A Journey of a Book: Kalila Wa Diman


© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (Source)

Kalila and Dimna was originally written in Sanskrit, probably in Kashmir, some time in the fourth century CE. In Sanskrit it was called the Panchatantra, or "Five Discourses." It was written for three young princes who had driven their tutors to despair and their father to distraction. Afraid to entrust his kingdom to sons unable to master the most elementary lessons, the king turned over the problem to his wise wazir, and the wazir wrote the Panchatantra, which concealed great practical wisdom in the easily digestible form of animal fables. Six months later the princes were on the road to wisdom and later ruled judiciously. Two hundred years after that, a Persian shah sent his personal physician, Burzoe, to India to find a certain herb rumored to bestow eternal life upon him who partook of it. Burzoe returned with a copy of the Panchatantra instead, which he claimed was just as good as the miraculous herb, for it would bestow great wisdom on the reader. The shah had Burzoe translate it into Pehlavi, a form of Old Persian, and liked it so much that he enshrined the translation in a special room of his palace.

Images of the animals in varieties of paints and colours [are intended] to delight the hearts of princes, increase their pleasure, and also the degree of care which they bestow on the work.Ibn al-Muqaffa, 8th Cent.

Three hundred years later, after the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Near East, a Persian convert to Islam named Ibn al-Muqaffa' chanced upon Burzoe's Pehlavi version and translated it into Arabic in a style so lucid it is still considered a model of Arabic prose. Called Kalila and Dimna, after the two jackals who are the main characters, the book was written mainly for the instruction of civil servants. It was so entertaining, however, that it proved popular with all classes, entered the folklore of the Muslim world, and was carried by the Arabs to Spain. There it was translated into Old Spanish in the 13th century. In Italy it was one of the first books to appear after the invention of printing.

Today, any reader refers to Kalilah wa-Dimnah will discover how much it is suitable to match its wise and meanings to the modern lives of our societies, and this is the case of all great folk tales, that were born in Asia to live in the four corners of the world." Fatema Al-Zahraa Hassan

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Frontispice of the Latin translation of Kalila wa-Dimna by Sebastian Gottfried Starcke: Specimen sapientiæ Indorum veterum. : Id est, liber ethico-politicus pervetustus, dictus Arabice, Kalilah wa-Dimnah Græce Stephanites kai Ichnelates, nunc primum Græce ex MSS. Cod. Holsteiniano prodit, cum versione nova Latina. Berolini : Ru¨diger, 1697. Read online here

More Images


 A page from the Arabic version of Kalila wa Dimna, dated 1210, illustrating the King of the Crows conferring with his political advisors.” (Source)


Illustration from a Kalila wa-Dimna, manuscript dated 1200–1220 CE. This book of animal fables with a moral and a political message became, and still is, immensely popular, and was a landmark in the development of Arabic literary prose in the Golden Age of Mislim civilisation (Source)


The trial of Dimna in Kalila wa-Dimna. Manuscript at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, Département des manuscrits orientaux. (Source)


 Illustration of the Crab in Kalila wa-Dimna. Syrian manuscript. Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, MS arabe 3465, folio 57. (Source)


Kalila wa-Dimna in a dispersed manuscript preserved in Brooklyn Museum (accession number 71.48) dated between 1300 and 1350, ink and opaque watercolor on paper. (Source)


Ibn al-Muqaffa‘s Kalila wa-Dimna in an Arabic manuscript dated 1354 CE (Source)


Jacob ben Eleazar's Hebrew translation from Arabic, with a drawing of a jackal (15th century) (Source)


 Directorium humanae vitae: Johannes of Capua's Latin translation from the Hebrew version of Kalila wa-Dimna (Strasbourg, ca 1489) (Source)


Kalila wa-Dimna, MS Revan 1022, Herat, 1430: Lion attacking a Bull (folio 46b) (Source)


Manuscript MS 3465 of the Bibliothèque National de France, Paris (originated in Syria, c. AD 1220), transcribing the Arabic text into the Traditional Arabic font. (Source)