A Turkic Muslim Treasure-Hunter Sells an Ancient Sanskrit Manuscript to a Colonial British Colonel in China

At Kucha, now in Xinjiang, Colonel Hamilton Bower buys an ancient Sanskrit Manuscript from a Turkic Muslim treasure-hunter for a paltry sum and then brings it back to India.
Hamilton Bower
Hamilton BowerImage Source: Wikipedia

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— 4 —  

AT KASHGAR, LIEUTENANT HAMILTON BOWER received a serious communiqué from his imperial bosses at the British Government in India. It was a tersely-worded, urgent order: arrest Daud Mohammed Khan at all costs and bring him to India for trial; by murdering Andrew Dalgleish, Daud has directly challenged the might of the British Empire. Your mission has to be kept strictly confidential. 

The British Government had chosen Hamilton Bower for a forthright reason.  When we read between the lines, we can’t help but marvel at the intricacy and effectiveness of the well-oiled British intelligence network of that era. Hamilton Bower had been stationed at Kashgar but his bosses knew more intimately about the region and the developments therein than he did. 

Sometime in the recent past, Daud had harassed a Hindu merchant who obviously nursed an abiding grudge for this vile Pathan. And now, Daud had become a fugitive, fleeing from place to place. His flight led him to Kashgar. But instead of choosing caution, he began to openly gloat about his “heroic” slaughter of Dalgleish. This news reached the Hindu merchant. Seething with vengeance, he reported the matter to the British authorities who acted swiftly, and Hamilton Bower found himself reading the aforementioned communiqué.

However, Daud had proven swifter. By the time Bower took action, Daud had already decamped from Kashgar. He assembled some emissaries and intelligence agents and drew up an elaborate plan to track and arrest the murderer. Two agents went to Afghanistan and reached Balkh. There, the Amir named Abdur Rahman told them that Daud had run off to Bokhara.

On his part, Hamilton Bower had travelled eastwards before landing in the densely-populated and thriving commercial city of Kuchar (its contemporary names include Kucha, Kuche, Qiūcí, now in Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China). It was January or February 1890. Almost two years had passed and the accursed Daud Mohammed was still elusive. 

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— 5 — 

KUCHAR WOULD PROVE TO BE UNFORESEEN STAGE on which the script of an influential drama was discovered. However, this needs to be placed in a broader political and historical context. 

Ever since colonial European powers began rampaging across the globe on the strength of their technological and military prowess, a parallel development occurred its wake. This was the upsurge of interest in rediscovering and unearthing civilisational, cultural and archeological secrets of the Ancient World. From South America to (ancient) Egypt, from Arabia to India, freelance adventurers, explorers, historians, epigraphists and archeologists literally began to excavate the past. State-funded and private universities and academic and research institutions throughout Europe received fabulous financing to pursue inquiry in these subjects. 

The purpose behind these research endeavours was multi-pronged and depended on who funded them. 

Some endeavours were based purely on a disinterested quest for knowledge. Others were motivated by unquenchable greed — epic plunderers like Cecil Rhodes fall in this category. 

But topping this list was the colonial-imperial arrogance which sought to rewrite the history of the Ancient World from the (European) conqueror’s perspective: the world is at our feet because our race is intrinsically superior. The clearest and the most abundant proof for this racist mindset is found in the discipline of Indology. In fact, the term “Indology” itself reeks of racism. Right at the outset, adding the ”-logy” suffix made it inert.  “Indology” is defined as the study of India in an all-encompassing sense. However, in practice, it has always connoted the study of an entire civilisation and culture and philosophy and people as museum artefacts. Thus, even the Indian people — mostly Hindus — have been studied and examined as how a zoologist examines rats and frogs in a lab.

When we return to Hamilton Bower, we observe the fact that a parallel economy was flourishing at its peak for roughly about two centuries. This was the informal — and underground — global industry of trading in archeological artefacts, manuscripts, scrolls, and coins. 

