Article Movement & Migration

Ghani Kashmiri: a sketch

In the late summer of 2013, only a few months after Penguin Classics published translation of Ghani Kashmiri’s poetry, I went to meet the translators at University of Kashmir, where the duo teach English to masters’ students. Why the publication of such a famous Persian language poet from Kashmir in English language had drawn no public or media interest was a little baffling to me, considering the past few years of splurge in English language writing about Kashmir.

Why wasn’t the release of the book in Kashmir an event of great cultural importance as such events would usually be in rest of the world? Mufti Mudasir Farooqi, one of the translators of The Captured Gazelle: the Poems of Ghani Kashmiri, dissatisfied with the tepid response to the book shrugged shoulders and told me disquietingly, “I don’t know what’s wrong but I don’t expect much. If such a work would have been written in other parts of India or anywhere in the world, it would have been an event there because their national poet would be brought to the surface and made accessible to lot many people but here nobody seems to have taken interest.”

The utter lack of interest in the book, whose sales at the local bookshops in Indian administered Kashmir remain dismally low, suggests a deep disconnect between people and history. In the words of well known Kashmiri poet and critic Zareef Ahmad Zareef Kashmiris have stopped looking at their history critically and appreciatively. “It’s the reason why poets like Ghani remain little known and understood here,” he says. The work of translation was supposedly aimed to bridge this disconnect and bring the language in which Ghani composed his verses to a wider public but the dismal response only brings to light that Persian is no longer the well-regarded language that it was until 1947, even though as Zareef points out “most of the historical writing about Kashmir was done in Persian.”

Outside Kashmir, the scene is quite different Mufti Mudasir told me. “It makes me happy that the book has attracted a lot of attention outside Kashmir.” Zareef corroborates and says that Ghani was and still continues to be much appreciated by outsiders, particularly in Iran. “Ghani has found acceptance and love from the native Persian speakers in Iran and other parts of Central Asia where Persian is a predominant language,” says Zareef.

On a sunny day in May at the Department of Persian in University of Kashmir, the rush of students is considerably low and the few who mill about in the lawn at the front of department speak very little on Ghani, as the nominal ‘they have not been taught yet’ is given as the argument.

“I don’t know which century he lived in or what his poetry is composed of but I know for sure that Ghani was a great Kashmiri poet who like other poets from Kashmir remains largely hidden to us,” a post-graduate student of Persian told me.

For Professor Shadab Arshad, who teaches Persian literary history to master’s students at the varsity’s Persian department, the present relevance of Ghani in Kashmir cannot completely be understood ‘because of the language barrier that exits.’ A gradual extraction of Persian language from the school curriculum happened after the Indian rule started in Kashmir in 1947. Twenty years ago, Andrabi told me, Persian was taught from fifth standard but now it’s only taught as a language subject at graduate and post-graduate level.

“And since Ghani is a Persian poet, he continues to be ignored by not only the people in general but by the literati as well,” Professor Arshad says.

“We teach Ghani at master’s level here in the department but there is no real public knowledge about who Ghani Kashmiri was,” he says.

Mohammad Tahir was born in the old city of Srinagar, probably in the locality of Rajouri Kadal, where he is also believed to be buried and a tomb has been constructed over it. The exact date of his birth is not known but all major historians agree that he was born in the first half of the seventeenth century and according to Mufti Mudasir, ‘probably in the first decade.’1

However, a biographer of Ghani writes that there is no historical document stating the exact date of birth of Tahir Ghani but she states that one literary biographer Girdari Lal Tikoo has ascribed 1630 as Ghani’s year of birth. “But most literary biographers and historians are silent about the exact date of birth of Ghani Kashmiri,” the paragraph ends.2** **

Neelofor Naaz Nehvi, whose short biography of Ghani Kashmir in Urdu (Ghani Kashmiri: Life and Poetry) is perhaps the only other substantial reference on the life and poetry of Ghani apart from the most recent The Captured Gazelle writes that although the year of birth of Ghani cannot be ascertained but the fact that Ghani died in his old age has to be brought forth, because there is a ‘false notion’ that Ghani died in the prime of his youth. “It cannot be true that Ghani died in his youth because there are a number of verses in his divan (collected poems) wherein Ghani himself is narrating the tale of his life and from which we come to know that Ghani has seen that phase of old age when hair turns grey, teeth start to fall out, back gives away, eyes lose their vision, every part of the body aches and a total infirmity overpowers man and his being,” she writes.

From the numerous descriptions of old age in his poetry, it can be ascertained that the assertion that Ghani was born in 1630 cannot be true and also because it’s historically established that Ghani died in the year 1669, as recorded by his pupil Muslim.

Additionally an important event in the life of Ghani was the meeting with Sa’ib, a famous Iranian poet at that time, who came to Kashmir with his patron Zafar Khan Ashan, the then Mughal Governor of Kashmir. The meeting with the Iranian poet also corroborates that Ghani died in old age. Sa’ib visited Kashmir in 1631-32 and by this time Ghani had already earned a name for himself as a poet. “So we can safely say that when Sa’ib visited Ghani, he must have been around twenty five years of age,” writes Neelofar Naaz Nehvi. Since Ghani died in 1669 CE, as recorded by his pupil, ‘by this we can calculate that Ghani lived for another thirty seven years after the visit of Sa’ib to Kashmir.’

Such was the reputation of Ghani at this young age that Iran’s most famous poet Sa’ib came calling to his door to understand the meaning of a Kashmiri word kraal pan (potter’s thread), which Ghani had used in one of his verses. Zareef says that fame came quite early to Ghani Kashmiri, even though he sought to distance from all sorts of worldly praise.

“Ghani had written Marsia (eulogies) of two prominent Persian poets of Kashmir, Abu Talib Kalim and Mir Ilahi Hamdani who died when Ghani was around twenty. And when these came out in public, Ghani was highly praised by some well known and established scholars in Kashmir,” says Zareef. “The visit of Sa’ib to Kashmir only to understand the meaning of a word Ghani had used in his verse illustrates how great a poet Ghani Kashmiri was.”

Mufti Mudasir writes that Sa’ib was highly impressed to meet Ghani ‘whose verses bore a marked resemblance to his own.’ The verse that drove Sa’ib to meet Ghani reads:

muye mayaan-e tu shudah kraal pan

kard judaa kaasaye sar haa zi tan

Your hair-thin waist has

become the potter’s thread,

Severing off from bodies

many a head

Although, Mulla Mohammad Tahir Ghani has used Tahir as his pen-name in a few of his poems, but Ghani was his preferred non-de-plume in his entire poetry. The epithet Mulla to his name, Professor Arshad says, ‘meant that he had achieved high level of philosophical education and not just the traditional religious education as the term has come to denote in the present world.’ Thus Muhammad Tahir came to be known as Mulla Muhammad Tahir Ghani Kashmiri in Kashmir and the wider Persian speaking world of the Mughal era.

About the lineage of Ghani, a controversy exists whether Ghani belonged to the Ashai family of Kashmir or the Ishai family but generally it is believed that he belonged to the Ashai family. According to the Hassan Shah Khuihami, author of the seminal Tareekh e Hassan, Ghani’s ancestors came from Ishawar, a village in Khorasan (which lies in modern day Iran) and settled in Kashmir. Hassan is of the view that people in Kashmir, owing to linguistic modifications, changed Ishawar into Ashai.

Neelofar Naaz Nehvi says that there are no real facts about whether Ghani belonged to Ashai family or Ishai because ‘according to the historical record by GMD Sufi, a historian of repute, there is no place like Ishawar in Khorasan and even if there was a place by this name or there was any connection with Ishawar then the family name would be Ishawari not Ashai (since there is Ishawari family in Kashmir as well) and therefore Hassan Khuihami’s assertion is wrong. ’

“We can say that Ghani’s ancestors were from Ishawari lineage and later on literary historians without any historical proof changed it into Ashai. Moreover Ashai and Ishai have common ancestors, so they are same,” she writes.

