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Mohan Lal, the Hindu spy who traversed the Central Asian region.


Mohan Lal Zutshi (popularly known as Mohan Lal Kashmiri; 1812 – 1877) or Ram Nath was an Indian Hindu traveller, diplomat, and author.


He played a central role in the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838–1842. His biography of Dost Mohammad Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan in Kabul, is a primary source on the war. As part of his job, he travelled to a plethora of countries and in this case, #Afghanistan
He travelled to Afghanistan and Central Asia in 1832-34 with Alexander ‘Bukhara’ Burnes on a mission given by the East India Company to gain intelligence about the country. His proficiency of Persian (Farsi) assisted in this venture.
According to him, the Dakka village at the bank of river Kabul was surrounded by mountains and had soil fit for agriculture. The village had a fountain which had plenty of fish. Mohan Lal writes that for the past two months, two to three people were dying every day due to fever.
The people were Afghans (Pashtuns) and spoke Pashto but treated the Hindus badly who had seven houses in the village. He also visited a Hindu temple with a magnificent building dedicated to Gorakh Nath which was full of pigeons in Jalalabad.
The houses in the town were constructed with mud and unburnt bricks but were durable. There were 2,000 Hindus in Kabul and ‘many of them are the first inhabitants of Kabul’. The Hindus had large families and were ‘allowed all the privileges of their religion’.
Hindus had painted foreheads and were distinguished by their robes. The Hindu shops were spread over all the streets and bazaars. Next, he travelled to Bamiyan and did have an interesting take on the buddha rock cut statues.
Interestingly, he mentions that the Pandava brothers, immortalised in the Hindu epic Shri #Mahabharata, visited Bamiyan.
He writes that near the great statue was the mark of a horse’s hooves. The Hindus stated that it was the print of Arjun’s (one of the Pandavas) horse while the Muslims considered it to be that of Ali’s (first Imam and 4th Caliph of Islam).
Being the gentleman he was, he writes that no history would favour the Hindu account (due to lack of writing) but that the ‘tradition speaks in favour of both accounts’.
Haibak (Samangan Province) belonged to Mir Mohammad Murad Beg and the river watered the numerous gardens which gives the country a very striking picture’. The caravans of Bukhara and Kabul passed through this region and were required to pay heavy duties.
The market was held on Mondays. The Hindus were mostly shopkeepers, spoke Persian and looked very much like the Muslims.
Mohan Lal visited the bazaar on the market-day in Khulm city. There were no proper shops but irregular places which were roofed with mats and wood, not capable of withstanding the rain.
Majority of the shopkeepers were cloth traders. They were generally Muslims with some Hindus as well. Mohan Lal mentions a slave boy ‘who had a beautiful face’ bought by a Hindu banker. The banker loved him like his own son and the boy was well clothed.
The boy’s pocket I was filled with coins to buy whatever he liked and the banker ‘diverted him with playful acts’. The bazaar of Balkh had been described as though broad, is irregularly roofed with rafters, bay, and mud’.
The bazaar opened on Tuesdays only and rest of the days the shops remained closed! One hell of a bazaar I must say. All the shopkeepers were Muslims and the Hindus lived in serais (inns). The Muslims in the city of Bokhara were not allowed to smoke but the Hindus could smoke in the caravanserai. There were about 3,000 Jews in the city and Mohan Lal appreciated their features and wrote that they looked ‘half Scottish’. The Hindus and Jews wore a cloak and skin cap to distinguish them from the Muslims.
There were a number of restrictions on the Hindus and Jews who were not allowed to mount on horseback, tie a turban, cloth or shawl around their waist. In contrast the market in #Herat was open on Friday and all bargains were managed by twenty Hindu merchants only.
Both Burnes and Ram Math turned to #Persia then, their mission demanded it. While in Mashhad, they received a letter from John Campell, the British Ambassador to the court of Persia in Tehran that Hindu merchants in Mashhad and Kabul have been asked to supply them with money.
Mohan Lal refers to an interesting story of a bridge called Tirpul built by a benevolent Hindu by the name of Tirat during the reign of Shah Abbas of Iran. Tirat had also built a serai which was occupe by some soldiers when visited by him.
The Shah who constructed many inns throughout the country was made aware of Tirat and his charity, so he sent message to Tirat to receive the money he had spent on the bridge. Tirat refused and said, ‘My money is the product of labour and yours is of tyranny’.
The ruler was furious upon which Tirat requested that he would submit to the command of the Shah but he would like to visit the bridge with the Shah Tirat and Shah Abbas came to the bridge and stayed there for a long time.
Then Tirat told the Shah that he was a dealer in those things which would eternal happiness in the time to come, and then threw himself into the river’. Everyone, including the Muslims, remembers the benevolence of Tirat and blesses him.
He writes that this place was twenty miles from Kosan (Kashan). On the way to Kabul from Kandahar Mohan Lal came to a small hamlet, named Khail-i-Akhund. He saw a Hindu making his bread, and greeted him saying, Ram Ram (Hindu salutation).
The Hindu was very surprised to hear this as Mohan Lal was dressed in Afghan (Pashtun) attire. Mohan Lal then came to a large village called Qilah Jumah (25 miles from Kandahar). Here, he met a Sikh who could not make out if Mohan Lal was a Hindu or Muslim.
But following the conversation on religious topics the Sikh was convinced that Mohan Lal was a Hindu. Prof. H.R. Gupta writes that Mohan Lal faced a lot of problems from fellow Brahmins who disassociated with him as he had lived in Moslem countries for a long period of time.
He was perhaps one of the earliest Indian authors to write his memoirs in the English language. Mohan Lal’s wife, Hyderi Begum, was a Muslim scholar.
Source: Journal of a Tour through the Punjab, Afghanistan, Turkistan, to Balk, Bokhara, and Herat; and a Visit to Great Britain and Germany and Life and Work of Mohan Lal Kashmiri by Hari Ram Gupta.


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