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The History of Akbar

Indo-Persian for a New Audience

This illustration from the Akbarnāma depicts a colorful episode from the life of Akbar that occurred in Agra in 1561. Abu’l-Fazl reports that Akbar mounted the great elephant Hawa’i and engaged in combat against another great elephant, Ran Bagha, who was routed and fled across a boat bridge, which began to sink under the weight of the animals. The copy of the Akbarnāma from which this painting is taken is thought to be the earliest illustrated version of the text, produced between 1590 and 1595. Basawan and Chetar, Akbar Riding the Great Elephant Hawa’i, from the Akbarnāma of Abu’l-Fazl (IS.2:22-1896; courtesy The Victoria & Albert Museum).

Sunil Sharma


Persian had a long and influential life in the Indian subcontinent as a language of scholarship and belles-lettres for close to a millennium. In fact, to this day it continues to survive there as more than a purely academic subject. In the past it connected different religious and ethnic communities of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs in a shared culture of work and pleasure. On a global level, the Mughal court maintained diplomatic relations with other polities of the time such as the Safavids, Ottomans, and Uzbeks in Persian; within India, regional kingdoms used it widely in official recordkeeping. It is not surprising, then, that the literary legacy of Persian in India survives in the form of thousands of texts in verse and prose, not to mention chancery documents, farmans, and fatwas.

This body of literature is often referred to as Indo-Persian, to distinguish it from the Persian works produced in Iran or in other societies where Persian was used as a lingua franca. Another term that is currently fashionable among scholars is ‘Persianate,’ designating not only Indo-Persian literature, but also the literatures of Urdu, Panjabi, Kashmiri, and Pashto, among others, that adopted Persian literary forms and aesthetic norms. Indo-Persian texts are not only important for the study of the premodern history of the Indian subcontinent, but also for understanding the larger context of the Islamicate world and highlighting the transnational character of Persian literary culture.

Indo-Persian texts date from the eleventh century to the twentieth, from the dīvān of Masʿūd Saʿd Salmān (d. 1121), who wrote plaintive poems of being separated from his beloved city of Lahore, to the politically charged poetry of Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938). Needless to say, most of this literature is not available in translation, let alone the original texts in published form. Translation of texts from Indian languages, chiefly classical Sanskrit, into Persian (and occasionally vice versa) is the story of a sustained interaction between Mughal pādshāhs and Hindu pandits, British administrators and Muslim ʿālims. At different times, translations have helped to keep the apparatus of empire in working order, as well as opening up new worlds for the individual reader.

Akbar as millennial sovereign: under his benign and holy rule, the lion lies down with the calf. Govardhan, Akbar with Lion and Calf, northern India, Mughal period, 1630 (55.121.10.22; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Given this history, one would naturally expect Persian to be included among the seven premodern literary languages whose texts have appeared in bilingual editions in the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) series published by Harvard University Press. Two volumes of a sixteenth-century Mughal chronicle, Abu’l-Fazl’s The History of Akbar (Akbarnāma), were published in 2015; it will take several more tomes to complete the entire work, translated by retired Harvard professor Wheeler M. Thackston. This work has an importance of its own as a historical source, but juxtaposed with the other translations in the series that have appeared so far – texts in Hindi, Pali, Panjabi, Sanskrit, and Telugu – it provides a different picture of premodern India than is usually seen. The representation of multiple contiguous and overlapping literary cultures by this canon of texts is also revealing.

A new translation of the Akbarnāma has long been overdue. Both the original Persian text and an English translation appeared separately in a series from the Colonial period, Bibliotheca Indica, brought out by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta. The original text was transmitted in manuscripts, some of them illustrated with painstakingly detailed paintings from Akbar’s time and later, as well as in books produced in the nineteenth century using lithographic printing. A modern edition began to appear in Tehran in 1993, but only one volume seems to have been produced. Therefore, the easy availability of the Persian text and translation in the MCLI series is a gift to modern readers and students of history, languages, and literatures.

