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The Magical World of ‘AIYYARI’

The Magical World of ‘AIYYARI’

7 mins

To say that listening to “Chandrakanta” and “Chandrakanta Santati” was a very magical and mesmerizing experience for me would be an understatement. These novels were written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Devki Nandan Khatri and are considered to have significantly contributed to the progress of literature in Hindi. Chandrakanta gets its name from the beautiful princess of Vijaygarh who is in love with the prince of Naugarh, Virendra Singh. Chandrakanta Santati is the sequel and continues the saga that began in the first novel. It involves the children of the principal characters of Chandrakanta and hence the “Santati” or descendants.

On the face of it, Chandrakanta seems to be a romantic tale between the prince and the princess. One would get the impression that these two are the hero and the heroine of the story. The title is however deceptive, for the hero of the novel and its sequels are ‘Aiyyari’ and the heroine is ‘Tilism’. While the main plot comprises of how the two lovelorn royal couple are thrown into several desperate situations by their enemies whose main objective is to ensure that the couple do not marry, it is the ingenuity and daredevilry of their spies (Aiyyars) that forms the backbone of the novels.

It is therefore of great interest to know a bit more about Aiyyars and their secret universe. While it is true that Khatri was the first to use these mysterious men and women in Hindi novels, the Aiyyars have their origin in Persia of the 9th and 12th Century. The existence of Aiyyar fraternities in Iran and Iraq have been researched and linked interestingly to the institution/concept of Javaanmardi (loosely translated as bravery, courage). The story of such Aiyyars had been told in the ancient Dastans and Quissas of Persia. Devki Nandan Khatri was no doubt inspired by this history, as he was by the forests around Benares which were given to him by his friend the Raja of Benaras on lease as a contractor. Khatri roamed around in these jungles and visited forts (Chunar fort and others depicted in the novel), and fell in love with the magical surroundings.

The intricate universe of the Aiyyars created by Khatri in his various novels is at once magical, mystical and mysterious. He has created the cult of Aiyyars complete with codes of conduct, attire and implements. Here, I will borrow from Wikipedia the details relating to Aiyyars in Khatri’s novels.

Aiyyar/ Aiyyara

According to Devaki Nandan Khatri, An Aiyyar (male) or Aiyyara (female) is a secret agent cum spy cum fighter. He or she is expert in many arts like:

• Disguise

• Fighting skills

• Spying

• Science

• Fine arts

• Medical

• Chemistry

Disguise is a must (Aiyyar/a may change him/herself into person of same or even of opposite sex but of resembling body built, by makeup). 

Fighting skills are also must, for self-defense. An Aiyyar/a always overpowers any small group of ordinary soldiers. 

He/she may need to spy for taking out some secrets or for finding some missing persons. 

Knowledge of science and fine arts is also necessary, as it may come handy many times. 

Medical knowledge, and especially that of Anesthesia is needed for him/her. 

Chemical knowledge is also needed

In a nutshell, an Aiyyar is a Jack of all trades. But contrary to common belief, Khatrian Aiyyar/a are unfamiliar with magic and spells. He/she may join into any king's or landlord's service or may remain free.

The items must for an Aiyyar/a: Kamand (a long very strong cord used to climb over building secretly, or for tying opposite Aiyyar/a or captured person/s) Batua or purse (used to keep necessary medicines, makeup items, money and dry fruits) Lakhlakha must also be in the 'Batua' (lakhlakha is a kind of smelling salt used to revive any unconscious person)Khanjar or dagger (for safety and for attack) Langot or short smart pants are usually worn by male Aiyyars when in easy mood

Ethics of Aiyyars: 

Never kill or torture any other Aiyyar/a (but can arrest him/her) 

Never cheat your master 

Never attack too many Aiyyars over a single person

The novel depicts several friendly and unfriendly Aiyyar.

Aiyyars on the side of Virendrasingh include:

• Tej Singh

• Jeet Singh (Tej Singh's father)

• Devi Singh;

Aiyyars on the side of Chandrakanta:

• Chapla

• Champa

Aiyyars on the side of Krur singh:

• Nazim

• Ahmed

• Aamir

Aiyyars on the side of Shivdutt (all except last two later joined the Virendra Singh's side):

• Pandit Badrinath

• Chunnilal

• Pandit Jagannath

• Pannalal

• Ramnarayan

• Ghasita Singh

• Bhagwan Dutt

Later on in Chandrakanta Santati, many more Aiyyars were introduced, including mainly:

• Bhootnath

• Nanak

• Bhairo Singh (Tej Singh's son)

• Tara Singh (Devi Singh's son)

• Indra Dev

• Kamla (Bhootnath's Daughter)

• Kamini

• Sher Singh

• Kamalini

• Ladili

• Dhanpati

• Tara (not to be confused with Tara Sing)

• Harnam Singh (only name in this epic allotted to two totally different characters)

• Bihari Singh

• Raja Gopal Singh

• Laxmi Devi

• Mayarani

In all the novels, it is these Aiyyars and Aiyaaras who do the bulk of the work for the royal families involved. The love story is just a cover, a sub-plot as it would seem.

Tilism (Magic, Spell)

While the spies (Aiyyars) play one important role in the novels, the other significant role is that of magical spells or Tilisms. I found an article with a beautiful description of the use of magic apells in Khatri’s creations, and I reproduce it.

“A tilism, on the other hand, has all the qualities of a heroine. With all the allure and magnetism of a beauteous damsel, a tilism beckons all and sundry towards itself. Full of profound, unfathomable mysteries, it enthralls and captivates. And in the end, it is won over by the tricks of aiyyari, yielding in return, its secret cache of wealth and treasures.

A tilism is more or less the product of three A’s – aiyyari, astrology and architecture. An issue-less king, who had much to bequest but none to bequeath it to, used to consult astrologers to ascertain if someone worth all the treasure would ever be born in his dynasty. The astrologers would predict the name and physical attributes of this worthy future legatee. The king then invited the best aiyyars, astrologers, ramal-throwers, medicine men, craftsmen, artisans and mechanics of his kingdom. His treasure would be buried and a large mansion full of gardens and pavilions, cellars and corridors, verandahs and halls, hidden doors and secret passages, traps and mazes and tricks and trappings would be set-up over it. All these snares were set in such a way that if anyone other than the intended legatee entered the tilism he was soon ensnared and imprisoned. Though none would be killed – whenever the rightful owner came, he or she would crack the tilism, eventually freeing all prisoners and collecting the legacy.

These tilisms become key elements in the novel. The various maneuvers that the adventurer undertakes in order to unearth the secret of the tilism, the snares that he encounters in the way, all form an interesting and essential part of Chandrakanta. The nuances of both the tilisms in the novel – one of buildings and the other of gardens are both equally well-described. Hence, the mystery, beauty, and complicated nature of the tilism make it an ideal heroine, more than Chandrakanta, who is, of course, beautiful and resourceful, but loses out to the tilism when it comes to the importance attached to it. In fact, the efforts to get to Chandrakanta are only efforts to unearth the secrets of the heroine, the tilism.”


Hats off to Devki Nandan Khatri for having pulled off what seems to be a hugely challenging task of not only creating work like “Chandrakanta” but following it up with sequels which became equally popular. So much so that his son Durga Prasad Khatri had to complete and is still completing some of the sequels like “Bhootnath” and “Sher Singh”! 

All of us admire Rowling for creating the Harry Potter universe. I wonder what would have been the response to Devki Babu if he had written his books in these modern times. Unfortunately, we are yet to discover this gem in our country.

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