22 December 2015

Dara Shukoh and His Library

“So what do you feel about my latest effort?” asked Prince Dara Shikoh looking at the assembled scholars keenly.

The eldest and most beloved among Shah Jahan’s sons, he was a true scholar. Like Humayun, Dara Shikoh also had his own library. A true mystic, he spent long hours studying and discussing philosophy with saints and scholars belonging to different religions. Dara Shikoh mixed with them freely, trying to understand their ideas and concepts. He had learnt Sanskrit and studied the Hindu scriptures in the original. He had just completed translating the 52 Upanishads into Persian directly from Sanskrit and called it Sirr-e-Akbar (The Great Mystery). It came to be considered his most significant and controversial work in later years. 
“I feel it is quite remarkable, your highness” replied one of the Hindu scholars, “The way you have grasped the central idea and expressed it is nothing short of wonderful.” “But it is bound to give rise to a lot of controversies, your highness” remarked one of the maulavis, “it is so different from what we feel”. “I don’t mind that” said the prince, “Controversies lead to discussion and help us understand other points of view. I think it is a sound way of acquiring knowledge.”
Dara Shikoh not only collected books but also wrote several books himself. What is even more remarkable, he knew how to value books in an age when they were rare. He also got a large number of Sanskrit classics translated into Persian by scholars. They included the Yoga Vasishta and the Bhagavad Gita. The most important book written by Dara Shikoh, however, was Majmua-ul-Baharain. It is a comparative study of Islam and Hinduism and is a plea for the “mingling of two oceans”. In this masterly work he explained his theory and conviction that the two faiths were not contradictory because both arrived at the same truth. The book is a living example of Dara Shikoh’s breadth of mind and his liberal views on religion.
Dara Shikoh carried on the tradition of religious tolerance set by Akbar and continued by Jahangir and Shah Jahan. We get to know from the records of Shah Jahan’s reign that many Hindus enjoyed positions of trust and great responsibility. Many of them were Rajputs. One such person was Rai Rayan Raja Raghunath Das who started as an oordinary worker but eventually became the Emperor’s Diwan-i-tan or Prime Minister in 1641. Rai Rayan’s outstanding administrative ability and other qualities are described in great details in Umrae Hanood, an important document of Mughal India. Bhawani Dass was another learned scholar in Shah Jahan’s court.
His first library was in Agra where the royal family lived before Shah Jahan decided to shift his capital to Delhi. Prince Dara Shikoh would often walk across from the fort to his library by the river Jamuna. Sometimes he would spend the entire night studying and wake up to find the rays of the morning sun reflected in the river. His library, after he moved to Delhi with his father, was also by the river Jamuna, as it flowed close to the Kashmiri Gate in those days. Many carriages must have been required to carry Dara Shikoh’s vast collection of books from Agra to Delhi. Being the heir apparent, he had to be near his father who depended a great deal on him. Also, being aware of the intrigues and counter-intrigues within the family Dara Shikoh must have thought it wise to remain as close to Shah Jahan as possible.
Dara Shikoh’s library near the Kashmiri Gate contained invaluable tomes, both from India and abroad, especially Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Iran. Dara Shikoh’s love of learning was probably inherited from Babar and his daughter Gulbadan Begum, whose Memoirs are famous to this day. Akbar too had the best collection of books in his time. Had Dara Shikoh been the next ruler after Shah Jahan the history of India might have been considerably different! However, that was not to be. The war of succession broke out soon after the completion of the Sirr-i-Akbar and Dara Shikoh, defeated by Aurangzeb, fled to Sindh where he was betrayed by his host, Malik Jiwan, a Baluch chieftain, whom he had once saved from the wrath of Shah Jahan. Dara Shikoh was brutally executed by Aurangzeb who became the next emperor. That, however, is a different story.
The death of Dara Shikoh also meant the destruction of his library. His estate, comprising the palace, library and garden were given to the subedar of Lahore, Ali Mardan Khan, and later taken over by Wazir Safdarjung, before being captured by the British..The building changed hands many more times and each time it was modified by its new owner. When the British set up their residency at Delhi, they chose Dara Shikoh’s library as the office of the East India Company and it went to Sir David Ochterlony Bart around 1803. The death of Dara Shikoh also meant the destruction of a large number of books in his libraries which were regarded as heretical by Aurangzeb. Some of them were definitely saved but no one knows where they are today. Perhaps a few found their way to England after the library became the living quarters of the British Resident.
The building, which was refurbished in the western style, housed the Delhi College of Engineering until it recently shifted to their new building in Rohini, and an office of the Archaeological Survey of India. You can see the only remnants of Mughal architecture in the basement which were hidden by debris and a staircase until recently. Once the debris and the stairs were removed in 2001 the original red sand stone arches and ornamental pillars were discovered. In fact, if you look carefully at the building you might even locate the tablet with faded letters, Kutub Khana Dara Shikoh (Dara Shikoh’s library). The place is certainly worth a visit if only to remember its glorious past.
(Originally posted on swapnatravel.wordpress.com by Swapnadutta2015)

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