Writing Travel in Central Asian History

Writing Travel in Central Asian History

by Nile Spencer Green (Editor)


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For centuries, travelers have made Central Asia known to the wider world through their writings. In this volume, scholars employ these little-known texts in a wide range of Asian and European languages to trace how Central Asia was gradually absorbed into global affairs. The representations of the region brought home to China and Japan, India and Persia, Russia and Great Britain, provide valuable evidence that helps map earlier periods of globalization and cultural interaction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253011350
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2014
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nile Green is Professor of South Asian and Islamic history at UCLA. His recent books include Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, winner of the Albert Hourani Award for outstanding publishing in Middle East Studies and Sufism: A Global History.

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Writing Travel in Central Asian History

By Nile Green

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01148-0


Early Modern Circulation between Central Asia and India and the Question of "Patriotism"

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Huran-i bihishti ra dozakh bud a'raf,
Az dozakhyan purs ki a'raf bihisht ast.

To the huris of paradise, purgatory (a'raf) seems hell.
Ask the denizens of hell; to them purgatory is paradise.

—Sa'di, Gulistan

Variable Geometries

Some years ago, an Uzbek soccer coach who had just been employed by a team in India was asked by a Delhi newspaper to comment on the degree of cultural difficulty he expected to face in his new position. The Central Asian sportsman simply shrugged off the question. People tended to forget, he stated confidently, that North India and Central Asia were all pretty much a part of the same continuum. Circulation between the two spheres had gone on for centuries if not millennia, and the mountain ranges that had allegedly been "Indian-killers" (thus, hindu-kush) had in reality barely posed a barrier to the process. Invoking such figures as the Timurid (or Mughal) dynast Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur in the early sixteenth century, he suggested that there was scarcely any need to speak of difference—except perhaps in minor matters such as language—between his own homeland and Hindustan. While the response was no doubt reassuring to our soccer coach's employers and wards, it was actually not based on a close reading of the Baburnama, Babur's autobiographical text in Chaghatai Turkish, which is at times quite insistent precisely on the differences between the hot and dusty plains farther south and the cool climes of the Ferghana Valley or even Kabul, where Babur had spent a certain time in exile. The question then naturally arises of the categories that Babur, as well as other writers from the Central Asian and Indian worlds, deployed in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries to speak of spatial difference as well as spatial belonging. And how is one to discern how such changes were experienced in a context of movement?

This chapter focuses on the corpus of Indo-Persian travel narratives and other related texts between about 1500 and 1800 that traverse the worlds of Central Asia and South Asia. It argues that in an era that clearly preceded that of modern nationalism, other forms of local belonging—to town (shahr), patria (watan), and community (qaum), for example—played a crucial role in how movement was experienced. At the center of the chapter's reflections are comparisons made by early modern travelers and wanderers themselves regarding the nature and quality of life in different regions of Central Asia and India. While framing their thoughts in a variety of ways, I shall nevertheless attempt here not to straitjacket them in alien categories of thought but rather to give their own original attempts to grapple with displacement pride of place. The materials used in the discussion will go beyond the narrow confines of the so-called safarnama genre to embrace a variety of other first-person accounts. This can be justified in a variety of ways, some pragmatic (and relating notably to the paucity in the period of travel accounts in the strictest sense) and others more broadly reflective of the fluid nature of genre classifications themselves. Further, the authors and texts under consideration here date mainly from after 1500, which Nile Green has persuasively set out in the introduction to this volume as marking the beginning of a distinct period of writings about travel. By so doing, we will be able to gain a sense of the changes that came about with the consolidation of Timurid rule over northern India in the course of the reign, in particular, of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and his immediate successors, which also corresponds broadly with the collapse of the Shaibanid Sultanate in Transoxiana.

