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Dr. Mohammed Irfann, 54, an archivist in the Oriental Records Division of the National Archives of India, holds up a document from the Inayat Jang Collection in the National Archives of India, at Janpath, New Delhi, India on 11th June 2012. The Inayat Jang Collection is a rich collection of Official Mughal Documents from the times of Emperor Aurangzeb (starting in 1658) to Emperor Shah Alam II (ending 1774) and documents the day-to-day accounts and revenue figures.

Suzanne Lee/Photo by Suzanne Lee

Irritated Indians often blame their nation's vast, paper-loving bureaucracy on the British, the tedious legacy of a colonial authority that loved to count, sort, label and keep records on the subjects in its dominion.

But Mohammed Irfann knows the truth. Hundreds of years before the colonizers came, Indians were counting, sorting and filing with a precision that the British could only hope to envy.

They went deh-be-dehi, or village-by-village, he said in the mellifluous Persian of the Moghul Empire, and they made meticulous lists of everything from castes to trees.

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Dr. Irfann, archivist in the Oriental Division of the Indian National Archives, understands how monumental a task that was. He is near the end of more than 25 years of work cataloging a trove of 137,000 Moghul documents, known as the Inayat Jang Collection.

They are a historical treasure trove, a jewel in the collection of the national archives, and they are finally in the public domain.

But such is the state of the archives that the collection is housed in 400 crumbling boxes in a dust-choked room off a warren of abandoned hallways, almost unknown to anyone but the four men who can still read 16th century bureaucrat's Persian script and who have spent their professional lives deciphering the collection.

The documents were found in an old fort in Andhra Pradesh in south India and purchased by the archives in 1961. The earliest are from 1658 and they run up to 1774. Many are farman, or imperial orders – the Emperor Aurangzeb, for example, buying elephants and camels to wage a military campaign, allotting land to a loyal subject, hiring civil servants and collecting taxes.

"It is very often argued that the institution of archiving began with the British – the authority keeping a record of their activities – but here is such a large collection of documents which are essentially archival," said Mushirul Hasan, director of the National Archives. The Moghuls, descendants of Genghis Khan, controlled the subcontinent for nearly 300 years. They nurtured arts and literature as well as waging war, and left a staggering legacy in India that includes the Taj Mahal and other monuments.

The documents have the potential to make a significant contribution to the understanding of a historical period of which knowledge to date has been limited. "These archives will help a great deal in understanding the decline of the Moghul Empire," Prof. Hasan said.

They show, for example, the difference in assessed and actual productivity of land, which offers insight into the empire's agriculture and financial forecasting, he added. The records also show the rise of urban centres and shifting populations. "Their historical value is potentially immense."

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However, someone is going to need to be able to read them. While a group of about 15 scholars was involved when the cataloguing of the collection began in 1961, today there are just four left who can read them.

Dr. Irfann, 54, attended school in Persian as a boy in Delhi, which wasn't unusual for Muslims at the time, and spoke Urdu at home – Urdu is a mash-up of Persian, Sanskrit, and Arabic. He earned a doctorate in Persian literature. But today his own son speaks and studies in English, and his department has had so many posts for Persian scholars vacant for so long that the government has simply abolished them.

"It's been 20 years since anyone new came here," he said. "We are trying to get people – if they come we'll train them – but nobody is interested. There are only a few persons in India who can read the Persian. Here we are just four persons, and how much can we do? We have these documents but they're in a dying script. It's a very depressing phenomenon."

The Archives and Research Institute in Hyderabad, which has the world's largest repository of documents from mediaeval medieval and near-modern documents, has the same problem: no one on its staff who can read them. Many of the Inayat Jang documents are bilingual in Persian and local languages such as Kanada and Telugu; the archives advertised widely for someone to translate them, but the few candidates who came could not decipher the historical script.

While archives like the Inayat Jang were likely kept for the entire Moghul Empire, most of those have been lost or scattered, and this collection is extraordinary in its completeness, Dr. Irfann said. The Noor International Microfilm Centre, an initiative funded by the government of Iran, is aiding Dr. Irfann's team to digitize the collection, which will soon be available online – in the s Shikasta original and a one-line English translation.

Dr. Irfann, a short man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, lights up when he describes the lists in the collection: "We were surprised – they show the number of villages, number of people, how they are irrigating, number of trees, what caste, what crops, how many cows, how many buffalo, is there a mountain, is there a river, a drain, how many wells. These are very local level details."

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The lonely work of the Oriental team, working in a corridor flanked on all sides by heaps of document boxes so caked in dust that their labels are totally obscured, is emblematic of the overall condition of the National Archives, which Prof. Hasan, the recently installed director, frankly assesses as "appalling."

On the ground floor, there are marble-floored, well-lit wings that house papers pertaining to the Nehru and Gandhi families and the fight for independence. But one floor up, the windows are broken, exposing papers to fierce humidity and to temperatures near 50 degrees Celsius, not to mention house-hunting pigeons and the odd monkey. The archives are staffed mostly by life-long bureaucrats with no particular historical skill or interest, and have no political constituency in a government beset by demands for funds.

Dr. Irfann dreams of seeing the Inayat Jang collection fully translated to English, so that the documents are not effectively lost when the last Persian speakers go: "But that won't be in my lifetime." Four years ago he experienced double kidney failure and has to undergo dialysis three days a week.

"It's a luxury, reading these documents – going down memory lane and knowing the personal details of this era. I admire them," he said of the Moghuls. "Their system of government became our system of government, the things we eat are what they ate. They brought so many things here."

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