Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. His interests include Mughal-Safavid literary and visual culture and theories and practices of translation in Islamicate contexts.
Circling the Shrines of a Hundred Mouths: Reading and Remembering Bedil
Every week since the early 1980s and into the early 2000s, huddled at the end of twelve-hour shifts at the back of cold Afghan-owned car-showrooms or in furniture stores, unnoticed by most Washingtonians, groups of tired and hungry Afghan cabbies recited and pondered the baroque intricacies of a Persian-language mystical poet from 17th century Delhi. In doing so, they forged solidarities that suspended, even if briefly, the memory of the politics that had driven them from their country and that often still divided them in America.
Unlikely though the settings were, these assemblies revivified the memory of the dervish lodges, university classrooms and homes of Afghanistan where the name of Abdul Qadir ‘Bedil’ was — and remains — legion.
Abdul Qadir ‘Bedil’ was one of a cluster of Persian and Urdu literati who, as the Mughal court after the Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 gradually lost its political and financial power, made their independent bids for cultural authority. Of these, Bedil was the most prolific and arguably the most influential. The prestige and difficult pleasures of his style set standards for scores of later poets in Persian and Urdu, among them the young Ghalib (d. 1869) who was canonized as one of the two greatest poets of classical Urdu. Mir Taqi Mir (d.1810), the other poet who was ranked alongside Ghalib in the Urdu canon, composed an autobiography in Persian whose model may well have been Bedil’s autobiography, The Four Elements. Both Ghalib and Mir possessed entire divans or collections of poetry in Persian that are variously traced by Bedil’s legacy.
It was this man whose poetry was now being recited by Afghan cab drivers in Washington, D.C., unknowingly sustaining a tradition of remembrance that had begun centuries earlier, in India.
In 1721, on the first anniversary of Bedil’s death, Delhi’s Persian-language poets – most of them Hindu and Muslim bureaucrats and grandees — stood in a circle around his grave and recited from a copy of his collected works, composed in his own hand. Thus they commemorated the poet’s death by a Sufi ‘urs or “wedding” — cognate with ‘arūs or “bride” — implying that the bride of his soul had been wedded to its creator on that day. This became an annual tradition, folding Bedil’s grave into the sacred geography of Islamic Delhi.
What the arc of such remembrance (stretching though it does across nearly three centuries and two distant continents) does not disclose is that nobody today knows where the poet’s grave lies. A mystery surrounds the fate of Bedil’s remains, which is perhaps in keeping with the mysterious and enigmatic nature of the poet himself.
Abdul Qadir ‘Bedil’ was born in 1644 into a Sunni Muslim family of Central Asian Turkic origin in the province of Bihar, in North India. He spent approximately the first sixteen years of his life in Bihar and was named by his father after the eponymous Sufi of the Qadiri order, Abdul Qadir Gilani (d. 1166). As one of his students explained it, the penname ‘Bedil’ meant one who had negated his heart’s worldly attachments in favor of attachment to God, condensing this inner disposition into a word. Besides Persian, he spoke Urdu, Avadhi and Braj. After three years spent with his uncle in Orissa, Bedil arrived in Delhi in 1664. Here, his social circles included several individuals who were authoritative in Braj, Avadhi and Sanskrit textual traditions. The most conspicuous of these was his patron, the emperor Aurangzeb’s third son, Muhammad Azam, who was known for his expertise in Braj poetry and its related arts. His later patron, Aqil Khan “Razi,” was the paymaster and governor of Delhi and retold the Avadhi Sufi epic Padmāvat in Persian verse.
Bedil’s vast oeuvre includes over 2,800 ghazals, on which his fame mainly rests, as well as four long masnavis (a genre of narrative verse in rhyming couplets) and other poetic texts. Like these, his aforementioned autobiography, collection of letters and compilation of metaphysical insights entitled Subtle Points, also circulated across Mughal India, Safavid Iran, Turkic Central Asia and Ottoman Turkey. Partly accounting for this popularity was the philosophical and literary lineage to which his writing belonged: a multilingual tradition of poetic adaptations of the theistic monism of the Andalusian Sufi Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), arguably the most influential Sufi of Islamic history.
