The Layered World of Anand Ram Mukhlis

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.

muhammad shah

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.

princess calligraphy

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.



  • OnWingsofSaffron: How encouraging the deeds of these men and women are/were, in a world – old and new – in which callousness, bigotry, and hatred unfortunately so often wins the day. August 1, 2016 at 7:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Mukhlis seems like such an interesting character and so did his times. Muhammad Shah has done a great deal to create a refined, literary version of Urdu, a language perfectly suited to poetry. August 1, 2016 at 2:20pm Reply

  • Zazie: Inspiring as always! Even if I don’t get to comment as often as I would like, your writing never fails to make me travel!
    Love the images you chose for this post.

    I imagine this enlightened savant smelling of sandalwood and roses… Mohur maybe?
    😉 August 1, 2016 at 9:19am Reply

    • Tammy: Mohur. Or Santal de Mysore? August 1, 2016 at 1:21pm Reply

      • Victoria: Santal de Mysore by Lutens also sounds like a good choice. August 1, 2016 at 2:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. I completely understand that life gets in the way, and I’m happy to see you (and to know that you’re well).

      The Mughal court was truly the perfumed court. The emperors themselves wrote treatises on blending and wearing perfumes, so I can just imagine how richly scented everyone was. I was thinking either Mohur or Trayee, especially the latter since it’s such a quintessentially Indian smell to me. August 1, 2016 at 2:23pm Reply

  • Liz: As ever, beautiful, sensitive prose that rouses my curiosity on a period I admittedly know nothing. I will most certainly be digging up those British Library texts online. Your post today so poignant in times that see so little of the tolerance that reigned in those enlightened courts of the 18th century. ‘Progress’ sees regression and it seems that’s how we’re living today. I will re-read your post in my quieter moments later today. Thanks for your eloquence and research. August 1, 2016 at 9:59am Reply

    • Jacob: Well said! I also enjoyed this post, especially on this depressing Monday. August 1, 2016 at 12:17pm Reply

      • Victoria: Hope that your day is better, Jacob. August 1, 2016 at 2:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for such a thoughtful response. Yes, that period in history is fascinating for so many reasons, not least of which is the immense legacy in art and literature it left. The British Library has a big collection of manuscripts, as does the British Museum. At least, some of it is made available online. August 1, 2016 at 2:36pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Very interesting and very well-written as usual. Thank you for the insight. August 1, 2016 at 10:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Very happy that you liked reading it. August 1, 2016 at 2:37pm Reply

  • Tina: Beautiful and inspiring. Thanks for this, Victoria August 1, 2016 at 12:22pm Reply

  • Lynn LaMar: Stunning…as usual! August 1, 2016 at 12:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: I really like the Indian miniature paintings. And the image of girls studying calligraphy is especially beautiful. August 1, 2016 at 2:40pm Reply

  • Karen A: I so needed this. Thank you. August 1, 2016 at 12:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: Suleiman the Magnificent of Turkey was a contemporary of Akbar. Now, that was another fascinating persona. August 1, 2016 at 2:42pm Reply

      • Karen A: Most definitely! An interesting book about Suleyman and Charles V is “Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536” by James Reston, Jr. August 1, 2016 at 3:33pm Reply

        • Victoria: I just sent myself a Kindle sample. The 16th century in general is a fascinating period. August 1, 2016 at 4:06pm Reply

          • Karen A: I heard him talk at the Freer-Sackler on a book tour, it was a while ago but I remember he was a great speaker. August 1, 2016 at 4:26pm Reply

            • Victoria: Which book was it, do you recall?

              By the way, I read his first book, In Xanadu, and I finally understood some of your criticisms of his writings. He published an article not long ago about In Xanadu, which I thought was very good. Clearly, a mark of a good writer is to see one’s faults and address them. August 1, 2016 at 4:30pm Reply

              • Victoria: Here it is:

                I still liked In Xanadu, but his last book about Afghanistan is probably my favorite (albeit the most depressing). August 1, 2016 at 4:33pm Reply

                • Karen A: Interesting article – and I actually said the exact same thing to my hubby, that I wanted to smack him upside his head at times, but attributed his attitude to his young age. It seems that we are never quite so convinced of our knowledge as when we are young. Hopefully, the older we get the more we realize how little we know! August 2, 2016 at 9:50am Reply

                  • Victoria: I felt the same thing. 🙂 And you’re exactly right about that sense of one’s boundaries of knowledge.

                    By the way, I just started a quirky book by Alberto Manguel, which is a collection of essays on curiosity. The title is just that, Curiosity. It’s like having coffee with a very erudite friend. August 2, 2016 at 11:31am Reply

                    • Karen A: On the list it goes! August 3, 2016 at 6:43am

              • Karen A: I saw James Reston on his book tour. I will read Dalrymple’ article. Definitely have respect for an author that grows and expands his/her views. Thanks for the link.

