No two travelers entirely agree on what aspects of a city are most worth recording; some privilege architecture and history, others collect cultural or linguistic observations. But for one 19th century traveler, none of these could trump a city’s poetry. This traveler was Miyan Dad Khan Sayyah, whose travelogue, Sair-i Sayyāḥ, is one of the more unique instances of 19th century travel writing in South Asia.
Sayyah was a poet from Aurangabad who found patronage in Surat, where he was ultimately buried. According to his own account, Sayyah was inveterate traveler. On one of his trips to Delhi he visited Ghalib, who took him on as a pupil. The two maintained an extended dialog through correspondence, and the letters they exchanged are effectively the only context in which Sayyah is known. The content of these letters varied, but most centered on poetry and Ghalib’s declining health. They also frequently discussed Sayyah’s travels, in which Ghalib was especially interested. In one letter he writes:
میں تم سے یہ توقع رکھتا ہوں کہ جس طرح تم نے لکھنئو سے بنارس تک کے سفر کی سر گذشت لکھی ہے، اسی طرح آئندہ بھی لکھتے رہوگے۔ میں سیر و سیاحت کو بہت دوست رکھتا ہوں
اگر بہ دل نہ خلد ہر چہ از نظر گذرد
زہے روانی عمری کہ در سفر گذرد
خیر، اگر سیر و سیاحت میسر نہیں، نہ سہی: ذکر العیش نصف العیش پر قناعت کی۔ میان داد خان سیاح کی سرگذشت سیر و سفر ہی سنئے۔
Beyond this correspondence, Sayyah is probably best known for his run-in with the law. In 1878 he reportedly passed a counterfeit note at Victoria Terminus in Bombay for a ticket to Hyderabad. The fraud was detected, the police were notified, and Sayyah was apprehended the moment he descended from the train. The punishment for this offense was fourteen years, though the stress of long days in prison were lightened by a benevolent jail-keeper who had a soft spot for good poetry. Ultimately, Sayyah’s sentence was commuted in recognition of his literary achievements. This may have had something to do with a poem that he wrote in praise of the Queen.
Before he had his wings clipped, Sayyah’s travels allowed him to attend poetic gatherings (مشاعرے) across India. The product of one such journey was Sair-i Sayyāḥ, which is as much a poetry collection as a travelogue. It is structured around Sayyah’s journey, but the heart of the work is a collection of poems that were recited at poetry gatherings in north India in the autumn of 1871. Sayyah’s popularity was such that his arrival in town became cause for the organization of these events, in which poets were expected to write fresh verses on the basis of given line of poetry. All but eight pages of Sair-i Sayyāḥ are dedicated to the verses prepared for two gatherings in Kanpur and Lucknow. The entire collection includes thousands of couplets: material from the event in Chauk, Lucknow alone spans forty-seven sheets packed from corner to corner with couplets written on the zamīn: ūs mahr ne zamīn se āsmān kiyā mujhe. Although the Kanpur gathering was canceled, Sayyah manages to collect the planned verses anyhow. It was certainly not unique for poets to visit literary circles when they traveled. Nor was it extraordinary to keep a record of the verses that one heard during these gatherings. Poetry anthologies called tazkiras were organized under a bewildering number of frameworks, though Sair-i Sayyāḥ is probably a first in creating a tazkirah explicitly organized around a single man’s journeys.
The remaining pages, though few, give us a clear picture of Sayyah’s personality and how a visiting poet might spend his time in Delhi or Lucknow. Sayyah is a socialite, and he is far more interested in describing the parties he went to and the people he met than in waxing eloquent on historic monuments or architectural wonders. He seems conscious of this ‘shortcoming’ in his travel account, masking his brevity as benevolence (mabādā sukhan me.n t̤avālat ho, nāz̤irīn-i nāzuk-mizāj ko malālat ho, varna ham bhī woh bāte.n dil me.n bharī baiṭhe hai.n.) Instead of describing in detail the wondrous things that he encountered, he writes a brief account of the parties he went to and the people he met, including Naval Kishore, Raja Muhammad Amir Hasan Khan of Mahmudabad, Bi Gauhar Jan and a host of poets and publishers.
This particular trip seems to have been the result of a conversation Sayyah had with Naval Kishore at a circumcision party. Kishore promised to take Sayyah on a tour of Kashmir in July and he jumped at the chance. A few months later, Sayyah left Surat on August 11th, 1871 and arrived in Bombay the next day. A few days later he took the train to Kanpur, arriving on the 17th of the same month, and woe betide, staff at Kishore’s press informed him that the travel party had been forced to set off without him! The news was crushing, and Sayyah was beside himself. But it turned out that fate was on his side: Naval Kishore and co. were forced to turn back by inclement weather and the closure of the rail line. To make up for their change of plans, the entire group, including Sayyah, spent several days enjoying music and dancing. Once this was finished, Sayyah left Kanpur for Lucknow, where he remained for three months.
