Mohan Lal Kashmiri-A polymath and first Indian to be photographed

Abhiroop Sengupta Monday 27th February 2023 06:22 EST

Long long time ago, at a time when the world was a different place a man from India desired an adventurous life. He was born a commoner, but he longed for a life which was not. As a child he probably aspired to be a spy, an explorer, a statesman, an author and a forerunner of female education and last but not least probably the first Indian ever to be photographed. In the pages of history, he became known as Mohan Lal Kashmiri. 

The Beginning 

Mohan Lal Zutshi was born in the year 1812 in a Kashmiri Pandit family in Delhi belonging to the Zutshi sub-caste. His ancestors had served the Mughal court after their relocation to Delhi from Kashmir and in the course of generations had made and lost their fortune. Thus, Mohan Lal in his early years was psychologically influenced by the turn of events and the tales of the past. A golden opportunity came in his life when the Persian College at Delhi was restored and eventually, the Delhi English College came into existence as a part of the earlier-founded institution. It was here that young Mohan Lal under the encouragement of his father Rai Brahm Nath also known as Budh Singh received his education comprising of both Western and Eastern influences. There he made a great friend in a person named C.E Trevelyan who always motivated Mohan Lal. Among Mohan Lal's tutors was the great orientalist James Prinsep and because of being admired by the management of his college, he soon received his first job of being an Assistant-Teacher.   

Spy, Traveler, Explorer, Language and Intelligence Expert 

Fate often acts in strange ways and so it did for Mohan Lal. A chance encounter with Sir Alexander Burnes, who was on the lookout for a Persian Munshi/Translator, led to the young Mohan Lal finding handsome and prestigious employment. Thus, on the 21st of December, 1831 he set out on the first of his travels which eventually shaped him into the person he became. During the course of this journey through Central Asia during The Great Game period which involved a period of a tussle between the British Empire & Russian Empire over Afghanistan and nearby regions, Mohan Lal went on to experience history, unlike anyone. From enjoying the hospitality of Ranjit Singh in tents decorated with French satin and Kashmiri carpets to fighting for dear life and seeing the assassination of Sir Burnes himself as he and his former employer got involved in the politics involving Dost Mohammed Khan and Shah Shuja. Mohan Lal went on to serve as a Commercial Agent for the British and his intellectual contributions during the First Anglo-Afghan War were beyond praiseworthy. He even often worked as a negotiator on crucial occasions and was known for his kind attitude towards women. This was further evident by his upbringing of his daughter, whom he had the courage to educate in England (thus becoming the first Indian lady to do so).   

Foreign Visits  

Mohan Lal travelled to Britain and Europe via Africa in 1844. During this journey, he met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and even the King of Prussia. He also travelled to Belgium. He lectured in many places, made valuable connections but was probably not granted something he might have really treasured and that being a knighthood, which was then technically possible as it was already bestowed on an Indian, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy in 1842. This might have further fueled his desire to visit England as Mohan Lal would often style himself as Mohan Lal, Esquire. This showed a psychological tendency in him of being an Anglophile. It was around this time that he unknowingly created history. That being the First Indian ever to be photographed when his 'calotype' photograph was taken by the Hill & Adamson photographer pair.  Mohan Lal also authored around half a dozen books and as a devoted diarist maintained a now-lost collection of diaries. Because of his travels, education, place of birth and family background, it should be noted that Mohan Lal was probably also a polyglot. But in spite of all his skills this erudite polyglot & polymath was forced to retire at the age of thirty-two. Had he been born thirty years later, he would have probably become one of the highest-ranking Indian Civil Service officers but as fate had decided, his end was lost in obscurity as he died a probably dejected soul in Delhi in 1877. He had married a woman named Hyderi Begum in his forties and even had children who survived him. The fact that his honours included being conferred the Order of the Durrani Empire by the Emir of Afghanistan, being made a Knight of the Persian Order of the Lion and Son by the Prince Royal of Persia, being presented a Robe of Honour by Maharaja of Punjab and Turban with jewels by the King of Delhi alongside having earned the respect of European royals and much later even of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, prove that his life in the pages of history was in reality not obscure at all. 

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