                It seemed like there was a huge leap in his writing between The White Mughals and Return of the King (his last). And an amazing growth overall. August 1, 2016 at 5:03pm Reply

                • Victoria: Oops, I mixed up the threads of comments!

                  I definitely agree on the evolution of WD’s writing. I can’t wait for his new book on the East India Company. August 1, 2016 at 5:09pm Reply

              • Erin: I liked his other travelogue more, “From the Holy Mountain.” I recommend it over “In Xanadu.” August 2, 2016 at 1:45pm Reply

                • Victoria: I agree, I liked it very much. August 2, 2016 at 3:36pm Reply

  • Sammy: I don’t know much about Indian history but whenever you post about it, I want to learn more. Do you have any book or film recommendations? August 1, 2016 at 12:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: Have you read anything by William Dalrymple? I would recommend his works, especially The Last Mughal. August 1, 2016 at 2:43pm Reply

      • Karen A: Seconding Victoria’s suggestion for Dalrymple. His web site has many articles well worth reading. His knowledge of the region’s history is immense. August 1, 2016 at 3:22pm Reply

        • Victoria: John Keay has a very good, readable take on India’s history, but it covers everything, not just Mughals. August 1, 2016 at 4:02pm Reply

      • epapsiou: Thanks. Ordered City of Djinns and White Mughals August 2, 2016 at 1:44pm Reply

        • Victoria: They’re excellent, and I’m confident you’ll enjoy them. August 2, 2016 at 3:35pm Reply

        • Karen A: City of Djinns is a fun read. As you may have picked up from other comments, his writing style has evolved over time. In Xanadu was written when he was 21 (!!), his most recent when he was close to 50.

          Unlike a lot of writers whose work reinforces their unchanging outlook, his has definitely grown less Anglocentric (as he says in Victoria’s linked article above).

          As a side note, his wife’s art work is really beautiful. August 3, 2016 at 6:49am Reply

          • Victoria: I need to take a look! August 3, 2016 at 2:49pm Reply

            • Karen A: I realized that prefacing my statement with, as a side note, might have sounded not as I intended! Olivia Fraser is definitely a wonderful artist! August 3, 2016 at 4:14pm Reply

  • bellaciao: I also immediately thought of William Dalrymple while reading this. My favourite is White Mugals. That was THE eye opener for me about how culturally rich and diverse India was around 1800 (and before obviously as well) and how the British came to feel threatened by that eventually.
    Another book I found mesmerizing is “Empires of the Indus-the story of a river” by Alice Albinia, total page turner and a revelation. August 1, 2016 at 4:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: The Mughals were their main competitors, and the British have done much to destroy their culture after they suppressed the uprising in 1857. This, unfortunately, included the divide and conquer policies that emphasized the sectarian differences. A problem that continues to plague India today.

      I really like getting book recommendations, and this is another one I’m adding to my list. I’ve just read a great book covering the history of Pakistan by Ayesha Jalal, and Albinia’s work will be a perfect complement. August 1, 2016 at 5:14pm Reply

  • Lindaloo: As usual, this is a interesting and well written post.
    I especially appreciate your statement that tolerance comes with prosperity. Also your reminder of the mythical “European” and
    “liberal values.” We in the “first” world have done much damage in bringing “civilization” to the “rest” of the world. August 1, 2016 at 6:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, true. Also, Europe spend most of the 20th century practicing the opposite of the “European” values championed as such today.

      It tells you much about the Raj that the best-selling history of India (by James Mill) was written by someone who never visited India, didn’t speak any of the languages used in the subcontinent and proclaimed that it was the most primitive and backward of civilizations, “on par with the Chinese, Persians and Arabs.” The book would inform the policies of the British in India. August 2, 2016 at 8:05am Reply

  • Heather: I love the images you selected. The handwriting on the last is beautiful!Another requirement for the bureaucrats in those days? August 2, 2016 at 6:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Fine calligraphy was certainly expected out of any learned person, although the folio you can see is not in Mukhlis’s hand. It’s a later copy. Still, beautiful, isn’t it? August 2, 2016 at 7:57am Reply

  • Erin: Thank you, Victoria! Posts like this are the reason I read Bois de Jasmin. August 2, 2016 at 1:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Erin! August 2, 2016 at 3:36pm Reply

  • brenda: This was very enjoyable reading – and, a new area for me to explore! Thank you – as always! August 3, 2016 at 12:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m happy to share one of my historical obsessions, the Mughals! August 3, 2016 at 2:51pm Reply

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