Rohini Chowdhury writes for both children and adults. She has published several books for
children including a novel and a short story collection. Her interests include translation, mathematics
and history. She is currently working on a historical examination of pre-colonial India. Rohini lives in
London with her husband and two daughters.
A Half Story
Translated from the Braj Bhasba by ROHINI CHOWDHURY
Preface by RUPERT SNELL
Imagine sitting down to write the story of your life. Where would you begin, what incidents
and experiences would you promote, which dark moments would you conceal, and how would you
make your tale appealing to readers from times and places unknown? Such a task would challenge
any writer, and most of us today would begin by scouting around to see how others had done it
before—looking for a model to follow, an example to emulate. But imagine undertaking such a task if
there was no model, when nobody had done it before (at least, in a language
that you could read), and where all that lay before you was the bank page; how would you set
about tracing the contours of your life with nothing but your memories as guides?
These questions are meant to emphasize the novelty of Bmarasidas's chosen narrative mode of
'autobiography' in a literary tradition which rarely thought in terms of personal histories; but they are
foolish questions, because they take no account of the differences in outlook between our lifetime
and that of Banarasi nearly four centuries ago. He probably shared few of the motivations that might
tempt a 21st-century author into autobiography: certainly, the 'cult of the individual' that features so
prominently today would have seemed almost as exotic to Banarasi as our blithe expectation of a
continuously smooth progress down the path of everyday life. Being, among many other things, a
theologian with works of Jain
1'This essay draws on my earlier article, 'Confessions of a seventeenth-century
Jain merchant: the Ardhakathanak of Banarasidas,' in South Asia
metaphysics to his credit, Banarasi perhaps saw his own life story as nothing more or less than a
convenient source of illustrations to help explain the meaning of human existence and to illustrate the
interplay of suffering and contentment in the world. Though he has moments of proud introspection in
which he lists his achievements as a scholar, or describes—with almost palpable relief—his
return to the Jain fold after a period in a personal wilderness, his primary intention is not to promote
himself, but rather to observe how a man must suffer the effects of his own past deeds, riding
out storms in times of trouble and avoiding complacency in times of calm.
Almost everyone who writes about Banarasi mentions his candour, for he was as quick to
confess the mistakes and follies of his life as he was to boast of his accomplishments. Ever the
businessman, he offers a neatly balanced tally of faults and merits at the end of his tale, leaving the
reader satisfied that the account is settled and has been told with honesty and a certain objectivity of
viewpoint. But a close reading of Banarasi's poetry shows also that his many gifts included a certain
slyness, a skill at leaving things implied between the lines. An example of his deliberate and knowing
deployment of facts in the narrative is his account of his own birth.
In Samvat 1643,
In the bright half of the month of Magh, On the eleventh day, a Saturday
When the Moon was in Taurus and the reigning nakshatra
Was in the third quarter—in Kharagsen's house a son was born.
Such an account, especially when ripped from its context in the body of the poem, may
at first seem unremarkable: after all, it is a commonplace of Indian dating systems that individual days
be specified not only in terms of the annual (solar) calendar but also the monthly (lunar) one.
Following this convention, therefore, Banarasi declares that he was born on the eleventh day of the
bright half of the winter month of Magh, the phrase 'bright half sita paksha indicating the
fortnight when the moon was waxing, growing brighter. But the poet goes beyond the bare outline of
these conventional dating data by adding further astrological information—a rare level of detail in
literary calendars—and in so doing builds up a prolonged crescendo climaxing in the triumphant
announcement 'a son was born!' Elsewhere in the Ardhakathanak, Banarasi describes
many life-cycle events such as births and deaths: but nowhere else does he give us such an elaborate
anticipation as this one celebrating his own appearance in the world. And he is not finished
yet: in a further detail that may escape a hurried reading of the text, Banarasi locates the day of his
birth in verse 84, cleverly alluding to one of the most sacred numbers in Indian numerology and
thereby bringing a very special aura to the description of his 'incarnation' (avatara) on
There are many other such literary tricks up the poet's sleeve. In another beautiful allusion that
also goes unnoticed by the commentators, Banarasi's uniquely appealing account-sheet of qualities
and faults that concludes the text is a delightfully cunning use of the literary trope known as solah
shringar—a listing of the 'sixteen adornments' which conventionally describe the plural
perfections of the idealized literary heroine. While the qualities of such a lady may be lovingly listed in
references to a set of physical attributes (such as lotus-eyes, slender waist, broad hips) or abstract
ones (sensitivity, musicality of voice, tenderness of character), Banarasi distinguishes himself with a
double list, detailing such qualities as his poetic and linguistic gifts on the positive side, and
confessing to such vices as a love of clowning on the negative. The dark and light sides of his
personality give us a wonderfully rounded sense of his own perceptions of self; and the knowingness
with which he appropriates a well-known literary convention for this purpose, is nothing
less than delightful.
How then does Banarasi compose his tale—how does he build on the various narrative genres
that preceded it? In terms of metre, the Ardhakathanak looks back to a genre which
Banarasi himself knew well, that of Sufi epics such as Madhutnalati,2 written in
Awadhi in ce 1545; Banarasi was an expert reciter of these Sufi allegories, as we know from verse
335 where he describes his habit of reciting Madhumalati 'Mirgavati' (or Mrigavati) to
groups of friends. Such texts were in turn a model for the much better-known
Ramcharitmanas (or 'Hindi Ramayan') of Tulsidas, begun in 1574—just a dozen years before
Banarasi's birth—and this text, too, may have been familiar to him, though we cannot know for
sure(and we do know that the Ramckaritmanas took some time to achieve its all-conquering
These Awadhi poems were for the most part composed in two complementary metres. Most
heavily used is the chaupai quatrain, which in Tulsi's skilful hands became the perfect vehicle for
prolonged recitation: the long couplet-rhymes, sometimes achieved by an artificial lengthening of the
rhyme-syllable, bring a strident and dynamic motion to a recital of the poem. In terms of the prosodic
weight of the line, a full quarter of the entire structure is taken up by the rhyme, as in the
syllables —aagaa and -aaruu in the following example:
2See Manjhan, Madhumalati: An Indian Sufi Romance, trans, Aditya Behl
et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
I revere the pollen-dust of the lotus feet of the guru—
delicious, fragrant, sweet with love;
a lonely powder imbued with the root of ambrosia
that calms the entire retinue of worldly woes.
