How Kashmir Came To Be Known As ‘Little Iran’

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Kashmir, known as the ‘heaven on earth’, is blessed with beautiful mountains, lakes and gardens. Tragically, however, the discourse around the Valley is overshadowed by the conflict in the region: it obscures everything else, including its rich art and literature that go back centuries. Herodotus, known as the father of history, too, wrote about Kashmir, referring to it as “Kashyptyros.” Kashmir is famous for its rich traditions as well as for its men of letters. The philosophical debate between Monendar (the Greek ruler, who ruled Kashmir from Sialkot) and Nag Sen, a philosopher, was translated centuries ago.

Louis Massignon, a 20th-century Catholic scholar of Islam and a pioneer of Catholic-Muslim mutual understanding, writes in his book, The Passion of al-Hallaj, Mystic and Martyr of Islam, that “Mansur had come and spent a lot of time in Kashmir for debating and discussing his philosophy.” Additionally, world-renowned scholars and poets such as Kalidasa, one of the greatest poets of his era, was born in Kashmir. Pre-Islamic poets like Bilhana and the polymath Kshemendra, who wrote in Sanskrit, were also born in Kashmir. Even Kalhana, the famous historian and author of Raj Tarangni, who would call himself a poet first and a prose writer later, was born in Kashmir.


A painting of Kashmiri landscape.A painting of Kashmiri landscape.

 During the medieval era, i.e. from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, Kashmir produced great Persian literature. If Persia is proud of Rumi, Firdausi and Hafiz, Kashmir boasts of Gani, Sarfi, Salim and Fani. The Valley was also called “Iran-e-Sagheer” (Little Iran) because Persian literature and culture prospered here.

In Kashmir: Being a History of Kashmir from the Earliest Times to Our Own Volume 2, Ghulam Muhyiuddin Sufi writes that Persian literature in Kashmir can be divided into three periods: Pre-Mughal, Mughal, and Post-Mughal and Afghan. The number of prominent Persian poets these periods produced was 17, 197 and 33, respectively.  

Persian came to Kashmir through Islamic missionaries, merchants, artisans, mercenaries, adventurers and later gained the status of court language in the 14th century during the Sultanate period. Mohammad Isaac Khan, in his book Islamic And Intellectual Foundation of Kashmiriyat, argues that Persia and Kashmir were in contact since the earliest times. He quotes an example of Harwan monasteries where words derived from Persian are written. 

After the Arab Conquest of Iran, Zoroastrians left Persia fearing persecution and settled in India especially on the West Coast. They often travelled to Kashmir for different purposes, especially for trade. They composed verses, too, for upward mobility. It can be said that because of Indo-Persian cultural relations, the Persian language was introduced in the Indian subcontinent.
With the spread of Islam, particularly through Iranian Muslim missionaries, Persian gained more momentum. In Persian Poetry in Kashmir 1339-1846: An Introduction, G.L. Tikku writes: “Persian spread with the arrival of Sayyid Ali Hamdani and his 700 disciples. They taught Persian to people and corresponded with Sultans in Persian only.” Sufis like Sayyid Sharafuddin (Bulbul Shah), Mir Syed Hamdani, Mir Mohammad Hamdani, Shamsuddin Iraqi were zealous protagonists of the Persian language and culture. Gradually, Sanskrit was replaced by Persian under the Sultans.

During the Sultanate period, a lot of work was written or translated under their patronage. During the reign of Zain-ul-Abideen, the eighth Sultan of Kashmir,  Mulla Ahmad translated Kalhana’s Rajatarangini into Persian. He established a university in Naushehra and a Darul Tarjuma (translation bureau). Also, it was during Sultan Shahab-ud-din’s time that “Madrasatul Quran” was established which emphasized Persian literature and ulooms. Under Zain-ul-Abideen, Persian literature flourished the most. He was himself a poet and wrote under the pen name of “Qutb”. He wrote two books in Persian, too. One was on the manufacturing of fireworks in a dialogue form, and another was Shikayat, in which he discussed the vanity and transitoriness of this world. His brother-in-law Syed Muhammad Amin Owaisi, too, was a poet who was murdered in his own house for political reasons and was later called “Shahid-e-Kashmir”.

Most of Kashmir’s religious text, hagiographies and literature are in Persian. The hagiographical texts of medieval Kashmir, mostly unpublished manuscripts in Persian, discuss important issues such as the role of mystics and saints in shaping the socio-religious history of Kashmir from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. It continues to impact 21st century Kashmiri society. Mystics like Baba Dawood Khaki wrote in Persian. He was the first Kashmiri to compose religious qasida “Virdul Murideen” and wrote prose like Dastur Al Salikeen.  He has also written a book called Asrar-ul-Abrar in which he discusses in detail Sheikh Nooruddin’s purification of Rishi order, which prior to his advent, was Brahminical and vicious.

