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Translating Texts and Straddling Worlds:
Intercultural Communication in Mughal India
Translation is always a shift not between two languages but two cultures.
x . ×vcvxr discussion by Burke and Po-Chia Hsia on the idea and
practice of translation, two contrasting images are juxtaposed, that of the
tower of Babel which collapsed because its builders were dispersed by the
diversity of tongues and the other of the House of the European Community
which survives on an army of interpreters.
Both images bring out the
centrality of translation in communication.
Translation inevitably has to straddle two worlds, the world of language
and of culture. In the autumn of 1949, President Truman, on the
recommendation of his specialist advisers sent a well cooked and highly
embellished turkey to the President of Turkey on Tanksgiving Day. In the
run up to the inclusion of Turkey in the NATO, the American President
thought it would be a gracious gesture to present a turkey to the President
of Turkey. Curiously, people in Istanbul then did not know very much about
the United States, and there was much mystiﬁcation at the sight of a large
dead bird arriving at the Presidential palace, delivered by a special diplomatic
courier. Te reason for the mystery was that the bird which in English is
called turkey is known as hindi (Indian) in the Turkish language. It was an
American bird, unknown in the Old World before the discovery of the
Tis essay will seek to address issues relating to language and translation
in the process of intercultural communication and state-building in the
In the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar (r. .» 1556-1605) numerous
Sanskrit texts were translated into Persian, the language of high culture and
administration, from 1575 onwards. Tese included religious works such
as the Atharveda, historical literature such as Rajatrangini, fables and
116 Najaf Haider
romances such as Nal Daman, and treatises on mathematics and astronomy
such as Lilavati. Te objectives behind these translations were largely
intellectual and social although the political dimension, given undue
emphasis, cannot entirely be ignored. Te idea was to push the frontiers of
knowledge, close the distance between religious communities, and consolidate
political sovereignty by blending it with spiritual and intellectual prestige.
Te cultural context of the translation project could be examined with the
help of three discursive markers, viz., strategy, method and implications.
With regard to strategy, the scriptorium (maktabkhana) was used as the
place where translators could sit with their books and writing material. Two
types of Sanskrit works were selected, viz., folk tales and scriptures. Tere
was also a third type which was a miscellaneous assemblage of texts on a
variety of subjects. Tereafter the selection of texts for translation was based
on two prime considerations. Te ﬁrst was the inherited taste and personal
preference of the patron. Te second was the popularity and authority
enjoyed by the text. Tere existed a well-developed tradition of storytelling
(dastan gui) in the Perso-Islamic world which found an excellent parallel in
the Indian tradition. Akbar liked telling and listening to stories from a very
young age and the ﬁrst major work of art which he commissioned was
Hamzanama, an epic tale of the struggle between good and evil saturated
with plenty of magic, sorcery and chivalry. Tus an important work of Indian
provenance chosen for translation was Singhasan Battisi. Te following
description comes from the pen of one of the translators:
In the month Jamad II (.n 982 .» 1574), while the camp was at Shergarh
(Qannauj), a book called Singhasan Battisi [irty-two Tales of the rone], which
is a series of 32 tales about Raja Bikramajit of Malwa, and resembles the Tutinama,
was placed in my hands; and I received His Majesty’s instructions to translate it in
prose and verse. I was to begin the work at once, and present a leaf of my work on
that very day. A learned Brahman was appointed to interpret the book for me. On
the ﬁrst day I completed a leaf containing the beginning of the ﬁrst story, and when
presented it, His Majesty expressed his approbation. When the translation was
ﬁnished, I called it Nama i Khirad Afza [Wisdom Enhancing Book], a name which
contains the date of the composition [989 .n or 1581 .»]. It was graciously
accepted and placed in the library.
Te second book of the genre of folk tales was Panchtantra, a collection
of Sanskrit fables compiled by Vishnuvarman sometime around .» 300 of
which two versions existed at the Mughal court. Te more popular version
was the one which had come back to India, through several stages of
translation, from the Islamic world. It was ﬁrst translated in Iran into Pahlavi
(Middle Persian) by Burzoe, the vizier of the Sasanid king, Anushirwan.
Intercultural Communication in Mughal India 117
From this version an Arabic translation was prepared by Ibn Muqaﬀa during
the Abbasid Caliphate (8 century .») entitled Kalila wa Dimna (names of
the lead characters, both jackals). Finally, the Arabic version was translated
into New Persian as Anwar i Suhaili (Lights of Canopus) by Husain Waiz
Kashiﬁ at the court of the Timurid ruler of Herat, Muhammad Bayqara, in
the early sixteenth century.
