Amir Khusrau: An Introduction

Amir Khusrau: An Introduction
by Dr. Sunil Sharma

Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) was one of the luminaries of medieval Delhi, a city that he loved also because it was the home of his Sufi master, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325). Khusrau, the ‘parrot of India’, was a courtier-poet, whose Persian poetry was read in large parts of West and Central Asia. His Hindi compositions and riddles were on the lips of many people in north India. Over time, he has especially come to be remembered as the founder of Hindustani culture (sometimes referred to as Ganga-Jamni) that is a synthesis of Muslim and Hindu elements, especially in the arts. In fact, in his Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru considers Kabir, Guru Nanak and Amir Khusrau as the most important contributors to the development of a mixed culture in India. Khusrau’s personal background reflects this as well, since his father was of Turkic stock from Central Asia and his mother an Indian.

Born Abul Hasan Yaminuddin Khusrau, and later given the title ‘Amir’ (Prince of poets), he was raised in a highly cultured environment and educated in all kinds of arts and skills - from reading the Persian classics, learning languages to horsemanship and doing battle. Khusrau shaped the character of Indian cultural traditions in a distinct way through his contributions in the fields of Indian classical music, Sufism, qawwali, and poetry. In the sources, he appears as a learned and pious individual, charming to his friends and curious about the world around him, a figure in medieval Indian history with whom few can compare. Much of what we know about Khusrau comes from his own Persian writings. We learn about his affection for his maternal grandfather, his mother, brothers, and his children.

Entering the world of Khusrau is a rewarding but challenging prospect. One of the most difficult approaches in this project is trying to unravel the layers of cultural myth and legend that have accrued around his personality over the centuries, although these are of historical importance too. People of each successive age have interpreted his place in Indo-Muslim society in different ways. It may be well to keep in mind that Khusrau was primarily a court poet whose profession was to praise the rulers of Delhi of the Khilji and early Tughlaq dynasty. He began to write poetry as a boy and entered the service of the court when he was in his twenties. His official poetry commemorated the victories of the sultans, the Persian New Year (nauruz) and other Islamic festivals at court. He also wrote elegies for the death of princes and kings. He was a witness to the high and low points of the Delhi sultanate, a period of great cultural achievement but also violence, the details of which Khusrau faithfully recorded in a whole range of Persian works.

Khusrau is not just present in local Indian traditions but also in international circles with his ghazals being read and sung in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. His ghazals emphasize the place of love in human and mystical experiences and stand alongside those of other Persian master poets such as Sa‘di, Rumi, and Hafiz. In the art of composing narrative tales in verse, Khusrau is second only to Nizami, the two poets being the first to versify the legends of the star-struck lovers Laila-Majnun and Khusrau-Shirin. From the many illustrated manuscripts of Khusrau’s poetic works that were produced in the imperial workshops of the Timurids, Ottomans and Mughals, there is a continuous record of their popularity and importance. Ghazals by Khusrau were sung in courtly and non-courtly settings, for entertainment and during Sufi sama sessions respectively.

The field in which Khusrau has left the most visible mark is the form of qawwali. The devotional and moving compositions by him that are included in the qawwali repertoire are performed and listened to in the world beyond India and Pakistan. Even in this uniquely Indian performative genre, he brought his knowledge of multiple traditions together, so that on the one hand, bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki (The road to the well is difficult) is a pure folk song sung by a woman, while name danam che manzil bud shabja’ike man budam(I don’t know the place where I was last night) represents the high Perso-Arabic mystical tradition.

Khusrau also became associated with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya at a young age. He must have divided his time equally between the royal court and Sufi khanqah. In fact, he did not make a separation between these two worlds as indicated by the dedications in his works to both the temporal ruler and the pir. In the circle of the Chishtis of Delhi, his devotion to the master was equaled by that of another courtier-poet, Hasan Sijzi, who recorded the sermons of Hazrat Nizamuddin in an important work in Persian, Fava’id al-fu’ad (Benefits for the heart). These men were well aware of the deep roots that the Chishti silsila had put down in India and the spiritual power the Sufis wielded over both the rulers and the ruled. Sufism was a way to propagate Islam in this part of the world, but also a way of life that brought people of different backgrounds and cultural traditions together. Qawwali was an expression of devotional fervor that over time has transcended religious and cultural boundaries because the goal of getting close to the divine is a universal one.

At the culmination of his career, Khusrau was able to develop his full powers as a poet of narrative tales, drawing on Persian literary models and avast Indian storehouse of stories that he would have known from oral transmissions. In his romance, Hasht bihisht (Eight paradises), the stories revolve around the love of the Persian king Bahram Gur for seven princesses from seven different lands. Inspired by Nizami’s work, Haft paikar (Seven beauties), Khusrau’s complex use of language involves puns, a fast-paced narrative, and plots involving magic and adventure. We come across speaking statues, laughing robots, a magical device to make one invisible, all of which could be traced back to Indian folk tales or Sanskrit sources such as Somadeva’s Katha saritasagara (Ocean of stories) and Shuka saptati (Seventy tales of the parrot). In another story in his work, Khusrau uses the plot also found in the Panjabi folktale of Sohni-Mahival in which a young woman uses an earthen pitcher to swim across a river for a tryst with her lover every night. The story of the King of Sarandip and his three sons also has a popular Indian provenance. Just as Khusrau’s romances were read and imitated by later poets, the stories were also richly illustrated many times by miniature painters. Unfortunately, hardly any of these are available in modern translations into Indian languages.

Although Khusrau traveled extensively in South Asia, from Panjab to Bengal and the Deccan, as far as we know he never ventured out of the subcontinent. However, he was so well informed about many cultures, both those of India and the larger Islamic world, that his works display an encyclopedic knowledge of languages, geography, flora and fauna, musical instruments, Hindu religious practices and history. Much of this knowledge was distilled in a Persian work of his last years, Nuh sipihr (Nine spheres), that is a masterpiece of poetic achievement. In this and other works, his deep attachment to the city of Delhi resulted in many tender verses of praise for its impressive monuments and fine character of its inhabitants.

Today, there is a tendency to sanctify Khusrau as a mystical figure, almost equal to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, but perhaps this is not entirely out of place because of his sincere devotion to his pir. They are buried close together in the Nizamuddin shrine complex, as they were in life. Thus, a visit to their final resting places is on the itinerary of every visitor to Delhi. Getting familiar with Amir Khusrau’s life and poetry is a fascinating activity in its own right, but it also helps us understand the past of this great city, a past that is very much visible in the present, and how it came to be what it is. Khusrau’s benediction upon the city can be invoked in all times and ages:

Refuge of religion,
Refuge and paradise of justice,
Long may it endure!
Since it is a heavenly paradise
in every essential quality,
may God keep it from calamity!