Indo-Persian Travel Writing at the Ends of the Mughal World

Arash Khazeni. Past & Present. Volume 243, Issue 1, May 2019.

This article explores the travels of Mir ‘Abd al-Latif Khan, an itinerant scholar and merchant from Iran, across the Indian Ocean from Basra in the Persian Gulf to Calcutta in the Bay of Bengal in 1788 during the waning of the Mughal Empire and the onset of East India Company rule in India. In his book of travels Tuhfat al-‘Alam (Rarity of the World), written in Hyderabad in 1802, ‘Abd al-Latif draws upon longstanding Mughal views of the wondrous nature of Southeast Asia, tinged by colonial notions of the sublime, to cast the Burmese Empire and its forest landscapes as the edges of the Mughal world. Through the narrative of a journey to the realm of a universal sovereign and ideal Persianate king, a padishah and a rajah, reigning over the city and the wilderness, ‘Abd al-Latif surveyed the Burmese Empire as a vast forest kingdom, a land of dense jungles of teak, herds of wild elephants, and rich mines of precious stones, a mythical littoral region of exotics and strange customs, a distant half-known world on the frontiers of Islam.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Indo-Persian travellers in Mughal India with connections to the East India Company encountered the Burmese empire in South East Asia, depicting it, in Persian travel accounts and narratives of cross-cultural contact, as an exotic world beyond the far shores of the Indian Ocean. These inter-Asian contacts came about during a time of transition from Mughal to colonial rule, and merged Indo-Persian knowledge with the orientalist pursuits of the East India Company and its scientific wing, the Asiatic Society. In the Burmese kingdom, where South and South East Asia meet, Indo-Persian travel writers found a wondrous ecological and cultural frontier. By portraying the Burmese empire as a verdant forest landscape ruled by an all-powerful, universal sovereign with the mandate of guardianship over the city and the wilderness, Indo-Persian authors and their encounter narratives saw the South East Asian kingdom as marking the ends of the Mughal world.

Held back by ingrained constructions of regional and cultural boundaries, studies of the Indo-Persian and Mughal worlds have only rarely explored interactions with South East Asia. A pioneering early foray into the subject was written by the French orientalist Gabriel Ferrand, whose Relations de voyages et textes géographiques arabes, persans et turks relatifs à l’Extrême-Orient, published in 1913, is a compilation of Arabic and Persian accounts of South East and East Asia from the eighth to the eighteenth century. During the 1960s, the Italian orientalist of Persian literature Alessandro Bausani examined the influence of the Persian language in South East Asia in such works as Malesia: poesie e leggende and Le letterature del sud-est asiatico. It was only in the 1980s, within the nascent field of the history of the Indian Ocean world, with its focus on transregional economic and cultural exchanges, that a body of work on Indo-Persian and Mughal South East Asia began to take shape. The publications of the French scholar Jean Aubin, including his seminal essay ‘Les Persans au Siam sous le règne de Narai, 1656-1688 ‘ and his book Marchands et hommes d’affaires asiatiques dans l’Océan Indien et la Mer de Chine, co-edited with Denys Lombard, revealed an early modern world of the Indian Ocean that embraced the kingdoms of South East Asia within the sphere of the Mughal realm, connected by the Persian language and its literary and imperial culture. Most recently, Sanjay Subrahmanyam has brought to light the importance of Persian as a language of trade, literature and diplomatic contact between South and South East Asia, in particular among the kingdoms of Ayutthaya in Thailand and Mrauk U in Arakan (now Rakhine state), in a range of essays that have appeared in such works as the two-volume Explorations in Connected History and Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, the latter co-authored with Muzaffar Alam. Complementing studies of Islam in the Malay world and the Indonesian archipelago based on the Arabic script Jawi, the emphasis in this sparser strand of the literature has been on ‘Persianization’ in early modern South East Asian courts and the role of Persian as a language of imperial culture and exchange between the kingdoms of Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand into the seventeenth century. Richard Eaton has likewise conveyed the porous nature of the borderlands between the Indian subcontinent and the Bay of Bengal region in late medieval and early modern times. Specifically, he addresses the issue of contacts between South and South East Asia from the perspective of the ‘frontiers of Islam’ in the forests and tidal marshes of Bengal, and more recently from that of the wide Indo-Persian cultural complex of the ‘Persian cosmopolis’ in the Deccan.

What remains to be discovered, however, is how Indo-Persian connections with South East Asia persisted and were transformed during the late eighteenth century and into the late Mughal and early colonial period through a renewed flow of encounters and encounter narratives. The prevailing impression has been that the early modern Indo-Persianate world was ‘ruptured’, ‘unravelled’ and ‘eclipsed’ by the nineteenth century. This teleological perspective has persisted since Marshall Hodgson first introduced the concept of the ‘Persianate’ in The Venture of Islam. But not only were there signs of continuity; rather, Persian language and correspondence spread still farther in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, reaching new places in new ways. During this time of transition from the Mughal to the colonial era, Persian extended as a medium of contact and connection to reach the Burmese empire on the margins of the Mughal world. In the aftermath of the East India Company’s conquest of Bengal and the establishment of the Asiatic Society in the late eighteenth century, it was one of the languages through which the company came to know the Burmese empire, and until the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-6) it remained the diplomatic lingua franca between the East India Company and the Konbaung dynasty, the rulers of Burma.