Abu’l-Fazl, the author of the History of Akbar, is known to anyone with an interest in Mughal India. With his family’s origins in Nagaur (in the modern-day state of Rajasthan in India), Abu’l-Fazl, along with his brother Faizi, the Mughal poet laureate (malik al-shuʿarāʾ), made a lifelong career for himself in imperial Mughal service, while their father Shaykh Mubarak ran a madrasa in Agra. They represented a relatively small but growing number of Indian Muslims who had gained mastery in Persian to prepare them for various posts in this fast-growing empire of early modern India that used Persian as the language of administration. Hindus would join this group as Persophone culture spread in the subcontinent in the next two centuries.

Begun in 1588 at the emperor’s orders, Abu’l-Fazl’s history is a stunning combination of biography, panegyric, and chronicle. Clearly, he worshipped the subject of his biography. In Thackston’s words, “Akbar became, in Abu’l-Fazl’s hands, the latest and most perfect manifestation of the divine light that had infused Alanqoa, the remote ancestress of both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and that continued, hidden, in the lineage for many generations until it attained perfection and was revealed in the person of Akbar. Abu’l-Fazl portrays Akbar as the ideal monarch, drawing from the models of both ancient Iranian kingship and the perfect man in Sufism.”1

9780674427754-3d

Abu’l-Fazl describes the historian’s task of working on such a massive project, using oral accounts, court records, reports, and older Persian histories as his sources. He writes about Akbar’s close involvement with the process:

Despite all these items and the wealth of information, since the house of narration has long lain in ruins, and discrepancy, contradiction, and disagreement are rampant in reports, I was not satisfied with them. I therefore asked His Imperial Majesty, who with his perfect memory remembers the details of all events and incidents that took place from the time he was one year old, when his material mind began to work, until today, when with his exalted wisdom he is the qibla of those of mature insight, to verify everything I had heard, and over the course of many sessions I ascertained the truth.2

 

One gets a sense of the sophisticated nature of the court from Thackston’s translation of Abu’l-Fazl’s description of the celebrations at Akbar’s birth in 1542. The Persian text is in a heady poetic vein that mixes prose and verse, depicting the materially rich and culturally rarefied atmosphere of the imperial court:

Fanners with arms of sandalwood perfumed the air, damsels with ambergris-scented locks made fresh the surface of the earth, rosy-cheeked nurses gave joy a new face by sprinkling rose water, laughing girls dressed in purple coated in gold those with silvery breasts by strewing saffron, jasmine-cheeked rose-scented ones moderated the speed of those rushing to behold with sandalwood mixed with camphor, golden braziers gave off incense on the edges of the carpets, covers were removed from ambergris-mingled aloes burners, playful dancers began to perform the magic of insensibility, melodic tune-singers muttered trance-inducing incantations.

          Women of delicate voice from Hind, as beautiful as Indian peacocks.

          Chinese instrumentalists of light hand intoxicated from wineless goblets.

          Dulcimer players from Khurasan easily stole the hearts of the difficult to please.

          Persian singers sang the glad tidings of eternal life.

In truth it was an assembly as grave and calm as the world of solitary celestials, a gathering as little in need of wine and goblet as the banquet of holy spirituals.3

akbarfalcon

Detail, Portrait of Akbar with Falcon, Northern India, Mughal period, 17th c. (15.41; courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

As this passage shows, Abu’l-Fazl is not an easy author to render into English, but Thackston is a seasoned translator of Middle Eastern languages. He has previously focused his attention on a variety of Mughal texts. His trilingual edition of the Mughal emperor Babur’s memoirs is a tour de force, although this three-volume set is not easy to come by: here, the original Chaghatai Turkish, its late sixteenth-century Persian translation, and the modern English texts sit side by side.4 Three texts connected to Emperor Humayun’s reign were published in a bilingual edition by Mazda in their series Bibliotheca Iranica, Intellectual Traditions.5 In the broader field of classical Persian literature, Thackston’s bilingual Persian-English text of a canonical work, Saʿdī’s Gulistān, appeared in the series Classics of Persian Literature, published by Ibex.6 Scholars of Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman Studies, historians and literary scholars alike, as well as anyone interested in early modern courtly culture, will derive comparative insights from reading Abu’l-Fazl’s work. Some readers may even be inspired to learn Persian through these bilingual editions.

