Issues

Emperor Akbar’s Persian Ramayana and Khan-e-Khanan’s copy

By Jalal Uddin
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Emperor Akbar, being a great lover of Indian literature and culture, has the credit of having translations done of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata into Persian to make them popular amongst Persian-knowing people, especially Muslims. By his liberal patronage, he promoted national integration and brought unification of the country winning the hearts of the Hindu masses. His personal copy of the Ramayana, having been translated and illustrated after a labour of almost five years, was completed in 996 AH (1587 AD) is not available to us today, probably being a precious part of some Rajput treasure. In the absence of the royal copy, the second contemporary copy, prepared for Abdur-Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, by permission of Akbar, is preserved at Freer Art Gallery, Washington. Its complete microfilm copy was acquired through the dedicated efforts of my friend Pandit US Dubey of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Allahabad, about 15 years ago. Since this work is voluminous and requires much pain to make an elaborate study, it could not be taken up due to certain factors. The salient features can be described as follows:

  1. This was the first occasion when the Valmiki’s Ramayana had been translated into Persian and illustrated with fine miniatures by painters of repute. Ramayana in Sanskrit was never illustrated.
  2. By translating the story into Persian, it was an act of popularising Hindu culture amongst the Persian knowing people, specially Muslims.
  3. Sanskrit was the language of scholars and so it was beyond the reach of the masses. Tulsi Das was engaged in the same period in composing his Ram Charita Manas in Awadhi to preach the story to the masses.
  4. This work carries a full page note on the flyleaf in the hand of Abdur-Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, testifying that this manuscript was his personal copy and it was prepared with the permission of Emperor Akbar by describing the exact duration of its preparation etc. Perhaps, this is the longest writing of Khan-i-Khanan known to us.
  5. The most striking feature of this note is that the translator of this work has been described as Naqeeb Khan, whereas it is known that Persian rendering was done by Abdul Qadir Badayuni who himself says that he is the translator in his chronicle Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh mentioning that he was rewarded by the Emperor Akbar for this translation. This point has to be solved by scholars in view of the new revelation.

The flyleaf bearing Khan-i-Khanan’s writing may be translated as follows:

“This book called Ramayana is regarded as one of the authentic books of India, containing the story of Ramchandr who is esteemed as one of the great kings of India. His gracious judgements and popularity was the manifestation of divine virtues. At the request of Valmiki, the great Rishi of India, Narad, the son of Mahadeo (sic) Brahma, related the story of Ramchandr in detail, describing his noble qualities and high morals, great victories and all his actions which are in itself proofs of his greatness, have been wholly recorded by Valmiki. By the order of Emperor Akbar, Naqeeb Khan, who belonged to a high family of Sayyids, and having the honour of being a high ranking companion of the Emperor was assigned the task of translation into Persian from Sanskrit language which is the storehouse of Indian knowledge. Debi Misr, a Brahmin, had been deputed to describe the meanings of Ashlokas from Sanskrit and Naqeeb Khan had been rendering them into Persian. At places pointed out by the Emperor it was illustrated with fine paintings. After late Muhammad Bairam requested the Emperor, after having observed the keen attention of the Emperor towards this book, for granting me permission to get commissioned a personal copy after this royal copy. By the benign favour of the Emperor, the permission was granted. Thereupon, the calligraphers and painters have completed this work for this humble welfare-seeker of humanity, and thus, this copy is present before friends. This work was completed in 1007 AH (1598 AD). The scribing and painting was undertaken during 996 AH (1587 AD). It has 165 illustrations, containing 349 folios. The person in charge of this project was my esteemed friend late Maulana Shakebi Imami.”

On the top of this note, there are two seals of the librarian of emperor Shah Jahan, who studied the manuscript in 9th regnal year (1635 AD). Both the seals read as “Abdur-Rashid Delami Banda-i (servant of) Shah Jahan” and close to the seal the autograph note of the librarian mentions “having been perused by the Emperor on 26th Asfandar (name of Turki month) 9th regnal year.”

As for the language of text, calligraphy and paintings are concerned, all are superb. The language of the text is abridged and is very fluent Persian prose unlike the styles of Faizi and Abul Fazl which are deemed as difficult. Throughout, the text is calligraphed by the hands of master calligraphers. The paintings have the maturity of Mughal atelier combining Indian, Iranian and Mongolian features as often evident in the paintings of that period. All the paintings are perfect in depicting the significant events of the story since the subject of the painting was selected by Akbar himself, showing his profound interest in this work.

In view of its significance a further study is proposed to be undertaken.

It would not be out of place to mention here that Akbar also issued gold coins having portraits of Rama and Sita going to the forest. These coins presently are in the State Museum, Lucknow; Bharat Kala Bhawan, Varanasi; the British Museum and Russia.   

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 November 2011 on page no. 2

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