Because of the persistence of Persian as a language of trade, diplomacy and correspondence between imperial India and the Burmese empire, agents of the East India Company and the Indo-Persian intermediaries in their service began to study the land, culture and customs of the little-known South East Asian kingdom. Indo-Persian writers and travellers, treading trails that linked the Mughal world and South East Asia, mediated the company’s encounter with the Burmese empire and left behind accounts of the kingdom’s terrains and traditions. From the late eighteenth century, they conducted surveys of the South East Asian empire’s landscape, translated its Buddhist texts into Persian, and described the nature of its sovereignty. Long-established Indo-Persian and Mughal contacts with South East Asia entered the colonial arena and came to be recorded in ‘colonial Persian’ accounts. Following enduring themes in the genre of Indo-Persian travel literature, travellers wrote of South East Asia in the form of journeys through cities and wilderness to reach a wondrous realm at the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. But these Indo-Persian texts mapped the Burmese kingdom in new ways and became tinged by contact with the East India Company, the Asiatic Society and the colonial sciences of geography, botany and archaeology, while becoming imbued with a sense of the oriental sublime that revelled in the remoteness of vast, untouched natural landscapes. Merging elements from these different sciences of travel, the authors of colonial Persian narratives mapped the Burmese empire as a forest kingdom at the crossroads of South and South East Asia.

Persian is usually taken to be only the language of Iran, with its ardently nationalist historiography, which places emphasis on the country’s resistance to colonial occupation, its independence and its emergence as a nation. While this is true on the face of it, there remain other, more global threads to trace in the trajectory of Persian and its contact with the colonial. In the field of South Asian historiography, such well-worn characterizations of European colonial expansion and conquest, and of indigenous societies and vernacular cultures doomed to resist or to be eclipsed and disappear, have given way to subtler explanations of the interactive, negotiated emergence of the colonial world during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Initiated by works such as C. A. Bayly’s Empire and Information, which appeared in 1996, a series of studies have revealed the ways in which the colonial modern was shaped by the Indian context, and how it was that Indo-Persian and Mughal cultural practices lasted into the first decades of the nineteenth century. These studies have brought nuance to post-colonial analyses of imperial expansion and cultural domination, including those spurred by Edward Said’s ground-breaking Orientalism (1978) and works in the subaltern strand of South Asian historiography, which, despite offering radical critiques of colonialism, have tended to cast Asian societies as reacting to European empires and their knowledge systems. By contrast, newer literature on colonial encounters in South Asian history has detailed the lasting influence of Mughal imperial customs and cultural practices, including Indo-Persian and Mughal statecraft, language and power, into the first decades of the nineteenth century, mediating and shaping the colonial experience in ways that disrupt the conventional binaries in narratives of colonialism. The emphasis in these works has remained mostly on the European encounter and its English-language archive while taking account of the degree to which vernacular knowledge entered into the colonial ‘information order’ and served the East India Company in ‘knowing the country’ and expanding the frontiers of its Indian empire. To date the focus has remained on the ways in which indigenous knowledge shaped British colonial expansion. However, taking these works as a point of departure, this article alters the perspective by setting aside the issue of British colonial expansion and turning to an exploration of inter-Asian connections in the age of colonialism.

Indo-Persian writings on South East Asia from the colonial period were framed as encounters with forest landscapes and kingdoms of the Indian Ocean. These narratives were premissed upon certain notions of space and sovereignty that do not mesh with the literature on the environmental history of South Asia, with its prevailing emphasis on British colonial transformations of environments and knowledge systems of the natural world. The predominant focus in the field has been on the ways in which the colonial experience altered South Asian environments through a repertoire of developmental measures that led to the ‘conquest’ of environments and the rupture of the ecological practices of pre-colonial Asian empires, with little investigation into pre-colonial environments.

On the construction of the built and natural environments in pre-colonial South Asian empires we need to look to other strands of historiography. In the field of Mughal history, a body of work has evolved on the agrarian encroachment of South Asian empires and the built environment of cities onto the frontiers of wild, unsettled lands. Such works include Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, on the Islamic conversion of the landscape in eastern India, and more recently his book written with Phillip Wagoner, Power, Memory, Architecture, on the material culture of fortresses in the Deccan. In addition to studies of the agrarian transformations of frontier environments, a body of work in medieval and early modern South Asian history has turned to examine an array of subjects on the flora and fauna of Indian empires, including the political ecology of the hunt, the domestication and imperial usage of elephants, and the spatial history of gardens.

Quite separate from these studies of the physical environment and topography of the Mughal world are works in the field of the history of science that have examined South Asian knowledge systems about the natural world and their transfer into colonial scientific projects and paradigms. Beginning with Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, historians of European imperial science have acknowledged the influence of local environmental knowledge and practices in shaping the construction of new colonial attitudes about nature and its limits, noting the ‘pervasive and creative impact of the tropical and colonial experience on European natural science’ and the ‘diffusion of indigenous environmental philosophy and knowledge into western thought’. Still, the emphasis in Green Imperialism remains upon the synthesis of knowledge from the Indies within the expansive system of European Enlightenment, science and environmentalism. Since then, the place of Indian and Persianate knowledge in the history of science has been more explicitly detailed, even ‘relocated’, becoming detached from notions of a vernacular influence on what remained essentially a European conception of the natural world, and shifting to the view that knowledge of environments was mutually constructed and forged through encounters between European and Asian societies. This perspective on scientific knowledge as being built up through the ‘contact zone’ of global interactions was introduced by Kapil Raj in Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900, and other works have subsequently explored the ways in which Indian intermediaries and their knowledge systems became transmitted and embedded into colonial scientific practices.

Building on these various strands of work, this article examines Indo-Persian encounters with, and representations of, the forest environments of South East Asia at the turn of the nineteenth century, in order to address the current lacuna in the historiography of inter-Asian exchanges in the age of colonialism. Through the window of a different archive and the reading of a Persian travel narrative, this article turns from the customary focus upon the European encounter to the missing terrain of inter-Asian contacts, examining the pervasive cultural, imperial and ecological links across the Indian Ocean that connected South and South East Asia into the early colonial period. It argues that, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Indo-Persian travellers, munshis, translators, scholars and artists with ties to the East India Company and the Asiatic Society surveyed the Burmese empire and its environment, characterizing the Indian Ocean kingdom in ‘colonial Mughal’ literature as a sublime forest world stewarded by an ideal universal sovereign, a land of marvels at the far ends of Mughal India.

