me a full acquaintance of him.’ Terry was in his mid-twenties, a mild-mannered, devout young Oxford graduate. Roe thought him ‘sober, honest and civil’, and found him a source of strength in these testing circumstances. He had originally signed up as ship’s chaplain aboard an East India Company merchantman, the Charles, but on his arrival in India in 1616 had been co-opted into Roe’s Embassy, whose previous chaplain had died.
Terry gives an acute sketch of Coryate’s charms and flaws, as they seemed to him on those long days together in Mandu:
He was a man with a very coveting eye, that could never be satisfied with seeing (as Salomon speaks, Eccles. ii 8), though he had seen very much; and I am persuaded that he took as much content in seeing as many others in the enjoying of great and rare things. He was a man that had got the mastery of many hard languages . . . If he had obtained wisdom to husband and manage them, as he had skill to speak them, he had deserved more fame in his generation. But his knowledge and high attainments in several languages made him not a little ignorant of himself, he being so covetous, so ambitious of praise that he would hear and endure more of it than he could in any measure deserve; being like a ship that hath too much sail and too little ballast.
This catches something of the man – the infectious curiosity, the buttonholing manner, the sensitivities not quite concealed behind the big words and florid gestures. There is a note of dismissiveness in the opinions of those who knew him, a shake of the head: he does not quite add up to what he might have been. He was a verbal performer; in the pages of the Crudities, in his many harangues and orations, in the picaresque narrative of his own travels, the show goes on. He has Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’, which may be a front or may be himself, and not even he knows which. This is the fascination of Coryate’s silence. Without the words, without the elaborated Odcombian persona, what exactly is left?
Even here at Mandu, however, he is not entirely silent. There remain a few scattered notes from his hand, which were preserved after his death by Roe and were later published by Purchas. One of these, at least, was demonstrably written at Mandu. It concerns the dire water shortage – Roe complains frequently about it – caused by Jahangir’s sudden descent on the town. It reads: ‘Remember the charitie of two great men that, in the time of this great drought were at the charge of sending ten camels with twenty persons every day to a river called Narbode’ – Narbada – ‘for water, and did distribute the water to the poor; which was so dear that they sold a little skin for eight pise.’ The theme of this last fragment is the bleak struggle for survival.
On 24 October 1617, Jahangir’s imperial circus pulled out of Mandu, its destination uncertain. Roe was obliged to follow, noting gloomily that he was ‘very weak, and not like to recover upon daily travell in the fields with cold raw muddie water’. The Embassy decamped on 29 October, with Coryate in the company, and caught up with the Emperor’s cavalcade in the plains around Dhar. Here two episodes occurred, recorded by Terry, which show the continued gnawing ambiguity of Coryate’s status. On 2 November an East India Company adventurer named Richard Steele arrived at the English camp, bearing some long-awaited pearls which Roe had promised the Emperor. Steele told Coryate that when he was last in England, King James himself had ‘enquired after’ Coryate. He then maliciously added that when he told the King he had met Coryate in India, the King replied: ‘Is that fool yet living?’ When Coryate heard this, ‘it seemed to trouble him very much, because the king spake no more nor no better of him; saying that kings would speak of poor men what they pleased.’
The second slight came in the form of a letter of recommendation penned for him by Roe, addressed to Libbeus Chapman, the British Consul at Aleppo, in which Roe wrote: ‘When you shall hand these letters, I desire you to receive the bearer of them, Mr Thomas Coryate, with courtesy, for you shall find him a very honest poor wretch.’ Coryate was furious at this slight. He told Terry: ‘For my Lord to write nothing of me by way of commendation but “Honest poor wretch” is rather to trouble me than please me with his favour.’ He took his complaint to Roe, who rewrote the offending sentence. Terry says these episodes show how ‘tender’ Coryate was in the face of disparagement. They suggest also a stasis or stagnancy which mocks the ‘perpetual motion’ of the traveller. After all the miles he has covered he is still where he was before, held fast in the social and cultural confines of England: the King’s fool, my Lord’s wretch.
In mid-November 1617 Coryate split off from the embassy. He left the camp alone. ‘My Lord [Roe] willed him to stay longer with us,’ writes Terry, ‘but he thankfully refused that offer, and turned his face presently after towards Surat, which was then about three hundred miles distant from us.’ The river-port of Surat, close to the Gujarati coast north of Bombay, was the chief point of entry and departure for English shipping. It is possible Coryate was thinking of returning to England. The approximate day of his departure is established by a bill of exchange, which records that he deposited 35 rupees with the Ambassador and was authorised to draw the same amount from the English factors in Surat. The date of this bill is 13 November 1617.
The route of his last lonely trudge can only be surmised. A probable route would be to strike south-west from Dhar, via the village of Bagh, to rejoin the Narbada river which flows past Mandu. There he could take passage down into the coastal lowlands of Gujarat, to the small but ancient river-port of Bharuch (now often called by its Anglicised form, Broach) and from there by the caravan-road to Surat.