In another book, Qasida Lamiya, he writes that there is nothing unIslamic about celibacy as Prophet Yehya and Prophet Isa didn’t marry.  A disciple of Saint Sheikh Hamza Makhdoomi, Dawood joined another disciple of Makhdoomi, Sheikh Yaqoob Sarfi (a scholar of international repute) on the insistence of their master to meet Akbar and request him to invade Kashmir and rid Sunnis of Chak’s tyranny. Dawood, when he was in his twenties, was a teacher to Chak’s children, too. Sarfi, on the other hand, had studied under famous Maulana Jami’s disciples Mulla Basil and Mulla Mohammad Ami and was called Jami Al Thani (the second Jami). He had close interactions with the famous sufis of India, Saleem Chishti and Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi.
One of the most important Kashmiri mystics and scholars was Abdul Qadir Bedayuni, an authority on all branches of learning. Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, who is known as “Mujadidi Alfi Thani “(Revivalist of the second millennium) and who gave world-famous sufi concept like “wahdat us shahood”, used to get instructions from him on tasawwuf and hadith. Another Kashmiri mystic who wrote in Persian was Hassan Al Quli.

An important treatise by a Kashmiri scholar and mystic is Fathat-e-Kubrawiya and Mulaqat-e-Sayyid Mohammad Hamdaniwa Sheikh Nooruddin Reshi by Abdul Wahab Nuri, in which he discusses how Reshi and Sufi tradition was perceived in the popular imagination. Yet another famous treatise is Risalaye Lammiyah by Sheikh Ahmad Trali, in which he delineates how Sufis love everything and desist from consuming meat to curb their sexual desires. He was a rich businessman who left everything to become a disciple of Makhdoomi. Some biographies of Sufis, too, were written in Persian, like Khulsatul Munaqib by Nuruddin Jaffar, which delves into the life of the missionary saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, and Tahfat Ul Ahbab, based on the life of Nurbakshi saint and missionary, by an unknown author.

When Persian became the court language, it was used for both administration and diplomacy. Persian gave people access to high offices and royal courts. Henny Sender, in her book The Kashmiri Pandits: A Study of Cultural Choice in North India, argues how Kashmiri Pandits migrated from Kashmir to other parts of India for better opportunities. They learned Persian to get positions at different places of royal courts. She gives examples of Dhars and Tickoos in an Afghan court.

Even India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, in his book Discovery Of India, writes how his ancestor Raj Koul was invited by Mughal king Farukhsiyar from Kashmir to work in his court at Delhi due to his proficiency in Persian. Kouls were later rechristened as Nehrus, derived from the Urdu word nehr, as they were allotted land for their services by the kings near the canal, which means Nehr in Urdu.

Though this has been contested by Kashmiri literary critic and historian Muhammad Yousuf Teng in Nehrus In Kashmir. He writes that Farukhsiyar ruled for 13 years only and had never visited Kashmir. He writes that Raj Koul migrated himself and got a job and access to court, given his scholarship in Persian. It had an immense impact on the socio-cultural psyche of people. The answers to most of the questions related to past and present political or religious thought are buried in the Persian language.

A large part of Kashmir’s history and chronicles on Kashmir are in Persian. Mohammad Azam Dedmary, son of poet Pir Hassan, has written a book called Waqat-e-Kashmir. Pir Hassan Shah, son of poet Pir Ghulam Rasool, has written three-volume history: Ghulistan-e-Akhlaq, Kharat-e-Asrar and Ijazi Gharibi, Tariki-e-Kashmir by Syed Ali; Tarikh by Malik Hassan Chaduri; Bahrastani Shah by an unknown writer; Tarikhi Kashmir by Hassan Bin Ali Kashmiri; and Tariki-e-Kashmir by Narayan Koul Ajiz. Some non-Kashmiris, too, wrote the history of Kashmir in Persian. Like Al Masudi’s Marujus-Zahab and Tariki Rashidi by Mirza Haidar Dughlat.

During this period Kashmir produced world-class Persian Poets of great repute. For example, Mohsin Fani was a teacher to poets Ghani Kashmiri and Mohammad Aslam Salim. He wrote a book called Dabistani Mazahib. It is said that he has written 24 books. Mullah Kamal, a poet and a brilliant teacher, produced brilliant students, like Mulla Abal Hakeem Sialkoti, known as “Aftab-e-Punjabi,” Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi and poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam, who still has a great legacy and Nasiruddin Tusi. Dayaram Kachru (Khushdil), whose father Birbal Kachru was a civil servant and wrote a history book Majmu Al Twareekh; Mirza Beg Kamil, who is known as the first initiator of Rumi and Mulla Hamidullah (Hamid), who wrote five poetical works and two prose works.