This view of the Burmese empire is recorded in the travels of Mir ʿAbd al-Latif Khan Shushtari, a scholar and merchant from Iran. Written in Hyderabad in 1801, Tuhfat al-ʿAlam (Rarity of the World) chronicles his voyage across the Indian Ocean from Basra to Calcutta in 1788 and his experiences in India during the waning of the Mughal empire and the onset of East India Company rule in Bengal (see Map). Drawing upon enduring Mughal views of the wondrous nature of South East Asia, tinged by colonial notions of the transcendent wildness of the natural world, ʿAbd al-Latif casts the Burmese empire as a land of dense teak jungles, herds of wild elephants and mines rich in precious stones, a mythical coastal region: the ‘lands below the winds’ of the Indian Ocean monsoons. The Burmese empire was an unfamiliar region of exotics and strange customs, a Buddhist land on the frontiers of Islam, a distant, half-known world. Through the tale of a journey to the realm of an ideal Persianate sovereign, a padishah (king among kings) and rajah reigning over the city and the wilderness, ʿAbd al-Latif conveys the idea of the Burmese empire as a forest world on the borderlands of Mughal India.

The Strange and the Wonderful: South East Asia in the Mughal Imagination

The ‘Indo-Persian world’ refers to the early modern geographical continuum where Persian once had a presence as a spoken or written language of courtly literature and correspondence. During the period from 1400 to 1800, it encompassed Safavid Iran, Timurid central Asia, Mughal India and parts of the Ottoman empire. By the Mughal period, this was an ‘Indo-Persian’ world, as opposed to a ‘Persianate’ world (to use the more Iran-centric term), in the sense that, while the language of writing and exchange was indeed Persian, a vast corpus of its literature, including works concerning South East Asia, was produced within a Mughal and South Asian context, with its audience composed predominantly of South Asian readers.

South East Asia was at the furthest limits of this geographical and cultural sphere, seen as the fringes of the Indian subcontinent. In early modern Indo-Persian geographies, South East Asia was conceived as the region known as the zirbad, the ‘lands below the winds’ of the Indian Ocean monsoons. It was an almost mythical realm of marvellous landscapes and kingdoms at the ends of the Indian Ocean, as described in Zakariya Qazvini’s thirteenth-century text ʿAjaʾib al-makhluqat wa gharaʾib al-mawjudat (The Wonders of Creation and the Strange Things Existing). These perceptions of distance and difference recorded in accounts of the ‘lands below the winds’ came to be produced through contacts with South East Asia.

Trade, diplomacy and the prevalence of Persian as a literary and courtly language linked early modern empires across South and South East Asia. In the kingdom of Ayutthaya in Thailand, during the reign of King Narai (1656-88), a thriving community of Persian merchants from Safavid Iran attained influence and prestige in the Thai court. Likewise, the syncretic Buddhist kingdom of Mrauk U in Arakan was steeped in the culture and trappings of Islamic kingship, with its kings adopting Persian names and minting their titles as ‘shahs’ onto coins bearing the kalima, the profession of the Islamic creed.

This familiarity between the Indo-Persian world and South-East Asia did not merely nourish connections; conversely, it also led to disconnection and the construction of difference. The presence of Iranians and the influence of Persian in the court at Ayutthaya, as well as along the southern littoral of Burma in Pegu, were vividly detailed in Muhammad Ibrahim Rabi’s seventeenth-century travel account of an embassy to Thailand, Safina-yi Sulaymani (The Ship of Sulayman). Safina-yi Sulaymani, like other early modern Persian travel literature about South East Asia, depicts the region as part of the ʿajaʾib, the distant awe-inspiring places of the sub-lunar world often associated with the farthest edges of the Indian Ocean. Similarly, in the travel book Rawzat al-tahirin (The Garden of the Immaculate), written in 1607, Tahir Muhammad Sabzavari describes the Mrauk U kingdom of Arakan and the Mon Hanthawaddy kingdom of Pegu as places neither Muslim nor Hindu that were part of ‘the marvels and wonders of the islands and ports’ near Bengal (ʿajaʾib u gharaʾib dar banadir u jazaʾir). The Burmese empire was seen as a fabulous realm, a terra incognita reached by a journey of many days through a country of uninhabited forests abounding with elephants, rhinoceros and exotic flora and fauna. Its cities were studded with magnificent, often gilded temples, worshipped by idolaters with their own customs and language. These descriptions of South East Asia consisted of tales and legends of mysterious Indian voyages to distant lands and kingdoms.

Tuhfat al-ʿAlam

The view of the Burmese empire as a forest kingdom and landscape at the crossroads to South East Asia comes through in Indo-Persian histories and travel memoirs from late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Bengal, such as ʿAbd al-Latif’s Tuhfat al-ʿAlam (Rarity of the World).

Mir ʿAbd al-Latif Khan (1757-1806) was an itinerant Muslim scholar, merchant and sayyid (claimed descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) from the city of Shushtar in southern Iran. He was a scion of the Shushtari clan, a learned family of Shiʿi divines and scholars originally from Basra who had risen to prominence in Iran during the Safavid period. His grandfather Sayyid Nimatallah Jazayiri (1640-1700) was a renowned scholar who had moved to Iran during the reign of Shah Sulayman I (1664-94); he was appointed Shaykh al-Islam (the outstanding scholar of Islamic law in the empire) and leader of Friday Prayers, and assisted Muhammad Baqir Majlisi in the compilation of his compendium of hadith traditions, Bihar al-anwar (Seas of Lights). For generations merchants in the Shushtari family had spread their intellectual and mercantile networks as far as India. In 1730, in the wake of the fall of the Safavid empire and the ensuing dynastic instability and uncertainty in Iran, ʿAbd al-Latif’s uncle Sayyid Riza Shushtari (d. 1780) looked towards India and migrated from Iran to Hyderabad, in the Deccan, where he was given land and patronage by the nizam (the ruler of Hyderabad). Following the path of his relatives, in 1788 ʿAbd al-Latif crossed the Indian Ocean from the port city of Basra in the Persian Gulf to Calcutta in the Bay of Bengal and, in 1801, wrote the record of his life and journeys entitled Tuhfat al-ʿAlam.

