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The 'Hindi' of the 'Urdu'

Urdu means "military camp" in Turkish but it does not follow therefore that the language had its origins in military camps. The journey of the language, variously known as Hindi/Hindvi/Dehlvi/Goojri/Rekhta or Dakhani at different periods, to being called Urdu is difficult to explore because of the passionate Hindi-Urdu divide.


The ‘Hindi’ of the ‘Urdu’

Mehr Afshan Farooqi

Urdu means “military camp” in Turkish but it does not follow therefore that the language had its origins in military camps. The journey of the language, variously known as Hindi/Hindvi/Dehlvi/ Goojri/Rekhta or Dakhani at different periods, to being called Urdu is difficult to explore because of the passionate Hindi-Urdu divide.

Mehr Afshan Farooqi (maf5y@cms.mail. is with the department of middle east and south Asian languages and cultures, University of Virginia, USA.

felt compelled to write this essay after coming across in print for the umpteenth time what I would call the “military camp fiction” of Urdu’s origins.

Metonyms can be misnomers and even lead to absurd interpretations, especially if the naming word comes from another language. A case in point is the name “Urdu”. While it seems to be “common knowledge” that Urdu means “military camp” in Turkish, it is not at all clear how the simplistic notion came about that the Urdu language, by virtue of its name, had its origin in military camps. Granted that the Turks who established their rule in northern India from the 11th century onwards must have needed to communicate with the local populace through a mutually intelligible vernacular, but the most likely place for such a language of communication to emerge would be the bazaars and not army camps. In any case, there was no tradition of large standing armies that would be camped in cantonments such as those of the colonial era. Armies were cobbled together whenever needed and consisted mostly of peasants and mercenaries.

Yule and Burnell, the authors of Hobson Jobson (A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, Delhi, revised ed 1986), cite a reference from 1560 in support of “urdu bazaar” or camp-market. They also claim that the word “urdu” came to India with the Mughals (Babur, the first Mughal ruler was victorious at the famous battle of Panipat in 1526). While their citation must be correct, their claim that the Turkish word came with Babur is wrong because the Ilbari Turks had already put down roots in north India much earlier.

That Hindi/Hindvi/Dehlvi was a language that existed in the Delhi region we learn from the contemporary histories as well records of sufi discourses. The Mughals did follow the central Asian tradition of setting up vast encampments that were almost like a city in proportions and could be ‘shikargahs’ (royal hunting camps) or simply a court away from the formal court at the capital. It is certain that no new language grew out of Mughal camps in northern India. The creation and development of a new language is a complex process that takes place over a period of time. Then there is also the marked difference between the colloquial and the literary form of the language. It is in this context that the “military camp theory” becomes even more difficult to believe. “Urdu” as nomenclature for a language seems to have gained currency when the colloquial form which was generally known as Hindi/Hindvi developed into a sophisticated language with literary potential.

Metamorphosis of Hindvi

The grammar and the syntactical structure of Urdu are based on the local speech of the times in the region around Delhi (later identified as ‘khari boli’). However, this language was not the chosen vehicle for literary production. Awadhi and Brajbhasha were the languages of poetry and other literary pursuits to the extent that they were used for such a purpose at this early period. For example, the earliest literary text in Awadhi dates from 1379 (the Chandayan of Maulana Da’ud). From the fragmented evidence that we have available to us from

March 1, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


the literary sources of the period it seems that this speech was described as Hindvi/ Hindi/Dehlvi and the earliest literary work in it was a ‘divaan’ (collection of verse arranged alphabetically according to rhyme) by the 11th century poet Masud Saad Salman (1046-1121) who claimed to have divaans in three languages: Arabic, Persian and Hindvi. The Hindvi one though, is lost. We learn about it from Muhammad Aufi’s (composed around 1220-27) history of intellectual essences or the Lubab ul-albab (Pure Essences of the Intellect). Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) the versatile poet-genius also composed verses in Hindvi for the delectation of friends, but neither he nor they rated those efforts serious or literary enough to be preserved or recorded in a formal collection or divaan. Clearly, Hindvi had not as yet developed enough literary potential. Though marginalised by Persian, the language of the royal court on the one hand and Braj and Awadhi, at the regional courts and in the creative efforts of sant and sufi poets on the other, Hindvi lingered on as a lingua franca, travelling to western, central and southern India through the specific instances of official transfer of population such as the one enforced by Muhammad bin Tughluq (1325-1351), but more generally through merchants and travelling sufi mystics who were encouraged by their ‘pirs’ (sufi divines) to move to distant regions and establish their own centres.

