The legacy of Persian can be seen in the new literary genres it introduced to South Asia. In the writing of history, Persian introduced the biography, memoirs, chronicles and letters. Thanks to this literature, we have a remarkably detailed picture of Indian society from the descriptions of Mughal court life, to the biographies of religious thinkers to descriptions of the musicians, artists and commoners of Delhi.
The legacy of Persian is felt in the many loan words that have entered modern Indian vernacular languages. The influence of Persian on Urdu is especially noteworthy. While the legacy of Urdu is talked about in India and Pakistan today in poetry, film and ghazals, this is no less the legacy of Persian from which Urdu inherited much of its poetic tradition.
The romance tradition in Punjabi and Bengali was inspired by the tradition of Persian language and culture. Persian is still sung in the qawallis of Amir Khusrau and it left its mark on Sikh religious thought and modern Islamic philosophy. Lastly, through the writings of Sufis like ‘Ali Hujwiri (Data Ganj Baksh) and Nizam ud-Din Auliya, Persian has enriched the religious and cultural life of Indians and Pakistanis in terms of love, compassion and human feeling.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Mughal empire declined and India fragmented into various competing kingdoms, confederacies and principalities. It was also during the eighteenth century that the British began to emerge as the dominant European colonial power.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Urdu grew in popularity and ultimately displaced Persian as the preferred language of poetry across much of North India. Nevertheless, Persian retained its prestige as the language of culture and refinement during this period especially in prose.
One of the most fascinating historical accounts of this period is Abu Mirza Abu Talib Khan’s (1752-1806) The Tales of Mirza Abu Talib Khan in Asia, Africa and Europe (Masir Talib fi Bilad Afranji). Born and raised in a wealthy family from Lucknow, Abu Talib travels to London, Paris, Constantinople, Cape Town and Baghdad and writes about the people he meets there and their social customs:
I was also much pleased to observe, that in European society, when a person is speaking, the others never interrupt him, and the conversation is carried on in a gentle tone of voice. One evening, while I was engaged in conversation with the lady of the house, the servant entered with a largely tray of costly china; and his foot catching the edge of the carpet, he fell, and broke the whole to pieces: the lady, however, never noticed the circumstance, but continued her conversation with me in the most disturbed manner.
On London, he writes:
The greatest ornament London can boast, is its numerous squares; many of which are very extensive, and only inhabited by people of large fortune. Each square contains a kind of garden in its center, surrounded with iron rails, to which every proprietor of a house in the square has a key, and where the women and children can walk, at all hours without being liable to molestation or insult.
In his Diary of the Revolt of 1857 (Dastanbu), Ghalib (1797-1869) writes about the siege of Delhi:
“The city has become a desert … By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonement. No fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses … Four things kept Delhi alive – the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes [it is said that] there was once a city of that name in the realm of India.”
THE COLONIAL PERIOD
The British abolished Persian as the official language of government in 1837. With the official institution of English and vernacular Indian languages such as Urdu and Bengali as languages of education, the status of Persian in India declined.
The growth of nationalism in India under the British and the idea of “one country, one language” meant that Persian was increasingly sidelined as a “foreign” language and one that belonged to India’s past.
Born in Sialkot in 1877, Muhammad Iqbal is one of the greatest poets in the Urdu tradition of the twentieth century and the National Poet of Pakistan. He wrote most of his poetry, however, in Persian and he remains one of the few Persian poets from India who is known in modern Iran.
Iqbal’s mostly long philosophical poems show the influence of Rumi and Bedil as well as Goethe and Nietzche. He interprets Sufi concepts such as ‘ishq (love) in light of the philosophy of the European Enlightenment, namely as a force of will that animates and motivates the self (khudi) to create, imagine and conquer the world:
The luminous point whose name is the Self Is the life-spark beneath our dust. By Love it is made more lasting More living, more burning, more glowing.
Iqbal’s epic poem, The Book of Eternity (Javednama), was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. In it, Iqbal journeys through the celestial spheres with the poet Rumi as his guide encountering the spirits of the Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, Muhammad, Hallaj, Ghalib and Nietzche along the way.
