Razmnama: A Persian Mahabharata


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Most of us know about the famous Hindu epic- Mahabharata but have you heard about Razmnama? In brief, Razmnama is nothing but the Persian translation of Mahabharata. Now you might be quite taken aback by this new and interesting fact. Yes, there is an extant Persian translation (The Book of War) that is preserved in the Jaipur City Palace. It was commissioned by one of the greatest emperors of India. This might leave you guessing on the ruler who initiated the translation. This fact and many more can easily satisfy your curiosity if you go through the article right below. So, why wait? Dive in. 

Mughals and the Razmnama 

  • Razmnama is the abridged Persian version of the Hindu epic poem Mahabharata. It was commissioned to be translated into Persian by the emperor of the Mughal empire, Akbar (1542-1605). The word Razmnama is a Persian one and is a medley of two terms, “Razm” and “nama” which translate to war and tale respectively. Thus, the meaning of Razmnama is “a tale of war” and the book maybe rightly called “The Book of War”. 
  • The sage Vyasa composed Mahabharata whereas the poet Abu al-Faiz ibn Mubarak is credited to be the chief author of the Persian epic poem. The latter was one among the navratnas or nine jewels of Akbar’s court. Razmnama contains a total of 168 album-bound paintings. 
  • The book was composed by the translators of the Maktab Khana which means “House of Translation”. It was a bureau of translation and records founded by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri around 1574. This bureau also translated other important Sanskrit texts into Persian like the Ramayana and Raja Tarangini (The History of the Kings of Kashmir). 

Reason behind the translation of Mahabharata into the Persian language 

  • The reason behind the translation of Mahabharata into the Persian language is a political one (Madras Courier). Akbar wanted a common language for his empire inspite of the fact that his subjects were multilingual. His preference was towards the Persian language which was also the literary language of the Mughal court. 
  • Infact, many Hindu students were enrolled in Madrasas to learn the Persian language. The scenario in India was in sharp contrast to that of Europe where Protestants and Catholics were engaged in rising one over the other. In India, subjects of Akbar were interested in learning about one another.   
  • Enrolling in schools like Madrasas would certainly be advantageous in securing a government job within the kingdom. Translating texts like the Mahabharata or the Ramayana into Persian and making them a part of the official culture would make Hindu people feel more inclusive.  
  • Akbar’s sole aim was to maintain unity in his kingdom, translating important Hindu texts was one way of achieving that goal. As a result, he appointed scribes and secretaries to translate the epic into its Persian counterpart which is Razmnama. Also, these translations were distributed to Muslim families so that exchange of religious knowledge takes place easily. This would propel the people of the two communities to develop a good understanding and tolerance of their religious faiths. 
  • Now a question might arise why did Akbar choose Mahabharata or Ramayana to win over his non-Muslim population? The simple reason is that Mahabharatha is a renowed epic having different moral reflections, stories, advice, religion and science. It is a text that has a lot to offer not only in terms of reading but also religion that will prevent hostility and make everyone a seeker of truth. He clearly wanted his subjects to thwart bigotry. 

Translators of Razmnama 

  • The book of Mahabharata is a massive one consisting of 100,000 verses. Infact, it holds the world record for being the longest known epic. Surely, translating the book was quite demanding. It required the combined efforts of translators and scribes from the Hindu as well as the Muslim communities.  
  • The foremost task was to understand the Mahabharata which brought the immediate need for Hindu scholars to expound them. The entire translation process took two years to complete, from 1584-1586 (Quartz India).
  • According to Qadir Badauni, four lavishly bound volumes of the book was compiled in a matter of four years.
  • A team of translators were involved in translating Mahabharata into the Persian text of Razmnama. 
  • According to an excerpt of Badauni’s Muntakhab al-tavārīkh, Akbar summoned the learned folks of his court and ordered them to translate the Mahabharata. He spent several nights explaining the text to the Muslim theologian Naquib Khan. The latter worked on the parts he conceived from the emperor.  
  • The first draft of the Persian text was ready. Meanwhile, Akbar also asked Badauni to work in collaboration with Naquib Khan. Badauni sieved out the contents from the 18 chapters and produced two chapters in a span of three months. The section was completed by Mulla Shri and Naqib Khan. 
  • The following section was written by Sultan Haji Thanesari ʻMunfarid. In the ensuing step, Shaikh Faizi was appointed to write it in both verse and prose forms but he couldn’t complete more than 2 chapters. The next two sections were written by Haji where he made necessary corrections. They made extensive efforts to make it as authentic as they can. 
  • The result that was produced by the masters of the languages was a copiously-illustrated volume. 

