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

Jheeni Jheeni Beeni Chadariya

Think of Varanasi or Banaras and immediately mind goes to ghats along Ganga, temples, narrow lanes and of course chhach, the refreshing drink. Banaras is also famous for its silks and the weavers, who make those silk saris, living here for generations.

[Photo by snikrap]

The tragedy in Norway unfortunately had a link to Banaras weavers but it also highlights the struggle that weavers here are going through to survive in a globalized market where cheap silk from China is being dumped in India and not much avenue to benefit from the process of globalization. Experience of Mohammad Aslam Ansari who tried to market his products overseas shows the difficulty and challenge that even tech-savvy weavers face, in the absence of any professional help.

A great book about the lives of weavers of Banaras and their culture is “jheeni jheeni beeni chadariya” a novel by Abdul Bismillah. Available here and here.

You can hear the audio recording of the excerpts from the novel read by Amit Basole who is doing research on weavers of Banaras and their economy.

Also, a video about the weavers and their briliance:

Wedding songs: Men singing

There was a time that no wedding will be complete without sessions of wedding songs sung by professional singers and not-so-professional singers. Professional singers gave way to relatives and friends of brides and grooms who tried to put up their best performance. In recent years, it has been either Bollywood songs or wedding-song CDs played out while different wedding customs are being performed.

Amir Khusro has penned a number of wedding songs that continue to be popular traditional wedding songs. Some of his songs are –kaahe ko biyaahi bides, ye hari hari chooriyan, banna mera eid ka chand, chandni mein aiyo miya banner, etc.

A newly married Muslim couple of Tamil Nadu. [Photo by David.]

But this post is not about Amir Khusro’s wedding songs. This is about an unusual video that I stumbled upon recently. Unusual because it is a video of a wedding song which is sung by men, I am not aware of any culture where wedding song is sung by men so I was pleasantly surprised. The video informs us that it was performed in Tenkasi in Tamil Nadu in 2008. I enquired with a few contacts in Tamil Nadu and they said it is not so common anymore. Unfortunately, no one has been able to translate the words but what I have learned is that song is addressed to the groom and a reminder about his responsibilities now that he is married.


Are there other examples of men singing wedding songs? Please point it out and if someone can translate this song that will be wondeful.

Exploring Mappila culture

When we talk about culture in the context of Indian Muslims, like many other things, it gets confined to culture of Muslims of the Urdu belt. The talk will begin with urdu poetry, mention huge influence of ghazals, dedicated fans of qawwalis, and end up at Urdu’s influence on Bollywood movies. But beyond the Urdu belt there is a huge treasure of unique Muslim culture of India that has remained accessible for many. In these pages, in days to come, we will try to find those gems and explore this uncharted territory.

Let’s begin with the first Muslims of India, the Mappillas and their rich culture. The genius of Mappila culture was taking both their Arabic heritage and Indian heritage and producing a culture that has the ability to stand on its own feet.

Arabi-Malyalam: Arabi-Malayalam is a good example of the ingenuity of the Mappilas. Learning Arabic was a religious necessity for Malabar Muslims as the Holy Quran is written in Arabic. To give voice to their creativity however, they had to use Malayalam. There are 28 letters in Arabic alphabets but 13 of these do not have phonetic equivalents in Malayalam. Even words like “Allah” and “Muhammad” cannot be phonetically written in Malayalam. Similarly, Arabic’s 28 letters were not enough to represent all 53 letters of the Malayalam language.

The solution that Muslims came up with was a language called Arabi-Malayalam. It is Malayalam written in a modified Arabic script that can account for all Malayalam sounds and still represents Arabic words in the original script in order to preserve correct pronunciation. Different scholars have dated the origin of the script differently; estimates vary from 1500 years ago to 1000 years to about 500 years ago.

A sign in Arabi-Malyalam.

Songs: The oldest poetry in Arabi-Malayalam is probably Muhiyuddin Mala that tells the miraculous tales of Muhiyuddin Shaikh of Jilan. The long struggle that Mappilas led against the invading Portuguese explains why a number of their poetry is actually martial songs. In style, Mappila songs or ‘Mappilappattu’ start with a slow beat then picks up pace gradually and ends in a climax.

Dances: Mappilas dances are group dances that involve complex movements and coordination. Kokkkali is performed by men with sticks. Aravanamuttu involves a duff like instrument which is performed by a group of men. It is as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears

Oppana is a wedding dance performed by group of females. In this dance, performed a day before her wedding, the bride sits in the middle while dancers perform by clapping and moving around her in patterns.

Folklore Sans Frontiers

As we crossed the blood lined Waagah, after three hours of soul-destroying bureaucratic tangles and multiple forms filled in by the guardians of our borders, nothing changed. It was an eerie reminder of how the two Punjabs are but one. The roads were dusty and rural life remains as time-warped as ever. The street vendors were selling dirty, unhygienic food items wrapped in a thick cover of flies; and the money changers and CD-sellers attacked you with a frenzy that one is used to back home.

I was part of a delegation from Pakistan that was driving to Chandigarh to attend the SAARC folklore festival organized by Punjab’s legendary writer Ajeet Caur. This was a motley crew: ten Punjabis of various stripes, and five Sindhis who have travelled all the way from Bhit Shah to Lahore. We were greeted with garlands and the usual Punjabi warmth by our hosts at the border. This was my first trip to India via land or, as they say on visa forms, “on foot”. One could not escape the strange sensation of striding across a “hostile” frontier.

The road was still called the Grand Trunk Road and the traffic was a little more chaotic than that on the Pakistani side. The over-loaded road space reminded one of the simple fact that India’s population is out of control There is simply an explosion of humanity in all directions. As we drove towards Jullandar, our stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant called “haveli”, the driver bumped into a motorcyclist who was driving on the main highway thinking that he was still navigating the fields of his village. Thankfully, he was not hurt and the Sardarji had to only report the incident at a nearby police-post. My companions and I stood on the roadside waiting for the Sardariji to return. However, the general comment was that the lost side of the Punjab was more developed; and the images of women riding on motorcycles and scooters were simply astounding for first time visitors to India.

Six decades have passed since rivers of blood were unleashed by the tragic events of 1947, where an unnatural division of a territory was imposed by a cabal of self-obsessed politicians of all varieties and faiths, in cahoots with their imperial masters. Humans are resilient, after all, and the Punjabis have coped with this trauma rather well. On our side they have captured the entire country, held it to ransom and have not shied away from undermining other nationalities when need be. On the enemy side, they have turned into mega-entrepreneurs, flourishing businessmen across North Indian urban centres and a huge diaspora with lots of money in the Western capitals. But the tragedy refuses to go away. The most revered shrines of Sikhs are in Pakistan and the oldest Shiva temple is in our Punjab. The Muslims, of course, have left their saints and shrines in the Hindu kingdom, not to mention traces of a seven-century cohabitation with the Indian gods.

At sunset, we were closer to Chandigarh – city beautiful – a city that had to be built anew to refresh the memories of Lahore. A project that Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru was extremely proud of, Chandigarh became the first prototype, well-planned socialist experiment. It is a shame that five decades later, it is nothing like Lahore, as it still gropes to find an identity and it has turned into a testament of India’s deep-seated inequality across class lines. Having said that, it is a model city, with big boulevards, wide pavements, multiple educational institutions and mercifully, lots of green spaces.

We arrived at Himachal Bhavan, a government owned rest house of sorts built like a socialist castle. Very soon, we merged into the streams of visitors from other countries. The bauls, fakir followers of Lalon Shah in Bengal, the singers from Nepal, Kashmir and dancers from tribes of Bengal and Maharashtra constituted the delightful mosaic of South Asian folk universe carefully assembled by the legendary Ajeet Caur.

Thus a packed festival commenced in sleepy Chandigarh which, not unlike Islamabad, is a quiet city. The performers started the day with public performances in educational institutions and public auditoriums. Concurrently, a seminar took place for four days with scholars, writers and researchers presenting papers on South Asian folk art and cultures. The afternoons were spent on sightseeing and every evening folk performances were held at the Tagore Theatre in the city.

There was little room for a traveler of my kind to explore the city. But the wide variety of people who attended the seminars and performances provided ample opportunities to speak to the residents of the lost Punjab. Countless stories permeated our conversations, jokes and periods of serious discussions. A Sardarji from Gujranwala district narrated his memories of Lahore and native village. Such are the machinations of nostalgia that it becomes a reality; a shadow that hangs over the present, sometimes strong and at other times muted and subtle. But it is there, all the time. A family that migrated from Lahore had named their business in Chandigarh after the mohalla that they had to leave in the frenzy of 1947’s mayhem.

