Sufi saints and luminaries of Urdu literature call Benares home

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Benares, the city dear to Sufi poets and Urdu luminaries, is now invited to forget its multicultural past

the diya- and the ornate Benares ghats are usually teeming with thousands of tourists and visitors from different backgrounds, religions, sects and beliefs. Today, the same ghats have been covered with posters prohibiting non-Hindus from going there.

Benares, known for accepting everyone with open arms, is urged to exclude anyone without a Hindu name. This manifest saffronization of Benares could lead to the erasure of its famous mixed culture, the mili juli tahzeeb, which had made Sufi mystics like Sheikh Ali Hazeen call it home.

Over the centuries, several luminaries of Urdu literature have found second homes in Benares: Mughal princes such as Mirza Sikandar Shukoh Bahadur and Shahzada Mirza Khusrow Jalal Ahmad Khan Bahadur; Nawab Syed Naseer-ud-Deen Ali Khan Bahadur Samsam Jung of the Royal Family of Doolighat; Asghar Ali Khan, the grandson of Nawab Meer Qasim Aali Jah of Bengal; Mirza Rajab Ali Beig Suroor, court poet to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah; and much more. In their works, Benares became synonymous with love, art, literature and culture.

ta’ala allah banaras chashm-e-bad-door

bahisht-e-khurram-o-firdaus-e-mamoor

“May God protect Benares from the evil eye; What a fun man made parait’s the case’

Says the legend of rekhta, Ghalib, while being the guest of Shahzada Mirza Jawan Bakht Bahadur in Benares. Who would have known that such a simple wish on her part would not be granted…

Ghalib also wrote a qaseeda (ode) in Persian titled Subh-e-Banaras, where he urges those with boring lives to come take a look at the bustling structures of Idol City. Although Benares is a place of idol worship, for him it is the “holy Kaaba of Hindustaan”. The people of Benares have smiles that cure all heartaches, he says. Ghalib concludes by saying that his only desire is to be swallowed up by the Ganges, so that he can rest in Benares for eternity.

Ode to beauty

In the words of another poet, Akhtar Sheerani:

tamam hind mein’ mash’hoor hai yahaan’ ki subah, kuch is qadar

hai saher khushnuma banaras ki

“The mornings of Benares are famous throughout Hindustan, such is their beauty”

Which brings us to subh-e-banaras; the belief that the most beautiful mornings are seen in the ghats of Benares. Allama Syed Ijteba Hussain Rizvi, seated at Dashashwamedh Ghat, composed a nazm title Subh-e-Banaras in 1933, where he describes the events that unfold at dawn.

tamasha ki wo arzaani, wo ganga, wo sanamkhaana, banaras ki

saher, asnaan ki taqreeb-e-rozaana

“It’s a theater of excess, the Ganges here, the temple there, people bathing in the ghats; those Benares mornings

sanamkhaanaharam waale zara kashi ka manzar dekhte jaayen’, kabhi dekheinge

jannat, by abhi dekhein’ sanamkhaana

“The inhabitants of the holy Kaaba must see the city of Kashi; they will see the heavens one day, but let them see the temples today’

Rizvi then describes a young woman who came to the ghat to worship and pray:

Kanwal se haath mein’ ganga jali, aur phool ki thaali, chali wo

dewtaaon’ ki chaheeti le ke nazraana

“Ganges water in her lotus hands and a tray of flowers; with such offerings walks the darling of the gods

Hain paryaan’ ghaat by ya maang mein kashi ki taare hain,

banaras khud dulhan hai aur ganga aayinakhaana

‘Do those angels on the ghat or the stars of Kashi adorn the hair; Benares looks like a bride and Ganga a house of mirrors’

welcome to the house

Rizvi would not have imagined in her wildest dreams that one day it would become impossible for a person of her religion to write something like this.

At the end of the Mughal period, with the arrival of Shahzada Mirza Jawan Bakht and Nawab Ali Ibrahim Khan in Benares, the city became a hub of literature and art. Mushair (symposia) modeled on those held at Delhi’s Red Fort have become common, especially at Nawab ki Deohdi, the residence of Ali Ibrahim Khan.

Demolition works in the corridor of the Kashi Vishwanath temple

Demolition works in Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor | Photo credit: RAJEEV BHATT

When Ali Ibrahim Khan was appointed Chief Magistrate of Benares in 1781, he built the historic path leading to Vishwanath Temple which is in the process of being demolished. In 1826, Urdu had become the official language of the city.

Mirza Hatim Ali Beig Mehr, a close friend of Ghalib who stayed in Benares for a short time, wrote:

jab se mujhe qismat ne banaras se chhudaya,

rahta hai zabaan’ by meri bas haaye banaras!

‘Since the day fate forced me to leave Benares, O Benares is the song on my lips’

kaabe mein’ dua mangunga main’ apne khuda se,

ya rab! but-e-kaafir mujhe bulwaaye banaras

“I will pray to my god in the kaaba;

O god, let me be remembered by the idols of Benares

These poets are long dead but the spirit of their poetry must not die with them. That the narrow streets of the old town do not become a cemetery of all good things, art and love, and cultural wealth.

The writer is a theater artist and a social work student at the University of Delhi.

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