A History of Indo-Persian Literature (Part I)

 

Turkish Conquest

The study of Indian literature focuses all too often on Sanskrit literature and modern Indian vernacular languages like Urdu and Bengali. The contribution of languages like Persian to Indian literature is neglected if not entirely ignored. Given the long history of Persian as a literary language in India and given the ongoing Hinduization of Indian history, the understanding of Indo-Persian literature is necessary more than ever.

 

THE TURKISH CONQUEST

The north-west of India has been subject to invasions since ancient times. Beginning in the second millennium BCE until the 10th century, north-west India experienced invasions at the hands of Aryans, Iranians, Greeks, Parthians, Scythians, Kushans and Huns.

In 962, Alptigin (901-963), a Turkic general in the Samanid Empire (819-999) abandoned the court at Bukhara and established a semi-independent state with its capital in Ghazni (present-day Afghanistan).[1] He was succeeded by his son, Abu Mansur Sabuktigin (942-997), who in 986 launched an attack on Kabul and Punjab. Sabuktigin died in Balkh in 997 and was succeeded by his son Mahmud (971-1030).[2]

Ghaznavid Empire

Between 1001 and 1017, Mahmud launched a series of raids into northern India from Ghazni. In 1008, he conquered and annexed Punjab. By the time of his death in 1030, his empire spanned Khorasan, Samarkand, Afghanistan and Punjab.

 

EARLY INDO-PERSIAN LITERATURE

The Turkish conquest of north-western coincided with what the British historian E.G. Browne has called the “Persian Renaissance.”[1] Beginning under the Samanid Empire in Bukhara, which saw the completion of the Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’), Persian literature flourished in courts across Central Asia and Iran.

Mahmud’s court at Ghazni became a centre of Persian literature. Mahmud brought scholars, merchants, artists and Sufis with new ideas in art, architecture, literature and religion to India. Mahmud’s court attracted the scholar Al-Biruni (whose work on the history of India included an assessment of scientific works in Sanskrit and Hindu philosophies and religion) and Firdowsi, author of the Persian epic, Shahnama.

The Ghaznavid Empire in Khorasan was repeatedly invaded by the Seljuq Turks until it was lost in 1040. In 1163, the Ghaznavid Sultans moved their capital from Ghazni to Lahore where they would rule from until 1186.

It was in Lahore where the first Indo-Persian literature appeared. ‘Ali Hujviri’s (d. 1071) Kashf-ul Mahjub (‘Veiling the Unveiled’) was the first Persian treatise on Sufism. It set out such themes as the love of God, the importance of contemplation and the stages of the mystical path:  

Man’s love toward God is a quality which manifests itself in the heart of the pious believer, in the form of veneration and magnification, so that he seeks to satisfy his Beloved and becomes impatient and restless in his for vision of Him, and cannot rest with anyone except Him, and grows familiar with the remembrance of Him, and abjures the remembrance of everything besides.[2]

Early Indo-Persian poets like Abu al-Faraj (d. c. 1102) continued the Persian tradition of panegyric poetry (qasida) at court as well as the Persian poetic tradition of contrasting metaphors such as moth and flame, rose and nightingale and lover and beloved.

 

MAS’UD SA’D SALMAN (1046-1121)

Mas’ud Sa’d Salman’s poetry was especially important to the development of early Indo-Persian poetry. While Mas’ud continued to write in the tradition of Persian court poetry, his verse also showed openness and sensitivity to the new Indian poetic landscape.

Born in Lahore, Mas’ud was of Iranian ancestry. His father, Sa’di Salman, had come to Lahore as an accountant in the entourage of Prince Majdud who had been sent by Sultan Mahmud to garrison Lahore in 1035-36.[3]

Mas’ud spent much of his professional life as a poet between the courts of his patrons and in prison for reasons which are not clear. It was in prison, however, that he pioneered the habsiyat (prison) genre of poetry, a genre that would appear in the later Urdu poetry of Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.[4]

Mas’ud often wrote on the pain of his separation from his beloved city of Lahore:

O Ravi, if paradise is to be found, it is you,
If there is a kingdom fully equipped, it is you
Water in which is the lofty heaven is you
A Spring in which there are a thousand rivers is you.[5]

He also introduced the Indian genre of the baramasa to Indo-Persian poetry:

O beauty whose arrows are aloft on the day of Tir
Rise and give me wine with a high melody
Sing of love in the mode of love
Call forth the delightful melodies of nature[6]

 

THE GHURID INVASION

In 1186, Lahore was conquered by Muhammad of Ghur, one of vassals of the Ghaznavid Empire. Like the Ghaznavid Empire, the Ghurid Sultanate encompassed much of Central Asia, Iran and northern India. In 1192, Muhammad defeated Prithviraj Chauhan at Tarain (present-day Haryana) from where he conquered the political centres of north India.