(Bedil’s) rhythmic and rhymed couplet, like the rhythmic and rhymed prose it was embedded in, was intended to replicate the balanced character and yet fiery component of his soul.
Here, “theistic monism” names the idea that the world was made up of many levels of reality that had cascaded out of a single and undiminished source. This source — Allah, or the highest level of reality — transcended its own creation. So pervasive were Ibn Arabi’s ideas in the Islamic world by Bedil’s time that Bedil did not name Ibn Arabi when citing his ideas. Rather, Ibn Arabi was an intellectual currency and philosophico-poetic idiom. His cosmogony relating the emanation of the world’s iridescent multiplicity from the divine One served his poetic interpreters as an authorizing metaphysical frame.
We may arrive at the place of poetry in this theological-philosophical frame by recounting and interpreting the following event.
One day in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, Bedil visited the Mughal fortress of Mathura. There, the fort-commander complained to the poet about the army of djinns that had been afflicting the fortress, causing strange fires to break out and raining stones from the air. The residents of the fort were fed up. Taking a sheet of paper, Bedil set down with “a dry quill” a couplet addressed to the djinns: “O demons of another universe / No less worthy is someplace else”. He asked that this couplet be fastened on the tip of a spear and planted in the fortress. No sooner than the couplet-bearing spear was thus planted did the flying stones fall to the ground and the fires go out. Not once during Bedil’s subsequent visits to Mathura did the djinns show any signs of returning.
At the heart of this episode, drawn from the poet’s autobiography The Four Elements (1704), is the correspondence between Bedil’s “dry quill” — that is, a quill without ink — and the bodies of the djinns who, according to conventional Islamic cosmology, were a rank of beings invisible to humans and made of fire. Bedil’s poetry succeeded in dispelling these fiery creatures because he recognized and deployed the elemental correspondence between dryness and fire. He says he chose a dry pen “so that it would correspond to the study of the subtle world and so that the souls of those who practice writing of transcendence in the school of subtlety would raise no dust of ink.” He fought the fiery but invisible or subtle-bodied djinns with fiery but invisible or subtle-bodied writing, and thus set his disciple-reader a model for such writing. His rhythmic and rhymed couplet, like the rhythmic and rhymed prose it was embedded in, was intended to replicate the balanced character and yet fiery component of his soul.
The millennial tradition of the Persian ghazal attained a baroque complexity in Bedil.
The anecdote captures much that is strange to those of us today who are accustomed to a profane and more modest social role for literature. Bedil’s world assumed psychophysical dispositions — or souls — that were microcosms of the macrocosmic constellation of the four elements of fire, water, earth and air. An ascetic mastery over oneself allowed one a degree of control over the ambient cosmos. Acts of language, of which poetry was the supreme instance, were instances of such simultaneous self-mastery and world-mastery. As a boy, Bedil claimed, he breathed his poetry into the ear of an ailing woman and cured her. In later years he presented the traditional formal constraints to which he sometimes submitted his writing — poems and letters wholly without dotted Persian letters, unusually long ghazal meters — as feats of the ascetic will as much as of the word.