Banarasi uses a variant on this metre:4 at fifteen rather than sixteen matras
or 'beats' it is slightly shorter than Tulsi's type; but more significant than this slight mathematical detail
is the fact that its rhymes are milder and less insistent. The Ardhakathanak is not designed for
a ritualized or programmed reading of the kind that has become such a central part of Tulsi's
tradition; both texts a story, but Banarasi's is more matter-of-fact, and less rhetorical^; energized,
than Tulsi's devotional tour-de-force. Here is an example of a chaupai from the
I will tell my tale in the common speech of Madhyadesh.
I will reveal that which is hidden
And describe my past condition and character.
Listen carefully, my friends.
Both Tulsi and Banarasi use the chaupai in combination with the doha (or
'dobra9) couplet. Though the doha has only two lines, each is divided
by a fairly strong rhythmic
3Tulsidas, Ramcharitmanas, Balkand 1.
4In fact the long and short versions of this metre are distinguished in
spelling—chaupaaii and chaupaii respectively.
pause or caesura (marked by a space in our text) just past the halfway point in the line; thus it
has four 'quarters', and in this respect parallels the chaupai fairly closely. A four-line English
translation works conveniently for both metres. Here is a doha:
The man who believes that in times of joy he is happy,
And that in times of sorrow he is sad,
In the eyes of such an ignorant person
Joy and Sorrow appear to be different from each other.
Whereas Tulsi imposes a fairly regular structure on his text, usually alternating some eight lines in
chaupai metre with a single doha, Banarasi uses a freer mixture of the two,
interspersing short or long sequences in the one with short or long sequences in the other. Sometimes
a change in metre seems to mark a change in narrative content; but this is far from being a regular
feature, and there is no obvious reason (apart from aesthetics and sentence structure) why the poet
should prefer one metre over the other for a particular segment of the text. Perhaps the short rhyming
units of the chaupai may be preferred when the poet wants to scamper quickly through some
narrative, without lingering to contemplate the events overmuch. Such circumstances are well
matched by the chaupai's punchy, staccato structure:
On this second visit he stayed for a month.
He stayed at home and did not step out even to the marketplace.
Then he left Khairabad, this time with his wife,
And a palanquin and a horse for the journey.
One searches in vain—so far!—for a satisfying theory to explain when and why Banarasi
switches from one metre to another, and these matters are largely overlooked by the agendas of
traditional Hindi scholarship. But no such unclarity surrounds his use of other metric types: when
seeking to showcase some particular idea or theme, Banarasi will typically use a lyric metre such as
the savaiya (also called kavitt) such as the one in which he celebrates his friend
Narottamdas in a fine accolade. In a long sequence of the text, beginning in verse 394, Banarasi
writes about this acquaintance, which begins as a business partnership and ends up as a close
friendship, a true meeting of minds. In verse 486 he sums up his admiration for this man in an
acrostic—a verse in which the opening syllables of each line spell out the four syllables of the name
'Narottam'. Modern editions of the Hindi text spoil the fun by announcing this feature in advance,
giving 486 the title 'verse in praise of Narottamdas' (narottam-stuti); but greater pleasure
comes if we encounter the verse innocently, finding its acrostic character revealed only when we
reach the final line. By happy coincidence, the four syllables na-ro-tta-m(a)'m the Devanagari
script of the original yield eight individual letters in roman transliteration, allowing the translator a full
octet of lines in which to capture the acrostic pattern in English:5
5Narottam' is in fact a poor choice of name as the basis of an acrostic in Hindi,
since no word in the language can begin with a double 'tt'! For once, the translator is
better equipped to handle the literary conventions than the author of the original. Here, for
comparison with Rohini Chowdhury's neat working-out of the verse, is my own freer version, in
which I have allowed myself a generous helping of translator's licence:
Navpad meditation, and praise of God, occupies this wise and
Acknowledge him a man of steadfast knowledge.
Religion occupies all eight watches of his day.
Of immense beauty, comeliness and wealth reside in him; praise
him as the very image of the god of love. No
Trace of conceit is there in him. Seven fields did he give away
To the whole world, spread his fame.
A man glorious and great, beloved as life to Banarasi—
Make up his name using the first letter of each line.
As in so many passages of the tale, the reader is left admiring Banarasi for his poetic wit, and
celebrating with him the value of the friendships that he describes with eloquence and warmth. His
praise of Narottam not only reveals the dutiful piety and noble qualities of his friend, but also shows
the depth of the friendship itself: like no other poet of his time, Banarasi is happy to wear his heart on
Ninefold prayer and praise of his dear Lord,
As all know well, dwell ever in his mind.
Radiant-limbed, e'er pious in his heart, an
Ornament of form, Love's likeness eulogized!
Transcending body's pride, so bountiful...
To track his fame, trace canopies of praise.
