Christian Gilberti reviews a recent book on Persian travellers in Southeast Asia.
In the preface to his most recent book—The City and the Wilderness: Indo-Persian Encounters in Southeast Asia—historian Arash Khazeni writes that he was first inspired to investigate the many “contacts and interconnections” between Burma and the Mughal world whilst visiting the Dukkanthein Pagoda in the ancient Arakanese capital of Mrauk U in Western Burma’s Rakhine State in 2014. As he was touring the Buddhist site, now all but inaccessible to travellers due to COVID-19, February’s coup d’etat and ongoing conflicts between the Arakan Army and the Burmese military, Khazeni was surprised to stumble upon tri-lingual Mughal coins in Devanagari, Bengali and Persian scripts in and amongst a scrap heap of metal destined to be melted down and cast into a new image of Buddha for the temple. “I had never planned to write a book about Burma,” he writes, somewhat nostalgically, “but after this encounter I set out to find everything I could in Persian about the Burmese and Arakanese kingdoms during the turn from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century” (xii).
With The City and the Wilderness, Khazeni has done much more than that. By looking at late 18th and early 19th-century Indo-Persian travellers to Burma, intellectual intermediaries betwixt and between cultures and empires, he repudiates the constructed, artificial nature of the disciplinary boundaries between South and Southeast Asian studies. As Khazeni writes, “at the nexus of South and Southeast Asian ‘area’ studies, the history of Arakan (and Myanmar) falls in between the lines of area studies and its rigidly imposed geographical frontiers” (p.136). Indeed, the history of Burma is deeply intertwined with that of India and it is only since the Second World War that the country has begun to be thought of as existing exclusively within the boundaries of Southeast Asia (the term “Southeast Asia” itself being a strategic designation cooked up by the Allies in 1941). In this light, Khazeni’s framework heeds historian Jonathan Saha’s call to look at the history of modern Burma as part of the political history of the Indian subcontinent. It also speaks to Thongchai Winichakul’s work on the ‘geo-body’—a well-known monograph on the effects of maps and map-making on conceptions of “area” and “nation” in Thailand. Unlike Winichakul’s work, however, Khazeni presents us with a reckoning drawn from travelogues. As such, The City and the Wilderness stands as a word of warning to historians not to project our modern-day categories of nation, border, and race onto the past, as well as a plea to help preserve the multi-ethnic, multi-confessional heritage of countries such as Burma in the face of genocide and the increasing destruction of Muslim religious sites.
In the book, Khazeni explores the fascinating lives and writings of a range of Indo-Persian poets, mystics, artists, and scholars who travelled to Southeast Asia during the waning years of Mughal Rule and the rising tide of the British East India Company’s (EIC) colonial ambitions after 1757. In doing so, he argues for a history of diverse “Indo-Persian encounters” with the zirbad—the Southeast Asian “land below the winds”—in an inter-Asian context that predates the era of high colonialism in the region. Recently, historians like Sunil Amrith have outlined the cosmopolitan connections that linked Southeast Asia to India during the zenith of British colonization (1857-1945), but only a few studies have explored Southeast Asian connections with India during the eighteenth century. Khazeni writes that Persian language accounts of travel to the Southeast Asian littoral during this transitional period were part of a larger genre of shigarfnama (travel books) aimed at describing the wonders of the known world. With the arrival of British power, however, these sorts of accounts merged “with the Orientalist pursuits of the East India Company, and its scientific wing, the Asiatic Society, in surveying Indic environments, economies, empires, languages and religions” (p.2). These collaborative colonial literary and visual productions framed the Buddhist kingdoms of Burma and Arakan as sacred “forest worlds” dominated by a padishah (“King among kings’’) who preserved the balance between the city (abad) and the wilderness (biyaban); only he could claim sole right to the exploitation of the natural resources found within his realm, such as teak, elephants, gemstones, and gold. But in describing Burma as an exotic land at the “limits of the Mughal world”, Khazeni writes, Indo-Persian intellectuals in the service of the EIC also inadvertently “fostered disconnections and the construction of a hardening sense of difference” between Burma and India (p.2). Ultimately, it was this sense of difference that would later inscribe Burma as “a distinct geo-cultural space” from that of India during the late colonial period, leading the British to separate the two countries in 1937.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 deals with the tradition of Indo-Persian travel-writing on Southeast Asia and how writers from Mughal India conceived of the Southeast Asian archipelago as the limits of the known world. Part 2 positions the work of several Indo-Persian artists and scribes working for the EIC within the “Honourable Company’s” larger project of surveying, mapping, and describing the Burmese Empire after its Conquest of Arakan in 1785.