Mohammad Tahir Ghani Kashmiri is arguably one of the greatest Persian poets of not only Kashmir, but the whole subcontinent. Sirajuddin Ali Khan Arzoo, in his Majma’un Nafaai, writes: “There are few poets comparable to Ghani in the Indian subcontinent. He excels not only his contemporaries but almost all his predecessors in many aspects.” As per Tahir Nasrabadi in Tazlar e Nasrabadi, “Aurangzeb had sent his governor Saif Khan to Kashmir to meet Ghani and convey him to attend the Royal court, to which Ghani replied, ‘Tell him he is insane’.”

To Ghani’s credit, he never attended any court. Poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal wrote that Ghani stayed true to the Islamic concept of fakir. As per Mir Hussain Dust in Sher e Ajam: “Saaib met Ghani and later presented him with a couplet, which sent Saaib into ecstasy  and Saaib is said to have remarked that the whole of his diwan could have been bartered away for this single couplet of Ghani.”

This signifies the genius of Ghani and the fame he enjoyed as the famous Iranian poet Saaib came all the way from Iran to meet him. In The Captured Gazalle: The Poems of Ghani Kashmiri, Muft Mudasir Farooqui and Nusrat Bazaz quote literary critic Shamsur Rahman Farooqi and write that Ghani Kashmiri commanded respect and admiration from Indians alike. Ikhlas says, “To this day, there hasn’t been magnum composing poet like him from Kashmir and in fact, none has come like him out of whole India.” Iqbal paid tribute to Ghani in Payaam-e-Mashriq. He even wrote about him in Javed Nama and Zinda Rood. Poetic genius like Mir Taqi Mir, too, paid tribute to him.

Many critics also write that Ghalib used his verses without acknowledging him. Urdu’s best short story writer Saadat Hassan Manto talks high of him in his letter to Nehru. Ghani’s brother, Mohammad Zaman Nafees, too, was a man of letters.
Another prominent Persian poet of high repute is Mohammad Aslam Saalim, who was in Mughal service and served as the Chief Justice of Allahabad. Iqbal holds him in high esteem. In correspondence with Kashmiri poet Mahjoor, Iqbal writes “that the work of literary criticism in Kashmir should have been done long back but I am happy you are doing it. There has been a poet by the name of Mohammad Aslam Salim, who is ahead of Ghani.” This speaks volumes about Salim’s poetic genius.
All Iranian poets craved Kashmir. They imagined it in their own way. In Mughal Arcadia and Persian Interaction in Indian Court, Sunil Sharma writes: “Kashmir was a favourite retreat for the court and the empire poets from Iran. Underlying the valorization of Kashmir was a desire to recreate Iran, the land of roses and nightingales and the supposed true homeland of Persian poetry in the Mughal empires as well, but Kashmir was particularly suited to be “little Iran” as it came to be called.” Mughals patronised Persian poets after Sultans the most.

Mughal emperor Jehangir was in love with Kashmir. He travelled to Kashmir more than any other emperor. He travelled in 1607, 1619-20, 1622, 1624, 1625, 1626 and in 1627, when he died. Talib, poet laureate of Jehangir, travelled to Kashmir with him. He wrote two poems on Kashmir. One, on the difficulties of ruling here, and another, one on pleasures of the place.
Writing poetry on Kashmir gave poets entry to the royal courts. Mohammad Qulli Salim wrote and praised Kashmir in one poem and showed it to emperor Shahjahan to get entry to the royal court. But it was a plagiarised work where he had replaced “Lalijan” (in Iran) with Kashmir in his earlier poem, so a new poem on Kashmir could not be produced. Sayyid Ali Saidi praised Shahjahan in Kashmir.

Zafar Khan, the governor of Kashmir who ruled for 11 years on behalf of Humayun, got Iranian poets like Kalim, Mir Ilahi and Saaib to Kashmir. Zafar Khan himself wrote divan of ghazals and masnavis on Kashmir. Dara Shikoh, too, wrote ghazals on Kashmir and called Kashmir Kaaba. He patronised Kashmiri Persian poet Mohsin Fani, teacher of Saalim and Ghani. Azad Begdili, a historian of Persian, praises Persian literature of Kashmir in his book, Atashkada.

Following the downfall of Mughals, Persian lost their hold in Kashmir. It was replaced by Urdu as a state language in 1889 during Maharaja Pratap Singh’s rule. Kashmir has a great legacy in Persian literature — history, religious and mystical thought — which needs to be preserved and translated by natives themselves as the state onslaught on the linguistic archives is on. 

(Faizaan Bhat teaches in the Department of Lifelong Learning, Kashmir University. He writes on South Asian Politics and History)

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