Archival memories


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ONE winter afternoon during my first year of college in Delhi, some friends and I were on our way to a theatre performance near Sitaram Bazaar. Our bus stopped at Ajmeri Gate and we were immediately drawn to the adjacent Ghaziuddin madrasa, with its rows of scalloped arches and curved-roof balconies. We stepped through the courtyard, which was so still, save for the sound of birds chirping, that I could hardly imagine it stood next to a busy traffic intersection. As we started to climb up some stairs, a voice stopped us in our tracks. I thought surely we were about to be admonished for trespassing. ‘Are you looking for Dr Yunus Jaffery,’ asked a man, for it was he, famous as William Dalrymple’s guide and interlocutor in the City of Djinns. Dr Jaffery invited us for tea in his study. In the course of our conversation he offered to teach us the Persian language.

The next week I returned for my first lesson. I had been enjoying my undergraduate studies in philosophy – courses in logic and the six darshanas of Indian philosophy, but was also curious about the Islamic philosophical tradition, which had no place in the curriculum. In my South Indian boarding school too, I had been keenly conscious that our history course for some reason skipped over the ‘medieval’ period of Indian history. We leaped from learning about Banabhatta’s Harshacharita and Kadambari, to the advent of British rule, or so it seemed to me. Once in Delhi, surrounded by living testaments of Indo-Muslim culture, I felt a strong imperative to seize this opportunity to study Persian.


For some weeks I practiced tracing and joining the letters. Later, I progressed to painstakingly parsing lines from the Masnavi of Jalaluddin Rumi. I found an Iranian teacher too in Delhi, and managed to negotiate the complex logistics of acquiring a visa and scholarship to study in Iran where I would go after completing my BA. Over the next few years I started learning Arabic as well and spent a year in Syria.

During this time, I also turned my attention back to South Asia. I had learnt, thrillingly, that early modern Persian translations abounded of Indic texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and that both Hindus and Muslims had taken part in this project of cultural translation. Not only did imperial courts sponsor these works, individual writers later composed them outside the immediate sphere of imperial power. I resolved to study some aspect of this vast and complex encounter.

When I went to Harvard for a PhD, I kept running into the figure of the seventeenth century prince Dara Shikoh in the course of my research and realized that I could not ignore him. The eldest son of Shah Jahan, Dara Shikoh was a Qadiri sufi who spent years inquiring into Indic knowledge. He had dialogues with a Hindu ascetic called Baba Lal; he wrote a comparative treatise on the commonalities between sufi and Vedantic concepts; and, assisted by some pandits, translated about fifty Upanishads into Persian. These Upanishads, he believed, were the key to unlocking the Quran’s secrets, indeed the very source of monotheism itself. Shortly after he completed this last project, his father fell ill, a war of succession broke out, and Dara Shikoh was eventually killed by his younger brother Aurangzeb, who proclaimed himself emperor. For almost half a century, there had been very little new scholarship analyzing Dara Shikoh’s writings and historical context.


I resisted working on Dara Shikoh, initially, because he was almost too familiar. I remember as a small child my father telling me about Shah Jahan’s four sons and their battle for succession, and I learned how to roll their names off my tongue: Dara Shikoh, Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad Bakhsh. Of these four, Dara and Aurangzeb, especially, seemed particularly vivid. For many of us educated in the subcontinent, their personalities appear clearer than the details of their historical contexts.

This familiarity carries the weight of the accumulated, often contested, memories that participate in creating the ‘historical’ Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. In a secular Indian nationalist view, Dara becomes a premodern liberal, who sought to bring about harmony between Hindus and Muslims, while his bigoted younger brother Aurangzeb is seen to have destroyed any possibility of such an accord. Some orientalists, like the eighteenth century Jonathan Scott, expressed an earlier iteration of this opinion; for them, Aurangzeb is the quintessential oriental despot who proves that the people of Hindustan were incapable of producing enlightened rulers.

But the official position across the border paints Aurangzeb’s victory as one more step in the teleological march towards establishing a separate homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. Certain social activists and writers on both sides of the divide invoke Dara Shikoh as a tragic symbol of what our societies have lost. The tale of the two brothers becomes a powerful allegory for today’s conflicts.

