The Delhi Collection

17th century copy of the collected works of Mulla Shah Badakhshi (Delhi Persian 1420)
17th century copy of the collected works of Mulla Shah Badakhshi (Delhi Persian 1420)

The Delhi collection consists of over 3,500 volumes of manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and miscellaneous languages collected from Delhi in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857.

About the collection

The Delhi collection as we have it today, consists of approximately 1957 volumes of Arabic manuscripts, 1550 Persian, 157 Urdu and a small number of volumes in other languages. These represent what was collected by the Delhi Prize Agents acting on behalf of the British army in the aftermath of the Indian rebellion of 1857. Thought to consist primarily of what remained in 1858 of the Mughal Imperial Library, recent scholarship has shown that it also included smaller collections which were confiscated by the British at the time.

While the Arabic manuscripts are predominantly works in the fields of traditional Islamic studies, the Persian collection is especially strong in Sufism, poetry, history and biography. The collection’s unique importance, however, lies in the fact that it remains a record of one of the greatest libraries known to have existed, giving a ‘snapshot’ view of cultural and intellectual life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although the majority of manuscripts date from that period, there are also many examples of earlier volumes.

Highlights include a copy of Sulṭān Valad's Ibtidānamah dated 697/1298, said in a note by the Mughal prince Dārā Shikoh to be an autograph copy (Delhi Persian 1263); al-Kashshāf, a commentary on the Qurʻān by al-Zamakhsharī, dating from the 14th century (Delhi Arabic 56); a copy of the poetical works in Chaghatai Turki of Sulṭān Ḥusayn Bāyqarā and the Mughal Emperor Bābur, dated 1190 /1776 (Delhi Persian 1402) and an anthology of poetry by the last Mughal Emperor Bahādur Shāh Ẓafar (Delhi Persian 86).

The entire collection of manuscripts, estimated at 4,700 volumes, was acquired by the Government of India in 1859 at a sale organized by the Delhi Prize Agents and was transferred to Calcutta. In 1867 a second sale was held at which 1,120 less valuable items were sold. The remainder had been intended for the newly completed Indian Museum in Calcutta but instead was eventually transferred to the India Office Library, London, in 1876.

What is available online?

Several Delhi Arabic manuscripts have been digitised as part of the Qatar Digital Library Project.

Detailed descriptions of a number of Delhi Arabic manuscripts are available in our online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts.There are also draft unpublished catalogue descriptions of Arabic and Persian manuscripts by R. Levy (1891-1966), C. A. Storey (1888-1967) and A.J. Arberry which are available online. We are currently working towards cataloguing the whole Delhi collection online, and we also contribute data to FIHRIST, a searchable interface to basic manuscript descriptions from the major Arabic script manuscript collections in the UK. However, for the time being details of many works are only available in printed catalogues and handlists. For further guidance see Find Persian Manuscripts  and Find Arabic manuscripts.

Manuscripts in the Delhi collection feature regularly in our Asian and African Studies and Collection Care blogs.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Most of the Delhi Collection can be consulted in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room. Some especially valuable or fragile material is restricted and available only in exceptional circumstances. Self-service photography is allowed for certain categories of material, provided that its condition allows this.

Further information

The following additional handlists are helpful though they should not be regarded as completely reliable:

  • Bilgrami, S. A. Catalogue of the Persian Delhi manuscripts. A photocopy of a typescript belonging to the Royal Asiatic Society (apply to reference staff)
  • Hand-list of Persian manuscripts in the Delhi Collection. A listing made in Calcutta under the supervision of H. Blochmann some time after 1869 (IO Islamic 4601-4603 )
  • Hand-list of Arabic manuscripts in the Delhi Collection. A similar list of Arabic MSS (IO Islamic 4604-4606)
  • Abstract and index of the Arabic and Persian manuscripts in the Delhi Collection. A title index abstracted from the previous two works (IO Islamic 4609)

Further reading:

  • Arberry, Arthur John, The India Office Library: a historical sketch (London, 1938; reprint 1967), pp. 84-5
  • Arberry, Arthur John,  Notes on the History of the Delhi collection
  • Sobers-Khan, Nur, “Muslim scribal culture in India around 1800: towards a disentangling of the Mughal Library and the Delhi Collection.” In C. D. Bahl and S. Hanß (eds.), Scribal Practice and the Global Cultures of Colophons, 1400–1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), pp.197-218