Amir Khusro

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Amir Khusro

Amir Khusro lives on

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Recognised as one of the iconic figures in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent, a Sufi mystic and a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin Aulia of Delhi, Amir Khusro was not only one of India’s greatest poets, he is also credited with being the founder of Indian classical music and qawwali, writes Maryam Murtaza Sadriwala


Picture a mehndi rasm with girls putting their hands together in a flurry of green and saffron and boys caught up in a bhangra; the beat of the drum resounds in the air with the tambourine tugging the strings of every young heart. The magical verses resonate in one’s ears as the voices sing in unison:

Chhap tilak sab cheeni ray mosay naina milaikay Prem bhatee ka madhva pilaikay Matvali kar leeni ray mosay naina milaikay

(You’ve taken away my looks, my identity, by just a glance/ By making me drink the wine of love-potion/ You’ve intoxicated me by just a glance). One can’t help but be intoxicated by the romance of these lyrics composed by Amir Khusro some eight centuries ago.

Shift the scene to the rains pouring over the hills and plains of north India and the girls will be humming

Amman meray baba ko bhaijo ri Ke saavan ayaa Beti tera baba to boodha ri Ke saavan ayaa

(Dear mother, send my father across; the rainy season has come/ Oh, dear daughter, how can I?/ Your father’s too old; the rainy season has come)

Amir Khusro’s presence is still felt in this day and age. Attribute it to his colourful assortment of playful riddles, melodious songs or legends, Khusro –– prolific classical poet, musician, inventor, philosopher, linguist associated with royal courts of more than seven rulers of the Delhi Sultanate from Allauddin Khilji to Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq –– is a name familiar to all in the nooks and corners of much of North India and Pakistan.

Today Sufi music is making a revival, albeit in a trendier mode, peppered with remixes. Maybe it is because of the yearning of this generation for spiritual gratification or perhaps because singers are looking for meaningful lyrics, that Amir Khusro and Bulleh Shah’s poetry has become quite popular.

Abul Hasan Yaminuddin Khusro known to us as Amir Khusro Dehlavi (1253-1325 AD), today stands out as one of the first (recorded) Indian personages with a true multi-cultural or pluralistic identity –– a virtue that seems to be missing in this age of war, strife and intolerance. Recognised as one of the iconic figures in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent, a Sufi mystic and a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin Aulia of Delhi, Amir Khusro (spelt also as Khusrau or Khusraw) was not only one of India’s greatest poets, he is also credited with being the founder of Indian classical music and qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis.

Yaminuddin Khusro was born to Saifuddin Shamsi Laachin in a remote village in Patiala, Etah (Uttar Pradesh) in 1253. Saifuddin was of Turkish origin and had migrated from Transoxiana to Delhi in 1206. Poetry was inherent in Amir Khusro. The day he was born his father took him to a darwesh who predicted, “You have brought one who would go two steps ahead of khaqani (nightingale).”

Khusro’s father died when he was eight and his mother took him to his wealthy maternal grandfather in Delhi. His grandfather, Imaad ul Mulk, an Amir, was an Indian Muslim, who served under Emperor Ghayasuddin Balban, as an attendance master of the soldiers.

As a youngster living in the vibrant and majestic city of Delhi, young Amir was generously exposed to the artists, poets and literati of his time at the private gatherings at his grandfather’s house. Inspired by the intellectual ambiance, he set out to compose poetry from an early age. Up to the age of sixteen, whichever book of verse he happened to lay his hand on, he tried to follow its author in the art of composition. He also received training in music simultaneously with martial arts and horse riding.

It was in the year 1271 when Khusro compiled his first collection of poetry Tuhfatus-Sighr. The very next year saw him employed as court poet with King Balban’s nephew Malik Chhajju, followed by his serving Bughra Khan (Balban’s son) in 1276. In 1279 he wrote his second book Wastul-Hayat. In 1281 he had an opportunity of serving Balban’s second son, Sultan Mohammad. Four years later he was taken prisoner while participating as a soldier in a war against the invading Mongols, but he managed to escape.