At the court of Akbar, a movement started to
make Persian easy to read by freeing it from Arabic expressions and diﬃcult
metaphors (some kind of a second Shuubiya). As a result, Anwar i Suhaili,
a diﬃcult text, was rendered into Persian of a simple style by Abul Fazl, the
emperor’s court historian and ideological counsellor. Te new rendition,
entitled Iyar i Danish (Touchstone of Intellect) was meant to be readable and
generally more useful.
Te second version of Panchtantra was directly translated from a Sanskrit
text, probably of Jain provenance entitled Pancakhyana, also at the behest of
Akbar by Mustafa Khaliqdad Abbasi.
Te reason for a second translation
was to popularize the original work, as opposed to the one (Kalila wa
Dimna) which had gathered several layers of meaning during the course of
translations. In his preface Abbasi tells us that earlier renderings were not
approved by the emperors for either they did not maintain the order of the
stories of the original or contained variations, additions and omissions, and
therefore departed from the original, or their language and style were
burdened with Arabic words and phrases.
A notable aspect of the strategy of the translation of Panchtantra into
Persian at Akbar’s court, which needs to be argued, is a self-conscious
emphasis on intellect and wisdom, evident from the titles given to the works
(Wisdom Enhancing Book and Touchstone of Intellect). Te Panchtantra was
treated more as a repository of ideas turning on intellect than pure morality.
Tis particular character of the book was diluted or perhaps lost in the
translations done in the Islamic world where it was treated more as a book
of moral values and ethics (akhlaq or adab or ‘mirrors for princes’). In fact,
a comparative study of texts and translations would reveal to what extent
the translators, or their patrons, intervened to modify the stories to accord
with the Islamic sense of morality. However, it is also possible to argue that
Akbar’s intention was to restore the original character of the work in a new
courtly environment which privileged reason and intellect. In one of the
sayings of the emperor reported by Abul Fazl in Guftar i Dilawez i
Shahanshahi, Akbar remarked that the ‘path of upholding the pursuit of
reason (aql) and the rejection of traditionalism (taqlid) shines forth so
brilliantly (raushan) that it does not need any argument from me.’
and reason served as powerful tools to critique traditionalism and oppose
sectarian diﬀerences, represented by theologians and traditional scholars. It
118 Najaf Haider
was argued, for instance, by Akbar and Abul Fazl that intellect (not religion)
allowed for a correct perception of Divinity and the Universe, with the
sovereign as the highest recipient, practitioner and purveyor of intellect
originally given by God (izad i khirad bakhsh).
Te attempt towards a literal rather than a rhetorical translation was a
part of the strategy to make the communication as original and direct as
possible. Now, with intellect as the sole criterion for classifying ideas and
human beings, all other diﬀerences were rendered irrelevant. Communication
between cultures became possible and desirable to minimize diﬀerences
based on traditions.
Te second type of texts chosen for translation were scriptures, texts
vested with a strongly religious authority. Te strategy was based on the
understanding that both Muslims and Hindus in Mughal India lived in
separate worlds burdened with inherited traditions (taqlid). Te Indian
culture was not studied or understood by Muslims because, in the words of
Abul Fazl, ‘the blowing of the heavy wind of traditionalism (tund bad i taqlid)
and the low ﬂicker of the lamp of intellect (chiragh i khirad) has closed the
path of asking “how and why”’.
However, it was also argued that If traditions
were to be the sole guiding principle for salvation the Prophets would not
have brought a new Shariat every time. Te translation of scriptures was
therefore meant to showcase Hinduism to Muslims. At the same time,
Hindus too were expected to read their scriptures in Persian as only a very
small minority could understand Sanskrit. Te best descriptions of the
strategy of the translation come from Abul Fazl and Badauni, the latter once
again one of the translators of Mahabharata, and the former the writer of a
preface to it:
Having observed the fanatical hatred prevailing between Hindus and Muslims, and
convinced that it arose only from their mutual ignorance, that enlightened emperor
wished to dispel it by rendering the books of the former accessible to the latter. He
selected in the ﬁrst instance the Mahabharata as the most comprehensive, and that
which enjoyed the highest authority, and ordered it to be translated by competent
and impartial men of both communities. By this means he wished also to show to
the Hindus that some of the grossest errors and superstitions had no foundation
in their ancient books, and further to convince the Muslims of their folly in
assigning to the past existence of the world so short a span of time as seven thousand
years. [Abul Fazl, Preface, Razmnama]
Among the remarkable events of this year [.n 990 .» 1582] was the translation
(tarjuma) of Mahabharata, which is one of the greatest books of India (muazzam
kutub i hind). It comprises all sorts of stories (qisas), moral injunctions (mawaiz),
advices (masalih), ethics (akhlaq), norms of good conduct and manners (adab), and
religious knowledge (ma‘rif), beliefs (itiqadiyat) and modes of worship (tariq i
Intercultural Communication in Mughal India 119
ibadat), all presented in the context of wars between the tribes of Kurus and Pandus.
