The dastan is a genre of oral and prose narrative that initially developed in Persian but then spread to other languages influenced by the Persian literary tradition. To be sure, oral tale-telling is hardly unique to Persian or Persian-influenced languages, but the dastan has some unique literary features that make it stand out. Dastans often have very long story lines that can be embellished and stretched even further through detailed descriptions of characters, events, and locations. With their dramatic narratives, dastans are primarily meant for oral performances and enjoying the richness of language and literary traditions.
One of the most popular dastans in South Asia was Dastan-i Amir Hamzah (the Dastan of Amir Hamzah). It had its origins in 11th century Iran, but eventually made its way to India where it developed many versions in Persian. Dastan-i Amir Hamzah was popular at the Mughal court where Emperor Akbar was an avid fan.
The hero of the dastan is Hamzah, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, who is depicted as a great warrior and supporter of his nephew in early Islamic sources. The adventures of the Hamzah of the dastan, however, are based on fantasy. In the dastan, Amir Hamzah is begged by the wise vizier of Naushirvan, the king of Persia, to help the latter fight his enemies. The gallant Hamzah agrees and fights many battles. He also falls in love with Naushirvan’s daughter, Mahnigar, and seeks her hand in marriage, which requires him to fight more battles and vanquish more enemies. He is accompanied in his travails by his trusted companions, the laconic and serious Muqbil, skilled in archery, and the dishonest but loyal ‘Amr the ‘Ayyar. ‘Ayyars were skilled in espionage and disguises and were notorious for their trickery and special equipment (much like the ninjas). ‘Amr is not only an exceptionally talented ‘ayyar but is extremely greedy even by the low standards of his profession.
As luck would have it, before he could wed Mahnigar, Amir Hamzah is wounded in a battle and is rescued by Shahpal, the king of paris (fairies) who requests that Hamzah help him regain his kingdom in the magical world of Qaf that had been overtaken by demons. Consequently, Amir Hamzah spends eighteen years in the supernatural world of Qaf fighting sorcerers and demons, who can cast such potent spells they can create entire worlds of illusion called tilism. Amir Hamzah and his companions can never be sure whether they are operating in a tilism or in the world of Qaf (which itself is magical) and had to resort to all sorts of ways to break the spells, often with help from saintly figures. Incidentally, an alternative title for the dastan, especially its version based on selections from earlier ones is, Tilism-i Hosh Ruba, The Sense-stealing Tilism.
After eighteen years of adventures, Amir Hamza is finally able to pay his debt to Shahpal. He returns to marry Mahnigar. They have a son named Qubad, but Amir Hamza’s adventures do not end there. He is compelled to fight other enemies and demons until he is called back to Arabia by his nephew, the Prophet Muhammad, to help him fight the enemies of Islam.
When, starting in the 16th century, Urdu became a medium of literary production, dastans began to be composed in it as well. This included versions of Dastan-i Amir Hamzah that were popular enough to have professional story-tellers, called dastan-go or qissah-khvan. Owing to its popularity and the richness of its language, John Gilchrist, head of the Hindustani Department at Fort William College, Calcutta, commissioned a teacher at the department, Khalil Ali Khan Ashk who was also a dastan-go, to publish a printed version of the dastan. Ashk produced the first printed edition of Dastan-i Amir Hamzah in 1801. This makes it not only the earliest printed edition of the dastan but also one of the earliest printed books in Urdu. Ashk’s version consisted of about 500 pages spread over four volumes. It was published many times in the subsequent decades in Delhi, Lucknow, and Bombay. Many of these editions were published by the famous Munshi Nawal Kishore of Lucknow, who published another version by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871. By the 1920s, the rise of the novel and changing tastes eclipsed the fortunes of dastans and they fell out of favor.
The edition included here is the 1863 edition of Askh’s version that was published from Bombay.
Urdu has been part of language instruction at UC Berkeley since the late 1950s. UC Berkeley also runs the Berkeley Urdu Language Program in Pakistan (BULPIP) in collaboration with the American Institute of Pakistan Studies. In addition, the Institute for South Asia Studies launched the Berkeley Urdu Initiative in 2011 to further promote the study of Urdu at Cal. The leading light for many of the Urdu-related events and activities is Dr. Gregory Maxwell Bruce, the Urdu language instructor, who joined the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies in the Fall of 2016.
Contribution by Adnan Malik
Curator and Cataloger for the South Asia Collection
South/Southeast Asia Library
Title: Dāstān-i Amīr Ḥamzah razī Allāh ʻanh
Imprint: Bambaʼī : Maṭbaʻ Ḥaydarī, 1280 .
Source: HathiTrust Digital Library (UC Berkeley)
Other online editions:
- The Romance Tradition in Urdu : Adventures from the Dastan of Amir Hamzah / translated, edited, and with an introduction by Frances W. Pritchett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Introductory material from the printed edition (modified and corrected wherever appropriate) and the longer translation of the Bilgrami edition.
- Text of Bigrami/Naval Kishore edition (Rekhta: The Largest Website of Urdu Poetry)
Print editions at Berkeley:
- Dāstān-i Amīr Ḥamzah razī Allāh ʻanh. Bambaʼī : Maṭbaʻ Ḥaydarī, 1280 .
The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).