Literary history

How an Irish poet's epic poem on Kashmir captivated the West, spawning operas, musicals and grandeur

Thomas Moore never visited India. But 'Lalla Rookh', his story about a fictional Mughal princess introduced the Kashmir valley to artists in Europe.

Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?
Whom do you lead on Rapture's roadway, far,
Before you agonise them in farewell?
Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now? Where are you now?

— Kashmiri Song (1902) by Lawrence Hope and Amy Woodforde-Finden

In 1817, Irish poet Thomas Moore, who had never set foot in India, wrote the story of a fictional Mughal princess, she of the tulip cheeks or Lalla Rookh as he called her. Moore’s poem captured the popular imagination with its rendering of exotic scenes and colourful images from the distant Orient. More importantly, it introduced the valley of Kashmir (“Cashmere”) to the Western mind, providing the “canvas upon which future European travelers to Kashmir painted much of their story”. In popularity, Lalla Rookh became a Sound of Music for the early and mid-nineteenth century. Its association with the beautiful valley of Kashmir accentuated the story’s veneer of mystery and romance.

For instance, in the early 1900s, a spirited Englishwoman, Florence Parbury, wrote An Emerald Set With Pearls, extolling the beauties of Kashmir and the poetry of Lalla Rookh. Parbury travelled to Kashmir, sketching and painting its natural beauty and devoting extensive space in her book to the story by Moore. She added musical scores for some of the poems in the book, particularly those with references to the Vale of Kashmir.

Taking her cue from Moore, Parbury drew reference to “a wondrous land tucked away in the Himalayan Range”, describing its charms by such names as “Kachemire-be-Nazeer” or the Unequalled, the “Garden of Paradise” and the “Emerald set with Pearls”. Mentioning the early European traveller, Francois Bernier who visited the Vale of Kashmir in 1664 with the royal suite of the Mogul Emperor, she says:

Those only who have seen Kashmir in the beauty of its seasons can appreciate the truth of these old-time poets, none of whom however, of any nationality, have ever done justice to this delightful country and immortalised its lakes, flower, valleys, streams and fountains as perfectly as Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, did in his famous Lalla Rookh...

Parbury bemoaned the fact that few had heard of Moore’s work at the time of her writing her book. In fact, by the turn of the twentieth century, in late Victorian England, the poem had lost much of the tremendous popularity it had enjoyed in the decades after its publication in 1817. Her effort, therefore, was to “rouse a fresh interest in the poet’s beautiful work, in the form of a souvenir of Kashmir”.

To corroborate Parbury’s lament, the story of Lalla Rookh was lost to most modern audiences until the Opera Lafayette, a Washington-based performing company, revived its operatic version by the French composer Felicien David in 2013. The music from David’s opera was also recorded by the company on the Naxos label and released in 2014. Costumes for the performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and at the Lincoln Center in New York were designed by Poonam Bhagat of New Delhi, and the element of Indian classical dancing was also introduced with the dancers of Kalanidhi Dance of Washington.

Felicien David’s Opera, “Lalla Roukh”, performed by Opera Lafayette, Washington DC, 2013. Image credit: Louis Forget. Published with the permission of the author.
Felicien David’s Opera, “Lalla Roukh”, performed by Opera Lafayette, Washington DC, 2013. Image credit: Louis Forget. Published with the permission of the author.

An imagined India

Moore never went to India and yet ventured to write a work that interwove courtly Indian customs and manners, history and landscape, with Persian lore and legend. Writing his book over a period of six years between 1811 and 1817, he had extensively researched available scholarly material on India as the detailed footnotes and bibliography in Lalla Rookh indicate. Access to the research material was provided by the Anglo-Irish peer Francis Rawdon, the Earl of Moira, at his mansion, Donington Hall in Derbyshire. Francis Rawdon subsequently went on to become Governor General of India as the Marquess of Hastings from 1813 to 1823.

In writing his book, Moore received encouragement from a number of friends, including his more famous contemporary, Lord Byron, whose ease and eloquence of poetic expression and bold and revolutionary choice of themes for his writing were renowned, and even evoked a sense of considerable insecurity in Moore. Yet, unprecedented for his time, Moore received an advance of 3000 guineas for the book – a sound business decision by his publisher, since the book went into at least five editions in the first year of publication (1817) becoming the toast of England and the Continent.

