Amir Hasan Sijzi Dehlavi: How the Ghazal Made it to India

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    Who wrote the first ghazals in India? This popular form of poetry appears so timeless that one rarely wonders where it came from. Yet someone did popularise it, and in the Indian subcontinent, that person was the poet Amir Hasan Sijzi Dehlavi (ca. 1254 – 1337), credited as the originator of the Indo-Persian ghazal. Sadly, Hasan’s name has been forgotten by all but the connoisseurs.

    A key reason he has been forgotten is that the language he wielded with such skill, Persian, has faded from public use in India. It hasn’t helped that the study of India’s Islamic history has faced institutional and bureaucratic challenges.

    Even Hasan’s grave in a remote location in Khuldabad, near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, receives few visitors. Located in a small, walled compound, the grave was supposed to be open to the sky, although a rickety tin shed has been recently erected over it, likely to protect it from the elements. Buried in the same compound is another legendary poet, Azad Bilgrami (1704–1786), who composed primarily in Arabic and Persian.

    These graves were probably marked by historic tombstones, but visitors will find modern tombstones recording the poets’ names, titles and dates. Aside from the graves, the site contains the earliest extant Persian inscription in the Daulatabad region, from the period when the Delhi Sultanate controlled the Deccan, between 1314 and 1347. The region came under the control of the Delhi Sultanate when Alauddin Khalji (r. 1296–1316) sent armies to conquer Daulatabad, which was then called Deogir. By 1347, however, Delhi lost control of the Deccan, when military officers posted in Daulatabad rebelled against the then-ruling sultan, Muhammad bin Tughluq (r. 1325–51). One of these officers, Hasan Gangu, established a new dynasty called the Bahmanis, which ruled over north Deccan from 1347 to 1490.

    The Persian inscription is attached to the western wall of the grave complex, but its size, style, and calligraphy suggest that it was taken from some other monument and placed here, likely when the other monument was destroyed or undergoing renovation. The inscription records the construction of a building (ʿimarat) in the month of Muharram in 719 hijri (February 1317). The building must have been an important one to warrant an inscription of this kind—one that later generations saw fit to preserve, even though we know little about the building to which it was originally attached. Given the fact that the building was inaugurated in one of the holiest months of the Islamic calendar, it was perhaps a mosque or some kind of religious structure.

    Hasan was a poet in Alauddin Khalji’s court and a contemporary of the far more famous Amir Khusraw (1253 – 1325). In the preface to his collected works (divan), Hasan tells us that he started writing poems at the age of thirteen, which was when he might have begun experimenting with the Indo-Persian ghazal, i.e. ghazals written in Persian that incorporate words from Indic languages. A ghazal is a kind of lyric poem with a single refrain that is repeated in the following pattern: at the end of both lines of the first couplet and then at the end of the second line of subsequent couplets. Ghazals often have a romantic theme, and sometimes, the poet invokes his own name within the poem, typically in order to draw attention to his plight or sorrow.

    The literary form of the ghazal already had a long history in Arabic and Persian but it had not taken root in the Indian subcontinent. Hasan’s major contribution was utilising the form in the Indian context. Especially noteworthy were the ways in which he played with the refrain—opening up a single word to multiple meanings—and how he invoked (or omitted) his own pen name in the poem. To give a brief example of his use of refrains, one of his ghazals goes:

    دو روز شد که شدم زان مه یگان جدا

    همه نشاط شد از تن بدین بهانه جدا

    منم بناله زان از در جدای دوست

    چو زار ناله و مرغی ز آشیانه جدا

    To transliterate in Roman script:

    dū rūz shud ke shudam zān meh yegān-i judā

    hameh nishāṭ shud az tan bedīn-i bihāneh judā

    manam benāleh zān az dar juda-ye dūst

    chū zār naleh-o-murghī ze āshyāneh judā

    In the literary scholar Rebecca Gould’s translation, this reads:

    Since my lover parted two days have passed.

    Every joy left this body when he parted.

    Like a bird torn from its nest, I lament

    Separation from my beloved’s door.

    Here the refrain جدا (judā) touches on a variety of different semantic registers: in the first line, it signals the lover’s parting, while by the fourth line, it touches on a more abstract idea of separation from the beloved – a favorite theme in romantic and mystical poetry.

    As if pioneering the Indo-Persian ghazal was not enough, Hasan also created another important literary genre: the malfuzat, or the genre of conversations with Sufi mystics. Combining sections in verse and prose, he composed a remarkable text called Fawaid al-Fuad (Morals of the Heart; written between 1308 and 1322), wherein he recorded his conversations with a preeminent Chishti Sufi shaykh of the subcontinent, Nizamuddin Auliya (1242–1325). During his own lifetime, Nizamuddin Auliya was considered the most important Sufi saint in Delhi, and his dargah in Delhi, in the locality named after him, continues to draw thousands of devotees of every faith each day.

    Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasises an ascetic life spent contemplating God and His wonders. Contrary to popular perception, however, not anyone could become a Sufi. It required specific and systematic training in a particular Sufi order. Although the origin of Sufism has a long and complicated history, this system of Islamic thought received a boost after the Mongols sacked the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad in 1258. With the Mongol invasion, the Caliph’s authority as the figurehead of the Islamic world suffered a serious blow. Alternative religious figureheads appeared, of which the figure of a Sufi shaykh was one. In India, the Chishti Sufi order—so called because it originated in the town of Chisht in modern-day Afghanistan—emerged as a strong force. The order allied itself with the Ghurid sultans of the Delhi Sultanate. Soon, Delhi sultans were seeking the blessings of Sufi shaykhs. Poets such as Hasan and Khusraw often found themselves oscillating between the palace and the Sufi hospice.