After the Akbarnāma is published in its entirety, the MCLI series is committed to bringing out other important Indo-Persian works. It would take a millennium to publish the whole corpus of works of this literary tradition. Indo-Persian writers were not constrained by word count, and even collections of poetry, such as those of the major poets of this tradition, Amīr Khusrau (d. 1325) and Bedil (d. 1720), can be daunting in size. A new generation of readers and translators will be ready, one hopes, to rise to the challenge and keep the excitement about Indo-Persian texts alive in the future.

 

SUNIL SHARMA is Professor of Persian & Indian Literatures in the Department of Modern Languages & Comparative Literature and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Asia at Boston University. His research interests include poetry and court cultures, the history of the book, and travel writing. His current project, Mughal Arcadia: Persian Poetry in an Indian Court, is a study of the representation of the early modern Mughal court as a utopia and paradise in the works of Iranian and Indian poets and historians.

 

[1] Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, The History of Akbar (Akbarnama), Volume I, ed. and trans. Wheeler Thackston Jr. (Murty Classical Library of India; Harvard University Press, 2015), ix.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Ibid., 67-69.

[4] Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur Mirza, Bâburnâma: Chaghatay Turkish Text with Abdul-Rahim Khankhanan’s Persian Translation, Turkish transcription, Persian edition and English translation by W. M. Thackston, Jr. 3 vols.; Sources of Oriental Languages and Literatures 18; Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, 1993.

[5] Three Memoirs of Humayun, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston. Bibliotheca Iranica: Intellectual Traditions 11. Mazda Publishers, 2009.

[6] Saʿdī, The Gulistan of Sa’di, trans. W. M. Thackston. Ibex, 2008.

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The History of Akbar

Indo-Persian for a New Audience


Sunil Sharma


Persian had a long and influential life in the Indian subcontinent as a language of scholarship and belles-lettres for close to a millennium. In fact, to this day it continues to survive there as more than a purely academic subject. In the past it connected different religious and ethnic communities of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs in a shared culture of work and pleasure. On a global level, the Mughal court maintained diplomatic relations with other polities of the time such as the Safavids, Ottomans, and Uzbeks in Persian; within India, regional kingdoms used it widely in official recordkeeping. It is not surprising, then, that the literary legacy of Persian in India survives in the form of thousands of texts in verse and prose, not to mention chancery documents, farmans, and fatwas.

This body of literature is often referred to as Indo-Persian, to distinguish it from the Persian works produced in Iran or in other societies where Persian was used as a lingua franca. Another term that is currently fashionable among scholars is ‘Persianate,’ designating not only Indo-Persian literature, but also the literatures of Urdu, Panjabi, Kashmiri, and Pashto, among others, that adopted Persian literary forms and aesthetic norms. Indo-Persian texts are not only important for the study of the premodern history of the Indian subcontinent, but also for understanding the larger context of the Islamicate world and highlighting the transnational character of Persian literary culture.

Indo-Persian texts date from the eleventh century to the twentieth, from the dīvān of Masʿūd Saʿd Salmān (d. 1121), who wrote plaintive poems of being separated from his beloved city of Lahore, to the politically charged poetry of Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938). Needless to say, most of this literature is not available in translation, let alone the original texts in published form. Translation of texts from Indian languages, chiefly classical Sanskrit, into Persian (and occasionally vice versa) is the story of a sustained interaction between Mughal pādshāhs and Hindu pandits, British administrators and Muslim ʿālims. At different times, translations have helped to keep the apparatus of empire in working order, as well as opening up new worlds for the individual reader.

