Category Archives: Poetry

Only Kashmir, the Rest is Worthless

Published / by Jehangir

I received an interesting email a couple of weeks ago. Romesh Bhattacharji wanted to confirm the existence of the inscription ‘agar firdaus bar ru-e zamin ast’ in the ‘Black pavilion’ of Shalimar Bagh.

Black pavilion of Shalimar

Agar Firdaus bar roy-e zamin ast,
hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast.

If there is a paradise on earth,
it is here, it is here, it is here.

Every child in Kashmir can recite this verse attributed to Hazrat Amir Khusrau (1253-1325). The mystical poet lived during the Delhi Sultanate period and is considered one of India’s greatest Persian-language poets even today. His poetry must have been quite popular during the hey-day of the Mughals as it is inscribed on many monuments in the Indian subcontinent including the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort.

The confusion about the existence of the inscription ‘agar firdaus bar ru-e zamin ast’ in Shalimar Bagh may be due to lazy research by self-styled historians like Rana Safvi. According to her article shilling her book:

This led me to research the verse, including spending a good few hours searching the Black Pavilion in Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar, Kashmir as there is a common perception that the original verse was inscribed in the Black Pavilion built during the early part of Emperor Jahangir’s reign (1569-1627) on the top terrace of Shalimar Bagh. Emperor Jahangir was a connoisseur of beauty so it was entirely possible that he should have it inscribed.

However, I hunted high and low and could not find it – either physically present on the Black or any other pavilion of the Shalimar gardens, or any reference to it in any book on the gardens‘.

Unfortunately for Ms Safvi (and her tourist-blog methods) the earliest travellers who travelled to Kashmir like François Bernier in 1664-1665 have confirmed the existence of the inscription in Shalimar.

Bernier Kashmir Book

Voyages de F. Bernier (angevin) contenant la description des Etats du Grand Mogol, de l’Indoustan, du royaume de Kachemire (David-Paul Maret ed., Amsterdam, 1699)

Bernier Kashmir Book

From Bernier’s description of the Black Pavilion (translated by Constable as the summer-house):
‘The whole of the interior is painted and gilt, and on the walls of all the chambers are inscribed certain sentences, written in large and beautiful Persian characters.’

The post-script confirms that ‘Among others, the celebrated legend, If there be an Elysium on earth, it is this, it is this.’

Probably the term ‘Elysium‘ in place of ‘Paradise‘ in the translation of Bernier‘s book confounded the ‘historian’. The lapse cannot be excused because Ms Safvi is quite emphatic that she could not find ‘any reference to it in any book on the gardens.’ Maybe she only consulted coffee-table books written by ‘researchers’ like herself.

Ram Chandra Kak, the former Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (and erstwhile Superintendent of Archaeology) has provided the conventional translation in his ‘Ancient Monuments of Kashmir‘ :

agar firdaus bar ru-e zamin ust, hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ust.
(If there be a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this).

Kak Kashmir BookKak Kashmir Book

Ancient Monuments of Kashmir, Ram Chandra Kak (India Society, London, 1933)

Kak also explains why Ms Rana could not locate the inscription:

‘The large stone doors now no longer exist; the domes have given place to a common shingle roof; the gilding and paint and the inscription on the walls are now covered or replaced by a coat of whitewash; the view of the lake is cut off by an ugly stone wall; but in spite of these disastrous changes, the garden still preserves its singular charm.’

The post-Mughal pre-Independence history of Kashmir is a sad saga of exploitation and degradation and the wonders of Shalimar also seem to have suffered some degree of abasement including the loss of the inscriptions that once graced the interiors of the Black Pavilion.

Jehangir in Kashmir
Emperor Jehangir hunting with hawks in Kashmir.
Courtesy: British Museum

The Mughal Emperors must have found the sublime verse just perfect to describe Kashmir. On his deathbed Jehangir was asked what he wanted.
‘Only Kashmir, the rest is worthless.’

My namesake, if you excuse the terrible pun, was dead right. Who are we to disagree?

P.S: Straight from the Tuzk-i-Jahangiri:
Kashmir is a garden of eternal spring, or an iron fort to a palace of kings – a delightful flower-bed, and a heart-expanding heritage for dervishes. Its pleasant meads and enchanting cascades are beyond all description. There are running streams and fountains beyond count. Wherever the eye reaches, there are verdure and running water‘.

This Too Shall Pass

Published / by Jehangir

Zaffar Ahmed Khan, my maternal uncle, was the most erudite Kashmiri I have met in my life. A self-confessed anglophile, he looked the part of the perfect gentleman in his natty tweed blazers.

I owe my love of books and nature to Zaffar Saheb. An insatiable appetite for reading was stimulated by our conversations and sustained by his extensive library. Zaffar Saheb would take us kids (Hero, Riju, Javid, and me) for rambling walks, long drives for the sake of driving and not just to get from one place to another, and clambers up hillsides to experience and observe nature. The fact that my ‘nanihal’ on the Boulevard was a stone’s throw from both a lake and a hill meant that one could and did experience these impromptu outings at the drop of a hat.

Solving the Times crossword puzzle was our pastime of choice and occasionally I would let myself get carried away by my youthful enthusiasm. Once when I was being particularly boastful he put forth an unusual challenge. I had to seek out a single Persian word that expressed the adage ‘This too shall pass.’ Having studied Hindi in school, it was an almost impossible task and anyway by that time I was drifting towards the ‘husn-e-farang ki bahaar‘ forbidden by Iqbal and so the challenge passed gently into the depths of my memory.

That is until a life-changing era dawned – the Age of Information. The superpowers of Google combined with the digitization of even the most obscure bits of human knowledge into instantly searchable databases has given ordinary folks possession of the power of Jamshed’s fabled chalice. The provenance of ‘This too shall pass‘ lies revealed by these weapons of ‘mass dissemination’.

