“Hindis” in Istanbul: Field Notes on the Making of an Archival Subject

by Rishad Choudhury

Field Note 1

Acting on some vague word she had received of a Hint or Hindi tekke, a friend and colleague had enlisted me to go looking for a Sufi lodge meant for “Indians” in Zeyrek, an Istanbul neighborhood on the northern shores of the Golden Horn.1 One building had a rebuilt red exterior that stood in sharp contrast to its ramshackle counterparts in the Ottoman-era neighborhood, and we were surprised by the American woman named Carol who greeted us at the door.2 I was equally taken aback by the few words of Bengali that Carol exchanged with me when she learned of my native language. As she explained, back in the 1980s she had spent some time “hanging out” in Bengal with the well-known group of Vaishnava-Sufi minstrels known as the Bauls. With these and a few other pleasant if cagey words of introduction, she invited us into the house.

The restored late Ottoman building
that today houses the Chishti “Hint” Tekke.
Zeyrek, Istanbul.
Photograph by author.
Leading us up a long flight of stairs, Carol ushered us into a room on the top floor. Silk drapes on its walls invoked, in Turkish, names of Islamic saints and prophetic genealogies, at once local and translocal in their ritualistic references. The name of the saint Hazreti Mevlana, better known as Rumi, caught my eye, as well as a festoon of ribbons that proclaimed, “Ya Hüseyin, Ya Abbas, Ya Zeynep.” In addition, various Turkish musical instruments lay on the floor, along with rugs, cushions, and upholstery of Turkish provenance. Yet it was obvious from a most cursory glance that pride of place went to the various artifacts of Indo-Islamic origin that decorated the room.

Carol informed us that were standing in a functioning Sufi tekke, devoted for the past two years to the South Asian Chishti order of Sufism. A khilafat-nama, or edict of initiation, hung from a wall; it had been drafted in 2009 in Urdu and signed by a Chishti Sufi master from a celebrated shrine in the north Indian city of Ajmer. The document spelled out as diktat what the Indian objects scattered across the room conveyed with their transported presence. Its author declared himself content with the piety of a certain new initiate and, in consultation with the elders of the order, deemed him fit to pass on the Message, to “serve his disciples for the pleasure of Allah and His Messenger.” We did not get a chance to meet this initiate, whom Carol referred to both as her husband and “the Sheikh.” We did learn from the khilafat-nama, however, that he was known among his Sufi peers in Ajmer as “the Turk,” or “Chishti Turki.”

Chadars from Ajmer hang on the walls
of the Chishti “Hint” Tekke, together
with a framed photograph of the shrine
complex of Mu‘in-ud-Din Chishti.
Zeyrek, Istanbul.
Photograph by author.

Field Note 2

My research on eighteenth-century connections between India and the Near East at the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul kept leading me to yet another moniker: Hindi and its variants. At first sight, I took the term to mean the geographically specific adjective "Indian." But as I read further, it became clearer that Hindi in the early modern epoch had a much broader set of meanings than it does today.

I found the word Hindi in eighteenth-century legal registers, imperial decrees, commercial reports, and petitions from across the Ottoman imperial domains. One document spoke of “people with knowledge of Indian languages” in Mecca and Medina. Others pointed to “Indian” Sufi lodges in such cities as Adana, Antep, and Tarsus in Anatolia, as well as in Jerusalem, Aleppo, Damascus and the Ottoman capital, Istanbul. Often, the term was attached to names: for instance, the dervish Mehmed Hindi and the sheikh Hasan Hindi, both in Damascus; one Hindi el-Hac Hasan Ağa in Amasya, central Anatolia; and the “son of the Indian,” Hindioğlu Ahmed, in Istanbul. There were scattered reports, too, of other transient “Indians” in the empire—those arriving from Central Asia or as far afield as Java. Finally, the term was applied in a more recognizable way in records of Ottoman exchanges with various potentates from India itself.

As the archival index lengthened, it became apparent that Hindi—as a name, an honorific, and a demonym—was often used as a scribal shorthand, facilitating the workings of the Ottoman state bureaucracy and serving as a rhetorical and written measure for people and places far beyond the eastern Iranian frontiers of the Ottoman Empire, whether that meant the Indian subcontinent or Central and Southeast Asia. In addition to its use by Ottoman bureaucrats, records suggest that the term circulated at multiple levels of Ottoman society, among religious mystics, service elites, visiting statesmen, and itinerant dervishes, many of whom were themselves known as “Hindi.” Ultimately, I understood that much of the confusion stemmed from the fact that the Ottomans annually hosted pilgrims from different parts of the world, and at least until the end of the eighteenth century, the heterogeneous identities of many such non-Ottoman Muslims were pressed into the confines of that one keyword.