Gems and pomegranates

The book also won great popularity in the United States. The storyline of Lalla Rookh – that of a privileged Mughal princess departing Delhi in a magnificent cavalcade crossing from the heat and dust of the plains to the majestic Himalayan mountains and then into Kashmir, lent itself well to showcasing in pageants and theatrical spectacle. An illustration of this is provided by a contest held in the 1880s by American showman Adam Forepaugh to choose the “handsomest woman in America” who could play the role of Lalla Rookh, the winner being awarded $ 10,000.

Twenty-five-year-old Louise Montague from New York won the title. Nature it was said, had “not dealt to Miss Montague a sparing hand” ; she could boast of an “excellent type of beauty” and a “face so strikingly beautiful that one wonders how so much loveliness can be concentrated in one human being”. The attraction personified in the image of a young and lovely Lalla Rookh can be seen in the photograph below of the English stage actress Kate Vaughn from the 1870s.

It is not clear whether she was playing a singing role as would normally have been assumed from the various musical renditions of the story, since she is dressed in fashionable Victorian clothes, complete with a corset to emphasise her waist, which would have made singing impossible! This would suggest that the character of Lalla Rookh was much sought after essentially for her show-stopping regalia, recalling a princess of the Orient. Vaughn wears a plume on her head-dress which is intricately decorated, and a veil to suggest her Eastern character, and distinctly pronounced jewellery.

Kate Vaughnin the role of Lalla Rookh at the Novelty Theatre, London. Image credit: William Downey
Kate Vaughnin the role of Lalla Rookh at the Novelty Theatre, London. Image credit: William Downey

What was the world that Moore sought to create? Perhaps it is best summed up by this passage:

A gleam of Bokhara’s vaunted gold, of all the gems of Samarkand...where is the Orient? Where does it begin and end? Hunt in vain for a map; at one moment it might be mysterious Cathay, at another enchanted Persia, or a Persia which extends beyond Araby, beyond Abyssinia, even to India...Its frontiers are the veil of the harem, the walls of sunlit and jasmine-scented gardens where the nightingale eternally warbles to the rose. The Beloved guards its boundaries, she of ruby lips, of teeth like pearls, and ringlets like hyacinths. Her brows are an archer’s bow, her arrows the glances that speed from it. She watches over hooris, who weave their dancing way through innumerable courtyards, adorned with diamonds, nourished by the dew of heaven. And always the pomegranates are melting with sweetness.

— Excerpted from the jacket of “Poems of the Orient”, CD, Naxos, 1999

This is the vision of the Orient that captured the imagination of writers and lay people alike in the Western world of the nineteenth century. It is the world illustrated in the poster of Lalla Rookh’s departure from Delhi as shown in the great show of Adam Forepaugh.

From the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, September 14, 2014
From the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, September 14, 2014

The picture is “one unbroken line of splendour”: dancing girls and elephants, mahouts and lancers, an adoring populace, the bejeweled and beautiful princess on a caparisoned elephant, Mughal India meeting Barnum and Bailey.

Poems within a poem

Moore’s work cannot however, be dismissed as the scattered musings of a dilettante. First, it was the product of research from material available to a European audience in that era. Beginning his arduous endeavour, Moore wrote to a friend: “I shall now take to my poem and do something, I hope, that will place me above the vulgar herd both of wordlings and critics; but you shall hear from me again, when I get among the maids of Cashmere, the sparkling springs of Rochabad, and the fragrant banquets of the Peris.” Even the name of the work, Lalla Rookh was unusual, and Moore’s friend, Byron lauded him for choosing a “tough title”.