Dara Shikoh, sometimes idealized as a gentle though somewhat impractical mystic, can in other contexts even appear as the face of a repressive state. I was recently in Srinagar, where a professor at Kashmir University critiqued certain cultural events that would take place in Kashmir, named for Dara Shikoh. These, the professor suggested, were associated with part of a larger insidious Indian agenda to deny Kashmiris their own identity; the logic of this enterprise being that if a common core underlay disparate religious and cultural traditions, then there could be no difference between Kashmir and India.


But in the manuscript archives of Kashmir University’s Iqbal library, I found some forgotten traces of the prince’s cultural world. Though Dara Shikoh only made a few visits to the Kashmir valley, in the mid 1630s a little known young Kayasth secretary named Banwali, who worked for the prince, attached himself to Dara’s sufi pir there, Mulla Shah, and stayed on. Banwali adopted the pen-name ‘Wali’ for his poetry, and wrote prolifically. In Srinagar I encountered the largest collection of Banwali’s writings that I had ever seen: several copies each of his divan and his Persian translation of an allegorical Sanskrit play, the Prabodhachandrodaya, as well as four rare copies of the Omnama, a meditation on Om and yogic exercises in the form of a Persian narrative poem.

This cache of manuscripts exemplifies the kind of historical memory I have been exploring, embedded within material objects, particularly in the form of texts and artworks, produced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For my doctoral work, I did not focus so much on the more well known story of Dara Shikoh’s life and the now mythic battle for imperial succession. Instead, I turned to another set of questions, related to broader Mughal discourses of selfhood and of rulership, as well as the cultures of reading and writing Persian texts.


A crucial part of this ongoing project has been to look outside the Mughal court. Dara Shikoh’s enterprise, interesting in its own right, gains even more significance when we realise that his was not a unique case, that his intellectual and spiritual work intersected with ideas and texts that had already been set in motion across the empire, both within and outside the Mughal court. The following anecdote about the prince is representative of this circulation of texts and ideas.

One night, an anonymous writer tells us, Dara Shikoh had a dream in which he encountered the legendary prince Ram, and his guru Vasisht. Vasisht commended Dara Shikoh, and asked Ram to feed him sweets. This was not a usual sort of dream, because it was prompted by what the prince had been reading – a slim work of only a few handwritten pages, authored by a certain Shaykh Sufi, who seems to have been both a military man and a mystic, and whom Shah Jahan once rewarded at the beginning of his reign. Shaykh Sufi’s book translated into Persian an abridgment of the Sanskrit Yogavasistha, which is a dialogue between Ram and Vasisht. At its outset, the young Ram expresses his weariness towards this world. Through relating a series of interlocking stories, Vasisht gradually guides him towards jivanmukti, so that the prince could achieve liberation while still being a ruler.


Dara Shikoh did not particularly care for Shaykh Sufi’s translation, which was of a version that omitted the stories, so he commissioned his own, carried out by the anonymous writer who reported this dream. The prince had long been vexed by the conundrum of balancing temporal power with transcendent pursuits; he was eager to achieve glory on the battlefield (though his father gave him few chances to go to war), as well as to attain spiritual perfection. The Yogavasistha’s theme was thus very relevant to his own self-fashioning. The translator whom Dara Shikoh appointed might well have been Banwali, the sufi Kayasth.

The Yogavasistha and Shaykh Sufi link Dara Shikoh to a range of other Indo-Persian conversations on Indic religious thought. In fact Shaykh Sufi translated a number of other Indic texts on liberation. All the ones that I have come across are in the dialogue format, which suit their didactic purpose as handbooks for liberation. One of Dara’s contemporaries, a Chishti sufi named Abdurrahman, translated the Gita into Persian, and knew of Shaykh Sufi, indeed holding his work up as a model. An earlier work that Abdurrahman Chishti authored, structured around a conversation between Shiva and Parvati, claims to be a translation from a Sanskrit book by Vasisht who is described as a ‘prophet’ from the community of jinns.

