Writing Difference Between Iran and India

By Mana Kia
Submitted to Session P3479 (Persianate Travel Writing and Ethnography in the Early Nineteenth Century, 2013 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
In 1805, Ahmad Bihbihani (1777-1819), a Shi‘i mujtahid (jurisconsult) educated in Iran and Iraq, traveled to India, where he spent five years in various cities of the subcontinent. After unsuccessful attempts to gain long-term patronage in Hydera¬bad, Lucknow and Murshidabad, Bihbihani obtained the position of Friday prayer leader at the Shi‘i congregational mosque in British-ruled Patna. In 1810, before he undertook the journey back to Iran, he wrote Mirat al-ahval-i jahan numa, a noticeably autobiographical narrative of his journeys heavily inflected with ethnographic observations. Dedicated to the Qajar prince, Mohammad ‘Ali Mirza Dawlatshah (1789–1821), it was self-consciously written to present information peoples, places and practices outside of Iran. This text was written at a critical juncture, early in the life of the Qajar dynasty, before it had suffered the military defeats of later decades. Bihbihani encounters an India in which the British are important players, but where regional kingdoms are still prominent and Persian is still the language of government and learning. This paper explores the ways in which Bihbihani represented religious and gender difference through descriptions of social comportment and encounters. I argue that though descriptions of religious and gender differences distinguish Iran from India, these are localizations of culture. Differences are still posed within a continuing sensibility of shared culture, derived from a common Persianate education that Bihbihani shared with his Hindustani Persian subjects and interlocutors. I read Bihbihani’s text against the background of other descriptions of difference in contemporaneous Persianate travel narratives written between Iran and India.