The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 8, 2003
Time Off

Building bridges across cultures
Manohar Malgonkar

THE most priceless book I ever saw was in the modest museum attached to the Vikram University at Ujjain: a manuscript of the Ramayana translated in Persian at the behest of the Great Mughal emperor, Akbar. It was kept in a glass-topped display case such as one sees in cake-shops, among other exhibits of little value: coins, glass paperweights, silver inkpots and brass statuettes. For its age of more than four centuries, it seemed to be in very good condition. Its tiny illustrations glinting as though painted with powdered gems.

How had so precious an object, something which should have rightfully belonged in a burglar-proof display case in some great museum of the world, ended up among the bric-a-brac put together by the staff of a not-so-old university in upcountry India? The faculty-member who was taking me around did not know. Later, I asked around among the university staff, but they didn’t know either. My own guess is that they got it when, towards the turn of the 19th century, they moved into the premises they still occupy a complex of buildings which was once the main residence of the Scindia Maharajas of Gwalior.

Ujjain was once the capital of the Scindias, and the palace was built by their most illustrious ancestor, Mahadji, late in the 18th century. Mahadji Scindia was surely the most powerful ruler in northern India, having taken the Mughal Empire under his ‘protection’, thereby forestalling the British who were planning to do just that. From his numerous military campaigns, Mahadji had brought back all sorts of treasures which he had lavished on his capital city, the most conspicuous of them being the jade doors which had been wrenched off from some ancient Hindu temple in the middle ages they’re now the doors of the inner sanctum of the Shiva temple in Ujjain. What could be more natural than that Mahadji should have also retrieved the copy of this Ramayana and brought it back to Ujjain.


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Mahadji died in 1794, and with his death, the Maratha confederacy which had ruled much of India just disintegrated. The Scindias themselves, from being the protectors of the Mughal Empire, had to accept the vassalege of an English trading company, but they were rich and powerful still.

Meanwhile, the Persian Ramayana had lain in some strongroom of their Ujjain palace, among other acquisitions. Early in the 19th century, the Scindias shifted their capital to Gwalior and over the years, gifted the palace premises in Ujjain to various public institutions. The officials of the Scindias who were entrusted to remove the Scindia possessions from these buildings to Gwalior either missed Akbar’s Ramayana or did not think it was worth taking away: just a book, after all. It was left behind in one of the buildings which, in the mid 20th century, became the Vikram University.

This, of course, is guesswork, but, till such time as someone comes up with firm evidence, it’ll have to do. My concern is not to establish the provenance of Akbar’s Ramayana so much as the fact that it should have been commissioned at all... Akbar the Great was a men of wide-ranging interests. Even though he was deeply religious, it was not the religion of his birth that he practised. Over the years he actually set himself up as the founder of a new faith, Din-i-Ilahi. It was perfectly in character for him to have commissioned the writing of the Hindu and Christian holy books so that he could pick their essence to be incorporated in his new faith. It is only in more recent times that attitudes seem to have hardened so that, in some lands the mere reading of the Testament or the Ramayana would be a whipping offense.

On the whole, the earlier Mughals seem to have been surprisingly liberal-minded. Shias and Sunnis mingled freely, and, what with the practise Akbar had initiated of taking wives from the most illustrious Rajput clans, even Hindus were not thought of — or at least not treated as — Kafirs. And few of them seem to have observed the religious ban on the drinking of alcohol — and some, such as Gias-beg, who, for a time, was Jehangir’s wazir — have been memorable drinkers. After Gias-beg died, his daughter Noorjehan — empress as well the virtual ruler of the empire, ordered that a ‘surahi’, or wine-flask, should be prominently carved on his grave.

Even in today’s permissive society, a loving daughter wishing her father to be remembered as someone addicted to drink, would be thought to have gone overboard. But evidently, not in those times, and that gravestone with its carved surahi still exists. But then, Noorjehan herself was no respecter of the conventions. Her parents were from Persia, and Shias. Today, of course, Persia which was once Iran, has changed beyond recognition and the Ayatullahs have fanatical views about such things as music and alcohol. But in medieval times, Persia was a byword for the sort of romanticism and permissiveness enshrined in Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyyat, in which he asks;

I often wonder what the vintners buy,

One half so precious as the goods they sell.

The fact is that Akbar’s desire to find out for himself the basic philosophies of Christianity and Hinduism and Noorjehan’s decision to proclaim her father’s fondness for wine by carving a surahi on his grave, are all of a piece with the civilised norms of the times. Who would believe it now, that in ancient times, the Arabs themselves translated and circulated the holy books of other faiths, not because someone ordered them to do so, but to satisfy their own urge to know about such things and even for their reading pleasure?

As evidence, here is a story that has a strange similarity with the Vikram University’s Ramayana, of a book also thought by some to be of no value at all.

It happened in France, in the late 16th century. A gang of bandits who had robbed a rich landowner’s house stopped on the wayside to sort out their loot. Among the items they threw away was a book called Barlgam and Jasophat.

A schoolboy, the son of a rich nobleman, who was home for holidays came upon the book. It captivated him and changed his life. The book told the story of an Indian prince of ancient times who had resolved to renounce the pleasures of this life and live in poverty, serving god and mankind. The boy there and then made up his mind to do just that: to take holy orders and renounce the pleasures of worldly life. His name was Joseph who, in the early 17th century, became known as Father Joseph, a legendary wheeler-dealer in Europe’s politics who yet lived the life of a beggar, dressed in rags, and survived on food he begged for.

That book, which thus changed Father Joseph’s life was the story of the Buddha. It had been translated into French from the Greek language version, which itself had been a translation from an Arabic edition, which had been translated from an original Sanskrit book called Lalita Vistara.

How much of the force and flavour of the original Sanskrit book had survived the process of these transformations is a moot point. Linguistic scholars explain that Jasophat is a corrupted version of Bodhisattva. It seems that in the Arabic script, the letters ‘b’ and ‘y’ are similar, so that whoever translated the Arabic book into Greek; made Bodhisativa into Yodisatva, and thus Jasophat.

Be that as it may, the wonder is that Arab scholars of medieval times should have taken the trouble to translate a Sanskrit book, and, even more, that there were, a thousand years ago and more, common people in the Arab lands who might have wanted to read such a book!


This feature was published on April 20, 2003