ʿAbd al-Latif dedicated Tuhfat al-ʿAlam to his paternal cousin Sayyid Abuʾl Qasim Bahadur Mir ʿAlam, the representative of the nizam of Hyderabad to the British government in Bengal, after whom the work was entitled. A lithograph edition was published in Bombay in 1847 by the printer Mirza Zinal Abideen Kermany (see Plate 1). Its main audience was Persian readers in Bengal and the Deccan, particularly in Hyderabad. Its readership in Hyderabad seems likely to have been due to the prominence of the Deccani city in the text, and its circulation there is attested by the imprint of the seal of the Imperial School of Sciences in Hyderabad (Madrassa-yi Dar al-ʿUlum-i Hyderabad Farkhanda-yi Bunyad-i Deccan) in surviving copies of the lithographed edition of the text (see Plate 2). Apart from this, it might be suggested that the audience for Tuhfat al-ʿAlam and similar texts of the time, such as the more widely circulated and translated travel account of Mirza Abu Talib Khan, consisted of Indo-Persian readers, as well as European scholars and orientalists of the Asiatic Society in Bengal who were familiar with the Persian language Thus, Tuhfat al-ʿAlam was an Indo-Persian text in the sense that it was written in the Persian language within a Mughal context and closely concerned with South Asia.

Drawing upon the author’s journeys from the Persian Gulf across the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal and India, and borrowing from diverse sources of information, this is a work in the time-honoured Persian genre of the safarnama (‘travel book’). Well-known examples of this ornate, poetic literary genre include the eleventh-century Persian Safarnama by Nasir-i Khusraw (1004-88), which describes a pilgrimage to Mecca, continuing on to Jerusalem and Cairo, and the Seyahatname (Book of Travels) of the seventeenth-century traveller from Istanbul Evliya Çelebi (1611-82), whose journeys spanned the far limits of the Ottoman empire. These travelogues borrowed elements from other Persian and Arabic genres of geography (jughrafiya), road books (kitab al-masalik al-mamalik) and tales of the wonders of creation in their constructions of distance and difference. In Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, ʿAbd al-Latif records his own experiences and observations, but also includes tales collected from other travellers, including descriptions of India (especially Calcutta, Hyderabad and Bombay), England, the Americas and the Indian Ocean world from the Middle East to South East Asia.

Tuhfat al-ʿAlam marks a continuation of the wide-ranging genre of the safarnama. However, owing to the unusually eclectic nature of its subject matter, it would perhaps be better classified as a miscellany (jung) since it includes local histories, biographical sketches and descriptions of travels to faraway places which the author had seen as well as those he had heard and read about. In Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, ʿAbd al-Latif tells the story of his life and travels, and of his friends and family and the people and places he has encountered on the way. He begins with a description of home, sketching the local history of his birthplace, the city of Shushtar, the nearby cities of Basra and Baghdad, and the Shiʿi shrine towns in the Persian Gulf. He also includes a biographical anthology and dictionary (tazkira) of the local sayyids from the Shiʿi Nuri sect. He then chronicles his journey across the Indian Ocean, with a narrative entitled ‘On the Wonders of Islands and the Strangeness of Seas’ (ʿAjaʾib-i jazayir va gharayib-i bahar), before describing the lands of ‘Hindustan’. He details the geography and customs of India, while incorporating material on ‘Farang’ (Europe), the affairs of the East India Company in Bengal and news of discoveries in the New World.

In some aspects Tuhfat al-ʿAlam also falls into the category of andarz writings, the wisdom literature including the ‘mirrors for princes’ genre of Persian prose, since it offers glimpses into other kingdoms and advice for rulers. Thus, an abridged edition of the text appeared under the title Qavaʿid al-muluk (Axioms for Kings), written on the orders of Fath ʿAli Shah Qajar of Iran (reigned 1797-1834) by his court historian Mirza Muhammad Sadiq Vaqaʾiʿ Nigar.

In addition to ʿAbd al-Latif’s own travel experiences, Tuhfat al-ʿAlam was also largely based upon a diverse corpus of existing travel literature. He drew heavily on other Persian travel accounts, including those of Muhammad ʿAli Hazin Lahiji, Sayyid ʿAbdallah Shushtari and Mirza ʿAbu Talib Khan. But while Tuhfat al-ʿAlam owes much to early modern Persian knowledge of South East Asia and its repertoire of encounter narratives of exotic lands, it also reflects the experience of colonialism and the projects of the East India Company. It bears the imprint of ʿAbd al-Latif’s contacts with scholars in the Asiatic Society of Bengal, including its founder, Sir William Jones (1746-94), and Sir Robert Chambers (1737-1803), chief judge of the East India Company in Calcutta, to whose vast collection of Persian and Sanskrit manuscripts the Persian traveller was given access. From the material on the Burmese empire and its relations with the East India Company that appears in Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, it seems clear that its author was also familiar with Michael Symes’s Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava (1800), based on the first official company mission to the Burmese court. ʿAbd al-Latif likely first heard about Symes’s description of Burma from Mirza Abu Talib Khan, a close friend of Symes whom ʿAbd al-Latif frequently met in Calcutta and later Bombay. During his mission, Symes had corresponded with the Burmese court in Persian, while the mission employed Indo-Persian munshis as liaisons, as well as translators, collectors, artists and botanists. From the late eighteenth century, they conducted surveys of the empire’s densely forested landscape, translated its Theravada Buddhist texts into Persian, and portrayed the nature of its sovereignty. Although not officially part of these circles of colonial science and reconnaissance, ʿAbd al-Latif was loosely affiliated with them, and thus his Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, while rooted within a Persian literary genre, also had links with colonial knowledge of India and the Indian Ocean world.

