Mughal Arcadia: Persian Poetry in an Indian Court

By Sunil Sharma

Mughal Persian literary culture was a transregional phenomenon in the early modern period. Part of the Persianate cultural ecumene, the Mughal courts, as well as the Deccan, attracted a great number of men of letters from Persian-speaking lands to what came to be viewed as a literary Arcadia. Under court patronage, poets wrote about travel and new places in an age that witnessed the spread of Persian learning and literature among a broad range of social classes in the eastern Islamic world. In keeping with trends in the Safavid and Ottoman courts, poets, historians, and artists celebrated the monumental building projects and mobile lifestyle of the Mughal court through the innovative use of established literary tropes and genres. While the love lyric (ghazal) was certainly the most popular poetic form facilitating the spread of the Persian language and Persianate ethos, other literary forms such as the short masnavi and genres such as the saqinamah and shahrashub were also in vogue. At the same time that early Mughal Persian literary culture was being characterized by the cosmopolitan make-up of its participants, there also existed an underlying tension between émigré poets from Iran and those of Indian origin, exemplified by two major poets in the court of the emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605): ‘Urfi Shirazi and the Indian-born poet laureate Fayzi, brother of the historian Abu’l Fazl.

Cover of Sunil Sharma’s book “Persian Literature in an Indian Court”, Harvard University Press

A newfound sense of place, being distinctly local yet part of a transregional world of letters, was linked to the expansion of the Persophone cultural sphere that included new regions, peoples, and aesthetics, and resulted in a complicated nexus of politics, poetics, painting and patronage. This book explores the way early-modern Persophone poets, using a shared poetic language but with different motivations, drew on a rich literary tradition and employed creative ways to describe the spaces they inhabited, ranging from imperial buildings, gardens, the city, its people, to the countryside. Among the new ways that the Mughals thought about geography was through a reclassification of the traditional division of the world into seven climes in which Iran was at the center, but whose position was challenged by Mughal literati. Once classified as an exotic land in ‘aja’ib texts, the image of India transformed in the late-sixteenth and -seventeenth century to one of a refuge and home of Persian poetry. This period witnessed a large-scale migration of many Safavid subjects from Iran, as well as Central Asians, to Mughal India, where they took up positions as governors, administrators, religious scholars and poets. As the centers of Persian court poetry became relocated to India, a remapping of the Persianate world took place in works such as Ahmad Razi’s Haft Iqlim. Iranian peripatetic poets such as Bihishti Haravi, Salik Qazvini, and others, also mapped out the expanding Persianate world in verse by describing the excellent qualities and topography of India in the same terms they used for Iran and Safavid cities.

This age also witnessed a shift in the poetics of space, whereby poets were no longer constrained to describing idealized gardens and assemblies, but also wrote about spaces in actual time and place. A rich body of topographical poetry was complemented by a visual archive, i.e. paintings of places, as well as by the better-studied European accounts by such travelers as François Bernier. Some of the favorite literary tropes were to describe the perilous journey in the summer to the mountainous region of Kashmir from the Indian plains, or to describe a poet’s exhilarating account of a boat trip down the Ganges from Allahabad to Bengal with a provincial governor. Topographical poetry drew on the older Perso-Arabic genre of fazā’il texts (praising the excellent qualities of a place or object), extolling local buildings and products. Members of the Mughal imperial family and the governors of provinces were the most generous patrons. The complex network of governors, who were mostly Iranian in origin, especially during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan, controlled an elaborate system of patronage for poets and artists. The careers and patronage of governors such as ‘Abd al-Rahim Khankhanan in Ahmedabad and Burhanpur and Zafar Khan ‘Ahsan’ in Kashmir illustrate how provincial centers created a congenial atmosphere for poets and artists that rivaled the capital cities of Delhi, Agra and Lahore.

As the center of Mughal Arcadia, Kashmir was the location of much of the literary activity during the 1630s and 1640s, serving as a symbol of paradise and the actualization of an ideal Persian garden. It was the culmination of the idea of an Arcadia for Iranian poets who found the climate in the plains to be less than salubrious. The high point of this literature, along with history writing in general, was the reign of the emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), although poems on Kashmir first appeared in the reign of Jahangir (r. 1605-27), when the valley became an imperial summer resort. The poet laureates Talib Amuli and Kalim Hamadani, as well as Qudsi Mashhadi and about a dozen other Iranian poets visited Kashmir and wrote masnavis on its natural beauty and Mughal monuments there. These poems were the beginning of a literary fad that saw the emergence of a sub-genre of topographical poetry exclusively devoted to the beauty of the valley of Kashmir. Although there are some pastoral features in the poetry about the provinces, these poems largely used the same metaphors to praise urban spaces and gardens. Though overused in this period, the metaphor of Kashmir as paradise was also used in multiple new ways. Most innovatively, Kashmir was applied to embody Iran itself, as the home of Persian language and culture. Poems composed by poets of Indian origin, such as Munir Lahori and Fani Kashmiri, who wrote about other places such as Allahabad and Bengal, display a personal attachment to local spaces. In their Kashmir poems, these poets compared the paradisal land to other Indian provinces that they knew through their professional service in the Mughal administration. As they began to challenge the hegemony of the émigré poets, they became aware of their own place in the literary tradition, resulting in the articulation of a specifically Indo-Persian literary canon.

The end of Mughal Arcadia came with the Safavid victory over Qandahar in 1648, which was an important border fortress that had been under Mughal control. Several factors contributed to this being a symbolic turning point for the reclamation of Persian literary prestige by the Safavids. This event was celebrated by poets such as Sa’ib Tabrizi and Tahir Vahid Qazvini in Isfahan, who both represented India in different ways in their poetry. Two Indian female literary types, the sati and courtesan, were especially appealing to Iranians of this period, and contributed to a new literary phase that presented India as an exotic land. Following Shah Jahan’s incarceration and death, although the patronage of poetry did not end completely with his successor, Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), the new emperor’s nonchalance towards poetry and history writing, and his absence from Delhi for half his reign led to major transformations to the vibrant court culture that was once transregional in its impact and influence. When Iranians were no longer the arbiters of literary taste and with the rise of non-Muslim Persophone people as producers and consumers of literature in Indian courts, local elites became the major patrons of Persian poetry, at the same time that regional literature in vernacular languages, especially in Brajbhasha Hindi and Urdu, came into their own. Persian topographical poetry and verse travelogues disappeared from popularity, reappearing in a different guise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in local settings not directly connected with the Mughal court. This book, then, is an attempt to analyze a particular multilingual period in Persian literary history when Persian literature was produced, along with Turki, Hindi, and Sanskrit, and whose Persianate legacy lives on in various ways.

About the Author

Sunil Sharma is Professor of Persian and Comparative Literature at Boston University’s Department of World Languages and Literatures. In 2003-04 he was a fellow in the project “Cultural Mobility in Near Eastern Literatures” that was part of the Working Group Modernity and Islam, the predecessor of the research program Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME). He is the author of several books and articles. His research interests are in the areas of Persianate literary and visual cultures, translation, and travel writing. He currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Persianate Societies, Studies in Persian Culture, and Murty Classical Library of India.


Citation: Sunil Sharma, Mughal Arcadia: Persian Poetry in an Indian Court, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research 13.11.18, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/14756.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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