The temperature soared past 110 degrees as the bus tumbled down the highway in rural Rajasthan, India. It was an hour into our trip from the urban center of Jaipur to the small desert outpost of Tonk, incidentally the location of a library and archive housing Arabic and Persian manuscripts written in India during the medieval and early modern periods. My friend and fellow researcher, Amanda, and I looked at each other as the bus lurched over a pothole and kicked up a cloud of dust that wafted through the open windows. “Really though, why doesn’t Tonk have a railway station?” we wondered aloud to each other, laughing and then quickly redirecting our attention to the front, as we were both prone to bus sickness.
The Indian railway system connects some of the remotest towns of the subcontinent to one another and to India’s major cities. Despite frequent delays, it is a comfortable, efficient, and generally affordable way to travel: before going anywhere any India, one almost always checks to see if rail tickets are available. Unfortunately for our purposes, however, the town of Tonk, located in the middle of an expansive desert, happened to be one of the few towns of comparable size in India that could not boast a railway station! If we wanted to explore the treasures of the town’s research institute, an oft looked-over destination by visiting historians, our only option was to catch a local bus in Jaipur and hope that it dropped us off where we needed to be. The prospect seemed daunting, especially in the heat of summer, but we felt reassured by each other’s presence and resolved to set out for Tonk early on a June morning.
Tonk, the former seat of a princely state led by the descendants of Afghan adventurers, was not the first stop in my travels across north India in search of Persian manuscripts. In the preceding months, my work had led to me to libraries from Delhi to Calcutta, the foothills of the Himalayas to an ancient town on the banks of the river Ganga. All of these travels were necessitated by my doctoral dissertation, which documents and attempts to understand the phenomenon of Afghan mobility in early modern India. It is for this reason that I traveled to India after completing my qualifying exams, and why I remained mostly on the move throughout my nine months of research in the country.
Luckily for the purposes of my work, the Afghans who made their way and settled across the Indian subcontinent between the 15th and 18th centuries left a dense paper trail. Through richly detailed genealogies and histories, they gave depth and nuance to what it meant to be an “Afghan” for the first time in history. These kinds of works proliferated as Afghans met with success across South Asia, where they became enmeshed in the fabric of local life and left a lasting mark on settlements that exist to this day. One of these places was Tonk, a town that still maintains a memory of the Afghans of the past, and whose small archive—I hoped—might contain some fragments of that past that would prove useful to my research.
A few hours after departing Jaipur, the bus carrying Amanda and I chugged into the central bus station of Tonk. We dropped off our belongings at a local hotel and made our way on foot to where we believed the archive was located. To our pleasant surprise, Google Maps had actually pinned the institute at the correct location. When we at last spotted the faint outlines of the Arabic script on a sign perched outside of an old and regal building, we gasped with excitement. The lawn was empty, but the doors were open, so we stepped inside to the cool shade of the front lobby.
Working in an Indian archive almost always involves some amount of time spent introducing oneself and getting to know the staff on a personal basis. While this can be a welcome break from the cold formalities of archives located elsewhere, it can also produce a great deal of anxiety prior to visiting a new space. How will I be perceived by the archivists, and how might this impact my ability to complete my work? Will I be seen as a serious scholar, or woefully unprepared for the task? My stomach lurched as we walked towards the office, and I began rehearsing in my head how I might introduce myself.
When we met the people inside, my anxiety was quickly replaced by a surge of gratitude. After briefly introducing ourselves and our topics, Amanda and I were seated and helped to the archive’s catalogues. Although the room was stiflingly hot—the archive had no air conditioning units, and the few fans creaking overhead did little to dissipate the heat—this seemed to be no hindrance to the Tonk librarians. Within a moment, they helped us locate the manuscripts we needed, and even scooped us up for a tour of areas of the institute that were off limits to most visitors. This included a glimpse of some of the archive’s rarest and most precious manuscripts, as well as a look through a giant hand-painted Quran (purported to be the largest handmade Quran in the world), the work of local calligraphers and the pride of the institute. We spent the next few days leafing through books and manuscripts, and left with our arms laden with copies of the institute’s published works.
While in Tonk, Amanda and I had asked several people why the town has no railway station. “It is peaceful here and we like it that way,” was almost always the response. Whatever the case, I think that the effort that it took to make it to Tonk in the summer, not to mention the remarkably kind reception we received, made the visit all the more special.
Nicole Ferreira is a fifth-year PhD student in the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies. Her academic interests include the history of Islam in South Asia, the Indo-Afghan experience, and the Persian language. When not working, she can be found tinkering with musical instruments and baking cornbread.