THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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54 posts categorized "Iran"

05 April 2018

Making his mark: the seals of Tipu Sultan

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Over the past year or so I have been working on the library of Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799), of which an estimated 600 volumes were deposited in the library of the East India Company between 1806 and 1808 and again in 1837 after the Library of its college at Fort William was disbanded (for more on this see my earlier post Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah (IO Islamic 3214). By now I have examined well over half of the British Library manuscripts, and a few in other libraries, but have been surprised at how few of the volumes actually contain the seal of Tipu Sultan himself. So far I have found only twenty-eight, some with more than one impression. With the exception of one, they can be divided into three basic types: a personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73), and official seals dating from 1215 (1787/88) and 1223 (1795/96) of the muhammadi or mawludi era.

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The opening pages of the highly illuminated and calligraphic Miʼat kalimah ʻAlīyah ʻālīyah Murtaḍawīyah (the 100 sayings of  ʻAli ibn Abi Talib) with an interlinear Persian verse translation. Tipu's personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73) is placed at the top. This manuscript was probably acquired in 1780 when the previous owner Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab was defeated by Hyder ʻAli’s forces and was despatched to Seringapatam with his family as prisoners (British Library IO Islamic 1662)
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Tipu's personal seal
In many ways this is the most interesting of the three seals as it perhaps reflects Tipu's personal interests. The rectangular seal is inscribed Tīpū Sulṭān 1186 (1772/73), measuring 16 x 11.5 mm (interior measurement: 15 x 11 mm). The seal predates Tipu's accession to the throne at the end of 1782 after the death of his father Hyder ʻAli.

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Tipu's personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73), placed in the right hand margin of the opening of the poem Masnavī-i khvurshīd va māh by Nasafi (British Library IO Islamic 241)
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It would take too long to go into details here and I hope to write more fully about it later, but to summarise, of the twenty-one volumes discovered so far, fourteen are volumes of poetry by Amir Khusraw, ʻAttar, Nasafi, Ahmad-i Jam, Zulali, Kamal Khujandi, ʻUrfi, Ahsan Allah[1] and others (but surprisingly not Firdawsi, Hafiz or Nizami). Other works with Tipu's seal include four historical works, a dictionary and two works on letter writing (inshāʼ). For the most part these volumes are very ordinary, only two, for example IO Islamic 1662 illustrated above, could be described as high quality. Since there were many other deluxe volumes in his collection which did not carry his seal, we can perhaps assume that it was the content Tipu especially valued.

It is not known when these manuscripts were acquired though at least five had belonged to Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab of Chittoor, brother of Muhammad ʻAli Nawab of the Carnatic, who was taken prisoner with his family in 1780. Another manuscript had belonged to the Qutb Shahs of Golconda and includes the seals of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (r. 1580-1612) and his successor Muhammad Qutb Shah (r. 1612-26) – his seal dated 1021 (1612/13).

The one exception to these otherwise literary manuscripts is IO Islamic 4683: a collection of original documents from Seringapatam bound together in one volume. This seal occurs occurs on documents dated 15 Jaʻfari, year Azal 1198 AH (1784), and 1 Ahmadi, year Dalv 1200 AH (1786), ie. dating from before 1787, the date of the earlier of his two official seals described below.


Official seals of 1787 and 1796
Within a few months of ascending the throne Tipu instigated calendrical changes by renaming the twelve months and the year names of the 60 year cycle, while still also using the traditional hijri era for the year. An example of this can be seen in the documents mentioned above. However in his fifth regnal year, he established a new lunisolar system which he called muhammadi or mawludi[2], ie. dating from the supposed birth of the Prophet which was taken to be in 572 AD. A further innovation was to record the numbers from right to left instead of the usual way round, from left to right.

The reasons for establishing this new era are not clear but Kirkpatrick (Select Letters, p. xxxi) mentions a letter dated 29 Izadi (11th month) of the year Dalv, ie. at the beginning of 1787, written shortly before the change, in which Tipu Sultan requested information from scholars as to the exact dates of the birth, mission and flight of the Prophet.

The new system was reckoned to begin with the month Ahmadi 1215, year Sha, which commenced on the 20 March 1787[3]. The new seal was no doubt created to mark the new era and it continued to be used during the following years. It is found at the head or to the right side of documents and official manuals written at his request. It reads Tipū Sulṭān, 5121, i.e. 1215 mawludi era (1787/88) and measures 19 x 15 mm (interior measurement: 16 x 13 mm).

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Official seal dated 1215 mawludi (1787/88) in Muʼayyid al-mujāhidīn, an official collection of 104 sermons in verse to be read at prayers, composed by order of Tipu Sultan by Zayn al-ʻĀbidin Mūsavī Shūshtarī. This manuscript, copied by the author, is dated 27 Ramazan 1221 muhammadi corresponding to 7021 (ie 1207) hijri (8 May 1793) (British Library IO Islamic 447, f. 1r)
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This seal has been found in three volumes so far:

  • IO Islamic 447: Muʼayyid al-mujāhidīn (mentioned above)
  • IO Islamic 1663: Fatavā-yi Muḥammadī, legal decisions arranged in 313 short chapters at the request of Tipu Sultan
  • IO Islamic 4685, a collection of orders (hukmnāmah) bound together in one volume. Seal impressions occur on ff 6v, 26v, 54r, and 84r, on documents dated 1221-2 mawludi (1793-5)

Eight years later a second seal was introduced. A description of this seal is given in Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī, regulations issued 21 Haydari, Hirasat, 1224 corresponding to 19 Rabiʻ I, 1121 hijri (22 September 1796) on the correct royal insignia to be used in seals and standards, and on the form of official cyphers to be used in different government departments. Instructions are given there for the special seal (muhr-i khāṣṣ) to measure one finger (angusht) by half with the tughra Tipu Sultan in the shape of a tiger’s (shīr[4]) mouth, and the four corners to carry the letters maw lū d-i Muḥammad. The tughra was also to contain 6 tiger (babrī) stripes.

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Instructions for the special seal from chapter 1 of Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī (British Library IO Islamic 2379, f. 4r)
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The design of this new seal is another example of Tipu's fondness for the tiger motif and was presumably introduced in 1796 to coincide with the orders. It reads: Tipū Sulṭān 3221 [ie. 1223] Maw lū d-i Muḥammad (1795/96). It measures 19 x 15 (17 x 13 mm) and like the earlier seal is found on documents and government manuals of which several copies exist.

