A Murder that Unearthed a Second-Century Sanskrit Manuscript: Episode 1

A Murder that Unearthed a Second-Century Sanskrit Manuscript: Episode 1

How the brutal murder of a 19th century British trader led to the unlikely discovery of a valuable 2nd century Sanskrit Manuscript.

— 1 — 

WHAT BEGAN AS AN ARGUMENT between two businessmen led to the murder of one of them and launched a manhunt against the murderer and culminated in the accidental discovery of a 2nd Century CE Sanskrit manuscript that rattled the world of Indology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The story begins with the British explorer, tea-planter and diplomat Robert Barkley Shaw who established the Central Asian Trading Company in 1873 to trade primarily in Indian tea.

In 1869, he had ventured into the badlands of Yarkand (now Yarkant County, China) scouting for business prospects. This hostile territory in the Pamir mountains was still unmapped. He, along with his business rival, George Hayward were the first Britons to land there. 

Barkley Shaw had done his homework quite extensively. Yarkand fell under the dominion of Kashgar, the ancient and flourishing international trading post on the Silk Road. Both places were in the grip of the tyrannical Uzbek Muslim warlord named Yaqub Beg. Shaw knew that he had to appease him to obtain permission to trade. And so, he sent expensive gifts to Beg. The lure worked and Shaw found himself in Yaqub Beg’s palace and in his presence on January 11, 1869. After exchanging cordialities, Shaw made his offer: allow me to open a trading post in your territory and I can guarantee you a handsome revenue from Indian tea. There are sixty million potential customers in the Kashgar region alone. A delighted Yaqub Beg accepted it but put Barkley Shaw and George Hayward under house arrest.

What both Englishmen didn’t know was that they had been inadvertently drawn into the infamous Great Game fought between Russia and England for the control of Central Asia. After a few weeks, Yaqub Beg met them and told a flummoxed Shaw, “I declare you as my brother.” There was an existential reason for this. Behind the scenes, Yaqub had received confirmed intelligence that the Russians were plotting his assassination. He therefore needed support from the Queen of England and the “Lord Sahib,” — the Viceroy of India. The support was granted but Yaqub also wanted something in return as we shall see.   

From 1873 onwards, the Central Asian Trading Company prospered on a vast scale, controlling trade in Indian tea and other products in the trans-Karakoram region. Ladakh and Leh were transformed into lucrative trading outposts.  

— 2 — 

ANDREW DALGLEISH HAD TURNED TWENTY IN 1874. A Scot from humble origins, he had come to India at the behest and encouragement of his uncle, a bureaucrat named Thomas Russell. 

That year, he found himself in a luxurious bungalow at Kashmiri Point, Murree, now in Pakistan. Murree, the birthplace of the genocidal maniac, General Dyer. 

Andrew Dalgleish had just received a magnificent offer from Barkley Shaw: would he like to be a trader in the Central Asian Trading Company operating from Leh-Ladakh? Once more, his uncle’s encouragement sealed the boy’s decision. Thomas Russell was a pragmatic man. He said, “accept the offer. Men of of our station in life don’t often get opportunities like this.” 

But the young Andrew proved even more pragmatic when he replied, “If the Central Asian Trading Company is as successful as the East India Company, then 1874 should be a prosperous year for us.”

His maiden assignment included transporting a sizeable cargo comprising several large iron trunks and other boxes to Chinese Turkistan — Yarmand and Kashgar, Yaqub Beg’s territory. The caravan included thirty men and twenty ponies. And fifteen sheep — to be slaughtered and eaten over the course of the month-long journey. 

The finest quality of Manchester cotton was a big chunk of the freight. But the contents of the iron trunks were of immense diplomatic and political value: rifles. This was what Yaqub Beg had demanded from the British in return for permitting the Central Asian Trading Company to open their shop in his dominions. 

Barkley Shaw and Lieutenant Hopkirk would lead the expedition from the front. Both were heavily armed. Shaw safeguarded the keys to the rifle-laden trunks while Hopkirk manned the ammunition just in case they encountered the “Himalayan bandits who will murder for rifles.” 

The expedition was not only successful but it proved to be a career-maker for  Dalgleish.  

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— 3 — 

ANDREW DALGLEISH PRETTY MUCH SETTLED DOWN in the general region of Ladakh, Leh and the Karakoram Pass. He became somewhat of a local, mastering the Uyghur language and marrying a Yarkandi girl. He travelled nonstop and became a favourite companion of travellers and merchants and game hunters. Dalgleish knew the whole area like the back of his hand. 

Business was booming and he was making caravan-loads of money. One of his business associates was a volatile Pathan named Daud Mohammed Khan, well-known for operating on the trade route between Yarkand and Ladakh. Their association turned to close friendship. What Dalgleish did not know was that Daud had a torrid reputation as a smuggler and a crook. 

As was his wont, Dalgleish once took off on a long expedition to Tibet. Which was when Daud revealed his real colours. He neglected his business and indulged in all sorts of vices. His ponies perished and it wasn’t long before he became bankrupt. He began borrowing indiscriminately from Hindu moneylenders and when they finally landed on his doorstep, he threatened them. In turn, they complained to the British Commissioner at Leh. The Commissioner forbade Daud from trading on the Yarkand-Leh road until he had cleared his dues.

When Dalgleish returned and saw Daud’s fate, he took pity on him and decided to help his fallen friend. In May 1888, Dalgleish departed from Leh and travelled towards Yarkand along with some pilgrims and servants. En route, he wrote to Daud asking him to join his caravan. A few days later, Daud met Dalgleish at some distance after the Karakoram Pass where tents had been pitched to take rest. 

There are slight variations regarding the episode that follows but the overall picture is clear. 

Over tea, Dalgleish and Daud had a discussion over Daud’s debts. For a long time, Daud said nothing, and then he walked out of the tent, returned with a rifle and shot into the tent. The bullet wounded Dalgleish’s shoulder, and as he ran out to escape, Daud chased him with a deadly sword and butchered him. 

Daud Mohammed Khan had become completely unhinged. Instead of escaping, he ordered the stunned and cowering servants to prepare a meal for him. After devouring it, he slept soundly in Dalgleish’s tent and left the place the next day.

When news of this ghastly murder reached the British community in Yarkand, a wave of outrage erupted. Dalgleish had to be avenged at all costs and the British Raj was only too glad to oblige. The entire Government machinery launched a massive manhunt for Daud Mohammed and announced a substantial bounty for his capture. Imperial Britain’s prestige was at stake. Messages and letters and other forms of correspondence flew thick and fast. 

One such communiqué landed on the desk of a Lieutenant stationed in Kashgar. His name was Hamilton Bower.  

What happened next will be narrated in the next episode. 

To be continued 

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