In 1286 the melodious sounds of Khusro’s ghazals were resounding in the court of Kyqbad, the new king. The year 1288 was a triumphant one when he completed his first historical mathnavi Qiranus-Sa’dain. It was in the reign of Jalaluddin Feroz Khilji when Khusro’s second mathnavi, Miftahul Futooh was completed. After his new books ‘Ghuratul Kamal’ and ‘Kamsa Nama’ were completed, 1310 saw the initiation of his close association with Nizamuddin Aulia. After the death of two Khilji kings and many mathnavis, it was in the era of Sultan Mohammed Bin Tughlaq that Khusro’s mentor and saint, Nizamuddin Aulia expired. The devastated Khusro followed him six months later in the year 1325.

If not for anything else, Khusro wanted to be remembered for his love and undying devotion to his saint Nizamuddin Aulia. The vast expanse of the Indian subcontinent is home to the revered tombs of several Sufis, yet the legend of Nizamuddin Aulia and his favourite disciple Amir Khusro, holds an exemplary place in the history of Indian sufism.

Khusro’s first rendevouz with the saint is legendary. When he arrived at the khaneqah (monastery) he didn’t enter at once but sat down at the gate and composed the following lines in his heart:

Tu aan shahi ke ber aiwan-e qasrat Kabutar gar nasheenad, baaz gardad Ghareeb-e mustamand-e ber der aamed Be-yaayad andaroon, ya baaz gardad

(You are a king at the gate of whose palace/even a pigeon becomes a hawk/a poor traveller has come to your gate/should he enter or should he return?)

It is said that Nizamuddin Aulia at once asked one of his servants to go to the gate and narrate the following lines to a boy who was sitting there:

Be-yaayad andaroon mard-e haqeeqat Ke ba ma yek nafas hamraaz gardad Agar abla buvad aan mard-e naadan Azaan raah-e ke aamad baaz gardad

(Oh you the man of reality, come inside / so you become for a while my confidant / but if the one who enters is foolish / then he should return the way he came). Hearing this Khusro knew he had come to the right place and entered.

The creation of the huge image of Khusro is probably due to the special place he had in his spiritual master’s heart. As an Amir (noble) in the court, Khusro may have indulged in all sorts of material pursuits, but only in his Pir’s khaneqah did he discover real love and an atmosphere for the evolution of his creative and spiritual faculties. Nizamuddin Aulia himself said that if his religion had allowed it, he would have Khusro and himself buried in the same grave after their death.

Whether Khusro was a formal Sufi or not, and whether he received the khilafat (deputation in the Sufi order) from Nizamuddin Aulia, has always been debated, especially by the scholars. Going through history books it can be assumed that Khusro must have made an impact by using his creative genius in not only bridging the gap between the court and Nizamuddin Aulia, but also in making a number of innovations in poetry and music –– an impact so strong that it has made his name immortal with Nizamuddin Aulia.

Khawaja Nizamuddin Aulia was the founder of Silsila-e-Nizamia, a branch of Chistiya order and was one of the most famous Sufi saints of India. He was a follower of Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti (1141––1236), one of the most outstanding figures in the annals of Islamic mysticism and founder of the Chistiya order in Ajmer, India.

There are hoards of legends regarding Nizamuddin Aulia and Khusro’s love for him. Whilst in the service of Sultan Jalaluddin Khilji, the Sultan revealed to Khusro his desire to meet Nizamuddin Aulia but asked him not to disclose his plan to the saint. Khusro was perplexed and finally unable to keep his promise he told Nizamuddin Aulia about the Sultan’s wish. The saint did not wish to meet the king and left the khaneqah. When the Sultan came to know about this, he asked Khusro why he had betrayed him. Khusro replied that in betraying the king he risked only his life in this world, but in betraying his spiritual king he would be risking his Iman (faith), and his afterlife. The Sultan was impressed and forgave him.

Khusro once read out a ghazal which so pleased Nizamuddin Aulia that the latter asked him if he had any wish to be fulfilled. Khusro said he wished his verse be filled with sweetness. To which Nizamuddin Aulia said, “Ok, Go get that tray from beneath my cot”. He pointed. Khusro brought the tray which had some sugar in it. Nizamuddin Aulia asked him to eat some and also pour some on his head. Khusro obeyed him, and claimed that he has attained the sweetness in his poetry ever since. One such popular piece he wrote in his saint’s honour is

Tori soorat kay balihaari, Nijaam Tori soorat kay balihaari. Sab sakhiyan mein chundar meri mailee, Dekh hansain nar naari, Nijaam

(Beholding your appearance, Oh Nijaam/ I offer myself in sacrifice./ Amongst all the girls, my scarf is the most soiled/ Look, the girls are laughing at me).

It is said once a poor man came to Nizamuddin Aulia asking for alms at a time when there was nothing left in the khaneqah to be given. The saint expressed his helplessness, but pointed to a torn and tattered pair of sandals that belonged to him, saying if those could be of any help to the poor man, he could take them. The faqir, having no choice, decided to take them anyway, and left. When he was on his way to some other city, he met Amir Khusro who was returning with camels and horses loaded with wealth. Khusro sensed something odd as he met this man, and told him “Bu-e Shaikh mi aayad, Bu-e Shaikh mi aayad”. (I smell my master, I smell my master). This man dejectedly told him the story about how he could only get these sandals from Nizamuddin Aulia.

Khusro on seeing his Pir’s sandals traded his entire wealth for the sandals, placed them on his head and came rushing to see Nizamuddin Aulia. His Pir saw the sandals and asked Khusro how he had found them. When Khusro told him about the price he had paid, Nizamuddin Aulia said, “Arzaan khareedi.” (You’ve got them quite cheap).

It is narrated that when Nizamuddin Aulia breathed his last, Khusro was away in Bengal on Mohammad Tughlaq’s royal mission. When he heard the news, he rushed back to Delhi. On seeing his Pir’s grave he blackened his face and rolled in the dust in utter grief, tearing his garments and reciting the following doha impromptu:

Gori sovay sej par, Mukh par daray kes; Chal Khusro ghar aapnay, saanjh bhaee chahu des.

(The fair maiden rests on a bed of roses/ Her face covered with a lock of hair/ Let us oh Khusro return home now/ the dark dusk settles in four corners of the world).

After this, it is said, Khusro’s condition started deteriorating and six months later he died. This incident and the above couplet are remembered as the highest point in Khusro’s relationship with Nizamuddin and also probably the reason for their becoming a combinefd legend.

Few would know that Basant Panchami, the ancient Hindu festival of spring, is also celebrated by many Muslims in India, especially at the dargah (tomb) of Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi, every year. This colourful 700-year-old vibrant tradition is attributed to the Sufis, especially to Nizamuddin Aulia and Amir Khusro who became the first Muslims to have rejoiced at the celebration of Basant. Khusro says in one of his ditties:

Aaj basant manaalay suhaagun, Aaj basant manaalay; Anjan manjan kar piya mori, Lambay neher lagaaye;

(Rejoice, my love, rejoice/ Its spring here, rejoice./ Bring out your lotions and toiletries/ And decorate your long hair).

Interestingly there are many dohas and songs of nature ascribed to Khusro. Sufis imagine themselves as dulhan (bride). They interpret babul ka ghar (father’s home) as the material world and pi (beloved) as God or sometimes the spiritual master –– the susral (husband’s home) being the final abode where they have to go alone –– a true wedding with the divine.

Sufi saints such as Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Hazrat Bahauddin Zakriya Multani, Sheikh Allauddin Lajuri, and Shaikh Pir Bodhan held regular sessions of sama or qawwali at their khaneqahs to propagate Islam to the masses. Sensing that music was an essential feature of the daily lives of the local Hindu inhabitants, Sufis used music to spread the message of Islam across to the populace of India.

Similarly, the name of Hazrat Amir Khusro is conspicuous as one who contributed towards the culture of the subcontinent. He was a strong patriot and praised highly Indian culture, customs and its people.

Apart from being a great poet, he was also a musical genius who contributed greatly to the evolution of Indian music. He invented new ragas by combining Persian modes with Indian ragas, saazgiri, sarparda, and zeelaf being some of his creations. He popularised the Sufi devotional music qawwali, and is said to have created new genres like the tarana, khayal, naqsh and qalbana and is also credited for creating rhythmic cycles such as asool-e-fakhta and farodast. It is also claimed that the Persian maqam system of classifying modes was adopted to classify ragas during the time of Hazrat Amir Khusro.

He wrote poetry in Persian as well as what he called Hindvi –– a combination of local Bhojpuri and Persian, which later evolved into Urdu. Many of his poems are used even today in the subcontinent bandish and as ghazals by singers. Thus he can be called the father of modern North Indian music. Amir Khusro is credited with fashioning the tabla as a split version of the traditional Indian drum, the pakhawaj.

He is also known to have invented the sitar and the Indian grand lute, but it is more likely that the sitar was invented by a different Amir Khusro several centuries later. This later namesake is said to be an 18th century descendant of the son-in-law of Tansen, the celebrated classical singer in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.

Amir Khusro opened wide the gate of discipleship and accepted all kinds of men as his murids, be they high or low, wealthy or poor, learned or ignorant.

They all abstained from improper acts and if anyone would commit a sin, he would come and confess his guilt before Khusro and would indeed renew his discipleship. Men and women, young and old, merchants and ordinary men, slaves and servants and even young children began offering prayers regularly.

During the last few years of Sultan Alauddin’s reign no person would talk of liquor, of beloveds, of debauchery and gambling, of obscenities and indecent life and no one would commit usury or usurp others’ rights.

Amir Khusro’s spiritualism consisted in his philosophy of love. The depth of humanism in his poetry springs from that source of ‘Divine love’. He has composed as many as 99 works and 400,000 lyrics, which cover almost every aspect of life. In an autocratic age, when a king’s wilful actions were unrestricted, Khusro had the courage to speak before the king of the value of the equality of man.

In several of his typical chronicles which he wrote for the kings who employed him, Khusro has penned some of his biases against communities and cultures other than his own. In the true style of Arabic and Persian classical literature, he uses hyperbolic words, poetic license, and exaggerated similes, to magnify an event such as when he is praising the might of Alauddin Khilji against a vanquished rival. Interestingly, a few verses later in the same chronicle, Khusro would go out of his way to praise the faith and practices of the Hindus, and his unparalleled love for his country.

But these contradictions are justified in his personality and his creations as Khusro’s time was that of discovery and experiment. One has to peruse and ponder his works in the context of 12th/13th century South Asia. Khusro was born in an India going through a great influx of people from Central Asia, where Genghis Khan and his Mongol armies had devastated much of the civilisation from Russia to Turkey.

Those who escaped to India were rulers, traders, artisans, musicians, mystics and soldiers. Each brought with them a set of unique values and cultural identities. As the sand in the hour glass trickled these people gradually assimilated into the local Indian culture. The result was fierce conflict coupled with friendly dialogue. Eventually, new composite cultural values started emerging and by the time of the dynamic Mughal dynasty this composite tradition had reached its zenith.

An insightful lesson one extracts from Khusro’s life, and the life of many other poets such as Kabir, Rahim, Mira, Bulleh Shah, is that it is not only natural, but inevitable to have a ‘plural’ cultural identity in order to understand and live with your fellow citizens in a world which is a melting pot of cultures. Retaining one’s identity and co-existing peacefully with others is not a challenge posed by today’s globalisation –– it has been there since time immemorial. Co-existing is not synonymous to losing or underrating one’s own faith. It merely means appreciating the good in other cultures.

The urs or death anniversary of Amir Khusro is known as the Satrahvin Sharif –– literally Holy Seventeenth, as it is celebrated 16 days after Eid. Multitudes throng the twin dargah of Khusro and Nizamuddin Aulia lit by uncountable lamps, and make humble offerings of flowers and sweets, recite the fatehas, tie threads of mannat (vow) on the tombs, or just sit listening qawwalis.

Yousuf Saeed, compiler of a website on Amir Khusro writes, “Amir Khusro’s image today is multi-faceted: as a saint in the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin for the common people, as a chronicler of medieval India and classical poet of Persian for the scholars, as an innovator of Hindustani music for the classical and semi-classical musicians of North India, and as a lok kavi or the poet of the masses using their language and imagery to entertain them. To a large extent these images have remained, or have become, extremely disjointed from each other –– as if four different strata of people have been pulling Khusro in their own direction without knowing the existence of the other. As a result the legend of Khusro has remained rather paradoxical so far –– just like his riddles.”



From the pen of Amir Khusro Tuhfa-tus-Sighr (Offering of a Minor) his first divan, contains poems composed between the age of 16 and 19.

Wastul-Hayat (The Middle of Life) his second divan, contains poems composed at the peak of his poetic career.

Ghurratul-Kamaal (The Prime of Perfection); poems composed between the age of 34 and 43.

Baqia-Naqia (The Rest/The Miscellany); compiled at the age of 64.

Nihayatul-Kamaal (The Height of Wonders) compiled probably a few weeks before his death.

Qiran-us-Sa’dain (Meeting of the Two Auspicious Stars); mathnavi about the historic meeting of Bughra Khan and his son Kyqbad after long enmity.

Miftah-ul-Futooh (Key to the Victories); in praise of the victories of Jalauddin Khalaji.

Ishqia/Mathnavi Duval Rani-Khizr Khan (Romance of Duval Rani and Khizr Khan); a tragic love poem about Gujarat’s princess Duval and Alauddin’s son Khizr.

Mathnavi Noh Sepehr (Mathnavi of the Nine Skies); Khusro’s perceptions of India and its culture.

Tughlaq Nama (Book of the Tughlaqs); in prose.

Khamsa-e-Nizami (Khamsa-e-Khusrau) five classical romances: Hasht-Bahisht, Matlaul-Anwar, Sheerin-Khusro, Majnun-Laila and Aaina-Sikandari

Ejaaz-e-Khusrovi (The Miracles of Khusro); an assortment of prose compiled by himself

Khazain-ul-Futooh (The Treasures of Victories); one of his more controversial books, in prose.

Afzal-ul-Fawaid; utterances of Nizamuddin Auliya.

Khaliq-e-Bari; a versified glossary of Persian and Hindvi words and phrases.

Jawahar-e- Khusrovi; often dubbed as the Hindvi divan of Khusro.–– M.M.S



Khusro’s four word riddle Khusro was walking on the road one morning and felt thirsty. He saw some young women filling their pots from a well. He approached them and asked for some water. One of the girls recognised him and told the others that this was the famous Khusro who composed riddles and songs. All four women decided to have some fun. They refused to give him water unless he composed a new riddle for them. Khurso agreed to their demand and asked what kind of a riddle they wanted.

The women started thinking and each one came up with her own option. One said kheer (rice pudding), the second one demanded diya (lamp), the third one asked for kutta (dog) and the fourth one’s choice was dhol (drum). Khusro is supposed to have composed the following verse :

Kheer pakaai jatan say, charkha diya jalaa; Aaya kutta khaa gaya, tu baithi dhol bajaa. (You prepared the kheer painstakingly, and lit up the lamp; There came a dog, and ate it all; continue playing your drum).–– M.M.S

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