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Seal dated 1223 mawludi (1795/96) heading an official register of names for different kinds of horses and bullocks, dated 1 Ahmadi, Shadab, 1226 (March 1798) (British Library IO Islamic 4684, f. 94v)
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This seal has been found in five volumes so far:

  • IO Islamic 1638, Mufarriḥ al-qulūb, a collection of mixed Persian and Dakhni songs collected for Tipu Sultan by Hasan ʻAli ʻIzzat and completed in AH 1199 (1784-5). For more on this manuscript see Kirkpatrick, Select Letters, pp. 391-3. This was one of many copies (see Ethe's Persian manuscripts in India Office Library nos. 2024-2032  and also Kirkpatrick (ibid, p.379)
  • IO Islamic 2379, Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī, regulations for the correct royal insignia for seals, on standards and the form of official cyphers to be used in different government departments, drawn up on 21 Haydari, Hirasat, 1224 corresponding to 19 Rabiʻ I, 1121 hijri (22 September 1796)
  • RAS Per 171, another copy of Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī
  • IO Islamic 4683, heading an official copy (f. 174v) of a consultation to the six government departments, dated 15 Ahmadi, Shadab (April 1798)
  • IO Islamic 4684 (see above)


Wax impression of a further official seal
Finally a unique  example of a European style wax sealing is found in IO Islamic 4683 attached to a consultation to Tipu's six government departments, dated 15 Ahmadi, Shadab (April 1798). The left-hand seal is inscribed yā ḥāfiz̤, and is possibly dated 1219 (1791/92), but if so, it is quite a few years earlier than the document it is connected to. Unfortunately I haven't been able to decipher the right hand seal. There were no doubt other seals of this type, but by virtue of their ephemeral nature they have not survived.

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Wax sealing  (British Library IO Islamic 4683)
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Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
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[1] Royal Asiatic Society RAS Per 310.
[2] See Kirkpatrick, W., Select Letters of Tippoo Sultan to Various Public Functionaries ... London, 1811, especially his notes on the calendar and Mauludi era, pp.xxvi-xxxvii; also Henderson, J.R., The coins of Haidar Alī and Tīpū Sultān. Madras, 1921. p. 28.
[3] The first year of the mawludi era is sometimes reckoned as 1786-7 AD, but fortunately some documents are dated in both the mauludi and the hijri era which makes a start date of 1787-8 incontrovertible.
[4] Shīr usually refers to a lion, but there is no doubt that tiger is implied here because of the babri 'tiger' stripe.

 

14 March 2018

A Mughal copy of Nizami’s Layla Majnun (IO Islamic 384)

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Some of our best-known Mughal manuscripts in the British Library’s Persian collection have already been digitised. These include the imperial Akbarnāmah (Or.12988 ), Akbar’s copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.12208), and the Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, ‘Memoirs of Babur’, (Or.3714), to mention just a few. However far more works remain undigitised and many are comparatively little-known. Over the coming months we’ll be publicising some of these in the hope that people will become more familiar with them.

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Opening of Nizami's Laylā Majnūn, copied by Muhammad Baqir in 1557-8 (British Library IO Islamic 384, ff. 1v-2r)
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Today’s choice is a copy of Nizami’s Laylā Majnūn, IO Islamic 384, one of the five narrative poems forming his Khamsah, ‘Quintet’. Consisting of approximately 4,600 lines of verse and completed in 584/1188, it tells of the fateful romance between Layla and Qays who, driven to madness (majnūn), took refuge in the desert with wild creatures as his only friends. When Layla eventually died of a broken heart, Majnun rushed to her grave and instantly died himself. Interpreted on several levels, the story of Layla and Majnun is one of the most popular Persian romances with versions by many of the best-known authors. Nizami’s poem was itself frequently copied and illustrated, especially in Mughal India.

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Layla and Majnun as children at school (British Library IO Islamic 384, f. 7r)
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This particular manuscript, IO Islamic 384, is dated Rabiʻ al-avval 965 (Dec 1557/Jan 1558) and was copied by Muhammad Baqir [ibn] Mulla Mir ʻAli, the son and pupil of the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli Haravi who worked in Herat and Bukhara. Muhammad Baqir migrated to India and was already, in Akbar’s reign, described as a noted calligrapher by Abu’l-Fazl (A’īn-i Akbarī, tr. Blochmann, p. 109). In India he worked for the courtier and patron ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan Khanan (Soucek, p. 169 citing Nihavandi’s Ma’āsir-i Raḥīmī).

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The colophon giving the date of completion: Rabiʻ al-avval 965 (Dec 1557/Jan 1558), and the name of the scribe Muḥammad Bāqir [ibn] Mullā Mīr ʻAlī (British Library IO Islamic 384, f. 50r)
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As can be seen from the image above, the manuscript begins with a fine illuminated heading. Additional illumination includes vertical bands separating the four columns of text, and chapter headings in red, set in rectangular panels of flowers on a gold ground. The five paintings were added some fifty years later. While none is attributed to any artist, Soucek has suggested that the painter might be Mushfiq who is known to have worked at ʻAbd al-Rahim’s court.

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Left: Layla’s father gives her in marriage to Ibn Salam (IO Islamic 384, f. 23r)
Right: A hermit brings Layla to the place appointed for her meeting with Majnun but she shrinks from the encounter (IO Islamic 384, f. 34v)
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Layla visits Majnun in the wilderness surrounded by animals (IO Islamic 384, f. 42r)
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Majnun throws himself on Layla’s tomb (IO Islamic 384, f. 48r)
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Our copy was purchased by the East India Company from Richard Johnson who acquired it in Lucknow, probably between 1780 and 1782 while he was Assistant to the Resident, Nathaniel Middleton (for more on Johnson and his collection see our earlier post ‘White Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat). Before that it had belonged, according to a Persian inscription on f. 1r, to one Faqir ʻAbd al-Hakim who had bought it for 22 rupees at the beginning of Ramazan in the first regnal year of an unspecified ruler.


Further reading

H. Pinder-Wilson , “Three Illustrated Manuscripts of the Mughal Period”, Ars Orientalis, Vol. 2 (1957): 413-422.


Priscilla Soucek, “Persian Artists in Mughal India: Influences and Transformations”, Muqarnas 4 (1987): 166-181.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
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27 September 2017

A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest)

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While art historical research has focussed on the beauty and splendour of Persian miniature paintings, the study of Judeo-Persian manuscript art has lagged behind, receiving only more recently the attention and recognition it deserves. These paintings form part and parcel of manuscripts that have been copied in Judeo-Persian, that is a dialect or dialects of Persian heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic and written in Hebrew script. The major obstacles to studying these significant hand-written books have been a lack of knowledge of the language, unfamiliarity with the Persian and Judeo-Persian literary traditions, and also with the history of Persian manuscript art in general.

