Kalila and Dimna was originally written in Sanskrit, probably in Kashmir, some time in the fourth century A.D. 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.
Three hundred years later, after the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Near East, a Persian convert to Islam named Ibn al-Mukaffa’ 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.
A page from the Arabic version of Kalila wa dimna, dated 1210 CE, illustrating the King of the Crows conferring with his political advisors.
The foolish carpenter of Sarandib, hiding under the bed on which lie his wife and her lover. She notices his foot and contrives a story to prove her innocence. Persian illustration of the Kalileh and Dimneh, 1333.
Illustration from a Kalila wa Dimna Manuscript, 1200–1220 CE
Kalila wa Dimna. Version circa 1200 Syria, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
Kalila wa Dimna Hare and the elephants. Mamluk book, Egypt and Syria, mid 14th century
Kalila and Dimna Crows Revenge. Mamluk book. Egypt Syria, mid 14th century