First Published in Sunday Midday, Mumbai, on 2 August 2009
It was written in the 10th century AD by Firdausi, the court poet of Mahmood of Ghazni and it recounted with great fondness the romances and adventures of kings and heroes who lived on the plains of Iran since the beginning of time. The Shahnamah was like a grand documentary that gave people a sense of national pride. It reminded all of a worldview that was held by the earlier Sassanian rulers and the Zoroastrian faith that once dominated the land. It was a time when God was addressed as Ohrmazd and the Devil as Ahirman, and earth was the ground on which they fought.
The first king, says the book, was a man called Keyumers, who was blessed with the ‘farr’, divine grace which gave him royal authority over the rest of humanity. His name sounds very similar to Kumar and Gayomart, indicating a close connection with the Iranian branch of Aryans. Scholars have long noted the remarkable similarity between ancient Zoroastrian culture of Iran and ancient Vedic culture of India, both of which flourished in their respective lands 2000 years before the Shahnamah was written. But there was one crucial difference. While the Iranian branch tended to believe in one life, the Indian branch subscribed to the idea of rebirth.
Keyurmars wore clothes made of animal hide. His son, Siyamak, was killed by the Devil but his grandson, Hoshang, managed to push the Devil back with a little help from the archangel Sorush.
Hoshang once threw a flint to kill a venomous black serpent; the flint hit another rock producing sparks. This is how fire was discovered. Hoshang even taught humanity how to domesticate animals.
Hoshang’s son, Tahmuras, discovered spinning, weaving, falconry, and like his father, defeated many demons. He even enslaved them. It is said that the demons taught Tahmuras the art of writing! Demons in Shahnamah are called ‘Deevs’ and God is addressed as ‘Ahura’, adding credence to the theory that that the Iranian branch of Aryans did not see eye-to-eye with the Indian branch of Aryans who addressed gods as Devas and demons as Asuras.
Tahmuras’ son, Jamshid, was the greatest of kings; he ruled for three hundred years. During his reign there was peace and prosperity. Sickness was banished. He was responsible for creating a four-tiered society of priests, warriors, farmers and artisans, similar to the chaur-varna system of India. He had a throne that was carried around the world by flying demons who had been enslaved by his father. The ruins of Persepolis destroyed by Alexander, the great, in 3rd century BC is known in local tradition as Takht-e-Jamshid, which means throne of Jamshid, and perhaps is a distant memory of his rule that spread to the four corners of the world. He had a cup filled with magic fluid which he used to see all that happened across his vast empire. But then he became arrogant, and assumed he was the creator of the world, and his rule lost the sheen of justice, and with that he lost the divine ‘farr’. Stripped of divine grace, he was defeated by Zahhak, a minion of Ahirman, who brought the Dark Ages in his wake.
When he was a youth, Zahhak allowed the Devil to kiss his shoulders and out sprang two serpents who regenerated themselves when attempts were made to kill them. These serpents craved human brain and Zahhak had to continuously feed them, lest they end up eating his head. Zahhak is described by Firdausi as being of Arab descent and the Arabic root of this name means laughter, leading scholars to speculate that through this character the ancient Persians were expressing their resentment against the Arabs who overran the Sassanian kingdom in the 7th century. Zahhak got the supporters of those who were dissatisfied with Jamshid’s rule. He conquered the kingdom, drove Jamshid out of his city and finally had him murdered. But life under Zahhak turned out to be a nightmare.
A blacksmith called Kaveh rebelled against Zahhak whose snakes had consumed eighteen of his sons. He raised his leather apron as his banner and this became the symbol of national resistance. He joined Feridun, a descendent of Jamshid who managed to defeat the tyrant. Since Zahhak could not be killed, he was tied to a rock inside a cave where he still lives tormented by the serpents who feed on his brains.
Feridun eventually became king of the land and he had three sons. He gave the central portion of his kingdom to his favorite son, Iraj. The other two got the Eastern and Western portions. Angry that the best share, Iran, was given to Iraj, who was the youngest, the other two declared war, and had Iraj killed. The killing was avenged by his son, Manucheher, but with that began the spiral of vendetta, a series of never-ending wars of Iran on the eastern frontiers with Central Asian Turks and on the western frontiers with Romans, which ultimately, consumed the kingdom.