Akbar as millennial sovereign: under his benign and holy rule, the lion lies down with the calf. Govardhan, Akbar with Lion and Calf, northern India, Mughal period, 1630 (55.121.10.22; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Given this history, one would naturally expect Persian to be included among the seven premodern literary languages whose texts have appeared in bilingual editions in the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) series published by Harvard University Press. Two volumes of a sixteenth-century Mughal chronicle, Abu’l-Fazl’s The History of Akbar (Akbarnāma), were published in 2015; it will take several more tomes to complete the entire work, translated by retired Harvard professor Wheeler M. Thackston. This work has an importance of its own as a historical source, but juxtaposed with the other translations in the series that have appeared so far – texts in Hindi, Pali, Panjabi, Sanskrit, and Telugu – it provides a different picture of premodern India than is usually seen. The representation of multiple contiguous and overlapping literary cultures by this canon of texts is also revealing.

A new translation of the Akbarnāma has long been overdue. Both the original Persian text and an English translation appeared separately in a series from the Colonial period, Bibliotheca Indica, brought out by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta. The original text was transmitted in manuscripts, some of them illustrated with painstakingly detailed paintings from Akbar’s time and later, as well as in books produced in the nineteenth century using lithographic printing. A modern edition began to appear in Tehran in 1993, but only one volume seems to have been produced. Therefore, the easy availability of the Persian text and translation in the MCLI series is a gift to modern readers and students of history, languages, and literatures.

Abu’l-Fazl, the author of the History of Akbar, is known to anyone with an interest in Mughal India. With his family’s origins in Nagaur (in the modern-day state of Rajasthan in India), Abu’l-Fazl, along with his brother Faizi, the Mughal poet laureate (malik al-shuʿarāʾ), made a lifelong career for himself in imperial Mughal service, while their father Shaykh Mubarak ran a madrasa in Agra. They represented a relatively small but growing number of Indian Muslims who had gained mastery in Persian to prepare them for various posts in this fast-growing empire of early modern India that used Persian as the language of administration. Hindus would join this group as Persophone culture spread in the subcontinent in the next two centuries.

Begun in 1588 at the emperor’s orders, Abu’l-Fazl’s history is a stunning combination of biography, panegyric, and chronicle. Clearly, he worshipped the subject of his biography. In Thackston’s words, “Akbar became, in Abu’l-Fazl’s hands, the latest and most perfect manifestation of the divine light that had infused Alanqoa, the remote ancestress of both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and that continued, hidden, in the lineage for many generations until it attained perfection and was revealed in the person of Akbar. Abu’l-Fazl portrays Akbar as the ideal monarch, drawing from the models of both ancient Iranian kingship and the perfect man in Sufism.”1

9780674427754-3d

Abu’l-Fazl describes the historian’s task of working on such a massive project, using oral accounts, court records, reports, and older Persian histories as his sources. He writes about Akbar’s close involvement with the process:

Despite all these items and the wealth of information, since the house of narration has long lain in ruins, and discrepancy, contradiction, and disagreement are rampant in reports, I was not satisfied with them. I therefore asked His Imperial Majesty, who with his perfect memory remembers the details of all events and incidents that took place from the time he was one year old, when his material mind began to work, until today, when with his exalted wisdom he is the qibla of those of mature insight, to verify everything I had heard, and over the course of many sessions I ascertained the truth.2

 

One gets a sense of the sophisticated nature of the court from Thackston’s translation of Abu’l-Fazl’s description of the celebrations at Akbar’s birth in 1542. The Persian text is in a heady poetic vein that mixes prose and verse, depicting the materially rich and culturally rarefied atmosphere of the imperial court:

Fanners with arms of sandalwood perfumed the air, damsels with ambergris-scented locks made fresh the surface of the earth, rosy-cheeked nurses gave joy a new face by sprinkling rose water, laughing girls dressed in purple coated in gold those with silvery breasts by strewing saffron, jasmine-cheeked rose-scented ones moderated the speed of those rushing to behold with sandalwood mixed with camphor, golden braziers gave off incense on the edges of the carpets, covers were removed from ambergris-mingled aloes burners, playful dancers began to perform the magic of insensibility, melodic tune-singers muttered trance-inducing incantations.