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Joshua and the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant and crossing the Jordan river, from the Fath Nama, Iran, gouache on paper, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century. The elaborate raised halo over Joshua's turban is a motif borrowed from Persian iconography, where it is especially associated with prophets (British Library Or 13704, f. 15r)
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A major change occured in 1985 when a scholarly study exploring the socio-historical and cultural factors that influenced the development of Judeo-Persian manuscript painting was published. This study by Vera Basch Moreen included a detailed inventory of miniatures in Judeo-Persian manuscripts held in major library collections. In it, she described twelve accessible Judeo-Persian manuscripts containing a total of 179 miniatures, as well as numerous additional decorative elements.

Persian manuscript art flourished particularly under the Safavid rulers (1502-1642) who deliberately encouraged the artistic expression of various population groups within their kingdom. The Safavid shahs not only patronized manuscript art, but some were gifted calligraphers and painters in their own right. As a result, during the Safavid period, the art of miniature painting spread from the royal workshops to the smaller aristocratic courts and ateliers, eventually reaching the marketplaces of Persia’s major cities. It was in these centres that the popular, provincial style of Persian manuscript art – to which the Judeo-Persian paintings belong – was born. Judeo-Persian manuscript illustration reached its pinnacle between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Some art historians have argued that Judeo-Persian manuscripts commissioned by Jewish patrons were actually illustrated and decorated in Muslim workshops. Their view is based on the stylistic similarities existing between Persian and Judeo-Persian miniatures. The identity of the artists who created them remains uncertain, essentially because none of the existing Judeo-Persian miniatures found in these manuscripts were signed.

In terms of their content, Judeo-Persian illustrated manuscripts can be divided into two main categories: a) Hebrew transliterations of Persian classic works such as those of Jami (1414-1492) and Nizami (1140-1202), two giants of the Persian literary tradition; and b) original works by prominent Jewish-Persian poets such as Mawlana Shahin Shirazi (Our Master the Royal Falcon of Shiraz, 14th century) and Imrani of Isfahan (1454–1536). Among Shirazi’s epic compositions are the Musa Nama (the Book of Moses) dated 1327 which contains narratives from the Pentateuch and has around 10,000 couplets (consisting of two rhyming hemistiches), and the Bereshit Nama (Book of Genesis) which he completed in 1358, comprising over 8,000 verses.
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Seven Priests blowing seven horns in front of the Walls of Jericho, from the Fath Nama, Iran, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century (British Library Or 13704, f. 31v)
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Composed around 1474, Imrani’s epic Fath Nama (Book of Conquest) is a poetical paraphrase of narratives from the biblical books of Joshua, Ruth and Samuel, consisting of about 10.000 verses.   Imrani endeavoured to uplift the biblical story to the level of the Persian epic, combining in his works Jewish and Islamic legendary and literary material. He is known to have written ten full compositions all of which except three deal with Jewish themes. Imrani’s works are permeated with a deep sense of exile and isolation and a pessimistic view of human condition. While composing the Fath Nama, Imrani had the support of a patron – Amin al-Dawlah (Trustee of the State) who was most probably a wealthy man, perhaps an official in the city of Isfahan. When his patron passed away, Imrani abandoned his work, resuming it only after he had found another patron named Rabbi Yehuda.

Or_13704_f032r  Or_13704_f050v
Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the People of Jericho (British Library Or 13704, f. 32r)
Right: Joshua and the Israelites at the battle of Ai (British Library Or 13704, f. 50v)
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Or 13704, the Fath Nama manuscript illustrated here, contains seven coloured illustrations[1] and numerous floral and faunal designs. The manuscript is incomplete, and, since it lacks a colophon, the exact date of its production and the names of its patron and creators are unknown. The assumption that the manuscript was written and decorated at the end of the seventeenth or the beginning of the eighteenth century is based largely on the style of its paintings and on the names of former owners’ inscriptions found within its pages. Several scribes were responsible for copying the text in a writing style characteristic of Persian Jews.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the enemies of the Gibeonites (British Library Or 13704, f. 75r)
Right: The death of the King of Makkedah (British Library Or 13704, f. 85r)
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This manuscript is one of two known illustrated copies of this work. Acquired in 1975, it was purchased from the estate of David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), a renowned bibliophile of Baghdadi origin, who travelled extensively in search of books and manuscripts for his private library. His collection of 1,153 manuscripts is described in a two-volume catalogue published by Oxford University Press in 1932 under the title Ohel Dawid (David’s Tent). Thanks to the Polonsky Foundation, this manuscript has now been digitised and is available digitally on our Digitised Manuscripts site to explore cover to cover.

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An example of the typical bird and flower decorations in Or 13074
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Further reading
Moreen, Vera Basch, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), pp. 40, 49-50.
–––, A Supplementary List of Judaeo-Persian manuscripts”, British Library Journal, Vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 72 and plate II.
Moreen, Vera Basch and Orit Carmeli, The Bible as a Judeo-Persian epic: an illustrated manuscript of Imrani's Fath-Nama (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2016). On Ms 4602 of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
David Yeroushalmi, Emrānī”, in Encyclopædia Iranica (1995).

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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[1] Folio 90v, the only illustration not included here, contains an unfinished sketch in outline of Joshua in battle against the five Amorite kings.

28 April 2017

A 17th century copy of Saʻdi’s collected works (IO Islamic 843)

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The Persian writer and poet Musliḥ al-Dīn Saʻdī of Shiraz (ca.1210-1291 or 1292) is without doubt one of the best-known and most skillful writers of classical Persian literature. With an established reputation even during his lifetime, his works have been select reading for royal princes and ʻset textsʼ for more humble students of Persian the world over. It is hardly surprising then that a corresponding number of deluxe copies survive of his works. A previous post (What were the Mughals' favourite books?) described some copies of his best known works, the Būstān (ʻFragrant Gardenʼ or ʻOrchardʼ) and the Gulistān (ʻRose Gardenʼ), in the Library's collection. Another sumptuous manuscript, which has also been digitised, is an early 17th century copy of his Kullīyāt (ʻCollected Worksʼ)IO Islamic 843 which was completed in 1034 (1624/25) by Maḥmūd, a scribe of Shiraz (al-kātib al-Shīrāzī), during the reign of Shah ʻAbbas (r. 1588-1629).

