The Rupaiyat of Omar Kal’vin

(notes by David Page)

Publication history

First published in the Civil and Military Gazette, 30 January 1886, the Pioneer, 5 February 1886, and the Pioneer Mail, 10 February 1886. Collected in Departmental Ditties and Other Verses in 1886 and subsequent editions.


In 1886, Sir Auckland Colvin re-introduced the payment of Income Tax into India, and this poem is one man’s complaint at the result, whereby his income was reduced by about two percent at the stroke of a pen. In a diary-letter to his cousin Margaret Burne-Jones of 28 November 1885-11 January 1886, on 11 January Kipling writes:

… thanks to it [Quartette] my screw has once more been raised. Doesn’t make me feel very happy though because the Government of India is poor and I have to pay income tax of £12-10s per annum on the top of a rupee at 1/5⅞. [17 old pence and 7/8ths of a penny]. Isn’t it abominable. However I have the consolation of abusing the financial policy of the Government with the big big WE. And that’s worth a few rupees as a safety valve.
[Pinney, Letters vol.1., p.110.]

Presumably “The Rupaiyat of Omar Kal’vin” is part of the ‘big WE’ of editorial abuse levelled at the Government. The amount of tax quoted suggests that Kipling was earning about £480 or Rs.8,580 per year at this time. [See Income Tax in India below.]

Ralph Durand in his 1914 A Handbook to the Poetry of Rudyard Kipling notes that:

This poem is a parody of {Edward} Fitzgerald’s now famous translation of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyan”. A ‘Rubaiyat’ is a poem and a ‘rupiya’ is a rupee, the standard coin in India.

Sir Auckland Colvin

Sir Auckland Colvin (1838-1908, referred to as ‘Sir A——’ in the header to the poem), born in Calcutta, was a third-generation Anglo-Indian. He had a distinguished career, serving for 20 years in the North West Provinces (N.W.P.) of India. He then served as Comptroller-General in Egypt (1880-2) followed by a year as Financial Adviser to the Khedive of Egypt.

He was appointed Financial Member of the Supreme Council of India (1883-87), then Lieutenant Governor of N.W.P. and Oudh until he retired in 1892. Kipling also refers to him in his poem “The Man who Could Write”, first published in the Civil and Military Gazette, 23 March 1886, in the second stanza as ‘Wicked wit of C-lv-n’. (Also see the NRG notes for this poem).

Income Tax in India

Income tax was first imposed in India in 1860 for a period of five years, to cover the 1857 mutiny expenses, lapsing in 1865. Income tax in a more equitable form was re-introduced by Colvin’s Act II of 1886 with, according to Hansard, the following major provisions:

“The draft Bill of the Government of India, which has now passed through two stages in the Legislative Council, provides that non-agricultural incomes shall be taxed, and the sources are classified under four heads — offices, profits of Companies, interest on securities, and other sources. The rate of Income Tax is five pice a rupee, which, I believe, in English money is a little under ¼d. in 1s. 6d., on incomes of 2,000 rupees per annum and upwards; and, roughly, 4 pice on incomes under 2,000 rupees.

“There are certain exceptions—namely, incomes derived from land or agriculture, charities, soldiers with pay under 500 rupees a month, Government officials with salaries under 100 rupees a month, also all persons with a total income of less than 500 rupees per annum. In cases of incomes derived under the fourth head of “other sources,” incomes under 2,000 rupees per annum are assessed in six grades, rising from 500 rupees to 2,000 rupees. The approval of the Secretary of State in Council has been given to the Bill. This is all the information I can give to the right hon. Gentleman, and upon that, no doubt, he will form his own conclusions.”

Thus the general rate of taxation of 5 pice per rupee was 2.6 percent and that of 4 pice per rupee was 2.1 percent on the smaller incomes. Agricultural income was excluded.

Devaluation of the Rupee

The value of the rupee was based on a silver standard, whereas its major trading partners, primarily the United Kingdom used gold as their standard. In the 1870s and 80s, significant deposits of silver were discovered in America and elsewhere which had the effect of pushing down the market value of silver when compared to gold. By 1886, the rupee was roughly equivalent to 1/6 or 18 old pence (£0.075 in the current decimal currency) down from 20 old pence (or £0.083 modern) in 1880, a decline of 10 percent in five years or so.

The U.S.A. was also affected by this precious metal problem since it used both gold and silver as standards at a fixed parity of 16 lbs of silver to 1 lb of gold. However, when silver declined in value because of the discovery of new deposits, astute dealers could sell silver to the Government at parity, and pocket the difference. This became an integral point in the 1896 Presidential Election, about which Kipling wrote his poem “How Breitmann Became President on the Bicycle Ticket”. [see the Kipling Journal No.321, March 2007, pp.53-59]

Government Finances in India

A new source of revenue was needed by the Government of India because so many of its commitments had to be paid in sterling. The majority of imports had to be paid for in sterling with the devalued rupee, as did the costs of travel outside India and the costs of schooling in England for Anglo-Indian children. Furthermore, there was a commitment for the government to pay the pensions of British soldiers in sterling.

