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Song of the Nine Heavens

Excerpts from Amir Khusrau's Mathnavi Noh Sipihr about India's spring season

Yousuf Saeed

Among various mathnavis (long poems) Amir Khusrau composed in Persian, Noh Sipihr, or Nine Heavens, is the most valuable in terms of the rich information it provides about 12th and 13th century India's culture and society. As the name suggests, the poem is divided into nine chapters, each characterized by a different poetic meter (behr). Noh Sipihr, composed in praise of the kings Qutb Mubarak Shah (Mubarak Khalaji) and Khusrau Khan, is full of the poet's love for India and his pride for being an Indian. He describes many intricate details of what he observes, thereby providing us valuable historical material. Here are a few excerpts from chapter five - describing the winter and spring in India, as the king embarks on a hunting journey:

How lovely is winter in India
that makes the home and outside look like a garden.
Neither the road becomes a frozen back of the snow,
Nor the hands remain fixed in fists due to cold.
The wide fields are never short of greenery,
The trees never look naked of leaves.
The air is not empty of the chirping of birds,
Nor the garden is deserted of sounds.
Any one can embark on a journey
carrying one or two layers of clothes only.

The splendor of spring is best to be enjoyed in India,
Since Khorasan is a frozen hell at that moment.
It does not suit anyone,
to stay in Ghazni or Khwarizm during winter.
Because the water there is frozen like dirty silver,
And the sun in shivering of cold in the sky.
And the lake proclaims: this extreme cold has turned
my existence into a field of metallic water!
Even dresses of wool and leather (in Khorasan) are so cold,
Our (Indian) cotton and tozy (a thin cloth material) are so much better.

The surface of water (in the rivers) becomes a bridge of marble,
which the highways of nations cross upon.
Although in their summer days,
Even a huge army could not cross those mighty rivers.
The greenery is all baked with this cold fire,
Rome and Ray seem like frozen hell.

But India, from head to toe, is a picture of heaven,
Fields, everywhere, are covered with golden crops.
Stalks of crops babble all around,
As if green iron spears have grown blades.

When the farmer looks at his barley shoots,
"These jewels are so lovely", he says.
Mustard flowers on the green stems,
Sparkle like golden jewels on a green carpet.
The crops of sugarcane, miles on end, evergreen,
The canes are red, while their tops are green.
You may call them beloveds from Kashmir,
Wearing red silk jackets under green caps.
This gorgeous, sweet embodiment contains inside
The boiled syrup as well as the unfermented wine.

The winter hence neither denudes the foliage,
Nor jasmine does it wilt.
Flora on the ground and branches on the trees,
Freshness spreading in the wide fields,
In one such season, the king and his army is busy
Entertaining themselves,
Playing chess sometimes, or hunting in the jungles.  

Khusrau's love for India's flora and its favourable climate is evident in many other places. While arguing on why India is the most beautiful place to live in the world, he uses the example of Adam, who when exiled from heaven to earth, first set his foot in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) according to the Biblical and Islamic traditions:

Adam was not exiled from the heaven,
because he consumed the forbidden fruit.
He was sent to India, since
the flora of the paradise was stricken by autumn.
And the only place, as favourable as heaven, was India.  

If he was sent to Khorasan, Arab or China,
He wouldn't have survived the extreme climate there
for more than a few hours.  
India remains in Spring throughout the year,
with its evergreen, fragrant flora,
Since Ray and Rome get a Spring for a couple of months only,
Their flowers remain devoid of smells.  

Besides Noh Sipihr, Khusrau's many other poems and works portray India's flora in a myriad of colours. His Mathnavi Qiranus-Sa'dain and Duval Rani Khidr Khan enlist hundreds of Persian and Hindi names - flowers and plants many of which are unknown today or may have become extinct: Sosan, kabood, bela, gule-zarrin, raihan, lala, nilofar, juhi, sevti, sad-barg, gule-surkh, dhak, kevra, ketaki, maulsari, chameli, champa…

Rai Champa (magnolia) is the king amongst flowers,
It smells like the blend of wine and musk.
Its Jasmine-like body is delicate as a beloved,
Its colour is pale as a lover.
(from Qiranus-Sa'dain)

(The above account looks at a thin cross section of Khusrau's writings, especially about the natural abundance during the spring time. But his prose and poetry has a lot more about flowers, fruits, and condiments, such as Paan, mango, and so on. Maybe a Botanist should read Khusrau's Persian works to throw some light on the flora of 12th century south Asia. But then, maybe a Zoologist too; and for that matter, an Astrologer, a Linguist, an Anthropologist, a Musicologist, a political strategist, a folklorist, and so on, need to apply their attention to Khusrau's works, to learn more about our illustrious past. There are almost nine authentic (and a few more unauthentic) volumes of prose and poetry composed by Khusrau, out of which only about 20 per cent has so far been translated from Persian. Many of the original works, in fact, are preserved only in museums, and thus inaccessible.)

Yousuf Saeed
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