According to legend, the Kurus and the Pandus were the rulers of India more than
4,000 years ago. Te Hindu unbelievers consider it a matter of great religious merit
to read and make copies of the Mahabharata, but they keep it hidden from
Te translation of Mahabharata was entitled Razmnama (Martial Epic).
In modern scholarship the term Razmnama is often rendered as Book of
War—a phrase that is not entirely accurate. As the quotation earlier shows
the purpose was to transmit the body of knowledge that the book contained
to which the war provided the context. Literalism was once again the guiding
principle, and the translators were instructed to be as accurate as possible
with no loss of meaning. Tere was therefore no attempt to domesticate the
text either in terms of its language or content. Te Razmnama begins with
an invocation to Lord Ganesha rather than the traditional Islamic formula
of invoking Allah (bismillah). Tis all pervasive literalism was in line with
the objective that the monopoly of the priestly class over scriptures should
be lifted, and these should be made directly accessible to the laity within the
community, as well as outside it. Te instructions given to the translators
to remain simple and clear in their approach can be seen in this context. Te
task was indeed hugely diﬃcult since the translators were required to
straddle, in order to communicate, two separate worlds—the Islamic world
centred on Persian and the Hindu world centred on Sanskrit. Te diﬃculty
of intercultural communication was compounded by the method used for
Despite the immense material and intellectual resources at his command
the Mughal emperor was unable to get scholars who could be trusted with
the knowledge of both Sanskrit and Persian to the extent of translating
diﬃcult texts faithfully. Te domains of Sanskrit and Persian in sixteenth
century India were largely separate and self-contained. Tis point can be
illustrated with the story of how Jagannath, the famous author of
Rasagangadhara (a treatise on poetics), received the title Panditraya from
the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. Jagannath was once summoned to the
court as witness to a ﬁerce ﬁght between two Muslims quarrelling in Persian
since he had happened to be present on the spot. When Jagannath was asked
to testify he confessed that the men were speaking in an alien language, but
he could still repeat the entire conversation. After he ﬁnished his testimony,
in correct Persian, the emperor was so deeply impressed with the amazing
feat of memory that he conferred on him the title Panditraya and proceeded
to make him a courtier.
Notwithstanding the apocryphal nature of the
story it does point to the existence of two closed worlds, one of Sanskrit
scholarship and another of Persian learning.
120 Najaf Haider
In the absence of a community of scholars who could express themselves
in both languages with felicity, the method used by the Mughal translation
bureau had to be indirect. Te greater the distance between the languages
and cultures involved, the more diﬃcult the act of translation. Luckily there
was a common language that served as a link between Sanskrit and Persian.
It is described as Hindi which, generally speaking, meant any Indian
language written in Devanagari, but in this case it was perhaps Khari Boli
spoken around Delhi. In the method that was employed, Sanskrit texts were
ﬁrst explained in ‘Hindi’ by brahmins, some of whom we know by name, to
translators who know Persian. In all likelihood the transmission was oral
since we do not have any manuscript in ‘Hindi’ nor do we have ﬁrm evidence
that all translators with knowledge of Persian could read the Devanagiri
script. Tereafter from the Hindi interpretation of the Sanskrit text, the
Persian translation was made. The terms used for interpretation and
translation were ta‘bir and tarjuma respectively. A ﬁrst person account of the
method as well as the interest Akbar took in the project comes from the
secret history of the Muslim theologian who we have already met as a sceptic,
and who had become, rather unwittingly, a part of the project:
His Majesty collected the learned men of India (danayan i hind) and ordered that
the book Mahabharata be explained (ta‘bir). For two nights he personally explained
the meaning of the book [from a Hindi translation] to Naqib Khan [Akbar’s book
reader] who summarised it in Persian. On the third night, he summoned me and
ordered me to translate (tarjuma) it in collaboration with Naqib Khan. In three or
four months out of the eighteen chapters (fan) [parva] of that stock of useless fables,
at which eighteen worlds may remain in wonderment, I wrote out two chapters
(fan). And what censures I did not hear (from Akbar), so that the accusations that
I am an unlawful earner (haramkhor) or turnip eater (shalghamkhor) meant as if
my destiny from these books was just this. Destiny is destiny! Tereafter Mulla
Shiri and Naqib Khan completed that section (para), and one section Sultan Haji
Tanesari ‘Munfarid’ brought to completion. Shaikh Faizi was then appointed to
write it in verse and prose (nazm o nasr), but he too did not complete more than
two chapters. Ten Haji Tanesari Munfarid wrote out two sections and rectiﬁed
the errors which were committed in the ﬁrst round, and ﬁtting one part with
another, compiled a hundred fasciculi (sad juz).
