Chiragh-e-Dair (Light of the World) – Ghalib on Benaras

Mirza Ghalib spent a month in Benaras during his struggles for the restoration of pension. The city left a lasting impact on him. I had read his Mathnavi Chiragh-e-Dair a while ago albeit with difficulty as it was in Persian. Recently, while re-reading Pavan Verma’s book on Ghalib, I came across his English translation.

Translations can never do justice to the originals but the range and grandeur of Ghalib’s thought cannot be missed through this translation. Ghalib’s declaration of Benaras as the Mecca of Hind must have irked many and perhaps today it would be inconceivable that a Muslim poet could dare to make such an eclectic, heartfelt remark about Benaras. Here is the poem:

Chiragh e- Dair, The Light of the World

May Heaven keep the grandeur of Benaras
Grove of this meadow of joy;
For oft returning souls -their journey’s end.
In this weary Temple land of the world,
Safe from the whirlwind of Time,
Benaras is forever Spring.

Where autumn turns
into the touch of sandal on fair foreheads,
Springtide wears the sacred thread of flower waves,
And the splash of twilight
is the crimson mark of Kashi’s dust on heaven’s brow.
The Kaaba of Hind!
This conch blowers dell;
Its icons and idols are made of the Light,
That once flashed on Mount Sinai.
These radiant idolations’ spirits,
Set the pious Brahmins afire, when their faces glow
Like moving lamps..on the Ganges banks.

Morning and Moonrise,
My lady Kashi,
Picks up the Ganga mirror
To see her gracious beauty,
Glimmer and shine.
Said I one night to a pristine seer
(who knew the secrets of whirling time)
“Sir, you will perceive
That goodness and faith, fidelity and love
Have all departed from the sorry land.
Father and son are at each other’s throat;
Brother fights brother.
Unity and federation are undermined.
Despite these ominous signs
Why has doomsday not come?
Why does the Last trumpet not sound?
Who holds the reigns of the final catastrophe?”

The hoary old man of lucent ken
Pointed towards Kashi and gently smiled.
‘The Architect’, he said, is fond of this edifice
Because of which there is colour in life.
He would not like it to perish and fall.
Hearing this, the pride of Benaras soared to an
eminence, untouched by the wings of thought.

And now Pavan Verma’s revealing commentary:

Ghalib actually contemplated settling down in Benaras. He wrote:

I wish I had taken a rosary in my hand, put a sectarian mark on my forehead, tied a sacred thread around my waist and seated myself on the banks of the Ganges so that I could wash the contamination of existence away from myself and like a drop, be one with the river.”

Here is the Sufi idea of fana and the unity of Vedanta. There is a conviction and intellectual integrity, which made it possible for Ghalib to exclaim:

In the Kaaba I will play the shankh (conch shell)
In the temple I have draped the ahram

*(Unstitched cloth worn by Muslims during Haj)

It can be argued that Ghalib’s radical views were not fully mirrored by the man on the street. But it would not have been possible for him to openly declare his views and practise them or achieve the tremendous following he had, except in an age somewhat in tune
with his beliefs.

In a time of fundamental discordance with his views, it may not have been possible for a Hindu, Munshi Hargopal Tufta to become Ghalib’s foremost Shagird and closest friend. Not would it have been possible for Ghalib to declare another Hindu- Shivji Ram Brahman-to be like a son to him; or for the Mughal emperor of his age, Bahadur Shah Zafar to appoint a Hindu convert to Christianity- Dr. Chaman Lal as his personal physician.


(Courtesy: Penguin Books, India – Pavan Verma, Ghalib, the Man and the Times)

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