Manuscript Studies, University of Pennsylvania Press
Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2019, pp. 19-41
A text that has found renewed interest among scholars of early modern India is the Persian compendium of religion called Dabistān-i Maẕāhib. Written between 1645 and 1658, the Dabistān presents a lively ethnographic and historical account of customs and habits of various major and minor religious communities in northern India during the heyday of the Mughal Empire (1526-1707). Written like a travelogue, it moves between various modes of description including mythical revelations, storytelling, ethnographic notes, and authorial commentary. The Dabistān-i Maẕāhib is also valuable because it is the earliest work outside of the Sikh literary tradition that contains first-hand accounts of the growing Sikh socio-religious movement established in Punjab during the sixteenth century. Focusing on this section titled “The Nanak Panthis”, this article explores what translators, commentators, and historians have variously understood as comprising the original text. Since the early twentieth century, scholars have relied on later manuscript and print editions in their English translations and use of this work without necessarily reflecting on how these choices have preconditioned interpretive possibilities. My analysis of a recently discovered and earliest known manuscript copy of the Dabistān-i Maẕāhib from 1650 suggests that all of the later hand written and print editions, which have now become standardized through scholarly convention, omit certain details and even entire passages. This has major implications for how we have understood the genesis and transmission of the text, and perhaps more significantly, the social groups and historical moments depicted in this one-of-a-kind work.