Chapter 1 follows “two Persian drifters across the Indian Ocean”, Mirza Shaykh I’tisam al-Din and Abu Talib Khan Isfahani who made several voyages to Europe and around the Indian Ocean rim from the middle half of the eighteenth century. Through a close-reading of their travel narratives, Khazeni “examines the construction of Indo-Persian knowledge of the edges of the Indian Ocean and views of the Mughal Empire offshore…” (pp.14-15). Chapter 2 explores the travels of Mir ‘Abd al-Latif Khan Shushtari, an itinerant scholar and merchant from Iran, whose writings, published at Hyderabad in 1801, “draw upon long-standing Mughal views of the wondrous nature of Southeast Asia, tinged by colonial notions of the sublime wilderness of nature, to cast the Burmese Empire and its forest landscapes as the edges of the Mughal world” (p.15).
Chapter 3 looks at the first official mission headed by Michael Symes in 1795 from the EIC to King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Symes was accompanied by Indian munshi (scribes) well-versed in Persian. Symes himself spoke Persian, and corresponded with the Burmese king in Persian, “following the Indo-Persian, Mughal codes of conduct” (p.16). Chapter 4 traces the microhistory of little-known Indian botanical artist Singey Bey, who aided Symes and botanist Francis Buchanan in picturing and cataloguing the natural resources and environment of the Irrawaddy River Valley. His representations of Burma as a “forest world” were filled with sacred meaning, as he “perceived an archaeological terrain bearing signs of the material culture, relics and idols of Theravada Buddhism and its cycles of the birth, destruction and rebirth of the natural world” (p.16).
Chapter 5 examines the syncretic Buddhist Kingdom of Mrauk U in Western Burma (1429-1785) and its connections across the Bay of Bengal and beyond. At the end of the 18th century, the expansion of the Burmese empire into Arakan drove the Arakanese (which the Mughals knew as the “Magh”) across the border into Bengal and into contact with the EIC and Mughal India. This, in turn, prompted the British to collect information on the fallen “Magh Kingdom.” Khazeni shows that for this project, the EIC relied heavily on Indo-Persian “intermediaries” such as the scribe Shah ‘Azizallah Bukhari Qalandar who translated Arakanese Buddhist texts from Pali to Persian for the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and who sought to “recast the kingdom [of Mrauk U] within an Indo-Persian and Sufi imaginary.” In ‘Azizallah’s fervent imagination, the Buddha became a sort of Sufi mystic prince seeking truth in the wilderness, and the Jataka tales, the stories of the Buddha’s previous incarnations, became Sufi parables (p.135).
Finally, Khazeni’s epilogue looks at the 21st century and the disappearing built environment of Islam in Burma — specifically the mosques, shrines and dargah or tombs of Sufi saints — the ruins of which still dot the landscape. It is a travelogue of sorts, in which Khazeni argues that these “vanishing remnants” of the syncretic Buddhist cultures of the Burma/Bangladesh borderlands are “endangered by the hardening divide between Buddhist and Muslim identities and the intercommunal violence and climate of persecution that has decimated and displace long-standing Muslim societies in Myanmar” (p.17). The author’s riveting detective work uncovering the true location of the Badr Qasam shrine near Thandwe is reminiscent of similar work on memory and loss surrounding the destruction of Uighur mosques and mazar holy places by the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang. This is where Khazeni’s analysis of the Indo-Persian connections with Burma reaches its most poignant conclusions and becomes most relevant for contemporary affairs.
