Of all the life’s experiences the most profound one that we have is that of love. Very little needs to be said about what love is to humans, that bittersweet drug, that most of us get a taste of at least once in our lives.

What makes love unique though is not just the experience of it, which in itself is transformational at many different levels, but also its resistance to being put into words. Ahmad Ghazali, a well known Sufi mystic of Iran in the twelfth century said in his book, Sawanih,

…the ideas of love are like virgins and the hand of word cannot reach the edge of the curtain of those virgins…

The lover then is confronted with an impossible task, of trying to express the inexpressible. Poetry in some sense is the child of this union, this meeting between words and concepts that strive for form and distinction and, love, that dissolves all forms and wherein the lovers become one.

Thus poetry, especially romantic and mystical poetry, traverses this thin line between form and formlessness and meaning and meaninglessness. Therefore, poetry often represents the highest state of perfection of any language, as the imperfect and coarse vehicle of words does not lend itself easily to express the sublime and lofty ideas of love.

Indeed Indian classical linguists like Bhartrihari distinguished four levels of language:

  1. Vaikhari: The most external and differentiated form of language with a fully developed temporal sequence. This is our familiar day to day speech.
  2. Madhyama: This form represents thinking at the level of the mind. It is inward and can be thought of as those parts of speech that are relevant to a sentence present in the mind in a latent form. It has more to do with meaning than form.
  3. Pashyanti: The finest level of language which is devoid of temporality. It is sound that leaves its audible nature and manifests as a feeling, a wordless idea or a visual image so that there is no distinction between the word and its meaning. Pashyanti means ‘seeing’ and so at this level the message is directly ‘revealed’ and not processed or filtered by our senses.
  4. Para-Vak: This is the fully unmanifested level of language manifest during a supra-conscious state like Samadhi.

Thus feelings that are experienced at a level beyond words, Pashyanti, have to be translated into words, Vaikhari, and that is what the poet sets out to do through his work and in doing so he speaks not just for himself but for all of us.

(Note: We are referring to ‘the poet’ as masculine but that need not always be the case.)

Most of us who have embarked on this tumultuous voyage of love know the perils that engulf us as we leave the safety of the shore and step into the proverbial abyss. This famous couplet by Hafiz, the well known 14th century Persian poet, sums up the experience of a lover who has left the safety of the shore:

A dark night, the fear of the waves and such a dreadful whirlpool:

What can the lightly burdened ones on the shore know of our situation?

But as is well known, love in Persian mystical poetry is not just between two humans but also between a human and his creator. The sabukbaran-e-sahil-ha, or ‘the lightly burdened ones’ of the shore are thus not just other humans but also angels who are lightly burdened because they don’t have to carry the burden of trust (bar-e-amanat). Another couplet by Hafiz underscores the same point:

The heavens could not bear the Trust’s burden

When they cast the lot, it fell to me, the madman.

Sufi mystics believe that man, despite his lower earthly station, accepted to bear the burden of trust. But what is this burden exactly? Khusrao, the 13th century Hindi-Urdu poet, throws some light on it with his couplet:

खुसरो दरिया प्रेम का, सो उल्टी वाकी धार

जो उबरा सो डूब गया जो डूबा सो पार

Khusrao, the river of love runs in the opposite direction

The one who is saved drowns and the one who drowns makes it across.

Thus trust lies in letting go of the safety of the shore and diving into the whirlpool of love. The shore here represents the safe harbour of our egos and rationality, where we can think about what is in our ‘interest’ and see for ourselves the madness love entails. This shore also indicates the boundary of our knowledge, as Ghazali points out:

The extreme limit of knowledge is the shore of love. If one is on the shore, he has some understanding of the ocean. But if he steps forward, he will be drowned, and how can the one who is drowned have knowledge?

This again reinforces the idea that while talking about love, especially ishq, the most intense and passionate form of love, the lover/poet can only allude to what it is like, as direct knowledge and expression of that state is beyond words.

This brings us to the question: how does the poet achieve this seemingly impossible task of expression? One of the ways is by resorting to metaphors as a means of conveying one’s experience on this path of love.

Metaphors are invoked not to give a rational or logical explanation, but rather to directly appeal to the feelings of the reader/listener. The intended effect of a metaphor is an epiphany (tajalli), which shines brightly for a moment and gives us a glimpse of the torment of love. Tajalli itself means blinding light.

And it is by way of metaphors that poetry resuscitates the lost power of language and words. For while logic and precision might fail us, analogy, the blinding light of revelation and epiphany help the poet to convey, if only, indirectly, the beauty and travails of love.

Thus the repertoire of love poetry in Persian and Urdu is full of metaphors that serve as themes for generation of more such metaphors. These themes are called mazmuns and they are a part of the poetic inheritance of the language, passed on from one generation of poets to the next.

One of the most well known mazmuns for love, is the beloved as the hunter. The beloved, by acting aloof and ignoring the lover, acts cruelly towards the lover, but at the same time, the beloved needs the lover’s attention. The beloved thus is seen as the hunter who needs his prey but at the same time kills them.

In the following couplet Ghalib describes the misfortune that befalls a lover who gets caught in the madness of love unawares:

पिनहाँ था दाम सख़्त क़रीब आशियान के

उड़ने नहीं पाए थे कि गिरफ़्तार हो गए

The net was hidden very close to the nest

I had scarcely managed to fly and I got trapped.

Eventually though, the poet strives to evoke a particular mood in the listener or reader, so that the lines of poetry become a vehicle for transporting the listener to that same state of feeling or being that the poet was experiencing while composing the poem. This evocative quality of poetry is termed kaifiyat, mood, and is the hallmark of poetic genius. Thus when Ghalib said:

हज़ारों ख़्वाहिशें ऐसी कि हर ख़्वाहिश पर दम निकले…

There are thousands of such desires that I can die for…

We instantly feel the mix of longing and disappointment that he is trying to convey so much so that just this one line is enough, we do not feel the need to know the whole couplet. 

So this Valentine’s Day, get into the kaifiyat of ishq and celebrate your love for and with your beloved with these gems from Urdu and Persian poetry. As Fayyaz Hashmi reminds us in his famous ghazal, aaj jaane ki did na karo,

वक़्त की क़ैद में ज़िन्दगी है मगर

चन्द घड़ियाँ यही हैं जो आज़ाद हैं

इनको खोकर मेरी जान-ए-जान

उम्र-भर न तड़पते रहो

आज जाने की ज़िद न करो…

Life is trapped in the prison of time

Only these few moments are free

Don’t lose these moments my beloved and then

Keep suffering for the whole lifetime

Don’t insist on leaving today…


  1. Hafiz and the Religion of Love in Classical Persian Poetry edited by Leonard Lewisohn
  2. Nets of Awareness by Frances Pritchett
  3. Awakening Inner Guru by Banani Ray

Image Credit: asiasociety.org