Travels into Bokhara

Alexander Burnes


Travels into Bokhara

Alexander Burnes


At the age of only 26, Alexander Burnes made two dangerous journeys beyond the frontiers of the Indian Empire, and brought back descriptions of Sind, Afghanistan and the Khanates of Central Asia including the hithertoe inaccessible Bokhara. He travelled simply with an ear for languages, which he combined with a boyish charm, insatiable curiosity and irrepressible enthusiasm. His travels was a best-seller in its day and this brand new edition allows us to recapture the heady sense of excitement, risk and zeal of one of Britain’s most accomplished secret agents before his assassination in Kabul. 

‘Burnes is the most mesmerising British official and traveller of the nineteenth century. Everyone from Lawrence of Arabia to Thesiger was shaped by his example.’  - Rory Stewart
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Travels into Bokhara: A voyage up the Indus to Lahore and a journey to Cabool, Tartary and Persia in the years 1831–33
Edited by: Kathleen Hopkirk
Introduction & Epilogue: William Dalyrmple

ISBN: 978-1906011-71-0
Format: 240pp demi pb
Place: Pakistan, Afganistan, & Central Asia


Author Biography

Captain Sir Alexander Burnes, FRS (16 May 1805 – 2 November 1841) was a Scottish traveller and explorer who took part in The Great Game. He was nicknamed Bokhara Burnes for his role in establishing contact with and exploring Bukhara, which made his name.[1]


In the Spring of 1831, Sindhi villagers taking a morning walk along the banks of the Indus might have stumbled across a rather unusual sight: five huge dapple-grey Suffolk dray horses being punted peacefully upriver, in the company of a gilt velvet-lined state carriage. Floating past the crumbling remains of the former riverside camps of Alexander the Great, Hindu temples, Sufi shrines and Mughal fortresses, the five Suffolk drays munched their way up the Indus until they reached Lahore, the capital of the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh to whom the horses and carriage were being sent as diplomatic gifts. On the way, ‘the little English elephants’ caused a sensation among the horse-obsessed Punjabis who had never seen their like before: ‘For the first time,’ wrote their minder Alexander Burnes, a young Scottish officer in the service of the East India Company, ‘a dray horse was expected to gallop, canter and perform all the evolutions of the most agile animal.’

In the days that followed, the Suffolk drays and their minder were given a state reception. A guard of cavalry and a regiment of infantry were sent to meet them. ‘The coach, which was a handsome vehicle, headed the procession,’ wrote Burnes, ‘and in the rear of the dray horses we ourselves followed on elephants, with the officers of the maharajah. We passed close under the city walls and entered Lahore by the palace gate. The streets were lined with cavalry, artillery and infantry, all of which saluted as we passed. The concourse of people was immense; they had principally seated themselves on the balconies of houses, and preserved a most respectful silence.’

The British party was led across the courtyard of the old Mughal fort, and into the entrance of the great arcaded marble reception room, the Diwan-i-Khas. ‘Whilst stooping to remove my shoes,’ Burnes continued, ‘I suddenly found myself in the tight embrace of a diminutive, old-looking man.’ This was none other than Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab himself. Taking Burnes by the hand, he brought him into the court where ‘all of us were seated on silver chairs, in front of his Highness.’

The journey of Alexander Burnes up the Indus to Lahore, and then on to the then almost completely unknown Muslim emirates of Kabul and Bukhara, was one of the celebrated feats of Victorian travel and exploration, and later became the subject of one of the most famous travel books of the era – Burnes’s Travels into Bokhara. It was also one of the defining opening moves of the Great Game. For Burnes was not really travelling as a diplomat, or for pleasure, or even out of scholarly curiosity. He had been sent by the Governor General of India, who himself was acting on orders from Downing Street, as an East India Company spy. Burnes was in fact one the most effective intelligence agents of his generation.

Alexander Burnes was an energetic, ambitious and resourceful young Highland Scot, the son of the Provost of Montrose. He was fluent in Persian, Arabic and Hindustani, and had an enviably clear and lively prose style. Like many others who would play the Great Game after him, it was Burnes’s intelligence and above all his skill in languages that got him his promotion, and despite coming from a relatively modest background in a remote part of Eastern Scotland, he rose faster in the ranks than any of his richer and better-connected contemporaries. A small, broad-faced man, he had a high forehead, deeply inset eyes and a quizzical set to his mouth which hinted at both his enquiring nature and his sense of humour, something he shared with his cousin, the poet Robbie Burns.

His journey was part of a British plan to map the Indus and the passes of the Hindu Kush, and so gather intelligence on an increasingly crucial area of the world. Since seeing off Napoleon in 1812, the Russians had moved their frontier south and eastwards almost as fast as the East India Company had moved theirs north and westwards, and it was becoming increasingly evident that the two empires would at some point come into collision. British imperial strategists were beginning to fear that the armies of the Russian Empire were primed to march south through Central Asia to capture Afghanistan, before moving in for the checkmate: to wrest India from Britain. Lord Ellenborough, the hawkish President of the Company’s Board of Control, who was also the minister with responsibility for India in the Duke of Wellington’s cabinet, was one of the first to turn this anxiety into policy: ‘Our policy in Asia must follow one course only,’ he wrote. ‘To limit the power of Russia.’

By authorising a major new programme of intelligence gathering in Central Asia, Ellenborough effectively gave birth to the Great Game, creating an Anglo-Russian rivalry in the Himalayas where none had existed before. From this point on a succession of young Indian army officers and political agents would be despatched to the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, sometimes in disguise, sometimes on ‘shooting leave’, to learn the languages and tribal customs, to map the rivers and passes, and to assess the difficulty of crossing the mountains and deserts.

Burnes was the trailblazer. As the dray horses looked out over the green grass of the Indus floodplains, Burnes and his companions began this process by discreetly taking soundings and bearings, measuring the flow of the river, and preparing detailed maps and flow charts, proving that the river Indus was navigable as far as Lahore. From Afghanistan and Bukhara they again produced maps and detailed notes on the roads threading through the Hindu Kush.

None of this, however, prevented Burnes enjoying himself and writing one of the great accounts of the region in between his official duties. For two months, Ranjit laid on a round of entertainments for Burnes. Dancing girls danced, troops were manoeuvred, deer were hunted, monuments visited and banquets were eaten. Burnes even tried some of Ranjit’s home-made hell-brew, a fiery distillation of raw spirit, crushed pearls, musk, opium, gravy and spices, two glasses of which was normally enough to knock-out the most hardened British drinker, but which Ranjit recommended to Burnes as a cure for his dysentery. Burnes and Ranjit, the Scot and the Sikh, found themselves bonding over a shared taste for firewater.

At their final dinner, Ranjit agreed to show Burnes his most precious possession, the Koh-i-Nur: ‘Nothing,’ wrote Burnes, ‘can be imagined more superb than this stone; it is of the finest water, about half the size of an egg. Its weight amounts to 3½ rupees, and if such a jewel is to be valued, I am informed it is worth 3½ millions of money.’ Ranjit then presented Burnes with two richly carparisoned horses, dressed in costly Kashmiri shawl.