Amir Khusrau: An Unusual Genius

Khusrau had heard Hindu bhajans, that he used to create Muslim devotional songs using Persian lyrics - and these became the Qawwali form

Amir Khusrau: An Unusual Genius

In the introduction to his book titled Life of Mir Jumla, JN Sarkar wrote that due to their rich contribution and service to the Indian peopleMuhammad GawanMalik Ambar and Mir Jumla were three Persian gifts to India. The famed historian mentioned their names because these three were either born or raised in Persia but found their career in medieval India. Had he relaxed his rules for this selection a little, Sarkar could have added another name; a gift of Khorasan, though born here on Indian soil of a Turkish father and an Indian mother. 

The three men listed above, no doubt, made great contributions to their adopted homeland of subcontinent, however, the greatest gift to North India, of the spirit of Islamic Golden Age, was Amir Khusrau, who carried the genes of scholarship and enterprise of his ancestral Khorasan. He was one maestro whose literary and musical contributions continue to be relevant, a thousand years after his death. India continues to digest his intellectual output. It is rare to see a poet having the distinction of his poetry remaining popular throughout the millennium since his death.

From ample literature available on the life and work of Khusrau, this author has primarily relied upon Life of Khusro by Shibli Naumani, Great Masters of Hindustani Music (1981) by Susheela Misra, Hindustan, Amir Khusro ki Nazar Mein (1966) by Syed Sabahuddin Abdurrehman, Amir Khusro Dehalvi by Anne M Schimmel, and some online resources. Certainly, there is no dearth of literature on the great scholar. 

Khusrau’s father, Amir Sayfuddin Mahmud, belonged to the tribe of Lachin which formed part of a set of tribes called Qara Khitai whose original home was in Manchuria. Due to political turmoil in the area, the tribes migrated west till they found peace in Central Asia, but this too was temporary. Amir Sayf’s family was settled in the city of Kish (meaning, pleasing), now called Shahrisabz (meaning, green city), 70 km south of Samarkand in Uzbekistan. When the Mongol hordes broke into the area in early 13th century, Amir Sayf, like many other Muslim families, migrated to India. The ruling Sultan Iltutmish of the famed Slave Dynasty also belonged to the same region and welcomed the migrants with high offices and land estates. Amir Syaf was granted a fief in the town of Patiyali on the banks of the Ganges River in the Etwah region, northeast of Agra in present-day UP.

The people of Khorasan, an area that loosely extended from north Iran to Syr Darya and included the Samarkand-Bokhara region, were at that epoch of history, far more educated and enterprising than the Indians. The time of the Mongol invasion and conquest of the Abbasid Caliphate was the tail end of Islamic Golden Age. Even then, the area teemed with schools and libraries. Centres of scholarship such as Balkh, Gurganj, Bamiyan, Herat, Baghdad, Nishapur, Merv and Samarkand were either totally razed to the ground or severely destroyed, with their residents put to sword by the Mongol armies. Very few scholars survived, who started working for the Mongols (the astronomical and mathematical genius Nasir-al Din al-Tusi of the Tusi couple fame being one of them). This was the cultural and educational environment that Khusrau’s father left in haste.

Khusrau’s father got married to the daughter of an Indian nobleman of Rajput clan. The union gave birth to three sons and a daughter; including Amir Khusrau, who was born in Patiyali in 1953. The father was very particular about the education of his children and inculcated the Khorasanian spirit of scholarship in them. Amir Khusrau learnt Persian, Arabic and Turkish, practiced calligraphy, and was introduced to Sufism. Hindustani or Hindavi was his mother tongue. Unfortunately, his father died when he was only eight years of age. However, under the guidance of his maternal grandfather, he gained competence at a young age over all subjects taught at the time (Shibli).

Amir Khusrau turned out to be an iconic figure in the cultural history of the Indian Subcontinent. He was a rare genius who excelled at everything that he became interested in. He served the courts of Sultan Kaikobad Balban, Jalauddin Khilji, Alauddin Khilji, Mubarak Khilji, Ghiyas-al-din Tughlaq and Muhmmad Tughlaq. The last-mentioned Sultan, also born of a Turk father and an Indian mother, was progenitor of the Tughlaq dynasty, who gifted Khusrau money equal to the weight of an elephant.

Khusrau was thus a typical courtier. He found favour with no less than six Sultans in Delhi and a number of provincial governors in Samana, Bengal, Multan and Oudh. While he was serving with Muhammad Khan in Multan, Punjab was attacked by a Mongol army under Arghun Khan, a grandson of Hulegu Khan. Khusrau was serving at the time with Sultan Balban’s son in Multan. The Mongols defeated the Indian army, killed the Prince and took Khusrau as prisoner to Balkh, where he spent two years before being released. During captivity, he wrote many panegyrics (Qasida) and eulogies (Marsia) for the dead prince. 