For scholars of Konbaung-era Burma, the book addresses a number of concerns. Perhaps most refreshing is Khazeni’s assertion that “Persian was the language through which the Company [EIC] came to know the Burmese Empire” (p.6). That Symes’s mission to the Burmese king was conducted in Persian and mediated by a Persian-speaking Armenian with Iranian heritage, one Baba Sheen, are facts that have been much overlooked in the scholarship. Moreover, Khazeni’s emphasis on the syncretic nature of the Konbaung court shows that there is much work still to be done in this regard. King Bodawpaya (1782-1819) appointed a Sufi saint, Husayni, as qadi (or Islamic judge) for his kingdom, while the Muslim Saya Gyi U Nu Muhammad Qasim was sent to India to bring back Persian and Sanskrit texts for Bodawpaya’s library (pp.155-157). These multi-confessional, syncretic, inter-Asian connections within and without the Konbaung kingdom are an important legacy that remains unexplored, given the hitherto scholarly emphasis on the colonial encounter.
Khazeni’s work is also an interesting corrective to conventional understandings of British/Burmese colonial interactions. Dr. Htin Aung, for instance, emphasized the lack of common ground between the British and the Burmese as one of the main reasons that negotiations between the two parties repeatedly fell through culminating in the British conquest of Upper Burma in 1885. In 1826, a Burmese minister was reported to have said to an English envoy, albeit regretfully, “Yours and our customs are so completely opposite in so many points. You write on white, we on black paper. You stand up, we sit down; you uncover your head, we our feet in token of respect” (quoted in Htin Aung, The Stricken Peacock, p. 16). But Khazeni’s book shows that there was in fact at least one point of mutual understanding in early encounters between the Burmese and the British, i.e. a reverence for Persian as the language of diplomacy and exchange. In this vein, Bodawpaya had a farman (Persian edict) written to the English king and kept Muslim munshi scribes well-versed in Persian on the court pay-roll (p. 104-5). Moreover, in the epilogue, Khazeni highlights how, as Persian slipped in importance as the language of power in India in the 1830s (with Macaulay’s Minute on Education of 1835 effectively spelling its death sentence), later British emissaries to Ava such as John Crawfurd failed to see the importance of the language in dealing with the Burmese (p.170). This is a major contribution because it shows the “difference” between India and Burma being constructed in the moment and points to a more complex, changing relationship between the British and Konbaung Burma leading up to the wholesale annexation of Burma as a province of India in 1886.
All in all, despite the occasional moment of repetition, The City and the Wilderness is an eminently readable and engaging exploration of the reactions of 18th and 19th century Indo-Persian travellers to Southeast Asia, especially the kingdoms of Ava and Mrauk U. Its contribution to Persian studies through the reanalysis of several important Persian travel narratives and its significance for Southeast Asian studies is undeniable. The book’s key takeaway for Burma studies, however, lies in its emphasis on Persian as the language of diplomacy in 18th and early 19th century Burma; its identification of an Indo-Persian conception of the Burmese king as an ethical padishah in control of the produce of a Buddhist “forest-world”; the evidence it gives for the syncretic nature of Konbaung society under King Bodawpaya; and in its recovery of a sacred landscape of Rakhine state and the material culture of the “overlapping cultural worlds of Buddhists and Muslims that existed in early modern Arakan” (p.183).
In Khazeni’s epilogue, we are told of an Islamic tomb with the Buddha’s footprint sculpted onto it, a riot-scarred mosque in downtown Sittwe (Akyab), and a Muslim shrine repurposed as a Buddhist pagoda. There is a simultaneous sense of wonder at a vision of a diverse early-modern society now gone, coupled with a palpable sense of loss and outrage at the more recent denigration of a particular history and culture culminating in the violence of the Rohingya Genocide in 2017. It would be worthwhile for Burma scholars to remember both aspects of Burma’s “cultural encounter” with the Indo-Persian world moving forward.
(Featured image courtesy of University of California Press)
Christian Gilberti is a Ph.D. student in the Dept. of South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He keeps a blog on topics relating to Burmese history and culture at https://thamine.blog/.