Surinder Caur, the popular singer from Indian Punjab had visited Lahore a decade ago and she nearly broke down when she identified her house in the Chauburji area. Her talented daughter Dolly Guleria is continuing the traditions and she sang with gusto at the festival. Dolly has a majestic voice and is well-versed in Sufi poetry from the Punjab. Her rendition of Baba Farid’s verses and pieces of Heer left the audience swooning.

Dolly also wants to visit Pakistan again as her maiden trip with her mother left an indelible impression on her.

Perhaps the most soulful performances at the festival were those by the Bauls of Bengal and the fakirs from Bhit Shah who retained the essence of original performative features unlike the pop-folk that is in vogue now. The malangs from Madhoo Lal Hussain’s shrine in Lahore were a hit for their direct connection with the audience. The trance-like state and losing themselves attracted the spectators as each one of them may have wanted at some stage of their life to have entered oblivion. The dhamalis, as these resident malangs are known, dance each Thursday to remember the tradition of devotion that Madhoo Lal had started in the seventeenth century to honour his patron, teacher Shah Hussain. The syncretic roots of our folklore are difficult to miss.

As I narrated in my paper on the myths of Indus river that, even today in parts of Sindh, there exists the practice of wrapping the holy Quran in colourful cloth and cradling it, the way Hindus have worshipped the birth of Lord Krishna.

Scholars from all over the region lamented how folklore traditions were threatened due to rampant commercialisation and the globalised mono-culture where manners and lifestyles are all inspired by the dominant West. During the festival, I loved the dancers of Sherdukpen tribe from Arunachal Pradesh who performed the traditional Yak Dance. These tribals are engaged in farming for their livelihoods, while dancing provides a balance of their interaction with Nature and daily rigours of their lives.

Other groups from India presented amazing performances showcasing the vibrant cultural kaleidoscope of India. The Yakshagaan from Karnataka, Laavni from Maharashtra, Hafiz Nagma from Kashmir, and Ustad Qadri Sardar Ali’s Qawwali group from Punjab displayed the way folk traditions continue in these difficult times.

The festival aside, it was the Punjabi environs that pleased me the most. Indian Punjab is now divided into governable units of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and the Punjab. In addition, Chandigarh is a Union territory that also happens to be the headquarters for Punjab and Haryana states. Nehru’s land reform, industrialisation and the spread of education at all levels have made these states distinctly different from their mammoth counterpart: the Pakistani Punjab. A large middle class has transformed the cultural ethos and democratic traditions have ensured that citizen voice is given its due in governance on the Indian side.

Chandigarh, for instance, has an impressive literacy rate of nearly 82% and its per capita income is also the highest for the service sector flourishes here. Guess who can boast of a parha likha Punjab? On the other hand we have a small, populous strip of central Punjab that has the promise of prosperity; otherwise, southern Punjab is the poorest of regions in Pakistan. The barani north is also impoverished with limited citizen services and entitlements. With our indoctrinated India-hatred, we often tend to overlook these developments in our immediate neighbourhood. How come the infidels, those scheming banias and stumbling Sikhs achieve this? A question that must be addressed by us all.

On my last day in Chandigarh, I visited the Punjab University to meet an old acquaintance from the international public administration network. Mr and Mrs Ghuman live in a peaceful house within the university, grow their own vegetables, and are raising two sons who are acquiring state of the art education. I was offered baisan ki mithai, kachorees and barfi with lots of affection for Pakistan and the Punjabis. I did not feel as if I was in a hostile territory and the conversation and its tenor reminded me of my family on this side of the border. Ironically, the same day another former Professor of Chandigarh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a son of Chakwal was trading allegations against Pakistan for spreading terrorism. Politics can deplete cultures and destroy common bonds. 1947 was this awful watershed when high politics dominated the lived and shared lives of the Punjabis.

Ajeet Caur-ji, who calls me her son, is a remarkable woman. She is relentless in her efforts in forging South Asian bonds and effecting literary and cultural exchanges. She has kept a flame ablaze in dark times. Let the light prevail. Ajeetji is not alone. The writers from all over South Asia are her family.
It will take years, perhaps decades, but the dream for a visa-less, peacefully coexistent countries of South Asia will be realized. We will wait, but not give up.

First published in The Friday Times.

Raza Rumi is a freelance writer from Pakistan is the founder and Editor of Lahore Nama.