Located in one of the most atmospheric lanes near Ashok Rajpath, a road connecting the old Patna city and the suburb of Bankipore, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library stands amid a series of old colonial-era buildings in Patna, Bihar. Established in 1891, it contains the only extant copy of the Tarikh-e-Khandan-e-Timuriyah (the Timur-Nama), which deals with Timur and his descendants in Iran and India, including Mughal Emperors Babur, Humayun and Akbar.
Compiled in 1577-78 CE, during the reign of Emperor Akbar, with richly illuminated paintings by masters of the time such as Daswant, Miskin, Madho, Manohar and Basawan, the manuscript is officially a Manuscript Treasure of India and inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
The history of the Khuda Bakhsh Library and its collections can be traced to the Bakhsh family, a family of poets, jurists and scholars, who migrated from Delhi to Chapra, a town in North Bihar, in the early 19th century, and later to Bankipore in Patna. It is said that a member of the family helped to compile the Fatwa- i- Alamgiri, one of the most organized works of its time, on statecraft, ethics, economic policy and justice under Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Muhammad Bakhsh (1815-76), a government pleader and father of Khuda Bakhsh (1842-1908), continued the scholarly tradition with a rare collection of 1,400-odd Islamic manuscripts.
On his deathbed, he asked his son to preserve the collections and use them to form the nucleus of a public library for the community.
Khuda Bakhsh soon made a name for himself at the Patna Bar. Like his father, he too continued the practice of collecting manuscripts and books. Finally, the library was completed in 1888 and was inaugurated in 1891 by the then Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, Sir Charles Elliott. The Oriental Public Library, as named in the legal deed, contained 4.000 manuscripts and 2,500 books in English at the time of its inauguration.
Collecting Manuscripts: A Mughal Tradition
Before British rule, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a thriving tradition of collecting manuscripts in Mughal libraries, particularly in Delhi. While some were purchased, others were written and illustrated by court artists working in the imperial service.
At times, the collections in Mughal courts came through conquests (such as that of Golconda and Hyderabad during Aurangzeb’s reign); and sometimes by confiscating the works of great nobles on their death. For instance, on the death of Akbar’s poet laureate Faizi, 4,300 volumes belonging to him were added to the Emperor’s library.
The making and acquiring of books, manuscripts and paintings were a mark of imperialism and royalty. However, following the Revolt of 1857 and the fall of Lucknow and Delhi by the British, many treasures and manuscripts were dispersed. The Nawab of Rampur (Rohila Khand), who had joined the British, got the best of the loot, as he had proclaimed among the sepoys that he would pay one rupee for every manuscript brought to him.
Khuda Bakhsh began his collection much later, but there was a competition between him and the Rampur Nawab. To succeed in the rivalry, Khuda Bakhsh even employed a book-hunter named Mohammad Maqi, an Arab, and paid him a salary of Rs 50 a month and a commission for 18 years, to search for rare manuscripts (mostly Arabic) in the imperial and cosmopolitan Islamic world, especially in Beirut and Cairo. He was also known to pay double railway fare to every manuscript- seller who visited him in Bankipur.
The library has manuscripts dealing with subjects ranging from history and literature, to law and science. The work by Al-Zahrawi on surgery that bears ‘A.H. 584’ (1188- 1189 CE) as its publication date contains pictures of the surgical instruments bearing a resemblance to inventions in modern times.
Translated into Latin in the 12th century, this text remained the leading textbook on surgery for the next 500 years in Europe. Another manuscript is by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician, on medicinal plants, translated by the Arabs during the Caliphate of Harun-ul-Rashid, whose reign from 786-809 CE is considered as the beginning of the Islamic Golden Age.
The library is also home to collections from Desna, a qasba (small town) in the neighbouring district of Bihar Sharif. The collection existed in an independent library that belonged to a club, Anjuman Al-Islah or Reform Society, founded in 1899. Young men from this small town would gather in the club to share their interests in education, which they saw as essential in life’s every venture. The library and its annual gatherings later became regular destinations for people with roots in Desna and a variety of intellectuals and public figures, including Rajendra Prasad, Shaukat Ali, Sayyid Mahmud, and J B Kripalani.
The Desna Collection has about 150 manuscripts and around 8,000 volumes of periodicals published in cities near Gaya and Patna to distant Lahore and Aurangabad.
The collection resulted from the passion and collective efforts of Desnavis (the inhabitants of Desna) scattered around different parts of the country.
During his student years in Calcutta, one such Desnavi, Najib Ashraf Nadvi, would search for inexpensive treasures, managing to find dozens of publications of the Fort William College and a rare and valuable manuscript of Umar Khayyam’s Ruba’iyat, that ultimately became part of the library’s collection
When many Desnavis migrated to Pakistan after Partition, and the community that sustained it broke apart, the collection was transferred to the Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna in 1960. They now remain here as the library’s Desna Section.
Unlike aristocratic institutions like the Rampur Raza Library, the collections of Khuda Bakhsh and Desna reveal the participation of shareeif professional classes and their contributions in the making of libraries and their collections. Against the backdrop of communal tensions and the Hindi-Urdu divide in the first half of the 20th century, these collections were also an avenue for shaping the notion of a homeland, qaum, and watan for these Muslim intellectuals.
The collections of the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library and Desna today tell stories of the heritage and legacy that these individuals preserved for the province of Bihar and the world at large. According to Sir Ali Imam (1869-1932), a judge at the Patna High Court, the British Museum had made Khuda Bakhsh a significant offer for his collection, but he declined.
“I am a poor man,” he said, “and the sum they offered was a fortune, but could I ever part with money with that to which my father and I have dedicated our lives?”
“No,” he said, “the collection is for Patna, and the gift shall be laid at the feet of the Patna public.”
Khuda Bakhsh donated his entire collection to the people of Patna by a deed of trust. The library is now an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and is governed by a Board with the Governor of Bihar as its ex officio Chairperson.
Akash Bharadwaj is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida. His doctoral work examines the histories of museum collections and visual cultures of Bihar.
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