 

THE FOUNDING OF THE DELHI SULTANATE

 

 

In 1192, Muhammad of Ghur ordered his Turkic slave, Qutb al-Din Aibek (1150-1210), to push further east.[7] This resulted in the conquest of Delhi which, along with Lahore, Muhammad placed under Aibek’s governorship.

In 1206, Muhammad was assassinated. A civil war broke out between his slave commanders with Aibek emerging the victor.[8] Aibek established his own empire with Delhi as his capital, thus founding the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526).

… to be continued.

 

NOTES

[1] Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 (University of California Press: Oakland, CA: 2019, 13), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier (Permanent Black: New Delhi, 2010), 19.

[4] Annemarie Schimmel, Islamic Literatures of India (Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1973), 11: https://archive.org/details/IslamicLiteraturesOfIndia-AnnemarieSchimmel/page/n3/mode/2up

[5] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier, citing Diwan, 391.

[6] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier, citing Diwan, 947-8.

[7] Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age, 42.

[8] Ibid., 44.

China and the Uighurs

Chinese Uighur

The situation about the Uighur Muslims has attracted widespread media coverage in the past year.  In light of the West after 9-11 and India under Modi, it may be easy for observers to assume that this is a case of Islamophobia in China.

China’s human rights abuses, while they should be condemned unequivocally, do not constitute a case of Islamophobia as they do in the case of India and China.

First of all, Islam in China has a very different history compared to its history in the West and in India.

In China, Islam came through trade. During the cosmopolitan empire of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). Arab and Central Asian merchants brought Islam to Turkestan (now north-western China) and to Chinese cities like Chang’an, Kaifeng and Luoyan.[1] Islam has long been associated with trade in China’s history and the most famous Muslim in China’s history, Zheng He (1371-1433), was a mariner and explorer.

Turkic migrations

China’s Han majority population also accepted Islam through conversion. Although a minority within the larger Han population, Han Chinese Muslims (known as the ‘Hui’) are virtually indistinguishable from their Han brethren except in their avoidance of pork.

Islam thus has a comparatively peaceful history in China. Compare this to the West where Islam was branded a Christian heresy from its inception and associated with the Crusades or in India where Islam has been associated (especially by Hindu Nationalists) with the looting of Hindu temples by Turkish mercenaries like Mahmud of Ghazni.

Secondly, the human rights abuses suffered by China’s Muslims have been confined to Xinjiang. They do not envelop the entire Chinese Muslim population the way they have Muslims in the West after 9-11 or in India under Modi.

China is home to over 20 million Muslims.[2] Of these, 41% are Uighur while 48% are Han Chinese (Hui) and the remaining 11% belonging to Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Tatar and other ethnic groups.[3]

If Islamophobia were rampant in China, it would’ve been all over the Western media by now.  Instead, what has been making cover stories in the West (besides the Corona Virus scare and the crackdown on the Uighurs) is China’s ability to digitally monitor the activities of its citizens, Uighur, Han or otherwise.

Third, and most crucially, the crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang should be understood in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) obsession with maintaining state power and control. This obsession extends to suppressing any religious fervour which threatens or is suspected of threatening the CCP’s grip on power.[4]

The CCP has a long history of penetrating and monitoring religious establishments, ensuring they are subordinate to the party-state.[5]  This is due in part to the official atheism of the CCP, but it owes far more to a long history in China of regulating religion and suppressing religious fervour as a political threat.

There’s plenty of historical precedents to make the CCP nervous. A Daoist sect called the Yellow Turbans undermined the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).[6] The Red Turbans, a Buddhist sect, led to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had to contend with the White Lotus Rebellion (1794-1804), another Buddhist sect. The Taiping rebellion (1850-1864), a Christian millenarian movement, fatally wounded the Qing and killed upwards of twenty million people.[7]

The CCP most notoriously suppressed the Falun Gong sect in the late 1990s and into the new millennium. Besides branding it an “evil cult,” the National People’s Congress amended article 300 of the Criminal Code on October 30, 1999, enabling the CCP to suppress spiritual groups deemed “dangerous to the state” (the Falun Gong claimed millions of members across China).