Khusrau will live forever in Indian culture because of his contributions to local music and poetry. Schimmel (ibid) credits him for having invented Indian music, which must mean that the music as we find now in the Subcontinent is heavily influenced by this innovative man. He played such a vital role in the development of Indian music that many of his compositions continue to played out. He was aware of Persian as well the Hindavi melodies (raags). He combined the two to create new melodies (raags). Shibli (ibid) lists 12 of these; including ‘Aimen/Yaman’ which is mixture of Hindo (Indian) and Neeraiz (Persian). 

As such, Khusrau’s great contribution to Indian music is the Qawwali; a genre now recognised the world over as quintessentially Indian. Khusrau had heard Hindu bhajans, that he used to create Muslim devotional songs using Persian lyrics. It is called Qawwali (from Qaul, meaning a ‘saying’) when it is devotional and a Kalawant when lyrics are romantic poetry. The innovation of mixing the two types of lyrics, as popularised by Aziz Mian Qawwal, was developed by brothers Haddu, Hassu and Nathan Khans, of Gwalior Gharana (Susheela). 

Amir Khusrau invented the Tarana and Triveet. Tarana is a musical combination with chants of meaningless words. There is an oft repeated incident where Sultan Alauddin Khilji invited musician Gopal Naik to perform in his court. Khusrau was so enamoured by his singing style that he listened to his music incessantly and then reproduced his style merely in chants with meaningless words. This later came to be called Tarana. Triveet or Tirvet is like Tarana but sung on fast tempo. 

His greatest work of genius in music is invention of Sitar, the archetypical Hindustani instrument. Veena is a Hindustani string instrument that was prevalent in India from much before Khusrau’s time. It has four primary strings that produce a melody, and 3 drone strings that run together with the instrument's neck. Khusrau saw Veena, called it sehtar (three-stringed) and transformed by giving it longer length, moveable frets and between 18 and 21 strings with typically five to seven main strings. This gave wider room for producing different notes besides giving it a deeper, resonant and mature sound as compared to the metallic and hard sound of Veena.

Khusrau loved Indian music. Susheela (ibid) writes that Amir Khusrau prided in being an Indian and expressed unbounded admiration for Indian music. Mir Mirza, in his ‘Life and Works of Amir Khusro’ quotes Khusrau saying that, "Indian music, the fire that burns the heart and soul, is superior to the music of any other country. Foreigners even after staying in India for 30 to 40 years, cannot play a single Indian tune correctly…. The music of Hindustan is not of this earth, it is heavenly.”

Khusrau’s second specialised field was poetry. His Persian poetry has impression of Nezami. His unique poetical experiment is in composing verses as mixture of Persian and Hindustani. Khusrau wrote many Panegyrics (qasida) and long Epic stories (masnavi). He wrote masnavis for all the campaigns for Alaudding Khilji (Shibli). He had first-hand knowledge about these wars because he accompanied the Sultan throughout his reign. He wrote a long masnavi named ’Quran-ul-Saadin’ narrating the feud between Sultan Muizuddin Kaiqbad and his father Prince Bughra Khan, the independent ruler of Bengal. His collection named ‘Khamsa (five)’ contains five masnavis titled ‘Matla-ul-Anwaar’ (rise of heavenly lights), ‘Sheeeren-Khusro’ (A love story), ‘Laila Majnoo’ (A love story), ‘Aina Eskandri’ (Mirror of Alexander) and ‘Hasht Behisht’ (Eighth paradise). All these were written during a space of about two years only, though, according to Shibli, these are not of a high standard. In all, it is said that he wrote five hundred thousand lines of poetry. He also recorded the poignant love affair between a son of Alauddin Khilji and a princess of Gujrat in Masnavi Dewal Rani wa Khizr Khan.

His Sufi poetry displays deep love for the Supreme being. The following poem must rank among the best in this genre.

I wonder what was the place where I was last night,
All around me were half-slaughtered victims of love,
tossing about in agony.
There was a nymph-like beloved with cypress-like form
and tulip-like face,
Ruthlessly playing havoc with the hearts of the lovers.
God himself was the master of ceremonies in that heavenly court,
oh Khusrau, where (the face of) the Prophet too was shedding light
like a candle.

Khusrau excelled in expressing himself in doha or two-liner verses. It is an Indian literary expression with earliest known attribution to the 8th century Buddhist Monk, Sarahpa, some of whose work survives. Khusrau wrote his dohas in Hindustani language, enriching it in the process. Later such great names as KabirMirabaiRahimTulsidas and Surdas too composed dohas. Some of his dohas are reproduced below in English translations. 

Oh, brother oarsman, if you let me cross the river,
 I have for you my gold bangle, my necklace.