One of the underlying themes in the text is the emergence of colonial rule under the East India Company expanding from Bengal, and the ways in which colonial power was navigated by the empires and princely states of India. This theme was traced by ʿAbd al-Latif through various episodes. He related the tale of the decaying Mughal empire in India, which was ‘in truth, a country without a master’, dismantled by competing princely states and the encroachment of the East India Company. He outlined the different paths taken in facing the increasing power of the company in India, from the anti-colonial resistance of Tipu Sultan, the nawab of Mysore, defeated at the gates of his southern Indian capital of Srirangapatnam in 1799, to the co-opted nizam of Hyderabad, who entered into alliance with the British in order to preserve his state’s independence. He brought into view the Burmese empire, a kingdom in the nascent stages of contact with the company and which still held on to its sovereignty.

From Basra to Bengal

Tuhfat al-ʿAlam begins with its author travelling as a drifter and pilgrim in the borderlands of southern Iran and Iraq (see Plate 3). During the early 1780s, while still in his mid twenties, he travelled by ship to the port city of Basra on the Persian Gulf, and from there to Bushire, a port for the southern Iranian province of Fars and the city of Shiraz. Here he settled for ‘a period of time’, falling in with Iranian merchants and hajjis resident in the city, and hearing stories of their travels. In 1784 he returned to Basra, from where he made pilgrimages to the Shiʿi shrine cities of Iraq (Najaf, Karbala, Kazemayn and Samarra). However, he was overtaken by a recurring sense of loneliness and alienation (bigana), and again turned to wandering (sargardani). In 1786 he left Basra for Baghdad, continuing to make pilgrimages to the sacred tombs and cities (ʿatabat) of Shiʿi saints and imams, but after two years in Baghdad he returned to Basra. There, in the Persian Gulf, ‘the air of Hindustan came over him’ (hava-yi Hindustan bar sar amad), and he decided to hitch his fortunes to family connections with the nizam of Hyderabad. In July 1788 he boarded an English ship bound for the Bay of Bengal and the east coast of India. His family and friends accompanied him to the docks and prayed for his safe journey, while his elder brother, who had travelled with him around the Persian Gulf, recited a verse beloved by mariners from the eleventh Sura of the Qur’an, on Noah’s Ark, and bid him farewell from the shore. As the ship weighed anchor and hoist its sails, heading out to sea, ʿAbd al-Latif had mixed emotions about the voyage in view of the ship’s uncertain destiny and wrote the following lines, incorporating the verse his brother had recited from the Qur’an:

In this endless ocean, in this worsening storm,
We headed out to sea, praying ‘in the name of Allah, for its sailing and its anchorage’ to reach another shore.
Unless the endless sea turns to rival the broken heart,
And, like an ocean of fire, drowns us in its swell, frenzied and distraught.
Full of sorrow, my heart craves the sea journey like the whale.

With this poem on the uncertainties of leaving home and embarking on a sea voyage, ʿAbd al-Latif commenced his journey across the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean, or Darya-yi Hindustan, was conceived by ʿAbd al-Latif as among the marvels of existence, delineated in a chapter entitled ‘On the Pearls Spread from the Brush of the Painter of Rarities on Some of the Wonders of Islands and the Strangeness of the Sea’ (Dar dur afshani-yi qalam-i badaʾi ʿ nigar bi zikr-i baʾz az ʿajaʾib-i jazayir va gharaʾib-i bahar). As this elaborate title suggests, the notion of the strange wonders of creation as the divine source of all existence frames the discussion of the sea in Tuhfat al-ʿAlam. The vast realm of the sea was strange and marvellous, and contained phenomena that were beyond human understanding. Citing the tradition of Qazvini’s Wonders of Creation and the Strange Things Existing, ʿAbd al-Latif recounts tales of an almost incomprehensible ocean nature, including fierce, tempestuous storms and the sighting of mermaids and fish inscribed with the name of Allah.

Despite the framing device of the strange and wondrous, ʿAbd al-Latif seeks to uncover the natural history of the sea, revealing an openness to modern European knowledge in the process. He begins by examining ‘the causes of the existence of oceans and the movement of the waves on the sea’ (ʿilat-i vujud-i daryaha va tikun-i bahar), rejecting the traditional religious explanation that the sea was created in the aftermath of Noah’s Flood (Tufan-i Nuh). Rather, he provides a scientific and evolutionary perspective, claiming that the ‘globe of water (kura-yi ab) exists independently of the Flood and through its great power the prosperity of the existence of plants and animals came to be created’. In describing ‘the true cause of the rising and falling of the tides of the ocean’ (haqiqat-i madd u jazr-i bahar), he relays the view of the English (jamaʿat-i Inglisia) that planetary bodies (kura) gravitate towards one another and that high and low tides result from the gravitational pull (khud kishad) of the moon (kura-yi qamar). Similarly, his far-ranging sketch of the geographical boundaries of the Indian Ocean includes references to the New World:

The Ocean of Hindustan is the greatest ocean in the universe and it is said there is no wider sea. Its extent is from the west (maghrib) to the east (mashriq), from the ends of East Africa (iqsay-i Habsha) to the ends of India (iqsay-i Hind), and includes within its sphere Rome, China, Europe and the Americas, which is the name of the ‘new land’ (arz-i jadid ). It was this ocean that took on the name of every country it reached.