The local effectiveness of Bedil’s adaptation of Ibn Arabi’s cosmology may be judged by how it allowed him to exalt the Hindu god Krishna as a manifestation of the Sufi cosmogonic principle of “Love.” Through this he set his Hindu poet-disciples an authoritative example by mapping the Vaishnavite or Krishnaite vernacular poetics of “erotic separation” (viraha) onto those of the Persianate Sufi poetics of erotic separation (firāq). This cluster of Hindu students belonged to Brahmin, Kayasth, Khatri and Vaishya caste groups that had traditionally staffed the Mughal bureaucracies. It included Anand Ram “Mukhlis” (d. 1751) who composed Kārnāma-yi ishq (A Tale of Love), a Persian prose narration of a vernacular tale and Rāḥat al-faras (The Care of Horses), a Persian adaptation of the Sanskrit treatises on horses, Shālihotra. Another, Shiv Ram Das “Hayā’ (d. 1732), composed in Persian a prose work stylistically indebted to Bedil’s autobiography that described the region of Mathura and Vindravan whose geography was sacred to the popular Krishnaite piety of the area. Another, Lala Hakim Chand “Nudrat” (d. 1786), composed a masnavi retelling of the tenth book (skandha) of the Bhāgvat Purāna, the canonical Sanskrit hagiography of Krishna. After Bedil’s death, his biographer Bindraban Dās “Khushgu” formulated this role Bedil played in authorizing Hindu self-assertions in Persian literary culture by the hyperbole characteristic of hagiography, claiming that his teacher had memorized the entire Mahabharata.
But this account of his popularity belies the equally well-known difficulties of his poetic style. The millennial tradition of the Persian ghazal attained a baroque complexity in Bedil. It was a complexity that led Reformist literati of the late 19th and 20th centuries in Qajar Iran, Soviet Central Asia and British India to discredit his legacy; or rush to defend it as amenable to Reformism. To these detractors his poetry was an emblem of the late imperial aesthetic decadence that betokened the wider moral decadence that led to —and, to some, justified — European colonialism. But what exactly was difficult about his writing?
Here is a fairly representative ghazal couplet. I transcribe the original, several of whose key words remain in use in South Asia’s vernaculars:
pardah-yi chashmam ba barq-i hasrat-i didār sūkht
intizār ākhir muqashhar kard bādām-i marā
Here is a translation that attempts to render through modernist free verse line-breaks the emphatic pauses conveyed metrically in the original:
of longing for a vision
charred my eyes’ veils.
peeled my almonds
The first line formulates a state of being familiar enough to readers of the ghazal: the lover’s longing for a vision of the beloved. This was also the arch “theme” (mazmūn) of the ghazal from its beginnings: the lover’s abject pleading and the beloved’s cruel disregard. In the tradition of Persian Sufi poetry this Beloved’s human attributes allegorically signaled His divinity. Here, the lover-speaker declares he went blind from “longing for a vision,” the lightning of this longing charring his “eyes’ veils.” The second line specifies the assertion of the first by playing on the poetic convention by which the eyes were likened to almonds: if the eyes are almonds then blind eyes must be peeled almonds that, like blind eyes, are white. But the image also connotes the Persian idiom “white-eyed” which means both “blind” and “to stare at.” It now becomes apparent that the lover, like Moses on Sinai, is granted blindness and vision at once — that another familiar ghazal theme is at play here, namely God’s hierophany, His self-disclosure to his human onlooker in a blinding blaze of light. “Peeled almonds” compresses this paradoxical prophetic state into the white intensity of a single image.
And as Delhi itself was beset by political turmoil, its literati dispersed, carrying with them their reverence for Bedil and precious handwritten copies of his Divān to far-flung corners of the empire.
The obscurities of Bedil’s style are not failures of poetic competence. They are the deliberate effects of a poetics that aims to arrest the reader or listener by avoiding commonplace locutions and stopping short of obvious connections between the lines of a couplet. Avoiding commonplace phraseology was no easy task in a poetic tradition where innovation took the form of a play of similarities on shared canons of models. One of Bedil’s techniques of choice to this end was to invent unusually large compound words: “the lightning of longing for a vision” is, in his Persian, simply barq-e hasrat-e didār, a compound-word not listed in any dictionary. Another technique was to so encrypt the required connections between the lines of a couplet that the reader was required not only to recognize the conventions implicit in an image (almonds as eyes) but, having recognized them, to then recognize his unconventional innovation on them (peeled almonds).
