Banaras is a palimpsest of layers of devotion, history, and culture of India; each layer separated by the faith and beliefs of devotees, residents, and visitors. It is the city of Shiva and, indeed, referred to as India’s spiritual capital. It is also a city of lamps and light, life and death.

It is a city where people come for moksha – as poet / translator Maaz bin Bilal writes in the Introduction to his translation of Mirza Ghalib’s Persian masnavi (long poem), an ode to Banaras, Temple Lamp – originally Chirag-e-Dair. The city that Bilal describes as often being a metonym for India today has historically been examined mostly in the light of Sanskrit devotional literature and scriptures, so that its many other facets lie forgotten today.

Cosmopolitan histories

In Temple Lamp, we get a glimpse of a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city, not just through the translation of the poem, but also from Ghalib’s correspondence with his friends about Banaras, which has been painstakingly collected and collated by Bilal. We get, too, a glimpse into Ghalib the person, “enhanced by his spiritual beliefs, Persianate cosmopolitanism, and the composite and syncretic ethos he held as a Hindustani from Delhi who had friends, fans, disciples, and patrons who were Hindu, Christian, and Muslim.”

As Bilal writes in the Introduction, “One hardly ever comes across Persian sources when reading popular discourse on Banaras, even though Persian was a hegemonic language in India for close to a thousand years. More than a quarter of the city’s population comprises Muslims, but their testimonies are rarely solicited to understand the city.”

As someone whose family has had an almost two-hundred-year-old association with Banaras, I love the city and am familiar both with my family’s history and its connections with Banaras, as well as with the religious history of the city. As memories grow dim, I would like to throw light on some of them before enjoying the glow of the Temple Lamp.

My mother grew up in Ramnagar and we never tired of hearing stories of her roza kushai (celebrations when a child fasts for the first time in Ramzan), which had a 16-year-old Bismillah Khan playing the shehnai; or of my maternal grandfather ensuring that there was a constant supply of Ganga Jal for the young Kashi Naresh studying in Mayo College, since he could only use that pure water.

Ramnagar, which is 18 km from Varanasi, as Banaras is called now, was the capital of the erstwhile princely state under the British Raj. Its history dates back to the ancient Kingdom of Kashi and its Brahmin rulers are said to be the incarnation of Shiva.

Mansa Ram Singh founded the Benares estate, and in 1740 his son Balwant Singh became its first Raja. It became a princely state in 1911 under the British government. The rulers of Benares appointed many of their dewans and other officers from my maternal family, hailing from Kajgaon, near Jaunpur. In fact, Benares State was the biggest employer of our family in those days.

The first dewan from our family was my mother’s great-great-grandfather, Maulana Syed Gulshan Ali, who was appointed in Maharaja Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh’s reign (1822-1899). In fact, he could possibly have been there at the time when Ghalib visited the city in 1826, but, as Bilal writes in the introduction, the poet did not meet anyone of note.

My grandfather, Khan Bahadur Syed Ali Zamin, joined as Chief Secretary of the State in 1939, and the Maharaja died shortly after that. As Maharaj Kumar Vibhuti Narayan Singh, a minor, became the maharaja under regency, a Council of Administration was formed and CR Peters, Esq was appointed its President, while Nana, as the Chief Minister, was next in line of authority. Peters had to return to England in 1944 after a sudden illness, and Nana was named President of the Council of Administration. He continued till 1948, when ill-health forced him to take voluntary retirement.

Therefore, it was with very keen interest that I read Bilal’s translation. I had read bits and pieces before, but this is the first English translation in entirety of Ghalib’s Chirag-e Dair.

‘Paradise established’

Ghalib, of course, needs no introduction or praise. But in a masterful introduction, Bilal not only describes various forms of poetry, Ghalib’s life and times, and his Persian works – which far outweigh his Urdu contribution – but also situates Banaras not only in Ghalib’s life but in the life of the people of the era.