In an important and wide-ranging survey of the place of Central Asia in world history after about 1200 written some two decades ago, S. A. M. Adshead notes that definitions of the region could be quite variable: at their narrowest, they could embrace merely "the three Turkestans" and, at their broadest, could be "as broad as Inner Asia or even as Central Asia." Much depended, he went on to argue, on the time frame within which the historian chose to pose his questions. Like Adshead and, before him, Joseph Fletcher, the focus in this chapter is indeed on that moment of "the interlocking of histories" that follows "the Mongolian explosion" that is synonymous with the expansion of the polity of Chinggis Khan in the early thirteenth century. The Chinggisid and Timurid legacies will be crucial in more ways than one to the discussion that follows, as will the classic question of the relationship between nomads and sedentarists. Further, since our perspective will take us above all to the Central Asia–India axis, it is the southern part of Central Asia rather than the northerly steppes that will be our principal concern. Like Adshead, we too shall look to how a sort of "republic of letters" emerged in the period and came to encompass the two regions in some measure.

Much historical literature on the early modern world—and no doubt on earlier periods as well—has posed the question of circulation I address here in terms of a familiar triangle: Central Asia–India-Iran or, if one prefers, Turan-Hind-Iran. But the three legs of this triangle have for a variety of reasons not received equal attention. The relationship between India and Iran, though once perhaps neglected, has been the object of a number of consequent studies in the past quarter century, particularly as regards the early modern period of the Safavid and Mughal dynasties. These studies have highlighted a number of features, of which a few may be mentioned. The consolidation of a prosopography of the mansabdar class in Mughal India, and above all its upper (orumara') echelons, by authors such as M. Athar Ali demonstrated the extent to which Iranian emigration between the reigns of Humayun in the mid-sixteenth century and Aurangzeb-'Alamgir in the late seventeenth century continued to be a major factor in Mughal elite politics. These migrants may at times have been classified primarily as administrators, but they were equally poets, chroniclers, calligraphers, musicians, and painters, as well as lexicographers. They carried with them the seeds of a distinct tension, for many of them intended to assert that, even if they were seeking employment from a new patron, their culture of origin was of course far superior to that to which they were migrating. Iranian poets were thus often less-than-gracious clients of Mughal patrons, happily biting the hands that fed them and complaining of how they were underappreciated and underpaid. The case of the poet Ashraf Mazandarani, who was born in Isfahan in the early 1620s and died in Bengal in 1704, is a telling example. Ashraf migrated to India in the 1650s and had a number of powerful patrons and supporters there, even among the Mughal royal family. Though he returned for a time to Iran, he therefore eventually was drawn back to the Mughal domains, where he spent the last decades of his life. Despite that, his verses are at times disdainful enough:

With the lands of Iran?

Can black soil ever equal a rose garden?

It scarcely needs to be recalled that the process of migration between India and Iran during the reigns of the Safavids and Mughals was both complex and asymmetrical. If the more significant and visible movement was from Iran to India, Indians too migrated to Iran, but they rarely if ever came to occupy positions of significance in the Safavid administrative hierarchy. (The partial exception to this were some Mughal princes who exiled themselves and took refuge in Iran in the seventeenth century.) Rather, they were more often than not traders and could be found in appreciable numbers both in interior cities like Isfahan or Qazwin and in ports such as Bandar 'Abbas, Bandar Kung, Jarun (or Hurmuz), or even Basra. Their numbers seem to have expanded considerably over the course of the seventeenth century, though already in 1618, the English East India Company's factors in Iran noted the formidable presence of "the bannians, the Cheife Marchantes whoe vende Linene of India, of all sorts and prices, which this countrey cannot bee without." It has been claimed that by the 1670s, Isfahan alone hosted some 10,000 baniyas, that is to say traders from a variety of Hindu and Jain merchant castes from western and northern India. Some of these possibly settled there, but others are more likely to have circulated between the Mughal and Safavid domains, using either the classic overland route via Lahore, Kabul, and Qandahar or the maritime routes that joined the Gujarat ports and those of the Indus delta with the Persian Gulf. To all of this movement, we must add another variant, namely the connections between the Deccan and Iran that had flourished since the time of the Bahmani dynasty in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Traders and political entrepreneurs, as well as religious specialists from Iranian centers like Kerman, Gilan, Astarabad, and Mazandaran, had regularly set up in the great courtly and regional nodes of the Deccan, and there had been moments such as the late fifteenth century when Iranian dominance over elite Deccani politics was very substantial indeed.