Second, the themes addressed in Lalla Rookh are not trivial or merely romantic. While the connecting narrative of the poem basically concerns the marriage of Lalla Rookh, the princess of Delhi, to Aliris, the Prince of Bucharia or Bokhara, and the story of her journey from Delhi to the Vale of Cashmere where she is to be married to the Prince, this narrative is interspersed with four long poems: The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, The Fire Worshippers, Paradise and the Peri, and The Light of the Haram. All these are recited to her, accompanied on a stringed instrument called the kitar, by Feramorz, who presents himself as a Kashmiri troubadour, and steals her heart along the journey to Kashmir. Happily, on the very day of the marriage ceremony he turns out to be the prince to whom she is to be married.

The four long poems in the story are where the themes of religious fanaticism and despotism, the violence and injustice of conquest and imperial domination, the tragedy of star-crossed love, and romanticism cast in the Persian mode are all intertwined. Mokanna, the veiled, lustful, degenerate religious prophet of the Khorassan poem is oddly reminiscent of an evil leader of the ISIS. Presenting himself as a savior, he claims he has to hide his “beauty” beneath a veil because it is so blinding, but he is actually camouflaging a horribly disfigured body and an equally malformed soul that perpetrate great cruelty on all who fall under his spell.

In the post-Civil War, still-segregated United States, cities like St Louis witnessed the formation of the Veiled Prophet Society, recalling in many ways the Ku Klux Klan, meant to protect the status quo of the rich and wealthy white population against any inter-racial solidarity, especially among the working classes. Another of the poems, The Fire Worshippers, recounts the struggles of the Zorastrian people against the Arab conquest of Iran.

The humorous touch

Returning to the story of Lalla Rookh and her minstrel beloved, one is struck by many humorous references in the narrative to courtly Indian life and manners, often recalling popular entertainment in Hindi film. A few examples will illustrate this. The delineation of the character of Fadladeen (Fazluddin), “Great Nazir or Chamberlain of the Haram”, who accompanies the Princess Lalla Rookh to Kashmir is one of them. This is how Moore describes him:

Fadladeen was the judge of every thing, – from the penciling of a Circassian’s eyelids to the deepest questions of science and literature; from the mixture of a conserve of rose-leaves to the composition of an epic poem..His political conduct and opinions were founded upon that line of Sadi, – “Should the Prince at noon-day say, it is night, declare that you behold the moon and stars.

The last few lines recall what in the Persian and Urdu tradition is called khushamdi, or “hukum ka ghulam” or the essence of obsequiousness when it comes to flattering, or agreeing with your masters. Elswhere, the minstrel Feramorz is described as “graceful as that idol of women, Crishna – such as he appears to their young imaginations, heroic, beautiful, breathing music from his very eyes, and exalting the religion of his worshippers into love”.

There are strokes of humour too, which are not bereft of the Indian touch: it is said that a series of disappointments and accidents had befallen Fadladeen during the journey. For one thing, couriers stationed between Delhi and the Western coast of India had “failed in their duty” to “secure a constant supply of mangoes for the Royal Table” and “to eat any mangoes but those of Mazagong was, of course, impossible”.

In another example, the chamberlain’s personal copy of the Koran has been mislaid by his Koran-bearer for three whole days, and the last straw is when, owing to the “obstinacy of the cooks, the pepper of Canara is put in his dishes instead of the cinnamon of Serendib.” Beyond Lahore at the end of the Grand Trunk Road, the “loss of the good road they had hitherto travelled” leads to Fadladeen’s being “very near cursing Jehan-guire (of blessed memory!) for not having continued his delectable alley of trees, at least as far as the mountains of Cashmere”.

And the classic touch of the burlesque is provided when Fadladeen at one point of the story, goes…

...into a panegyric upon all Mussulman sovereigns, more particularly his august and Imperial master, Aurangzebe, – the wisest and best of the descendants of Timur, -who, among other great things he had done for mankind, had given to him, Fadladeen, the very profitable posts of Betel-carrier and Taster of Sherbets to the Emperor, Chief Holder of the Girdle of beautiful Forms’ (his business being at stated periods, to measure the ladies of the Haram by a sort of regulation-girdle, whose limits it was not thought graceful to exceed. If any of them outgrew this standard of shape, they were reduced by abstinence till they came within its bounds).

