NON-FICTION: THE POWERS BEHIND THE THRONE

Published June 11, 2017
The mural in the parliament house in New Dehli of Akbar and his Nine Gems, which included Abdur Rahim, that incorrectly portrays him as being older than the emperor | Photo from the book
The mural in the parliament house in New Dehli of Akbar and his Nine Gems, which included Abdur Rahim, that incorrectly portrays him as being older than the emperor | Photo from the book

T.C.A. Raghavan is well suited to write a biography of the Mughal military commander Bairam Khan and his son Abdur Rahim for a number of reasons. With a doctorate in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Raghavan was initially assistant to, and then himself India’s high commissioner to Pakistan. In between the two posts he was at the South Asian desk at the foreign office in New Delhi and also worked under foreign minister Jaswant Singh, who republished the Hindi Khan-i-Khana Nama of Munshi Debi Prasad in 2002. This republication and another on the above Khans were initiated by me when I edited and republished the Urdu Khan-i-Khana Nama from the Institute of Central and West Asian Studies, the University of Karachi, in 1990.

Raghavan’s book is well-researched, but based mainly on secondary and translated sources. These always have the translators’ prejudices from the Persian originals. Raghavan was also able to use sources in Pakistan, but not the original book, Ma’asir-i-Rahimi, the definitive biography of the father and son written by Abdul Baqi Nahavandi. Raghavan mentions this text has not been translated, being unaware that an Urdu translation of the first part has already been published from Burhanpur, India.

The portion of Raghavan’s book dealing with the father, Bairam, forms about one-fourth of the volume of description of the son, Abdur Rahim. Bairam’s military contributions — establishing Mughal rule under Humayun and establishing the rule of Akbar — is certainly more important than those of his son who extended the empires of Akbar and Jehangir. The reason for allocating more space to Abdur Rahim’s contributions is perhaps the current trend in India of following extreme right-wing Hindutva policies that highlight persons who spoke and wrote Hindi and contributed to its literature. In this regard, Abdur Rahim is among the giants.

In the section on Bairam, Raghavan follows the old colonial authors’ policy of exploiting the Shia-Sunni divide and introducing sectarian feelings in history at various places. There are a number of Muslim authors and religious authorities who regard Bairam — whose mother was Naqshbandi — as Tafzeeli (Sunnis who revere Hazrat Ali (RA) and other Shia Imams. This was discussed in the book Bairam Khan that I edited and that was published by the University of Karachi in 1992). Raghavan also describes Qaraqoyunlu, the tribe to which Bairam belonged, as Shia. It was actually a Turkman tribe from Central Asia before the Safavi shahs of Shia Iran. They belonged to western Iran where the Ahl-i-Haq — followers of a syncretic Muslim, Sufi and Zoroastrian philosophical thought, whose coins bore the names of Muslim Khalifas — were prevalent.

Bairam’s close relations with Humayun and his rapid rise are examined and questioned by the author. The fact that Bairam stayed with Humayun when many other courtiers abandoned him, his directing Humayun to Persia, following the king to Kandahar, Kabul and India, and the fact that he developed a personal friendship with the emperor and communicated with him as an intellectual equal, all played a part.

Raghavan includes a reproduction of a miniature painting showing the killing of Bairam and concludes that the child, Abdur Rahim, was not present at the site of his father’s death. This miniature is one of a number of such images in various manuscripts of the Akbar Nama found around the world’s libraries. Other miniatures show a completely different background, proving that history cannot be based on miniatures only.

In the portion of the book on Abdur Rahim, the author highlights his Hindi language and literary activities and his relations with Hindus and Rajput princes. There is a lack of documented historical evidence, thus Raghavan resorts to folklore, stories and poetry, emphasising “the numerous oral and written traditions which [...] just in terms of their sheer volume are a powerful argument to establish their provenance.”

At many places the author quotes statements without providing any reference and quotes differing opinions, highlighting his own point of view. Thus, minor parts played by Hindus acquire major proportions, such as Raja Man Singh educating Abdur Rahim, his marriage to the niece of the raja of Umerkot and his role in the Mewar campaign (in which he did not play a major part). These are mainly based on assumptions without conclusive evidence of the details.

