Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2006—2007 Forum on Travel
Associate Professor & Chair, South Asia Studies, Penn
An Ethnographer in Disguise: Comparing Self and Other in Mughal India
Travel writing is sometimes excoriated for not providing a systematic account of the journey of discovery undertaken, the voyage towards the other that is also a reckoning of the self. The distance physically traveled seems to be inversely proportional to the degree of self-awareness, as in the grand colonial narratives of the discovery of the ‘Orient,’ and directly linked to the idea that the ‘Other’ lies there as a blank slate or a tablet to be inscribed with the narrative of the traveler’s voyage. The problem is more acute for lands that have complex histories of travel and self-representation themselves, which have to be ‘forgotten’ to allow the visitor his or her unique experience. Yet these societies often contain historical agents who take up the task of social definition, and travel can be fundamentally implicated in the process. A case in point is a fascinating document from 17th-century Mughal India, a Zoroastrian encyclopedia of religions entitled the Dabistan-i-Mazahib (The School of Religions). The author, Mubad Shah, held a double identity: one Muslim (public) and one Zoroastrian (secret), a common protective camouflage adopted to gather ethnographic information while avoiding persecution. A study of his strategies of interpretation—naming, describing, classifying, judging, translating, anthologizing, and polemicizing—should allow us to displace simplistic notions of religious tolerance as characteristic of the Mughal period, showing how hierarchies of judgment, taxonomy, and exclusion coexist uneasily with a surface ecumenicism that has too easily been accepted by modern historians of religion.