Ghani Kashmiri wrote at the time when Kashmir was under the aegis of Mughal Empire after losing its independence in 1586, which sent the last ruler of Kashmir Yusuf Shah Chak in exile in India, where he died and is buried, and in the wake leaving her princess Habba Khatoon sing mournful songs in the name of lost love and independence, which are still sung today in Kashmiri homes.

Ghani composed his verses when the Mughal patronage over art and culture had attracted many poets from the Persian speaking world to Kashmir, which had already earned a sobriquet of Iran-e-Sagheer (Little Iran) in the centuries prior to the Mughal period. The influence of Persian language and culture on the Kashmiri culture and language had been a continuous affair and had started when Shah Miri’s came to throne in 1339.

Neelofar Naaz Nehvi says that the literary and cultural links between Kashmir and Iran were always mutually enriching and this relationship between the two cultures influenced Kashmiri culture, language and art in such a way that Kashmir came to known as Iran-e-Sagheer (Little Iran).

“The foundation of Persian language in Kashmir was laid down by Bulbul Shah, a venerated Sufi Saint who came to Kashmir during Rinchan Shah’s rule (1320-23) and started missionary work here. The language of propagation was Persian. Rinchan Shah was the first emperor of Kashmir to accept Islam. Thus, the visit of Bulbul Shah to Kashmir started the social penetration of Persian language and with the success of Islam (as more and more people adopted the Islamic faith), Persian language attained a wider status as the language of culture and faith,” she writes.

The Islam that Kashmiri society adopted, Professor Arshad told me came through Persian language and Persia was a venerated seat of art and culture at that time, and this directly influenced the kind of Islam that people practiced here, which was Sufi in nature. “My father learned Islamic prayer in Persian not in Arabic. The names of five-daily prayers of Islamic faith are in Persian too. Persian historiography is quite rich in Kashmir,” says Arshad.

It was in the backdrop to this rich cultural tradition of Sufism (clothed in Persian language and culture), which had given Kashmir the name of Reshi-wear (Abode of Saints) that Ghani Kashmiri composed his verses. Ghani was educated in all the literatures of his time and was a keen scholar. Ghani was not only erudite in literature of his time; he was pretty well versed with philosophy as well. Neelofar Naaz Nehvi states that Ghani had also mastered hikmat and tibb (spiritual healing and medicine). “We come to know from Ghani’s poetry that he had knowledge of medicine too,” she writes.

Ghani Kashmiri studied at Madras ye Qutbiya in Qutubudin Pora of old city Srinagar. The Madrasa was built by Shah Miri emperor Sultan Qutub ud Din (1373-89) and during Ghani’s schooling at the institute Haji Mohammad Qari was the head teacher. Among the esteemed teachers of the institute included Mulla Mohsin Fani, Mulla Jauhar Nath and Mulla Abdul Sattar.

“According to Muslim (pupil of Ghani) it was here at the Madrasa that Ghani’s spiritual journey took off under the mentorship of Mulla Mohsin Fani. But Ghani with his preservation and deep inclination to spiritual truth far exceeded his teacher,” Naaz Nehvi writes.

Aadil Aseer Dehlevi, who has translated some quatrains of Ghani into Urdu states in the forward to his translation work that such was the brilliance attained by Ghani under the tutorship of Mulla Mohsin Fani that Fani would at times seek guidance from his Ghani. “In Kashmir, there is no bigger poet of Persian language than Ghani,” Dehlivi declares.

Mirza Mohsin Fani Kashmiri (d. 1670-71) was, in turn, “known to have studied with Mohebullah Allahabadi, a distinguished commentator of Ebn al-Arabi’s mystical teachings. This pedagogical affiliation could account for the recurrent formulations of Ebn al-Arabi’s theory of hierophany (tajalli) in Ghani’s poetry as well as in the preface to his Divan (Collected Poems) by his student and compiler, Muslim.”3

As befitting Sufi ideals of austerity and asceticism, Ghani had moulded himself in these ideals and lived a life of austerity and asceticism. “Ghani was of a dervish (ascetic) frame of mind and thus was not a seeker of fame and recognition. He lived his life in shadows, away from the peering eyes of society and people,” says Zareef.

