Paradise Found: The Nearly Forgotten Universe of Mughal Persian Poetry

Sunil Sharma’s Mughal Arcadia: Persian Literature in an Indian Court has implications for how we understand Mughal culture as “Indian”.

Persian literature is one of the pinnacle achievements of Mughal culture, and, yet, it is largely unknown in modern times. Unlike Urdu, the preferred language in the waning days of the Mughals, Persian is a foreign tongue in India today. Mughal-era Persian literature is vast but – in contrast to prominent Mughal monuments – it is tucked away out of sight, in dusty libraries and archives. These days, people talk, even obsess, about Mughal conquests and policies in the context of sectarian politics, but they rarely know much, if anything, about Mughal literature.

In Mughal Arcadia, Sunil Sharma, professor of Persian and Indian literatures at Boston University, takes us on a whirlwind tour of a hefty slice of the nearly forgotten universe of Mughal Persian poetry. The book is a delight. One emerges from it impressed by the beauty and complexity of Mughal poetry and even more impressed by Sharma’s deft reading skills and ability to translate this tradition for 21st century readers.

Sunil Sharma
Mughal Arcadia: Persian Literature in an Indian Court
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017

The story that Sharma tells is about India but not, largely, about Indians. The book focuses on Iranian emigres to Mughal India who poured out the Safavid Empire in what Sharma dubs a “brain drain.” Iranians comprised the majority of elite poets under Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan and dominated the coveted position of poet laureate. In this regard, the Indian poet Faizi, brother of Abul Fazl and Akbar’s second poet laureate, was the exception that proved the rule.

When Iranian poets entered the great cities of Mughal India, they anticipated a land of wealth and employment opportunities. They found what they sought and also helped to fashion India into a ‘Little Iran’. One of Sharma’s core plotlines in Mughal Arcadia is that poets made India – not Iran – the seat of Persian literature during the height of Mughal rule.

Mughal literature is vast, and this sea of texts has drowned the good intentions of more than one scholar. Sharma effectively navigates an overwhelming amount of material by focusing on descriptions of cities and country landscapes. The book takes us on a grand tour of literary depictions of the Mughal Empire – including Ahmedabad, Burhanpur, Kabul, Bengal, and other places – ultimately culminating in Kashmir.

Kashmir, both Srinagar and the valley, was an arcadia – a pastoral paradise, jannat or firdaus in Persian terms (pp. 4-5) – for the Mughals. Sharma presents Mughal Arcadia as a literary idea that was based on a fusion of inherited poetic tropes and real-life experiences of Kashmir. It was a key component of Mughal culture over the span of nearly a century, from Akbar’s conquest of Kashmir in 1586 until Aurangzeb’s final visit to Kashmir in 1663.

Sharma mentions the political edge of Mughal poetry that advertised imperial conquests, but his chief interests lay elsewhere: namely, in exploring the poetic nuances of Mughal Arcadia as a world of words. He argues that the Mughals and their Iranian poets imagined – and so made – places like Agra and Kashmir resemble Iran. Recovering this process is not easy because understanding Mughal Persian poetry requires superb language skills, deep knowledge of Persian poetry, and familiarity with stories and tropes. Sharma is a model reader here who is especially strong at showing how poets used conventions meaningfully in specific times and places.

Arcadia was not always paradise. Even as they flocked to the subcontinent, some Iranians criticised “liver-eating India” (Hind-i jigarkhvar), and there were tensions between Indian-born Persophone poets and Iranian emigres at the Mughal court. Mughal Arcadia also, eventually, ended, which is to say that literary descriptions of Kashmir ceased to reflect a dynamic engagement between time spent in the region and the Persian poetic tradition. People still wrote about Kashmir, but the imagery became fossilised. People in India also continued to write about many other topics in Persian for several more centuries, but, Sharma suggests, after the mid-17th century, the nexus of Persian literature once again became Iran.

Darbar scene in a Mughal court. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The story of Mughal Arcadia climaxes under Shah Jahan, and so challenges the typical Akbar-centric narrative of Mughal culture. The general take – still repeated in both scholarly and popular circles – is that Mughal culture peaked under Akbar, the third ruler, and then declined under his successors, reaching an abyss of darkness with Aurangzeb, the sixth emperor. Sharma notes the irony that Shah Jahan, the only major Mughal king who was not an author himself, inaugurated a new era of Persian poetry. In offering a fresh lens on Mughal culture that reveals a different rhythm, Mughal Arcadia has implications far beyond its specific topic matter.

Another strength of the book is its remarkable dive into little known, often unpublished, texts. The book is littered with the names of poets that are unfamiliar to even most experts on the Mughal period. Accordingly, Sharma challenges the pantheon of who we think is important to understanding Mughal India.

As with many great books, I longed for more. Literature is political, and while Sharma notes some political aspects of Mughal poetry, he left much unexplored in this regard. Sharma also declines to draw out the substantial contributions of his book to questions currently occupying popular and scholarly interest. For example, in telling a story of literary change driven primarily by non-Indians, Sharma’s work has implications for how we understand Mughal culture as “Indian.” Additionally, Sharma’s work raises important points regarding imagining the Persianate world as such and the validity of discussing Indo-Persian as a distinct tradition. I look forward to Sharma’s interlocutors drawing out these points further.

For me, the largest lacuna in the book is its lack of translations. Sharma’s pages are dotted with translated snippets of Persian poetry and prose. He sometimes walks his readers through a poem, glossing each line with a few sentences. But readers will look in vain for translations of full poems or even substantial sections thereof in Mughal Arcadia. We can hope that more translations will become available in other venues, such as the Murty Classical Library of India. Still, it is a reflection of what we moderns tend to value in the pre-modern Indo-Persian written tradition that the Murty Library has published several volumes of a Mughal history, the Akbarnama, but, to date, no Persian literature.

Even if we could read more Mughal Persian poetry in translation, however, most people still lack even the most rudimentary framework for understanding what these works meant to their writers and readers. Sunil Sharma’s Mughal Arcadia moves forward the formidable task of elucidating that context by recovering part of the lost world of Mughal literature.

Audrey Truschke is assistant professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She is the author of Culture of Encounters and Aurangzeb.

Note: In an earlier version of this article, the first image displayed was a page from the Quran and not a page from Aysha Durrani’s poetry.