This meant that Bedil’s poetry mainly assumed readers steeped in the poetic conventions of Persian and Arabic, and often, mediated by the vernaculars of Urdu, Avadhi and Braj, those of Sanskrit. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his correspondents included grandees of the Mughal state, the emperor Aurangzeb and his inner circle among them. But his readership widened over time as the gentry of Mughal North India’s increasingly assertive provinces came to define themselves through the practice of poetry on Bedil’s models or in opposition to it. And as Delhi itself was beset by political turmoil, its literati dispersed, carrying with them their reverence for Bedil and precious handwritten copies of his Divān to far-flung corners of the empire. By the early 19th century, Bedil was the topic of intense literary debate far west of Delhi in Kabul and far south of it in Hyderabad and Arcot.
Khushgu, Bedil’s biographer, has left us the most reliable account of his teacher’s life and death. He remarks that Bedil died in 1720 and was buried under a chabutra or stone canopy he had had built for his own grave in the yard of his home. This home, Lutf Ali Haveli, stood just outside Dilli Darvaza on the southeastern edge of Shahjahanabad or Mughal Delhi on a ford of the river Yamuna called Guzar Ghat (today probably Raj Ghat). But a candle, as often imagined in ghazals, flares brightest at its end. Late Mughal Delhi was swept by Iranian, Jat, Maratha and Afghan invasions so that, by the late 18th century, Bedil’s home and grave were desolate ruins.
This is where the mystery begins. Remarkably, Delhi today includes among its attractions a grave in a little garden near Pragati Maidan called Bagh-e Bedil. Located over three kilometers from Dilli Darvaza, this grave, as scholars have recognized, couldn’t be Bedil’s. Though popular memory of Bedil has all but vanished in his native India with the fading there of Persian itself, the story of this misidentified grave begins in the twentieth century. In 1941, Bedil’s popular memory flickered again to life. In that year, the freedom fighter, publicist for Islam, and Urdu litterateur Khwaja Hasan Nizami translated into Urdu a Persian travel account of Delhi composed around 1741. Dargah Quli Khan, the author of this account, Muraqqa-i Dehli (An Album of Delhi), had visited the Mughal capital from Hyderabad in the entourage of Asaf Jah I, the ruler of Hyderabad. Asaf Jah had been tutored in his poetry by Bedil, whose letters to him form part of Bedil’s published correspondence. Khwaja Hasan Nizami was one of a group of Delhi’s Urdu literati whose writings were shot through with the nostalgia for Mughal Delhi that formed a key theme in 20th century Urdu literature. Among Nizami’s formulations of this nostalgia were this translation and a guide for pilgrims to the shrines of Delhi’s Sufis. The travel account he chose to translate included a description of Bedil’s tomb and annual commemoration. It didn’t, however, specify a location.
In 1941, another Urdu litterateur called Khwaja Ibadullah Akhtar set out to honor Bedil’s memory at his mausoleum. Unable to locate it, he was directed to the mausoleum of Nizamuddin Auliya (d. 1325), Delhi’s most famous Sufi. Here, he met Khwaja Hasan Nizami, whose family had been traditional custodians of the mausoleum. Though himself ignorant of the location of Bedil’s grave, Hasan Nizami seems to have felt compelled to locate it for his pilgrim questioner and directed him to a graveyard close to what is today Bagh-e Bedil. Ibadullah Akhtar describes how, being unable to identify Bedil’s grave from among others, he read his prayer for the poet at an unmarked grave close to the road. He then describes returning by chance a month later and being astounded on finding the very grave at which he had prayed now bearing a cement gravestone. It read: “The grave of Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil, God’s mercy upon him.”
Here, according to the contemporary Bedil scholar Sayyad Ahsan al-Zafar, is what had happened in the month between Akhtar’s two visits: moved by this pilgrim’s quest, Khwaja Hasan Nizami translated the aforementioned Persian travel account of Delhi, had it published by the Nizam of Hyderabad’s press, petitioned the Nizam (whose ancestor, as I said, had been Bedil’s student) for financial assistance to repair what he took to be Bedil’s grave, and had the gravestone installed at the grave at which Akhtar had prayed. Casting scholarly concerns of empirical accuracy aside and grieved by the Hindu-Muslim rioting of the 1940s, Hasan Nizami let himself be guided by the intensity of his emotional investment in recovering the Mughal Delhi of Islamic pilgrimage, wishing Bedil’s mausoleum back into being some three kilometers from where it had actually stood.
