Shahr Ashob: The Poetry of Grievance

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Shahr Ashob: The Poetry of Grievance

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Most of the time, when we read the history of 18th century India, the focal point remains on the concepts such as ‘dark age’ or ‘economic prosperity’ given the decline of the Mughal Empire and the emergence of regional powers. This process was accelerated followed by the death of Emperor Aurangzeb. With most of the work focusing on politics, economics, few modern scholars turned to the people who witnessed the horrors of decline through a genre of Urdu poetry called ‘Shahr ashob’. 

By the 18th century, this word came to mean ‘lament for the city’. Historian of literature Sunil Sharma opines that the genre commenced with Masud Sa’d Salman who wrote in the 12th century. In the 18th century, these poets witnessed unexpected changes and emotions which they poured into words. According to Professor Rohma Javed Rashid (Department of History, Jamia Milia Islamia), one of the images we get is that of fear, violence, rebellion which became part of everyday life and facilitated further violence. These poems allow us to take a glimpse of the society and the love these people had for Shahjahanabad – the capital of the Mughal Empire. Shahjahanabad flourished with the splendor of courtly cultures, artists, celebrations, and many other things. It was a place whose magnificence was compared to other great cities of the world by Amir Khusro. The same Delhi was shattering and growing chaotic in front of these people. 

Mughal Empire till now had stood unshakeable where the emperor was supposed to be God’s immediate subordinate. Shahjahanabad was the capital of this empire with opportunities, entertainment, and everything. These poets were spectators of horrendous incidents such as Nadir Shah’s invasion. Particularly, when a rumor of Nadir Shah’s extermination, led to the killing of some soldiers of his troops. When Nadir Shah got aware, he ordered a massacre from Sunehri masjid of Chandni Chowk. Nobody was spared; his soldiers were free to perform any horror. Consequently, around 30,000 people including children were killed. Delhi was plundered by him and his troops. 

Mirza Rafi Sauda wrote on this unfortunate event:

Jahanabad tu kab iss sitam ke qabil tha
(Jahanabad, when were you capable of this sorrow)

Magar kabhi kisi aashiq ka yeh nagar dil tha
(Once this city was the heart of lovers)

Ke yun mita diya goya ke naqsh-e-batil tha
(It got erased like a false impression)

Ajab tarah se yeh bahr-e-jahan mein sahil tha
(It was like shore in the world of oceans)

Ke jis ki khaak se leti thi khalq moti roll
(From whose sand people picked pearls)

‘Chandni Chowk, principale rue de Delhi (major street of Old Delhi)’ by De Bar and De Berard, published on L’Illustration, Journal Universel, Paris, 1857

 In later years, Delhi was again sacked and looted by Ahmad Shah Abdali. The whole century is etched with battles and chaos for Mughals and dwellers of their cities. 

Mir Taqi Mir writes when he was in Lucknow, remembering Delhi and its’ greatness: 

Dilli jo ek shahr tha alam mei intekhaab
(Delhi which was most superior city)

Rehte the jahan muntakhab hi jahani-i-rozgar ki
(where lived the most graceful people of the world)

Usko falak ne loot kar wiraan kar diya
(The heavens plundered it and barren it)

Hum rehne wale hain ussi ujde dayar ke
(I am the habitant of the same destroyed city)

At this time, the Empire also faced economic weakening. Some had not received their salaries, there were riots. Rumors of mob violence were prevalent in this atmosphere of fear and suspicion. People were confused and some of them were equating this to the end of the world. The Tarikh-i-Ahmad Shah reports two instances of royal employees rebelling to get their pay. 

Rafi Sauda writes in one of his Shahr Ashob poetry:

Sipahi rakhte the naukar ameer daulat mand

(Rich nobles used to keep soldiers in their service)

Saw amad to unki jagir se hoyi hai band
(But the income from their jagirs has become stopped)

Kiya hai mulk ko muddat se sarkashon ne pasand
(For some time now rebels have taken a fancy to the country)

Jo ek shakhs hai baees(22) subey ka khawand
(The one individual who is the lord of twenty-two districts)

Rahi na unki tasarruf me faujdari Kol

He no longer has under his control the jurisdiction of Kol 

There are many such examples enriched with details of the surroundings and circumstances. Qaim Chandpuri’s poetry pays respect to Mughal ruler Shah Alam II amidst the battle of Sarkartal in 1772. Astonishingly, a genre of poetry gives us insights into not only Shahjanabad and its plight but also the situation of the people, the emotions they are feeling, and their bond with the city which gives this poetry a unique sense.


  1.  Rashid, Rohma Javed. “Tumultuous Times: Crisis, Culture and the City of Shahjahanabad in the Eighteenth Century.” Social Scientist, vol. 45, no. 7/8, 2017, pp. 33–43. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.
  3.  Muhammad Hussain Azad, Ab-e-Hayat, English translation by Frances Pritchett
    and Shamsur Rehman Faruqi, Delhi, 2001, p. 194
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About Yusra Hadi

Yusra is a learner, feminist, Muslim and a local lover of this city who is always trying to discover it. Delhi might not have ’dil waale’ but Delhi and its people surely have their own spot engraved in her heart. Sometimes, she writes poetry too.

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