Islam Akhun: The Great Central Asian Forger || LIVE IMAGE

 


‘Once Islam Akhun; always Islam Akhun' is a well-known adage in the Central Asian expeditions parlance. Given by non-other than the Sir Marc Aruel Stein, whose keen Kashmir trained, honed eyes caught his forgery, after decades of fraud. Islam Akhun was a Uyghur conman from Khotan, a semi illiterate who hardly ventured out of his village and nearby habitations in the obscure areas of Khotan in Central Asia, a vast desert. He was an unsurpassed evil genius the world has not seen or known another like him when it comes to forgeries of artefacts and manuscripts. He took to ride not one but dozen of Masters who had earned name and fame through years of research in the fields of archaeology, manuscript studies. But Fate brings strangers to bed, an expression often used in a political context and hardly ever employed in the annals of Intellectual discourse. However, Islam Akhun’s forged artefacts and manuscripts find place in a reputed museum that is none other than one of the best in the world, the reputed British Museum. Perhaps his forgeries appear too good to be taken as genuine and hence works of the forger par excellent could not be ignored and thus avoided not to be kept by the side of genuine ones .Islam Akhun forged numerous manuscripts and printed documents and sold them as ancient Silk Road antiquities. He started his career by collecting coins, seals, and similar antiques from Khotan villagers. It was the accidental discovery of the “Bower manuscript,” the 5th century medical treatise in Sanskrit. That initiated a race for discovery of manuscripts in the area. Until then manuscripts from Central Asia were virtually unknown. As a result an "international race for the ancient Buddhist treasures of the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts" began. This race involved archaeologists from seven nations including Britain, Russia, Germany, France and Japan and lasted over a quarter of a century. The imperial powers of the time sponsored archaeological expeditions to Central Asia, Such texts had become much sought after between1895 and 1898. Afghan traders spoke of the price that was being given for manuscripts. This promoted Islam Akhun to make them himself in preference to the hazardous business of scouring the desert for ancient sites while dealing in collecting and selling coins, seals, and similar antiquities. Had acquired sufficient knowledge about them which drove him to make a fortune by forging the manuscripts and artifices. He was very well aware in a mad rush to acquire these before any one other getting them and that was the motivating factor. Whatever was presented in that inaccessible, inhospitable vast desert .where very few avenues to test genuineness were available caused the forged ones to pass as real ones. Islam Akhun’s collaborators were Muhammad Tari, Mulla Muhammad Siddiq, and Ibrahim Mullah, who apparently specialized in the Russian. The sheets of modern Khotan paper were first dyed yellow or light brown by means of ‘Toghrugha’, a product of the Toghrak (or Toghraq) tree, which, when dissolved in water, gave a staining fluid. ‘Toghraq’ is the Uygur name for the black poplar tree (Populuseuphratica Oliv., Populus diversifolia Schrenk, Huyang in Chinese) and ‘Toghrugha’ refers to its sap. When the bark is cut the sap flows and forms into lumps. This has traditionally been used by the Uygurs as baking soda in cooking and in soap making, and is listed as a medicine in Uygur and Chinese materia medica, but its use as a dye was also known. Professor Emeritus in Bio-Organic and Protein Chemistry at Boston University, Professor Laursen reports that there is also some evidence that the leaves are used to prepare a yellow dye, as chromatography profiles of extracts of textiles from Cherchen and Loulan are similar to those from a related poplar tree from the region,. They did however produce a dark liquid that could have been used, like tea, to stain the paper brown. The first manuscript they produced was sold by Islam Akhun in 1895 to Munshi Ahmad Din, Assistant-Resident’s office at Kashgar. It was written by hand, and an attempt had been made to imitate the Brahmi characters found in a genuine, probably Khotanese, manuscript from Dandan Uiliq .Since, however, at this time, none of the Europeans could read these scripts, the forgers soon realized that it was unnecessary to bother with imitating genuine manuscripts. Thus each individual freely invented his own characters, as is shown by the diversity of different scripts which were based loosely on Brahmi, Aramaic, Uighur, Cyrillic, Arabic, and Chinese.


Sims-Williams who was temporarily in charge of the Islam Akhun’s ingenuity informs us of the methodology employed evident not only from the forgeries themselves, but also from the elaborate details he supplied regarding the provenance and circumstances of each find. His descriptions were passed on with the manuscripts and block prints for decipherment to Calcutta (Keriya Stein 1903, pp. 472-73), where he blackmailed hill-men while masquerading as a British agent searching for illegal slaves. His credentials were two large sheets of a Swedish newspaper, the Svenska Morgonbladet, one of which contained the photo of a Swedish missionary in China whom he claimed to be. During the winter of 1901 he practiced as a “hakim” in Chira near Keriya. His bizarre medical kit included several leaves of a French novel, which Stein suggested (1903, p.473) he might have read aloud as imaginary charms, or even administered in pieces for internal consumption! In 1900 Stein made a special point of trying to locate, without success, some of the sites Islam Akhun had mentioned in his reports (Stein, 1907, pp. 100-103). Before leaving Khotan in 1901 he spent several days interviewing him, and eventually extracted a full confession (Stein, 1903, pp. 469-81; 1907, pp. 507-14). When Islam Akhun asked Stein to let him accompany him to Europe, Stein refused, and nothing more is known of him after that. And Russia became intense rivals in acquiring manuscripts and other antiquities. Following the discovery of Bower manuscript in 1889, the Government of India and, when George Macartney (1867-1945), acting for the Government of India in Kashgar, and Nikolai Petrovsky (1837-1908), the Russian Consul, were offered material discovered at remote desert sites, they had little reason to suspect that some of them were not genuine. Islam Akhun supplied Macartney, Petrovsky, and several European travellers with a steady stream of books and manuscripts. That so far remain unsurpassed in the history of forgery in artefacts and ancient manuscripts. Such was the cleanliness with which he executed forgeries that his dirty tricks of forgery could not be afforded to be ignored or avoided and as a result earned him a place under same roof along with genuine seekers of history in the British Museum. Call it fate, paradox or irony or whatever metaphor one may like to choose the forged artefacts and manuscripts from Central Asia passed for many years to be a genuine on which many did research for many years and wrote volumes on them. His forgeries are admired as “great forgeries". His collection has a special gallery in the British Museum. In a way forger Islam Akhun's collection is displayed alongside that of Stein and Hoernle. The great forger of many seasons for all the times Islam Akhun, cheated several legendary archaeologists that included MacCarteny, Petrovsky, Hedin etc; but one he fooled most was Rudolf Hoernle till Stein caught him to confession. But by the time Hoernle’s reputation was dented because he had even "read" some of the forgeries. Aurel Stein who ultimately caught him made him to reveal the process he adopted to forge manuscript. He in fact tracked him down and questioned about his manuscript forgeries which had been sold as genuine fragments to the Russian and British Consuls in Kashgar by him and his colleague for about a decade.
(The writer is a Jammu based environmentalist and a regular contributor to this Website.)

(Feedback at: blparimoo@gmail.com)


 By- Bushan Parimoo 

( the author is jammu based Environmentalist)

 

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