HARKING BACK: Enigma of Lahore’s great manuscript collections

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Jul 12, 2015

It is amazing that two of the greatest, and most successful, rulers who lived in Lahore and ruled over huge kingdoms, were both illiterate. Yet both the Mughal emperor Akbar and the Sikh ruler Maharajah Ranjit Singh built unbelievably large libraries supported by an amazing collection of rare manuscripts.

This is an enigma worth researching. We today are, probably, the least literate on Earth, and I say this in a ‘functional sense’. Approximately 1.0 million newspapers in all the languages are printed every day for a population of 200 million. This means our ‘Functional Literacy Rate’ – a UNO measure - is a mere 0.5 per cent, the lowest on Earth. Official Pakistani literacy rates seem a mere fable, especially given our exceptionally low investment in education. Our rulers scorn Mr. Jinnah’s plea for wanting a 20pc investment “for educating the poor”, with the old man predicting that if this did not happen “we will cease to exist”. Just read his Aug 11, 1947, speech. But back to our enigma.

My search started while reading Mughal emperor Babar’s ‘Babarnama’, who before the battle of Panipat against Ibrahim Lodhi while describing his battle formations and its logic, writes: “to my left is - - - and naturally my librarian, without whom no battle can be won”. Imagine, even Babar in the heat of a battle kept his librarian closest to him.

An account of the period when Akbar lived in the Lahore Fort tells us that the Royal Library contained 24,000 manuscripts and books, most of them illustrated with exquisite miniature paintings. Most of the manuscripts were in Sanskrit, Hindi and Persian, with a small collection in Arabic. He also had a special rare manuscripts section in which a lot of rare Greek manuscripts existed. He had an unlimited fund for the purchase of old manuscripts, and he employed a considerable number of scholars to read them out to him. His interest in European books and manuscripts gave him a fair idea of what was happening in the world.

Mind you the excellent book ‘Mosaic Tiles of the Lahore Fort’ by P.J. Vogel, a classic in its own right, is based entirely on manuscripts he managed to read from the collection of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The Sikh ruler would order his courtiers to go out to find him manuscripts from any village where he learnt they existed. He cultivated and pampered artists, writers, painters and designers, and within a short period of time had an impressive collection. Lord Robert of India writes in a despatch: “He might be illiterate, but his reported collection of books and manuscripts makes it essential that we be careful in how we deal with him”.

Among his collection were ‘Gulgasht-e-Punjab’, ‘Shirin Farhad’, ‘Ranjit Singh Nama’ and a ‘Zafar Nama’, all of which he sponsored to be written and illustrated by the finest painters of his times. He had a military manual compiled by the name of ‘Ajaib-ul-Makhluqat’ which was illustrated magnificently. His artistes included Kehar Singh, Bishen Singh, Muhammad Bakhsh, Pir Bakhsh and Karim Bakhsh, as well as Lahora Singh of Gumti Bazaar, Lahore. If you happen to visit the Fakirkhana in Bazaar Hakeeman inside Bhati gate, you might be able to see a few original works of that period.

The walled city of Lahore had immensely talented painters and artists, as well as ‘naqqash’ and calligraphers in Kharadi Mohallah, Chautha Mufti Bakir, Masjid Wazir Khan, Kucha Naqqashan and Mohallah Chabak Sowanan. Among the famous families who had been in this profession since pre-Mughal times was the Chughtai family, originally from Herat, their famous calligrapher was Ustad Abdul Latif Al-Qatib who moved to Lahore. His great grandson Ustad Ahmed Mimar (d 1649) made a name for himself as an architect and miniature painter and calligrapher. It was Ustad Saleh Mimar (d 1858) who moved to Kucha Chabak Sowaran and his great grandson was the famous Abdur Rehman Chughtai.

Another famous family was that of Mian Nur Ahmed Naqqash of Kucha Naqqashan, and his family has produced excellent painters like Abdur Rashid Naqqash. Then there was Ustad Qadir Bakhsh of Kucha Qazi Khana, as well as a host of other great artists. All these great men and their ancestors worked to fulfil the unquenchable thirst of Maharajah Ranjit Singh for more and more books, illustrations and manuscripts to fill up his collection. The Lahore Toshakhana was said by the East India Company to be the largest in the world.

This certainly does give rise to the question just why collect so many manuscripts? The reason is simple. Since ancient times rulers and men of influence issued orders, which we now call manuscripts, with regard to land and military matters, as well as wills and family matters. These constitute the only continuous method of recording the history of their times. It is also, today, the primary source of identifying modern archaeological sites, which further adds to human knowledge.

In relative modern times the British founded in 1784 the Asiatic Society of Bengal thanks to Sir William Jones. He started collecting rare manuscripts from all over India. The great scholar Pandit Radhakrishan of Lahore was then assigned to collect in 1868 as many ancient books and manuscripts as was possible. Amazingly the British encouraged local landlords to contribute to this effort and very soon Lahore had an impressive collection of such works, which made Lahore’s Punjab Public Library among the finest in the world. Its condition today, especially given its starting point, is what truly reflects the condition of Pakistan with its lowest ‘functional literacy rate’ in the world.

In Lahore the famous ‘anna library’ in every ‘mohallah’ has disappeared. In the developed world book reading is actually increasing as IT grows. More and better, let alone cheaper, IT services are surely needed, but nothing can replace the written word, more so rare manuscripts and books. What needs to be done? If we are to restart we do not essentially need illiterate rulers, not that we do not have enough of them. All we need are honest, literate and interested persons. This effort will surely restart one day.

THE MIRACLE: Last Friday it was delightful to read Mushtaq Soofi’s column referring to my last column on the mystery of the death of Nau Nihal Singh. He added immensely to my understanding of the matter by narrating in detail the event by Mian Kamal Din of Chiniot. The details of Rani Chand Kaur’s anguish are absolutely amazing, and in all probability near to what happened. Our oral traditions certainly are our greatest assets that need to be preserved, and very carefully used in the science of historiography.

But then delightful as the storyteller’s weaving of the mystery is, we need to be aware of verifiable facts. It seems rather difficult to accept that a spark from the funeral pyre of Maharajah Kharrak Singh flew approximately 400 feet and set the brick and mortar Roshnai Gate on fire. This ‘fact’ he calls ‘the miracle’. Also for Nau Nihal to sit on a chair 400 feet away under a gateway while his father’s funeral pyre is ablaze seems improbable, and contrary to Sikh tradition of waiting for the last flame to be visible. But then bigger miracles are known to have happened.



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