Library of India

Welcome to the graveyard of rare books, also known as the Saulat Public Library, Rampur

Priceless editions of Urdu, Persian and English lie in neglect as no one cares to maintain a library that should have been a national treasure.

I have spent much of the past week digging through piles of books at the Saulat Public Library in the city of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh. I am looking for a single manuscript: Muhammad Sanaʾullah Panipati’s Khawass-i Hizb al-Bahr, an 18th century Persian commentary, written in Delhi, on the occult properties of a famous prayer formulae compiled by Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, the Maghribi mystic of the 13th century. It is, very likely, the only copy of the commentary in the world.

I know it is somewhere in the library because it appears in Abid Reza Bedar’s 1966 catalogue, but despite my excavations and those of Mazhar Muin Khan, the endlessly patient librarian, the manuscript remains hidden.

I am sure that Muhammad Sanaʾullah Panipati would have understood my search: just as words have occult sympathies with the material world, so too does this hidden manuscript exercise its power, drawing me to the library day after day although it remains unseen, buried beneath thick layers of dust, cobwebs and mouldering pages. As I dig through the stacks, I can’t help but call to mind the hadith qudsi: “I was a hidden treasure that loved to be known.”The disappearance of a single manuscript, though serious in itself, is part of a far larger problem at Saulat Library: one of India’s richest archives of Urdu, Persian and Arabic works, it has fallen into a state of absolute desuetude.

Reader's ticket
Reader's ticket

Founded in 1934, the library was once an important centre of political and social life for North Indian Muslims. In its heyday, famous visitors included Khalid Sheldrake (the British pickle manufacturer turned king of Chinese “Islamistan”), Sayyid Hashimi Faridabadi (author of a famous Urdu history of Greece), Khwaja Hasan Nizami (the great Chishti Sufi of Delhi), and the Agha Khan.

Besides 25,000 Urdu printed books – including the only known first edition of Ghalib’s 1841 Urdu diwan – the library holds hundreds of irreplaceable manuscripts: eighteenth-century Afghan chronicles, works on occult science, personal diaries of Rampuri notables, volumes of Persian poetry, and richly-illuminated Qurʾāns. It also holds a complete run of Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Persian newspaper Jam-i Jahan Numa, Muhammad ʿAli Jauhar’s Urdu-language Hamdard and English-language Comrade, as well as Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Tahzib al-Akhlaq.

Since the partition, when many of its leading lights moved to Pakistan, it has undergone a process of steady decline. A further blow came with the abolition of the privy purse of the Rampuri royal family, the library’s major patrons.

The reading room with pictures of Hakim Ajmal Khan, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Ali Jauhar and the first Nawab of Rampur
The reading room with pictures of Hakim Ajmal Khan, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Ali Jauhar and the first Nawab of Rampur

These days, residents of Rampur have barely heard its name. As I searched for it in the city’s narrow lanes, I kept being directed to its well-funded and illustrious sister library, the Raza Library, housed in the old Nawabi palace. Like its manuscripts, Saulat is hidden. To get there you have to walk through the winding streets that lead to the heart of the Chaku (knife) Bazaar to a small courtyard behind the city’s Jama Masjid (the congregational mosque). The library is up an unlit staircase behind a tailor’s shop. You really have to know where it is to get there.

The main reading room only has three walls now: the fourth collapsed in March 2013, and there is no money to replace it. All the books have now been moved into a single room where the electricity is intermittent at best and daylight comes in through a few holes in the ceiling. The library was already in poor condition when the wall fell. Since then the cataloguing system has broken down entirely.

External view with missing wall
External view with missing wall

The library’s one regular patron, a retired engineer who studied at Aligarh Muslim University, comes each morning to read the newspaper. He described the library as a “graveyard for books” (kitabon ka qabaristan). It is hard to disagree: the books are piled high on shelves, some strewn on the floor, torn and covered in dust so thick it looks like the set of a low-grade horror film.

The sad irony is that the collection survived almost certain destruction once before. In the violence that accompanied partition in 1947, the managing committee of the library faced an enraged crowd who were marching through the city torching government buildings. Because the library is located in a former tehsil office, it was targeted for destruction. Forming a human chain, they passed thousands of books, manuscripts and newspapers from hand to hand across the courtyard that separates the library from the Jama Masjid (congregational mosque) some eighty metres away. But where fire and violence failed, ants and neglect are winning the day.

I have come to Rampur to gather materials for my PhD dissertation on the history of eighteenth-century North Indian intellectual culture. For my task, the most precious manuscripts are often those that were never printed because they reveal much about fields of knowledge that were neglected with the coming of colonial rule. To see these irreplaceable texts crumbling before my eyes is heartbreaking.

A water-damaged Persian manuscript
A water-damaged Persian manuscript

Given the working conditions, Mazhar Muin’s daily enthusiasm for our thus far thankless search is remarkable. But without some urgent action to preserve or at least digitise the collection, the loss to India’s intellectual history will be immense. In the words of Ghalib:

“nāla-yi dil ne diye aurāq-i laḳht-i dil ba bād
yādgār-i nāla ek dīwān-i be-shīrāza thā”

“The heart’s lament threw the pages of the heart’s fragments to the wind
The memorial to the lament was a single unbound book.”

Neglected stacks
Neglected stacks

All photographs by Daniel Jacobius Morgan.


Daniel Jacobius Morgan is a PhD scholar at South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago.

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