A Persian Mahabharata: The 1598-1599 Razmnama
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A Persian Mahabharata:
The 1598-1599 Razmnama

By the time the Mughal Emperor Akbar ascended the throne in 1556, at the age of thirteen, the vast Turco-Mongol empire dominated virtually all of the northern part of the Indian subcontinent and would continue to expand during his reign. The empire was an Islamic state, but the Muslim elite were a minority. Akbar's maintenance of power depended upon the success of his strategy to incorporate Hindu and other religious and political factions into the imperial bureaucracy, and to allow a degree of autonomy in various regions of the empire. Beyond admitting non-Muslims into the royal administration and household—where Hindus worked in such positions as military commanders, finance ministers, tax collectors, scribes, cooks, and artists—Akbar abolished the bitterly resented poll tax (jizya) on non-Muslim males, required by Islamic law, and a pilgrimage tax on Hindus traveling to their sacred sites. He also married the daughters of many high-ranking Hindus throughout the empire to further gain the loyalty of the non-Muslim population. Akbar's policies—liberal but also politically expedient—resulted in five decades of imperial reign of exceptional tolerance for non-Muslim art, science, and religious views.

In 1574, Akbar established a translation bureau (maktab khana) at his capital of Fatehpur Sikri. Here, the emperor's top scribes and secretaries were given the task of translating a range of Sanskrit texts, including the Rajatarangini (The History of the Kings of Kashmir) and the Ramayana, into Persian. Akbar also commissioned Persian translations of Arabic encyclopedias and histories and the complete Baburnama—the Chagatai Turkish memoirs of Babur, Akbar's grandfather and the founder of the Mughal dynasty.1

The activities of Akbar's translation bureau indicate his desire to do more than pacify Hindu opponents of his rule. The project was part of a larger, long-term effort to make Persian the official language of the Mughal Empire and the common tongue not only at court but also among lower-ranking members of the imperial bureaucracy. Clerks, scribes, and secretaries were compelled to learn Persian, and, indeed, a multi-tiered curriculum was developed to teach the official language. Large numbers of Hindus [End Page 125] joined madrasas in order to acquire the requisite language proficiency to secure government jobs. Indeed, the entire imperial apparatus was Persian-ized in an attempt to provide Mughal subjects with a sense of identity that transcended sectarian and ethnic ties.2

In 1582, Akbar charged the translation bureau with rendering into Persian the sacred Hindu epic the Mahabharata. Since the epic comprises approximately 100,000 verses, the endeavor was formidable and the result is an abridgment rather than a strict translation of the entire text. Titled the Razmnama (Book of War), the copiously illustrated imperial manuscript—completed between 1584 and 1586—is housed in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur (AG 1690), India, where it has remained, in recent decades, off-limits to historians and art historians alike.3 The second-oldest known illustrated copy of the Razmnama, completed between 1598 and 1599,4 is better known to scholars, for pages from this manuscript were dispersed and are in many public and private collections in North America, Europe, and India.5 Compared to the earlier, imperial copy, the 161 known paintings from the 1598-1599 Razmnama appear to be more abbreviated and hastily executed.6 For this reason, scholars have long attributed the manuscript to a sub-imperial patron. Contemporaneous ascriptions to Akbar's artists found on the manuscript pages themselves, however, provide compelling evidence that it was in fact executed at the Mughal court, most likely as a gift for a member of the royal family.7 According to the Mughal courtier 'Abd al-Qadir Bada'uni, once the imperial Razmnama had been completed and embellished with illustrations, "the Amirs had orders to take copies of it, with the blessing and favor of God."8 This suggests that it was Akbar's intention that the Persian translation of the Mahabharata be circulated throughout the empire. The Razmnama was thus intended for more than private, royal consumption; it was also meant to serve a broader political function. According to...