Maids of Cashmere

Soon after its publication, readers of Lalla Rookh were obviously star-struck by its many descriptions of the beauty of the Indies, and particularly of Kashmir with all its allusions of an earthly paradise. The scene of lighted lamps floating on the river, which Lalla Rookh encounters on her journey, inspired a number of European artists during the nineteenth century. So too did the theme of Kashmir, or Cashmere as it was widely called, become the popular fixation.

The subject of Indian bayaderes or dancers was sure to draw crowds. The ballerina Marie Taglioni in Le Dieu et La Bayadere, sometimes called the Maid of Cashmere, mesmerised audiences with a cashmere shawl draped around her shoulders, jewellery on her forehead and on her arms in the Indian style, and her ballerina dress ornamented with distinctly zardozi-like embroidery.

Marie Taglioni as La Bayadere, coloured lithograph, 1831 (V&A)
Marie Taglioni as La Bayadere, coloured lithograph, 1831 (V&A)

Indeed, the whole subject of Indian dance and dancers was one hotly debated and scrutinised, as a study of press coverage and critical commentary on the first ever tour of Indian dancers and musicians to continental Europe and England in 1838 will testify. The statue of the eighteen year-old dancer, the beautiful Amany, sculpted by Jean- Auguste Barre in 1838, illustrates the impact made by devadasis from near Pondicherry on often-mesmerised western audiences eager to see the real form of Indian dance.

Statue of Amany, 1838 (Jean-Auguste Barre)
Statue of Amany, 1838 (Jean-Auguste Barre)

In Berlin: a grand feast

Music and Orientalist spectacle is never far from the story of Lalla Rookh, considering that many composers created their own musical interpretations of its narrative, choosing different parts of the story. They included Felicien David (Lalla-Roukh, 1862), Robert Schumann (Das Paradis und die Peri, 1843), Henry Clay (composer of the cantata, Lalla Rookh, 1877), and Anton Rubinstein (Feramors, 1863). The earliest known musical presentation of Lalla Rookh, however, predates all these composers.

At the Chateau Royal in Berlin, in January 1821, a grand “festspiel” was staged in the apartments of Frederick I, overlooking the royal palace garden, in which members of the Royal House of Prussia and their guests, the future Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, Grand Duke Nicholas and his bride, Grand Duchess Alexandra, participated. In fact, the Grand Duchess, who was also the daughter of King Frederick of Prussia, played the role of Lalla Rookh.

In this “festspiel”, the different stories in Lalla Rookh were enacted through tableaux vivants, songs and dances, altogether presenting a grand and memorable spectacle causing the future Empress of Russia (who was often referred to as Lalla Rookh on many occasions in the future, including by the poet Pushkin) to exclaim (with a sigh), “Is it then all over? Are we at the close of all that has given so much delight?”

This was obviously an unparalleled spectacle of oriental costume and adornment stretching till four in the morning, with 186 characters and the tableaux vivants of sixteen figures “in which every costume and detail was apparently so realistic that the audience felt itself completely carried away to the gorgeous East... and there was but one opinion upon the taste, elegance and beauty of the entertainment, for it surpassed by far all that had ever been seen of this kind.”

And true to the spirit of Lalla Rookh, there was also a “Fete des Roses”. A souvenir was subsequently printed in Berlin on the orders of the King, to commemorate this grand event, and copies of it reveal the munificence of the enactment: 23 hand-coloured plates show the splendid costumes and the chief characters, including Lalla Rookh and her bridegroom Aliris. The wealth of detail in the costumes of the various actors in the pageant indicates a careful study of Indian paintings and representations, together with the use of genuine Indian textiles, silk and wool, and embroideries to create the attire worn. Lamentably, the music composed for the occasion by Gaspare Spontini lacked any Oriental flourish, or melodic adornments and is largely forgotten today.

The grand spectacle at the Prussian court led to the translation of Lalla Rookh into German, and also provided for its introduction into the Russian imagination. The national poet of Germany, Goethe, was also immensely taken with the news from Berlin of the “festspiel” involving members of the royal court and the exotic allure of the story of the Eastern princess. The “romance, intrigue and mystery” of Lalla Rookh thus exerted a strong attraction on European audiences thirsty for a glimpse of the unknown East.

Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna as Lalla Rookh and Prince Wilhelm of Prussia as Aliris, Berlin, 1821 drawn by Wilhelm Hensel
Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna as Lalla Rookh and Prince Wilhelm of Prussia as Aliris, Berlin, 1821 drawn by Wilhelm Hensel

Beyond stereotypes

Extending however, beyond the mysteries and exoticism depicted by Moore, work was underway to promote a serious study of the Orient, and India, beyond orientalist stereotypes. The first Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford was established in 1832 and a number of travel narratives and letters were published with considerable depth of cultural detail and seeking to present a more realistic portrait of India that transcended western fantasising. The import of Indian textiles, chintzes and Kashmiri shawls also provided the texture and feel of distant climes and were considered hallmarks of taste and distinction.

The music of the East was also being introduced to western audiences. The East India Company’s various settlements and “factories” in western and northern India became venues for musical interaction with the locals and exposure to Indian, particularly Hindustani, musical and dance traditions. The Company, it is said, did not quibble over the cost of elephants in those early days, and on “public occasions, such as the annual parade to mark the birthday of the sovereign, it was the practice (of the Company ‘nabobs’) to hire a full ‘naubat’.”

A number of what came to be known as “Hindostannie” airs were produced involving cooperation between Indian linguists and musicians and Europeans particularly in the kingdom of Oudh. A woman singer from Kashmir, named Khanum, achieved much celebrity as a nautch dancer to army officers, and as a source of Indian tunes to women collectors. European performers dressed in Indian costumes while performing these Indian songs, and received even the commendation of Warren Hastings.

Brightest vale

In his rendition of scenes from Kashmir, Moore conjures the image of roses, of the Sultana Nourmahal (the Empress Noor Jehan, wife of the Emperor Jehangir) wandering among flowers, feeding small singing fishes in marble basins. Feramorz the minstrel, singing his song, tells the story of The Light of the Haram (Noormahal herself), beginning thus:

Who has not heard of the Vale of CASHMERE,
With its roses the brightest that earth every gave,
Its temples, and grottos, and fountains as clear
As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave?
…to see it by moonlight, - when mellowly shines
The light o’er its palaces, gardens and shrines;
When the water-falls gleam like a quick fall of stars,
And the nightingale’s hymn from the Isle of Chenars
Is broken by laughs and light echoes of feet..

..And what a wilderness of flowers!
It seem’d as though from all the bowers
And fairest fields of all the year,
The mingled spoil were scatter’d here.
The lake too like a garden breathes
With the richbuds that o’er it lie, –
As if a shower of fairy wreaths
Had fall’n upon it from the sky!

..Who in the moonlight and music thus sweetly may glide
O’er the Lake of CASHMERE, with that One by his side!
If Woman can make the worst wilderness dear,
Think, think what a Heav’n she must make of CASHMERE!

Moore calls “Cashmere” a heaven on earth, the unequalled, every spot “holy ground” – suffused by the smell of roses from which “Attar Gul” or attar of roses is distilled, the Happy Valley, made even more beautiful by the “splendid domes and saloons of the Shalimar”.

These descriptions of “fair Cashmere” provided the “canvas upon which future European travellers to Kashmir painted much of their story”. The identification of Kashmir as the Paradise of the Indies and the Happy Valley however also persisted with tendencies to describe its populace in an Orientalist manner.

These then, were images enshrined in the Western imagination throughout the period of the Raj. Travellers to Kashmir throughout the nineteenth century – writers like Vigne – said, referring to Lalla Rookh, that “there is great justice in the ideas of scenery to be collected from the poem”.

Explorers like Moorcroft and Trebeck, Hugel and Jacquemont sought to provide further intellectual ballast to the interest and curiosity about this part of the subcontinent abutting and indeed merging into High Asia. Artists like William Carpenter had also read Moore’s story before visiting Kashmir as would be indicated from the title of one of his paintings entitled: The Shalimar garden; scene of the festivities at the marriage of Lalla Rookh, daughter of Aurunzebe.