Furthermore, Dara Shikoh’s own dialogues with the Kabirpanthi Baba Lal, of which there are several different literary versions, mirror the Yogavasistha’s central motif, the young prince seeking instruction from his teacher. After Dara’s death, later scribes and anthologists would often compile these in the same volume as one of Shaykh Sufi’s dialogue works. And these are only a few strands of a far more intricate fabric. There is good reason to believe that from the mid-seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, the numbers of those who used Persian as the primary language for reading and writing increased considerably. This new Persian readership, often ‘middle class’, often Hindu, was also interested in some of the same kinds of texts that absorbed Dara Shikoh, Shaykh Sufi and Abdurrahman Chishti. These included manuals on liberation, other works that discussed in simplified form, Vedantic ideas on non duality, as well as Persian translations of Indic religious texts like the Ramayana, and Dara Shikoh’s Upanishads.


To even begin to delineate the shared textual world of seventeenth century princes, sufis, brahmins and others, involves the slow, plodding labour of deciphering, reading, and analysing an assortment of written works. But this would be impossible without access to a wide range of manuscripts or lithographs, as the overwhelming majority of early modern texts remain unpublished in modern editions. Across most parts of the subcontinent, cities and towns from Lahore to Dhaka, Srinagar to Hyderabad, house libraries containing Persian manuscripts. The sizeable repositories across Europe further demonstrate the fragmented and scattered state of the Indo-Persian archive.

We know from what remains of this archive that Dara Shikoh’s writings were not lost to posterity after his brother came to the throne, indeed they flourished in their afterlives. Invariably any reasonably sized Indo-Persian collection will include copies of Dara Shikoh’s writings, and these too are only a sample of what must have existed. Though Dara Shikoh only wrote for a select audience, his works travelled widely after his death, and copies multiplied over time. The stories of Dara’s books also become the stories of the many who read them, sponsored copies or wrote them down.


With modern technologies of disseminating knowledge, we potentially have unprecedented access to resources unimaginable to previous generations of scholars. But accessing the enormously dispersed archive of Mughal and Indo-Persian texts remains a challenge, the logistics of visiting each of these sites aside. In many Indian libraries, with some exceptions, manuscripts are accorded the status of special, charismatic objects whose charisma would evaporate should scholars have the ability to examine them. At times, their custodians are reluctant to acknowledge their value. ‘Why not just study the original Sanskrit text?,’ retorted a curator in Rajasthan, when I asked to see a Persian Ramayana.

The digitization of manuscripts has now become widespread in India, yet often these digital copies are guarded more reverentially than the original texts. While archives in Europe and America generally have more open policies, the expense of visiting them or ordering copies ensures that only a privileged few can have full access. Fortunately, some repositories, mostly abroad, have started to upload digital images of manuscripts on their websites. In a massive project, the National Mission for Manuscripts has conserved, digitised and catalogued more than thirty-six lakh manuscripts in different languages. However, their diligent efforts have yet to be officially made available to researchers, and their online database is virtually unusable. It remains to be seen whether the current BJP central government will prioritize the management of these resources, and if their avowed interest in promoting Sanskrit will have an impact on the fate of Arabic, Persian and Urdu collections.

Undertaking research in India presents its own special challenges, but there is also the imperative of making it accessible to an audience beyond one’s colleagues in the field and students. I have spent a good deal of time in North America, where, though the study of South Asia has quite a marginal place in the academy, there is a lively conversation going on in early modern South Asian intellectual history, and now, more specifically Mughal history. Yet such scholarship, whether taking place in India or elsewhere, speaks very much to the present day subcontinent by offering a more textured understanding of such a contested religious and political landscape, and by disrupting rigid modern notions of Hindu and Muslim identities. It is perforce political, even if it does not explicitly seek to serve some kind of political end.


The current administration and its allies have explicitly sought to rewrite historical narratives. Narendra Modi has repeatedly referred to India’s twelve hundred years of ‘slavery’, a figure obtained by calculating backwards from 1947 until shortly after Muhammad bin Qasim’s conquest of Sindh in the early eighth century. Official forums promote ancient India as anticipating several scientific and technological discoveries generally attributed to the modern West. There is a coercive side to this political culture in which advocacy groups such as Dinanath Batra’s Shiksha Bachao Andolan openly advance their agenda of forcing bans on books that threaten their view of the nation.