          Women of delicate voice from Hind, as beautiful as Indian peacocks.

          Chinese instrumentalists of light hand intoxicated from wineless goblets.

          Dulcimer players from Khurasan easily stole the hearts of the difficult to please.

          Persian singers sang the glad tidings of eternal life.

In truth it was an assembly as grave and calm as the world of solitary celestials, a gathering as little in need of wine and goblet as the banquet of holy spirituals.3

akbarfalcon

Detail, Portrait of Akbar with Falcon, Northern India, Mughal period, 17th c. (15.41; courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

As this passage shows, Abu’l-Fazl is not an easy author to render into English, but Thackston is a seasoned translator of Middle Eastern languages. He has previously focused his attention on a variety of Mughal texts. His trilingual edition of the Mughal emperor Babur’s memoirs is a tour de force, although this three-volume set is not easy to come by: here, the original Chaghatai Turkish, its late sixteenth-century Persian translation, and the modern English texts sit side by side.4 Three texts connected to Emperor Humayun’s reign were published in a bilingual edition by Mazda in their series Bibliotheca Iranica, Intellectual Traditions.5 In the broader field of classical Persian literature, Thackston’s bilingual Persian-English text of a canonical work, Saʿdī’s Gulistān, appeared in the series Classics of Persian Literature, published by Ibex.6 Scholars of Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman Studies, historians and literary scholars alike, as well as anyone interested in early modern courtly culture, will derive comparative insights from reading Abu’l-Fazl’s work. Some readers may even be inspired to learn Persian through these bilingual editions.

After the Akbarnāma is published in its entirety, the MCLI series is committed to bringing out other important Indo-Persian works. It would take a millennium to publish the whole corpus of works of this literary tradition. Indo-Persian writers were not constrained by word count, and even collections of poetry, such as those of the major poets of this tradition, Amīr Khusrau (d. 1325) and Bedil (d. 1720), can be daunting in size. A new generation of readers and translators will be ready, one hopes, to rise to the challenge and keep the excitement about Indo-Persian texts alive in the future.

 

SUNIL SHARMA is Professor of Persian & Indian Literatures in the Department of Modern Languages & Comparative Literature and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Asia at Boston University. His research interests include poetry and court cultures, the history of the book, and travel writing. His current project, Mughal Arcadia: Persian Poetry in an Indian Court, is a study of the representation of the early modern Mughal court as a utopia and paradise in the works of Iranian and Indian poets and historians.

 

[1] Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, The History of Akbar (Akbarnama), Volume I, ed. and trans. Wheeler Thackston Jr. (Murty Classical Library of India; Harvard University Press, 2015), ix.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Ibid., 67-69.

[4] Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur Mirza, Bâburnâma: Chaghatay Turkish Text with Abdul-Rahim Khankhanan’s Persian Translation, Turkish transcription, Persian edition and English translation by W. M. Thackston, Jr. 3 vols.; Sources of Oriental Languages and Literatures 18; Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, 1993.

[5] Three Memoirs of Humayun, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston. Bibliotheca Iranica: Intellectual Traditions 11. Mazda Publishers, 2009.

[6] Saʿdī, The Gulistan of Sa’di, trans. W. M. Thackston. Ibex, 2008.

The History of Akbar

Indo-Persian for a New Audience

The History of Akbar

Indo-Persian for a New Audience