Abode of glory, bosom friend of Banarasi—
May this octet initially rehearse his name.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this text is its astonishing ability to collapse the centuries,
and to make 17th-century experiences seem not merely vivid but also entirely uderstandable
to the reader of today. If the Ardbakatbanak is a unique witness to a particular time in the
history of India and the world, it is equally a remarkable statement about the timelessness of human
experience, as felt in such moments as the cloying taste of remorse, the beauty and strength of
friendship, the frustrating difficulty of making one's way in life, and the unbearable—yet somehow
borne—tragedy of parental bereavement. Despite its remoteness in time (for all modern
readers) and also in place (for those of us living outside northern India), Banarasi's tale makes
frequent and profound contact with our own experiences. We are constantly drawn in to the story,
and readers who approach the text with an open attitude will find many and profound
correspondences with their own lives. We may not have thrown manuscripts of love poetry into a
flowing river as Banarasi did in a fit of moral conscience; and we may never have stolen money from
our parents to finance the excitements of an illicit love-affair: but most of us have known
bereavement, the excitements of love and perhaps of scholarship, and the ups and downs of life's
fortunes in terms of health, wealth and happiness. On all these matters, and many more, Banarasi
shares his experiences with openly and candidly. At times he seems philosophical in his acceptance
of the inevitability of fate, seeing in it the in exorable consequences of actions in earlier lives; at other
times his misfortunes rile him, and he shows himself to be fully human when he grumbles about the
many discomforts he has to endure. His ability to make these experiences matter to us lies in his
poetic craft—in his techniques for making his story immediate and alive. Banarasidas the man has
much to share with us; and Banarasidas the poet has a natural talent for narrative, always seeming to
offer precisely the right detail of an event for the reader's imagination be able to fill in the picture
An example of skilful story-telling comes in the passage in which Banarasi describes the social
and domestic unrest that followed the death in Agra of the emperor Akbar. The year was ce 1605
(or Vikram Samvat 1662 in the dating system of the period), and our poet was a nineteen-year-old
living at the family home in Jaunpur. Banarasi chooses two narrative strands with which to weave this
part of his story—a personal one involving his family, and a social one reflecting the perspective of
the town's merchant community to which his family belonged. When the news of Akbar's death
reached Jaunpur, Banarasi was at home sitting on the steps of his family courtyard. Shocked by what
he heard, he fainted and tumbled to the ground, hitting his head on the stonework of the stairway or
the floor as he did so; the courtyard 'turned red with his blood' (verse 250), and the house echoed to
the sound of weeping and wailing. Banarasi's parents were frantic, His mother was the
more composed of the two parents in a family calamity (some things remain constant across the
centuries: the female is ever more practical than the male when crisis strikes!). She quickly took
control of the situation: she applied a piece of burnt cloth to the wound, both staunchingl and
sterilizing it with this traditional remedy; and through her tears, she prepared a bed for her son and
lay him carefully upon it.
The tale then switches from this domestic scene to a broader one depicting the
marketplace and the town. Here the narrative picks out several details that give a graphic account of
the widespread anxiety that befalls when an emperor—the essential keystone of the arch of social
cohesion-—is suddenly removed from the picture. Motivated by fear of what might happen, rather
than by any observable acts of crime or unrest, wealthy folk began dressing as paupers, merchants
shut up shop and spirited away their wealth and their ledgers, leaving the marketplace deserted, and
ordinary people barricaded themselves in their houses. By picking out these details, Banarasi
conveys to us the public dread of the disruption that so ten accompanied rivalries of imperial
succession, when the dramatic antagonism of pretenders to the throne would lead to bloodshed and
more. In Banarasi's account, however, the panic soon proved unfounded, and ten days after the
traumatic news of Akbar's death, 'a letter came from Agra saying that all was well' (verse 256).
In Banarasi's tightly composed verse narrative, a few well-losen details stand for the whole
picture, and readers are left to work out for themselves such matters as cause and effect, implication,
and moral. Thus it is not the poet who describes the emperor as 'the essential keystone of the arch of
social cohesion'—the poet does not bother to explain the terrors that an interregnum held in a
political system where the entire matrix of governance depended upon a strong central figure, and
where an empty throne spelt disaster for the populace; instead, such literalist explanations are the job
of a plodding commentator such as the writer of this preface, who earns his supper by pointing out
the obvious, or by making plain what the more intelligent poet had deliberately left as a matter
of inference. In terms of poetry, less is more, and much of the aesthetic pleasure of reading a poem
comes from the echoes and counter-echoes of meaning that flow from ambiguity. Like all poetry
worth the name, Banarasi's is rich with allusion: and although allusive wording may often prove to be
also elusive in terms of our understanding all this detail, the need to read between the lines
can only deepen the significance of the narrative itself.
Literal-minded explanation of the subtext of poetry can kill it dead, as with the redundant
explanation of a joke. Nevertheless, there can be some advantage in having some of Banarasi's
narrative techniques laid out for inspection, especially as they may be lost or concealed by the
process of translation into English, the sensibilities of the two languages being radically different. In
the paragraphs below, we shall look at some more of the ways in which Banarasi brings his story
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the conventions of Banarasi's time and of our own
is the choice of medium—prose or verse. Whereas prose was frequently used in Sanskrit literature,
its appearance in the vernacular languages of the pre-modern or medieval' period was generally
restricted to 'secondary5 genres such as commentaries.6 Today, we are
accustomed to thinking of the verse medium as being something that aspires to artistic expression, or
as something called 'creative writing' as the contemporary term has it; but in pre-modern Hindi, verse
was simply the standard medium for writing any kind of text, and even such functional works as
handbooks of veterinary medicine would be couched in tightly-composed rhyming couplets and
quatrains. To some extent, then, we need to distinguish between 'verse' (in the sense of a 'writing
composed in a metrical measure, and usually rhyming') and 'poetry' (as a more
6 A rare exception in Hindi is the so-called varta literature, a kind of
devotional hagiology describing incidents in the lives of historical and ahistorical devotees; but this
sectarian genre would hardly have recommended itself as a model for Banarasi's purposes, and in
any case in barely predates the Ardhakathanak, if at all.
literary kind of writing, deliberately exploiting various rhetorical devices as a means of expressing
In these terms, was Banarasi a poet or just a composer of verse? We could ask further: was he
a true poet, at home with the conventions of his chosen genre and able to touch our hearts with lines
of grace and beauty, or was he a mere poetaster, a rhymester who churned out lines by the yard as
he told his tale? To answer this question through the medium of translation is impossible, since even
the most sympathetic and skilled English-medium translator cannot preserve subtle literary qualities of
a kind that had been moulded and refined over millennia in the courts, temples and academies of
India. So if we want to know where to place Banarasi in respect of his writing, we must look directly
at his own words.
