EXCERPT: How Urdu Began

Published November 29, 2008

Much has been written on the origin of Urdu. The word 'urdu' itself is Turkish and means 'army' or 'camp'; our English 'horde' is said to be connected with it. The Muslim army stationed in Delhi from 1193 onwards was known as the Urdu or Urdu-i-Mu'alla the Exalted Army.
It is usually believed that while this army spoke Persian, the inhabitants of the city spoke the Braj dialect of Hindi. There is no reason however to think that Braj was ever the language of Delhi. The people of the capital spoke an early variety of that form of Hindi now known as Khari Boli, which is employed today in all Hindi prose and in most Hindi poetry. The idea that the army spoke Persian also requires reconsideration.
Mahmud of Ghazni annexed the Punjab in 1027 and settled his army of occupation in Lahore. The famous scholar, Alberuni of Khiva (973 1048) lived there for some time while he studied Sanskrit and prosecuted his researches into Hinduism. Mahmud's descendants held the Punjab till 1187, when they were defeated by their hereditary foes under Muhammad Ghori who had already sacked Ghazni. The first sultan of Delhi was Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, a native of Turkistan, but a servant of Muhammad Ghori and afterwards his chief general.
He captured Delhi in 1193 and on the death of his master in 1206 took the title of Sultan. From that time foreign troops were quartered in the city, Urdu is always said to have arisen in Delhi, but we must remember that Persian-speaking soldiers entered the Punjab and began to live there, nearly 200 years before the first sultan sat on the throne of Delhi.
What is supposed to have happened in Delhi must, in fact, have taken place in Lahore centuries earlier. These troops lived in the Punjab; they doubtless inter-married with the people and within a few years of their arrival must have spoken the language of the country, modified of course by their own Persian mother tongue.
We can picture what happened. The soldiers and people met in daily intercourse and needed a common language. It had to be either Persian or Old Punjabi, and the people being in an enormous majority, their language established itself at the expense of the other.
For some time the soldiers continued to talk Persian among themselves and the local vernacular with the inhabitants of the country; but ultimately Persian died out, though it continued to be the language of the court, first in Lahore, and later in Delhi, for hundreds of years after it had ceased to be ordinarily spoken in the army.
In the Persian which the invaders used there were many Arabic and a few Turkish words; a large number of these were introduced into India.
What happened in Lahore and Delhi resembled in many points what was happening in England after the Norman conquest.
The Normans, speaking a dialect of French, came into an Anglo- Saxon-speaking country and made French the court language. Though they greatly influenced the speech of the conquered country, yet within three centuries they had lost their own language, and England today speaks English, blended, it is true, with French.
The changes produced in English by the coming of the Normans have probably been exaggerated, but in any case they were greater than those produced in Punjabi and Hindi by the Muslim army.
Apart from the incorporation of many loan words the influence was remarkably small. These languages remained practically unchanged in their pronouns, verbs, numerals and grammatical system. The chief change was in vocabulary. In all this English corresponds very closely to Urdu.
Muhammad Ghori seized the Punjab in 1187 and his troops under Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, after consolidating their position, swept on to Delhi, but they cannot have left a hostile Muslim army in the rear.
We may be certain that the descendants and successors of the original invaders joined them, and that the two armies marched together to Delhi, which was taken, as we have seen, six years later. When, 12 years later still, the new emperor was installed in Delhi, a large proportion of his soldiers must have spoken by preference a language very like what we think of as early Urdu (the remainder speaking Persian). The basis of that language was Punjabi as it emerged from the Prakrit stage, and it cannot have differed from the Khari of that time nearly as much as the two languages differ today.
The important fact is that Urdu really began not in Delhi but in Lahore, and that its underlying language was not Khari (much less Braj, as often stated), but old Punjabi. Later on this first form of Urdu was somewhat altered by Khari as spoken round Delhi, but we do not know that Braj exercised any influence at all.
The formation of Urdu began as soon as the Ghaznavi forces settled in Lahore, that is in 1027. At what time they gave up Persian and took to speaking Punjabi Urdu alone, we cannot tell, probably it was a matter of a very few years. 166 years later the joint Ghori and Ghaznavi troops entered Delhi. In a short time Urdu was probably their usual language of conversation.
We must therefore distinguish two stages (1) beginning in 1027, Lahore-Urdu, consisting of old Punjabi overlaid by Persian; (2) beginning in 1193, Lahore-Urdu, overlaid by old Khari, not very different then from old Punjabi, and further influenced by Persian, the whole becoming Delhi-Urdu.
