Bureaucracy rarely conjures positive associations in most people’s minds, and for someone who faces far too much of it, I may not seem like the kind of person who goes into raptures over bureaucrats. Yet, Anand Ram Mukhlis (1699-1750)* is an exception, and he is easily one of my favorite historical personages. Born into a Hindu family in the north of India, he practiced a trade that wouldn’t be out of place in Washington DC or Brussels. Like his grandfather and father, he was a personal representative at the Delhi imperial court for the prime minister and for the governor of Lahore and Multan provinces. A lobbyist, if you will.
Emperor Muhammad Shah with courtiers, ca. 1730
The most lasting achievement of Anand Ram Mukhlis was in his scholarly and creative work. He wrote poetry, chronicled contemporary events and compiled manuals on the proper use of Persian. His mastery of the language was such that the emperor Muhammad Shah himself requested his services as a letter writer when he wanted to communicate with the Safavid court in Iran. One of the images I used to illustrate this article is a copy of Mukhlis’s advice on developing one’s writing style in Persian. It’s titled “Fairy House,” which gives you a clue as to the ornate stylistic tools he proposed.
The late Mughal era and the reign of Muhammad Shah (1717-1748) were marked by decline, hastened by Nader Shah’s invasion in 1739. About a century after the Shah of Persia destroyed Delhi and carried off the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond and the Peacock Throne as part of his loot, the Mughal dynasty would be abolished by the British. One more century after the establishment of the Raj, and the subcontinent would be partitioned into India and Pakistan and its layered Indo-Persian culture would be fractured.
Mughal Princesses Learning Calligraphy
Reading Mukhlis’s works, one gets a sense of how profound such a loss has been. Mukhlis wasn’t the most stellar of poets, but he was part of the milieu in which artistic taste, literary style and acceptance of diversity were a mark of distinction. The blossoming of literature, music, dance and arts was due to the support of individuals like Mukhlis, and a number of poets and writers counted him as their patron.
Tolerance comes hand in hand with prosperity. It’s no accident that the Mughals began to decline as Aurangzeb, the great-grandson of Akbar, a man who hosted multi-religious symposia as the Inquisition raged in Europe, turned to bigotry. Aurangzeb’s actions set in motion events that his successors could no longer control, even if the later emperors reversed his policies and generally ascribed to the principles of broad tolerance. In Muhammad Shah’s court, someone like Mukhlis, a devout Hindu, didn’t feel any contradiction between his professed religious belief and those of his Sunni Muslim leaders. His letters include the standard Islamic forms of invocations and his poetry is a delightful blend of Hindu and Muslim motifs.
In our world with its clashes of civilization narratives, people like Anand Ram Mukhlis appear like anomalies. As a product of a rich, layered culture, he stands to remind us that individuals are more complex than any religious label (or any other blanket statement) can suggest. And that tolerance, curiosity about others and acceptance of differences are not some mythical “European” or “liberal” values–they underscore what it means to be human.
The British Library holds a fine collection of Mughal era manuscripts, including Anand Ram Mukhlis’s works. Their blog also features articles about this intriguing character and his world.
*The dates as given by B.Ahmad’s article in Encyclopedia Iranica.
Illustrations: Emperor Muhammad Shah smoking huqqah, ca. 1730, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford via Wiki-images. Princesses learning calligraphy, Muhammad Shah’s reign, via Wiki-images. Some rights reserved. A copy of Mukhliṣʼs essay “Fairy House” (1731/32) via the wonderful blog of the British Library.