Letters about India: At the Afghan Frontier


James Darmesteter (1849‒94) was a great French Iranist who from 1885 occupied the chair of Persian language and literature at the Collège de France in Paris. His major fields of study were Iranian philology and the Zoroastrian religion. His greatest scholarly achievement was his translation of the Avesta, the surviving ancient sacred texts of the Zoroastrians. Darmesteter was also very interested in the language and history of Afghanistan. In 1886‒87 he undertook an 11-month philological mission to India, supported by the French Ministry of Education. He spent much of this time on the Northwest Frontier area of the Punjab, where he studied Pushto, not as a literary language from written texts but as a living language. Assisted by two local amanuenses, he transcribed the texts of songs as dictated by popular singers. Upon his return to Paris, Darmesteter published Chants populaires des Afghans (Popular songs of the Afghans), a collection of more than 100 songs in Pushto script, with annotated French translations. In 1888 Darmesteter also published an accompanying volume based on his travels on the Northwest Frontier, the work presented here: Lettres sur l’Inde: À la frontière afghane (Letters about India: At the Afghan frontier). The book contains short, literary chapters on Darmesteter’s journey; places such as Peshawar, Yagistan, Abbottabad, and Lahore; the Afghan dynasties and amirs; Afghan philosophy; the celebrated Afghan warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khatak (also seen as Khwushhal); and chapters that discuss the histories, culture, and contemporary situations of the Afridi, Baluchi, Ghilzai (or Ghilji), Pushtun, Hazara, and other peoples of Afghanistan and of present-day Pakistan.

Last updated: July 27, 2016