Of all the many moments in which Banarasi bares his heart to us, none is more moving than his
accounts of the death of his several children. To outlive one's own offspring is, of course, one of the
cruelest of all experiences mat a person can face in this world; and although the untimely death of
children was very much more commonplace than it is today, Banarasi was surely uncommonly
unlucky (or egregiously fated, as he saw it) to lose all his children in infancy. Here is the verse in
which he summarizes this dreadful fact:
nau baalaka huue mue, rahe naari nara doi
jyaun taravara patajhaara hvai, rahain thuuntha-se hoi.
Nine children were born and died.
The husband and wife remained, two alone,
Like trees that shed their leaves in autumn,
And are left bare and leafless.
Here is a literal translation that maintains the word order and the composition of the original:
nine children became [and] died, remained man woman two
as trees autumn befallen, remain stump-like becoming
Of course, this makes little sense and less poetry, and the translator .must dress the verse in new
syntax and idiom to make it meaningful in English. But the comparison between the original and the
translation is instructive for several reasons. Firstly, it shows the extreme economy of the Braj verse,
which uses just fifteen words; Rohini Chowdhury's translation is itself succinct, sensitive, and crisply
to the point, and yet it requires a full twenty-seven words—nearly twice the number of the
original—to deliver the poem's burden to the reader. Poetic Braj is a language that achieves
phenomenal concision by managing without certain words that are essential in translation. Here is the
English version again, with such words underlined:
The husband and wife remained, two alone.
Like trees that shed their leaves in autumn,
This exercise breaks down in the fourth line, where the translator has, quite reasonably,
substituted an adjectival phrase 'bare and leafless' for the stumpy 'stump-like' of the original; but even
so it is clear that the Braj has a poetic intensity in which every word counts towards the highly
affective imagery of the verse.
What are we seeing here, and how does it help us address the question of Banarasi's artistic
achievement or lack of it?
well, the elliptical character of Braj verse is certainly not peculiar to Banarasi: it features in virtually all
verse from the sublime to the mundane, and of course some linguistic features such as the
absence of the definite article are common
to South Asian languages generally. This means that we cannot attribute the general feature of word
economy to Banarasi's in dividual genius. But if we look closely at the way in which he marshals his
words in a sentence or poetic line, we do see his true poetic talent clearly revealed. Look back at the
eight words of his first line, and consider how they are deployed. Two aspects of the line's
construction are perfectly designed to maximize the plangency of the context. The first is that the
mathematical contrast between the nine children and the two parents is emphasized
by the positioning of the two numbers at the two opposite ends of the line; the second, an almost
diametrically opposite feature, is that the line's three werbs come in a straight sequence (huue mue
rahe, 'became, died, remained'), emphasizing the short-livedness of the ill-fated children, with the
structural caesura separating the living from the dead.
Details of this kind are too frequent in the text, and too sublime in their effect, to be attributed to
mere chance. What we are seeing here is the genius of a poet who knows how to arrange his words
in such a way as to deliver sentiment as well as meaning; and this goes to the heart of the matter,
confirming that this is indeed 'poetry' and not merely 'verse'. This is not the place for a detailed
analysis of Banarasi's craft, but in reading the fine translation provided by this volume, the reader
should be aware of the skill shown by Banarasi in the telling of his tale.
What would Banarasi have made of an approach like the one adopted in this preface? Does it
reflect his own preoccupations, does it identify qualities in his poetry that he himself considered
significant enough to attract comment? Almost certainly not: Banarasi would see in my too-many
paragraphs an inarticulate groping for meanings that his own poetry would convey in a few concise
couplets, and the pretensions of latter-day scholarship would ring hollow in his ears. Better, then, to
abandon such meanderings, and move straight to the poem itself, to the words of a poet whose
'half-story' speaks to us across the centuries with deep humanity, timeless wisdom, and limitless
I was introduced to the Ardhakathanak in April 2004 by Dr Rupert Snell, then head of
South Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Dr Snell gave me Dr Mukund
Lath's excellent English translation of the text, which also contained Banarasidas's original
I began reading the Ardhakathanak, first out of curiosity, and then with growing interest
and excitement. I realized that here was a unique and wonderful work, but which was known only to
a handful of scholars and enthusiasts.
I met Ravi Singh of Penguin India in 2005, and in the course of conversation, mentioned the
Ardhakathanak and suggested that perhaps Penguin India should be the ones to make this
text better known. Ravi deftly transferred the burden on to my shoulders, and asked me to translate
the text into Khari Boli, modern Hindi, as well as into English.
Translation into modern Hindi provided its own challenges, the biggest of which, surprisingly,
were the similarities between Banarasi's language and the Hindi of today. Translation into English
made demands of a completely different order—for not only were the languages involved completely
different, but so were the respective cultural contexts of those languages. I found it impossible to
always convey accurately and completely every meaning and nuance of Banarasi's words, though I
have tried to adhere to the spirit of his verses.
During the course of my translation, I repeatedly consulted three texts. These were:
1. The Ardhakathanak translated, introduced and annotated by Mukund Lath, Haifa
Tale: A Study in the Interrelationship
between Autobiography and History (Rajasthan Prakrit Bharati Sansthan, Jaipur, 1981).
Anew edition of Dr Lath's English translation of the Ardhakathanak has been recently
published by Rupa, New Delhi.
2. The second edition of the text edited by Nathuram Premi, Ardhakathanak
(Hindi Granth Ratnakar, Bombay, 1957).
3. Dr Ravindra Kumar Jain, Kavivar Banarasidas: Jivani aur Krititva (Bharatiya
Jnanpith, New Delhi, 1966).