Ghani’s preferred way of being was that one who comes close to people, one who forms close associations with people and worldly affairs would be distant from God and truth. He believed that one who wants to come close to Truth/God would distance himself from the assembly of men.

Ghani kept aloof from the Mughal court in Kashmir, despite his acquaintance with the court poets of the era, writes Prashant Keshavmurthy, a professor of Persian Studies at McGill University, Canada. “Ghani appears nowhere in contemporaneous courtly chronicles of his time. This is probably why one of the earliest reports on him in biographical dictionaries (takera) characterizes him as a Sufi who refused the imperial summons to court, preferring his ascetic love of God to imperial service. This characterization seems borne out by a letter by Ghani himself to an unnamed but probably courtly addressee, wherein Ghani confesses his inability to both “adorn the new bride of poetry” such that it would appeal to discerning litterateurs as well as “fill the sea/meter of the praise of the choicest of the lineage of nobility and liberality.” It would thus appear that he practiced poetry in a physical location separate from the court but was routinely visited by poets who attended it. This exposure to courtly literary circles perhaps accounts for the popularity of his poetry among the Mughal elite and for Ghani’s own complaints across ten of his ḡ**azal distichs of the literary theft of his verses.”4

Neelofar Naaz Nehvi says that literary historians have given no picture of Ghani’s life in their texts and that whatever we can say with confidence about his life and times can be gauged from his poetry. “The story of his life as told by Ghani in his poetry is full of torment and suffering. It’s pretty clear from his poetry that Ghani never had any material comfort in his life. As adulthood dawned on him, he suffered from the pangs of livelihood,” writes Naaz Nehvi.

Ghani, in one of his couplets likens his life to the wheat-grinder which keeps revolving without halt or comfort. Ghani says that this endless journey has blinded him and he cannot find comfort now.

“How Ghani earned his living is not known, although his aversion to making poetry a means for it is well known, a trait especially remarkable in an age when it was customary for poets to employ their poetic skills to seek favours from rulers and nobles,” writes Mufti Mudasir in the introduction of The Captured Gazelle.

Ghani lived his entire life in poverty but his poetry would give him solace. Recreating one couplet where Ghani boasts off his poetic prowess, Mufti Mudasir writes that ‘Ghani was highly conscious of the quality of his verse and sometimes expresses satisfaction over the fame his verse earned him.’ The verse reads:

My verses have travelled to Iran.

No, not just Iran, they have

travelled the world.

My name has attained

such fame in India,

As the signet ring’s mark

in black ink

Ghani lived all his life in a solitary house in the old city of Srinagar, ’from where he silently watched the dismal condition of his people (living under the yoke of foreign rule) and occasionally, though obliquely, alluded to it in his poetry.” Neelofar Naaz Nehvi writes that his house was a mirror of his self; the only valuables at his house were paper, pen and ink. “In fact his house gave a true picture of his suffering self.”

In one of his couplets Ghani invokes sky to question it whether the heavens have bestowed the colour on his house on seeing Ghani’s colourless face. He says defeat is trickling down the walls of his house.

Ghani didn’t earn a single penny from his poetry and this poet from old city Srinagar abhorred court and authority to the extent that when Saif Khan, governor of Kashmir at that time was sent by the then Mughal emperor Aurangzeb asking Ghani to visit the emperor’s court, Ghani tore his clothes off and sent the messenger back with the words, ‘Tell your emperor that Ghani has gone mad.’

Ghani died three days after this incident.


Ghani Kashmiri was a poet of Ghazal (a lyric poem with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love, and normally set to music), but he has also written couple of masnavis and several rubiyats (quatrians). Mufti Mudasir calls Ghani Kashmiri ’a mazmun aafreen, a creator of novel poetic themes and meanings’. “The ability to create fresh metaphors is the hallmark of all good poetry Ghani possesses a remarkable gift for creating metaphors and similes which draw striking comparison between apparently dissimilar and disparate situations or objects. His poetry testifies to his imaginative acumen by which he transforms the data of ordinary experience into rich poetical meaning,” writes Mufti Mudasir.