Te reference to the indirect method made in the above-mentioned
history is corroborated by the colophon of the British Museum manuscript
(belonging to Akbar’s library) of the Persian translation of Mahabharata,
written in .» 1584 (Shaban .n 992) by another member of the team, Naqib
Khan, who was also a regular reader of books to Akbar:
I translated it from Sanskrit into the Persian language in one and a half years. Some
Brahmans, namely, Debi Misr, Satvadhani, Madsudhan Misr, Chaturbhuj and
Intercultural Communication in Mughal India 121
Shaikh Bhawan, who with His Majesty’s attention, has become honoured by having
accepted Islam, read that book and explained it to this sinful author in Hindi, and
the author wrote it down in Persian. Naqib Khan, son of Abdul Latif a1
Akbar ordered Razmnama to be transcribed in several copies of which
one was kept in the library and another was sent to Prince Murad. Copies
were also given to some nobles, while others were ordered to have it
transcribed by way of ‘obtaining blessings’.
Numerous manuscripts of
Razmnama were also illustrated by Akbar’s painters. Of the copies which
have survived, the only illustrated ones are dispersed manuscripts dated
1598 and 1616. Another dated 1605 has vanished. A copy of 1598 MSS is
available mss in the British Museum today (Or. 12076), with 24 paintings.
Te original manuscript is in the Jaipur Museum.
Te culturally-speciﬁc context, the authoritative status of the Sanskrit
scripture and the strict imperial injunction about the translation to be
faithful took its toll on at least one of the translators, Badauni. Te incident
in which Badauni almost lost the trust of his patron as well as his job is be
best described in his own words:
Te emperor called me near the jharoka of the Diwan Khana i Khas o Am and said
to Shaikh Abul Fazl: ‘ We thought that so and so, which was a reference to me, was
an unworldly young man of Suﬁ disposition, but he appears to be such a fanatical
theologian (faqih i mutasib) that no sword is powerful enough to cut through the
neck vein of his bigotry’. Te Shaikh enquired that, ‘in which book has he written
something that Your Majesty says this of him’. ‘In this very Razmnama’, meaning
thereby Mahabharat, replied His Majesty. ‘And last night I asked Naqib Khan about
it.’ Te Shaikh said that, ‘he must have made a mistake then.’
I now thought it necessary to go close to the window and humbly stated that I
had just been a translator and nothing more. Whatever the learned scholars of
Hindi (daniyan i hindi) had explained to me (tabir karda and) I had translated
without alteration (be tafawat tarjuma namuda). And if I had put in words of my
own I should have been to blame, and should have acted wrongly. Te emperor
Te reason for this objection was that I copied (naql) a parable (hikayat) in
Razmnama which contains the last words of a dying sage of the Indian people, who
advises all near him that it is necessary that a man should step out of the realm of
ignorance and negligence, should recognise God as the peerless creator, and pursue
the path of knowledge. He should be satisﬁed with mere knowledge and combine
it with good deeds, for the former alone yields no fruit. He should follow the path
of virtue, and to the best of his ability refrain from evil deeds, and ought to believe
that he will be held accountable for whatever he does. In that place I wrote the
122 Najaf Haider
Every action (amal) has its recompense (ajr)
And every deed has its reward (jaza)
His Majesty considered this passage to be referring to the two angels who assess
human deeds, the resurrection of all humanity, the Day of Judgment, and the way
of merits [all Islamic notions]. Tese were contrary to the beliefs held by His
Majesty who never talked of anything but metempsychosis (tanasukh). Hence he
suspected me of having smuggled into the text out of theological bias something
which he called the lawyer’s stuﬀ (faqahat).
Eventually I managed to impress upon the courtiers that all Indians (hama ahl
i hind) are convinced of the idea of reward and punishment of good and bad deeds.
In fact there belief is that when a person dies, the scribe (muharrir), who enters the
chronicles of deeds of the entire life of humans in a book (nama i amal) brings it
to the angel of death who is also called the king of justice (padshah i adl). After an
assessment of the good and bad actions and an evaluation of which ones are
weightier, he decides that the person has a choice, and asks him whether he would
like to go to Paradise ﬁrst and to enjoy its delights as a reward for his good deeds,
and then go to Hell to hell for his sins or vice-versa. When the period of requital
is over, he is sent back to the world and receives a body in accordance with the
excellence of his former deeds. Tis goes on ad inﬁnitum till the person [who] attains
salvation (najat) is freed from the cycle of being on earth and away from it. In this
way I managed to get out of this diﬃcult situation.