When Muhammad Tughlaq invaded the Deccan and founded Daulatabad (1326), and 21 years later when Ala-ud-Din Bahmani rebelled against him and became the first ruler of the Bahmani dynasty, the Muhammadan troops who accompanied them spoke Urdu as their mother tongue, and the language which grew up among the Marathi, Telugu  and Kanarese- speaking inhabitants who became Muslims, was not Persian but Urdu.
It is worthy of note that whereas in the north the invaders gave up their own tongue and adopted Urdu, their successors and descendants managed to impose that language, now their own, on a large part of the Deccan, where today it is spoken by nearly three million people.
Early History of Urdu
We have no accurate knowledge of spoken Urdu in the early years of its existence. Amir Khusrau (c.1255-1325) tells us in his Persian works that he wrote a great deal in 'Hindavi,' but only a little has come down to us; and what we now possess, perhaps 1,000 lines, has doubtless been considerably altered in the passage of time, so that we cannot regard it as correctly showing the speech of his day.
We must however emphasise the fact that he did compose literary works in Hindi or Urdu, perhaps both, and that nearly 200 years ago the poet Mir Taqi accepted as genuine some of the verses which we have today. We know this because Mir refers to them in his anthology.
The word 'Hindi' is used in both a wide and a narrow sense. In the wide sense it includes the languages spoken in Bihar, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Central India, Rajputana and the S.E. Punjab as far as Ambala. One might include Kumaon and Gadhval. In the narrow sense it means Hindi proper, the chief dialects of which are Braj and Khari.
The first writers of Hindi wrote principally in Bihari, Avadhi, Braj and Rajputani; languages which were used for both composition and conversation. Muslim authors occasionally employed one of these, but more commonly Persian. Khari, though widespread as a conversational medium, was not much used for literature.
Urdu is always said to have arisen in Delhi, but we must remember that Persian- speaking soldiers entered the Punjab and began to live there nearly 200 years before the first sultan sat on the throne of Delhi.
Indeed with the exception of Amir Khusrau's few hundred lines just mentioned, which are mostly in Braj, and the works of the poet Sital (c.1723), we have no work in it till we come to the verge of the 19th century.
The Urdu branch of Khari has a different history. Mi'rajul Ashiqin; a tract by Banda Navaz, which has recently been printed, and is probably genuine, belongs to the end of the 14th century.
Seeing that the author left the Deccan when he was 15 and lived thereafter in Delhi, not returning to the Deccan till he was an old man, we may take his prose as showing the Delhi idiom of that time. In the 15th century there is Shah Miran Ji of the Deccan, who has left four extant works, and from that time the stream of literature goes on ever widening and deepening.
We must therefore revise our thoughts of both Khari and Urdu. Khari is contemporary with Braj and Avadhi; its beginning may be put at AD 900 or 1000. The commencement of Urdu may be dated, any time after 1027, when the Muhammadan army of occupation began to live in Lahore.
Khari as a spoken language has a continuous history of nearly a thousand years; as a literary language, if we omit Amir Khusrau and one or two other authors, it dates from the end of the 18th century.
It is difficult to distinguish precisely between Khari and Urdu. For practical purposes the distinction lies in the fact that Khari uses very few, and Urdu very many, Persian and Arabic words.
Some people, both Europeans and Indians, have made the use of Hindi or Persian metres the touchstone, but that distinction can be applied only to poetry; it is inapplicable to prose. In poetry, too, some authors, while not varying their language, have employed now Hindi metres, and now Persian. Even at the present day there are poets who sometimes write Urdu poetry in Hindi metres.
There has been a strange reversal of the decrees of fate. The despised Khari language, confined to conversation, and considered unfit for poetry, was not used for serious literary purposes, except by Sital and perhaps Amir Khusrau, till near 1800; so much so that even today some persons, not realising that it has had a vigorous existence among the common people since the time when it took the place of Prakrit, think that it was invented by Insha Allah, Sadal Misr and Lallu Lal.
In the Hindi sphere it has now turned out its rivals, and will soon be the only survivor so far as literary work is concerned, while in its Urdu form it has been for centuries the medium of a prosperous and growing literature.
It is important to remember that in the middle of the 14th century there was no real difference between Delhi Urdu and Dakhni Urdu, but with the establishment of the separate Bahmani dynasty the two dialects began to diverge.
Urdu literature in its early stages was much more conversational and simple than it was in later years. Probably for that reason it resembles to a surprising degree the spoken language of today. This resemblance must not be used as an argument against the genuineness of an early poem or prose work.
It shows merely that the author wrote the language as he spoke it. In later years men writing artificially and following foreign models produced works which, divorced from everyday idiom, differ widely from the Urdu which we know now. To take two instances. The Dakhni poems of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah before 1600, and the beautiful Dakhni poem Qutb Mushtari written by Vajhi in 1609, are easier to read than Shah Nasir's writings in the 19th  century.