Sometime in October, Sayyah began to long for a visit to Delhi and Agra. He made the trip, spending his four nights in Agra at gatherings with friends. In Delhi he met with a variety of literary figures and publishers in addition to visiting all the important tombs, including that of his old tutor. Another gathering was organized in his honor, with most of the city’s poets planning to participate, but ultimately Sayyah fell sick and was unable to attend. Instead, he returned to Lucknow, where he was nursed to health by Naval Kishore himself. He then retraces his steps back to Kanpur, Bombay and, finally, Surat.
The selection below recounts Sayyah’s account of his arrival in Kanpur, where he found out that he’d missed the boat and what transpired next. Sair-i Sayyāḥ is one of only two works attributed to Sayyah. The other, lat̤ā’if-i Ghaibī, is said to have been written by Ghalib but published under Sayyah’s name. You may read the excerpt below, or in PDF if you prefer nasta'liq.
اقتباس از سیر سیاح، میان داد خان سیاح، صفحہ ۳۔
پندرہ ماہ مسطور گیارہ بجے ریل پر سوار ہوا، سترہ کو چھ بجےکانپور میں پہونچا، منشی صاحب کے مطبع میں ٹھہرا،معلوم ہوا کہ میرا انتظارِ دورودراز دستاویزِ شکستہ پائی ٹھہرا کر تشریف لے گئے، خامۂ کج فہمی تباہ، میں نہیں کہتا کہ مج کو دھوکا دے گئے۔ ہیہات غم کی رات۔ ایک میں تنہا اور سارے عالم کا قلق دل میں درد چشم تر رنگ فق ہر دم نیا خیال تھا، رنج تھا، ملال تھا دیوان خانہ دیوان خانہ تھا، بد تر از شان کا شانہ تھا، کبھی سسکیوں سے روتا کبھی چپ کے چپ کے جی کھوتا کبھی چپ رہتا کبھی یہ کہتا – حیف دیر کی آنے میں، جلدی نہ کی جانے میں، کیا تھا، کیا ہوا اسی فکر ذکر میں کہ گھڑیالی نے دس بجائی میری شب غم کے دقیقے درجے گٹھائی۔ منشی صاحب معہ قافلہ کہ جو بحکم علو ہمتی ساتھ لے گئے تھے بسبب کثرت بارش و نا ہمواری راہ و بند ہونے ریل کے واپس آئے، وہ کیا آئی تن میں جان آئی، گَمی ہوئی ٹُوم پائی۔ چار روز قیام کیا، ہر شب کو جلسۂ رقص و سرود میں تمام کیا۔ ایک ملازم مطبع خوش طبع ظریف شیرین زبان صاحب تصنیف شاہ میر خان عرف مجھلے صاحب رعایت تخلص کو میری رفاقت میں مامور فرمایا وہاں سے لکھنئو آیا تین مہینے ٹھہرایا۔۔۔قصہ مختصر عین بارش و جوش سیلاب میں کہ ایسا کبھی نہ دیکھا تھا خواب میں طوفان نوح کا نمونا تھا بلکہ اوس سے بھی دونا تھا اللہ تعالی نے جان بچائی لکھنئو کی صورت دکھائے پھر وہی ہم وہی منشی صاحب وہی جلسہ وہی تماشے شہر کے عجائبات کے لطف تازہ یاروں کی ملاقات کی چوبے گنیش پرشاد صاحب وکیل عدالت نے کہ نہایت ذی شعور ہیں زبان انگریزی میں فصیح و بلیغ مشہور ہیں، صاحب تمیز ہیں، ہر دل عزیز ہیں، سنیہ صاف ہے زیادہ آینہ سے کوسوں دور ہیں، کینہ سے مزید اخلاق و فرط محبت سے دو بار بزم نشاط منعقد فرمائی۔ بی گوہر جان نے وہ رقص و سرود کی کیفیت دکھائی جو کبھی سننے میں بھی نہ آئی۔
1. All information on Sayyah is taken from the introduction to Lat̤ā’if-i Ghaibī and Mir Jafar Imam, Mirza Ghalib and the Mirs of Gujarat. New Delhi: Rupa, 2003.
2. Since writing this post, the Ghalib Institute at New Delhi has issued a reprint of this work: Saiyāḥ, Miyān̲ Dād K̲h̲ān̲, and Nasīm Aḥmad. Sair-i Sayyāḥ. Ghalib Institute, New Delhi, 2016.