Her decked vermillion feet,

his endless prostrations.

What act, for a Hindu can,

can excel the worship of fire!

The skies are in motion to

put my ill luck to sleep.

The rocking cradle brings

comfort to the fretful child.

Fleeting beauty is unworthy of love.

The lamp of lightening’s flash attracts

no moth.

Like the whirlwind, I am

ever free from bonds.

Abode on back, I have

no worries of settling down.

From the teller of beads a whisper

reaches my ear:

’A hundred hearts lose their

peace to bring solace to one.’

Ghani, like the shadow of the bird

flying in the course of love,

Falling into the dust will not

disrupt my flight.

The company of her tresses

made me famous throughout.

Like the seal’s mark which

owes it fame to black ink

The metaphors and similes used in these verses make right the claim that Ghani was a master creator of fresh meaning. “As is evidently clear, these verses bring out a connection between the idea and the image, thereby bringing out a new set of connotations to bear upon the image,” explains Mufti Mudasir.

Ghani’s poetry is divided into two distinct phases, says Neelofar Naaz Nehvi. The phase of his poetry is that period when Ghani hadn’t attained any fame. The second phase of his poetry is the one when his verses had reached a widespread fame and he had become popular poet in the Persian speaking world.

“His popularity had travelled from Hindustan to far reaching corners of Persia. The verses from both the periods of his life reflect this. However, Ghani had seen far more days of fame and popularity than he had seen of otherwise. Because his divan is full of those verses where Ghani refers to the popularity, and intrinsic worth of his poetry,” writes Naaz Nehvi.

Ghani was proud of his own verse and he reflected on his poetic brilliance thus:

Meaning cannot refuse,

submission to Ghani’s genius.

Poetic themes were fashioned

for him at the dawn of creation.

Among the admirers of Ghani was Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938), a poet-philosopher considered one of the greatest poet of the Muslim world, who in his Paayem-e Mashriq (Message of the East) sang thus, of Ghani:

Ghani, that melodious nightingale of verse

Whose songs resonated in Kashmir’s paradise.

Who kept the door shut while at home

And left it open while away from it.

Someone said, ’O soul-stirring bard,

This act of yours leaves all puzzled.’

How well replied he who had no wealth.

No wealth, except in the realm of meaning.

’What friends see me doing is right.

My house guards nothing of value save me.

’As long as Ghani sits in his house

All his wealth abides in it.

’And when this illuminating candle is away

No abode is more desolate than his.’

Iqbal invokes the same spirit of Ghani in his famous work Jawed Nama (1928) ‘where the spirit of Ghani appears as a harbinger of deliverance from darkness and despair.’ Kashmir today battles through a military occupation, which has scarred its population and made the yearning for Azadi, freedom, deliverance all the more urgent. Ghani’s spirit in Jawed Nama is unflinching and the faith he shows in his people can only be described as the victory of hope over despair.

Do you think our soil

is bereft of spark?

Look into our heart

with a keener eye

Wherefrom has passion

and fervour come?

Wherefrom has this breath

of the spring’s breeze come?

It has come from the

very wind which

Bestows colour and scent

on our lofty mountains.

Your cry is a bell

waking up the caravans.

Why do you despair of

the people of this place?

Their breasts do not carry

dead hearts.

Their sparks are still

alive under the ice.

Wait till you see that

without the trumpet’s blast

A whole nation will rise to

life from their graves.

Grieve not, O you gifted

with the vision.

Exhale the scorching breath

to consume the dry and the wet.

Under this turquoise sky

many a city has been torched

By the fire that exudes from

the dervish’s heart.

A kingdom is flimsier

than a bubble.

It can be blown up

by a single breath.

It is the song that fashions

the destiny of nations.

A song can make or

mar nation.

Though men’s hearts are

transfixed by your lancet,

None has discerned your

true worth yet.

Notes that emanate from you

are a poet’s song,

But what you say goes

well beyond poetry.

Raise a fresh tumult

in Paradise.

Sing a song of drunkenness

in Paradise.

