In the year 1612, Jahangir, the fourth emperor of the South Asian Islamic-Mughal dynasty, was presented with a bird he had never seen or heard of before—the turkey.
But it wasn’t known by that name yet. In fact, turkeys (native to the Americas) would be called many different names as they passed through early modern trade networks, highlighting the ways in which commodities, ideas, words, and people floated freely.
Jahangir’s turkey was among the rarities that Muqurrab Khan, a high-ranking Mughal official, had purchased for the emperor from Portuguese traders at port city of Goa, located on India’s western coast.
The Portuguese, along with the Spanish, operated trading operations in the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Their cargoes carried exquisite goods –gemstones, spices, fruits, vegetables, textiles, and animals – from and to the ‘new’ world (North and South America), Southeast Asia, and South Asia.
Because he was one of the greatest geniuses in the history of art, naturally many other aspects of Rembrandt’s life leading up to his burial in an unmarked grave have somewhat remain undiscussed. In the 1650s, with tragedies of his personal life behind him, Rembrandt started to acquire art from all over the world. This rare collection of Old Masters Paintings, prints, and antiquities included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armour among many objects from Asia, as well as we as collections of natural history and minerals. This collection of ‘drawings and prints from the master of the world,’ once bailed him out of bankruptcy in 1656 but eventually was not worth enough leading Rembrandt to sell his house and printing press. What has often remained undiscussed is, however, despite his descent into extreme poverty, this collection presented him as a connoisseur in cross-culture art exchange in the world and also allowed him to indulge in the arts of the other side of the worlds without moving an inch.
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.
From the mid-10th century ce, one of history’s great scientific eras began to flourish across Islamic lands.
Like the European Renaissance, it was marked as much by cultural exchange, synthesis and dialog as it was by individual discovery. Connections forged among scholars and scientists of Islamic lands with contemporaries and predecessors beyond their own borders led to an unprecedented pooling of knowledge over generations and continents. The Indus Valley and the wider Indian subcontinent proved to be deep wells of the scholarship that gradually came to be known westward via translation into Arabic as well as Persian. From the observations of philosophers to the calculations of mathematicians, from the models of astronomers to the treatises of physicians, these works helped shape the era that became known as “the golden age of Islamic science” and—much later—our own.
After the Muslim conquest of India, several rulers, including most notably the Mughal emperors of the 16th and early 17th centuries, beginning with Akbar the Great, facilitated translations of Indian literature into Persian and Arabic. Several well-known Indian books such as Mahabharata, parts of the Vedas, Yoga-Vasistha, Bhagavad-Gita and Bhagavata Purana were thus translated. The most fundamental views contained within these texts express the crux of natural philosophy: a universe in constant transformation, wherein elements are interconnected, sharing in absolute unity and having a sequence of creation. The Yoga-Vasistha, for example, a collection of stories and fables nearly 30,000 verses in length, was appreciated for its “realities, diverse morals, and remarkable advice.”
Under Dara Shukoh some 50 major Indian works were translated, among them the Upanishads, the pinnacle part of the Vedas script, which he considered imbued with the power to make people “imperishable, unsolicitous and eternally liberated.” His rendering was later translated into Latin in the 18th century by Anquetil Duperron of France. It was read in turn by the eminent 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was so impressed by the universality of its message that he kept a copy open on a table near his bed.
Much of what Akbar and his successors learned to value, however, had already been observed centuries before. During his years in India in the 11th century, Abu al-Rayan al-Biruni, an all-around erudite from Kath in Central Asia, studied Sanskrit and researched the arts, literature and science. He analyzed meta-physics in Vedic texts and translated a number of them into Arabic, including selections from Patanjali’sYoga-Sutras, a philosophical compilation, and the 700-verse Bhagavad-Gita. In his own book, Kitab Ta’rikh al-Hind (Book of Indian History, popularly known as Alberuni’s India), he introduced Muslim readers to Indian scholarly culture. Al-Biruni admits in the introduction that despite cultural and linguistic barriers, his book is an attempt to offer “the essential facts for any Muslim who wanted to converse with Hindus and to discuss with them questions of religion, science, or literature.”
He also identiﬁes crossovers between Indian sci-ence and literature, notably Kalila wa Dimna (Kalila and Dimna), a celebrated book in the Middle East since the early medieval period. Based on an earlier Indian work, Panchatantra (Five Principles), it was written down from the oral tradition in the third century BCE, and it uses animal fables (Kalila and Dimna are jackals) to tell stories about human conduct and the arts of governance.
One of our most important Mughal manuscripts is Or.12076, the Razmnāmah (ʻBook of Warʼ), copied in AH 1007 (1598/99) and containing the concluding part, sections 14-18, of the Persian translation of the Sanskrit epic the Mahābhārata. It is currently on display at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, in the exhibition Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts curated by Amy S. Landau of the Walters Art Museum Baltimore where it was originally exhibited. As a result of the Library’s participation in the exhibition the whole volume has now been digitised and is available online for everyone to look at — whether they are lucky enough to be able to visit the exhibition or not!
A long tradition of preparing princes to rule was the genre of literature known as ‘mirror for princes,’ fables with tales in which animals are the leading characters of the stories. These tales, thought to have been introduced to the Muslim world through India, were derived from the Indian Panchatantra (‘The Five Principles’) and Mahabharata written in Sanskrit around the year 200.
Khalila wa Dimna (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)
The tales were adapted and translated into numerous languages including Persian and Arabic, and were illustrated in Kalila wa Dimna manuscripts – from the thirteenth century onward in Arab lands, and from the fourteenth century in Iran.
The tales address the moral education of princes through two jackals, Kalila and Dimna, and a host of other animals as lead characters. These tales also illustrate “universal human strengths and weaknesses, as well as aspirations for justice and truth.”*