The film’s narrative is told in a flashback from the perspective of a 15th century Russian explorer and merchant Afanasi Nikitin. Six years before, Afanasi is recovering from an illness caught during one of his journeys. He causes great worry to his mother Varvara because of his refusal to marry and settle down. His old friend Mikhailo arrives and convinces him to accompany him to a trip to Moscow where they will have an audience with the Grand Prince.
The Grand Prince in Moscow speaks of an account of a journey to India that contains many outlandish stereotypes. When Mikhailo and Afanasi refuse to believe this tale the Prince challenges them to undertake the same journey and prove him wrong. . He also wants them to establish trade relations between the two places. They accept and thus the adventure begins.
On the way to India, Afanasi’s ship encounters the ship of the Ambassador of Shirvan, Hassan Beg. The ambassador is impressed by the Russians’ bravado and determination to sail to India. The journey to India is riddled with perils – including an attack by the Tartars as well as the schemes of a duplicitous Portuguese Miguel Rivera. Afanasi’s friend Mikhailo succumbs to injuries on the way. Finally his ship arrives on the west coast of India and he is astounded by the spectacle of India.
He befriends a minstrel Sakharam who refuses to accept his money. A cure for snakebite gifted to him by his mother comes in handy when he encounters a distraught couple looking for help for their snake-bitten daughter Champa. Consequently, his horse is stolen and he learns from Sakharam that the corrupt governor Asad Khan is the one behind this act. Asad Khan agrees to give his horse back on one condition that he must convert to Islam. The fortuitous return of Hassan Beg at this moment rescues Afanasi from this conundrum and he gets his horse back.
Afanasi continues his travels and sets off for Bidar. But the monsoons arrive at this moment and he has to take shelter in a village. Fortunately for him Champa’s parents also live in the same village and grateful for his help, they ask him stay in their home for the duration of the monsoons. Love blossoms between Champa and Afanasi during this interval, though neither can say anything to the other. Afanasi knows there is no possibility of their union due to vast cultural differences as well as Champa being already betrothed. After an episode where he helps the villagers douse a fire, he moves on.
He encounters a different problem in Bidar. It is impossible to gain an audience with the Sultan. He meets up with his friend Sakharam again who introduces him to the beautiful court dancer Lakshmi. Lakshmi is clearly attracted to Afanasi and comes to his aid. She tells him that the Sultan is but a child and the real power belongs to the Wazir Mahmud Gawan. He meets a scholarly old man in an observatory built by Mahmud Gawan who alter turns out to be the man himself. Mahmud Gawan wants him to go to the neighbouring kingdom of Vijaynagar as a spy. But Afanasi refuses to commit to this dishonourable act. Mahmud Gawan reveals this was all a test to judge Afanasi’s character and gives him an official document legitimising trade relations between the two kingdoms. His mission accomplished, Afanasi goes one last time to visit Champa, only to discover her married and with an infant child. Unable to bring himself to meet her, he leaves his purse as a gift to her. He leaves India and goes back to Russia, as his friend Sakharam sings a song of farewell from the shores.
The film was the first Indo-Soviet joint production. The Russian version has a different opening sequence and is in colour. Unfortunately, no colour version of the Hindi version is known to survive.