 The word “modern” is not without its problems, but it refers here to a period where, even before the advent of European colonialism, India was opening up to the world. The Mughal Empire was part of a cosmopolitan Persianate world and India at the height of Mughal rule was well-integrated into a larger world economy.
For over two centuries, the Mughal Empire united and ruled over much of India. It created a classical culture which combined the finest aspects of Persianate and Indic traditions. It united peoples from various cultures and religions across the subcontinent while the Mughal courts in Delhi, Agra and Lahore welcomed artists and traders from across Europe and Asia and Iran in particular.
Under the Mughals, Persian became the official language of education and its use expanded among the various religions, classes and castes of North India. It became the language of court literature not only in Delhi, Agra and Lahore but also among regional sultanates such as the Golconda Sultanate (1519-1687). Its use as a literary language also grew through poetic assemblies (mushaira), storytelling traditions (dastangoi) and Sufi monasteries (khanqahs) as well as the language of culture.
Iranian poets increasingly flocked to the Mughal courts so much so that India had become the leading centre of Persian poetry during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By this time, a classical Persian canon (Sa’di, Nizami and Hafiz) was in the making and the Mughals patronized not only new poets but also oversaw the translation of works in Sanskrit, Greek and Arabic into Persian.
The Indo-Persian tradition of romance (qissa or dastan) was already known during the Delhi Sultanate. Amir Khusrau’s The Tale of the Four Dervishes(Qissa-ye Chahar Dervesh) was a collection of tales and stories told by four dervishes as wise counsel to a king seeking immortality.
The Epic of Hamza(Hamzanama), composed under the reign of Akbar, was based originally on an oral tradition of storytelling. It tells of the adventures and exploits of Amir Hamza (an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad) in a world of battles, courtly politics, magic, fairies and trickery.
The writing of history flourished under the Mughals. Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnamacombined biography and chronicle in its portrayal of Akbar as the ideal monarch. The memoirs of the Emperor Jahangir (Jahangirnama) tell us about the rivers and lakes of Kashmir while Dargah Quli Khan (b. 1710) provides a glimpse into the lives of the commoners, musicians, dancers, poets and artists of Mughal Delhi.
Poets like Faizi (1547-1595), ‘Urfi (1556-1590), Talib (d. 1626), Qudsi (d. 1656), Kalim (d. 1650) and Sa’ib (d. 1677) continued writing in the classical Persian style while also expanded Persian’s poetic vocabulary through exchanges with languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Turkish and Arabic.
In his masnavi (long narrative poem), Nal Daman, Faizi adapted a story from the Mahabharata with its themes of love, exile into a Persian saga on the lover and the beloved:
The burning of desire and heartache Like wine poured at once in two glasses Like the same note sounded from two different keys The same intoxication in two different spots. The suffering that love induced in the Lover, the Beloved welcomed as her guest. The bell the Lover told in grief, echoed in the Beloved’s heart.
The poet Kalim wrote about a famine in the Deccan:
Not only the laughing buds Are always fleeing from me … Their relationship to me Is like that of the shore to the sea: Always coming towards me, Then ever fleeing from me. Life’s tragedy lasts but two days I’ll tell you what these two are for: One day to attach the heart to this and that; One day to detach it again.
‘Urfi crafted a more personal and emotional style:
From my friend’s gate – how can I describe The manner in which I went, How full of longing I came, Yet how embittered I went! How I beat my head on the wall In that narrow alleyway … In ecstatic intoxication I came In troubled silence I went.
Mughal poets praised the Sufi path of love and union with the divine over the formalism and hypocrisy of organized religion:
Give up the path of the Muslims Come to the temple To the master of the wine house So that you may see the divine secrets.
This was carried to the point of blasphemy by Sarmad (c. 1590-1661):
He who understood the secrets of the Truth Became vaster than the vast heaven; The Mullah says “Ahmed [the Prophet Muhammad] went to heaven”; Sarmad says “Nay! Heaven came down to Ahmed!”
By the eighteenth century, all classes in Mughal society who were educated in Persian began using it as a literary language.