To Dr Mukund Lath, my special gratitude, for graciously granting me permission to use his work
and to cite it as a reference source.
My thanks too, to Yashodhar Modi and Manish Modi, of the Hindi Granth Karyalay, for giving
me their permission to use Pandit Nathuram Premi's book, and to Bharatiya Jnanpith, for their
permission to use Dr Ravindra Kumar Jain's book, during the course of my work, and to cite these
as reference sources. To Manish Modi, my gratitude for the patient and thorough explanations he
provided on Jain doctrine, and the insight he gave me into Banarasidas and his place and importance
in the history of Jain thought.
I also consulted several books on Jainism, to understand and clarify the many Jain concepts that
Banarasi mentions in the Ardhakathanak. My thanks to M.S. Abhinandan, who gave me
permission to consult and cite his book A Journey through Jainism (Indialog Publications,
New Delhi, 2005).
I would also like to thank Ravi Singh of Penguin India, who gave me the opportunity to be part
of this enriching and exciting project, and R. Sivapriya, my editor at Penguin, who took this book
through the stages of editing and production.
To Dr Rupert Snell, my very special thanks—for introducing me to' Banarasidas and the
Ardhakathanak, for generously making available to me his writings on Braj poetry and the
Ardhakathanak, for answering all my queries with patience
and good humour, for reading my Hindi translation and pointing out my gaffes and mistakes with
kindness and tolerance, for giving so generously of his time, his thoughts and his knowledge, and
most of all, for his continuous and unflagging encouragement and support.
My grateful thanks too, to Usha Bubna—for her many trips to the National Library, Kolkata, in
search of books and material, for her patient and enthusiastic research and response to my many
queries related to Banarasidas and Jainism, and her detailed and careful reading and editing of my
drafts. To Dr Asha Maheshwari, and to Dr Urmi Sen, again my gratitude, for their
suggestions and comments on my translation.
Many other friends stood by me in many ways, silently and good-humouredly tolerating my
preoccupation with the Ardhakathanak and Banarasidas for one-and-a-half long years. To
Atul Pradhan, Piyali Sengupta, Bishnupriya Ghosh and Stephan Clarke, my sincere and grateful
And finally, to my husband Atul Bansal, and my daughters, Vipasha and Vidisha, for their
encouragement and support, my gratitude.
Rohini Chowdhury July 2008 London
It was more than three hundred and sixty-five years ago, in the winter of 1641, in Agra, that
Banarasidas, poet, philosopher and merchant, completed the writing of a unique and remarkable
text. The Ardhakathanak, as this text is known, is the story of Banarasidas's own life.
When he wrote his story, Banarasidas was fifty-five years old. He believed that another fifty-five
years of life remained1 to him since according to Tain tradition:2
A hundred and ten years
Is the span of a man's life.3
He therefore called his story his 'aradh kathan his 'half a :story'. Banarasidas died two
years after the completion of his Ardhakathanak, so that ironically, his half a story becomes
in reality his full story.
The Ardhakathanak is also, possibly, the first autobiographyin an Indian language.
Banarasi had no precedent in literature or tradition that might have inspired him to write his life's
story or guided him in his task. His motivation to write his story seemed simple. As he
explains towards the end:
He thought to himself,
'Let me tell my story to all.'
Of the five and fifty years of his life
He then related his tale.4
The result is an account that is more modern than medieval in tone, and which transcends the
formulaic conventions and
stylized ornamentation that characterize other biographical works of the time. Banarasi's account of
his life, which he relates in the third person, is very personal, straightforward and open; he examines
not only his virtues but his faults as well. His candour makes the Ardhakathanak unusual and
unique, and sets it far ahead of its time.
At first glance, the Ardhakathanak seems a simple text, as simple as the reason Banarasi
gives for writing it. But another look makes us pause and consider: perhaps part of Banarasi's
purpose in writing his story, in setting down the main events of his life and pondering cause and effect
and the workings of karma, was an attempt to understand better the nature and meaning of human
Banarasidas composed the Ardhakathanak in 675 stanzas, mainly in the
doha5 and chaupai6 metres. His language is simple, the
spoken language of northern India in his time, a mixture of Braj Bhasha and Khari Boli.
Banarasidas was born in 1586, into a well-to-do merchant family of Jaunpur. His family were of
the Shrimal clan, Rajputs who had in years past converted to Jainism, and, giving up their
warrior-like ways, taken to business and commerce. The Shrimals were a large and prosperous clan,
with an established presence in most important towns and cities across the Mughal Empire. Some
Shrimals even held important administrative posts under the Mughals.
Banarasi's ancestors came from the village of Biholi, near Rohtak in northern India. Appointing
themselves guardians and protectors of the village of Biholi, they took upon themselves the
appears a couple of times in the Ardhakathanak, we do not know very much more about
Banarasi's early years were spent in Jaunpur. Like his father before him,12 he was
sent to school at the age of eight.13 The school was a pathshala run by a
brahmin pandit. Here Banarasi learnt to read and write, to balance books, and assay gold and
silver—the skills needed by a merchant's son in the marketplace. Banarasi was a quick learner, and
within a year had acquired all the learning that was considered necessary for him to join his father's
For most of Banarasi's companions, this would have been the end of their formal education.
Once basic literacy and numeracy skills had been acquired, the sons of the business community were
required to sit in the marketplace and learn the methods of trade and commerce as their fathers and
forefathers had done before them. But Banarasi was different. He discovered very early
in life a love of learning, a love that was to stay with him throughout his life, and
which added to his everyday humdrum existence—of a householder and merchant—a cerebral
His love of learning earned him a reprimand from his elders on the error of his ways. Learning,
they admonished him, was meant for brahmins and bards. It brought no profit to a merchant's son,
and 'those who spend all their time in learning go hungry'.14 Banarasi paid no heed to
At the age of fourteen he found another teacher, Pandit Devdutt, with whom he studied texts
dealing with astrologw astronomy, the art of love, rhetoric as well as the two lexical
works—Anekarath and Namamala.