Away from the archives, I uncovered more concrete traces of Hindi’s diffuse referents. In an area of old Istanbul that is now home to migrant and refugee communities from Afghanistan and several Caucasian and Arab countries, there stands the ruins of one of the earliest Sufi lodges in the city, and the oldest one dedicated to the Naqshbandi order. Established soon after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople, the “Horhor” Sufi lodge was often referred to after the street on which it once stood. But usually, it was called the Indian tekke, that is, the “Hindiler” or “Hindular Tekkesi” in Ottoman Turkish.3 The Horhor Hindi Tekke had served as a site for temporary lodging, a hub of communal gathering, and a space for prayer for Central and South Asian Sufis during their visits to Istanbul. And here, as in the archives, the term Hindi drew on multiple sources for its meanings. Take, for example, the name of the founding master of the tekke, the fifteenth-century Șeyh İshak Buhari Hindi, or “Sheikh Ishaq, of Bukhara and India.”

Ablution fountains at the Hindi
Tekke in Aksaray. The sound
of running water from a nearby
fountain evidently contributed to
the onomatopoeic name of the
road on which the tekke stood, as
well as another epithet for
the lodge—horhor.
Aksaray, Istanbul.
Photography by author.

Like its institutional namesakes scattered throughout the Ottoman Empire, the Hindi lodge at Horhor was used as a wayfaring station by Indian Hajj pilgrims who traveled on the westward route to Istanbul, where they awaited ships or caravans to take them to Mecca and Medina. Because of its connections to the wider realms of early modern Islam, the tekke also lay at a diplomatic crossroads, and it occasionally hosted visitors with unusually tenacious ties to those realms. Evidence for this is still to be found at the Horhor Tekke cemetery. Among the headstones at this site, which are topped off in typical Ottoman fashion with sculpted stone headdresses of the deceased, there stands something of an anomaly: a tombstone that marks the gravesite of neither a professed sheikh nor a dervish. Unlike the so-called kallavi and mücevveze turbans on the other graves, its fedora-like turban recalls the style of headgear of a distant Indian sovereign, the ruler of the eighteenth-century Deccan state of Mysore.4

In 1786, that ruler, Tipu Sultan, the “Tiger of Mysore,” sent an ambitious diplomatic mission to the court of the Ottoman emperor Abdülhamid I. Tipu’s embassy was intended to lobby military support to help him confront an aggressive local rival, the British East India Company,5 and reflected a new enthusiasm for expansionist military projects among Eurasian states.6 Yet the Ottoman state could hardly respond to Tipu’s requests for a combined military offensive against the company, given that the Turks were preoccupied with military crises on the European front and at home.7 Even so, it would appear that the Ottoman state did make much of the 330 or so Indians who in 1787 showed up in Istanbul as Tipu’s representatives. Sources in the Istanbul archives tell us that the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman central government) feted them and put out orders for their safe and expedient passage across vast stretches of Turkish territory. Still, at least one of those Indians did not survive to embark on the journey home.

According to its epitaph, the grave at Horhor was the final resting place of Muhammad Imam Sardar, who died in Istanbul in the year 1202 of the Hijri, circa 1787. Evidently, Muhammad Imam was deemed sufficiently important to warrant the distinction of a burial place at this old Sufi site, and he may have been a frequent visitor to the Horhor lodge during his stay in the imperial city. A delegate from Tipu’s embassy, he was presumably the “Muhammad Imam” referred to as a troop commander in a letter by Tipu to the principal representative of his embassy.8 Perhaps, too, he was a Naqshbandi devotee. Beyond all that, Muhammad Imam’s gravestone tells us that he was known to his contemporaries at the Horhor Tekke as a military envoy (‘asker elçi) in the service of Tipu Sultan, whose name, in turn, was known among the Sufis as “Tepu Sultan Hindi.”9

Grave of Muhammad Imam Sardar
at the Horhor Hindi Tekke.
Aksaray, Istanbul.
Photograph by author.

Field Note 3

Despite the long trail left by Hindi in the Ottoman imperial records, the term’s evolution as a historical concept resists the simple narrative of a state documenting and stockpiling information on its subjects. On the one hand, the practice of keeping official records of names eventually contributed to the genesis of a peculiarly modern phenomenon in the Ottoman world—the idea of the citizen or legal person, a sovereign individual with a paper identity.10 On the other hand, people at all levels of Ottoman society encouraged the use and transmission of Hindi in the early modern period, and in its textual and material incarnations, as well as in its dissemination to people who were not Ottoman Turks, the term’s meanings multiplied beyond any given bureaucratic intent. As such, Hindi’s historical itineraries offer us a novel view on the complex history of a state-subject dyad. It tells us that if the archives at times created their subjects, so too did subjects shape the archives.