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The frontispiece portraying Shah ʻAbbas in a garden surrounded by courtiers and musicians, and accompanied by Turkish, Indian and European ambassadors (BL IO Islamic 843, ff 1v-2r)  noc

Very little is known about the poet’s life. Born in Shiraz, Saʻdī left his hometown to study in Baghdad. After a period of study at the Nizamiyah Madrasah, Baghdad, he set off on travels that lasted over thirty years. His experiences and adventures found their way into his writings, including being a prisoner of the Crusaders in Syria, visiting Kashgar, and killing a temple priest at Somnath in India. Many of these tales, however, have been proved to be anecdotal rather than biographical. Saʻdī returned to Shiraz in 1257, already a widely recognized poet and completed his two most famous works: the Būstān in 1257 and the Gulistān in 1258. These two works of poetry and prose respectively, contain anecdotes from the life of the author, moral teachings, and advices for rulers. Many stories communicate elements of Sufi teachings through their dervish protagonists. Other works reflect the changing political situation in Shiraz. Several of his poems are dedicated to the Salghurid dynasty, which ruled in Fars from 1148 to 1282, while later works are addressed to their successors the Mongols and their administrators.

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The heavenly journey (Miʻraj) of the Prophet mounted on Buraq approaching Leo and led by Gabriel with a green banner and Israfil with the seven-fold trumpet. From the beginning of the Būstān (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 94r  noc

This collection of Saʻdī’s work consists of 16 works that include, among others, the Gulistān and Būstān, Arabic and Persian Qaṣīdas (odes), Ghazals (love poems), Rubāʻīyāt (quatrains), and Khabīsāt (ʻnaughtyʼ poems). It has sumptuously illuminated openings and contains 18 paintings, including two double-paged illustrations (ff.1v-2r and 413v-414r). For details see Basil Robinson's catalogue description available here.

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Illustration from the Gulistān. Here the King, possibly representing Shah ʻAbbas, is travelling with a slave who, never having been in a boat before, complained of seasickness. Following advice on how to keep him quiet, the king has him thrown overboard and ʻrescuedʼ, the moral being that safety can only be truly appreciated by one who has experienced disaster. The ship is based on a European model of the period, with three masts and cannon at the port-holes (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 42v noc

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Illustration from the Khabīsāt (ʻnaughtyʼ poems) depicting a group of dervishes under a tree, one leading a handsome youth by the hand. The Khabīsāt (ff.391r-399r in this manuscript) is often omitted from printed editions of Saʻdī's collected works on account of its risqué nature (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 392r  noc

The illustrations are good examples of paintings of their time, but the illumination is of a much higher standard. Eight works have lavishly decorated openings: ff. 2v-3r, 34v-35r, 92v-93r, 175v-176r, 183v-184r, 223v-224r, 372v-373r, and 405v-406r. These consist of a central headpiece (sarlawḥ) and heading (ʻunvān) encased in ruled and decorated borders and a band containing foliate scrolling or alternating cartouches and quatrefoils. The outer margins are based on a pattern of diamond shaped lozenges or flower heads in red, black, brown and gold on a dark blue or gold ground with arabesque scrolls with pale blue, red and pink flowers. A variant contains flower heads which alternate with human and/or animal faces (ff.35-6, 175-6 and 372-3).

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The beginning of the Gulistān, copied by Maḥmūd of Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 843, ff. 34v-35r noc

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405v 34v  
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Details of illuminated openings on ff. 2v405v34v, and 175v. The faint grid marks are from gauzing which, regrettably, was regular conservation practice in the early-20th century (BL IO Islamic 843)   noc

This manuscript was purchased in 1807 from the East India Company civil servant Richard Johnson (1753–1807). His collection formed the backbone of the newly established East India Company Library, consisting of 716 manuscripts, mostly Persian and Arabic, and 64 albums of paintings. Johnson left India in 1790 
and did most of his collecting at Lucknow between 1780 and 1782 and at 
Hyderabad between 1784 and 1875. This particular manuscript was no doubt purchased there having been taken to India at some point in the 17th century.


Further reading
W. M. Thackston (tr.), The Gulistan (Rose garden) of Sa'di: Bilingual English and Persian edition with vocabulary. Bethesda: Ibex, 2008.
G. M. Wickens (tr.). Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned: The Būstān of Saʻdī. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974.
B. W. Robinson, Persian Paintings in the India Office Library: A Descriptive Catalogue. London: Sotheby, 1976.

Wojciech Tworek and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
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03 April 2017

On display in the Treasures Gallery: Humayun’s meeting with Shah Tahmasp

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In conjunction with the British Library’s Learning Team we recently held a very successful study day:  Mughal India: Art and Culture. To coincide with the event we have installed three new ʻMughalʼ manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. These are: A Royal copy of Nizami’s ‘Five poems’, dating from Herat, ca.1494 (Or. 6810, f. 3r), A mother rebukes her arrogant son, a copy of Saʻdi’s Būstān dated at Agra, 1629 (Add. 27262, f. 145r) and, the subject of my post today, Humayun received by the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp of Iran, from Abu’l-Fazl’s Akbarnāmah, dating from Agra, ca. 1602-3 (Or. 12988, f. 98r). All these manuscripts have been digitised and can be seen by following the hyperlinks.

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The Mughal Emperor Humayun's meeting with Shah Tahmasp of Iran in 1544 by the artist Sanvala, 1602-3. Note what are probably the painter's instructions partially covered in the lower margin (British Library Or. 12988, f. 98r)  noc

The manuscript on display is the first of a three-part imperial set (Losty and Roy, pp. 58-70) of the Akbarnāmah ‘History of Akbar’, an official history written by the court historian Abu’l-Fazl.  This volume describes the reigns of Akbar’s predecessors and his childhood and contains 39 paintings ascribed to major artists of the imperial court. The copyist was the famous  calligrapher Muhammad Husayn Kashmiri[1]. A second volume of the same set is preserved in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (Indian Ms 3, see Leach, pp. 232-300). The painting is ascribed to the artist Sanvala and depicts the two monarchs meeting in July 1544. The setting, in a luxuriously furbished tent, includes a backdrop of distant snow-clad mountains, verdant pastures and a medieval city. Quoted above the painting are some typically bombastic verses by the Safavid poet Mirza Qasim Gunabadi [2] (Abu’l-Fazl, p. 81, Thackston's tanslation):

Two Lords of Conjunction meeting at one assembly like the sun and the moon,
Two lights of vision for the eye of fortune,
 two blessed holidays for the month and year,

Two stars with which the firmament is adorned, together in one place like the Farqadain[3],
Two world eyes, rein to rein, bending toward each other like two eyebrows,

One constellation the location for two lucky stars in the firmament, one casket the place for two exalted pearls.