Later that same year, he met Bhanchand, a Jain monk and scholar who took up residence in
Jaunpur. Banarasi began to look upon Bhanchand as his teacher and spiritual guide and spent
many hours with him, studying Jain scripture, rites and rituals, as well as several texts on a variety of
subjects, including verse composition and Sanskrit grammar. It was while under the tutelage of
Bhanchand that Banarasi wrote Panchasandhi, a work on Sanskrit grammar that is now
Banarasi was well versed in Sanskrit and Prakrit, and conversant with several other
languages.15 His education seems to have been completely within the Jain tradition,
and despite his later interaction with members of the Mughal admimstration, quite untouched by the
parallel Persian tradition of the Mughal court. It was at the age of fourteen, too, that Banarasi
discovered another passion—he fell in love. He does not tell us who his lover was, nor does he give
us any details about her. All he says is that he loved with the single-minded devotion of a Sufi fakir
yearning for the Divine.16
Banarasi remained subservient to his karma. His two passions, learning and love, came together
in the composition of his first work, a thousand verses on love,17 which he later
destroyed by flinging the manuscript into the Gomti River in a moment of self-reproach and
In 1610, when Banarasi was twenty-four, Kharagsen decided to hand over the running of the
family business to him,19 and sent him to Agra with a consignment of precious stones,
jewellery and other goods.
Under the relative peace and stability of Mughal rule, trade and commerce thrived. Merchants
such as Nema Sahu and his son Sabal Singh Mothiya—for whom Banarasi was a representative
later in his life—were extremely wealthy and, through an extensive network of dealers and agents,
controlled trade over large geographical areas. They dealt in cloth and precious stones, and
merchandise such as oil, grain, rice and indigo. Moneylending was a lucrative addition to trade,
and in the days before modern banking systems, provided a necessary source of finance. Lesser
merchants, like Kharagsen, were relatively limited in the extent of their activities and the diversity of
their merchandise, yet made a comfortable , living through trade. the Jain community, to which
Banarasi belonged, was rich, powerful and influential. It provided not only a social
and religious structure within which its members lived, but also opportunities for business and trade,
as well as support and a safety net in case of business reversals.
Banarasi, however, was not cut out for business. Despite all his efforts, and support from
friends, family and other members of his community, he made a huge loss. Ruefully, Banarasi
concluded that he could not understand the ways of doing business in
Travel was very much a part of a merchant's existence. and Banarasi travelled extensively—to
and from Agra, Patna, Allahabad, Jaunpur—in the course of business. His journeys were
by road, on foot, on horseback, or by bullock cart, often through unsafe territory and inclement
weather. Banarasi gives vivid accounts of some of these journeys. Once, losing
their way in a forest at night, he and his terrified companions were forced to spend the night in a
robber settlement. Another time, he and his company of travellers were accused of being
thieves; only good luck and chance saved them from being impaled.
Success in business came to Banarasi only after several years of hardship and struggle. He spent
many years in Agra, wrestling with the complexities of trade and commerce. Venture after business
venture ended in disaster. He writes at length about his losses, and describes in unhesitating detail the
causes and circumstances of his business failures: he blames bad luck and past karma for
his failures, but acknowledges too his own ignorance and inability in the ways of doing business. But
on the causes and circumstances of his success, he remains uncharacteristically
We learn from the Ardhakathanak that Banarasidas married three times, and had
nine children, none of whom survived infancy His children's early deaths remained a source of grief
for Banarasi till the end of his own life. Of the women he married, Banarasi tells us very little,
though he does write with affection and regard about his first wife, who shared with him the worst
reverses of his youth.
Banarasi had many friends, men with intellectual interests similar to his own, and most of whom
belonged to his own jain community of traders and merefcants.
His closest, most intimate friend was Narottamdas the grandson of Bainidas and a merchant like
himself. Narottam and Banarasi called each other 'brother' and were rarely parted, unless for
reasons of business, until Narottam's sudden and unexpected death in 1616. Among the other friends
whom Banarasi mentions in the Ardhakathanak, one of the earliest is
Bhagwatidas,23 in whose home in Fatehpur he stayed for a while sometime towards
the end of 1598. Banarasi was twelve at the time. Bhagwatidas was the son of Basu Sah, an Oswal
and a member of the Jain reformist movement known as Adhyatma, a movement which advocated
the spiritual exploration of the inner self, rather than image worship and rituals, as the path to
self-realizatita, and of which Banariarasi became an important member later in life. Banarasi also
talks of Dharamdas, who was his business parter in Agra for two years, from 1611 to 1613.
Dharamdas's father her and uncle, Oswals from Delhi, were jewellers with a thriving business in
Agra. "When Banarasi met him, Dharamdas was a degenerate young man, a spendthrift, and
addicted to opium. Despite Dharamdas's dissolute ways, he and Banarasi became good
His friendship with both Bhagwatidas and Dharamdas continued into the later years of his life,
when he spent many long hours with them discussing Jain doctrine.25
Banarasi's quest for spiritual truth is a recurring theme in the Ardhakathanak. To
understand the man completely, we need to understand too his struggle with traditional religion and
the spiritual turmoil that struggle engendered within him.
Banarasi's involvement with religion was always intense, no matter what form his faith took. At
the same time, there was nothing reactionary or fundamentalist about him—he brought to questions
of faith and religion a mind that was open, a mind that questioned, and a mind that was not afraid to
reject or reform that which it found objectionable, or that which was established.
Banarasi's family were Svetambara Jains, as were most of his friends and acquaintances. As a
child and a young man, Banarasi learnt and followed the rites and rituals practised by that sect.
