Indo-Persian Views of Southeast Asia and the Buddhist Kingdom of Mrauk U

By Arash Khazeni
Submitted to Session P4814 (Looking East: Knowledge, Travel, and Friendship Between the Middle East and Asia in the 19th Century, 2017 Annual Meeting
Indian Ocean Region;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores Indo-Persian encounters and reckonings with the ruins of the Buddhist kingdom of Mrauk U in Arakan (Burma). Based in the densely forested and tidal backwaters of the Bay of Bengal, the kingdom of Mrauk U (1430-1785) was once a hub of Indian Ocean trade and the monumental capital of a Buddhist dynasty steeped in the Indo-Persian and Islamic court culture of Bengal and the Mughal Empire. In the aftermath of the conquest of Mrauk U in 1785 by the Burmese Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885), Buddhist Arakanese influenced by centuries of contact with Mughal India – and known as the “Magh” – fled across the borderlands of Burma into colonial Bengal. Due to the persistence of Persian as a language of mutual encounter and exchange between Mughal India and Burma, the East India Company came to rely on Indo-Persian intermediaries, travelers, and munshis (scribes) tied to long-standing networks of exchange with Southeast Asia to survey and gather knowledge about the fallen “Magh” kingdom of Mrauk U, its forest environment, and Buddhist culture. Drawing upon a body of rare late eighteenth-century Persian manuscript accounts of Mrauk U produced by munshis for the Asiatic Society of Bengal – including ethnographic literature, Buddhist cosmographies, botanies, and variations of jataka tales translated from Pali into Persian – this paper explores Indo-Persian, Muslim contacts with Southeast Asia and the ends of the Indian Ocean world during times of transition to colonialism and orientalism. In particular, it traces the works of Shah ‘Azizallah Bukhari Qalandar, a munshi in the service of the East India Company orientalist John Murray MacGregor (1745-1822), and his translations of Theraveda Buddhist texts from Pali into Persian. Through the translation of Buddhist cosmographical texts, Shah ‘Azizallah recast the Buddhist Kingdom of Mrauk U within a Persianate and Sufi imaginary. The Persian “Magh Manuscripts” left behind by the East India Company munshi Shah ‘Azizallah, this paper claims, are debris of the Indo-Persian encounter with the ends of the Mughal world and knowledge of Indian Ocean kingdoms and environments.