In 1530, the Mughal Emperor Humayun inherited an empire that was far from consolidated and after his decisive defeat by Sher Shah Suri at the battle of Kannauj in 1540 he was forced to retreat. He spent the next three years attempting to regain his position in Sindh during which he met and married Hamida Banu who gave birth to Akbar at Umarcot on 15 Oct 1542. Unsuccessful in Sindh and at the same time thwarted in his attempt to retreat to Kandahar he decided late in 1543 to seek the protection of the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576), leaving the 15 month old Akbar behind with his relatives.

Humayun’s stay in Safavid Iran is described by Abu’l-Fazl in glowing terms almost as if it were a recommendation for TripAdvisor. Shah Tahmasp couldn't have been more delighted to host Humayun's visit and ordered drums to be beaten in celebration for three days in his capital Qazvin. Incredibly detailed instructions for Humayun's reception were sent to the Governor of Herat which included marmalades of Mashhad apples to be served after sherbet prepared with lemon syrup and chilled with ice and snow. Once the visitors reached Mashhad and were joined by the Shah’s amirs, 1,200 different dishes of food fit for a king were to be served at each meal!

After Noruz at Herat and much successful sightseeing, Humayun caught up with the Royal Camp between Abhar and Sultaniya and met the Shah in July 1544 in a ʻlofty palace, on which painters had long been at work executing marvels of their craftʼ (Abu’l-Fazl, p. 79). Princely celebrations were held daily and gifts exchanged. After several days the royal party moved on to Sultaniya where a hunt was organised. This was followed by two more hunting parties at the end of which Humayun was sent on his return journey accompanied by the Shah's son Prince Murad, 12,000 horsemen and 300 arms bearers from the Shah's own bodyguard.

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Humayun and Shah Tahmasp hunting at Sultaniya. Principle portraits by Narsingh, remainder by Ganga Sen (British Library Or. 12988, f. 103r)  noc

Apart from a brief moment of tension alluded to by Abu’l-Fazl in just two short sentences, it would seem that relations between the two rulers could not have been better. However a quite different impression is given in Tazkirat al-vāqi‘āt ‘Memoir of Events’, by Jawhar Aftabchi, Humayun's personal ewer-bearer, who accompanied Humayun in exile to Iran and during his subsequent struggle to regain the throne. Unlike the Akbarnamah which was an official chronicle of Akbar's reign, Jawhar’s account is a much more detailed record of events and to judge from his own references, he was always close to the Emperor and was therefore present at important conversations.

One of the first things Tahmasp asked Humayun, according to Jawhar, was whether he was willing to wear the tāj (the typical Safavid batonned headdress). He was happy to agree to this but the next day he was ordered to convert to Shiʻa Islam (Thackston, p.122):

Firewood had been gathered for an entertainment for the emperor. The shah sent a message, saying, ʻIf you embrace our religion, we will support you. Otherwise, we wonʼt. We will set fire to all the people of your religion with this kindling and burn you up!ʼ

As a staunch Sunni, Humayun initially refused but eventually agreed under duress, at least temporarily, and continued to enjoy his host’s generous hospitality. However Tahmasp had not apparently given up the idea of killing Humayun. On hearing his planned treachery Tahmasp's sister burst into tears. When he asked her why, she replied (Thackston, p. 126):

‘... you have enemies in all four directions: Ottomans, Uzbeks, Circassians, and Franks. It has been heard that Muhammad Humayun Padishah has a son and brothers. What will be gained by harming him? If you cannot have compassion on him and help to elevate and assist him, give him leave to go wherever he can.’ The shah listened to this. Immediately he cheered up and said, ‘All my amirs have been giving me their foolish advice, but none is better than what you have said.’

Another example of a situation saved by a woman!

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Passage from a copy dated 1610 of Jawhar's Tazkirat showing the passage describing Shah Tahmasp's proposed treachery with a marginal comment by the Safavid prince Sultan Muhammad Mirza (see below). The pencilled annotations are probably by Charles Stewart who published a translation of this manuscript in 1832 (British Library Add. 16711, f. 76r)  noc

An interesting postscript to this story is told us by Charles Stewart who was lent this manuscript (Add. 16711) by his friend William Yule from whose estate it was acquired by the British Museum in 1847. Yule had suggested that he should publish a translation. He writes (Stewart, p. 70):

About the time that Major Yule procured this MS. there was a descendant of the Seffy family residing at Lucknow, who received a small pension from the Nuwab Assuf addowleh, and bore the title of Persian Prince. Major Yule having lent him the MS. he wrote on the margin at this passage [over Tahmasp's contemplated treachery, f.76r], ʻThe author has here been guilty of falsehood, or he must have been deranged, as this circumstance has never been mentioned by any other historian.ʼ

The Safavid prince concerned was Abu'l-Fath Sultan Muhammad Mirza Bahadur Khan Safavi, a son of  Shah Sultan Husayn II, who lived as a pensioner in Lucknow from 1793 or 4 until his death in 1816 or 17.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

Further reading
J.P. Losty, and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library. London, 2012
Linda York Leach, Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library, vol.1. London, 1995
Abu'l-Fazl, The History of Akbar, vol. 2; edited and translated by Wheeler Thackston. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016
Three Memoirs of Homayun; edited and translated by Wheeler Thackston. Costa Mesa, 2009
Charles Stewart, The Tezkereh al Vakiāt; or, Private Memoirs of the Moghul Emperor Humāyūn. London, 1832

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[1] The manuscript has no colophon but a damaged and over-pasted note by the Emperor Jahangir on f.1r mentions ʻthe musk-like string of pearls of …[cut off]…. Kashmiriʼ, which must surely refer to Muhammad Husayn Kashmiri zarrin-qalam. I thank S. Baburi for his help with this inscription.
[2] Author of a poetical history of Shah Ismaʻil Safavi. For more on him see C. Rieu, Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 2 (London, 1881), pp. 660-1.
[3] The two inseparable stars in Ursa minor.

04 April 2016

Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle

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Stories of the hero Rustam and his trusty steed Rakhsh, immortalized by the tenth century poet Firdawsi in his epic poem the Shahnamah (ʻBook of kingsʼ), are among the best loved in the whole of Persian literature. Not so well-known, however, are unique versions of the same story dating from the eighth and ninth centuries which are currently on display in the international exhibition The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination at the National Museum, Delhi (More on this exhibition in my recent post Celebrating Noruz in Delhi with new 'Everlasting Flame').

