A Tale of Four Dervishes (قصه چهار درویش) is a small collection of stories and is also known as Bagh-o Bahar (باغ و بہار,; The Garden and Spring). The stories were originally composed in Persian in around the 14th Century by Amir Khusrow and were then known as Qissa Chahar Dervesh (Tale of the Four Dervishes). In 1803 Mir Amman translated the tales, which he explains in the Prologue:
Mr John Gilchrist, the noble and beneficent and a great patron of the noble ones (may he ever remain exalted as long as the Jamuna and the Ganga flow), kindly urged me to render this tale into pure Hindustani which the Urdu people, the Hindus and the Muslims, men and women, young and old, and high and low use in common parlance. As desired by him, I have written it in the conversational style.
The book was later translated by Duncan Forbes into English (1862), however I read the much more modern translation of Mohammed Zakir.
The book has a frame-story structure: the basis for it is seen in the first section, 'The Beginning' -
Now the tale. Please listen and deal justly with it. Thus it is, as written in Qissa-e-Chahār Darvesh, and as it is told.
Once upon a time there ruled a king in Turkey, as just as Naushervan and as benevolent as Hatim. His name was Azad Bakht and his capital was Constantinople (Istanbul). Everyone was happy under his rule. The treasury was full, the army well off and the poor at ease. Every day was festive and every night full of joy. No thefts and robberies took place as thieves, robbers, pickpockets, swindlers and mischiefmongers were banished from his kingdom. Nobody shut the doors of his house or shop at night. The travellers who passed through his kingdom went safe with their silver or gold.
He was a great king ruling over a thousand cities and many a ruler and overlord paid him the annual tribute. Yet he was a God-fearing man. He never neglected his duties or his prayers to God. He had all the pleasures and comforts but no son and this worried him constantly. After his daily prayers he prayed to God to bless him with a son who might be like a lamp in his dark abode, carry on his name and ascend the throne after him.
The king leaves his palace in search of wise men to offer him advice and on his journey he encounters the four dervishes (Muslims, usually Sufi Muslims, who have taken the vow of poverty): a merchant of Yemen (the first dervish), the prince of Persia (the second dervish), the prince of Ajam (the third dervish), and the prince of China (the fourth dervish). Each dervish has a tale to tell: Bakht observes the first two tales and then tells his own, then the third and fourth dervish tell their tales (and there are tales within tales) before the narrative is concluded.
The stories share a theme of love and loss, and, as is often the case with Medieval literature, suffering is caused usually as the result of a beautiful woman. It is love that has proven to be the men's downfall - they have all characteristics of the ideal Medieval man - strong, valiant, noble, and chivalrous, but they have been unable to resist certain women's charms and are almost driven to suicide as a consequence. And, as each man is about to take his own life he is saved and told that he will meet three other dervishes in a similar state and as a group of four they will meet Bakht who will grant them their wishes and desires.
It is a wonderful and magical collection of stories, similar perhaps to the Decameron or One Thousand and One Nights. It's said that they were written for Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi saint of the Chishti Order, to cheer him up during a spell of illness, and the sheer beauty and hope, the adventures, and the magic it offers would surely certainly do that! A Tale of Four Dervishes is a new favourite and one I'll certainly re-read, most likely quite soon - it's a hard one to resist.