How the ‘Panchatantra’ travelled the world thanks to Persian and Arabic narrators

In the year 570 CE, a Persian physician named Burzoy or Burzoya (Burzawayh in Arabic) living in the Sassanid kingdom of Persia travelled to India in search of a book of wisdom: a book greatly sought by then King of Persian Khusroy I (Anoshagruwa or “the immortal”) who ruled from 531 to 579 CE. Burzoy succeeded in his endeavours, returning to Persia with the knowledge he had gained. His book was in turn written down by the king’s wazir, Wuzurgmihr and included, at Burzoy’s own request, the story of his journey to India.

The object of his search: the Panchatantra (Sanskrit for five principles) and even the versions of it then existent (the early centuries of the first millennium CE) are now lost, as is Burzoy’s book, with its suggested title, Karirak ud Damanak, written in Middle Persian (Pahlavi, part of the Indo Iranian language family). The title is derived from the two jackals who appear in the first sections of the Panchatantra.

More than animal fables, the stories were narratives in how to live a wise, good life, and were meant especially for princes born to rule. The similarities of stories found in the Panchatantra with those in the Aesop’s Fables and the Jatakas attest to how these stories travelled widely and orally in the ancient world. The Panchatantra is among the most widely travelled of literary texts and different versions of it exist in most of the world’s languages.

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