The Name 'Urdu'
An important question is how the word 'Urdu' came to be applied to a language. We have seen that the soldiers in Delhi at a very early date gave up the use of Persian among themselves and began to speak a modified form of the vernacular.
In Delhi this form of speech, to distinguish it from the usual Khari Boli (and probably also from Persian), was called Zaban-i-Urdu, the language of the Army, or Zaban-i-Urdu-i-Mu'alla, the language of the Exalted or Royal Army. As the soldiers and the people intermixed and intermarried, the language spread over the city into the suburbs and even into the surrounding district.
It was natural to keep up the separate name to distinguish it not only from the unmixed vernacular of the people, but also from the Persian of the court. This double distinction is not unimportant. It is possible, too, that in time the name served to mark still another distinction, viz. between the speech of Delhi and that of Lucknow.
It is supposed that gradually the word 'zaban' was dropped, and 'Urdu' came to be used alone.
In this explanation there is a difficulty. Though the royal camp was established in Delhi during the time of Qutb-ud-Din Aibak in 1206, the earliest known example of the employment of the word 'Urdu,' standing by itself and meaning the Urdu language, is in the poems of Mushafi, 1750-1824, which are unfortunately updated, and in any case have only in part been printed. Gilchrist uses it in his Grammar (1796).
The earliest examples of the phrase, Zaban i Urdu, the language of the camp or the Urdu language, are in Tazkira a Gulzar i Ibrahim by Ali Ibrahim Khan (1783) and  in Mushafi's Tazkira a Shuara a Hindi (1794). In this title we must note the word 'Hindi' (meaning 'Urdu'). The expression Zaban-i-Urdu-i- Mu'alla (e Shahjahanabad Dihli), the language of the
Royal camp, or the Exalted Urdu language (of Shahjahanabad, Delhi) occurs in the anthology Nikat ush Shu'ara by Mir Taqi (1752).
In Qiyam ud Din Qaim's anthology Makhzan-i-Nikat (1754) we find muhavira-i-Urdu-i-mu'alla, the idiom of the Royal Camp. Arsh, the son of Mir Taqi, speaks of himself as Urdu-i-mu'alla ka zabandan, one well acquainted with the Urdu-i-mu'alla language. His date is unknown, but he seems to have been born in Mir's old age.
Now the earliest of these is five centuries after the foreign army had settled in Delhi; and we naturally ask why during all this long period the language never received the name 'Urdu,' and why people suddenly thought of that name after the lapse of so long a time, when it had ceased to have any particular meaning.
This period of 550 years could perhaps be reduced; it has been claimed, but not proved, that the royal camp in Delhi was not known as the Urdu till the time of Babur, who came direct from Turkistan with a Turki force in 1526. It is a doubtful point. We may admit that before his time the foreign recruits had nearly all been Persian speakers or descendants of Persian speakers. But on the other hand the word 'Urdu' for army had been in Persian since 1150, for it is found more than once in the Jahankusha of Javaini with that meaning.
The first example of it in India is said to be in the Tuzuk-i-Baburi, compiled by the Emperor Babur himself in 1529. But even if we accept these later dates for the first occurrence in India of the word 'Urdu' with the meaning of army, we still have to account for the fact that for 226 years, from 1526 to 1752, no one seems to have thought of calling the language by that name, and that it was only after 1752 that this was done.
It is almost incredible that none of the historians of the Mughal period ever used the name;  yet such seems to have been the case.
Urdu literature in its early stages was much more conversational and simple than it was in later years. Probably for that reason it resembles to a surprising degree the spoken language of today. This resemblance must not be used as an argument against the genuineness of an early poem or prose work.
The language, as spoken, was generally called Hindi; when employed for literary, that is poetical, purposes it was known as Rekhta or Hindi. Amir Khusrau and Sheikh Bajar (d.1506) speak of Zaban-i-Dihlavi, the speech of Delhi while Vajhi in Sab Ras (1634) calls it Zaban i Hindostan, the language of Hindustan.
But no one in the early days spoke of 'Urdu.' Even in the end of the 18th century it was an uncommon word. People continued to talk of Hindi and Rekhta. As late as 1790 Abd ul Qadir, in the preface to his Urdu translation of the Quran, said he was translating not into Rekhta but into Hindi.
One interesting detail is still sub judice. It has been asserted that the Persian dictionary, Mu'ayyid ul Fuzala (1519) uses the phrase, 'in the language of the people of the Urdu.' But it is claimed on the other hand that the words are not found in good MSS of the dictionary; and the MS in the British Museum does not appear to contain them.