ʿAbd al-Latif’s voyage traversed the Indian Ocean from the Persian Gulf to the Bay of Bengal. After some days sailing through the Persian Gulf, the ship passed through the Strait of Hormuz to reach the port of Muscat in Oman, under the rule of the Al Bu Saʾid dynasty, before setting sail eastwards on the Arabian Sea. ʿAbd al-Latif wrote of the changes that occurred on the open sea:

Until that time, the ship had sailed the Gulf of Persia and Oman, and the sea was not so vast and rough. But upon entering the Indian Ocean, there was turbulence as mountains upon mountains of waves constantly rolled by until I was certain I should drown. There was so much tumult and rage in the endless ocean (darya-yi bipayan) that, in truth, its overwhelming power was apparent at every moment.

The ocean was a wilderness to ʿAbd al-Latif and he longed to reach an inhabited place (maʿmura). He hoped to make it across the vast darya and to reach another shore, somewhere where there was cultivation. After more than a month at sea, the ship dropped anchor at Machilipatnam, the main port city of Hyderabad on the east coast of the Deccan. This was the first time ʿAbd al-Latif had experienced India. Nearly a week later, the ship sailed for the city of Calcutta, where the weary traveller recovered from the travails of the Indian Ocean. He was 30 years old.

Settling in Calcutta, ʿAbd al-Latif entered into the service of his influential paternal cousin Sayyid Abuʾl Qasim Bahadur Mir ʿAlam, the representative of the nizam of Hyderabad to the East India Company. Mir ʿAlam would later lead the nizam’s army in the decisive campaign against Tipu Sultan’s forces at Srirangapatnam in the service of the British in 1799. Many details about his time in India come from the writings of his friend Mirza Abu Talib Khan, who knew him well in Calcutta and Bombay.

ʿAbd al-Latif drew upon his connections in Basra to make substantial profits as a gold merchant in India, importing the valuable metal to make Indian goods that were then re-exported to the Persian Gulf. He married Mir ʿAlam’s sister, and in 1800 was appointed his agent (sarkar) to the governor-general and colonial government of Bengal. As a consequence, he became a wealthy and prominent man. He lived in Calcutta and Hyderabad for nearly two decades, travelling extensively through the cities of Bengal and the Deccan, collecting information about these regions, as well as making two journeys to the city of Lucknow in Awadh.

ʿAbd al-Latif was in Hyderabad when he wrote and compiled these travel narratives, confined to the city following the family scandal of the marriage between his cousin Khayr un-Nissa Begum and James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British resident at the court of Hyderabad. However, his constant journeys in the tropical climate of India led to prolonged illness, and he resolved to set off for the western coast of the Deccan and take ship home to Basra. But his plans were frustrated when the governor-general assigned him to a position in Bombay serving as host to Persian ambassadors (ilchi) from Qajar Iran, and he took up residence in that city. This is the last we hear of him until his death back in Hyderabad in 1806.

Of Elephants, Rubies, and Teak

After nearly two decades in Bengal, during which he had ‘seen most of the surrounding country’ and collected information that he had ‘heard from reliable sources’, ʿAbd al-Latif came to know the Burmese frontier. In the course of his survey of the environs of Bengal and its outer reaches in Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, he had included a graphic description of the Burmese empire, writing about it in the form of a journey to the land of a universal sovereign, Bodawpaya, and his forest kingdom on the fringes of India. His description of the Burmese kingdom echoes early modern Persian narratives of South East Asia as a strange, unknown, hidden land on the geographical edge of the Indo-Persian world. Like them, he refers to Burma as the zirbad, the unfamiliar and foreign ‘lands below the winds’; and he retains the name Pegu (derived from the Malay word for the lands of the Irrawaddy delta, Paigu) for the capital of the former southern Mon Hanthawaddy kingdom, even though nearly forty years had passed since its conquest by the Konbaung dynasty and the rise of Ava and Amarapura as the royal capitals of the empire (see Plate 4).

But unlike previous Persian accounts, which focused on the early modern empires of Mrauk U in Arakan and the Mon in Pegu, imperial spaces with centuries of contact with the Mughal world, ʿAbd al-Latif’s story brought into view the realm of the nascent Burmese Konbaung dynasty of the upper Irrawaddy river valley. In Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, the Burmese empire appears as a forest world stewarded by an ideal king, rajah and padishah, a lord and sovereign with rule (hukm) over the marvellous ‘rarities’ (nafaʾis) of the forest. The Burmese ruler, Bodawpaya, is idealized as an ethical king and praised as the preserver of balance between city and wilderness. From his illustrious royal capital of Amarapura, the ‘Immortal City’, on the upper Irrawaddy, his rule (1782-1819) encompassed the kingdom’s forests as he assumed the hallowed royal Burmese title of hsinbyumyashin, ‘lord of many white elephants’.

The Burmese empire, wrote ʿAbd al-Latif, was a valley of forested river systems tucked between the rugged lands of the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. It extended from Bengal to China, and it took three months to travel from one side to the other. Its climate (ab u hava, literally ‘water and air’) was the tropical monsoon (musum baran), and the people of the lowlands, inhabiting the river deltas, were cultivators who utilized the climate to grow rice and grain, which were plentiful, and caught fish in the seas and rivers. The tropical climate created a verdant forest environment in which exotics and rarities of nature, such as elephants, rubies and teak, were to be found.

ʿAbd al-Latif’s passage on the Burmese empire opens with a brief natural history of elephants, and he uses tales of these beasts as a vehicle to describe the kingdom’s forest environment: these dense forests emerge as the habitat of unfamiliar animals, the tough-skinned pachyderms of the jangal. Although Indian elephants had long been exported to Iran through central Asia, ʿAbd al-Latif acknowledged that there were more wild elephants and rhinoceros ‘to be found in Burma, than in any other place’, and only in the Burmese kingdom were there mahouts who were so skilled in taming and riding them. Of these Burmese elephants, he writes:

The elephant (fil) is a famous animal (janivar-i maʿruf), found in the forests of Pegu. Wild elephants are hunted and tamed (ram namayand) and trained to carry loads and to be ridden. It is an exceedingly sensible animal, and elephant tamers and mahouts (filbanan) speak to the animals in a special language that they understand and obey.