Born in 1644 in Patna, ‘Abdul Qadir Bedil was of Turkish descent. He was raised by his uncle after the death of his parents and was educated in Persian, Arabic and Turkish. He studied Sufism and was also known to the Mughal court (most notably Aurangzeb’s son, Muhammad ‘Azam).
Bedil is considered one of the leading poets of the “Indian style” of Persian poetry (sabk-i-Hindi). His philosophical and mystical verses are complex, challenging and captivating:
I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint.
A delicate act is learning the secrets of love The pen slips in scribing the word of error
The trappings of desire adorn every heart’s shop There’s no mirror but its house of clarity reflects a bazaar
Regard the spring painted with hues of new secrets What your imagination never held the spring carries
Only wonder I seek from the world’s estate Like the wall’s mirrored image is my house and what it holds
Bedil was cited as an influence on both Ghalib and Iqbal in their Urdu and Persian verse. His verse remains popular in Afghanistan and Tajikistan where they are studied extensively.
 Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (Columbia University Press, New York: 2012), 204
Masnawi Nal-Daman Faizi, ed. Muhammad Taiyab Siddiqui (Patna: 1987), 191 (12-15) cited in cited in Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (Columbia University Press, New York: 2012) 216.
 Annemarie Schimmel, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture (Reaktion Books Ltd., London: 2004), 247.
The Delhi Sultanate united North India for the first time since the reign of Emperor Harsha (r. 606-647). It integrated India into the international trading networks and cosmopolitan civilization of the Islamic world. It also introduced new ideas in art, architecture, religion and technology, including paper-making which revolutionized literature, scholarship and the graphic arts.
The Mongol invasions of Central Asia and Khorasan during the thirteenth century caused Persian speaking poets, artists and Sufis to flee cities like Balkh, Bukhara and Samarqand and settle in and around Delhi. For a while, in fact, Delhi was seen as a haven for Persian scholars and artists in Asia.
Indo-Persian literature developed during the Delhi Sultanate through both court patronage and through an expansion of ever-widening networks of Persian-speaking literati, merchants, artists and Sufi monasteries (khanqah) across North India. Sufi centres like Nizam ud-Din Auliya’s (1238-1325) in Delhi also attracted men of learning like Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) and the historian, Zia ud-din Barani (1285-1358) who wrote in Persian.
One branch of literature that Persian introduced to India was the writing of history. In fact, Persian literature introduced new genres such as biography, memoirs, chronicles, travel writing and letter writing to Indian literature.
The two best-known works of history written during the Delhi Sultanate were Barani’s, The History of Firoz Shah (Tarikh-e- Firozshahi) and The Rules of Government (Fatwa-i-jahandari). The former chronicled the history of the Sultanate from Balban (1266-87) to Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1309-1388) while the latter emphasized the importance of the study of history.
The compilation of conversations between Sufis and their disciples (malfuzat) was another branch of Indo-Persian prose literature that figured prominently during the Sultanate. The malfuzat also included hagiographies on the Sufi masters and their teachings. The Morals of the Heart (Fawa’id al-Fawad) by Amir Hasan Sijzi (1254-1337) was one such malfuzat on Nizam ud-Din.
The Delhi Sultanate also saw the appearance of Indo-Persian fiction which combined Persian, Arabic and Indic styles of storytelling. The Tutinama of Zia al-Din Nakshabi Badayuni (d. 1350), based on the Sanskrit Sukasapatati (‘Seventy Tales of the Parrot’), was one such collection of fifty-two tales told by a parrot to its mistress to prevent her from committing adultery.
While Sufi poets like Shah Bu ‘Ali Qalandar (d. 1323) and Fahkr-al Din Iraqi (1213-1289) wrote during this period, few poets could match the renown and influence of Amir Khusrao.
Amir Khusrao remains one of the greatest Indo-Persian poets. A court poet for five of the Delhi sultans and a disciple of Nizam ud-Din, Khusrao composed five dīwān (collections) of poetry that included qasida (panegyric), masnavi (narrative) and over four thousand ghazal (love poems).
Born Abu’l Hasan Yamin ud-Din Khusrao in Delhi in 1253, Khusrao was raised by his maternal grandfather, Imad al-Mulk, a powerful nobleman in the service of the Sultan Iltutmish (r. 1211-1236).