Cooked the rice pudding with great zeal, burning my spinning wheel for fire
 There came the dog, and ate it all. Now sit and play the drum.


Khusrau, I spent the night of tryst with my lover

My heart and body belong to my love.


Khusrau, the river of love flows in strange ways

He who rises, is drowned; he who drowns, is victor


My beloved speaks Tukish, but I don’t understand Turkish

How nice it would be if her tongue is in my mouth


Some of his poems have never lost popularity and are the favourite of Sufi and Qawwali singers. Two such poems are mentioned below. These could have been reproduced here in entirety but for paucity of space.

Chaap Tilak sab cheeni re, moh se naina milayke

Since my eyes met yours, I have lost all worldly cares.

Man kunto Maula, fa  haza Aliyun Maula

I am your slave, I am slave of Ali


Nami danam chi manzil bood shab jaay ki man boodam;
 Baharsu raqs-e bismil bood shab jaay ki man boodam.


I don’t the place where I spent the last night

All around, people danced; Where was I 


Khusrau wrote great heartfelt ghazals in Persian. In expression and feelings, his poetry finds comparison only in Ghalib,

ze-hāl-e-miskīñ makun taġhāful durā.e naināñ banā.e batiyāñ

ki tāb-e-hijrāñ nadāram ai jaañ na lehū kaahe lagā.e chhatiyāñ

Do not overlook my misery by blandishing your eyes, and weaving tales; 

I can’t bear separation, O sweetheart, take me to your bosom.

As with his Sufi poems, his love poems in Hindustani are still popular and continue to be sung by budding as well as experienced singers. 

Bahut Kathin hai dagar panghat ki,
 Kaisay main bhar laaun madhva say matki?

The way to the well is difficult; How shall I get my pot filled?

Kaahay ko biyaahi bides, ray, lakhi baabul moray,

Oh my father! Why did you marry me off to a foreign land?

Sakal bun (or Saghan bhun) phool rahi sarson,
 Umbva phutay, tesu phulay, koyal bolay daar daar,

Yellow mustard is blooming in every field

Mangoes are blooming, flowers are budding, nightingale sings on trees

Khusrau had complete command over Hindustani or Hindvi language. According to Pradeep Sharma, the book named Khaliq-e-Bari, the versified collection of Persian and Hindvi words written by Khusrau around 1320 AD, is the oldest dictionary of any language in the world.

Khusrau loved Hindustan and prided in belonging to this land. He had Turkish and Indian blood in his veins but his heart was made of pure Indian soil. He thought the land was heaven on earth and preferred ‘Hind over Rum, Iraq and Qandhar.’ He sang of the glory of the Indian people in Urdu, Hindi and Hindustani. His surviving work Noh sepehr contains praise for Hindustan and whatever is found here. His praise includes for things like, Delhi, people of Delhi, Jamia Masjid (the one built under slave dynasty), Qutub Minar, Hauz Shamsi (built by Sultan Iltutmish as water supply for the city), weather and seasons, flowers, fruits, celebration of Nauroze, melons, clothes, feasts, religion, etc. These descriptions, some given below are, now considered as social history of India during his time. 

In praise of Indian women, he wrote that they are prettier than those of Rome, Egypt, Kandhar, etc. Sabahuddin (ibid) states that in a long poem section titled ‘Spring and flowers of India’ in his Masnavi ‘Dewal Rani and Khizer Khan’, he wrote a lot about superiority of Indian flowers over the rest of the world. He has written the name of all the flowers that blossomed in India and that he was aware of, including Gul-e-Sausan (lilly), Saman (Jasmine), Banafsha, Bela (type of jasmine), Golden Rose, Red Rose, White Rose, Sudberg, Nustran, Nilofer, Champa, Johi, Keora, Moolsari, etc. This is a long list and shows his love of nature. 

Khusrau declared Hindustan to be a heaven on earth. He writes;

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
 Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.

If there is a heaven on earth;

It’s here, it’s here, it’s here

Amir Khusrau became a disciple of the saint Khawaja Nizammuddin Aulia. His profession of affection for Nizamuddin in his poetry is more spiritual. One can even surmise that Khawaja Nizamuddin’s benefaction for his disciple was also due to latter’s remarkable abilities. On his part, Amir Khusrau spent very little time in the company of his saint due to his commitments with the Sultans and princes. However, he was dedicated to the love of the his spiritual master, as evidenced by the following poems; 

I give my whole life to you Oh, Nizam,

You've made me your bride, by just a glance.

Today, there is celebration,

Oh my mother there is celebration at my beloved teacher's

Teri surat key bulhari Nizam

I make my offerings to Nizam

Dye me in your hue, my love,

God's beloved is my master

Khusrau died in October 1325 in Delhi and is buried at the feet of his master, Nizamuddin Aulia. As long as the subcontinental people exist, he will be revered and held in high esteem in this land.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: