Editor's Note

Amir Khusraw’s Nuh sipihr (The Nine Skies) has not been translated into any language before this.

Which is thrilling in itself. Then there is the feeling that we have entered another time and space. This epic poem’s form belongs to both Persian and Sanskrit literary traditions. The blood and gore of the First Sky, and a seriously silly argument between the bow and arrow in the Fifth Sky—these selections are meant to rattle, or just produce a heady, aesthetic experience.

— Mani Rao
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Translator's Note

The longest, most formally accomplished and thematically diverse of Amir Khusraw’s masnavīs is the The Nine Skies (Nuh sipihr), a poem in 4,487 end-rhymed couplets. Its nine chapters replicate the nine concentric spheres of the Ptolemaic cosmos, moving from outermost to innermost sky. Its topics are a conspectus of key themes and genres from the poetry and history-writing of a medieval Persian court. In unprecedented (and unacknowledged) imitation of Sanskrit court poetry in cantos (mahākāvya), Khusraw composed each chapter in a distinct meter with end-rhymed couplets. Despite complex metrical restraints, the lines contain wordplay and compound metaphors that collapse physical scales. My translation is in blank verse and footnotes the puns.

— Prashant Keshavmurthy

from THE FIRST SKY

 

The first Sky is the Sky of the First Intellect or Universal Intellect, the first entity to come into being in Neoplatonic cosmologies when God or the One contemplates Itself. In the excerpted passage, Khusraw refers to a historical battle between his Turkic Khalaji patron and the Hindu Yādavas of Devagiri. But these are not proper names he uses. Rather, in line with literary stereotype, he exalts the Turkic victory by identifying the Turks with divinely aided Arab Muslims in the Quran. This lets him overturn and dissolve this contrast, in The Third Sky, by praising India’s Hindus for their cultural and scientific accomplishments and allows him to identify himself as a Hindu Turk.

 

When Rāghav saw that, by his fate, the time

Had come for him to bid the world farewell1

 

He leapt out from his lair with his army.

The earth grew black with teeming infidels.

 

The Hindu riders parted from their lives,

One’s arm speared and two with legs javelin-pierced.

 

They had all worn red silk for the battle,

Leaving no place for luster but their swords.

 

When the Turks caught sight of them from afar

They rushed like rays to sever the darkness.

 

The Hindus could not withstand the assault;

They jumped away like shadows from the sun.

 

The troops of holy warriors grew daring

In triumph for the tribe of the Arabs.

 

Victorious lions proclaiming God’s greatness

Sent declamations ringing through nine domes.

 

From the sword of “Victory’s from God” prayer

Summoned the evil of “Perish the hands”.2

 

That same Indian sword became Bū Lahab

Saying “Perish the hands” and “May he perish!”3

 

The sword kept flowing like rushing water

That jets sharply out of an aqueduct.

 

In that pressing swarm the swirling lancet

Ran like the tooth of a comb through dense hair.

 

By blades forked like lightning across brave backs

Jewels sank into the bezels of spines.

 

Swords scalloped livers into arrow-slits,

Forged steel, like livers, suffering bodies’ pain.4

 

Each stone that the sun had failed over years

To transform by its heat into rubies

 

Was transformed instantaneously by swords

Of solar brightness into rubied shades.5

 

In that blood-wave where horseshoes turned molten

The raven, red-beaked, became a parrot.

 

The battle-axe swung wildly to strike heads

Like a madman inside a potter’s home.

 

Those blows of massive force pounded so hard

That bones in chests were powdered to flour.

 

Death kneaded as much flour into the blood

As fate’s wheel had marked out as food for beasts.

 

The soldiers had turned conjurers again,

Swallowing daggers and juggling with balls.

 


 

from THE FIFTH SKY

 

These stanzas describe Sultan Quṭb al-Dīn Mubārak Shāh’s hunting expedition. Playing on the ancient Middle Eastern genre of the dispute between a pair of culturally salient objects, Khusraw presents a conversation between the Sultan’s bow and arrow. The arrow (tīr) snaps in annoyance at the praise that Mercury (tīr), a planet associated with eloquence, lavishes on the Sultan’s bow, insisting that such praise is the arrow’s own prerogative.

 

The blessèd banners of the hunting ground

Follow the King to deserts and meadows.

 

Wherever warriors gathered in circles

Kababs revolved slowly on roasting-spits.

 

The duck that dived daily into rivers

Now wept when it was scalded on a fire.

 

So much sweat dripped out of the roasted bird

That the mouth of the fire itself watered.

 

The dance of waterfowl delighted hearts,

Sometimes on water and sometimes on fire.

 

The troops’ pennants thronged onto the plateau.

Soldiers ranged in circles for two farsangs.6

 

The wall of flesh extended for ten miles.

Lions circled and leopards rushed away.7

 

And all those flesh-eating and fierce creatures

Fled to escape from that rampart of flesh.

