COLUMNS / Past Present Continuous
Sohail Hashmi
A film maker and history buff, he visits places and lets us in on little known secrets, which you can look out for when you reach there

The story of Urdu-I
Urdu was born in the subcontinent and till today continues to be spoken principally and primarily here

The story of the rise of Urdu over the last 700 years and more is in many ways also the story of the social and cultural history of Indo-Gangetic plains. It was here, principally in Delhi, where the language was born and it was to Delhi that it returned to evolve into a vehicle for beautiful poetic expression, refreshing prose and the medium through which the desire for freedom from colonial rule was first articulated.

Despite the absolutely erroneous but popularly propagated and held idea that this is the language of Muslims and that this is a foreign language, Urdu was born in the subcontinent and till today continues to be spoken principally and primarily within the subcontinent and by the South Asian diaspora. We will come to the question of its erroneous presentation a little later but before we come to that, let us try to trace the history of the evolution of this language.

The story of its origins might appear to be rather far-fetched when we locate the initial impulses for the growth of Urdu to ancient India, but that is where we have to begin.

We need to look at two sets of languages in ancient India – Sanskrit and the Prakrit group of languages. Sanskrit was the language of the elite and Prakrit the languages of the plebeians, or the common people. We need at this stage to disabuse ourselves of the idea that Sanskrit is, or was, the mother of all languages, a myth being propagated for a long time with the idea being pushed rather vociferously in recent times.

The word ‘sanskrit’ means ‘enriched’, as opposed to ‘prakrit’, natural from prakriti or nature. Prakrit languages were of the common people, born out of the cross pollination of diverse dialects that had evolved among the common people. It needs to be remembered that there were many Prakrits, whereas there was only one Sanskrit.

Sanskrit could not have evolved out of the blue; it actually developed through a prolonged process of selection and rejection and a gradual evolution of a syntax, a grammar and a vocabulary that enriched itself by selectively drawing from the Prakrits and emerging as a classical language in exactly the same manner in which Hebrew, Latin, Roman, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, classical music – Hindustani, Carnatic, Western – or the classic arts have evolved all over the world. All classical languages and arts are in fact distillates and refinements of folk languages, folk arts and folk crafts and it was the same in the case of Sanskrit.

The very idea that it is the language of gods was an attempt to privilege Sanskrit above the languages of the people. It is interesting to note that in the Judaic tradition, Hebrew and Aramaic, and in the Islamic tradition, classic Arabic have been presented as divine languages just as ‘Vedic Sanskrit’ was presented as the language of gods. Clearly this strategy of exclusion and dominance occurred to the newly emerging ruling elites across vastly different cultural, historical and geographic landscapes. Classical languages and arts develop and get enriched over a prolonged period, while the elite begin to try and control and channalise creative expression in its own interest. It is in this process that Sanskrit emerged as the language of the elite, just as Latin and Greek had done in Europe and Mandarin in China.

Mahavir Jain and Gautam Buddha, both Kshatriya princes born around the 6th century BC, were the first to challenge the Brahmanic order and the idea of status determined upon birth and the dominance of Sanskrit in matters spiritual. Both insisted on using Prakrits in their discourses and Buddha is believed to have asked his disciples to not translate his sermons in to Sanskrit because this would place them beyond the reach of the common people for whom his message was meant. It is this one single step that opened the doors of spiritual and philosophical discourses in the languages of the people and this led to the flourishing of a range of languages, derisively described as Apabhramshas – fallen languages – by the elite.

Among the large number of Apabhramshas that developed across the following centuries was Shurseni. It is in the nature of spoken languages that their inflections, tonalities, pronunciation and syntax betray variations across regions and so it was with the Apabhramshas. These Apabhramshas over the next few centuries, through the process of intermingling and cross pollination, grew into many dialects – our modern Indian languages, including, but not limited to, Gujarati, Sindhi, Marwari, Mewari, Hadauti, Punjabi, Khadi Boli, Saraiki, Bundelkhandi, Baghelkhandi, Braj, Awadhi, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Ahom, Oriya and a vast range of others. Many of them developed into full-fledged languages, many of these were to rise to the status of major literary languages and then gradually and fairly recently lost that status to other languages.

Professor Emeritus University of Calcutta, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, the renowned linguist and phonologist, has done seminal work in making us understand the processes that led to the evolution of the Indo-Aryan languages and the rise of Hindi/Urdu. Dr Masood Husain Khan, the great linguist and head of the Department of Linguistics at Aligarh Muslim University and the first Professor Emeritus from social sciences, was the first to establish through his research and through examples drawn from Braj, Haryanvi, Mewati and Khari Boli that these were born from the womb of Shurseni-Apabhramshas and that their emergence could not have occurred before the 10th Century AD.

Our understanding of the evolution of many of the North Indian languages, by and large, draws from the seminal contribution of these two great linguists of the 20th century.

