Scent in an Islamic Garden

‘Scent is the food of the soul, and the soul is the vehicle of the faculties of man.’ –Hadith attributed to the Prophet of Islam

One has heard of literary history, social history, to some extent even economic history culled from literary sources but seldom a horticultural study based on literary texts. Ali Akbar Husain, an architect and a teacher of architectural studies undertakes this novel venture. The result is a delightful pot pourrie of disciplines: history, architecture, landscaping, poetry, horticulture and, given the context, Islam. Scent in an Islamic Garden: A Study of Literary Sources in Persian and Urdu is a remarkable book for another reason, too. It focuses scholarly attention on a largely neglected part of Islamic India: the Deccan.

Scent in an Islamic Garden

William Dalrymple, writing the Introduction to the book, rightly notes:

‘By any standard, anywhere in the world, the Deccani civilisation that reached its most remarkable flowering in sixteenth century Hyderabad was rich and remarkable. Yet it remains astonishingly little studied. So dominant are the Mughals in the historical memory of India, that the different Deccani sultanates have been almost completely forgotten outside a small group of specialists and scholars. Almost all visitors to India visit the Taj Mahal and learn about Shah Jahan, but few visit Bijapur, Bidar, or even Golconda, and fewer still read of the no less remarkable doings of Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi sultans.’

In setting out to correct an old wrong, Ali Akbar Husain not merely brings to life the architecture, culture and contribution of the Deccani sultans but also places before us the significance of the garden in the current of Islamic thought. An earthly analogue for the life in paradise that awaits the Momin, the garden is a recurring image in the Holy Quran. The Paradisal Garden, the promised abode of the true believer, known by different names such as Iram, Firdaus, Jannah, is none other than the primordial garden that Man lost through sin but whose image is recoverable from the anima mundi. Descriptions of fair maidens, immortal youths, gushing fountains of cool waters, trees laden with fruit, gentle hills beneath which rivers flow – evoke not only images of plenitude and freedom from want but also of shade and rest and reward.

Over time, these images acquired near-mythic proportions and found reflection in different art forms in different parts of the Islamic world. The gated gardens of Cordova and Moorish Spain, the funerary gardens centred round a tomb or mausoleum of the Mughals, the classic formalism of the chaar bagh (the four waterways representing milk, honey, wine and water) and the intricately-worked pavilions and fountains of Andalusia – each has sought to replicate an imagined space, each has introduced local elements be it in the choice of plants or the demands of topography and landscaping.

In the crucible of the Deccan, we find a strange experiment taking place. An intermingling of Hindu elements with Islamic motifs, an admixture of Hindu art with Islamic architecture, an overlay of a Persian mizaj over an intrinsically Indian design sensibility combined to create an exuberant Indo-Islamic atelier. The forts, tombs, palaces and pavilions dotted across Hyderabad, Golconda, Bijapur, Bidar, etc. bear ample testimony to this synergistic flowering. And the gardens surrounding this built heritage were splendid examples of private and public spaces. Since most of these gardens have disappeared in the maw of urbanisation, what remains are references to them in Persian and Urdu literary sources. Husain’s perusal of Deccani masnawis to extract nuggets of information is, therefore, a singular contribution.

The choice of plants, trees, shrubs and herbiage – both indigenous and naturalised – as also the medicinal and aromatic properties of each are spelt out in detail. Flowering trees like kesu, amaltas, kadamb, nagkesar; fruit-bearing ones such as jamun, mango, amla, banana, kathal, shahtoot as well as pomegranate, citron, orange, lime, shaddock, fig, grape, phalsa; scented flowers such as rose, tuberose, chandni, mogra, chameli vie for space in these scented Islamic gardens of the Deccan with medicinal plants such as kafur, sandal, firanjmushk, etc. Two major seventeenth-century Deccani masnawis, Mulla Nasrati’s Gulshan-e-Ishq and Abdul Dehalvi’s Ibrahim Nama, further the analogy between the garden and the world. The fragrance from these scented gardens lingers in lines such as these:

Nazr ke rang dene kun har yek gul rang ka kasa
Muatr mann ke karne kun kali har huqqa parmal ka
(To brighten the eye, each (flower) was a cup colourful
To perfume the heart, each bud was a box of parmal fragrance)

Also read:
1. Ebba Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra, London: Thames and Hudson 2006.
2. D. F. Ruggles, Islamic Gardens and Landscapes, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007
3. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, London: Heinemann

This review first appeared in The Herald, Karachi, July 2012. Jalil blogs at

In praise of paan

dekhna ai “Zauq” honge aaj phir laakhoN ke khooN
phir jamaaya us ne laal-e-lab pe laakha paan kaa
— Zauq

Paan is almost as old as India itself. Ameer Khusro in his book “ijaaz-e-khusravi” gives some qualities of paan.

1. Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) has informed about its benefit.
2. It gets the root of the teeth fortified and this thing is known by experience that the teeth of the inhabitants of other lands fall because of eating fruits while the Indians who use it excessively do not fall.
3. It removes the pus in teeth, which is a source of abhorrence, and it, brightens teeth.
4. Removes the foul smell of the mouth.
5 . When it is chewed it produces good smell, which gets the mind of those present fragrant.
6. It removes phlegm.
7. Makes heart cheerful.
8. All fats are source of redness, and this leaf removes redness.
9. For the healing of wound of arrow or sword, it is tied on the wound.
10. It prevents vomit and exhilarates heart burning.
11. For the satiated it increases appetite.
12. It is a source of satiety in hunger.
13. It brings a little intoxication (exhilaration).
14. Of nine tastes, it has three perfect ones – bitter, salty & sweet, and tasteless pungent.
15. Six fruits have six different tastes while this leaf tastes as if it is all the six fruits.
16. Of the seven colors, it has five perfect ones – red, green, white, blackish like aloe wood and yellow.
17. Not without companions- areca nut, lime, and color.

Lucknow ki shaan, Azhar bhai ka paan [Photo:]

18. Everywhere fruits are eaten and not the leaf but here the leaf is taken as a fruit.
19. Monarchs never keep any food in the robe except this and that too with great honor.
20. Eating anything in a market is regarded a bad habit but this food is a sign of greatness.
21. It is used on the occasion of entertainment, it is always kept away from mourning and grief.
22. It is fit for hospitality.
23. All the leaves separated from the branch do not survive beyond one day, while this leaf is fresh even after six months.
24. it is fresh with water and also is fresh without water.
25. By taking the betel the beauty of the handsome person increases.
26. It turns the pearl like teeth into the sun-faced Indian(women) gem.
27. It decorates the assembly of the companions.
28. The gifts that are exchanged between the lover and the beloved, none is better than this.
29. Its taste is ecstatical and not sensual.
30. Its external form is admirable.

[From the translation published by The Islamic Thought and Science Institute, USA]

Jaan hai to jahaan hai – Urdu expressions

There are some expressions that have become part of our language, so much so that very few of us know the origin or even the full couplet where they come from. Muhammad Ramzan Abdul Shakoor has made it easy for us to find those ashaar by compiling them all in one book.

Here are some samples:

Gul phenke hain aalam ki taraf balke samar bhi
ai khana bar andaaz-e-chaman kuchh to idhar bhi — Sauda

mat sahal hamein jano phirta hai falak barsoN
tab khaak ke parde se insaan nikalte hain — Meer

na chherh ai nikhat baad-e-bahari, rah tak apni
tujhe aTkheliyaaN soojhti haiN ham bezaar baithe haiN — Inshaullah Khan Insha

“Jaan hai to jahaan hai pyaare” is from a Meer sher. A tempo in Delhi in 2011 displays a slightly modified line. [Photo:]

baja kahiye jisse aalam, usse baja samjho
zabaan-e-khalq ko naqaara-e-khuda samjho — Zauq

ye kahaaN ki dosti hai ke bane haiN dost naaseh
koi charah-saaz hota, koi gham-gusaar hota — Ghalib

panchviN pusht hai shabbir ki maddahi meiN
umr guzri hai iss dasht ki sayyahi meiN — Meer Anees

iss ghairat-e-nahid ki har taan hai deepak
sho’la sa lapak jaaye hai aawaz to dekho – Momin

ham aah bhi karte haiN to ho jaate haiN badnaam
wo qatl bhi karte hain to charcha nahi hota — Akbar Ilahabadi

vai-e-nakaami mataa-e-karvaaN jata raha
karvaaN ke dil se ehsas-e-ziyaaN jata raha — Allama Iqbal

khird ka naam junooN parh gaya, junooN ka khird
jo chaahe aap ka husn-e-karishma saaz kare – Hasrat Mohani

dil ki basti purani dilli hai
jo bhi guzra hai ussne loota hai — Basheer Badr

qatl-e-hussain asl meiN marg-e-yazeed hai
islam zinda hota hai har karbala ke baad — Muhammad Ali Jauhar

Book: She’ri jawaharaat aur zarbul misaal
Pages: 148
Price : Rs. 50
Edition: 2008
Address: 447, Dasvin Gali, Islampura, Malegaon (Maharashtra).

or contact Urdu Book Review (

Begum Roquia: the first Indian woman sci-fi writer

Sultana’s Dream a science-fiction was first published in 1905 making it probably the first Indian sci-fi work. It is a short story written by Roquia Sakhawat Hussain. Begum Roquia was born in 1880 at Rangpur which is now in Bangladesh.

