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

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

Cosmopolitan stories

In temple lamp, we get a glimpse of a multicultural and cosmopolitan city, not only through the translation of the poem, but also from Ghalib’s correspondence with his friends about Benares, which was painstakingly collected and collated by Bilal. We also get a glimpse of Ghalib’s person, “enhanced by his spiritual beliefs, his Persian cosmopolitanism and the composite and syncretic ethos he had as a Hindustani from Delhi who had friends, fans, disciples and Hindu, Christian, and Muslim patrons.

As Bilal writes in the Introduction, “Persian sources are almost never encountered when reading popular discourse on the Benares, even though Persian has been a hegemonic language in India for almost a thousand years. More than a quarter of the city’s population is made up of Muslims, but their testimonies are rarely solicited to understand the city.

As someone whose family has had an almost two hundred year association with Benares, I love the city and know both my family’s history and its connection to Benares, as well as the religious history of the city. As the memories fade, I’d like to illuminate a few before enjoying the glow of the temple lamp.

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

Ramnagar, which is 18 km from Varanasi, as Benares is now called, was the capital of the former 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 domain of Benares 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, a native of Kajgaon, near Jaunpur. In fact, the state of Benares was our family’s largest employer at that time.

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

My grandfather, Khan Bahadur Syed Ali Zamin, joined as Chief Secretary of State in 1939, and the Maharaja died soon after. As Minor Maharaj Kumar Vibhuti Narayan Singh became the Maharaja under Regency, a Board of Trustees was formed and CR Peters, Esq was appointed its Chairman, while Nana as Chief Minister was next in the line of authority. Peters had to return to England in 1944 after a sudden illness, and Nana was appointed Chairman of the Board. He continued until 1948, when poor health forced him into voluntary retirement.

It is therefore with great interest that I read Bilal’s translation. I had read snippets before, but this is the first full English translation 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 exceed his Urdu contribution – but also situates Benares not only in Ghalib’s life but in the life of the people of the era.

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

Billal writes:

“The poem gives us many remarkable insights into the spirituality and ecology of the city, its natural and physical beauty, and primarily that of its people, in the early 19th century. Ghalib familiarizes us with the prominent place that Benares occupies as a world religious site, social place of Hindustan and center of the world Persosphere stretching from Turkey to Bengal and across the Silk Road. Thus, it is to question the introverted discourse around Benares, based solely on Sanskritic traditions, that we must study temple lamp as a major discursive and cultural intervention. This allows us to get a glimpse of Benares as it existed for people other than pundits, pilgrims and colonial scholars for almost a thousand years.

Ghalib came to Benares discouraged, in debt, en route to Calcutta to meet East India Company officials, with the aim of restoring his pension. The city of life and death rejuvenated his spirits, and he praised it and inscribed its beauty in his masnavi, just as a devotee would don a rudraksha mala.

Just like a mala has 108 beads because in Shaivite tradition, and Shiva had 108 heads of service, Ghalib’s poem has 108 verses. Not only Ghalib, but also many scholars of that age were well acquainted with the religious scriptures and traditions of all major religions, and often referred to them in verse and prose. It is for this purpose that the Mughal emperor Akbar had the mahabharata and the Ramayana translated into Persian and Prince Dara Shukoh translated the Upanishads. We find many more scripture translations in Persian and later Urdu in the 18th and 19th centuries.

We can see the influence of these traditions in the masnavi. For Ghalib, the city seems heavenly and in verse 25 he describes it as “bahisht-e-khurram”, or a blissful paradise, and prays that:

May God save Benares
evil eye,
it is heavenly happiness,
established paradise.

The theme of Benares as a paradise where Ghalib receives spiritual help and in verse 45 praises the holiness of a city:

Every grain of earth here
in its ecstasy is a temple,
each thorn with its greenery
becomes paradise.

In verse 64 he calls it the ultimate pilgrimage for Hindus, through which the Ganges throbs like its blood.

Or we could see Benares,
perhaps, like beauty
that licks itself from dawn to dusk
with the Ganges like a mirror in their hand.

Ghalib not only praises her spiritual beauty but also her physical beauty in verse 71 – like a balm to her wounded spirit:

His forest after forest
is filled with tulip beds,
her garden after garden
blooms with perpetual spring.

A book to savor

The impact 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 rarely created. I happened to be there at the height of my youth. If I was young now, I would go live there and I wouldn’t come back.

It is never easy to translate poetry, and that too, a poet of Ghalib’s caliber. The Persian meter 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 affection that Ghalib felt for Benares’. Obviously the original meter cannot be followed in the English translation, but Bilal managed to capture the rapture and spirituality by using two lines for each couplet.

The beautiful production values ​​of the book add to the beauty of the reading experience, with each page containing only one verse, with the Persian transliteration preceding the translation. Like the rudraksha mala, one can linger on each bead and savor the beauty and spirituality embedded in every word and syllable. This poem is about a Hindustan who is in danger of getting lost.

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