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Introducing the Rustam story in the eighth century Panjikent wall paintings to Dr. Najma Heptulla, Minister of Minority Affairs, at the exhibition opening in Delhi. Photo: National Museum

Rustam's Rakhsh in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah
Rakhsh was no ordinary horse. The Shahnamah tells us how Rustam inspected the horses of Zabulistan and Kabul and finally selected a colt with the chest and shoulders of a lion, as strong as an elephant, and the colour of rose leaves scattered on a saffron background. This colt, already known as ‘Rustam’s Rakhsh’, was, it seems, pre-destined to carry the defender of the land of Iran.

Rakhsh was not only fast and strong, he was intelligent and an active protagonist. Perhaps his best-known exploit was the first of the seven ‘trials’ which Rustam underwent on the quest to liberate king Kavus from the demons of Mazandaran. Exhausted by his long journey, Rustam fell asleep. Nearby, however, hidden in the reeds was a fierce and hungry lion. The lion attacked but Rakhsh pounded the lion’s head with his hooves, bit his neck and tore the lion into pieces. When Rustam woke, the lion was dead.

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Rakhsh kills a lion. From Firdawsi’s Shahnamah. Copied in 891/1486, Turkman/Timurid style (British Library Add.18188, f. 90v)  noc

In future, Rustam ordered, Rakhsh was to wake him if an enemy drew near. However, during the third ‘trial’, Rustam, while asleep, was approached again, this time by a monstrous dragon. Twice woken by his horse Rakhsh, in the darkness of the night he failed to see any danger and went back to sleep. Woken a third time, however, Rustam finally saw the dragon and with Rakhsh’s help succeeded in killing him.

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Rustam and Rakhsh in the third ‘trial’ when together they defeat a dragon, Rakhsh biting the dragon while Rustam cuts off his head. Copied in 891/1486, Turkman/Timurid style (British Library Add.18188, f 91v)  noc

The Sogdian Rustam fragment
The Middle Persian Xwaday-namag ‘Book of kings’ (de Blois, “Epics”), one of the sources on which Firdawsi drew, was probably not a poem, but rather a prose compendium of legendary and historical traditions put together toward the end of the Sasanian empire. Although it is referred to frequently in Arabic sources, no extant copy survives as such. The name Rustam, however, began to be common at the very end of the Sasanian period, in the seventh century, no doubt reflecting the fact that by this time the Rustam legend had become widely popular in the Western Iranian lands, especially in Sogdiana (modern day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) the homeland of the Sogdians (Sims-Williams, 2015).

The British Library is fortunate in having in its collections part of a fragment of the story written in Sogdian (an eastern Iranian language spoken by the Sogdians), which probably dates from the ninth century. It was discovered in 1907 in cave 17 at Dunhuang, China, during Stein’s second expedition to Central Asia. The upper part of the same manuscript was subsequently acquired by Paul Pelliot the following year and is now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Together these two fragments form the only surviving textual evidence for an early Rustam cycle, copied some 200 years before Firdawsi completed his epic poem.

[Paris fragment] ... [The demons] immediately fled towards [the city]. Rustam went in pursuit right up to the city gates. Many demons died from being trampled; only a thousand managed to enter the city. They shut the gates. Rustam returned with great renown. He went to a good pasture, stopped, took off the saddle and let his horse loose on the grass. He himself rested, ate a meal, was satisfied, spread a rug, lay down and began to sleep.

The demons stood in malevolent consultation. They said to one another: It was a great evil, a great shame on us, that we should have taken refuge in the city from a single horseman. Why should we not go out? Either let us all die and be annihilated or let us exact vengeance for our lords! The demons, who were left a meagre remnant of their former strength, began to prepare great heavy equipment with strong armour and with great ...

They opened the city gates. Many archers, many charioteers, many riding elephants, many riding monsters, many riding pigs, many riding foxes, many riding dogs, many riding on snakes and on lizards, many on foot, many who went flying like vultures and ..., many upside-down, the head downwards and the feet upwards: they all bellowed out a roar, they raised a mighty storm, rain, snow, hail, [lightning] and thunder, they opened their evil mouths and spouted fire, flame and smoke. They departed in search of the valiant Rustam.

Then the observant Rakhsh came and woke Rustam. Rustam arose from his sleep, quickly donned his leopard-skin garment, tied on his bow-case, mounted Rakhsh and hastened towards the demons. When Rustam saw from afar the army of the demons, he said to Rakhsh [beginning of the London fragment]: Come, sir, run away little [by little]; let us perform [a trick] so that the demons [pursue us] to the flat [plain ...]. Rakhsh agreed. Immediately Rustam turned back. When the demons saw, at once both the cavalry and the infantry quickly hurled themselves forward. They said to one another: Now the chief’s hope has been crushed; no longer is he prepared to do battle with us. By no means let him escape! Do not kill him either, but take him alive so that we may show him evil punishment and harsh torture! The demons encouraged one another greatly; they all howled and departed in pursuit of Rustam. Then Rustam turned round and attacked the demons like a fierce lion attacking a deer or a hyena attacking a flock or herd, like a falcon attacking a [hare or] a porcupine attacking a snake, and he began [to destroy] them ...

(translation N. Sims-Williams)

The murals of Panjikent
Additional archaeological evidence for an early Rustam cycle is to be found in wall-paintings discovered by the archaeologist B. Stavisky in 1956-7 in a two storeyed house in the south east of medieval Panjikent, Tajikistan.

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The Rustam frieze from Panjikent, Room 41/VI now on display in the State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg. Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

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Reconstruction of the Rustam frieze, made at the time of excavation by artists Gremyachinskaya and Nikitin, now in the Museum of History of Culture of Panjikent, Tajikistan. Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

The friezes are attributed to the first half of the eighth century and depict a series of episodes in which Rustam and Rakhsh are engaged in battle with demons. While identifications with known episodes in the Shahnamah are difficult it is tempting to think that one of the scenes may correspond to that described in the Sogdian fragment discovered at Dunhuang.