The dynamics of the interflow between capital and region, the privilege of the north as the centre of power, helped empower Hindvi and led to its development in areas distant from the place of its origin. It absorbed regional/local influences and morphed into Goojri in Gujarat and Dakhani in the Deccan. Goojri and Dakhni flourished; their literary potential grew to encompass a wide variety of genres, subjects and attitudes. The earliest writings were philosophical-mystical poems with either indigenous or Persian metres. The lexical content was a mixture of Persian and indigenous vocabulary. By the 17th century, “Urdu” could boast of profoundly mystical poems such as Khub Muhammad Chishti’s (d 1638) Khub Tarang and also long love poems of the ‘barahmasa’ (season songs referring to each month of the year) type such as

Economic & Political Weekly

march 1, 2008

Muhammad Afzal’s (d 1625), Bikat Kahani. Around the same time, and more significantly, Urdu literature was flourishing in the Deccan, covering a wide range of subjects that ranged from the allegorical to the romance style in traditional ghazals, and included the ‘chakkinamah’ (a genre of folk poems) that were popular among women and usually sung while performing household chores eponymous to the genre. Literature in “Urdu” thus developed earlier in the regions away from the capital. It was Vali Aurangabadi’s (16651708) historic presentation of poetry in the capital (Vali visited Delhi in 1700) that showed in no uncertain measure how complex, sophisticated, abstract, metaphoric poetry was possible in a language other than Persian or Indo-Persian, a language that we can identify as early Urdu but which was known as Hindi/Hindvi/ Rekhta/Dakhani in those times. The poetics of this language was as indigenous as it was Persianate; probably inclined more towards the former than the latter:

Oh Vali, the tongue of the master poet is the candle that lights up the assembly of meanings. (ay vali sahib-e sukhan ki zaban bazm-e ma’ni mein sham-e roshan hai)

Like meaning in the word, ways for new themes are not closed: Doors of poetry are open forever. (raah-e mazmun-e taza band nahin ta qiyamat khula hai baab-e sukhan)

Urdu-Hindi Divide

How did the language known as Hindi/ Hindvi/Goojri/Rekhta/Dakhani at various times and places come to be known as Urdu? The issue would not have been so vexed but for the role of politics in the Urdu-Hindi divide. The emotional and passionate discourse that is unleashed in the name of historical research on the origins of Urdu and Hindi has obstructed rational debate on the subject. The nomenclature “Urdu” with its putative connotation “military camp” muddies the lens of historio graphy, making it more speculative than it would have been without the name tag. Two books on the subject that are relatively well known are: Amrit Rai, A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1984) and Christopher King,

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One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India (OUP, New Delhi, 1994). An important and recent intervention in the debate on the issues of origins and nomenclature is Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Urdu ka Ibtidayi Zamana (Karachi, 1999). Its expanded version is available in English:

Early Urdu Literary Culture and History

(OUP, New Delhi, 2001). Among other thorny but noteworthy issues that his thesis tackles, the most conclusive research/ arguments pertain to the earliest use of the metonym Urdu as name for the language and the “meaning” or allusion of the word itself.

According to Faruqi, “Urdu” as a name for the language seems to occur for the first time in 1780 in the poet Musahafi’s (1750-1824) first divaan:

Musahafi has most surely claim of superiority in Rekhtah; That is to say, he has expert knowledge Of the language of Urdu (albatta rekhtah mein hai musahafi ko da’va ya’ni ke hai zabandan urdu ki voh zaban ka) (Musahafi, Kulliyat, vol 1, p 38).

The name “Urdu” seems to have begun its life as ‘zaban-e Urdu-e mualla-e Shahjahanabad’ (the language of the exalted city/court of Shahjahanabad (Delhi)). It originally seems to have signified Persian not Urdu. The shift from Persian to Urdu as the language of the court must have happened when Shah Alam II (ruled 17591806) who was known not only to speak “Hindi” but also described the language of his long prose work, the romance, Ajaib ul-qisas (Most Wonderful Tales) as “Hindi”. He began composing the dastaan around 1792; the unfinished text he left behind covers 600 pages. However, though the term zaban-e Urdu-e mualla referred to the language that was slowly gaining acceptance, the language itself was known as “Hindi” and the word “Urdu” by itself meant the “royal camp or city”.

Questions to Pursue

With the patronage and practice of Shah Alam II, “Hindi” rather than Persian began to be called the language of the Urdu-e mualla. The problematic question that still needs to be addressed is the nature, or to put it another way, the genetics of this “Hindi” as Hindi/Hindvi/Dehlvi or the language of Hind specifically the region of Delhi. A language must have existed before the arrival of the Turks in that region. It grew with the interaction and mixing of populations by the arrival of the Persian speaking Turks who began settling down in northern India. It was natural for the new settlers to refer to this language the “Hindi” that was the “language of the Urdu” in the late 18th century become the language known as Hindi today with Arabo-Persian vocables excised as far as possible, and Sanskrit ‘tadbhava’ (words derived from sanskrit but changed to fit a different phono logy) added as far as possible. How did modern Hindi and Urdu develop? I could present my viewpoint on these issues but I leave these questions for the reader to pursue. My purpose in this essay is to clarify

(a) the origin and meaning of the term “Urdu”, and (b) to roughly outline the growth and development of a language from spoken to literary.

March 1, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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