Import duty receipts would probably have declined because of the fall in the value of the rupee, which meant that the country could not afford to import goods on its customary scale. It would also have been inexpedient for the Finance Minister to increase rates of duty on imports when the costs of the imported items had increased significantly, also due to the rupee devaluation.

The salt tax, which had been imposed since the time of the Mughals, had been increased significantly by the British. Consequently, they were loath to increase it yet again. [See our notes on
Letters of Marque]. The same holds true for any new taxes on land and agriculture, since these had been imposed many years earlier.

Critical Commentary

There seems to be very little critical commentary on this poem – just passing references. For example, Edward Shanks in Rudyard Kipling: A Study in Literature and Political Ideas, Macmillan 1940, p.46 whilst discussing Departmental Ditties writes:

They can be dismissed now as so much adroit versification which pleased the readers for whom it was intended. So too, because they are so untransplantedly rooted in their occasions, can such pieces as “The Rupaiyat of Omar Kal’vin”.

G.F. Monkshood (pseudonym of W.J. Clarke) in his Rudyard Kipling: An Attempt at Appreciation, Greening 1899, p.68:

“The Man who could Write” and, “The Rupaiyat of Omar Kal’vin” show that if Mr. Kipling paid much attention to political penning, he would be no feather in the scale against his Opposition. His Carlyleian faculty of marking his man with a name, that, thrown as a burr, sticks like a javelin; and his knowledge of official nomenclature, (important item,) would make him feared in all Forum fighting.

It is worth noting that Monkshood’s book is dedicated, with permission, ‘to The Hon. Sir Auckland Colvin, K.C.M.G., K.C.S.I., C.I.E.;

Notes on the Text

[Introduction] This sets out the basis on which the poem attempts to set in verse the Budgetary proposals made by Sir Auckland Colvin in 1886. See the headnotes for more information.

[Stanza 1] last Year’s Debt: as is usual with Finance Ministers or Chancellors of the Exchequer, when they experience a revenue shortfall they attempt to recoup it in the following year(s), from whatever sources that they can.

with begging Dish: Religious mendicants in India carry bowls in which they receive alms, usually in the shape of food, from the charitable. When Kim accompanied the Teshoo Lama on his pilgrimage, it was his duty to beg with the Lama’s bowl. [Ralph Durand]

[Stanza 2] Imports . . . Salt . . . Tillers of Bengal . . . Kith and Kin: The first three of these are discussed in the headnote above, with tax rates from these sources being effectively frozen. This left the ‘Kith and Kin’, i.e. Anglo-Indians, to become the milch-cows for a new source of revenue.

[Stanza 3] I will promise anything!:  a statement still heard, or at least implied, from politicians when trouble arises.

[Stanza 4] Retrenchment: yet again, statements still heard, or at least implied, from politicians when financial trouble arises.

[Stanza 5, line 1] Boileaugunge or Babylon: Boileaugunge is identified in the “Glossary” to Departmental Ditties as being a ‘suburb of Simla, named after General Boileau’. It is also a hill outside Simla (or Shimla), the town being the seat of Government in India during the summer.

Babylon: as Bryan Diamond has noted, is a reference back to stanza 8 of the 2nd and subsequent editions of Fitzgerald’s translation of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”. Fitgerald’s verse reads:

Whether at Naishápúr or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

Babylon also stands as a marker for a seat of Government.

[Stanza 5, lines 2-4] How the wretched thing is done …:  Colvin, in Kipling’s words, does not understand how the imbalance between income and expenditure happened.

[Stanza 6] I cannot help it. . .:  Colvin, again in Kipling’s words, declares that he lacks arithmetic and accounting knowledge, and is therefore not to blame. This would be a statement of refreshing honesty if politicians actually made this type of statement.

[Stanza 7] Behold, I promise—: a reprise of stanza 3.

[Stanza 8] For if I sinned and fell, . . .: an acknowledgement by “Colvin” of his incompetence.

ravel: to entangle.

Skein: a loosely tied coil of thread or yarn, or a tangle of thread.

[Stanza 9] ‘Who hath not Prudence’—: The original (pre-1886) source of this quotation has not been identified. Any suggestions will be welcomed.

[Stanza 10] Brethren, of your Bounty grant . . . a final begging for understanding, and tax revenues.


©David Page 2010 All rights reserved