Monday, September 26, 2005

The mystery of paradise on earth

In the popular history of Desh, Kashmir is paradise lost. Talk about Kashmir to any Desi with literary pretensions, and invariably a time will come in the conversation when moist-eyed and overcome with emotion, he will unleash this persian couplet from his literary armoury:

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.

If there is a paradise on earth,
this is it, this is it, this is it!

Unhappy school essays, newspaper articles, bombastic speeches, hyperbolic tourism brochures and advertising, this is the standard quotation to invoke for any piece of rubbish writing to do with Kashmir.

I have become very tired of this quote! Further, I have dark suspicions that it had originally nothing to do with Kashmir at all, that the poet meant someplace else, and that it was only adopted in the context of Kashmir much later. I would usually have let the matter rest with suspecting lazily without checking, but in recent times, there has been an epidemic of people correcting me when I suggested that the quote may have associations with Delhi, telling me I was quite mistaken and that it refers to Kashmir.

Irritated at being "corrected" (by people who I think are wrong), I have decided to uncover the truth, find out what this quote actually referred to, and trace the origin of its association with Kashmir.

Here goes:

The couplet was composed by the poet Amir Khusrau (1253-1325 ad). He was born in what is now UP, but came to Delhi at an early age. It appears he lived in Delhi all his life, serving in the royal courts in the days of the Delhi Sultanate. There does not seem to be any evidence he ever went to Kashmir, nor any reason to think he was talking of Kashmir in his couplet. Instead, the obvious inference would be either Delhi, the city he lived in, or Desh, the nation he belonged to and much of which was ruled by his royal masters.

Some people seem to think the couplet was written by a poet called "Firdaus". To clarify, there was a very famous Iranian poet Firdausi (who wrote Shahnama), but he has no relation to Khusrau. In urdu poetry, there is a tradition of the poet inserting their name into the last couplet of a poem, and some people may be getting confused when they see "firdaus" in the couplet. Firdaus as used in the poem has nothing to do with authoriship, it simply means Paradise ("the gardens of paradise"). [As an aside, the eytmology here is interesting, the english word paradise actually derives from persian, and if you look at the two words 'firdaus' and 'paradise' carefully, you can appreciate just how similar they are]

Now to go ahead in time to the age of the Mughals and to Delhi's Lal-Qila, the Red Fort, built in the 17th century by Shah Jahan. Within we find the magnificent Diwan-e-Khaas, the hall of special audience, and upon whose walls were inscribed the couplet in question. Again, it could be inferred to be a reference to the city, or more likely a reference to the kingdom of Desh, ruled by the man who sat on the throne in the Diwan-e-Khaas. Kashmir would appear to not only be non-appropos in this context, it can also be inferred that at the time there was certainly no exclusive association , if any, of the phrase with Kashmir.

So where the Kashmir link?

Google suggests various permutations.

1. Some people suggest outright that Khusrau or "Firdaus" was talking about Kashmir in saying these words.

2. Some suggest that it was in fact a Mughal who uttered these words when moved by the beauty of Kashmir. Some say it was Jahangir, others say it was Shah Jahan, someone even says it was "Shah Jahan' s Prime Minister".

Jahangir seems the most popular choice. Now there is a logic to this, for the Mughals were indeed known to be fond of Kashmir, heading up to the mountains during summer to escape the heat of the plains. And in his memoirs, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, he certainly writes at length about Kashmir, praising its many charms and generally expressing his affection for the place. But does he quote Khusrau's popular line, is it referenced there? Alas, I do not know, I find no evidence one way or the other from the sources at hand, I have no access to the primary text, and yet I suspect it is so!

My theory then, is that Jahangir may have indeed remembered Khusrau's words and said them about Kashmir at a particularly awe-struck moment. I also take this to mean he was a man of learning and knew his poetry, rather than that it was an attempt by him to plagiarize Khusrau!

But for the moment, there is no evidence, and the connection of the verse with Kashmir remains unseen. And yet, there is some progress. Next time I hear a Desi starting to versofy in a discussion on Kashmir, I shall shake him by his collar until I have forced out either an admission of ignorance or gained a full and referenced explanation.

Satyamev Jayate.