This wishful resurrection of the poet’s material remains inaugurated a controversy, unforeseen by Hasan Nizami, involving positivist literary establishments and their nationalist commitments. In Afghanistan and Tajikistan, whose respective nationalisms escaped Iran’s neoclassical call for a return to earlier stylistic simplicity, Bedil retained his place in the national literary canon. A generation of Afghan literary critics of the first half of the twentieth century was invested in a poetry and poetics proper to the modernizing nation-state of Afghanistan. To this end, they looked to the popularity of Bedil in their country, his Central Asian or Afghan ethnicity underscoring his appeal. In 1954, the Afghan ambassador to Delhi, Sardar Najib Khan, had a new gravestone installed at the head of the grave that Hasan Nizami had (mis)identified as Bedil’s. The gravestone mentioned the “Afghan friends” through whose assistance the grave had been refurbished. But the error didn’t escape scholarly attention and in 1968 an Afghan scholar called Sayyad Muhammad Davud al-Husaini published essays in leading Afghan national periodicals declaring that the grave couldn’t be Bedil’s. He added that Bedil’s bodily remains had been transferred by the late 18th century from India to a village in Afghanistan called Khwaja Ravash. That this was an ethnically Chughtai village and that Bedil, al-Husaini claimed, was himself a Chughtai, fortified his explanation. The Bedil scholar Salahuddin Saljuqi, who served as Afghan Consul General to India in the same years, declared that “the people of India had forgotten Bedil” and seconded al-Husaini’s explanation. Indeed, there was some truth to this. The death of Persian in South Asia had been inversely indexed in the explosion of Persian dictionary writing and commentaries. Bedil had therefore become and remains an academic pursuit in Urdu-language literary criticism, today all but unknown except to a few scholars. But, of course, both Saljuqi and al-Husaini’s explanations have since been convincingly disproven.
More interesting than empirical exactitude here is Afghan emotional investment in appropriating Bedil’s memory. Sufis had always continued to exercise their charismatic authority after their deaths through popular veneration at their mausoleums, mapping a sacred geography. Sometimes, this geography later proved a resource for nationalists looking to root their cultural canons in the state’s territory. But what was the Afghan nationalist literary establishment to do with a poet who, though revered in Afghanistan, had lived out his life in a wholly Indian geography? A solution presented itself in the absence of a grave unambiguously identifiable as Bedil’s. Applying twentieth century scholarly techniques of empirical verification and indifferent to the emotions and politics of Hasan Nizami’s misidentification of the poet’s grave, the Afghan literary establishment rejected the grave at Bagh-i Bedil as spurious. They then wished the poet’s mausoleum into being in Afghanistan, thus reclaiming a poet whom they considered Afghan for Afghan national territory.
Thus did Bedil come to work as a pivot in the formation of distinct national canons. To take a position for or against him across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been to be implicated in the literary politics of nationalism. No wonder, then, that he continues to form a primary layer in the contested cultural memories of every modern people whose literati has striven to inherit the Persian poetic tradition. No wonder, too, that he should unite Afghan cab drivers in Washington even as the founding amnesia of Indian nationalism has erased his memory even among Indians with a sensibility for literature.
If Bedil returns to popularity in his native India may he come, in his own words, as poetry “circling the shrines of a hundred mouths”:
chih qadar tajarrud-i ma‘nī’at ba dar-i tasannu‘-i lafz zad
kih chu tār-i subhah za yek zabān ba tavāf-i sad dahan āmadī
How hard did your meaning
– nude aloofness –
hammer at doors of wrought words
that like a rosary-string
– single-tongued –
circling the shrines of a hundred mouths?