At the age of sixteen, while still observing Svetambata practices, he experimented with the
worship of Shiva, and performed the rites and rituals associated with it in secrecy and with great
devotion. Later, he discarded the worship of Shiva, and hearing the 'call of dharma',26
'began to follow the ways of his family'.27 He assiduously practised Svetambara rituals
with great faith for several years of his life,
Yet, at each stage, he questioned his faith—did his daily prayers to Shiva help him in his hour of
need as they were supposed to do? Did the rites and rituals he had observed since boyhood hold
any meaning for his spirit? And, not finding satisfactory answers, he had the courage to discard the
outward paraphernalia of faith, even at the cost of considerable disparagement and social
Banarasi was introduced to Adhyatma in 1623, when he was thirty-seven. On a visit to
Khairabad, he met Arathmal Dhor.29 who spoke to him most forcefully and
enthusiastically about Adhyatma, and gave to him a commentary written by pande Rajmalla on the
second-century Jain Adhyatmik text, the Samaysar.30 'Read this,' said
Arathmal Dhor to Banarasi, and you will know Truth.'31
Banarasi read the commentary with great concentration, and pondered deeply over its meaning,
but could make little sense of Adhyatma. He lost all belief in ritual, and in the outward observances
of his faith. Yet he could not grasp the true nature of Adhyatma. He had discarded ritual, but unable
to see the inner truth, had found nothing to replace it. Though aware of his own disillusionment with
ritual and religion, he blamed karma for his subsequent profane and sacrilegious
behaviour.32 He entered a spiritual wasteland, a state in which he continued for twelve
Banarasi's spiritual turmoil ended with another momentuous meeting in his life, in 1635, with
Pande Rupchand. Pande Rupchand was a learned man, well versed in jain scripture. So, when he
came to Agra and took up residence there in a local temple, he was asked by the Adhyatmis of Agra
to read to them Gommatsar, an important Jain text.
listening to Pande Rupchand's discourse on Gommatsar, Banarasi's doubts vanished and
he became at last a firm Jain.33 He understood Adhyatma, and, in 1636, he once again
picked up the Samaysar Natak, this time with joy, and rendered it into contemporary Hindi in
727 verses.34 Towards the end of the Ardhakathanak he calls himself a jain,
and an Adhyatmi.35 Strangely though, despite its importance in his life,
nowhere in the Ardhakathanak does Banarasi explicitly discuss the Adhyatma movement, or
mention his contribution to it. This, feels Dr Mukund Lath, is probably because he was addressing his
autobiography to his Adhyatmi friends, who would not need any details on this aspect of his
We have to rely on contemporary sources, the writings of his friends and followers as well as of
his opponents, to understand Banarasi's role in the Adhyatma movement.
Banarasi and the Adhyatmis rejected ritual and organized religion. They believed that
introspection and self-knowledge were the only path to moksha or salvation. Men from both the
Svetambara and Digambara sects joined this movementand inevitably, both Svetambara and
Digambara scholars opposed the movement.
Meghavijaya Mahopadhayaya, a Svetambara scholar who was a contemporary of Kunwarpal,
Banarasi's friend who took over as the leader of the Adhyatmis after Banarasi's death, was a staunch
opponent of the Adhyatmis. In his text, the Yuktiprabodh,37 in which he
attacks Adhyatma, Meghavijaya declares that the Adhyatmis were neither Svetambaras nor
Digambaras; they were seekers of truth.
We know from Meghavijaya and other contemporary sources, that Banarasi was one of the
leaders of this movement. Meghavijaya goes so far as to call the Adhyatmis
'Varanasiyas', or followers of Banarasi. Before Banarasi, the Adhyatma
movement existed more as an intellectual movement. With Banarasi it acquired the form
and force of a religious, reformist movement.
The Adhyatma movement lasted only a century after Banarasi's death, though its precepts are
still followed by the Terapanthis, a small sect of Digambara Jains. Banarasi gives us a vivid
account of events following Akbar's death. When he died, in 1605, Akbar had been emperor for
fifty years. Banarasi was nineteen at the time. He, probably like many others, could not contemplate
a world without Akbar at the helm. He fell into a swoon when he heard the news, and hurt his head
and bled profusely, creating confusion and consternation in his home. Outside, the city of Jaunpur
was in uproar; fear and uncertainty ruled the streets; riots broke out, shopkeepers shut their shops,
and the rich hid their wealth and dressed like the poor for fear of thieves. Calm was restored to the
city only when news arrived that Akbar's eldest son, Salim, had assumed the throne and had taken
the title of Jahangir.
Banarasi describes too, the preparations for a siege in Jaunpur. In the year 1600, Prince Salim
went to the Kolhuban forest, near Jaunpur, ostensibly to hunt. Akbar, fearing insurrection and
rebellion from Salim, ordered Nuram Khan, the governor of Jaunpur, to stop Salim at
all costs. Nuram Khan prepared to obey his emperor, and readied the city for war. Fear and
apprehension spread through the townspeople, who, expecting Salim to attack at any moment, fled.
Jaunpur was deserted, except for the soldiers who mounted guard upon its walls. But Salim made
peace and pardoned Nuram Khan, and life returned to Jaunpur.
Twice in the Ardhakathanak, Banarasi describes vicious and arbitrary persecutions of his
community by local governors. The first of these persecutions occurred during Akbar's reign in 1597,
when Banarasi was eleven.38 The second occurred in 1617, during the reign of
Jahangir.39 In both cases, the persecutions were motivated by the governors' desire
for monetary gain, to acquire by force some of the immense wealth of the merchant community.
These persecutions were local, not condoned or sanctioned by the emperor.
We have no means of knowing the 'what', but can perhaps venture to answer the 'why'. When
Banarasi wrote the Ardhakathanak, he knew that it would be read by his friends and
associates, people he came into contact with daily. Revealing the secrets of his business success, or
confessing to the details of an indiscreet or unwise act, may not, in such circumstances, have been the
wisest thing to do.
