Chandrakanta: Bringing Persian Fantasy into Hindi Literature by Mallika Ramachamdran
A beautiful princess, a brave prince, scheming villains, battles, masters (and mistresses) of disguise and of every ruse and stratagem, enchanted mazes, and magic—this is the world that Devaki Nandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta wafts us off to.
Published in 1888, Chandrakanta was a milestone of sorts in Hindi literature, for while its author Devaki Nandan Khatri was fluent in various languages including Hindi, Persian, and Urdu besides Sanskrit and English, he chose to write the book in everyday, colloquial Hindi, making it accessible to a wider readership.
But more than just language, the novel, based on the Persian–Arabic dastan (story telling/ornate oral history) tradition but Indianizing and naturalizing it, is credited with introducing such Persian literary elements as aiyaars and tilisms to Hindi literature.
Aiyaars are spies, secret agents ‘skilled in every art under the sun’—from the use of drugs and medicines to poetry and music, weaponry, and much else—and able to change their appearance, almost magically. Besides their numerous skills, aiyaars also have a tongue of their own, which they use to communicate from time to time when no other need be privy to their identities. In Khatri’s book, tilisms (the Persian word tilism generally refers to magic or enchantment) are enchanted mazes full of palaces and gardens, hidden treasure, protected by various traps and spells, with one wrong step either harming or ensnaring the entrant; mazes that can be solved only by the most skilled.
So popular did Chandrakanta become that in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, thousands, including many from South India learnt Hindi (which is only spoken in parts of the North) because they wanted to read Chandrakanta and Khatri’s other novels. Chandrakanta has been adapted for television at least three times, including an immensely popular version in the mid-1990s.
Story and Locations
Described as a romantic fantasy, Chandrakanta tells the story of Birendra Singh, Prince of Naugarh who is in love with the beautiful Princess Chandrakanta (from the neighbouring Kingdom of Vijaygarh). She, in turn, reciprocates his love. Birendra is assisted by his friend and aiyaar, Tej Singh and Tej Singh’s brother-in-law, Devi Singh while Chandrakanta has her aiyaaras, Chapala and Champa. Birendra and Chandrakanta’s fathers, the rulers of Naugarh and Vijaygarh, were once close friends, but there is much bad blood between them thanks to the machinations of Vijaygarh’s Dewan (chief minister), Kupath Singh. Kupath’s son, the evil Kroor Singh aspires to Chandrakanta’s hand and Vijaygarh’s throne.
When things don’t go Kroor Singh’s way, he decides to approach another neighbouring kingdom, Chunar, for help with the result that the ruler of Chunar, Maharaj Shivdatt, begins to covet Chandrakanta for himself. The Princess and Chapala are kidnapped by Shivdatt, but escape only to be trapped in a tilism. Birendra and his aiyaars must find out how to break its enchantment, and this cannot be done without a handbook left by its creator.
While the characters may be fictional, the kingdoms of Naugarh, Vijaygarh, and Chunar were and still are very much real places in Uttar Pradesh, and ones that Khatri was familiar with.
Khatri’s life before the publication of Chandrakanta makes for an almost novel-worthy story in itself. Born into a wealthy family in 1861, Khatri spent his childhood in the palaces and courts of the minor nobility, later joining his father, a jeweller, in his business of supplying gold and ornaments to royalty. With an independent lifestyle and plenty of money, according to one story, Khatri spent Rs 5,000 (a reasonable sum even now, princely in those days) on flying kites, thus displeasing his father.
