Over the coming months, the Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI) will be offering new translations of a selection of Bhai Nand Lal’s ghazals. Bhai Nand Lal Goya’s ghazals, composed in Persian in Guru Gobind Singh Sahib’s (1666-1708) court, are a rich exploration of his relationship with the Guru. For each month of 2021, we will offer a ghazal (a classical poetic form that consists of couplets with a repeated rhyme) and an accompanying essay and podcast discussion highlighting some of the themes of the ghazal.
These new translations are the result of a year-long effort of a team of translators. Over the course of many long conversations (which often became debates), each ghazal has been translated to preserve the original Persian text’s depth and beauty. Each month, we will invite readers and listeners into the translation process, which included referring to the various published versions of the ghazals, consulting various dictionaries and existing translations (in Panjabi and English), and attempting to capture the many meanings of a single line (or word) to produce a flowing English translation accessible to the present-day reader. Of course, like any translation project, this is an incomplete one—not only have we not translated all sixty-three of Bhai Nand Lal’s ghazals, but our choices have also been inevitably shaped by the limited nature of who we are and what we know.
Above all, we have attempted to convey the extent to which Bhai Nand Lal was intimately imbued in love for the Guru and the various colors this love embodied for him. The ghazals take us on a journey of love, longing, and introspection. At times, Bhai Nand Lal directly addresses his Friend; at others, he wonders out loud with his audience, and at others, he queries himself.
Additionally, with each ghazal, we can catch a glimpse of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib’s court’s cultural milieu. Not only do the ghazals contain many references to the Guru Granth Sahib, but they also reveal Bhai Nand Lal’s engagement with the classical ghazal form, particularly through direct reference to the words and ideas of the Qu’ran and the Sufi poetry of figures like the Persian poet Rumi (1207-1273) and the subcontinental Sufi Amir Khusro (1253-1325). In keeping with the classical form, Bhai Nand Lal’s ghazals consist of couplets, each containing a complete thought unto itself. Each couplet ends with the same word or phrase (the radīf) and a consistent rhyme (the qafiyeh). We have attempted to maintain the form’s integrity by translating the radīf consistently in English to the greatest extent possible.
Who was Bhai Nand Lal Goya?
Bhai Nand Lal Goya (1633-1713) was one of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib’s fifty-two poets. Born in Ghazni in Afghanistan in 1633, he was twenty-three years older than the Guru. His father was Diwan Chajju Ram, Mir Munshi, or Chief Secretary of the Governor of Ghazni. As a child, Bhai Nand Lal acquired proficiency in both Persian and Arabic. He had an aptitude for poetry and began to compose poetry at the age of twelve under the pen name ‘Goya.’
In Multan, where he migrated after his parents’ death, Bhai Nand Lal married someone from a Sikh background and found work. After his father died in 1652, Bhai Nand Lal worked for the Mughal state for many years and held administrative positions and served on the staff of Aurangzeb’s eldest son, Prince Mu’azzam. Eventually, Bhai Nand Lal decided to travel to Anandpur to meet Guru Gobind Singh, though it is not clear exactly when and why he decided to leave his appointment with the Mughal state.
However, according to Guru kian Sakhian, Bhai Nand Lal arrived in Anandpur on Baisakhi day of 1682 and received Guru Gobind Singh Sahib’s blessing. He spent his days with Guru in mystical contemplation and composed poetry. He is said to have kept a free kitchen (langar) at Anandpur, which the Guru commended as a model for others to follow. His Persian, Arabic, and Panjabi writings include the Zindginama, Tausif-o-Sana, Ganjnama, Tankhahnama, and the ghazals Divan-i-Goya. They have forged a place of their own in the Sikh canon.
Dr. Fatima Fayyaz is a Persian literature scholar who studies Central Asian hagiographical Persian literature, contemporary Afghan Persian poetry and prose, Persian epics, and South Asian mystic literature. She completed her Ph.D. from the University of Tehran, Iran, in 2019 and currently teaches at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Lahore, as an assistant professor of Persian and comparative literary and cultural studies.
Dr. Nadhra Shahbaz Khan is an associate professor of art history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Lahore. A specialist in the history of Punjab’s art and architecture from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, Dr. Khan researches this region’s visual and material culture during the Mughal, Sikh, and colonial periods. She is the author of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samādhi in Lahore: A Summation of Sikh Architectural and Decorative Practices, a monograph published as the University of Bonn’s SAAC series (Studies in Asian Art and Culture) in 2018.
Inni Kaur is a passionate author, poet, and painter. She is a frequent speaker at community and interfaith events, the U.S. Office of the Pentagon Chaplin, and Yale, Fairfield, Columbia, and other universities. She was co-curator on Guru Nanak Sahib: 1-Ness to 1-Identity exhibition, IN5: Golden Temple Experieum an audio-visual exhibition, and the Emperor Prophet: Guru Gobind Sahib exhibition for the Government of Bihar, India. She also worked on the I See No Stranger: Early Sikh Art & Devotion exhibit with the Rubin Museum of Art, NY. She has been featured in documentaries related to the Sikh faith. View her published works and art at www.innikaur.com
Damanpreet Singh is a writer and graduate student who studies race, religion, empire, and the history of capitalism in the nineteenth century. He holds a master’s degree in religious studies and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale University.
Additional thanks to Ebrahim Tahassoni, Dr. Muhammad Yousuf, Gholamhossein Sajadi (recitation of ghazals in Persian), and Ryan Gillis (recitation of ghazals in English).
References and Further Reading
Bawa, Ujagar Singh. Biography and Writings of Bhai Sahib Bhai Nand Lal. Gaithersburg: The Washington Sikh Center, 2006.
Bhai Nand Lal Granthavali. Edited by Ganda Singh. Patalia: Punjabi University, 1963.
Bindra, Pritpal Singh. Kalaam-e-Goya. Chandigarh: Institute of Sikh Studies, 2003.
Fenech, Lou. “Persian Sikh Scripture: The Ghazals of Bha’i Nand La’l Goya.” International Journal of Punjab Studies 1, no. 1 (1994).
“Nand Lal,” The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Patiala: Punjabi University, 1995.
Steingass, Francis Joseph. A Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2008.
Tasnifat-i-Goya. Edited by Mahan Singh Gyani. Amritsar: Khalsa Tract Society, 1963.