 

No-one slipped into the circle’s lockbolt

Except the key of the World Caliph.8

 

The arrows of the valorous emperor flew,

Fame-bright from his lions’ rejoicing eyes.9

 

The weighing scales’ pans filled with leopards and stags.

A general hoisted them against their weights.

 

The King’s arrows leapt like lightning so much,

They pierced the wolf and sank into the earth.

 

That is, the wounds they struck seemed so easy

That they sank embarrassed into the ground.

 

When Mercury beheld the King’s shooting

It drew the arrow of its tongue in praise.10

 

Exclaiming its praise of the bow, it said:

“The sky is not as exalted as this.”

 

As soon as these words entered the quiver

The King’s arrow snapped back at Mercury:

 

“O’ you who’re Mercury in name alone,

Few are the targets of wishes you’ve struck.

 

What business have you, given your powers,

To eulogize the bow of the Sultan?

 

Know that it is a human who works me

When you have shot an arrow from your bow.

 

As I’m the King’s arrow it falls to me

To sing a eulogy to the King’s bow.”

 

Mercury, at these words, looked away.

The arrow sharply split hairs in anger.

 

Its fearsome eulogy left Mercury

Open-mouthed like the eye of an arrow.11

 

 

NOTES:

 

[1] Rāghav is an unidentified general in the enemy Yadava camp.

 

[2] The evil ones of “Perish the hands” (Quran 111:1) is a reference to a reviled figure in the Quran, Abū Lahab or ‘Father of flame’, an etymology that Khusraw, like the Quran itself, overturns by characterizing the Turkic army as fiery and solar. Here, the call to Muslim prayer issued to infidels marks Muslim victory over infidels.

 

[3] Both phrases are quotes from Quran 111:1 where both refer to Abū Lahab.

 

[4] The phrase for “like livers, suffering bodies’ pain” (jigar-khwāra) also carries its literal meaning which is “liver-eater.” But since the liver’s function in Galenic physiology was to produce blood, this metaphor means the sword caused bleeding.

 

[5] As per ancient belief, rubies were products of the sun’s prolonged action on stone. The rubies are a metaphor here for blood. The word for “instantaneously” (ba yek-dam) also means “by one blood”, a pun enabled here by the sanguinary context.

 

[6] A farsang, from the ancient Persian unit pārasang, was in principle the distance a horse could walk in an hour which was around three miles.

 

[7] “The lions” are the Sultan’s hunting soldiers. But “lion” was also the stock example in medieval Arabic and Persian literary theory of a dead metaphor as it also meant “brave person.” This distich thus literalizes a dead metaphor. This and the next six distichs describe a qamar-gāh, a hunting practice of Central Asian origin where a circle was formed to enclose game.

 

[8] “The World Caliph” is the Sultan Quṭb al-Dīn Mubārak Shāh.

 

[9] “Fame-bright” translates rawshan which means “bright” as well as “celebrated.” This complements “rejoicing eyes” which translates the idiom “to make bright eyes” (chashm rawshan kardan) which means “to rejoice, exhilarate, cheer.”

 

[10] The noun tīr means “Mercury” as well as “arrow.” This and the following distich play on this pun.

 

[11] The word for “fearsome” (sahmnāk) also means “arrow-filled.”

Acknowledgments

Image Details:

Amir Khusraw is credited with having invented the sitar– that quintessential Indian musical instrument– by combining the veena with the Turkish-Iranian tambur. Irrespective of whether this attribution is true, the story does reflect the syncretic nature (and catholic appeal) of his poetry. Khusraw combined the best of the many worlds he lived in— mysticism, scholarship, historian, court poetry, “vernacular” poetry– and made it all an indelible part of the subcontinent’s cultural heritage. We do not know how he looked. But rather than rely on the traditional markers of Islamic origin— faded Persian facsimiles, Mughal miniatures, geometrical artwork, calligraphy— we decided to invoke the man with an instrument as unique as the man.

Author | AMIR KHUSRAW

Amir Khusraw (1253-1325 CE) was a Persian-language poet in the court of five Delhi Sultans. Posterity remembers him for his ghazals or love-lyrics (nearly 2,000 of them) on the Sufi and courtly themes of masochistic love. In fact, he also innovated in every other Persian verse and prose genre— among these are long poems in end-rhymed couplets (masnavī), the most prestigious Persianate form for extended narration before the novel.

Translator | PRASHANT KESHAVMURTHY

Prashant Keshavmurthy is Associate Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He is the author of Persian Authorship and Canonicity in Late Mughal Delhi: Building an Ark (Routledge, 2016) and co-translator of Sohrab Sepehri, The Eight Books: A Complete English Translation (Brill, 2022). He has completed a full translation into English blank verse of Amir Khusraw’s mixed genre poem from 1318, The Nine Skies, and is writing a monograph on craving and craft in the quintet of the great twelfth century poet Niẓāmī of Ganja.

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