To celebrate Vasco da Gama's return from Calicut with spices and drugs and, from the Zamorin the ruler of Calicut "a letter on a sheet of beaten with silver with his seed made of Damascene gold according to their customs- a letter which has been brought to me along with other letters*" King Manuel of Portugal commissioned 26 panels of tapestries called The Discovery of India, the Calicut Tapestries, from Tournai Workshops in Belgium. The panel shown here shows a magnificent ship arriving in Portugal from India with menageries of exotic caged animals and birds being unloaded, while courtiers and perhaps King Manuel himself witness the event. Members of De Gama's expedition to Calicut had reported on the immense wealth and fabulous sights in South India and the fantastic beasts that roamed the Indian landscape. King Manuel had commanded that every type of animal and bird, large and small, unfamiliar to Europeans be brought back from India for the king's collection.
Among the animals being unloaded are real and imaginary creatures, such as the mythical Unicorn, believed in medieval Europe to have magical powers to heal. Other panels in the series show dark skinned people in exotic costumes, and camels, giraffes, cheetahs and peacocks rarely seen in Europe. These exotic animals were representations of a larger natural world unfamiliar to the Europeans and heightened Europe's vision of exotic India and fascination with the expanding view of the world. Small exotic animals that sailors brought back to Lisbon from India were highly sought after and collecting and keeping menageries became a passion for European elite as manifestation of their worldliness and erudition.
Exquisite tapestries such as these, complex in design and workmanship, were also highly valued and were proof of the owner's status and displayed the owner's wealth and global interests. Several noble houses of Europe commissioned related works in the style of these tapestries in the 16th century.
(*Manuel, King of Portugal; Copy of a letter of the King of Portugal sent to the king of Castile, Concerning the Voyage and Success of India, translated by Sergio J. Pacifici, the University of Minnesota press, Minneapolis 1955.)