The oppression of China’s Uighurs is about the Chinese state maintaining its state power and control over the country and its citizens. It should be understood in light of China’s long history of regulating and suppressing any religious fervour (real or imagined) and not as a projection of the West’s own Islamophobia on to other societies.

Sources:

Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/11/china-hi-tech-war-on-muslim-minority-xinjiang-uighurs-surveillance-face-recognition.

André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In  Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed.,  Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or  Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).

Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

 

NOTES

[1] Lipman, Jonathan Newman (1997), Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 25.

[2] https://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/07/mapping-the-global-muslim-population/

[3] Armijo, Jackie (2006), “Islamic Education in China”, Harvard Asia Quarterly, 10 (1), archived from the original on 2007-09-28

[4] Darren Byler, “China’s hi-tech war on its Muslim minority,” The Guardian, April 11, 2019 (online): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/11/china-hi-tech-war-on-muslim-minority-xinjiang-uighurs-surveillance-face-recognition. Byler reports how the Chinese state has grown anxious over the growing sense of Uighur religious and cultural identity (fostered and disseminated through social media including Uighur Muslims praying five times a day, Muslim women veiling themselves and the import of food, movies, music and clothing from Turkey and Dubai) and in growing Uighur social and political activism.

[5] André Laliberté, The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China in In  Dirk Ehlers and Henning Glaser, ed.,  Political and Religious Communities: Partners, Competitors, or  Aliens? Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2019 (forthcoming).

[6] The following historical examples are cited by Laliberté in The Legal-Formal Status of Religions in China.

[7] The Qing Dynasty also suppressed Muslim rebellions in the north-west during its expansion into Turkestan in the 18th century.

 

 

The East India Company

shah alam

…”Corporations have neither bodies to be punished nor souls to be condemned. They, therefore, can do as they like (Lord Chancellor Thurlow).”[1]

How did a subcontinent come to be ruled from a boardroom in London?[2]

On December 31, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to over 200 English merchants who wanted to get into the East Indies spice trade.[3] England wasn’t a major European power yet and the Spanish and Portuguese empires ruled the trade.

When England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, however, it had blown open the shipping routes used by Spanish and Portuguese traders. So the East India Company was ready to sail eastwards … but was unfortunately outdone by the burgeoning Dutch East India Company.

The Dutch went on to capture the spice trade in Indonesia. The East India Company had to settle with India.

mughal court

In the early seventeenth century, India was the world’s largest economy.[4] It was known for its cotton, silk and textile industries. Tales of the wealth and splendour of the Great Mughal had begun doing their rounds in England.[5]

When trying to enter India, however, the East India Company clashed with the Portuguese who had been there since 1510. The English defeated the Portuguese at the Battle of Suvali in 1612, ending Portugal’s monopoly of Indian trade.

That same year, James I dispatched an embassy to India led by Sir Thomas Roe. Roe signed a treaty with the Mughal Emperor Jahangir which let the Company set up factories in Surat in 1612.

The Company went on to set up trading posts in Madras (1639), Bombay (1664) and Calcutta (1696). It faced competition from yet another European power: the French had established trading posts and factories in the south of India.[6]

The Company’s fortunes, however, were about to change. The Mughal Empire, having expanded into the Deccan, had now grown too large to be governed effectively. The Emperor Aurangzeb’s religious intolerance had also sparked resentment and rebellion across India including among the Marathas and the Rajputs who formed the backbone of the Mughal army.

When Aurangzeb died in 1707, the once-mighty Mughal Empire, strained and divided, began to disintegrate. New regional powers like the Marathas in western India began forming their own kingdoms while others, like the Nizam of Hyderabad, declared their independence from the Mughals.

By this time, the British and French East India Companies had built their own forts and settlements in southern India and in Bengal. As Mughal India fragmented into regional kingdoms, the British and French took advantage of the political situation by playing off one Indian ruler against another.

The Indian kings were also keen to wipe one another out by accepting British and French military assistance. The Maratha prince, Balaji Baji Rao, for one, offered the Company land for batteries of artillery and trained gunners.[7] The princes of Karnataka enlisted the Company’s help which they paid for by assigning it lands and the right to collect taxes.[8]

From Company to Conquest

In Bengal, however, the British met with resistance.