The phrase seems to have originated in the writings of medieval Persian Sufi poets, and was often attached to a fable of a great king who is humbled by the simple words. The Sufi master Attar of Nishapur added the detail that ‘This too shall pass‘ was inscribed on a ring, which had the ability to make the happy man sad and the sad man happy.

In ‘Polonius: A Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances‘ published in 1852, the English poet Edward Fitzgerald describes a sultan requesting of King Solomon a sentence that would always be true in good times or bad; Solomon responds, ‘This too will pass away‘.

The story became popular and in 1859, Abraham Lincoln presented the expression in an address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

Now that Google had helped me to establish the etymology, I moved on to the single (Persian) word substitution challenge. Another Google session revealed that A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings by James Hinton Knowles could provide some answers. But I was supposed to seek out a Persian word, wasn’t I? Apparently well-to-do Kashmiris could read, write and converse in Persian in bygone times.

Flashback: In later years of the past century, the proprietor of the erstwhile Raina’s Book Store would roll his eyes at the approach of a civil engineer and a schoolboy. The duo would clamber up the rickety stairs to his dusty storeroom and spend hours rummaging through the oldest titles in the collection.

The schoolboy would pop down like clockwork to pester the owner with a single endlessly repeated question ‘Do you have so-and-so edition of so-and-so book?’ ‘Whatever I have is already upstairs‘ he would reply with infinite patience and the cycle would go on and on.

One one of these jaunts we picked up a copy of ‘A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings‘ which Zaffar Saheb presented to me.

Looking back it was probably a typically understated clue-cum-reproach for my waning interest in the world of books. I failed to pick up the hint and the book remained unread, but for a few cursory page flips, till the 2014 flood wiped away my library.

But, hey, never say die. One of the greatest treasures of the internet is undoubtedly which has millions of scanned machine-readable copies of rare and antique books. So rather belatedly I tracked down a digital copy of ‘A Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs & Sayings‘ and present to you (ad verbum) the entry for ‘Suh tih dohá Nasaro.’

‘Suh tih dohá Nasaro’
‘that day also passed, O Nasar’

A quotation from a list of conversation between Sheikh Nur-ud-din and his favourite disciple Nasar. Conversation between these two saints often took the form of poetry according as they were inspired. Here is the piece of poetry : –

maidán wawas tsakuj nani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro.
tun wugarah tah seni pani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,
nishi rani tah wurani khani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,
wurah batah tah gádah gani ; suh tih dohá Nasaro,

when the back was bare upon the bleak plains ; that day also passed, O Nasar,
when we had wet rice and dry vegetables only to eat ; that day too, has gone, O Nasar,
when the wife was near one and warm clothing covered the body ; that day, too, went by, O Nasar,
when boiled rice and sliced fish were provided for us ; that day also passed, O Nasar.

A Persian (edit – now we are getting somewhere!) saying from another unknown source is frequently quoted by the Persian-speaking Kashmiri : –

Shab e samur guzashto ;
Shab e tanur guzasht.

That night, when we had fur to cover us, has gone ;
That night, when we had fire to warm us, has gone.

There is something similar to this in Persian, but who is the author of it, or where it is to be found, is not known :

Munam ki kabáb mekhorad :
War báda i náb mekhorad ;
Daryozah ha kashkol i gadái nán rá,
Tar kardah ba áb mekhorad;

The wealthy man eats roasted flesh :
Passing away.
Should he drink pure wine ;
Passing away.
The beggar eats the alms-bread,
After having soaked it in water ;
Passing away.

These lines were probably known in the days of Akbar, for when that monarch asked his favourite minister Birbal to do something for him, which would be a source of happiness to him in time of adversity as well in the time of prosperity, Birbal replied by sending to the emperor a few days afterwards a beautiful ringstone upon which he had caused to be engraved in Persian character the word ‘Meguzrad’ ; he also sent a nice letter with it advising the king to look upon the ring whenever he was tempted to be over-elated by prosperity, or over-depressed by misfortune.

So finally, one word to rule them all: Meguzrad!
(Migozarad may be a more contemporary spelling)

P.S: The commonly used phrases to express the thought behind ‘This too shall pass‘ in Persian and Arabic are:
Persian: In niz bogzarad
Arabic: La shay’ yadum (lit. Nothing lasts)

It May or May Not Last

Published / by Jehangir

This time around I have decided to give Urdu some time to heal and inflict my first translation upon Kashmiri poetry.

Roziya na roziya (it may or may not last) is a mystical poem by Moti Lal Saqi (1936-1999).

With the usual disclaimer that my knowledge of (poetic) Kashmiri is quite limited, here goes.

This evening of sorrow is a solace
which may or may not last
these curls in the beloved’s tresses
may or may not last

why this agitation
o devout one?
our breath till morning
may or may not last

my only boast-worthy possession
is your desire/well-being
the beloved’s gaze is a blessing
which may or may not last

i am an infidel
guilty of idol worship
this vision of the beloved
may or may not last

you are the sustainer of the universe
this world is yours to command
do i deny your bondage?
deliverance (from sorrow) is all i desire

your own heart is your guide to each destination
it need not be beseeched or bribed
a shrine within your own self
whoever entreats, only the adept reap the blessings

When the late Anjum Sadiq encountered Moti Lal Saqi during the 1980’s he asserted that he had dedicated the poem to her grandfather – Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed. The poem has been referenced in an earlier post.

The poem was originally sung by Mohammed Khalil and party for Radio Kashmir.
The traditional version can be viewed here.
This is a more rocking Chakri version.