be-tahii daryaa-e hastii kii nah puuchh
yaa;N se vaa;N tak sau jagah saa;hil hai myaa;N

1) the shallowness/deepness of the river/ocean of existence-- don't ask!
2) from here to there, in a hundred places, is a shore/shoal/ford, sir



daryaa : 'The sea; the waters; a large river (the common signification in India'. (Platts pp.515-16)


saa;hil : 'Sea-shore, shore, beach, coast'. (Platts p.622)

S. R. Faruqi:

be-tahii = shallowness [chhachhlaapan]

On the shallowness of the ocean of life, Mir has composed a number of verses. For example, see


But in the present verse the word be-tahii bears a special beauty, because it can also mean 'most extreme deepness, bottomlessness'. On this reading the first line becomes sarcastic, that the deepness of the ocean is so extreme that-- 'don't ask'. In the second line the metaphor and the image too are both powerful-- that near the shore the water is always shallow. By saa;hil can also be meant that the ocean of existence is so shallow that in its midst, here and there islands and shoals have appeared.

In both cases, the meanings are: (1) that the ocean of existence is nothing worthy of respect, it has no reality or greatness; (2) that in the ocean of existence, travel is not unhindered, it is not free of obstacles and impediments; here and there one is forced to halt; (3) from an ocean so depthless, nothing valuable (for example, pearls) can be obtained; thus existence is fruitless.

Qudratullah Qudrat has given to the shore the metaphor of a destination, and made a good theme:

be-karaa;N hai garchih yih ba;hr-e jahaa;N
hai vuhii saa;hil jahaa;N ham tham rahe

[although this ocean of the world is boundless
only/emphatically that is the shore, where we came to a halt]

In that theme, an echo of Dard's verse can be heard:

((aalam ho qadiim ;xvaah ;haadi;s
jis dam nahii;N ham jahaa;N nahii;N hai

[whether the world would be ancient or recent
the moment that we are not, the world is not]

The enjoyable thing is that in Mir's verse, the emphasis is on the instability of existence. Qudratullah Qudrat has measured existence in terms of mankind's own yardstick-- that the workshop of existence keeps going, after all, but when mankind becomes separated from it, then he is protected from the headache of life, and in reaching the halting-place of death becomes free of care. And Dard, who was a Sufi, expresses a theme that is almost materialist.



What a gorgeously enigmatic little verse! The double sense of be-tahii is irresistible: a body of water can be 'depthless' in the sense of 'shallow', lacking any depth; or else (though secondarily) in the sense of 'bottomless', unfathomable, immeasuraby deep. Thus, as SRF notes, the first line can be read either as a straight exclamation ('how shallow it is!') or sarcastically ('ha ha-- how deep it is!'); either reading of course works with the inexpressibility trope.

Then the second line informs us that 'from here to there', in 'a hundred places', there is a 'shore'. This is something hard to visualize in the case of an ocean or sea, unless we expand the normal meaning of saa;hil to include islands and shoals, as SRF suggests.

But if we also add 'fords' to the expanded list of possibilities, really that's the ideal correlative to the image of crossing over that is provided by 'from here to there'-- and that is also instantly evoked for any reader of bhakti poetry (think of paar karnaa , the idea of 'crossing over'). The idea of 'fords' and 'crossing over' does remind us that daryaa in Urdu more often means 'river' rather than 'ocean'. It's much easier to imagine a river with a hundred fording-places, than an ocean with a hundred fording-places.

There are really two main directions in which the imagery of 'crossing over the river/ocean of life' has been poetically developed. One is of the journey from this life to some kind of life or destiny beyond death-- a journey that may be highly desirable, that may take the aspirant to some kind of heaven, or at least to the Elysian fields. The other direction is simply toward a crossing over from 'here to there', from life into non-life-- a journey that is commonly made with reluctance and fear (as {904,5} makes amply clear). In the case of the present verse, it's impossible to say which kind of journey is being discussed. The speaker might be cheerfully reassuring us ('it's easy to get to heaven') or grimly warning us ('it's all too easy to die').

But however we imagine the river/ocean and the journey, we also note that the speaker of the verse, our informant, might be wrong. There's something hyperbolic and bombastic about his tone. He might be the kind of person who just enjoys hearing himself talk. After all, how would he know about these hundred crossing-places? By definition, he himself, being still alive, has not yet crossed over. Even when he does, he'll only need one crossing-place. So he can only have derived his ideas from observation of others. But is he a reliable observer? And can such information be acquired by observation at all?