Sunday, January 2, 2005


Treasures from the past

Mughals had a tradition of taking pride in books and leaving a record for posterity, 
writes B.N. Goswamy

Detail of a flyleaf of the Divan-i Anwari manuscript Mughal, 17th century
Detail of a flyleaf of the Divan-i Anwari manuscript Mughal, 17th century

Every time that I have occasion to refer to one of those great illustrated manuscripts that have survived from the Mughal times, I am moved not only by the contents of the volume but also by all that fills its fly-leaves. Take the case of the celebrated and now oft-discussed Divan-i Anvari volume. In it, apart from the beautifully illuminated shamsa – the glorious ‘sunburst’ which marks so many Imperial manuscripts – that occupies the centre of the preliminary leaf, there appear the personal seals of two Emperors, and notes, complete with year and date, made by them in their own Imperial hands. Thus, "On this auspicious day, which is the first day of our ascent to the throne`85", the note in the hand of Shahjahan begins. Follow a few terse lines in chaste Persian, in which the Emperor says that on this day he came into possession through inheritance of this manuscript of the Divan, and that, with the Grace of God, this volume has been entered into the library of this ‘humble servant, ever hopeful of receiving divine mercies." Signed: "Shihab-ud din Muhammad, Shahjahan, Padshah Ghazi, son of Jahangir, Padshah Ghazi". Close to this, but at the other end of the page, appears another, earlier note, similar in content, in the hand of Jahangir, the year and date naturally different.

I am moved simply by the thought of how much these men must have cared for books. For, on the day of accession to the throne of India, when one can imagine countless other tasks awaiting their attention, the Emperors found the time to go to their library, took out quietly the choicest books that were now theirs, and made entries in their own hand upon their fly-leaves. Clearly this was not an act of laying claim, or taking inventory, that task was left to functionaries whose seals and signatures also appear on the same leaf, all that they were doing was to take delight, and pride, in these books, and to leave a record for posterity.

In the Islamic world, to have a great library was the sign, perhaps even the function, of a great ruler. In this respect, the Mughals were simply the inheritors of a time-honoured and valued tradition. Consider the enormous library that Akbar – who, one has to remind oneself, could not read or write himself – had built and assembled. "His Majesty’s library is divided into several parts:" the chronicler of those stirring times, Abu’l Fazl, wrote, "some of the books are kept within, and some without the harem. Each part of the library is sub-divided, according to the value of the books and the estimation in which the sciences are held of which the books treat. Prose books, poetical collections, Hindi, Persian, Greek, Kashmiri, Arabic works, are all separately placed. In this order they are also inspected. Experienced people bring them daily and read them before His Majesty, who hears every book from them from the beginning to the end. At whatever page the readers daily stop, His Majesty makes with his own pen a sign, according to the number of pages; and rewards the readers with presents of cash, either in gold or silver, according to the number of leaves read out by them`85.

The passage in Abu’l Fazl hand is long, for he elaborates upon the theme, and then goes into a list of some of the volumes that were read out to his Emperor: among them, the two great works of Sa’adi, the Gulistan and the Bustan, the Shahnama of Firdausi, the works of Jami and Rumi and Nizami, the Akhlaq-i Nasiri, the Divan of Khaqani.. The list seems to be endless. And then there was the translation department in which texts like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Harivansha, Nala Damayanti, were constantly being taken in hand. Reading about all this, a whole world seems to open up: a world peopled by calligraphers and illuminators, paper-makers and line-drawers, bookbinders and margin makers; also of librarians and superintendents and inventory keepers. Men often of great learning were put in charge of the libraries, as Daroghas, and we hear of names like Maktub Khan, a poet of merit himself, ‘Abdul Rashid Dailami, a distinguished calligrapher. Since the more precious manuscripts – and being a manuscript, each volume was unique in a sense – featured not only a text but also beautiful painting, and ornamentation, as for example, in the elaborately illuminated ‘unwan at the beginning, an equally embellished colophon or khatima at the end, decorative headings and sub-headings and rubrics, everything had to be carefully inspected and entered into the records. What are called arz-didas – inspection notes – are therefore to be found on fly-leaves, each official impressing his own seal, and entering the date of the inspection, in token of the job having been done with due diligence. The after-life of the manuscript, long after it was written, can thus be followed. One can see the majestic flow of time trace its course upon these pages.