Even if it did, 'Urdu' would not here be the name of a language. It is a fact worth noting that the word 'Urdu' is not given in this dictionary at all with any meaning, either 'army' or any other.
Possibly the explanation of the problem is that Zaban-i-Urdu, the speech of the camp, or some equivalent phrase, was in conversational use from the earliest times, and that gradually, centuries later, it was admitted to books, while the use of the word 'Urdu' alone, without zaban, was still later. But the subject requires further investigation.
(No matter how one might try Urdu is irrepressible
Let Allah be its protector.  The Urdu tongue is a whole hand breadth)
Urdu has been and remains a hardy survivor.  It does not just survive but also thrives and grows from strength to strength regardless of the odds. It is verily an indestructable fibre endowed with a rare capacity to adapt itself to an ever-changing world, without losing its real essence. Urdu is tenacious. Its tenacity can only be matched by its adaptability to an ever-changing environment.  It's the language of the gypsy — born landless — yet has struck its roots too deep and strong to be uprooted.  It has travelled all the way from North to South, East to West with ever-changing names, accents and idioms and yet retains its inherent genre and character.
The reprint of Grahame Bailey's History of Urdu Literature is a valuable contribution to the subject that has been relegated to a somewhat insignificant slot despite its vital importance as the national language of a country as big as Pakistan.  Pakistanis, let's painfully accept, are doing little to place Urdu on the high pedestal it deserves regardless of the increasing gravitational pulls of the regional  languages  including Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and Pushto. Punjab, the largest publication house practitioner and promoter of Urdu, is gradually showing a preference for Punjabi as a spoken language, without in any way diminishing its role in promoting Urdu as a literary language.
Without prejudice to the status and growth potential of the regional languages, the importance of a single national language can hardly be exaggerated.  The growing tendency to speak the local language and write in Urdu, though perfectly natural, unless judiciously balanced, can create — in fact has created — a sort of a split mind and the confused thinking that goes with it.
Added to this is the increasing use of English as the medium for the study of science and technology, even more so as a recognised status symbol.  The 'O' and 'A' levels texts, especially of history and literature have created a class system to set the English-speaking students apart from the madressa types. Apart from excellence in English, the courses of study followed and the academic years (examination schedules) observed produce a class distinction that is distasteful and inconsistent with a shared citizenship.
The Urdu wallas, no matter how promising and diligent, are often placed a notch below the English wallas not just socially but also in terms of jobs opportunities.
While it would be unfair to belittle the value of Bailey's work as a valuable asset scholars of Urdu literature and history, its relevance to the language's current post-partition status, particularly in India and Pakistan, its native homes, remains essentially pedantic.
Except for research dissertations in learned journals, not much seems to have been attempted on the fate overtaking Urdu after 1947. Whose language is it? Does it belong to Delhi or Luknow, Deccan, Bihar or Bollywood? It is hard to guess. However Urdu is here to stay and flourish as the lingua franca. And let there be no doubt about that.
Urdu helped to throw open the iron-clad gates of India to the rest of the world. While the Taj Mahal stands out as the gem of Mughal art and architecture, Urdu dazzles as the jewel in the crown — both as an invaluable literary medium and the lingua franca or the Khari Boli.
The word Urdu (meaning lashkar or troop) emanated from the invading Muslim armies of the sultans and the Mughals who were quartered in the city of Delhi.  The soldiers and local populace met in daily intercourse and needed a common language to communicate. It was this need that gave rise to the birth and development of Urdu.
Amir Khusro used Urdu in both a 'narrow' and 'wider' sense. The wider sense includes Ganga-Jamni Urdu whereas Hindi or 'Hindvi' comprising dialects like Braj and Khari. Khari uses very few Persian words, unlike Urdu especially in its pre-modern classical mode which is almost an Urdu or Hindised version of Persian.
'By a strange reversal of the decrees of fate', Bailey says, Khari Boli, the spoken language of the bazaar took the better of the chaste Urdu-i-Mau'alla.
The relevance of history as a record and reappraisal of the past is absolute for the guidance of the present and the future.  What is more important, however, is to place on record and analyse the current developments and challenges beyond what is provided in the available history books.— A. R. Siddiqi
 Books & Authors reserves the right to edit excerpts from books for reasons of clarity and space.
The book was first published in 1932 and regards the formative Deccan period as being important for the development of the Urdu language and equally  for its poets.
T. Grahame Bailey obtained his D.Litt. from the University of Edinburgh and became a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. He retired from this position in 1940 and died two years later.
Excerpted with permission from
A History of Urdu Literature
By T. Grahame Bailey
Introduction by Muhammad Reza Kazimi
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN 978-0-19-547518-0
115pp. Rs250



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