BAITAL is a Sanskrit word and is also used in Urdu, though not commonly these days. Baital means ghost, demon, sprite or fiend.
Some seniors among our readers might recall a story named ‘Agya Baital’. It was serialised, some 45 years ago, in an Urdu magazine published from Karachi. Agya means fire and Agya baital is a demon that supposedly rules the fire. Kids these days might give a strange look if you utter words like baital.
Pachchees is a word commonly used in Urdu and Hindi. It means twenty-five. Baital Pachcheesee, also spelt Baital Pachisi, is nearly a thousand-year-old Sanskrit legend that has twenty-five stories narrated by a baital or demon.
The legend has been translated into several languages including Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, English and Urdu. Duncan Forbes, a well-known orientalist and lexicographer, who translated several Urdu and Hindi texts into English, had also rendered this legend into Hindi.
In his intro to his version, named The Baital Pachisi or the Twenty-Five Tales of a Demon, published in 1862 from London with an intro in English, Forbes says that the legend was originally written in Sanskrit. The author’s name was Shivadasa and the work was titled Vetala-pancha-vinshati.
Forbes adds: “The original of these tales is to be found in the Katha-Sarit-Sagara, a voluminous collection of Sanskrit tales in verse by Somadeva Bhatta of Kashmir”. Forbes also mentions that there are variant texts and various translations, even imitations, of Baital Pachchisi that are found in Indian vernaculars.
Forbes had asked John T. Platts, another orientalist and lexicographer, to translate Baital Pachisi into English. Platts’ English translation, based on Forbes’ Hindi text appeared from London in 1871. According to Platts, during the reign of Emperor Muhammad Shah, Raja Jai Singh Sawai, the ruler of Jainagar, had asked Surat, an eminent poet, to translate Baital Pachisi into Braj dialect.
According to Dr Gian Chand Jain, it was rendered into Braj Bhasha in 1740. Dr Jain has also mentioned that the complete version of Baital Pachisi is found both in Birhat-Katha-Manjari — the 11th-century Sanskrit collection of folklores and fairy tales — and Katha-Sarit-Sagara — another 11th-century collection of tales and legends. But historians and researchers are divided on exact dates of creation of these tales and their guesstimates differ wildly. Dr Jain has mentioned that the texts of Baital Pachisi discovered in different languages differ and the versions found in Tamil, Tibetan and Mongolian languages have variant texts.
As for Urdu version of Baital Pachisi, John Gilchrist of Fort William College, Calcutta, had asked Mazhar Ali Khan Vila alias Lutf, a poet who worked at Fort William College as translator, to translate it into easy Urdu. Lallu Lal, another writer at Fort William, helped Mazhar Vila and Tarini Charan Mitra, the Head Pandit at Fort William, revised it. This Urdu translation by Vila was published by Fort William College in 1803 and was used as a reader for teaching Urdu to the British officers.
The Urdu versions of Baital Pachcheesee have been edited and published many times over but are rarely mentioned in scholarly works — save for Urdu’s research papers. Aside from the first edition published by Fort William College and some latter-day Urdu versions published from Lucknow and Delhi, Dr Gohar Naushahi had published an admirable Urdu version of the tale by editing and annotating Mazhar Ali Khan Vila’s text. It was published in 1965 by Lahore’s Majlis-i-Taraqqi-i-Adab.
Dr Naushahi had used some early Hindi editions and/or translations of Baital Pachisi and had collated his work with them, for instance, as he has mentioned in his foreword, he consulted a version named Hindee and Hindustanee Selections, published in two volumes from Calcutta by Fort William College in 1827. The first volume includes Baital Pachisi’s complete text in Devanagari script. Another edition published by Hindustani Press, Calcutta, in 1855, included the tale both in Urdu and Hindi scripts and with English translation.
In collaboration with Bantam Books, Chicago University Press published Tales of Ancient India in 1961. Rendered by J.A.B. Van Buitenen, it has English translation of Baital Pachisi’s 11 stories and, as mentioned by Dr Naushahi, the version differs from Vila’s works at certain places.
A new and easy Urdu version of Baital Pachisi was published a couple of years ago by Lahore’s Dar-un-Navaadir. Edited, simplified, explained and annotated by Dr Baseera Ambreen, the new version tries to use the easy and familiar vocabulary and modern rules of Urdu orthography to make it readable for the young readers and students. Dr Ambreen in her intro and her article annexed at the back of the book has critically evaluated the tale. She feels Baital Pachisi offers wisdom that we can relate to even today.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2022