So, in the 10th and 11th centuries, it is Braj, Haryanvi, Mewati and Khari Boli that hold sway in and around the region surrounding Delhi and 1,200 years later the picture is by and large still the same. But from the 12th century a new element is introduced into this region. People from Central Asia, who had been familiar with the lands to the east of Khyber and the Hindu Kush and to the south-east of the Karakoram through the influences of Budhhism across Kandhar and in the Bamyan region and beyond, through the agency of Asoka the Great and through trade links with the Silk Route, now begin to arrive in South Asia.

The new arrivals are not only those who have come to loot and to disappear; there are others as well, traders and travellers, scholars and sufis, craftpersons and artisans. It is these new arrivals who become mediums of exchange not only of goods but also of ideas, technology, attire, languages, music, architecture, other elements of culture and much else besides.

Among them is Abu Rehan Al Bairuni, who arrives in India in the first decades of the 11th century with Mahmud of Ghazni. Even as the armies clash amidst loot and plunder, Al Bairuni goes about dispassionately studying Sanskrit, holding discussions with Indian scholars, trying to understand the contribution of Indian scholarship in the fields of mathematics, geography, astronomy, philosophy and other sciences and to try and understand Brahmanism and ritualistic practices of India.

Al Bairuni, considered the first Indologist, writes Al Kitaab-ul-Hind, also known as Tarikh-ul-Hind, or ‘The Book of India’ or ‘The History of India’. It is through this work that the Arabs and later the Europeans learn of the scholarly traditions of India and her achievements in fields as diverse as mathematics, astronomy, geography, philosophy and others. It is the Kitab-ul-Hind that contributes to increasing interest in the achievements of India and into its diverse people and their rich culture.

It is also during this period that increasing trade between Central Asia and South Asia leads to mixing of languages. The Persian, Turkish and Pashtoon speaking traders, travellers, scholars and sufis travel the length and breadth of Punjab, Sindh, Kashmir, Haryana, Delhi, central India and territories around and beyond.

Just as today guides at the Taj, Khajuraho, Ajanta, Sanchi, Sarnath, Benaras, Delhi, Fatehpur Sikri and others can now converse in several languages, similarly the owners of the serais in Punjab, Multan, Sind, etc., began to converse in a creole that drew words from the languages of the visitors. Hence, a language known as Saraiki – the language of the serai – began to take shape. It is this language that the sufis, who had began settling in this area, communicated their messages of universal brotherhood to the increasing number of devotees that they had begun to acquire among the local populations.

Trade was growing and new technologies, like the spinning wheel and the Persian wheel, were introduced into the subcontinent, greatly transforming Indian agriculture. The technologies of paper-making and producing glazed pottery and tiles too arrived in India from China through Central Asia. Papier mache, carpet weaving, the dome, the arch and the minar, and the largescale use of crushed brick and limestone mortar also arrive in India through Central Asia. With these new technologies arrive new instruments and new terms for weighing and measuring quantity. These get absorbed in local languages and gradually a new language of the market-place begins to develop as a means of communication between desperately gesticulating, bargaining and haggling traders from South and Central Asia.

Armies marched across the subcontinent, trying to capture new territories. The officers in many of these armies spoke Turkish or Persian while the soldiers, young recruits mobilised from among the peasantry of the dusty plains of North-Central and East India, conversed in their diverse dialects like Punjabi, Sindhi, Haryanvi, Mewati, Braj, Rohelkhandi, Bundelkhandi, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Maithili and scores of other languages and dialects. To ensure that commands were understood and soldiers and officers were able to communicate with and understand the other, a new language, specific to the army camp filled with words peculiar to battlefields, camps and the specific needs of the army camp, began to develop. Very soon it came to be known as Lashkari, or of the camp.

Amidst all the noise of the market-place, the constant ebb and tide of fortunes leading to victories or defeats and the constantly unsettled conditions of the towns and country sides, there were quiet islands of calm where sufis belonging to four major traditions – the Chishti, the Qadri, the Suheawardi and the Naqshbandis – continued with their search of the eternal truth. Among them, the most influential and the most popular were the Chishtis – the great Chishtis saints were namely Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtyar Kaaki (1173-1235) Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325) and Nasiruddin Chiragh-e-Dehli (1274-1356). There were scores of other followers of the Chishti order and there were many belonging to the other silsilas, traditions that continued to stay at or around Delhi.

Many of these sufis followed the philosophical idea of ‘wahdat-ul-wijood’, or the ‘Unity of Being’, that found resonances in the Advait – non-dual strains of Indian philosophy – and so their message had a natural attraction for many who flocked to their hospices for spiritual solace.

The sufis, most of whom were learned men and wrote and communicated in their mother tongues, were quick to realise that if their message has to reach those who were in most need of spiritual solace, they would need to communicate in the language of the people. It is then that the sufis, and most specifically the Chishtis, make a clear break in their public discourses with Nizamuddin Auliya asking his favourite disciple, the polyglot, historian, musician, chronicler, mystic and poet Abul Hasan Yamin-ud-Din Khusrau, to write in the language of the people.

Khusrau lived till 1325 and saw the rise and fall of more than half a dozen kings. It was Khusrau who played a seminal role in the rise of Hindavi, a language that was to become the literary language of North India.

(The story will continue in the next issue)

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