Years later, Jawaharlal Nehru in his autobiography would describe how Kashmir haunted him, quoting Walter de la Mare whose words, in turn, seem to draw inspiration from Moore:

Yea, in my mind these mountains rise,
Their perils dyed with evening’s rose:
And still my ghost sits at my eyes,
And Thirsts for their untroubled snows.

Nehru wrote that “(the) loveliness of the land enthralled me and cast an enchantment all about me. I wandered about like one possessed and drunk with beauty, and the intoxication of it filled my mind.” To him, Kashmir embodied feminine beauty, a supremely lovely woman with “a hundred faces and innumerable aspects, ever-changing”. Moore would not have disapproved.

Nehru’s description of the view of the Vale of Kashmir from the Pir Panjal range on the road from Srinagar to Jammu is expressed in a similar vein:

The next morning we left Srinagar and sped towards Jammu. The road left the valley and mounted up the Pir Panjal. As we went higher, the panorama spread before us, and broader vistas came to view. We stood near the mouth of the tunnel and had a last look at the valley below. There lay the Vale of Kashmir, so famous in song and history, in its incomparable loveliness. A thin mist covered part of it, and a soft light toned down the hard edges of the picture. Above the clouds rose snow-capped peaks, and down the valley below came the faint and distant sound of running water. We bade a silent farewell…

This passage recalls one from Lalla Rookh where Moore speaks of “the fresh airs and enchanting scenery of that Valley, which the Persians justly called the Unequalled.…the grottos, hermitages and miraculous mountains,…make every spot of that region holy ground” and where he goes on to describe “the countless waterfalls, that rush in to the Valley from all those high and romantic mountains that encircle it…” and “the wonders and glories of the most lovely country under the sun..”

While Nehru, a Kashmiri, could lay claim to a sensibility which drew its inspiration from identification with the land and landscape of Kashmir, his writer’s imagination was also influenced no doubt by the Kashmir visualised in Western, particularly English, popular literature.

Gateway to Inner Asia

During the nineteenth century, Kashmir – being "discovered" with increasing frequency – also became a natural stepping-stone to Central Asia. Moore had, perhaps unconsciously, heralded this in his treatment of the theme central to Lalla Rookh – that of the alliance of marriage between a Mughal princess and a Prince of Bokhara or Samarkand. Beyond the happy valley lay the high mountain fastness of the Karakoram with its passes functioning as gateways to Turkestan.

This became the arena then for staging of the imperial Great Game and players like Curzon and Younghusband exemplified the transcendence of power and geopolitics over the romance and poesy of Nurmahal and Jehangir and Lalla Rookh and Aliris. India’s ongoing differences with Pakistan over Kashmir, have of course, distanced the Kashmir Valley from its time-tested links with Central Asia. The present is very different from the past and the mountain caravans of yesteryear are mirages that elude our grasp.

There is certainly nostalgia for the charm and innocence of the Kashmiri climes elaborated by Moore and interpreted in the various operatic and musical versions of his work. Simply put, Kashmir is not Cashmere, it is a very different place.

Even the images of the state in the Indian popular imagination have changed. The depiction of the Valley as a place of sylvan retreat, of eternal sunshine over snow-capped mountains, glimmering lakes and heroes and heroines in shikharas, a romanticised Indian frontier region, has faded, its place taken by darker, sombre narratives of love and longing in a time of violence and alienation. Thus, the “Cashmere” of Noormahal and Jehangir, of Lalla Rookh and Feramorz is a Paradise Lost. Bollywood meets Kashmir today in a spirit very different from Hindi cinema’s dealings with the state in films like Junglee and Kashmir ki Kali, hits from the 1960s.

But humans will dream and dream we will of that enchanted Kashmir. While capturing screen shots of Lalla Rookh and her sojourn to the Vale of Cashmere, and reading Thomas Moore, I am reminded of these lines from Led Zeppelin:

Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream
Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream
My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin' through Kashmir.

— From "Kashmir", Led Zeppelin

Orientalism, it is true, does not do real justice to the East and its fascinating complexities, and Moore’s work is no exception, but who would not yearn for a “Feast of Roses” on Dal Lake or in the Shalimar and dream about caravans crossing the high passes of the Karakoram, destined for Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand and steeped in the lore of the Silk Road?

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