Begum Rokeya
[photo from Wikipedia]

Sultana’s Dream was first published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine. Fortunately, the text of the story has survived. It reads like a feminist vision of the future. But it is not just a feminist vision but also a wonderfully written sci-fi story. It is a vision where women rule the country and men are holed up in “zanana” which is now called “mardana.” Since women are ruling there is peace everywhere and through the use of science all work is done efficiently and smartly.

Some snippets from the story:

Why men should be locked-up:

And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?’

‘Of course not!’ said I laughing lightly.

‘As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?’

‘Since the “Mardana” system has been established, there has been no more crime or sin; therefore we do not require a policeman to find out a culprit, nor do we want a magistrate to try a criminal case.’

Harnessing solar power:

The kitchen was situated in a beautiful vegetable garden. Every creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament. I found no smoke, nor any chimney either in the kitchen — it was clean and bright; the windows were decorated with flower gardens. There was no sign of coal or fire.

‘How do you cook?’ I asked.

‘With solar heat,’ she said, at the same time showing me the pipe, through which passed the concentrated sunlight and heat. And she cooked something then and there to show me the process.

Vehicle of the future:

Then she screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen.

My friend lowered the air-car by reversing the action of the machine, and when the car touched the ground the machine was stopped and we got out.

Read the full story story here. I thank Nasiruddin Haider Khan for telling me about Begum Roqiya.

Whose Urdu is it anyway?

Urdu has an identity crisis in India -is it an Indian language or just a Muslim language? Liberals will claim that it is a secular language and list names of non-Muslim writers and poets who are still counted among the legends of Urdu. But if it is a secular language and belongs as much to non-Muslims as Muslims of India then “where are the non-Muslim writers, poets, and intellectuals who love Urdu language and literature and have made teaching Urdu a mission of their lives?” asks Arif Iqbal, editor of Urdu Book Review in the Apri-June 2011 issue of the magazine.

Urdu bazar sign

Urdu Bazar Road sign in Delhi, but where is Urdu? [Photo:]

But then is it right to say Urdu is a Muslim language? Iqbal asks how many Darul Ulooms have separate departments of Urdu established? and “what are their contributions in collecting and protecting Urdu’s knowledge capital?”

We have been busy discussing in futile debates like what should be Urdu’s script or whether this language should be linked to employment.

There haven been some sensible suggestions e.g. instead of asking for Urdu-medium schools rather ask Urdu to be made an elective subject in school, colleges, and universities. But then Arif Iqbal asks “who will start this struggle?”

Read more about Arif Iqbal and Urdu Book Review here.

To subscribe UBR:

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New Delhi 110 002
Phone: 91-9953630788

Wali Gujarati: Father of Urdu poetry

Wali Gujarati [1667-1707] is considered father of Urdu poetry. While we all know the respect Ghalib paid to Meer few of us know what Meer Taqi Meer said about Wali:

Khugar nahin kuch yun hi hum Rekhta-goi kay
Mashooq jo apna tha, bashinda-e-Dakhan tha
[It isn’t casually that I began dabbling in Urdu
I picked it from my lover, a native of the Deccan]

Sample some of his ashaar:

mujh par na karo zulm tum, aik laila-e-khoobaN
majnooN hooN, tere gham kooN biyabaaN se kahoonga

dil-e-ishaaq kyuN na huay raushan
jab khyaal-e-sanam chiragh hua

aik qibla-roo hamesha mehrab meiN bhawaaN ki
karti haiN teri palkaaN mil kar namaaz goya

asr-e-baaadah-e-jawani hai
kar gaya hooN sawal kuchh ka kuchh

ai wali uss be-wafa ki meharbani par na bhool
dil ka dushman hai, magar karta hai baateiN pyaar ki


Here is a documentary about Wali’s life:

Hamida Chopra talking about Wali:

and some ghazals of Wali:

jisse ishq ka teer kari lage by Iqbal Bano:

Tujh lab ki sifat by Abida Parveen:

Gulab aahista aahista by Mallika Pukhraj:

Wali’s dargah was destroyed during 2002 anti-Muslim violence of Gujarat and a road built over it overnight. There is a facebook page demanding rebuilding of the dargah.

Qawwali muqabila

Qawwali originated in dargahs and remains closely associated with it but there is a whole world of Qawwali that exists outside the dargahs, no I am not talking about Bollywood Qawwalis. Qawwali muqabilas are popular in small towns and usually a bit lowbrow in its content and style. It is a Qawwali contest between two groups, if one of the lead singer is a woman then you can easily guess the topic and nature of the performance.

Shareef Parvaz vs. Rukhsana Bano

Not sure about the date or place of this muqabila but brilliant performance by both singers. I must warn about the strong language used in these videos, for a PG-13 Qawwali muqabila see the last video on this page (Yusuf Azad vs. Rashida Khatoon).

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Yusuf Azad vs. Rashida Khatoon: