‘Chandayan’: A translation of an epic proportion

A new book features a translation of the epic ‘Chandayan’ from Awadhi to English, along with 530 paintings from the pre-Mughal period in India

Avantika Bhuyan
First Published5 May 2024, 02:00 PM IST
A single panel from the larger painting, ‘Calls for War Preparations’, accession No. 1900.215, section No. 3014, page No. (257)-128, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. All images: courtesy The Marg Foundation
A single panel from the larger painting, ‘Calls for War Preparations’, accession No. 1900.215, section No. 3014, page No. (257)-128, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. All images: courtesy The Marg Foundation

“After wandering about everywhere, I came to the charming city of Govar. There I saw a moon-like maiden, like a beautiful engraving on a stone. I tried, but can’t put her out of my mind; day by day my obsession grows and grows. Chanda, the daughter of Sahadev, the Rao Mahar, brightens all creation…”

This verse from the epic Chandayan, one of the greats of Hindi literature, was first written down in Awadhi by Maulana Da’ud in 1379. Now the English translation and linguistic analysis of the text by the US-based philologist and academic Richard Cohen, along with 530 known paintings based on the epic, have been published by The Marg Foundation. Titled Chandayan, after the original epic, it is accompanied by essays by art historians and scholars such as Naman Ahuja—also general editor of the quarterly art magazine Marg—Vivek Gupta and Qamar Adamjee on the art, literary traditions, material culture prevalent at the time.

The paintings—which are some of the most significant examples of pre-Mughal painting in India—have been drawn from the five surviving illustrated manuscripts, created across various courts, much after the poem was written down in central and northern India sometime between 1450 and 1575. Today, folios of these manuscripts lie scattered across museums and institutions such as the The John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Manchester, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai and the Lahore Museum.

The text by Da’ud itself is important as it was the first to be written in an old Hindi dialect in the Perso-Arabic script. “The poem points to how the ‘vernacular’ is an invaluable source of social history and literature. It allows us to learn about the use of the Perso-Arabic script in India and the impact of writing on language. The manuscripts and story also reveal much about the evolution of regional identities and the shifting nature of patronage in the Hindi heartland between the late 14th and early 16th centuries,” says the publisher’s note.

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In such a scenario, a sizeable translation of Da’ud’s text by Cohen—426 cantos in all—becomes critical in understanding not just the epic but also the politics of language, and the nature of India’s evolving composite culture at the time.

'Lorik Meets Rao Mahar', Hindustani Manuscript 1, page no. 155, John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Manchester University

It is also fascinating how a racy yarn, recounting the romance of Lorik and Chanda, turned into an allegory for ishq—or love for the divine in the Sufi tradition. This tale was traditionally sung by bards, mostly from the Ahir community, in central and eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bundelkhand and Chhattisgarh.

Set in Govar in Uttar Pradesh, the epic followed the trials and tribulations of the beauteous Chanda, born to Mahar Sahadev, who was married off at the age of four. She headed to her husband’s home at the age of 12 and came back a year later, miserable with the union. While she was sitting in the balcony, a bard saw her, and sang of her beauty all the way from Govar to Rajpur, home to Rao Rupchand. Slowly becoming obsessed with the subject of the songs, the latter launched a huge army on Govar. Chanda’s father called on local Ahir hero, Lorik, for help. In spite of his mother and wife, Maina, stopping him, he went to Sahadev’s aid. Subsequently, Lorik and Chanda fell in love, and the story follows the highs and lows of their relationship.

Ahuja, in his essay, Ishq between languages, cultures and people, writes about how Lorik takes the guise of a yogi, resides in a temple and chants Chanda’s name. “Chant for Chanda turns into a metaphor for divine love. ... Exploring love, prem, in the Hindu bhakti tradition and ishq in the Sufi—was key to both the literary conventions of the Indian premakhyan tradition as it was to the Persian masnavi.”

He elaborates on this confluence of cultures and beliefs during the reign of Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1351-88 AD), when the Sufis from the silsila of Chiragh-e-Dehli picked the tale up and popularised it. “One murid (an initiate) in particular, Da’ud, took up residence at the little fortified town of Dalmau under the direct patronage of Malik Mubarak, who, in turn, functioned under the nobleman Jauna Shah, is credited with having turned this lore into a fixed written text,” adds Ahuja.

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Cohen, presently with the Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and culture department, University of Virginia, US, first started looking at the Chandayan way back in 1996. He had come across a photocopy of a microfilm from the Manchester manuscript and gotten fascinated with it.

“I had never worked on an Islamic manuscript before. All my work had been on Indian manuscripts inscribed in Devanagari, and never with nastaliq,” says Cohen over a video call. However, his academic duties at that time left him with limited time for research.

‘Biraspati Questions Chanda’s Pining for Lorik’, Collection of the Lahore Museum, Lahore.

Sometime later, when he went to the Advanced Centre for American Studies in Hyderabad as a senior Fulbright scholar for two years, Cohen rekindled his interest in Chandayan. “Many things came together. With the widespread use of the Internet and digitisation becoming more economical, it became easier to access museums that contained the manuscripts,” he says.

The next challenge was to identify each painting and arrange it in the correct spot within the translation. “I had to confirm that what I had in front of me illustrated a certain canto,” adds Cohen. Once Ahuja took on the role of general editor at Marg, he expanded the scope of the project, and began to find donors and funds that would help the book bloom. “Art historians and philologists like myself, who focus on language and text, rarely talk to one another or meet in academic circles. There is no discussion on ways of working together. So, it’s very rare to find a book such as this in which art history and textual history come together,” says Cohen. Once he was done with the translation and analysis, the text had to be checked for readability. Cohen was clear that the book shouldn’t be burdened with excessive footnotes so as to encumber a non-specialist reader.

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It is important to view Chandayan—also known traditionally by various names such as Loriki, Chanaini and Lorikayan—in context of the shifting sociopolitics of the time. By 1379, with the passing of the last great Chishti, the lustre of the Chistiyyah was fading away. The Tughlaq dynasty was also at its weakest, and the power was shifting from Delhi to provinces such as Jaunpur. “The earliest manuscript, which is now in Berlin, was probably executed in Jaunpur. Interestingly, the style of painting is an adaptation of the Jain style,” elaborates Cohen.

So, you see an ancient painting style being adapted to another purpose—and that is to illustrate a Sufi manuscript. This is before the Pahari miniature traditions come about, and the advent of the Mughals, who changed the style again.

“This is a very important moment in medieval India, where changes were taking place in religious identity. I want to emphasise that in those days, distinction between various religions was not as starkly drawn as it is today. We tend to project our own understanding of how society is designed onto the past. That is one of the great challenges of how we understand the nation of India today,” he says.

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First Published:5 May 2024, 02:00 PM IST
HomeLoungeArt And Culture‘Chandayan’: A translation of an epic proportion

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