The Burmese had established methods for capturing them:

When herds of male and female elephants gathered in the forests for the birth of their newborn, hunters trapped the young and old, and brought them to the towns, and no matter how young they are they will never see their herd again.

ʿAbd al-Latif affirms that ‘it is an animal of great bulk and strange disposition (ʿazim jissah u khalqat-i gharib)’.

His observations on the power and prestige of elephants as charismatic mega-fauna reveal the symbolism shared, although in different iterations, between the Burmese and Mughal imperial cultures. His descriptions of the elephant and its imperial connotations in Pegu convey the links between the South East Asian kingdom and the Mughal world through knowledge of the animal as a force of empire and of nature. They echo imperial chronicles such as the sixteenth-century Akbarnama (Book of Akbar) of ʿAbuʾl Fazl in lauding the regal splendour of elephants, and in suggesting the good fortune to be had from taming such a powerful wild animal as an instrument of war, which added ‘materially to the pomp of a king and to the success of a conqueror; and is of the greatest use for the army’.

Likewise, ʿAbd al-Latif observed that dominion over the forest and its animals was an emblem of kingship among the Burmese. In theory, all the elephants in the country, both wild and tame, belonged to the king; whoever captured one was required to give it up, for it stood as a royal symbol and held a sacred place in the Buddhist cycle. Owing to their hallowed place in Buddhist cosmology, white elephants in particular came to be regarded as an auspicious sign of royal authority, with Burmese monarchs vying to own them. Thus, the description of elephants in Tuhfat al-ʿAlam develops into an account of Bodawpaya, his modes of kingship and court culture. The application to Bodawpaya of the Persian title padishah rendered the Burmese empire recognizable within an Indo-Persian context. According to ʿAbd al-Latif, the Burmese padishah considered himself a conqueror of the world (malik-i kul-i jahan), and insisted that diplomatic letters be addressed as from the ‘slaves (ghulam) of Bodawpaya, lord of the white elephants (sahib-i pil-i safid), master of mines of rubies, diamonds, gold and silver’. Symbolic possession of forests and mines, flora and fauna, signified the universal sovereignty of the Burmese king.

Bodawpaya’s ownership of the rarities of the forests included its subterranean mineralia and precious stones. According to ʿAbd al-Latif, lustrous rubies (yaqut) were among the rarest and most valuable wilderness resources to be found in the Burmese empire. The rubies mined in the valley of Mogok, in the Shan mountains north of Amarapura, surpassed all others in the world, but it was the way of Burmese kings ‘to wrap the mines round with mystery and seclusion’ and mining was heavily restricted. His subjects were commanded by the king to leave rubies and diamonds unmined as they were regarded as sacred signs in the landscape (manzar-i lutf-i ilahi). The precious stones were not to be touched but only worshipped, and if anyone came across a ruby on the ground, he was to take the gem and place it in a Buddhist temple (butkhana). In Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, ʿAbd al-Latif relates a story he had heard from travellers returning from Burma. A peasant herding cows in his village had found a large and lustrous ruby lying on the ground. Not recognizing the precious stone, he took it home. When the Burmese king was informed of the discovery, he ordered the villager to be put to death and the ruby deposited in a Buddhist temple. This idea of the forest landscape and its natural resources as preserved and protected by a sacred king is a recurring theme in ʿAbd al-Latif’s description of the Burmese kingdom.

Bodawpaya’s possession and stewardship of the natural resources of the forest, such as rubies, enabled a connection between the kingdom and the networks of exchange and tribute linking Indo-Persian and Mughal empires. This much is suggested by a letter from Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Carnatic and the kingdom of Mysore, to Bodawpaya addressed as ‘the Rajah of Pegu’, dated 17 Rabiʿ al-Awwal in the hijri year 1200, corresponding to 22 January 1786. Tipu Sultan’s letter begins by referring to the existing chain of communication running between the two empires, and inquiring into the welfare of the Burmese ‘rajah’. Tipu Sultan announces that, ‘in token of friendship’, he has sent to the Burmese king, in the ‘hands of two of his servants, Mahommed Kasim and Mahommed Ibraheem, a present … of two horses and a Mehtaby dress’ of silver. Having introduced his merchant envoys, Tipu Sultan makes an economic overture, seeking to trade in the coveted rubies of the Burmese empire and expressing his desire to open ‘commercial intercourse between the two states of Mysore and Pegue, whereby an exchange of the commodities of each may be established, to the mutual convenience and advantage of both’. He invites Bodawpaya to open trading relations between the countries through his agents, and requests the purchase of ‘rubies of high value, fine colour, and of a superior kind’, seeking ‘stones, weighing each from ten to thirty fanams’. Tipu Sultan’s letter to the king, along with other Persian correspondence and documents preserved in various collections, reveals fragments of the lost history of Burma’s interaction with Indo-Persian imperial, economic and cultural networks. These Indo-Persian exchanges were a continuation of the long-standing contacts between the courts of South East Asia and the Mughal world, with the Persian language as a key medium (see Plate 5).

ʿAbd al-Latif observed that Bodawpaya’s rights of ownership to the forest and its resources were not limited to exotics and luxuries, which held symbolic value for the sovereignty of the empire, but also included flora, which had become new global commodities highly sought after by early modern European commercial empires. In Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, the Burmese kingdom has bountiful reserves of teak trees (dirakhtan-i saj ), and is the centre of the global teak trade. ‘In most of the groves and forests of that region, the growth of teak trees, which they call sakvan in the Hindi language, is so thick that there is no room for birds to find passage’, he wrote. Indeed, ‘forests of teak grew together to cover completely much of the surface of the land throughout the country’. During the dry season, Burmese foresters in the upland interior carved deep rings round the trunks of trees and left them to dry in the sun. When the trees had dried out enough to stay afloat, woodcutters felled the timber and mahouts guided tame elephants as they rolled the two-ton logs through the forest to stream-beds in time for the monsoon season. When the rains came, the flooded streams rose up from the forest floor, carrying the teak adrift to the mouths of rivers like the Irrawaddy, where the wood was caught and lashed into rafts by gangs of men, who paddled them as they were borne for days down the rapids towards the sea many miles away.

It was in part due to the quest to gain control of the teak trade centred in its upland interior that Burma came to feature in Anglo-French rivalries over trade and colonies in the Indian Ocean. Because of the growth in trade during the eighteenth century, teak came to be more extensively harvested, in particular for the construction of Asian and European merchant ships. Port cities near the Bay of Bengal teemed with merchants and mariners seeking the lightweight tropical hardwood for that purpose. In Rangoon, where the river rose by twenty feet during spring tides, Burmese carpenters used teak to build some of the sturdiest ships in the world, and by the late eighteenth century, the harbour sheltered a motley fleet of ships belonging variously to Burmese princes and governors and European and Muslim merchants. In particular, the French and British East India companies set a high value on Burmese teak for shipbuilding and sailed their vessels to Burmese ports in search of markets selling the lightweight, water-resistant hardwood. Burmese teak supplied the wood for shipbuilding in Calcutta and Madras, on the Coromandel coast.

ʿAbd al-Latif reported that British East India Company merchants loaded ships with precious goods and sailed them from the bustling harbour of Calcutta and other Indian Ocean ports to the Burmese empire, where they traded their wares for planks of teak. For some time, the East India Company had dispatched embassies bearing gifts to the courts of the Burmese kings. The Konbaung dynasty accepted their gifts, and reciprocated with fine Burmese crafts, but it refused to allow an agent of the company to be stationed on its coast. The padishah, ʿAbd al-Latif wrote, appointed numerous assiduous customs officials who exacted severe tariffs on trade, and placed restrictions on exports of teak. Known in Burmese as kyun, teak, like other resources of the Burmese forests, belonged to the kings. Although they claimed possession of the forest and its multitude of rarities, this was an idealized reflection of the nature of the Burmese empire since, in practice, much of the forests remained out of reach and impenetrable, lying in the territories of independent, and at times insurrectionary, ‘hill tribes’, such as the Shan, with the crown only able to collect tribute on timber and other forest resources. The imperial use of teak was reserved for the sacred Buddhist regalia of carved golden teak palaces, pavilions and monasteries in imperial cities, as well as the ornate royal barges, shaped like mythological creatures, and war boats that plied the Irrawaddy river, which symbolized sacred kingship.

In Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, ʿAbd al-Latif thus describes the Burmese kingdom as a Mughal borderland, a sovereign forest world on the geographical and cultural margins of India and the Indian Ocean.


This view of the Burmese empire as a forest realm ruled over and guarded by a universal sovereign was a narrative of Indian Ocean travel steeped in early modern Persianate knowledge of the edges of the Mughal world. ʿAbd al-Latif Khan’s passage on the kingdom’s forest landscape reveals the persistence, and rearticulation, of Indo-Persian perceptions of South East Asia into the late Mughal and early colonial period.

Through the description of the city and the wilderness and the sovereignty of a sacred king over forest spaces and their rarities, exotics and natural phenomena, ʿAbd al-Latif rendered the Burmese empire as the half-known fringes of the Mughal world—a place on the far side of the Indian Ocean. Tales of the nature of the Burmese empire and its forests connected space and sovereignty, making the South East Asian kingdom recognizable within the Indo-Persian imaginary. From the temple-lined royal cities of the empire, the king’s sovereignty reached out into the forests, bringing into his possession nature’s rarities: elephants, the charismatic mega-fauna that were a sacred symbol of kingship; rubies, the precious gems from hidden mines in the mountains seen as divine signs on earth, reserved for enshrinement in temples and sent as diplomatic gifts; and vast reserves of teak that brought the empire and its territories into contact with European East India companies and their commercial interests.

In this way, ʿAbd al-Latif crafted a Mughal cultural geography that encompassed Buddhist South East Asia. In the Burmese empire, he found the familiar in the strange, a world very different from his own, but still recognizable, depicted, as it was, through Indo-Persian and Mughal conceptions of imperial space, nature and sovereignty. The Burmese empire was mapped through an Indo-Persian vocabulary as the physical and cultural edge of Mughal India, retracing enduring interconnections between South and South East Asia. Early modern patterns of travel and encounter, and forms of travel writing, across the Indian Ocean persisted.

But Tuhfat al-ʿAlam was also shaped by its times, marked by the imprint of colonial India and orientalist knowledge in its sketches of the sublime wildness of nature in the Burmese empire. ʿAbd al-Latif’s narrative reveals the ways in which pre-existing currents of inter-Asian crossings and exchanges were redefined in the early colonial period through contact with the East India Company. The description of the Burmese empire was informed by orientalist knowledge and aesthetics in its views of vast and untamed landscapes. Notions of the exalted wildness of nature in ‘the exotic East’ gleaned from the pages of the company’s accounts of South East Asia are embedded in Tuhfat al-ʿAlam. The story itself is a sort of axiom illustrative of the wider balance between indigenous South Asian imperial formations and the East India Company. The repertoire of sovereignty among the Indo-Persian empires—the Mughal dynasty and the surrounding princely states and rajah kingdoms—betrayed the influence of colonialism and came to include navigation of a looming colonial world. The Konbaung dynasty, as viewed through the lens of Tuhfat al-ʿAlam, was also immersed in this rising colonial tide: an empire of city and wilderness below the winds of the Indian Ocean during times of change.