The Tangled Knots of History: A Trip Through Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Dargah2The relatively impoverished landscape of Zaheerabad, in rural Telangana in central India, transforms as we approach Humnabad town of northern Karnataka. Lush, verdant pastures straddle each side of the highway, and the pregnant monsoon air animated by a fey, impish wind, forces our brief stop into a leisurely meditation. This pleasing landscape remains a companion till the outskirts of Gulbarga, a prominent regional city. As we navigate the narrow lanes towards our destination, the dust and dirt of the city streets, the shrill horns of motor vehicles, jarringly forestall our approach. It has also begun drizzling faintly.

The “brooding basalt solemnity” of the medieval shrine of the influential Chisti saint Muhammad al-Hussayni Gesu Daraz (d. 1422), which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, stands a mute testament to a mobile, transformative 14th century Deccan. By all accounts, the saint's settlement in the region is a historical event of unmatched significance, linked in no uncertain terms to the broader settlement of Muslims in the region, progression of orthodox Sufism, matters of courts and kings, regional syncretism, not to mention, the curious, inevitable and fascinating birth of the proto-Urdu form, Dakhani. A prolific writer, Gesu Daraz, has an impressive number of literary works to his name (105 by some accounts), several of which are extant, and as KA Nizami informs us, “no other Indo-Muslim Cishti saint” had written that many. Syed Shah Khusro Hussaini, the current sajjada nashin, (‘those who sit on the prayer rug'), the living spiritual heir, ‘blessed descendent' of the famous saint, whom I met later that evening, speaks to me of his hallowed ancestor's love of the local tongue. A medieval mystical work, Miraj al Ashiqin, which he attributes to Gesu Daraz, is believed to have been the first literary work composed in Dakhani, and is dated to 1390 CE. He however, qualifies this by mentioning that the attribution is contentious and has been rigorously challenged by many. Khusro Hussaini has previously written that the saint's works can be generally classified into those that were composed before he came to the Deccan (he resided in Delhi & is believed to have been the chosen replacement to Shaykh Nasir al' Din), and those after his settlement down south. ‘Hindawi' verses (another contemporary proto-Urdu form) Gesu Daraz is believed to have said, writes the sajjada, a reputed scholar of Sufism, “‘ are usually soft, sweet and touching. The tunes are also soft and tender like the couplets, which induce humility and submission…”' However, the saint still asserted the primacy of Persian verse. Hindawi, one can assume, is what Gesu Daraz brought with him from Delhi (Amir Khusro also mentions his occasional propensity to compose in Hindawi) and the region, its flavours and tempers, did their bit. The spoken language (and the many dialects) carried down south by Sufis and soldiers alike mingled in curious ways and eventually, what was but spoken in an unpolished manner began to take sophisticated form. The spoken form began to be written, and eventually appeared in literary texts.

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