Bengal was the richest, most fertile and densely populated region of India.[9] The Company had established a trading post there in Calcutta in 1696, known later as Fort William.

With the break-up of the Mughal Empire, Bengal came to be ruled by local princes (nawab in Urdu). In 1756, Siraj-ud Daula became Nawab of Bengal. Wary of the growing British presence there, he ordered his troops to seize and occupy the Company’s bases at Kasimbazar and Calcutta in 1756.[10]

plassey 3

The Company reacted with vengeance.

Under the leadership of Robert Clive, it quickly recaptured Calcutta on January 1, 1757, and, on June 23, 1757, it defeated Siraj’s forces at the Battle of Plassey (above). The Company’s conquest of India had begun.

The Plunder of Bengal

Between 1757 and 1763, the East India Company drained Bengal’s wealth. It forcefully taxed peasants, punished unwilling suppliers who objected to its prices and vanquished local competitors.[11] Tragically, its ruthless extraction of Bengal’s resources aggravated the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which killed over 10 million people (roughly one-fifth of Bengal’s population).[12]

The Company meanwhile shipped bales of cotton, calico, muslin and chintz from Bengal back to Britain.[13] Its huge wealth and vast resources had made it, in the words of one of its directors, “an empire within an empire,” answerable to no one except its shareholders.[14]

Men like Clive (above) made huge fortunes in Bengal and returned to England as “nabobs” (a corruption of nawab).[15] Once back home, the nabobs bought seats in Parliament and bribed senior politicians for favours toward the Company. Parliament responded by investigating the nabobs and the Company for corruption and extortion in their dealings in Bengal. One parliamentary pamphlet decried the looting of:

“Lacks and crowes (lakhs and crores) of rupees, sacks of diamonds, Indians tortured to disclose their treasure; cities, towns and villages ransacked and destroyed, jaghires (jagirs) and province purloined. Nabobs dethroned, and murdered, have found the delights and constituted the religions of the Directors and their servants.”[16]

The Conquest of Hindustan

From Bengal, the Company marched up the Ganges into the heart of India.

In 1764, the Company defeated the Mughal army of Shah Alam II at the Battle of Buxar. The Treaty of Allahabad of 1765 (pictured at the top of the page) brought Awadh under Company control and won it the diwani or right to collect taxes on behalf of the Mughal emperor.

In less than a century, the Company swooped across the south through conquest and by granting suzerainty to local rulers such as the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1747. Having annexed the Punjab in 1849 (after defeating the Sikhs in the Second Anglo-Sikh War), the Company had brought Hindustan to heel.

EIC Map

By 1857, India was ruled from a boardroom in the City of London.

The Company laid the foundation for British rule of the subcontinent. The historians of the British Raj, however, would see the Company as a national embarrassment. By the 19th century, Victorian Britain had begun to see the British nation (and not a predatory corporation) as the builder of destiny and the shaper of progress. The Company became in the eyes of many a “tyranny which [had] encouraged and exploited human suffering.”

The East India Company was the world’s first truly multinational corporation. Its plunder of India should serve as a warning to a world ruled by Walmart, Apple, BP and Wells Fargo.

Sources

The Anarchy: A New Book by William Dalrymple: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUeyOEY9oWg

BBC Start the Week (Dec. 2, 2019): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000bvw5

British Library (East India Company): https://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item102770.html

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2019 [Audiobook]).

William Dalrymple, “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders,” The Guardian, March 4, 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/04/east-india-company-original-corporate-raiders

Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (St. Martin’s, New York: 1997).

Ben Johnson, “The East India Company and its role in ruling India,” Historic UK: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-East-India-Company/

Andrea Major, “The East India Company: How a trading corporation became an imperial ruler,” HistoryExtra: https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/the-east-india-company-how-a-trading-corporation-became-an-imperial-ruler/

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. (Oxford University Press: 1982). Available online: https://www.prismaweb.org/nl/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Poverty-and-famines%E2%94%82Amartya-Sen%E2%94%821981.pdf

Notes

[1] William Dalrymple: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUeyOEY9oWg). This was Lord Chancellor Thurlow speaking at the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings.