If these Indo-Iranian links of the early modern era have been studied over the past decades, beginning with the works of scholars such as Ghulam Yazdani and H. K. Sherwani, and continuing with the detailed research of the French savant Jean Aubin, the connections with Central Asia, or "Turan," have been somewhat harder to discern or delineate in a systematic fashion. If we go back as far as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when first the Ghaznavids and then a series of Mamluk rulers established themselves initially in the Punjab and then in the Ganges-Jamuna do-ab, the familiar pattern emerges of a Turko-Persian condominium in which the Turks dominated over warrior functions and the Persians over secretarial and related duties. The Turks in question were of course predominantly Central Asian in origin, though some had spent a generation or two in centers farther south such as Ghazna and Ghur. The tension and mutual incomprehension that could at times exist between the two groups are a staple element in the writings of the chroniclers of the Delhi Sultanate, as well as in the reflections of the sultanate's most famous literary figure, Yamin al-Din Amir Khusrau (1253–1325), himself a Turk of Central Asian origin whose family had resided for a time in Balkh. The invasion of Delhi and its environs in 1398–99 by the Central Asian ruler Timur then led, paradoxically, for a time to a diminution in the power of the Turkish clans and a corresponding rise in that of Afghans, both in Delhi and farther east. It is also likely that as a consequence, the fifteenth century saw a shrinking in direct contacts between the plains of northern India and Central Asia. The emergence in the middle decades of the same century of the Kashmir Sultanate as a substantial polity also changed the nature of relations somewhat. Rulers like Sultan Zain al-'Abidin of Kashmir maintained diplomatic and other contacts with several lines of Timurid princes in Central Asia, including Mirza Shahrukh and Mirza Abu Sa'id. Relations between Kashmir and regions to the east and northeast, such as Tibet, but also centers like Yarkand and Kashgar (today in Xinjiang) seem similarly to have been strengthened in the period.

Babur and His Legacy

The irruption of the Timurid dynasty into power in northern India in the 1520s eventually transformed this structure of dealings. This southward move on the part of Babur to take Delhi and Agra from the Afghan Lodi dynasty was itself the consequence of complex circumstances, notably the growing power of a rival Chinggisid clan, led by Shaibani Khan, which emerged into prominence around 1500. These latter rulers, sometimes designated with the epithet "Uzbek," seized first Bukhara and Samarqand and then the great center of Herat after the death of its celebrated Timurid ruler Sultan Husain Baiqara in 1506. The defeat and killing by the Safavids of Shaibani Khan in 1510 gave some temporary respite to Babur, but he was eventually and comprehensively expelled southward by 'Ubaidullah Khan, Shaibani Khan's successor. He then spent the next decade in and around Kabul, and as he later wrote in the 1520s, "From the year 910 H. [1504–5], when Kabul was conquered, until this date I had craved Hindustan. Sometimes because my begs [commanders] had poor opinions, and sometimes because my brothers lacked cooperation, the Hindustan campaign had not been possible and the realm had not been conquered." He also noted that he had made four unsuccessful campaigns into northern India in the late 1510s and early 1520s and eventually succeeded in 1525–26. Nevertheless, it seems that in reality Babur was not enthused about Hindustan, which is to say, the northern Indian plains. As he wrote rather bluntly a few pages after the passage quoted above: "The cities and provinces of Hindustan are all unpleasant. All cities, all locales are alike. The gardens have no walls, and most places are flat as boards." India, in short, was "unpleasant and unharmonious," wrote Babur, adding, "there is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manners." Its chief attraction then, especially to a prince who was coming to the end of his tether, was that "it is a large country with lots of gold and money." But there is little doubt that he felt that his wanderings had brought him too far south for comfort. Thus, he wrote:

Hindustan lies in the first, second, and third climes, with none of it in the fourth clime. It is a strange country. Compared to ours, it is another world. Its mountains, rivers, forests, and wildernesses, its villages and provinces, animals and plants, peoples and languages, even its rain and winds are altogether different. Even if the Kabul dependencies that have warm climates bear a resemblance to Hindustan in some aspects, in others they do not. Once you cross the Indus, the land, water, trees, stones, peoples, tribes, manners, and customs are all of the Hindustani fashion.