Khusrau began his career as a poet at the age of 20 as the protégé of senior poets at the courts of Delhi. He also served patrons in Bengal and Multan and was on one occasion, captured by the Mongols who raided Multan in 1285. He later wrote an elegy on his experience:
People shed so many tears in all directions That five other rivers have appeared in Multan I wanted to speak of the fire in my heart But a hundred fiery tongues flared up in my mouth
In 1289, Khusrau returned to Delhi where he became the chief court poet of Jalaluddin Khalji (r. 1290-96) and Ala’ ud-Din Khalji (r. 1296-1316). It was during this period that he wrote much of his finest work including his ghazals on love and longing:
I am about to breathe my last. Come, so I may live. What good will it do for you to come once I am no more?
My heart left me but longing for you won’t leave my heart. My heart broke apart, but pain For you won’t diminish.
Khusrao wrote in a style at once mystical and secular:
Bring bright wine, for dawn has shown its face At a moment like this there’s no being without wine.
There is a prosperous and populous city where fragments of moon gleam at every turn. Each fragment holds a shard of my shattered heart.
His poetry also captured the Indian landscape of monsoon clouds and rainy seasons:
The clouds and the rain and I and my love waiting to say farewell: For my part, weeping, and for the cloud’s part, and for my love’s.
He also wrote of his love for Nizamuddin:
I have become you, you have become me I have become life, you have become body From now one, let no one say that I am other and you are another.
Amir Khusrau is one of the few Indo-Persian poets who became well known outside of India. His verse is said to have even inspired the great Persian poet, Hafiz of Shiraz (1315-1390). His works are still read in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan while in India and Pakistan, his poetry has been popularized through musical traditions like qawalli.
 Richard M. Eaton, India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 (University of California Press, Oakland, CA), 136. See also Keay, India: A History (Harper Collins, London: 2001), 247.
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:
Mountains: union (clandestine); kurunji flower; midnight; winter; waterfall;
Forest: expectancy; jasmine; evening; late summer; rivers;
Fields: irritation; marudam; before sunrise; late spring; ponds;
Seashore: separation; water lily; sunset; early summer; sea;
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.
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.
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).
Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. His love for a young man, Madho Lal, is legendary. Shah Hussain and Madho Lal are buried side by side at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”
When I read Shah Hussain for the first time, I felt like I was looking back at myself five hundred years ago. Reading his work, as a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then recently put off to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.
According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:
Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).
Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.
In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.
According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.
The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.
Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:
My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)
Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:
When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).
In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:
You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.
As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.
In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.
Baba Najmi, a Pakistani Punjabi poet who has gained the stature of a Peoples’ Poet Laureate in the Punjab, is visiting the Diaspora this July.
Baba Bashir Husain Najmi was born in Lahore in 1948. He has published three poetry books: ‘Akhran Wich Samundar’ Ocean in Words (1986), ‘Sochan Wich Jahan’ World in Thoughts (1995) and more recently, ‘Mera Naan Insaan’ My Name Human. He is a labourer, a trade unionist and a poet who distinguishes himself from others by challenging regressive laws, rules, cultural values and political entities. He is revered by many Punjabis in India, Pakistan and the diaspora. He has won many award. A statue of him has been installed in Jalandhar to recognize his poetic peace efforts between India and Pakistan. Visit Baba Najmi’s Facebook page: facebook.com/PoetBabaNajmi. Below are the details of his July 7th appearance in Surrey
Beyond the boundaries; An event with Great poet Baba Najmi When: SATURDAY. JULY 7, from 1.30 – 4.30 pm Where: Crossroads United Church 7655 – 120 St, Delta, BC Tickets: Only $10.00
The Committee of Progressive Pakistani Canadians (CPPC), Vancouver Chapter.
Program presented in Association with
The Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature, Centre for India and South Asia Research UBC and Tarksheel (Rational) Society of Canada.
Indo Canadian Workers Association (Brampton & Vancouver), Punjabi TV Show, ‘Mehak Punjab Di’, Progressive Arts Club, Surrey.