Later, through contacts he found a place in the court of the Raja of Kashi, and was awarded contracts to farm the forests around it. While he took to his work with enthusiasm, one of his friends shot and killed a tiger, leading to the cancellation of his contracts and being sent home in disgrace. It was at this stage, while still in his mid-20s, that he drafted the first chapter of Chandrakanta, and began his literary career. His experiences reflect in the book, for instance in his description of forests:
In the dense forest that covers the mountain flanks, there grow a variety of trees—sakhu, tend, vijaysar, sanai, koria, go, khaja, piyar, jigna, aasan can all be found in the forest together with hundreds of parijat trees. These mountains are interesting—one moment you are in a village, and the next, only a mile or so away, you could be in a dense forest and have lost your way. … Several species of wild animals can be seen in these forests, including sambhar, barasingha, cheetahs, bears, leopards and monkeys, and sometimes even tigers …pp. 55–56
The same applies to the jewellery that the women wear. While each ornament may only be named rather than being described in detail, the women’s rich apparel and adornments come alive in the pictures Khatri paints. For instance, Chapala in disguise, when she goes into Chunar, is described as
…dressed in a black sari … her hair twisted into a knot behind her head was held in place by a pin and adorned with a tiny golden flower. She wore a round vermillion bindi on her forehead, delicate gold rings with jewels in her ears, and in her nose a coral stud. A gold tika in her hair, a heavy gold collar around her neck, gold bracelets on her wrists and above them black bangles, around her waist a tasselled, gold girdle and silver anklets on her feet completed her ensemble.p. 78
The Fantastical: Tilisms, Aiyaari, and Magic
While our story may be based around the romance between Birendra and Chandrakanta (and a second romantic thread between Birendra’s friend and aiyaar, Tej Singh, and Chandrakanta’s aiyaara, Chapala), for the most part the focus is on rescuing Chandrakanta when she is trapped in a tilism, and it is here that the fantasy elements come into their own.
In bringing the concepts of aiyaari, aiyaars, and tilisms into Hindi literature, Khatri also attempts to bring them from the realm of ‘magic’ into the human world, attributing the aiyaars’ disguises to ‘makeup’ and the enchanted tilisms to mechanical wheels and wires, but the magic remains in several elements. For instance, a set of six stone flowers (a rose, a jasmine, an oleander, and a chrysanthemum, among them) that Tej Singh acquires when they are solving the tilism, which have extraordinary properties like making the person who drinks the water in which the flower has been placed, immune from being rendered unconscious, vanquishing hunger, ending fatigue, and such.
Some of the most vivid scenes though are when Chandrakanta and, separately, Chapala are trapped in the tilism. When Chandrakanta and Chapala escape from Shivdatt, Chapala asks Chandrakanta to wait in a ruined mansion which they come upon in the forest, while she looks for some fruit to eat. Here Chandrakanta begins to explore and finds different statues including a stone heron:
The bird was of white marble, and mounted on a waist-high pedestal of black stone. The legs of the bird could not be seen—it appeared to be sitting upon the stone pedestal, its legs tucked out of sight beneath its body. The circumference of its body was at least fifteen cubits around, and its long beak and its wings and feathers were carved with such skill and delicacy that no amount of praise for the sculptor seemed enough.p. 155
Chandrakanta isn’t scared of this statue, having been told by Chapala, that there is only trickery, and no such thing as ghosts and spirits. However, she steps on a stone slab at the base, setting off a trap,
no sooner had she stepped upon it than the bird swivelled around, picked up Chandrakanta in its beak and swallowed her. It then swivelled back to its original position, closed its beak, folded its wings and was still again. (p. 155)
Chapala, though more aware and careful as an aiyaara, falls into another trap, eventually swallowed by a large stone serpent!
Aiyaaras: As Adept as Ayaars
Another aspect that stands out in the novel, even though we have the somewhat typical tropes of brave prince and trapped princess (these too, don’t necessarily fall within the usual parameters), is that among the aiyaars we see that women too, are equally adept and intelligent, not simply ‘damsels in distress’ waiting to be rescued. Chapala and Champa, Chandrakanta’s aiyaaras, are sharp and talented, and shown as capable of accomplishing much on their own. When Tej Singh is trapped and imprisoned in Chunar by Shivdatt, it is Chapala who single-handedly rescues him, using her intelligence and aiyaari.
Later Champa sets off on her own to look for the missing Chandrakanta and Chapala and falls into the clutches of slave traders. She not only escapes with no outside help (except relying on it as a distraction) but also, when asked by Prince Birendra and his aiyaars to return to Vijaygarh, resolutely refuses to do so, saying that she is more than capable of looking after herself.
But Still Human
While both aiyaars and aiyaaras have extraordinary talents and far more intelligence than the ‘ordinary’ characters in the book, they are still presented as human all through. Be it Tej Singh or Champa, or any of the other aiyaars and aiyaaras, none are infallible and do fall into traps and get duped every so often.
Those that are not aiyaars or aiyaaras like Prince Birendra, of course do so more often than the former, even when they may have been warned. But even the ‘ordinary’ characters do manage to surprise the reader, including Chandrakanta herself.