Akbar made elaborate arrangements for the education and training of his ward, young Abdur Rahim, but where did he learn his Sanskrit? Raghavan introduces the idea that this could have been under the tutelage of his mother’s family, who were Mewati, but does not provide any evidence to support the idea. He also unnecessarily raises settled questions, including those about Abdur Rahim’s knowledge of the ‘Turki’ (as Babur called Chagatai) language. We know he spoke Turki well, even to the English spy William Hawkins, and translated the Turki Babur Nama to Farsi.

According to Nahavandi, who wrote Ma’asir-i-Rahimi, Abdur Rahim’s quest for knowledge was lifelong and he was never far from a good book. A precocious child who was always seeking the companionship of the learned, he was promoted rapidly because of his capabilities.

In between the historical descriptions, Raghavan introduces Abdur Rahim’s Hindi kalaam. According to Nahavandi, Abdur Rahim had more Hindi poets in his retinue than Farsi poets, but he does not include Hindi ashaar in Ma’asir-i-Rahimi. However, he does state that Abdur Rahim quoted one date in five languages: Youm-al-ahd saani Rabi-ul-Awwal (Arabic); baroz Yakshanba doem Rabi-ul-Awwal (Farsi); Yakshanba kuni aai ikeesi (Turki); Itwar doj Rabi-ul-Awwal (Hindi), and the fifth in a Kashmiri language which Nahavandi did not identify, possibly because he did not know Kashmiri. However, as we can see, Hindi is included. Then why did Nahavandi not include Abdur Rahim’s Hindi kalaam? The possible conclusion is that Hindi conversations and discussions were considered maglisi — to be enjoyed in company, not to be preserved for posterity.

There is no doubt that Abdur Rahim engaged in Hindi kalaam. This kalaam is a point of popular discussion in India — you can come across people who would quote Abdur Rahim’s Hindi dohas on any occasion, as I noticed at a meeting at the National Museum, New Delhi, where every other person was quoting Abdur Rahim’s dohas. Raghavan takes the discussion further; he wants the sensuous ‘Baravi Naika Bhed’ describing characteristics and emotions of females and ‘Nagar Shoba’ that describes 66 kinds of wives — each one young and bent on availability — to be included among Abdur Rahim’s kalaam.

Written evidence of Abdur Rahim’s Hindi poetry does not appear until the beginning of the 20th century; as accepted by Raghavan, “the principal difficulty stems from the fact that in the entire corpus of Abdur Rahim’s verse we have little by way of historical markers.” The beginning of the 20th century was the time when the Hindi-Urdu controversy was in full swing and Hindi purism, which Raghavan labels “national awakening”, came out in force, ousting Urdu from the life of India. This extremism is now at its peak. During my recent visit to Ahmedabad (Gujarat) I noticed that Abdur Rahim’s Bagh Fatah, which he established after conquering Gujarat, is now a Muslim ghetto, Muslims having been driven out of other parts of the city.

However, it would have been better if Abdur Rahim’s dohas had been written in the vernacular as translation fails to convey the intended impact.

Raghavan inaccurately attributes Masjid Nawab Abdur Rahim, in a lane of Burhanpur, to Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana, although the mosque was built by Nawab Abdur Rahim who was a governor of the province in a later century. The author also reproduces in his book a mural from the parliament house in New Delhi, showing Akbar and his Nauratans (Nine Gems), which included Abdur Rahim. The painting portrays Abdur Rahim as older than Akbar, although he was at least 14 years younger than the emperor.

Overall, however, the book is worth reading for persons interested in early Mughal history, for those interested in the Hindi-Urdu controversy, and it is specifically good for understanding the contributions of Abdur Rahim to Hindi literature.

The reviewer is a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, UK, and editor of the books Khan-i-Khana Nama, Bairam Khan, and Waqa-i-Babur

Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and
Abdur Rahim, Courtiers and Poets
in Mughal India
By T.C.A. Raghavan
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9352643011
338pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 11th, 2017

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