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Farhang-i-Aasifiya, the first major Urdu-to-Urdu dictionary, having some 60,000 entries spread over four volumes and 2,500 pages, took about 30 years to complete. Its compilation began in 1868 and ended in 1898.

The compiler of the dictionary, Syed Ahmed Dehlvi, took great pains to make it an authentic and comprehensive work. Besides providing the reader with pronunciation and grammatical labels of each and every entry with different shades of meanings, he tried to authenticate the meaning and usage with the citation of explanatory quotations from Urdu poetry and prose.

The entries include words, phrases, idioms, proverbs, literary and technical terms, women’s parlance, patois, riddles, curses, abuses and even calls uttered by mendicants and hawkers. It also enlists phrases reflecting superstitious beliefs, phrases connected with rites and rituals and their background, stories and fables explaining proverbs’ historical or assumed background. It gives the names and details of dresses, foods, ceremonies, crafts, posts in royal courts and many proper nouns with detailed history. In other words, it is a treasure trove of cultural and historical gems.

Compiling a dictionary has never been an easy task, and this wasn’t one too. Syed Ahmed Dehlvi’s health declined and he got into financial trouble also during the time he worked on the dictionary. Had it not been for the timely and crucial support of the ruler of Deccan, Mir Mehboob Ali Khan, completion of the dictionary would have remained merely a dream.

In 1931, Noorul Lughaat, a four-volume Urdu-to-Urdu dictionary was published by Noorul Hasan Nayyar Lukhnavi. However, Farhang-i-Aasifiya remained unrivalled and unmatched. Though according to some scholars Noorul Lughaat, too, is a great lexicographical feat, it could not quite reach the scope and standard of Dehlvi’s Sahib’s work.

It is not that lexicography was something unheard of in Urdu language and Syed Ahmed Dehlvi pioneered it. But before Farhang-i-Aasifiya, dictionaries had explained Urdu words in Persian — and later with the advent of British rule — or in English.

Urdu lexicography had had a long tradition and Urdu’s first ever dictionary Gharaebul Lughaat was compiled in the 18th century, but it explained Urdu words in Persian. Some European scholars had compiled rudimentary dictionaries even earlier than that, and had explained Urdu words in different languages such as Latin, French, Persian and Portuguese. An early wordlist compiled in Gujarat by a European scholar in 1630, enlisted Urdu words in Roman and Gujarati scripts. John Gilchrist’s English Hindustani dictionary (1778-1790) and John Shakespear’s ‘A dictionary: Hindustani-English’ (1817, fourth edition 1849) were indeed milestones and were followed by some other similar works and a few minor Urdu-to-Urdu dictionaries. These early dictionaries, however, consisted mostly of idioms and their scope too was limited.

Hence, it was left to Syed Ahmed Dehlvi to compile a dictionary that was to remain the most comprehensive one, till the publication of the 14th volume of Muhazzabul Lughaat’ in 1989, a position from which Muhazzabul Lughaat was unseated by the publication of 22nd, and the last volume, of Urdu Dictionary Board’s dictionary in 2010. Syed Ahmed Dehlvi was a lexicographer, philologist, fiction-writer, poet, educationist and moralist. He had a deep interest in history, philology, dialects, cultural issues, customs, rituals, rites, women’s parlance and Delhi patois and penned or edited over a dozen books. As was the custom back then, Syed Ahmed Dehlvi was sometimes referred to as Moulvi or Munshi. Born in Delhi on January 8, 1846 and educated there in madressahs, government schools and then teachers’ training college (also known as normal school). He also taught in schools for many years.

From 1873 to 1879, he assisted S.W. Fallon in his famous Urdu-to-English and English-to-Urdu dictionaries. Dehlvi Sahib must have gained invaluable experience in lexicography while working with Fallon but the impression that he might have taken some raw material from Fallon is incorrect because he had begun working on his dictionary in 1868 in Arab Sarae or, literally, Arab Inn. It was not an inn, but a locality named after the Arabs who had settled around the Mogul emperor Humayun’s tomb in Delhi centuries ago.

In 1871, he published a few portions of his dictionary and named it Mustalahaat-i-Urdu. In 1878, he published the first part of his dictionary and named it Armughan-i-Dehli. Then he began publishing it in unbound fascicles on monthly basis and named it Hindustani Urdu Lughaat.

Till 1882, 39 such fascicles had been published. In addition to these three names, the dictionary was also called Sayyadul Lughaat. In 1888, Nizam of Deccan, Mir Mehboob Ali Khan, began patronising Dehlvi Sahib’s work. The unbound fascicles were divided into first and second volume and it was named Farhang-i-Aasifiya, after Nizam’s title and penname, which was ‘Aasif’. Syed Ahmed Dehlvi kept on working on the remaining volumes and stayed in Lahore for quite some time to supervise the calligraphy and printing. In 1898, the third volume appeared in the shape of a large bound volume and the fourth one appeared in 1901. Later, Mir Usman Ali Khan, the then Nizam of Deccan, began patronising the work.

It was deemed fit that the first two volumes should be reprinted in a size and manner that they would match with the last two ones. Thus the reprinting began. But in 1912, Dehlvi Sahib’s house, where the scripts and printed copies were stored, caught fire and almost everything was reduced to ashes causing the reprinting process to begin anew. Calligraphy was carried out in Lahore and proofs were sent to Delhi. When the last pages of the last volume were in the press, Dehlvi Sahib passed away in Delhi on May 11, 1918.

Abida Samiuddin in her ‘Encyclopaedic dictionary of Urdu literature’ has mentioned that Syed Ahmed Dehlvi died in 1918 when the first volume of his dictionary was in the press, which is incorrect. Also, she assumes that it took Dehlvi Sahib 50 years to complete the work. But considering that the initial compilation and printing of the fourth volume had finished in 1898, it would be safe to say it took him 30 years.

But even today, the monumental work remains in much demand and was reprinted by the Urdu Science Board, Lahore, in 1977. It was reprinted in India too while recently, yet another addition appeared from Pakistan.