A Mughal Era Manuscript Curiously Illustrated

By Homira Pashai

A book with a tooled leather cover and a flap that wraps around for closure.

Kitab-i fi al-tibb al-mansuri by Muhammad Zakariya al-Razi, early 16th century
National Library of Medicine

The National Library of Medicine is the home of many precious manuscripts belonging to the Indian Mughal era (16th–18th century). Among these manuscripts, there is a unique copy of Kitab-i fi al-tibb al-mansuri (Book on Medicine Dedicated to al-Mansur) by Muhammad Zakariya al-Razi (died 925 AD). Al-Razi’s text on the subject of therapeutics, diet, hygiene, anatomy, physiology, general pathology, and practical surgery was extremely influential and extensively copied into the 17th century. This copy, from the early 16th century is unique because it includes six illustrations—not related to the text—that were painted onto the manuscript covering some of the text maybe well over a century ago. The reason is not known, but it was likely done in order to make the manuscript appear more valuable. As a result, this medical manuscript has been infused with illustrations from the genre of poetry and the product is a most precious work that is worth studying.

The inscriptions and seals that appear on the two flyleaves of this Kitab-i fi al-tibb al-mansuri attest to the long history of ownership of the manuscript. The twelve seals of the manuscript vary from the name of God, Ya Karim, to the name of individuals evidently librarians with the most notable one the seal of Shah Jahan ‘Inayat Khan AH 1068 (CE 1657). The inscriptions are written in Persian, the language of the Mughal court, and are written at slight but varied angles, which distinguish them from the neatly aligned text. The inscriptions and seals elaborate on the notion of distinct levels of authority in the imperial library. Inspector librarians, like Muhammad Hossein identified from the flyleaf AH 1002 (CE 1594), used inscriptions to sign the flyleaf with their name, date, and other information, while superintendents, designated officials, who held the greater positions of nazim and darugha (head library officials) used seals designed with their names on inscribed manuscripts.

Thus, Mughal librarians like modern curators used the codified system of inscriptions and seals to record the transfer of custody of the manuscripts. The common phrase “vared arz shud,” which means the manuscript “entered the library” usually appears, followed by the respective dates of accessions and the name of the librarian who supervised the task of manuscript transference. Also, the most ubiquitous type of inspection included the word “arzdida” meaningreceived by” with the name, date, and month provided. The inspection note “tahwil” meaning “entrusted” was also used in conjunction with the name of the librarian and the date of transfer. Thus, during Shah Jahan’s rule (CE 1628–1658), in the Mughal libraries, a chain of individuals practiced the codified transfer of custody to make sure the manuscripts were not lost.

A snapshot of the Taj Mahal at an angle on a cloudy day with trees in the foreground.

The Taj Mahal
Courtesy Joyce Backus, National Library of Medicine

‘Inayat Khan whose seal appears on the flyleaf of this manuscript, according to the Shah Jahannama (History of Shah Jahan), was appointed as the overall superintendent of the royal library (darugha-yi kitabkhana) most likely in Agra or Delhi, on AH 1068 (CE 1657) during the reign of Shah Jahan. ‘Inayat Khan, meaning ‘the blessed lord’ is a title bestowed upon Mirza Muhammad Tahir Ashena (died 1670 CE) who was one of the high-ranking civil officers (sahib mansab) of the Mughal court. His father Zafar Khan Ahsan Turbati was the governor (wali) of Kabul and Kashmir during the Mughal reign and his mother was Buzurg Khanum, the sister of Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved Persian wife of Shah Jahan, in whose commemoration the Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 CE. A great patron of literature and art, ‘Inayat Khan compiled Kitab-i Mulkhas Tavarikh Shah Jahan (Extracts from the History of Shah Jahan) based on the writings of Abdulhamid Lahuri and other historical accounts. His work on literature also includes a Divan of Poetry. ‘Inayat Khan’s seal began to appear on manuscripts held in the royal library immediately after his appointment. Unfortunately, his seal was only in use for a short period due to the termination of Shah Jahan’s reign less than twelve months later. Afterward, beginning the reign of Aurangzeb in 1658, he began a life of solitude in Kashmir.

The illustrations, added to the original centuries after it was created, are unrelated to medicine. They are in the Persian style of the 15th to the beginning of the 17th century paintings based on illustrations most likely from the Persian story of tragic romance Khosrow va Shirin by the poet Nizami Ganjavi (died 1209 CE). In this famous story the Sasanian King Khosrow Parviz II, the King of Persia, falls in love with the Armenian Princess Shirin. Farhad, the rival of Khosrow for the love of Shirin, is the symbol of the selfless warrior who undertakes the task of cutting a canal through the rocks of the Bisotun Mountain for transportation of milk to Shirin’s palace. Although in this circle of love Farhad’s concepts of love is heroic and Khosrow’s sensual, Khosrow’s lack of reasoning in a debate with Farhad, results in betraying Farhad by sending him the false news of Shirin’s death which causes to Farhad’s demise. Typical of romances, however, after the entire physical and spiritual journey noted in the story, which results finally in the happy marriage of Khosrow and Shirin, the nefarious villain Shirviyeh conspires later against the couple, and in the end they are separated by death.

In addition to the images, verses have been inserted in the flyleaf by an unknown librarian, connoisseur, or scribe on the wisdom of reading and companionship of books. The verses are:

Art O’thou the one whose qualification is my faculty of speech (talking) capital
Your occupation puts a bridle on my willfulness
As the dust of your road became my place of worship

My unsettled thought turned blemish”

These verses come to aid of any historian to examine the manuscript through a social justice lens that elaborates on the respect of the time for books as companionship and the joy for metaphor unraveling. The verses embrace the breath of the compassionate, which according to the Sufis is the root of existence.

Overall the manuscript is a unique artifact, which takes us on a journey to the Imperial Mughal Library (1526–1707) where groups of artists and artisans copied, painted, and embellished the texts and the guardians of the books undertook the task of transferring and cataloging them. Papermakers, leatherworkers, bookbinders, illuminators, scribes, gilders, painters, and librarians used their skills on the refinement of the library institution in the Mughal court.

Homira Pashai is a volunteer in the NLM History of Medicine Division’s Volunteer Program. She holds a Masters Degree in Historical Research-Public History. Her acquaintance with manuscripts is an ongoing project beginning from childhood examining grandfather’s papers and continues to now. She interned at NLM in 2009 and updated descriptions of Persian and Islamic manuscripts in the Library’s catalog and at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.