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Currently on display in the National Museum Delhi: Rustam, mounted on Rakhsh, fights an adversary. Wall-painting on dry loess plaster from Panjikent, Tajikistan, c. 740 AD (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, SA-16223). Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams


Further reading
Firdawsi, Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings; tr. Dick Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Nicholas Sims-Williams, “The Sogdian Fragments of the British Library,” Indo-Iranian Journal 18, 1976, pp. 43-82. Transcription and edition of Paris and BL fragments on pp. 54-61.
Nicholas and Ursula Sims-Williams, “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, ed. I. Szánto. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015, pp. 249-58.
Guitty Azarpay and others, Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Boris I. Marshak, and V. A. Livshits, Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002, especially pp. 25-54.
Boris I. Marshak, “Panjikant”, Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork

 

14 January 2016

A Dictionary Packed with Stories from Eighteenth-Century Delhi

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In a previous post (When Good Literary Taste Was Part of a Bureaucrat’s Job Description) I introduced readers to the high-ranking courtier, poet and writer Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ (1697?-1751). Here I focus on his idiosyncratic dictionary, the Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (ʻMirror of Expressionsʼ) completed in 1158/1745, which provides us with a delightful hodgepodge of cultural and social information about eighteenth-century India

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Decorative shamsah followed by the opening page of Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (British Library Or.1813, f. 11)  noc

The biographical note on a certain Rājah Harīsingh from Sialkot, for example, which describes him as peerless in archery and entertaining (ʿilm-i majlis), is a little unusual in its detail but unremarkable for this book:

On dark nights he shot by torchlight at a target made from knot of horsehair. He had a servant named Gopī… [Gopī] would place a piece of candle on the tip of his finger, set a lentil on it, place a grain of rice on top, and stand facing the Rajah, and the Rajah bent his bow. First he knocked the rice then the lentil then the candle from his finger. Neither did the Rajah make a mistake nor did the unjust [sic] servant frown. Now I come to his knowledge of entertaining...
(Mukhliṣ 2013: 238, my translation).

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Biography of Rājah Harīsingh from Sialkot inserted into an explanation of the phrase tīr-būtah ʻarchery rangeʼ (British Library Or.1813, f. 90r)  noc

The account continues by explaining that the Rajah had not studied Persian but could make conversation so impressively in the language that Iranians praised him. He also recited poetry in Hindi and Persian. He was a musician himself, and kept qawwāls (Sufi singers) and dancing girls in his retinue. This was a man who clearly knew how to throw a good party.

Historians delight in such specific descriptions of particular people in history, but it is of course unusual to find them in a text that purports to be a dictionary. In this case, the account of the Rajah fits into an entry on tīr-būtah (meaning an archery range). An elegantly written copy of this remarkable dictionary—or perhaps it is better to see it as a miscellany cast in the form of a dictionary—is available at the British Library in manuscript (Or.1813) and has recently been printed in a critical edition (Mukhliṣ 2013). Besides providing us with details about life in eighteenth-century Delhi, even a cursory reading of the text demonstrates the richness of Persian scholarship and literary society in late Mughal India.

The historical importance of Persian in India has all but faded from modern cultural memory, but it was undeniably the key medium of expression among north Indian elites during the Mughal period. Though Persian is written in the same script as Arabic and therefore often pigeonholed as an Islamic language, Persian was a secular language in pre-modern India in the sense that all communities had access to it (though there was a class divide—it was mostly an elite language) and many Hindus like Mukhliṣ made their living by mastering it. The parallels between the Persian of pre-colonial times and the English of today as languages of personal advancement in South Asia are striking. (For more on this, see my new book Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History (Dudney 2015), which addresses the history of Persian in India in far more detail than I can here.)

The composition of Mukhliṣ’s dictionary came at a time of great uncertainty for Delhi’s elite. Patronage for poets and indeed the whole political system was being renegotiated in the wake of Nādir Shāh’s conquest of Delhi in 1739. Nādir, ethnically a Turk, had conquered the whole of Iran and the region that became Afghanistan and turned next to India. It is undeniable that politics were by then quite different from how they were in the Empire’s glory days, but it is almost eerie to trace how literary culture not only carried on but arguably shone with greater brilliance in the aftermath of the worst bloodshed Mughal Delhi had ever seen.

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Three-quarter length portrait of Nādir Shāh, Shah of Iran (r. 1736–1747), painted by an anonymous artist ca. 1740. Oil on canvas (British Library F44)  noc

Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ has a particular interest in administrative terminology as well as in words and expressions having to do with painting, clothing, handicrafts, animals, flowers, hot beverages (particularly coffee), games, and so on. It is different from other Persian dictionaries in that it contains a great number of  ʻproto-anthropologicalʼ observations as well as long digressions describing, for example, particular people that Mukhliṣ knew such as the poet and scholar Sirājuddīn ʿAlī Khān Ārzū (briefly defining the term ārzū as ʻhope and desireʼ in as many words serves an excuse to launch into several hundred words of praise for his friend and teacher) or objects like the Peacock Throne. Additionally, it ends each letter’s section with a series of adages (amsāl), some of which have Urdu equivalents provided.

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In this passage the expression dar jang ḥalvā bakhsh nimīkunand  [During war they don't hand out sweets] is rendered in Hindi (written in a special calligraphic script) as laṛāʾī meṁ koʾī laḍḍū nahīṁ baṭte —Indian laddus have been substituted for halwa (British Library Or.1813, f. 141r)  noc

Despite these unusual features, Mirʾāt fits squarely into a remarkable tradition of Persian lexicography that began in Central Asia and continued in the Indian Subcontinent, with virtually no counterpart in Iran. In fact, there is a gap of nearly three centuries between Surūrī’s Majmaʿ al-furs (first ed. 1008/1599-1600, compiled in Isfahan) and the next major dictionary written in Iran, Riẓā Qulī Khān Hidāyat’s Farhang-i anjuman-ārā-yi nāṣirī (1288/1871, compiled in Tehran). (The fullest account of Persian lexicography in English remains Henry Blochmann’s 1868 article)

Like earlier dictionaries, Mirʾāt bridges different usages around the vast region where Persian was a language of high culture, a region that at its peak stretched from Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the west across Central and Southern Asia to the Chinese frontier in the east. Scholars debate the question of how different Indian Persian was from Iranian Persian—remarkably there has been little dispassionate analysis of this topic since the starting point is usually the misleading assumption that Indo-Persian, whatever it was, could not have been ʻauthenticʼ compared to Iranian usage. That is a discussion for another time but worth mentioning in the context of Mukhliṣ’s scholarship because he was so attuned to how different people used words and expressions.

