Book Review: ‘Temple Lamp: Verses on Banaras’, translated from Persian by Maaz Bin Bilal


By Mohammad Asim Siddiqui

Maaz Bin Bilal’s English translation of Ghalib’s famous Persian masnavi Chiragh-e-Dair (Temple Lamp: Verses on Banaras) could not have come at a better time. At a time when Urdu, a home-grown Indian language, is facing a crisis of survival, Indian legacy of Persian is almost a forgotten chapter and the love of Indian Urdu and Persian poets for India is not sufficiently acknowledged, Bilal’s translation of Chiragh-e-Dair from the original Persian brings into focus Ghalib’s love of Indian traditions and its eternal city Banaras. Since I am like many other present day Indian readers who do not know Persian, I had to rely only on the English translation of this text to form my opinion about Ghalib’s concerns in the poem. Bilal’s translation is not only smooth and readable, but it also captures Ghalib’s characteristic turn of phrases, his tone and characteristic wit with which I am familiar through his Urdu poetry.

Some memorable couplets in the masnavi which stick in memory relate to Ghalib’s complaint about lack of genuine companionship in his beloved Delhi, his mention of some of his genuine friends like Fazl-e-Haq (a nineteenth century jurist and philosopher), Hisamuddin Haider Khan and others, his love and appreciation of Banaras and above all his love of India and its various traditions.

About Banaras Ghalib writes:

It is heavenly bliss,/Paradise established.

Such is the distinction of Banaras that Ghalib sees beauty even in things not considered beautiful:

Each fleck of dirt here/In its ecstasy is a temple,

Every thorn with its verdure/becomes paradise.

Ghalib calls Banaras “the Kaba of Hindustan”, the highest possible praise from anyone for the ancient city. Though a great lover of Delhi, Ghalib, invoking the Haj imagery, considers Banaras superior to Delhi:

For this(city) has such pride

Of place

That even Delhi comes

To circle around it.

One reason why Ghalib likes Banaras and appears critical of his own city is his feeling of disappointment with many people in Delhi:

It is not the wound of separation

From the garden (of Delhi) that burns.

What burns is

The inconsideration of my friends.

Ghalib may have left Delhi and he may feel a tinge of sadness but there is rich compensation for him in the form of other cities. There is no reason for him to grieve, he reassures himself: “There is no dearth of space/To make a nest.”

The weather of Banaras fascinates Ghalib because there is spring all the year round in this beautiful city:

Be it in spring, or in summer, or winter,

The weather here each season is that of heaven.

The beauty of Banaras is spoken of everywhere:

This (city) is the land

Of carefree beauty and spring,

All countries speak of it,

Find it nonpareil.

There is a note of bitterness in the poem in Ghalib’s lament over the decline of human values in his times. He laments the loss of goodness, love, faith and kindness in the world and feels pained to see brothers fighting brothers and fathers killing sons. He wonders how the doomsday has not arrived yet when there is so much bad that is going on in the world. He finds an answer in the goodness of Banaras:

Why is there a delay in (Israfil)

Blowing the trumpet of doom?

Who has stopped Judgement Day

In its tracks?

Pointing to Kashi

With a gesture, he smiled

And said: it is for the sake

of this town.

Bilal’s translation is enriched by an extremely well-written and comprehensive introduction about the poem running into more than fifty pages. He defines masnavi as “a long narrative poem written in beits or distriches (a verse in two lines or couplets but making complete sense in themselves) made up of two equal hemistiches or poetic lines called misra. Each of these has an internal end-rhyme, so the poem reads with aa, bb, cc…in its rhyme scheme.” There is further elaboration of the history and distinctive features of masnavi in the introduction.

The introduction also gives a clear idea of the life of Ghalib, his poetic career, his distinction as a ghazal writer and his expertise in practicing other poetic forms which include qasida and masnavi. There is a very thorough analysis of the metre, feet, rhythm and syllabic structure of Temple Lamp which probably only a poet-critic like Maaz Bin Bilal could have done. There is a brief comparison of Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir in their attitude to spirituality. Bilal also pays attention to Ghalib’s success at writing literary criticism in his book Qati-e Burhan which is a defence of “his own poetics” and a diary in Persian titled Dastanbuy. Ghalib also tried his hands at writing Mughal history. He was certainly much more successful in writing his letters which are remarkable literary pieces in which he established “a conversational style of Urdu prose over the florid and formal style” that was the norm in his time.

An incident recounted in many books on Ghalib, Bilal further throws light on Ghalib’s famous journey to Calcutta to appeal to the English authorities to restore his pension. It was during his journey to Calcutta, interrupted by many short and long stays in different cities like Kanpur, Farrukhabad, Lucknow, Banda, Allahabad on the route, that Ghalib reached Banaras, first living there in a sarai and then in a rented house. Ghalib was terribly disappointed with Allahabad which he describes as “a ridiculous place” which “has no healing for the sick, nor anything of note for the gentleman.”

Referring to different sources, Bilal also puts focus on Muslims’ contribution to Banaras’s old history. Not many people know, as Bilal informs us, that the ghats in Banaras are not ancient structures and were “largely built in the eighteenth century by the Marathas and Rajputs” and that there are more than one thousand Muslim shrines and mosques in Banaras. He quotes Madhuri Desai who wrote that “colonial representations of the city simultaneously rendered it static and Hindu.” He also refers to historian Prinsep’s acknowledgement of the “destruction of the city of Banaras over the battle of supremacy between Vaishnavites and Shaivites.” In the context of various conflicting accounts of Banaras’s history, it becomes important to view it through “Persian cultural inheritance” and Ghalib is certainly the best source to get a close view of Banaras.

A remarkable feature of the book is the translator’s extensive footnotes containing very useful information about Ghalib, his times, his poetry and Banaras city in history and folklore. Thus, there is an interesting speculation whether Ghalib’s Old Tom whiskey that he loved drinking was a gin, rum or dark-coloured liquor. Similarly, we learn from his notes that ‘tazagui’ was the term “early Mughal poets used for their poetry.”

In all, Temple Lamp, as Gulzar writes in the blurb of the book, is a work “of immense importance.”

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.


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