It is therefore a matter of some irony that after the foundation of the secular Turkish nation-state, the early modern meanings of Hindi were more or less completely effaced and are now found only in archival documents and historical detritus. Modern Turkish uses more standardized and nationally oriented terms for “Indian,” such as Hintli or Hindistanlı.11 Further, the remaining Sufi tekkes in Istanbul no longer operate under the direct purview of the government. Having been banned after the foundation of the Turkish Republic, they now hold clandestine meetings. The role of the Turkish state as the servitor (hadim) of the annual Hajj pilgrimage has also long since passed to Saudi Arabia, so the tekkes that do remain in Turkey seldom host visiting pilgrims, let alone any from South Asia. With its renewed ties to India and the Chishti Sufi order, Carol and her husband’s Turko-American “Hint” tekke in Zeyrek is thus a reminder of a once-sprawling global assemblage, now a discreet practice at the horizons of the modern state’s gaze.


  1. A Sufi lodge is most often referred to as tekke in Turkish, which is often translated into English as “hospice” or “convent.” Broadly construed, Sufi lodges are sites for the religious activities of adherents of particular orders of “mystical” Islam and were once found all over the Islamic world. For a discussion, see the classic study by J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 5–30.
  2. Carol’s name has been changed for this essay. Here I should also thank Nida Nebahat Nalçacı for her generous help with fieldwork.
  3. Thierry Zarcone, “Hindîler Tekkesi,” Dünden Bugüne İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. 4 (Istanbul: Kültür Bakanlığı ve Tarih Vakfı, 1994), 74; and M. Baha Tanman, “Hindîler Tekkesi,” Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi, vol. 18 (Istanbul: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı, 1998), 67–68.
  4. As depicted in most historical portraits of the sovereign.
  5. For a pioneering study of the diplomatic exchanges, see Hikmet Bayur, “Maysor Sultanı Tipu ile Osmanlı Pâdişahlarından I. Abdülhamid ve III. Selim Arasındaki Mektuplaşma,” Belleten 12, no. 47 (1948): 617–54; for a recent assessment, see Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 313–27.
  6. Partha Chatterjee, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), ch. 3; see also, P. J. Marshall, “‘Cornwallis Triumphant’: War in India and the British Public in the Late Eighteenth Century,” in War, Strategy, and International Politics: Essays in Honour of Sir Michael Howard, ed. Lawrence Freedman, Paul Hayes, and Robert O’Neill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 57–74.
  7. Virginia Aksan, “War and Peace,” in The Cambridge History of Turkey, vol. 3, The Later Ottoman Empire, 1603–1839, ed. Suraiya Faroqhi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 97–107.
  8.  A person of the same name was mentioned by the embassy’s record keeper during a stopover in Basra. Mahmud Khan Banglori, trans., Ṣaḥīfa-i-Ṭīpū Sultān, vol. 1 (Lahore: Gosha-i-Adab, 1947), 299; and Khwaja ‘Abdul Qadir, Waqā’i‘-i Manāzil-i Rūm: Diary of a Journey to Constantinople, ed. Mohibbul Hasan (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1969), 97.
  9. The gravestone stele reads:
    hüve el-huld ve el-baki 
    merhum [ve] mağfur 
    Mehmed Imam Serdar 
    ‘asker elçi-yi Tepu Sultan Hindi ruhuna 
    fatiha sene 1202 Hicri
    (He [God] is perpetual and eternal / The late and absolved / Muhammad Imam Sardar / military ambassador of Tipu Sultan Hindi / Pray for his soul / Year 1202 of the Hijri)
  10. Brinkley Messick, “Written Identities: Legal Subjects in an Islamic State,” History of Religions 38, no. 1 (1998): 25–51.
  11. To compound confusion, Hindi in Turkish now only refers to that venerable pheasant from the New World, the turkey. The Ottomans had an early geographic awareness of the Americas, which they too referred to as the “West Indies” (Hindi el-Garbi). But “Hindi” and “Hindu” have held even more meanings in the Islamic world since the medieval era, for which, see David Gilmartin and Bruce Lawrence, eds., Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2000).

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Rishad Choudhury is a PhD candidate in history at Cornell University. As a 2012 SSRC International Dissertation Research fellow, he conducted multisited archival work in London, Istanbul, and Delhi. His dissertation, "States of Pilgrimage: The Hajj from India in an Age of Imperial Transitions, 1707–1820," is a study of the changing circumstances of South Asian devotional circulations in the Near East and the Indian Ocean world over the long eighteenth century.

Published on: Thursday, February 27, 2014