Those of us who have friends or relatives in the US will know how important the turkey is to the festive meal at Thanksgiving and the Christmas season. Much fuss is made over this in American films and TV sitcoms. Indeed, Thanksgiving is often colloquially called ‘Turkey Day’, so important is it to the traditional dinner. The rationale for this is that the bird is believed to have been among other food items native to the ‘New World’ served by the Native Americans to the Pilgrim Fathers, the earliest settlers from England. It is thought that if Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the turkey would have been the national bird of the United States of America instead of the bald eagle! He considered the bald eagle of “low moral character” compared with the turkey. How he came to this conclusion is anyone’s guess.

I wondered at the strange name ‘turkey’ for a bird indigenous to the Americas, but didn’t look further into it. But then I was intrigued when I came upon a Mughal painting in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It was titled ‘The Arrival of the Turkey from Goa’, from the Jehangirnama, Ustad Mansur, ca 1612.

turkey goa ustad mansur

In his memoirs, the Jehangirnama, Emperor Jehangir refers to the “Franks (Firangi, the generic term for people from the West) of Goa” only twice. In the second instance, he commands Muqarrab Khan to set out for Goa to recover compensation from the Portuguese for having attacked Mughal naval vessels.

The first instance is actually a shopping expedition, also assigned to the trusty Muqarrab Khan. Jehangir writes that in 1612 he commanded Khan “to go to the port of Goa and buy for the private use of the government certain rarities procurable there… without looking at the face of the money at all (regardless of cost).” So Goa was an important entry point for exchange of goods and exotica between the ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Worlds (the so-called Columbian exchange). Other sources describe it as a gift from the Portuguese viceroy. In 1612, this would have been either D. Ruy Lourenço de Távora (1609-1612) or D. Jeronymo de Azavedo (1612-1617).

Jehangir was an animal lover and collector of exotic pets. He describes in detail his prize ‘rarity’ from Muqarrab Khan’s shopping excursion: a bird “larger than a peahen and smaller than a peacock… Its head and neck and the part under the throat are every minute of a different colour. When it is in heat it is quite red – one might say it had adorned itself with red coral – and after a while it becomes white in the same places, and looks like cotton.” He goes on to describe its wattles, and how it would puff itself up to make a display.

This tendency of the turkey was already known in England around this time, for Shakespeare makes mention of this in his comedy ‘Twelfth Night’ (1601-2). In Act 2 scene 5, the servant Fabian says of the vain Malvolio: “Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him. How he jets under his advanced plumes!” Shakespeare does not need to elaborate on the reference, so presumably it was already common usage by then. Turkeys had reached Spain by 1512, and by 1541 were already a source of meat in England, so much so that Archbishop Cranmer included it in a list of items ‘good Christians’ ought not to over-indulge in at feasts. Good advice even today!

Whether diplomatic gift or shopping purchase, Jehangir was pleased enough with his acquisition that he commissioned a panel from his court artist Ustad Mansur. Ustad Mansur was the leading nature painter at the court of Jehangir, expert at faithfully reproducing intricate details of plants, birds and animals, and his skill is superbly evident here. His paintings are invaluable not only for their artistic perfection but perhaps even more so for their scientific accuracy. Jehangir bestowed the title ‘Nadir-ul-‘Asr’ (Miracle of the Age) upon him.

Ustad Mansur is also the earliest artist to depict the dodo, (flightless bird from Mauritius and extinct since 1681) in colour, and a very important source of information to zoologists. This bird also arrived at Jehangir’s court as a diplomatic gift from Portuguese Goa, in 1610. Obviously, the custom of gifting exotic animals and birds was an important part of diplomatic relations between the Estado da Índia and the Mughal court of Emperor Jehangir.

Mansur’s painting of the dodo found its way into the collection of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and created a sensation when displayed again at the XII Ornithological Congress in Helsinki in 1958. It now resides at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. The painting is unsigned, but attributed to Ustad Mansur.

The etymology of the turkey bird is quite interesting. It is thought that the name could have arisen when Europeans in the Americas incorrectly identified it as a type of guinea fowl, which typically came from Turkey. “Turkey fowl” got shortened to “turkey”.

Another possible origin is the fact that turkeys were introduced to England after having been domesticated and reared in the Middle East, by merchants who were called “Turkey merchants” as much of the Middle East was part of the Ottoman empire, with its seat of power in Turkey.

To confuse matters further, Indian traders got in on the act, leading many to think that India was the bird’s source of origin. Thus, in a supreme twist of irony, in Turkish, the bird is known as ‘hindi’ (‘from India’). In French, the turkey is known as ‘dinde’, short for ‘oiseau d’Inde’ or ‘poulet d’Inde’ (Indian bird or chicken). There are similar words suggesting an Indian origin for the bird, in Catalan, Italian, Maltese, Armenian, Georgian, Polish, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish.

The Dutch word for turkey is ‘kalkoen’, derived from Calicut. Through the Dutch, a corruption of this word has crept into Sinhalese, Indonesian, Danish, Estonian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Lithuanian and Icelandic. In India it is called ‘peru’; the Arabic name means ‘Greek chicken’, while in Greek it is called the ‘French chicken’.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 December 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)