Illustrations of Razmnama 

  • Among the other texts translated into the Persian, Ramznama contains the best of the illustrations. The paintings are exceptional which tickles the interest of the students of Mughal art and turn them quite inquisitive. They bind together the best elements of the Mughal court style with the unique style of storytelling. 
  • With the completion of the final draft, the translation was presented in the form of a manuscript with lavish illustrations (Paintings of Razmnama: The Book of War ; Asok Kumar Das) by his artists. 
  • Twenty-five of such exquisite illustrated folios of the Persian text are part of a collection in the John Fredrick Lewis Collection (Publisher: Free Library of Philadelphia, United States). The artists of the Razmnama were the ones who illustrated in the imperial painting worship. Since there was no fixed schedule and resources to complete the Razmnama paintings ((1598-1599) it is assumed that they might have been a gift for a prince or a courtier (Philadelphia Musuem of Art). 
  • The paintings display a wash technique where the brush marks were not visible in the finished product. The paints were so thin that it became quite difficult to make any changes to those paintings. Moreover, new compositions were invented by Akbar’s skillful artists that made those paintings look more authentic. 

Copies of the Razmnama 

The copies of the Razmnama were made with the primary motive of circulation within the empire. They were richly illustrated and hand-made. The pages of the copies are in different institutions around the globe. Since the original Razmnama is not accessible, these copies serve as important sources that tell us more about the Persian text. 

First Copy of Razmnama 

  • The manuscript of the first copy of Razmnama has 169 illustrated episodes. It also has some beautiful paintings by the Mughal painter, Mushfiq. The first copy is present in the City Palace Museum of Jaipur. Khwaja Inayatullah wrote the Jeypore Razmnama on paper. 
  • It has a total of 169 miniatures by artists that take up the entire space of the collection. The main artists were Basawan, Daswanth and Lal. 

The Second copy of Razmnama 

  • The second copy of the Razmnama is more detailed and took a year to complete (1598-1599). A total of 161 paintings illustrates the Persian text. Akbar was a religiously tolerant king which is apparent from the several initiatives which he took to maintain harmony within his empire.  
  • Not just that, he sent copies of the Razmnama as gifts to the royal families. The simple purpose was to help his subjects know a little more about the Hindu religion through the ancient epic. Moreover, he was aware of the sacredness of Mahabharata and sent the copies of Razmnama as presents to all the emirs (military commanders) with an extremely pious motive. The preface to the Razmnama was written by one of the nine jewels of Akbar’s kingdom, Abul Fazl. 
  • The final five parts and the colophon of the second copy are preserved in the British Library (Columbia University). 

Wrapping it! 

To summarize in brief, Razmnama was a Persian translation of Mahabharata, the Hindu epic. It is a “book of war” that was framed by several translators of the Makhtabkhana during Akbar’s reign. 

The Raznnama is not accessible to modern day historians and scholars for over three decades. The reason behind its inaccessibility is that it is the subject of a family feud and various claims from royal families. That is the reason why it is locked away now, leaving scholars to rely solely on the copies of the text. 

The Razmnama was housed in the Jaipur City Palace Museum since 1690. The present condition of the text remains a matter of concern among historians. For now, no one can be certain when it will be available to historians and art experts. However, one can have some glimpse of the past through the completed copy of the Razmnama in the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata. 

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