Badauni’s mini trial is an interesting example of how complex religious
concepts were required to be translated strictly within the cultural
environment in which the text was produced. Akbar suspected the translator,
a Muslim scholar, to have interpreted the concept in a diﬀerent (Islamic!)
cultural context. Whether or not the charge was valid or Badauni was able
to provide a convincing argument in his defence is diﬃcult to judge without
a close comparison of the two texts (the Persian translation and the Sanskrit
But the incident does raise serious questions about the feasibility
of a faithful translation handicapped by an indirect method. It also suggests
that the patrons were interested in an objective and rational understanding
of religion based on an impartial reading of scriptures. Te idea was that
any prejudiced reading was the preserve of bigots and must necessarily be
Te translation movement was a monumental intellectual enterprise
which left a deep imprint on the literary culture of the time as well as an
array of ﬁnely calligraphed and illustrated texts. However, its implications,
in terms of promoting understanding between the two major religious
systems of the day, were limited. It was limited in its popularity or impact
over a larger section of the Indian population insofar as the concept of
knowledge itself was elitist for the patron and project members. Te
movement petered out after Akbar since there was no intellectual or social
Intercultural Communication in Mughal India 123
class outside the imperial circle which showed much interest in it.
round of translations did commence under the patronage of the Mughal
prince, Dara Shukoh, but his objectives were diﬀerent. Dara believed in a
synthesis of the two religions since he considered them to be paths leading
to the same destination. Te idea of synthesis was not popular at Akbar’s
court where the emphasis was more on a rational understanding of religious
and cultural ideas and systems. It is also possible to summarize that the
contradiction of blending religion and rationalism may have been yet
another reason for its limited lifespan.
*Tis essay is dedicated to Professor Aniruddha Ray whose book on Mughal
administrative institutions we all lapped up at Aligarh as graduate students. In his
later works, Professor Ray appeared to us as a great straddler, deftly moving between
regions and the Empire.
1. Peter Burke and R. Po-Chia Hsia, ed. Cultural Translation in Early Modern
Europe, Cambridge, 2007. See ‘Introduction’.
2. Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans, London, 2004, p. 34.
3. Athar Ali, ‘ Translations of Sanskrit Works at Akbar’s Court’, Mughal India:
Studies in Polity, Ideas, Society and Culture, Delhi, 2006, pp. 173-82; Carl W.
Ernst, Muslim Studies of Hinduism? A Reconsideration of Arabic and Persian
Translations from Indian Languages, Iranian Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2003,
4. Abdul Qadir Badauni, Muntakhab ut Tawarikh, vol. 2, ed. W. N. Lees and
Ahmad Ali, Bib. Indica, 1865, pp. 183-4.
5. C. Brockelmann, ‘Kalila wa Dimna’, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Brill, pp. 503-6.
6. Pancakhyana, eds. Tara Chand and S. A. H. Abidi, Aligarh, 1973.
7. Abul Fazl, Ain i Akbari, vol. 2, ed. H. Blochmann, Bib. Indica, 1877, p. 229.
8. Ibid., p. 3.
9. Badauni, Muntakhab ut Tawarikh, vol. 2, pp. 319-20 (emphasis added).
10. Mahabharata [Razmnama], ed. S. Jalali Naini and D. N. S. Shukla, vol. 1,
11. Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma, ‘From Yavani to Samskrtam: Sanskrit Writings
Inspired by Persian Works’, Studies in the History of Indian ought, no. 14,
12. Badauni, Muntakhab ut Tawarikh, vol. 2, pp. 320-1.
13. British Library, ms. Add. 5642, fol. 481b.
14. Badauni, Muntakhab ut Tawarikh, vol. 2, pp. 319-21.
15. Badauni, Muntakhab ut Tawarikh, vol. 2, pp. 398-401.
16. Equipped with the knowledge of both Sanskrit and Persian, a young and
promising scholar, Audrey Truschke, is currently engaged in a detailed
comparative study of the texts.
124 Najaf Haider
17. Te presence of such a class did indeed sustain the Abbasid translation
movement. See Dmitri Gutas, Greek ought, Arabic Culture: the Graeco-Arabic
translation movement in Baghdad and early Abbasid society (2nd-4th/8th-10th
centuries), London, 1998.
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