The Ardhakathanak is different from all his other works43 because the
subject of this poem is the poet Banarasidas himself. Apart from its considerable literary merit and
importance as a historical document, it deserves recognition for its unique position in Hindi literature
as the first, full-fledged autobiography in the Indian tradition.
Banarasi himself emerges as a complex and fascinating individual. Upon completing the story of
'the five and fifty years of his life', Banarasi provides the reader with a list of his 'present virtues and
faults'. There is none, he says, to surpass him in the composition of poetry on Adhyatma in the
spoken tongue, he is accomplished in words and language, and is not 'easily swayed by the sorrows
of this world'. He is a firm believer in Jainism, friendly and sweet spoken to all, and gives wise
counsel where it is needed. But, he confesses, he lacks self-restraint, and performs no ritual or puja.
His greed for wealth is great, he is irrestistibly drawn to the funny and the comic, does not hesitate to
speak of that which is unspeakable, and tells of matters that should not be told. Sometimes, feelings
of great dread overtake him; sometimes, finding himself alone, he breaks into a dance.
Finally, the Ardhakathanak is a personal document, the story of a man who charms us by
his intensity, his passion, his love of life and his very human frailties. Most importantly, he charms by
his openness, his frankness in telling us the ups and downs of his life, and revealing to us as much of
himself The Digambaras believe themselves to be the followers of the original teachings of Mahavira.
Their monks follow a more austere path to salvation, and practise nudity (hence 'sky-clad') which
they believe is necessary for the attainment of moksha. The Svetambaras do not believe that absolute
nudity is essential for the attainment of moksha, and their monks wear white robes (so 'white-clad').
Out of these two main divisions, the Digambaras and the Svetambaras, have sprung all others that
Today, the Jains form only 0.5 per cent of India's population; but they are an educated and rich
3. Ardhakathanak 665.
4. Ardhakathanak 672.
5. A couplet, the two lines of which rhyme. Each line consists of twenty-four
matras which are distributed into two 'feet' of 6 + 4+ 3 and 6 + 4+1 matras respectively,
with a caesura.
6. A verse of four 'feet', where each quarter verse has fifteen matras or beats. This is
different from the more common chaupaaii, in which each quarter verse has 16 matras.
7. Ardhakathanak 13,14.
8. A town near Gwalior, in modern Madhya Pradesh in central India.
9. Ardhakathanak 39, 40.
10. Ardhakathanak 76.
11. Ardhakathanak 70.
12. Ardhakathanak 46-47.
13. Ardhakathanak 98-99.
14. Ardhakathanak 200.
15. Ardhakathanak 648.
16. Ardhakathanak 171.
17. Ardhakathanak 178-79.
18. Ardhakathanak 265-67.
19. Ardhakathanak 282, 286.
20. Ardhakathanak 318.
21. Ardhakathanak 459.
as on the commentaries written by Acharya Amritchand in ce 1000 I and by Rajmalla.
31. Ardhakathanak 593.
32. Ardhakathanak 606-07.
33. Ardhakathanak 635.
34. Ardhakathanak 638-39.
35. Ardhakathanak 671.
36. See Introduction to Half a Tale: A Study in the Interrelationship between
Autobiography and History by Dr Mukund Lath (Rajasthan Prakrit Sansthan, Jaipur, 1981), p.
37. Meghavijaya probably wrote this sometime towards the end of the seventeenth
century, almost sixty years after Banarasi's death.
38. Ardhakathanak 110-14.
39. Ardhakathanak 467.
40. Of course, there are moments in the Ardhakathanak when Banarasi lists and
records and describes moments that do not seem to be for his friends, but for a wider audience, for
posterity His listing of the rulers of Jaunpur (Ardhakathanak 32—35)1 of the
thirty-six castes (29) who settled in the city, and his description of the city itself (30—31), are
examples of such 'wider moments, which we, his readers in the twenty-first century, car only wish we
had more of.
41. Ardhakathanak 459-61.
42. Ardhakathanak 574-75.
43. Banarasidas's works, concerned mainly with Jain thought and philosophy, lacked
universal appeal and never became very popular. Several of his works have been lost, but many
remain. The best known of his works is, of course, the Samaysar Natak, which he wrote in
1636, based on the second-century Jain Adhyatmi text. Samaysar by Acharya Kundkund.
Of his extant works, the earliest is probably the composition known as the Moh Vivek
Yudh—a debate discourse, battle between the two protagonists moh (the darkness of
mind that accompanies attachment to the delusion that is this world and its opposite,
vivek (true knowledge or discernment). Another available work by Banarasi is his
Namamala. It is a lexical text, dictionary in verse, based on the Sanskrit Namamala
by Dhananjaya. Banarasi wrote this upon the request of his friends Narottamdas and Thanmal
Badaliya. He completed the Namamala in 1613. Many of his shorter works can be found in
the Banarasivilas, a collection of his works put together by his friend and associate Pandit
Jagjivan, in 1644, a year or so after his death. 44. Ardhakathanak 657-59.
The first autobiography in an Indian language
Poet, philosopher and merchant, Banarasidas had no precedent in literature or tradition that
might have inspired him to write his life's story or guided him in his task. His motivation to write his
story was simple: 'Let me tell my story to all' Completed in the winter of 1641, in Agra,
Ardhakathanak is the first autobiography in an Indian language.
Banarasidas charms us with his transparency and frankness, revealing as much of himself as
possible. And he punctuates the fast-flowing narrative of his life every now and then to muse on the
nature of human existence. The result is an astonishing account that is more modern than medieval in
tone, and free of formulaic conventions and stylized ornamentation.
At the end of his 'half story, Banarasi becomes as intimate to us as an old friend. We know the
ups and downs of his life almost as well as we know our own and we come to identify with his
intellectual and spiritual struggles, and perhaps even share them.
Rohini Chowdhury provides an elegant English translation in free verse. The book also includes a
scholarly, insightful introduction by Rupert Snell.
Translated from the Braj Bhasha by ROHINI CHOWDHURY