Interestingly, the names that Khatri has given at least some of his characters reflect their personalities: Birendra (brave or noble); Tej (sharp/fast); Kroor (cruel), and Kupath (misguided).
Religion, Culture: ‘Hinduization’
Khatri uses concepts from Persian literature as well as the dastan tradition, and language which is close to Urdu in his story, but the setting and cultural environment are solely Indian, in fact, Hindu. Matters of caste and propriety come up often, whether it is when Shivdatt’s aiyaars are planning to drug and kidnap Maharaj Surendra Singh, but can only send a ‘Brahmin’ as a cook in disguise so that he wouldn’t lose caste (the ethics of this situation can’t but cause some amusement); or Tej being able to marry Chapala only because she is of the same caste as him. These instances and the significance attached to caste observances and ritual testify to how deeply and firmly caste identities and beliefs were entrenched.
Red Flag: Islamophobia
The book is not without its problems, the most significant being a rather pronounced anti-Islamic stance (which one can’t help viewing against the dastan genre and concepts from Persian literature in the book, or the use of Urdu words for that matter). While two of the ‘main’ villains of the piece, Kroor Singh and Shivdatt are no doubt Hindu, and shown to be not only devious but unscrupulous and untrustworthy, all the Muslim characters (mostly aiyaars) are necessarily negative, devoid of morals and not to be trusted. They are also, as the translator points out in her introduction to the edition I read, dealt with far more harshly than other offenders, from flogging to execution. There is thus what has been described as ‘ethnic other[ing]’ despite Islam having been in India for over a thousand years by this time. This is likely a reflection of the nationalistic ideologies of the time.
A Tale that Continues to Enchant
Chandrakanta when originally published was serialised, evidence of which can be found in its various twists and turns and quite complex plot and structure, with new problems and challenges facing our adventurers at each turn. But while most of the pieces fall into place, giving us some revelations we may not have seen coming at the end, a few elements like introducing a new set of villains right in the last segment (which seemed to have no other purpose than further driving home the novel’s Islamophobia) seemed rather unnecessary to the plot.
Still, its problems apart, Chandrakanta gives us an engaging tale of adventure, magic and wonder, with vivid descriptions, capturing one’s attention even to this day.
Edition reviewed: Devaki Nandan Khatri, Chandrakanta, translated by Rohini Chowdhury (New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2015 ). Rohini Chowdhury is a children’s writer and translator, known for her translations of seventeenth century texts.
Arora, Bharati. ‘The Marvelously Real World of Dastan: Khatri’s Chandrakanta and the Dynamics of Nationalism in Colonial India’. South Asian Review 37(2): 152–76 (2016)
Chowdhury, Rohini. ‘Introduction’ in Devaki Nandan Khatri, Chandrakanta, translated by Rohini Chowdhury. (New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2015)
Dudney, Arthur. ‘Keeping the Magic Alive: How Devaki Nandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta, the First Hindi Best-seller Navigates Western Modernity and the Fantastical’. Undated. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urduhindilinks/txt_dudney_chandrakanta.pdf
Kumar, Kuldeep. ‘Devaki Nandan Khatri: The Man Who Blazed a New Trail for Hindi Novel-writing’. The Hindu, 26 April 2019. https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/devaki-nandan-khatri-the-man-who-blazed-a-new-trail-for-hindi-novel-writing/article26941457.ece
Orsini, Francesca. 2009. ‘Chandrakanta and Early Hindi Fiction in Banaras’ in Print and Pleasure: Popular Literature and Entertaining Fictions in Colonial North India. (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2005)
Xiao, Guo. ‘Making Otherness: A Comparative Study of Muslims in Chandrakanta and Waizuren in the Martial Novels of Jin Young’. Undated. https://upenn.academia.edu/GuoXiao
A lifelong reader, who continues to enjoy everything from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie to contemporary fiction and non-fiction, Mallika Ramachandran blogs about books at Literary Potpourri, where she posts reviews, posts about books, authors, and occasionally about poetry. Literary Potpourri is also home to Keli Cat’s Book Corner, a page dedicated to books with cats in them. Mallika holds degrees in law and works as a researcher, editor, and (sometimes) teacher.