Patna city hides within it a treasure trove of some of the rarest and most valuable manuscripts in India. It’s the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Patna, the labour of love of an ordinary man who was a true bibliophile. The library, founded in 1891 by Maulvi Khuda Bakhsh, was considered by the famous historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar as one of the greatest authorities on Islamic bibliography in India.
Maulvi Khuda Bakhsh was born into a distinguished family in 1842, in Siwan district of Bihar. His family had served as record keepers in the Mughal administration, since the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb. Khuda Bakhsh’s father Muhammad Bakhsh, an advocate and a scholar, had amassed a valuable collection of 1,400 rare manuscripts, which he bequeathed to his son on his deathbed in 1876. Khuda Bakhsh continued his father’s passion, building up his own huge collection.
Khuda Bakhsh, a lawyer by profession who went on to serve as a judge, was engaged in a friendly rivalry with the wealthy Nawab of Rampur, who was also building his own collection, and what would later be known as the Raza Library. The fall of the Mughal empire in the 18th century meant that the great Mughal collections had been dispersed across India. Both Khuda Bakhsh and the Nawab of Rampur would engage in bidding wars to acquire rare manuscripts. Bakhsh did not have the vast wealth that the Nawab had but ploughed all his earnings into new acquisitions.
His fame as a scholar grew and many people happily gave him their rare collections, hoping they would be preserved for posterity. The British Library offered him a huge sum of money for his collection but Khuda Bakhsh refused, stating, “The collection is for Patna, and the gift shall be laid at the feet of the Patna public.”
In 1891, he opened his collection to the public as the ‘Bankipore Library’.
It contained around 4,000 rare books and manuscripts and was inaugurated by the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, Sir Charles Elliot. Sir Jadunath Sarkar would extensively use this rare collection for his research on Mughal history.
Sadly, Khuda Bakhsh suffered a paralytic stroke, which rendered him bedridden and penniless. The Government of India sanctioned a grant of Rs 8,000 for his medical treatment and for repayment of his debts. He was also appointed as secretary to the library, with a salary of Rs 200. Maulvi Khuda Bakhsh passed away in 1908 and was buried in the premises of his beloved library. The great institution that he built lived on. The Bankipore Library would now be called ‘Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library’.
Today, the library contains over 21,000 manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Hindi and Sanskrit, as well as 2.5 lakh books. Some of the rarest books include the Tarikh-i-Khandan-i-Timuriya, a history of the Mughal dynasty commissioned by Emperor Akbar and the only manuscript of its kind in the world.
There are also manuscripts from the personal collections of Shah Jahan and his daughter, Princess Jahanara, as can be seen from the seals on them. The library also has a copy of famous English poet Lord Byron’s poem Ode to Napoleon, with two additional stanzas written in Byron’s own handwriting, as well as the original edition of Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte written by his childhood friend and personal secretary, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne.
Given its priceless collection, the Government of India took over the administration of the library by an Act of Parliament in 1969. Today, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library continues to attract scholars from all over the world and is truly a national treasure.