In the Urdu poet’s imagination, the beloved and the moon often become one: serenading their beloved, poets have often serenaded the moon; in being love-struck, they have also been moonstruck. Mahtaab, qamar, chaand, hilal (crescent moon): Urdu has at least four words for the moon, words that have found their way into innumerable nazms and ghazals. Poet after poet has sung paeans to the charm of his beloved, by comparing the glow of her face with that of the moon. Some have even gone so far as to finding fault with the moon: it has daagh (scars). The beloved, on the other hand, is flawless.
The moon is a multipurpose muse, at once a symbol of ishq (love), taqwa (piety), tanhaai (loneliness), hairat (wonder), khushi (happiness) and arzoo (longing). In Urdu literature, the moon manifests in all forms: aadha chaand (half moon), poora chaand or chaundhavi ka chaand (full moon) and badli ka chaand (moon hidden in clouds). The moon has also been a symbol of the poet’s promise to the beloved, with “tumhare waste main chaand tod laaunga (I will pluck out the moon for you),” being a familiar refrain.
While other poetic traditions have dwelt on the dark side of the moon, Urdu poetry has largely focused on its bright side. Both during the Mughal era, as well as in the modern and the contemporary period, poets have evoked the celestial body to describe splendour, either of nature or of the beloved. The beloved is often maahrukh (the face of the moon) or mahpara (a segment of the moon); sometimes, poets also call the beloved maahjabeen — one whose forehead is the moon itself. At times, the moon is an istiyaara (metaphor) for the beloved’s beauty, while at other times, it’s used as tashbeeh (simile) — the beloved is the moon itself.
Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) wrote in one of his ghazals: Gul ho, mahtaab ho, ayeena ho, khursheed ho Mir/Apna mahboob wahi hai jo ada rakhta hai (Be it a flower, moon, mirror or sun; my beloved is the one who’s endowed with coquetry). Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) wrote in one of his ghazals that when the moon can’t match the beauty of the beloved’s forehead, it “diminishes in shame” and waxes so that it might become exactly that.
The moon frequently expressed a philosophical or spiritual quest as well. In a poem titled Chaand (The Moon), Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) wrote: Aye chaand! husn tera fitrat ki aabru hai/ Tof-e-hareem-e-khaaki teri qadeem khu hai (O moon! Your beauty is the dignity of creation/ circumambulating the earthly sanctuary is your old habit). Then, he asks the moon: Yeh daagh sa jo tere seene mein hai numayaan/ Aashiq hai tu kisi ka, ya daagh-e-arzoo hai (What is this mark that appears on your breast/ Are you someone’s lover or is this the longing’s scar)? In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834), the moon represents a benevolent god. Iqbal concludes his poem, in a similar vein, by stating that just as god exists in the forests and mountains, and in the heart of man, it’s only he who exists in the moon’s rukhsaar (cheek).
In Badli Ka Chaand, Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982) paints a vivid portrait of the moon playing hide and seek with the clouds. The poet wrote: Ubhra to tajalli daud gayi, dooba to falak be-noor hua (When it emerged, the divine manifested itself; when it set, the sky sunk into lightlessness). In the concluding lines, he observes that the moon — now hiding behind the clouds, now emerging out of them — teaches him about finding light amid darkness, the meaning of confinement and freedom, and humanity’s restlessness.
The progressives and the post-modern poets lent a new dimension to the usage of moon as a metaphor. Ali Sardar Jafri (1913-2000), one of the founders of Progressive Writers’ Association, used it as a symbol of smouldering passion in Chaand Ko Rukhsat Kar Do, urging the beloved to bid adieu to the moon, since only she can enter his gham khana (the abode of sadness), and his “jalte hue seene ka dahakta hua chaand (the smouldering moon of his heart aflame),” was for her eyes only.
In the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), the moon evoked memories of the beloved. In an untitled qita — four-line rhymed form — he wrote: Shaam dhundhlane lagi aur meri tanhaai/ Dil mein patthar ki tarah baith gayi/ Chaand ubharne laga yak baar teri yaad ke saath/ Zindagi moonis-o-ghamkhaar nazar aane lagi (As the evening faded, my loneliness/ sunk into my heart like a stone/ With your memory, the moon at once emerged on the sky/ Life appeared to be a friend and a comforter).
Few Urdu poems have better captured sadness and restlessness, despair and disillusionment than Awara (Wayward), by romantic and revolutionary poet Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz (1911-1955). In the poem, the dejected speaker wanders aimlessly in the city’s streets and observes that the “futile jaundiced moon” looks like a “mullah’s turban or a widow’s wily hooks”. “Jee main aata hai yeh murda chaand taare noch loon (I feel like plucking out the dead moon and the stars),” Majaz wrote.
While the moon has largely been a feminine symbol, it has also been used by women poets to describe their lovers. Parveen Shakir (1952-1994), for example, in one of her ghazals, wrote: Raat ke shayad ek baje hain/ Sota hoga mera chaand (Perhaps it’s one in the night/ My moon must be sleeping).
The moon was also a powerful symbol to express temporality. This is exemplified in a couplet by Pakistani neo-classical poet Ahmad Mushtaq, 86: Kai chaand the sar-e-aasman ki chamak chamak ke palat gae/ Na lahoo mire hi jigar mein thaa na tumhari zulf siyah thi (There were many moons in the sky that turned back after shining many a time/ Neither did blood course through my heart nor was your hair black).
Whether it is used as a metonym, an analogy or a metaphor, the moon has lit the imagination of Urdu poets. What the moon means to them, depends on how the poets choose to look at it. As expressed by Rahi Masoom Raza (1927-1992), “Yeh to dekhne par hai, yeh to sochne par hai/ Chaand arzoo bhi hai, chaandni kafan bhi hai (It’s up to how we view it, how we perceive it/ The moon is also longing, and moonlight is also a shroud).”