This view, and an abiding nostalgia for the Central Asia that had been left behind, were not Babur's alone. He notes the case of one of his companions, a certain Khwaja Kalan, who, on the eve of his return from Delhi to Ghazna, is reported to have scribbled a rude verse as graffiti on the wall of his quarters: "If I cross the Indus in safety, may my face turn black if I ever see Hindustan again." We cannot know how humbler foot soldiers or cavalrymen from Central Asia felt, though Babur indicates that as the hot season came upon them in 1526, "many began to sicken and die as though under the influence of a pestilent wind," and murmurings were heard that the chiefs in the army wished to contemplate an early departure. But Babur's argument in council at the time was implacable: "Shall we go back to Kabul and remain poverty stricken?" After all, he notes, many of the men had sent back "gifts for relatives and kinfolk," as well as offerings to the shrines of holy men in areas around Samarqand and Khorasan from which they came. His memoir is equally helpful in providing an understanding of what such men looked back to. Here, for example, is his idealized view of Samarqand, which in his view lay "at the edge of the civilized world." Not only was it termed the "well-protected town" (balda-i mahfuza) since it had never been stormed and seized; it was in his opinion one of the most pleasant cities in the entire world. Its virtues were many but could be broadly classified as follows. First, the area had been dominated by Muslims from the time of the early Caliphs and was thus a great center for theologians and the writing of important Islamic texts. Second, despite the harsh winters, the air was generally good and the water sufficient to irrigate orchards so that grapes, apples, melons, and other excellent fruit could be found there. Third, the city itself was a marvel, and its architecture had been greatly improved by the intervention of both Timur and his descendant Mirza Ulugh Beg in the matter of buildings and gardens. These included a famous observatory where great texts on astronomy were produced, far superior to those in India, according to Babur. Finally, there was the question of the artisanal and commercial activity in Samarqand, with "each trade [having] a separate market." In respect of every one of the trades in question, from baking, to velvet production, to papermaking, Babur apparently saw Samarqand as a city with practically no equal in the world.


Excerpted from Writing Travel in Central Asian History by Nile Green. Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Travel, Writing and the Global History of Central Asia Nile Green

Part I. Identity, Information and Trade, c.1500-1850
1. Early Modern Circulation and the Question of ‘Patriotism’ between Central Asia and India Sanjay Subrahmanyam
2. Prescribing the Boundaries of Knowledge: Seventeenth Century Russian Diplomatic Missions to Central Asia Ron Sela
3. Central Asians in the Eighteenth Century Qing Illustrations of Tributary Peoples Laura Hostetler
4. The Steppe Roads of Central Asia and the Persian Captivity Narrative of Mirza Mahmud Taqi Abbas Amanat and Arash Khazeni

Part II. Empire, Archaeology and the Arts, c.1850-1940
5. ‘The Rubicon between the Empires’: The River Oxus in the Nineteenth Century British Geographical Imaginary Kate Teltscher
6. Buddhist Relics from the Western Regions: Japanese Archaeological Exploration of Central Asia Imre Galambos
7.: A Russian Futurist in Asia: Velimir Khlebnikov’s Travelogue in Verse Ronald Vroon
8. Narrating the Ichkari Soundscape: European and American Travelers on Central Asian Women’s Lives and Music Tanya Merchant

What People are Saying About This

Ohio State University - Scott Levi

A unique and novel approach. . . . The volume, led off by Green's substantial introduction, adds nuance to the Central Asia field and elevates our understanding of travel literature as a genre.

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