All we actually know of the journey is that he made it to his destination, that he was suffering badly from dysentery, and that he died a few days after his arrival. Terry gives the circumstances as follows:
He lived to come safely thither, but there being over-kindly used by some of the English, who gave him sack which they had brought from England; he calling for it as soon as he first heard of it, and crying: ‘Sack, sack, is there such a thing as sack? I pray give me some sack’; and drinking of it (though, I conceive, moderately, for he was a very temperate man), it increased his flux which he had then upon him. And this caused him within a few days, after his very tedious and troublesome travels (for he went most on foot) at this place to come to his journey’s end; for here he overtook Death in the month of December 1617. Sic exit Coryatus, and so must all after him, for if one should go to the extremest part of the world East, another West, another North and another South, they must all meet at last together in the Field of Bones, wherein our Traveller hath now taken up his lodging.
An early 17th-century traveller enthused about Surat’s ‘fair, square’ stone houses, its ‘goodly gardens with pomegranates, pomecitrons, lemons, melons, figs’, and its tall, handsome people ‘clothed in long white calico or silk robes’, but nowadays – according to my Lonely Planet guide – the city ‘is of little interest to travellers, except those with a fascination for urban decay, mayhem, noise and pollution’. An industrial city of nearly two million people, it is known for silk production and diamond-cutting, and for an outbreak of pneumonic plague which killed a hundred people in 1994. The first ominous tower blocks in smudged concrete emerge out of the littoral. A few images detach themselves – a cow with blue-painted horns, a truck nicknamed ‘Lucky Bharat’, a woman in a flowing lilac sari picking her way across a rubbish tip – and then the formless cacophony of the city engulfs you in a fog of auto-rickshaw smoke.
The site of the former English factory where Coryate died is almost completely obliterated. It stands on the southern bank of the Tapi river, half a mile upriver from the old Mughal fortress and the great sweep of the Tapti Bridge. Some fragments of the old building can be seen by peering through the concertina-gates into the courtyard of the Irish Presbyterian Mission School for Girls. It was here at last that I met an Indian who had heard of Thomas Coryate. ‘But he is the English fakir,’ he exclaims, and turns to the straggle of onlookers to explain my purpose. He is a tall, bespectacled man in his forties named Jolly Wellington Christie – a missionary christening, needless to add. He lives nearby, in a little terrace of mission houses whose address, Mughalsarai, harks back to Mughal days. He is the scholar of the area. In his house, piled horizontally on the kitchen table or stacked in cabin-sized bedrooms are hundred of books, all covered in brown paper with their Hindi titles inscribed in schoolmasterly ink.
Beside the school is the Irish Presbyterian Church, and beside it is a grave. It contains the remains of the Revd Alexander Fyvie, who died here in 1840, aged 46. He was sent to Surat by the London Missionary Society; he built the church himself; he fell out of that window there, and died. The curious thing is that his grave points south. ‘It seems,’ Jolly says solemnly, ‘to have been moved.’
This brought me to the question of Coryate’s last resting-place, and the conflicting accounts concerning its location. In November 1627, ten years after Coryate’s death, an Englishman named Thomas Herbert arrived in Surat in the retinue of Sir Dodmore Cotton, English Ambassador to Persia. In his journal Herbert noted that a Persian nobleman named Nagd Ali Beg had committed suicide aboard the ship, and that a few days later, on 30 November, he had been ‘entombed’ in Surat, ‘not a stone’s throw from Tom Coryate’s grave, known by two small stones that speak his name’. This modest grave was still visible nearly fifty years later, when the travel writer John Fryer visited Surat. He states that he saw the grave of Nagd Ali Beg just outside the Broach Gate (now called the Kataragama Gate), ‘not far from whence, on a small hill on the left hand of the road, lies Thomas Coriat, our English fakier (as they name him), together with an Armenian Christian, known by their graves lying east and west’. This places Coryate’s grave close to the later English cemetery, which is still standing; but not quite in it, as the cemetery is to the right of the Broach road. There is no record of burials there before the mid-1640s.
According to his friend Terry, however, Coryate was not buried at Surat at all, but ‘at the East India shore of Swally, on the banks thereof, amongst many more English that lie there interred’. Swally is Suvali, the small sea-port 12 miles west of Surat. Terry’s evidence has weight because of his personal interest in Coryate, and because he seems to have seen the grave on his journey home in 1619. He describes it as ‘a little monument, like one of those are usually made in our churchyards’. If there was an English graveyard at Suvali it has long since disappeared under silt, and has left no documentary traces other than this.
Local tradition has favoured Terry’s version. A mile north of Suvali, outside a hamlet called Rajgiri, stands a solitary, domed edifice, perhaps 20 foot tall. Exactly when this came to be known as ‘Tom Coryate’s Tomb’ is unclear: it is named as a coastal landmark on a British Admiralty chart of 1837. It is worth the pilgrimage, out through the cloying suburbs of Surat, along a narrow road marked by vast factories and refineries, finally to touch the sea at Swally Point. The tomb, if such it is – ‘a monument in Mahommedan style’, as an old handbook calls it – stands on a gentle rise sparsely scattered with palm trees. It looks out over the broad reaches of the Gulf of Cambay and is touched by sea breezes. It would be a peaceful corner of the ‘field of bones’ to lodge in, though whether it is Coryate’s corner is doubtful.
Almost everything about Coryate’s last journey is doubtful. Its precise route cannot be traced, its circumstances cannot be recovered. He disappears from view in the plains below Mandu; he turns up later on the riverfront at Surat. One glimpses him out of dusty bus windows: a ragged man walking alone down a road.