India (in the sense of Brihad-Bharata) was home to the world’s largest repository of these artefacts. 

A complex kaleidoscope of actors populated this industry. Pitched battles were fought between tribes and bloody murders occurred to possess these artefacts. The sole goal of their possession: selling them to the White Man for lucrative prices. Almost every person in the societies conquered by the colonial European intuitively knew that the artefact he had accidentally discovered would fetch him a good sum or even a fortune. Uncountable numbers of impoverished nomads or villagers or artisans — mostly illiterate — were also armed with this intuitive knowledge. And they often sold the artefact for paltry sums. What is of mere academic or colonial interest for one is often the only means of survival for another. This is precisely what we notice in racist movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a thinly-veiled boast of the White Man’s Burden and Christian superiority.

— 6 — 

A TURKIC MUSLIM SOUGHT HAMILTON BOWER’s audience at Kuchar. He was a professional of the aforementioned underground artefact economy. But he primarily identified himself as a treasure-hunter. This is how Bower describes the meeting: 

While at Kuchar a man told me of the existence of an underground city, and said that he had gone there to dig for treasure a few days previously, but had only succeeded in finding what he called a book. I asked him to show it to me and he went away, and came back bringing the manuscript as it now is. He was anxious to sell it and I was very glad to pick up for a small sum what might prove of great value.

The same man offered to show me a subterranean town, provided I would go there in the middle of the night, as he was frightened of getting into trouble with the Chinese, if it was known that he had taken a European there. I readily agreed and we started off about midnight. The man produced me a packet of an old manuscript written on birch bark. They had been dug out of the curious old erections of which several are to be found in Kuchar District.” (Emphasis added)

Clearly, both the Turkic Muslim treasure-hunter and Hamilton Bower knew that they had something of value and concluded the trade on amicable terms. The former was happy with the sum, which he considered was substantial. For Bower, the sum was a trifling. He had enough knowledge and experience to understand that books and manuscripts cannot be valued with money.  


Oh, and before we proceed, there’s the unfinished business of Daud Mohammed Khan. 

Lieutenant Hamilton Bower was a patient man. He kept his eyes and ears open and was finally rewarded after a few months. One day, he received the good news. Daud had been imprisoned in Samarkhand. The news-bearers also narrated the full story. The characteristic recklessness of the mercurial Pathan had ultimately overwhelmed him. He was sitting on a large wooden box in the bazaar street in Samarkhand, once again, boasting about how he had murdered Dalgleish. Two   emissaries whom Bower had dispatched, spotted Daud. One of them quietly rushed off to General Kuropatkin, the Governor of Samarkhand. Within minutes, a small unit of Cossacks descended on the bazaar and shackled Daud Mohammed and threw him in prison. 

It appeared that the imperial British had had the last laugh. The Pathan scoundrel had been caught and now it was only a matter of formality to bring him back to India and hang him to death. However, two or three days later, Bower received another piece of news: Daud Mohammed Khan had hung himself in his cell. 

Reading the full story of how the British doggedly hunted down Daud and finally captured him is a study in the temperament of a nation that takes itself seriously. 


HAMILTON BOWER RETURNED TO INDIA in late 1890. He took the manuscript to Shimla and handed it over to J. Waterhouse, the then president of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. On November 5, 1890, Waterhouse placed it before the Society’s monthly meeting and read out Bower’s note explaining the circumstances of its discovery. The board members agreed that the manuscript was of immense value but there was a problem: at the moment, there was no scholar who could decipher it. 

The manuscript was named eponymously: The Bower Manuscript. Indeed, the nomenclature was characteristic of the colonial attitudes towards India. But its real name not only reveals its antiquity but is yet another proof of the extent and influence of the Sanatana civilisation in Brihad-Bharata: Navanītakaṁ.  

Its brief contents and and its inestimable value to the study of ancient India will be narrated in the next episode. 

To be continued     

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