Bagh-o-Bahar, also known as Qissa-e-Chahar Darvesh, is believed to have been composed in Persian sometimes in the fourteen century. Though the first Urdu translation appeared in 1775, it was Mir Amman’s translation in colloquial Urdu, completed in 1803, that made the work popular.
Structurally similar to the Arabian Nights, this book is a collection of five main stories and several sub-stories loosely strung together, with all the ingredients of a traditional Oriental epic-beauty, valour, love and adventure, with elements of the supernatural. The principal characters are four wandering dervishes-three princes and a rich merchant- who have renounced the world on account of their failure in love. In their journeys they meet characters more unfortunate than themselves who tell stories more fantastical than their own…
Wonderfully entertaining as fiction, the stories should be of added interest because of the rich descriptive detail they provide of the customs, beliefs and people of the time.
Mir Amman was born in Delhi into a family of distinguished retainers at the Mughal Court, sometimes in the second half of the 18th century. Forced to leave the city of his ancestors at the close of the century owning to the declining fortunes of the Mughal Empire,he found employment as a munshi at the British East India Company’s Fort William College in Calcutta. It was here that he translated Bagh-o-Bahar (in AD 1803) and Husain Waiz Kashifi, which was published much later under the title Ganj-e-Khoobi.
Mohammed Zakir was born in 1932 in Delhi and educated at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, where he took post-graduate degrees in economics and Urdu literature. His main interests have been translation, literary criticism and Urdu linguistics. Among his published works are Distracting Words, translations from Ghalib’s Urdu and Persian poetry; The Quintessence of Self-Culture, a translation of K.G. Saiyidain’s writings; Lesson in Urdu Script, which has been several reprints, and some anthologies of Urdu prose and poetry. Presently he is working on a book for English readers on N.M. Rashed, a major Urdu poet.
Mohammed Zakir lives in Delhi where he has been teaching Urdu language and literature at the Jamia Millia Islamia for over three decades.
A Tale of Four Dervishes is a translation of Mir Amman’s Bagh-o-Bahar, literally ‘Garden and Spring’. Itself an Urdu translation cum complication of earlier Persian and Urdu versions of Qissa-e-Chahar Darvesh, which Mir Amman ascribes to Amir Khusrau (d. AD 1325), it has seen several translations and transcriptions in many Indian and European languages. Recent research leads us to believe that the Qissa was complied several years after Khusrau and that its Turkish, Persian and Urdu versions already existed before Mir Amman took it up. Be that as it may, Mir Amman’s work remains significant in that it appeared at a time when very little prose literature existed in Urdu for, like many other modern Indo-Aryan languages, Urdu was seldom employed for serious writing. This was done in Persian, the language of the court and administration of Mughal India.
Most of the known prose literature in Urdu, as later traced down from the fourteen century onwards in the Deccan or in northern, India, consisted of tracts, treatises, pamphlets and translations invariably religious in character. The fictional part of it was generally marked by the tendency to use involved sentences and rhyming words. Use of simple, direct prose in fiction, except in a few works which have been unearthed by later researchers, was generally the work of the writers of the Fort William, was generally the work of the writers of the Fort William College, Calcutta, established in AD 1800 to acquaint the officers of the English East India Company with the customs and traditions of the people of India. In fact, Mir Amman must have taken great pains to work out the simplicity and directness of his work and show off in full measure the richness of the Urdu language which was a significant manifestation of the Indo-Muslim culture which originated and flourished after the advent and spread of Islam in India. At times one cannot but feel that there is a fusion here of the Indian and the Islamic Middle Ages, both in methodology and literary ideals.
Early prose in Urdu, as in many other languages, has been more akin to the literature of oral transmission. As such, it needs little introduction. It is the creation of imagination bordering on fancy and is essentially romantic in nature. In Urdu, this genre, known as dastan, has been distinguished more by polished literary presentation than by lofty aims and ideals. It does not pretend to serve any moral purpose, though it has good government, or virtuous living. In the accounts of the fanciful acts of chivalry and romance, individual responsibility many also have its play in the form of proselytizing zeal.
Structurally akin to the Arabian Nights, Bagh-o-Bahar comprises five stories interspersed with several other sub-stories of uneven length and interest, loosely bound together and all with traditionally romantic themes. The four dervishes who relater their experience are princes of rich merchants who have renounced the world on account of their unsuccessful love lives. They are guided by a supernatural force to a city where, with the intercession of a king and the help of the king of the djinn, they are reunited with their loves. Typically medieval, the stories describe a magnificent world of romance and affluence-of fairies and the djinn, moonlight and oriental gardens , feasts and ceremonies, and, of course, adventures and mishaps. It is a world where anything might and does happen as man is tossed about by fate. The basic premise, though, is that providence always takes care of us all that in the end good always triumphs over evil.
As in the Arabian Nights, there is no rationality in this work in so far as the treatment of time and space is concerned, yet there is comparatively little that is supernatural in it. Also unlike the Arabian Nights, it is not marked by elaborate wooing scenes and erotica or by the frailty and treachery of the fair sex. Though some of the female characters may appear vengeful at times, on the whole they show remarkable courage, faithfulness, integrity and ingenuity. Bagh-o-Bahar thus portrays the more impressive features of Indian womanhood.
Through the genius of the Urdu language, Bagh-o-Bahar affords us a glimpse of the typical Indo-Muslim culture that was prevalent among the cultured classes of India at the time. The stories may be set in Basra, Baghdad, Azerbaijan Sarandeep, Damascus of Constantinople but the atmosphere is typically that of a Mughal city of India. The weather, the courtly manners, the female guards and personal attendants, the dress, the variety of dishes, festivals and ceremonies, the fireworks, the superstitions and traditions as brought out by the proverbs and apt idioms, are all Indian and brings before us a passing panorama of the Indian elite of the middle ages.
Its interesting tales, its simple and elegant prose as a precursor to the works of the writers of the Delhi College and the Aligarh Movement, its plain yet distinguished style couched in the purity of the idiom, and its portrayal of Indian manners and customs have contributed to make Bagh-o-Bahar a monumental classic of Urdu literature. These qualities have kept it ‘green as ever’-still a worthy index of the faiths and beliefs, customs and ceremonies of the people of India.
Very little, in fact no more than what he has written about himself in the preface of the present work, is known about Mir Amman. He hailed from Delhi and after experiencing many vicissitudes in life he finally found employment as a munshi at the Fort William College, Calcutta where he translated Bagh-o-Bahar. While there, he also translated Husain Waiz Kashifi’s celebrated book on good manners, Akhlaq-e-Khoobi. Recentl;y a critical edition of this work has been published. But it is on Bagh-o-Bahar alone that Mir Amman’s fame rests, and rightly so. Its literary quality and value have never been ignored, nor has it ever ceased being popular as a piece of entertaining literature.
Translation, I believe, is a noble activity as it brings different culture closer to each other and thus provides for the enrichment of human civilization. It is this spirit that the present work was undertaken.
With a sense of indebtedness I have availed of the earlier literal translations of the work by Lewis Ferdinand Smith and Duncan Forces, done more than a hundred years ago. My endeavour has been to find the equivalent English idiom without sacrificing the cultural content of Urdu.
I am grateful to those who took the trouble to read the manuscript and offer their comments. Particular thanks are due to Mr. L.G. Deo and Mr. Muhammad Anas. I am deeply indebated to Mr. Zamir Ansari but for whose timely help this translation might not have been published.
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