Bilal quotes academic Madhuri Desai, whose book Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu Holy City studies the built environment of the city and the various influences that have shaped Banaras, often called the oldest living city in the world. She writes, “...colonial representations of the city simultaneously rendered it static and Hindu”. Thus, we often gloss over the city’s Muslim population, shrines, and mosques and as such this translation is very timely and important.

Bilal writes:

“The poem gives us many remarkable insights into the city’s spirituality and ecology, into its natural and physical beauty, and primarily that of its people, in the early nineteenth century. Ghalib acquaints us with the pride of place Banaras has as a world religious site, a social locus of Hindustan, and as a centre in the global Persosphere extending from Turkey to Bengal and across the Silk Route. Thus, it is to question the inward-looking discourse around Banaras, premised only on Sanskritic traditions, that one must study Temple Lamp as a major discursive and cultural intervention. It allows us a glimpse of Banaras as it existed for people other than pandits, pilgrims, and colonial scholars for almost a thousand years.”

Ghalib came to Banaras dispirited, in debt, on his way to Calcutta to meet officials of the East India Company, in an attempt to restore his pension. The city of life and death rejuvenated his spirits, and he eulogised it and enshrined its beauty in his masnavi, just as a devotee would thread together a rudraksha mala.

Just as a mala has 108 beads because in the Shaivite tradition, and Shiva had 108 chief attendants, Ghalib’s poem comprises 108 verses. Not just Ghalib but also many scholars of that age were well-versed in religious scriptures and traditions of all major religions, and often referred to them in verse and prose. It was to this effect that Mughal emperor Akbar had the Mahabharata and the Ramayana translated into Persian and Prince Dara Shukoh translated the Upanishads. We find many more translations of scriptures in Persian and later Urdu in the 18th and 19th century.

We can see the influence of these traditions in the masnavi. To Ghalib the city seems paradisical and in Verse 25 he describes it as ‘bahisht-e-khurram’, or a blissful paradise, and prays that:

May god keep Banaras
from the evil eye,
it is heavenly bliss,
paradise established.

The theme of Banaras as heaven where Ghalib gets spiritual succour and in verse 45, eulogises over the holiness of a city:

Each fleck of dirt here
in its ecstasy is a temple,
every thorn with its verdure
becomes paradise.

In verse 64, he calls it the ultimate pilgrimage for Hindus, through which the Ganga pulsates like its life-blood.

Or one could behold Banaras,
perhaps, as the beauty
who preens from dawn to dusk
with the Ganga as a mirror in their hand.

Ghalib praises not only its spiritual beauty but also its physical beauty in verse 71 – like a balm on his wounded spirit:

Its forest after forest
is filled with beds of tulips,
its garden after garden
blooms with perpetual spring.

A book to savour

The impact that the city had on Ghalib can be gauged from a letter he wrote to his friend Miyandad Khan Saiyyid much later in life. As quoted by Bilal, it reads: “Banaras is beyond words. Such cities are seldom created. I happened to be there at the height of my youth. If I were young now, I would go and live there and not return.”

It is never easy to translate poetry, and that, too, a poet of Ghalib’s calibre. The Persian metre employed by Ghalib in this masnavi is, as Bilal explains ‘upbeat and melodious’, ‘pleasant to the ear’, and ‘was appropriate for the immense happiness, joy, admiration, and fondness that Ghalib felt for Banaras’. Obviously the original metre cannot be followed in English translation, but Bilal has managed to capture the rapture and spirituality by using two lines for each distich.

Adding to the beauty of the reading experience are the fine production values of the book, with each page containing only one verse, with the Persian transliteration preceding the translation. Like the rudraksha mala, one can linger over every bead and savour the beauty and spirituality embedded in each word and syllable. This poem is about a Hindustan that is in danger of getting lost.

Temple Lamp: Verses on Banaras, Mirza Ghalib, translated from the Persian by Maaz Bin Bilal, Penguin.