This Hindutva view of the past makes Dara Shikoh’s Persian translation of the Upanishads seem like an irreconcilable contradiction in terms. The same goes for Aurangzeb’s patronage to Hindu temples or the compositions of a Hindu poet writing in Persian, or any of the other myriad cultural phenomena of the early modern period.


Ironically for those who like to view Hinduism as unchanging and unsullied, modern Hinduism owes to seventeenth and eighteenth century Persian discourses on Indic knowledge, many of its key features such as the espousal of monotheism, and privileging of Vedanta. The nineteenth century reformist, Rammohan Roy, was himself well acquainted with this Indo-Persian tradition. In 1803 he wrote his first tract, Tuhfat al-Muwahhidin, in Persian, which argued for the existence of a unitary divine; he later also started a Persian language newspaper. Roy’s works evoke, of course, Enlightenment ideas about religion, but also in the very vocabulary used they draw upon the earlier Indo-Persian discourses in which Dara Shikoh played an important role.

The challenge is how to raise awareness of such points of connectivity and areas of convergence, amidst the din of Hindu nationalist historical revisionism. A decade ago, in a review article, William Dalrymple lamented the paucity in India of accessible narrative histories and biographies of precolonial figures. He held historians partly responsible for the proliferation of ‘unhistorical myths’, by being reluctant to engage with the broader public. There are structural impediments, of course, beyond the individual choices that scholars might make that prevent them from popularizing their work. The current atmosphere of court battles and publishers capitulating in the face of lawsuits does not help.


But the wish to make my research available to a larger readership in India is very much on my mind as I now write a biography of Dara Shikoh. The genres of biography and narrative history present their own quandaries to those accustomed to writing about cultural processes rather than personalities, historiography, and the construction of historical memory over what happened. I am learning to navigate the balance of combining a measure of nuance and ambiguity with also telling a story. Acknowledging that the biography genre can be seen as perpetuating the myth of the great man, it is important to me to also weave in the stories of lesser-known figures.

I am also discovering in this genre some of the flexibility that a writer of literary fiction might have. The narrative itself becomes a medium for presenting one’s arguments. Furthermore, the biography permits the inclusion of subtle points and details that together help recreate a world, yet in a more conventional academic book might detract from the argument. For example, while dealing with the materiality of people’s lives in addition to their books and ideas, I find myself investigating issues of gender and women’s roles, which the sources most of the time do not directly address. The discomforts of the imperial women’s constant peregrinations, a mother’s gentle attempts to insinuate herself into her daughter’s wedding, a princess’s spiritual ambitions, the faded memory of a concubine lingering in a painting’s inscription, all make their way in alongside theological debates and mystical practices.

Recently, I collaborated with the storyteller Ankit Chadha on the script for a performance piece on Dara Shikoh. Ankit is part of a group seeking to revive Urdu dastangoi, or storytelling traditions. The dastan was commissioned by Ambedkar University in Delhi, which organized a week-long festival to commemorate Dara Shikoh’s four-hundredth birth anniversary in March this year. The university campus, on the grounds of Dara’s former residence, houses a hybrid Mughal-British building known as the Dara Shikoh library, on the steps of which Ankit performed the dastan. The last lines of Dara Shikoh’s Upanishad translation suggests that the prince and his pandits carried out their translation project at this site or very close by. The combination of the setting with Ankit’s talent gave the dastan a life of its own, so though I had been closely involved with its crafting, it was as though I was hearing it for the first time.


It is telling that neither the Delhi nor the central government thought to mark the birth of this Mughal prince four centuries ago (though the Anjuman-i Taraqqi-i Urdu organized a related event in Delhi). Despite the advent of the internet, the state in India still retains a formidable capacity to mould the collective memory of our history in the formation and reinscription of national myths. The state is at once collector, keeper and very literally destroyer of archives – we need only recall the destruction of several thousand Home Ministry files last year. Yet scholars, who are after all a rarefied breed of storytellers, also participate in shaping this broad tapestry of cultural memory. Such acts of retrieval are as curatorial as they are political – turning to the archive to revive forgotten possibilities, to disrupt well worn myths, and to revisit those older, more familiar stories in new ways.