[2] I was inspired to write this blog after listening to a BBC Podcast on William Dalrymple’s latest book on Indian history, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

[3] William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2019), Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (audiobook). The royal charter was granted after a Dutch delegation arrived in England offering to buy out all English ships which were intended to voyage to the East. This infuriated the English merchants who petitioned the Privy Council to reject the proposal for the “honour of [their] native country.” The charter also authorized the East India Company to wage war, raise forts and make settlements in any new territory to which they voyaged.

https://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item102770.html. The “East Indies” here refers to Asia.

[4] BBC Start the Week (Dec. 2, 2019): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000bvw5. Dalrymple estimates that India generated roughly 30% of the world’s GDP at the time.

[5] A Handbook for India: Being an account of the Three Presidencies and of the Overland Route (London: John Murray), 1859, lxxx. In 1603, the English Jesuit priest and missionary, Thomas Stephens, visited the Mughal capital of Agra, returning to England with stories of the wealth of the Great Mughal.

[6] The French established a factory at Masulipatam (Andhra Pradesh) in 1669, acquired the area of Pondicherry in 1673.

[7] Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (St. Martin’s, New York: 1997), 10.

[8] James, 9.

[9] James, 30.

[10] On the night of June 20, 1756 (in what came to be known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta”) Siraj’s forces herded an unknown number of British prisoners into a small cell in the dungeon of Fort William where over half of the prisoners suffocated to death.

[11] James, 38-39.

[12] Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. (Oxford University Press: 1982), 39.

[13] James, 10.

[14] James, 49.

[15] Dalrymple estimates that Clive returned to Britain with a personal fortune valued then at £234,000 (around £23 million in today’s currency) making him the richest self-made man in Europe.

[16] James, 49. The pamphlet dates to 1773. Parliament’s investigations reached their climax between 1788 and 1795 with the trial to impeach the Governor of Bengal (Warren Hastings) for looting and corruption. Hastings was acquitted.

Buddhist Political Philosophy

buddha and flower

I first began studying Buddhism in 1999 while living in Canada. Having lived and grown up in the West, I saw how Buddhism was adopted and adapted by the West in terms of science, psychology and the art of living.

I have always been interested, however, in Buddhism as a philosophy and, in particular, as a  political philosophy. For me, this involved thinking about the world and political phenomena from a Buddhist philosophical and ethical perspective.

I will be speaking more about Buddhist political philosophy here in Uddari. For me, it is something that means a lot to me as a South Asian living in the diaspora. Buddhism not only originated and developed in South Asia but it has also become an increasingly influential philosophy in the Western culture in which I have grown up.

India’s Moment of Reckoning

TOPSHOT-INDIA-POLITICS-RIGHTS-UNREST

In 1938, a Nazi law forced German Jews to register their property and assets with the government. In 2001, the Taliban forced all religious minorities in Afghanistan to wear distinctive marks on their clothing to distinguish them from the country’s Muslim majority.

Now, in 2019, the BJP government of India has passed a law which, in effect, will decide whether Indian Muslims are citizens or not on the basis of their religion.

On the face of it, the Citizenship Amendment Act (the “Act”), states that (non-Muslim) illegal migrants who have fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

When read in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (the “NRC”), however, the Act threatens to render almost two million Muslims in India (who migrated to Assam from Bangladesh) stateless.

By making religion a condition of citizenship, the Act and the NRC throw the very idea of India as a secular state into question. Will the law apply only to Muslim migrants and their descendants (even if born in India)? Will it be used against those poorer Indian Muslims who have lived in the country since time immemorial but who have no documents to prove their citizenship?

In 2018, Republicans in Georgia threatened to blacklist African-Americans from voting because they could not prove their identity. Will disenfranchisement hang over the heads of Indian Muslims if they cannot show the right kind of documents if any at all?

Historically, citizenship in India (like elsewhere) was acquired by the citizenship belonging to one’s parents (the jus sanguinis or ‘right of blood’ principle) or by naturalization if the person has been resident in India for more twelve years. Descent and residence on Indian territory were sufficient for the sake of claiming Indian citizenship, not religion.

In protest of the law, India has witnessed some of its largest demonstrations in decades with public figures like Ramachandra Guha and Shabana Azmi expressing solidarity with the protestors. The Supreme Court of India has issued notices to the Government of India on petitions challenging the constitutionality of the law.