A few paces away from the site where a teenager, Tufail Matoo, was shot dead by government forces in the mass revolt of 2010, lies Ghani Memorial Stadium. On the far end of the stadium, near a Sufi shrine is a library called Ghani Memorial Library and Reading Centre. The new building was constructed in June 2011 by the State government of Indian administered Kashmir. The building is constructed over the residence of Ghani Kashmiri, and a marble plaque reads that ‘the present building is a redone structure with dimensions and interior specifications of the original house retained.’ But Zareef Ahmad Zareef differs. The library is spacious with a large reading room and a couple of other small rooms, including an office. Ghani’s house in comparison wasn’t as big and the present structure has no aura of heritage to it.

“The old structure was wooden and it had beautiful windows carved with architecture, but the greedy contractor employed by the government to re-construct the house sold off all those relics of Ghani’s house and constructed over it a concrete structure,” laments Zareef.

Zareef says that the present political dispensation ruling Kashmir and the one before it has no interest in safe-guarding the cultural relics of the past. “Leave alone Ghani, look what they have done to the old bridges of Srinagar city. They want to wipe out Kashmir’s past,” says Zareef.

At the Ghani Memorial Library, not a single work is available on the poet on whose residential house this memorial was built. Not even a booklet or a brochure. The caretaker informs me that he cannot help me in finding any work on Ghani in the library. Come again some other day when madam will be here, he tells me.

Ghani Kashmir’s Divan (collected poems) was published by Jammu Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages in 1964 and then re-printed in 1984. Although, as per Mufti Mudasir, ‘Ghani has been one of those much read poets whose divan (collected poems) has gone through several editions and has been published in different publishing centres of India at least in eleven times’, sadly in Kashmir bookshops and even at the Cultural Academy run Kitaab Ghar, Ghani’s divan is not available. “Ghani’s divan has been out of print for several decades now,” Mohammad Ashraf, who runs Kitaab Ghar told me before giving addresses of other lesser known bookshops in the city where I might find his divan.

“We cannot just publish Ghani’s divan without there being any demand for it. In my entire career, I have not seen anyone coming here to look for Ghani’s divan. You are the only one. There is no public demand for it. How many readers of Ghani Kashmiri are available in Kashmir?” Mohammad Ashraf Tak, cheif editor of Urdu at the Cultural Academy told me.

With the September 2014 floods wreaking irreparable havoc to the archive section of the Cultural Academy, Tak explains that at present it’s quite difficult for the Academy to publish anything. “Almost all of the manuscripts were destroyed by the floods. We are in no position to publish anything.”

Tak says that the dwindling interest in Persian cannot be reclaimed just by the efforts of Cultural Academy. “If Persian language is introduced into the curriculum of schools and colleges, perhaps then we can expect widespread interest in Ghani, because he was one of its greatest practitioners,” he says.

When at a time that even the native Kashmiri language is not being promoted as the language of dissemination, it only remains a foregone thought that Persian will see any kind of rekindled interest in Kashmir.

“There aren’t many Persian poets in Kashmir at the moment, and those who come to us don’t have quality, which is sad considering this is the land which produced a literary giant like Ghani,” Tak told me.

For Zareef Ahmad Zareef, the relevance of Ghani Kashmiri for the present crop of writers and poets working in different languages like English or Kashmiri is two-fold. “First of all a genuine poet is always relevant. Secondly Ghani is a quite remarkable poet whose motifs and themes are opportunities for the younger writers working in any language to seek to learn the construction of themes and motifs. Through it, they can also look at their own history and seek guidance from it, instead of looking outside.”

For Seema Qadiri

Photo courtesy: Cover Picture, Rubiyat Ghani Kashmiri by Aadil Aseer Dehlevi


  1. Mufti Mudasir Farooqi and Nusrat Bazaz, The Captured Gazelle: The Poems of Ghani Kashmiri, page 1
  2. Neelofar Naaz Nehvi, Ghani Kashmiri: Life and Poetry (Urdu), page 11
  3. Encyclopaedia Iranica, entry on Ghani Kashmiri here:
  4. Encyclopaedia Iranica’s entry on Ghani Kashmiri

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