There is an apocryphal story that Mukhliṣ chased after the Qizilbash soldiers of Nādir Shāh’s army to ask them about points of Persian usage. The logic is that they were native speakers, and he wanted to know how Persian was really spoken. One difficulty in this story is that these soldiers were not actually native speakers in our sense because in daily life they either spoke Turkish dialects (like Nādir Shāh himself) or local variants of Persian. The category of native speaker (usually translating the term ahl-i zabān) is a problem in this context because literary Persian was a learned language. Mirʾāt was part of this economy of teaching Persian. The entry in Encyclopaedia Iranica claims that Mukhliṣ’s dictionary was intended to “to improve the falling standard of Persian in India”—but its preface does not in fact say anything like that (and indeed though there is a reference to īrān-zamīn [the land of Iran] in the colophon, this was written in 1850, a full hundred years after Mukhliṣ, and therefore cannot be assumed to reflect his thinking). Even the editors of the 2013 critical edition claim that “It can be seen from a close reading of the text that after finishing the work, he got it authenticated from speakers of the language just arrived in India” (2013: 33, English introduction). While some of his material comes from such people, the implication is wrong: He was asking them not because he thought of them as ʻnative speakersʼ but because they knew administrative terminology current in the establishment of Nādir Shāh, who having just conquered Delhi had modified the administrative structure to suit his needs. To find positions under the new regime, Mukhliṣ and his colleagues needed to be savvy in the new terms and procedures. It was not that Indian elites were desperate for Iranian native speakers to sort out their degenerate Persian but rather that they sought insider knowledge about the new political dispensation.


Further reading
Anand Ram Mukhlis, Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ, edited by Chander Shekhar, Hamidreza Ghelichkani and Houman Yousefdahi. Delhi: National Mission for Manuscripts, 2013.
—,  Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Medieval India: Mirat-ul-Istilah, translated by Tasneem Ahmad. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1993.  A complete English translation of the text, this is a useful tool but too ambiguous and inaccurate to be used without consulting the Persian text.
Ahmad, B, “Ānand Rām Mokles: Chronicler, Lexicographer, and Poet of the Later Mughal Period”, Encyclopædia Iranica vol. 2.1, p. 1 (1985).
Blochmann, Henry, “Contributions to Persian Lexicography”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal 37 (1): 1-72 (1868).
Dudney, Arthur Dale,  A Desire for Meaning: Ḳhān-i Ārzū's Philology and the Place of India in the Eighteenth-Century Persianate World. Columbia University Academic Commons, 2013.
—, Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History. New Delhi: Hay House India, 2015.

Arthur Dudney, University of Cambridge
add38@cam.ac.uk
 ccownwork

22 October 2015

Marking the Aftermath of the Massacre at Karbala: New manuscripts of the Mukhtarnamah

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Muḥarram is the first month of the Islamic lunar Hijrī calendar and considered, along with Ramaz̤ān (the ninth month) and others, to be one of the sacred months marked for pious observances. Culminating with the day of ʿāshūrāʾ (literally, the ‘tenth’ day – this year falling on Friday, 23 October 2015), the first ten days of Muḥarram hold particular significance. This period coincides with remembrances of the military confrontation between two rival factions claiming legitimacy over the political succession and moral leadership of the early Islamic community.

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Muharram festival. Gouache on mica. Benares or Patna style, 1830-40 (British Library Add.Or.401)
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Two important figures in the Arabian peninsula, 1) Imām Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, the grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad, and 2) ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr (d. 73/692), a distant relative, refused to submit to the authority of Yazīd ibn Muʿāviyah (d. 64/683), the newly succeeding Umayyad caliph ruling in Damascus. Angered by this, Yazīd dispatched southward a large force to eliminate all rebels. Invited to take power in Kufa in place of Yazīd’s appointed governor, Ḥusayn, his extended family, and a small military contingent departed Medina via Mecca, but were confronted en route at Karbala, then a desolate and arid desert location. On the tenth day of Muḥarram or ʿāshūrāʾ, Ḥusayn and his companions were massacred (10 Muḥarram 61/10 October 680), leaving only a few survivors.

Celebrating the exploits of Amīr Abū Isḥāq Mukhtār ibn Abū ʿUbaydah ibn Masʿūd al-Thaqafī (d. 67/687), an early rebel leader of the southern Iraqi city of Kufa, a previously unknown version of the Mukhtārnāmah has recently come to light. Read for its narrative of events connecting to ʿāshūrāʾ commemorations, the Mukhtārnāmah’s importance extends beyond pure biography to encompass political, religious, and ethical themes of perennial interest to Muslim communities across the world.

The Mukhtārnāmah records how, learning of the atrocities while in Kufa, Mukhtār joined the wave of revulsion reverberating through the region. He later came to challenge competing Umayyad and Zubayrid claims for the caliphate by ruling Kufa and other parts of Iraq as an independent emirate, while pursuing revenge against the named perpetrators of atrocities against Ḥusayn and his family. Although his rebellion did not last long, Mukhtār’s doomed stand against tyranny and reverence for the Prophet Muḥammad’s family were admired by contemporaries and preserved in various literary forms for later generations to honour as part of annual ʿāshūrāʾ commemorations.

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Opening page from the recently discovered Mukhtārnāmah  dating from the early nineteenth century. Though decorated with an illuminated headpiece and interlinear gilding, the slightly awkward scribal quality of the nastaʿlīq hand continues throughout (British Library IO Islamic 3716, f. 1v)
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The recently discovered manuscript of the Mukhtārnāmah (IO Islamic 3716) is an anonymous version in simple prose, completed by Aṣghar ʿAlī Bayg known as Sangī Bayg for Mirzā Khudā Bakhsh Bayg Khān, 19 Muḥarram 1228/22 January 1813. Though it lacks a preface or introduction, the narrative is arranged into several majālis or gatherings, which help contextualise the work’s recitation in ʿāshūrāʾ-related gatherings in mosques and imāmbārahs.

The British Library holds another older copy (Or.10948), also in prose, dated 1[0]96/1684-5, the text of which is similarly arranged into majālis. Crucially, its narrative differs from IO Islamic 3716 in style and occasionally in points of detail, as well as unsatisfactorily beginning without the first complete majlis (singular of majālis). The later Mukhtārnāmah (IO Islamic 3716) presents a more complete narrative and deserves to be studied closely.

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Opening from the earlier Mukhtārnāmah , showing the original late-seventeenth-century illuminated text transcribed in naskh on the left (f. 2r), and a simpler near-contemporary replacement folio, also in naskh, on the right (f. 1v). Though both versions are in prose, the content of this version differs from the recently discovered Mukhtārnāmah (above) (British Library Or.10948, ff. 1v-2r)
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Sâqib Bâburî, Asian and African Studies
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