I hope that these protests are an illustration of the Daoist principle that when things reach one extreme, they revert and start moving back in the opposite direction. Just like we saw with the “wake” movement in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, the demonstrations in India have the potential to crystallize into a mass-movement that challenges Hindu Nationalism if they are given the right direction and organization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classical Indian Literature: The Southern (Tamil) Tradition

tamil love poem

Like the classical Western tradition, the classical Indian tradition has two classical languages: Sanskrit and Tamil. Most histories of classical Indian civilization, however, focus on the Sanskrit literary tradition to Tamil’s neglect.

Both traditions, I argue, are integral to our understanding of classical Indian literature. The Tamil tradition is classical not only in the sense that it is ancient (dating its earliest poetry back to the 100 BCE to 200 CE), but in that it constitutes the foundation of an entire tradition that continues without a break to the present.

Early classical Tamil literature was written in a society that recalls Italy during the Renaissance. Southern India during the turn of the Christian era was a confederation of states (the Pandya, the Cheras and the Cholas) which were continually warring and trading with one another.

The Tamil states grew wealthy from sea trade routes that connected India to the West (including the Roman Empire which sought peppers, indigo, cotton and pearls from South India) and South East Asia. Classical Tamil poetry tells the stories of wealthy merchants, warehouses bulging with goods and ships from many different countries meeting at palm lined ports along the east coast.

Classical Tamil poetry is said to have been composed in academies or assembles called the Sangam during which time the principles of poetics, rhetoric and prosody were outlined in the Tolkapiyyam, the first grammar of the Tamil language.

Classical Tamil poetry can be classed broadly into poems on the interior landscape (love, emotions) and poems on the exterior landscape (war and heroic poetry).

Landscapes and emotions are carefully interwoven in classical Tamil poetry and each poem is assigned a tinai (‘place,’ ‘region,’ ‘site’) in which the five particular landscapes or regions of the Tamil country with their accompanying seasons, flowers, waters, inhabitants, wild life and time of day correspond to the emotions of the lovers in the poems:[1]

  1. Mountains: union (clandestine); kurunji flower; midnight; winter; waterfall;
  2. Forest: expectancy; jasmine; evening; late summer; rivers;
  3. Fields: irritation; marudam; before sunrise; late spring; ponds;
  4. Seashore: separation; water lily; sunset; early summer; sea;
  5. Desert: impatience; noon; summer; dry wells or stagnant water.

In classical Tamil poetry, nature and landscape symbolize the various moods and experiences of lovers. For instance, a love poem may follow the kurinici convention where the theme is the surreptitious meeting at night of an unmarried woman and her lover in the mountains.

tamil nadu mountain.jpg

The puram poems also have their thematic situations which deal with the warfare and exploits of kings as well as ethical instruction in the form of lyrics, panegyrics and hymns. The puram poems of classical Tamil poetry tell us about the kings, chieftains, battles, political and social life of ancient Tamil kingdoms.

The secular, sensual and naturalistic tone of the early Tamil poetry makes for a refreshing change to the religious and mythological tone of much of classical Sanskrit poetry. Here are some English translations of classical Tamil poetry by A.K. Ramanujan.

 

Sources:

Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology (Volume Three), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 2000.

Encyclopedia of Indian Literature (Volume 5), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 1987-1992.

The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil (New York : Columbia University Press, 1999), Translated by George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz.

Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies, and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil (selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_landscape#Poetic_Attrib

Tomorrow in Surrey: Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes

pakistani women

What inspires me most about this program is the courage of the women it honours. Through their art, their activism, their poetry and their writing, they have dauntlessly challenged institutionalized systems of patriarchal, racial and religious authority, making the world a freer place for all of us regardless of who we are …

Tomorrow, Surrey Muse Arts Society (SMAS) presents “Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes” (Sept 28, 6 – 9 PM, Centre Stage, Surrey City Hall). It’s a groundbreaking three-hour stage show which recognizes, for the first time in Greater Vancouver, the contributions of 15 distinguished Pakistani, Punjabi, South Asian, Muslim and women of colour from Pakistan, Surrey and Vancouver to the development of our communities through literature, art, scholarship and activism.

Our distinguished guests for the evening are Sunera Thobani, Harsha Walia, Surjeet Kalsey, Darshan Maan, Indigenous scholar/historian Deanne Reder, and, Katheren Szabo. We will also recognize a Surrey Woman of Courage.

You can find out more about our program here:

https://pakistanswomenheroes.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/women-who-named-the-unnamed-pakistani-local-women-heroes-saturday-28-sept-2019-centre-stage-surrey-city-hall/

We look forward to seeing you tomorrow!