    Nizamuddin Auliya critiqued mindless religious dogmatism, and his teachings on non-violence, kindness, and justice, as well as his supposed ability to perform miracles, made him popular in Delhi. His life spanned the reign of thirteen rulers of Delhi; since many of these rulers held him in special regard, his importance grew as his hospice frequently received royal visitors. Furthermore, his khanaqah attracted the greatest literary talent of the time, such as Hasan and Khusraw, whose poems dealt with Sufi themes because of his influence.

    Prior to Hasan’s literary endeavours, only a select group of disciples had access to Sufi teachings, which were anyway mystical in nature. Hasan moored Sufi discourse to everyday reality and gave it a more concrete form. Fawaid disseminated Nizamuddin’s teachings to a broad audience, and patrons from all walks of life commissioned its copies. Each conversation in the Fawaid is dated—a fact of tremendous importance to historians.

    Considering that many historical texts from the fourteenth century do not mention the dates for several important events, the presence of dates in Fawaid allows for a more complete picture of medieval society. Fawaid remains one of the most popular works of Sufi literature in the subcontinent. It has been translated into English and Urdu, and at least the Urdu translation can be found in many dargah bookstores across India.

    In late 1327 or early 1328, Muhammad bin Tughlaq infamously moved his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and commanded the populace of Delhi to migrate with him. Hasan, by then attached to Tughlaq’s court, was one of the many migrants who settled in Daulatabad. Even prior to Tughlaq’s shift of capitals, Sufi shaykhs from Delhi had been moving to the Deccan to spread their message. One such Sufi shaykh who settled near Daulatabad, in the town of Khuldabad, was Burhanuddin Gharib (d. 1337) – the official successor (khalifa) to Nizamuddin Auliya. Hasan regularly visited Burhanuddin’s hospice in Khuldabad and composed poems in his honour.

    When Hasan died, he was buried in a remote location in the same town. His posthumous fame was such that he himself came to be regarded as a Sufi shaykh. Popular belief has it that Sufi shaykhs receive favourable treatment on the Day of Judgment. This is why Sufi shrines inevitably attract later graves; those buried nearby hope to receive some of the shaykh’s blessing (barakat) by being in his proximity.

    With several unmarked graves around that of Hasan, we see a similar phenomenon here. Indeed, because Khuldabad contains the dargahs of several prominent Sufi shaykhs, important kings from later periods have chosen to be buried in the town, making it one of the most remarkable necropolises in India.

    The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707) is buried here, next to the dargah of Zainuddin Shirazi (d. 1369). Malik Ambar (d. 1626), the great Abyssinian ruler of the Deccan, is buried here, next to the dargah of the Zar Zari Zar Baksh (d. early 14th century.). The first Nizam of Hyderabad, Asaf Jah I (r. 1724–48), is buried here, next to the dargah of Burhanuddin Gharib.

    But there is more than the commonplace idea of barakat to explain the presence of Azad Bilgrami’s grave near Hasan’s. Much like Hasan, Azad too had migrated from North India, from the town of Bilgram in Uttar Pradesh, to settle in the Daulatabad region. Like Hasan, Azad also penned Sufi literature but rather than focusing on the conversations of a single shaykh, he attempted to give a brief biography of the famous Sufi shaykhs in the Deccan.

    Titled Rauzat al-Auliya (Garden of the Saints; c. 1740), Azad’s slim book focused on the lives of ten Sufi shaykhs, nine of whom are buried in Khuldabad (the tenth is Gesu Diraz, whose tomb is in Gulbarga in Karnataka). The book opens with praise of the local landscape of Daulatabad and Khuldabad, which is compared to that of paradise. While comparing cities with paradise is a common trope in Persian literature, Azad notes in his description that the region has a distinguished history and that the magnificent Ellora caves are nearby.

    A prolific writer, Azad composed several works in Persian and Arabic. His Arabic Diwan contains more than three thousand verses and he is considered one of the greatest poets in Arabic from India. Azad also wrote two large biographical dictionaries of Persian and Urdu poets: Sarw-i Azad (the title is a play on Azad’s pen name and the Persian “azad sarv”, which means “tall Cyprus tree”; “Azad Sarv” was also the name of an important, although by then obscure, Persian poet) and Yad-i Baiza (the title means “White Hand” and refers to a miracle of Moses mentioned in the Quran). Given Azad’s sojourn from North India to the Deccan, his literary and Sufi affiliations, and his admiration for Khuldabad’s natural beauty, it is no wonder he chose to be buried in the shrine complex of a poet with whom he had so much in common.

    Sadly, the beauty of Khuldabad that Azad describes is no longer to be found. A drive from Aurangabad to Khuldabad takes one through roads strewn with plastic waste, with views of rapacious mining works to extract clay for the brick kilns that dot the Daulatabad-Khuldabad region. The many lakes that Azad praised in Rauzat are covered in a layer of plastic waste.

    Yet the graves of Hasan and Azad are located in a place remote enough to have retained some of its serenity. For the moment, the poets pass their afterlife in peace.


    Mohit Manohar is completing a PhD in art history, with a special focus on the medieval history of Daulatabad. He is a student at Yale University.
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