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India's syncretic Persian millennium and Urdu – Digvijay Singh

From 1000 to 1765 AD Persian reigned supreme in most of India while interestingly the Persians never ruled over the country. Turk (not to be confused with modern day Turkey) rule preceded the Mughals by almost 500 years. Sultanates were established over Punjab (lower Punjab now in Pakistan), Kashmir, Malwa, Gujarat, Deccan, Bengal, briefly in Jaunpur and of course Delhi. In our airbrushed selective school curricula, we are taught ONLY about the Delhi sultanate!

The primary reason for establishment of these sultanates was a steady supply of horses from the Asian steppes and Turks were expert horsemen. From an early age they learnt to gallop even without a saddle or stirrup.

Even as deep south as Mysore an elephant stable was known as a Pheelkhana: a word that is decidedly Persian. Both the Turks and the Mughals adopted Persian as their court language & court etiquette. The court etiquette as evolved by the Persians was so refined that it was aped both to her east and west: Ottoman empire. Of course, both to their east and west the Persians were arch-rivals and enemies all along!

In this 765 years of Persian reigning supreme Indian scholars had no option but to master it as well as Sanskrit too hence the proverb:

Haath kangan ko aarsi kya parhe likhe ko Farsi kya?

Shivaji, for instance, could speak better Persian than Marathi. What is noteworthy is several Persian treatises were produced in India. Vernaculars also kept thriving during whole of this millennium as they were patronised both by the sultanates and the later the Mughals, so also the local culture, art, crafts, cuisine and architecture. Most raga-raginis date from the Mughal period and so also north India's only classical dance form: Kathak which incorporated several Persian moves in it too especially the demi-ply.

Local potentates and rajas were subservient to both the Turks and the Mughals and remained their nobles and also reigned in their respective kingdoms.

While the process had begun during the Sultanate period itself but India's most beautiful living heritage - Urdu came into her own only by the late 18th century.

The motley soldiers in the armies of the Turks and later the Mughals comprised of Abyssinians, Persians, Afghans, Turks, Mongols, Tajiks, Uzbegs, Brahmins and Rajputs etc. All these were soldiers of fortune until Akbar's mansabdari brought them under payroll. This disparate group of soldiers used to gather around bon-fires during/after expeditions, naturally having developed a fraternity between themselves now required a common language to converse in too. Urdu was thus born around bon-fires that were lit after sundown in these battle camps both to keep them warm and variously to keep flies, mosquitoes and wild animals of prey at bay. The latter abounded in the subcontinent since most of the country was then a dense forest even around Delhi.

So Urdu was initially a lashkar ki zubaan. Quli Qutub Shah in Deccan produced upwards of 50 thousand verses in it and is till date the most prolific poet of that language.

The Mughal period was one of bewildering assimilation and syncretisation. Ancient Sanskrit texts were translated into Persian while also Persian and Arabic classics were also translated during this period into each others' languages. The Mahabharta was translated into Persian as the Rajabnama and the Ramayana as the Shahnama. Personally autographed by the Mughal emperor's and also beautifully illustrated copies of both are the Jaipur dynasty's (generations of whose maharajas were commanders-in-chief of the Mughal armies) most prized and priceless possessions.

In the Mughal harems ayurvedic beauty cures were used extensively including aphrodisiacs since the emperor could choose to co-habit with several women each night. The essence of ancient Greek medicinal cures that were preserved by the Arabs were also employed and are today known as Unani medicines. These employed a lot of bhassm of precious stones and metal and also varieties of kushta.

Mughal paintings reached their zenith during Jehangir's reign who was a connoisseur par excellence of the fine art himself. His curiosity about animals and birds and their anatomy meant that he took his ateliers with him during all his campaigns and a rich treasure trove survives of his trails. He brought painters from Iran like Bihzad etc. who introduced the principle of foreshortening (showing far and near objects in perspective) in paintings and miniatures in India changing them forever. Of course, the paintings remained quintessentially Indian for the emperor was depicted with a halo around his head which was a completely Hindu concept.

Amir Humza and other stories from the Arabian Nights and Persian classics getting translated into vernacular spawned a new genre in India which came to be known as dastan-goi. These Arabian heroes suddenly wore Indian clothes, spoke our language and battled lions, tigers, and fire breathing dragons. The denizens of Delhi began to gather around the stairs of the Jama Masjid each evening where the dastan-go would recite these fabulous stories and enthral his audience for days altogether.

These stories were recited and enjoyed by soldiers around campfires too after nightfall during the many Mughal battle expeditions and forays into the Deccan as well.

The most fascinating outcome of this period was that not just did it attract the world's best talent from all over to the twin imperial capitals but also made India a major exporter of textiles, handicrafts and also jewellery to all over the world. India under the Mughals came to dominate 24 per cent of the world trade.

In north India Urdu had a back-door entry. After establishment of the nawabdom of Awadh, who were initially the vassals of Mughals, the ladies of the Persian elite began to converse with the charwomen in their kitchens. They in turn developed a language between themselves that even their menfolk could not fully fathom which came to be known as Rekhti! This is the only incidence of women having evolved a language that only they understood!

In time from this Rekhti evolved Rekhta which is the other name for Urdu. Of course, the introduction of Rekhta and its subsequent adoption by the Persian loving north was a rather slow process. And since it was introduced by the genteel folk naturally adab got associated with it. Lucknow, Agra and Delhi were the three cities where Urdu eventually reached her zenith.

A plethora of poets from the late 17th to the early twentieth century including Wali, Dard, Mir, Ghalib, Zauq, Dagh, Momim, Akbar, Iqbal, Hasrat, Firaq, Jigar and Faiz and scores of others enriched it forever. Urdu remained the language of the Hindustani elite right up to the latter half of the twentieth century and for most of legalese there is still no Hindi equivalent.

But for Urdu, Hindustani Classical and Kathak wouldn't have survived during tumultuous times. The courtesans nurtured Urdu poetry, dance and music and all their apertinent paraphernalia and are credited with transponding them all to the 20th century.

Urdu however fell from grace after the partition of the subcontinent when Pakistan and later Kashmir in India adopted it as their lingua franca. Pakistan has even had anti-Urdu riot! In time Urdu was Persianised by that country while in India it has struggled to survive slowly having lost her script nastaliq.

Jo ye kahe ke Rekhta kyonkar ho rashk-e-Farsi, gufta-e-Ghalib parh kar usse sunaye k yunh (Whoever asks why Farsi should be envious of Rekhta /Urdu, recite to them Ghalib's poetry once and then say, 'this is why').

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