Vol. 2    Issue 6   16-31 July 2007
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family
  Persian Language and Literature in India
Professor A. R. Momin

We are living in a world which is bedevilled by an atmosphere of mistrust and conflict between cultures, civilizations and nations. Satellite television and computer technology are making us increasingly aware of this disturbing reality. Samuel Huntington and others of his ilk regard this as a manifestation of an inevitable clash of civilizations. This is a short-sighted and distorted view which has been rightly rebuked and denounced by some of the world’s leading writers, intellectuals and statesmen. Unfortunately, such views overshadow the much larger reality of understanding, exchange and cooperation among peoples and cultures, which has been in existence since the dawn of civilization.

The Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen has pointed out that one of the distinctive features of Indian civilization is its inclusive, interactive openness. The Indian subcontinent has experienced one of the most creative and ingenious experiments in cultural cross-fertilization. The fabric of Indian civilization has been woven from strands, pigments and designs drawn from a variety of sources. Close interaction and exchange between Hindus and Muslims as well as other communities gave rise to a magnificent composite heritage. This heritage is reflected in languages and literary compositions, arts and crafts, architecture, etiquette and manners, music, cuisine and dress patterns.

Commercial and cultural relations between India and Persia go back to ancient times. Persians are frequently mentioned in Sanskrit literature, especially in Vishnu Puran, as Parasika. There seems to be a striking similarity between Vedic gods and goddesses and ancient Iranian and Hittite deities. The cult of sun-worship was brought to India by the Magas who migrated from Sakadvip or Persia around the first century B.C. Initially they were not admitted into Hindu rituals and ceremonies but in the course of time they were absorbed into Vedic society and came to be known as Sakadvip or Maga Brahmans. It is interesting to note that the word Hindu is of Persian origin. The Persepolis and Naqsh-e-Rustam inscriptions of Emperor Darius (d. 486 B.C.) refer to the frontier regions of the Indus as Hindush. The term was later used in Arabic geographical and historical sources. Pahlavi inscriptions in some churches in south India point to the immigration of Nestorian Christians from Persia to Malabar in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Sociolinguistics and ethnolinguistics inform us that language and culture are closely intertwined, that language reflects the world-view, epistemology and cultural patterns of society, that language significantly conditions our perception and thought processes. Comparative linguistics tells us that when two or more cultures are in close contact over a period of time, there takes place a process of cultural exchange and hybridization, which influences customs, habits and languages. This has been a conspicuous feature of Indian civilization.

India is perhaps the most diverse country in the world. This diversity is reflected in the ethnic composition of population, languages and dialects, religious beliefs and practices, customs and traditions. The Turkish sultans spoke Turkish as their mother tongue, but their literary and cultural language was Persian. For nearly six hundred years Persian enjoyed a position of cultural, political and literary pre-eminence in India. Consequently, it influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, a large number of Indian languages.

Sufism and Persian

Sufism has played a highly important role in the religious, cultural and literary life of the Indian subcontinent. Persian mystic literature, particularly the compositions of Sufi poets like Abu Sa’id Abul Khayr, Sa’di, Hafiz, Mawlana Rum and Fakhruddin Attar, enjoyed great popularity in the Sufi circles of Delhi and other cities. All the transcribed conversations (malfuzat) of Sufi saints were written in Persian. Persian Sufi poetry served as an eloquent and highly effective medium for the expression of mystic experiences, ideals and symbolism. Sufi saints of the Chishtiya order were particularly fond of sessions in which mystic poetic compositions were recited by professional qawwals. It is reported that in the last days of his life, a prominent Sufi saint of Delhi, Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (d. 1235), was engrossed in listening to the recitation of a Persian ghazal by a qawwal. When the qawwal recited the following verse, the saint went into a trance.

For those killed by the dagger of submission,
There is, from an unknown source,
Another life in every age!

When he came back to his senses after a while, he asked the qawwal to recite the same verse again and when the qawwal repeated the verse, the saint went into trance once again. This went on for four days. The saint would come back to his senses at the time of prayers and, following the prayers, he would ask the qawwal to repeat the same verse. On the fifth day he breathed his last in the same condition.

The celebrated 13th century Sufi saint of Delhi, Khwaja Nizamuddin Awliya (d. 1325), used to often the following verses of Shaykh Abu Sai’d Abul Khayr.

He who is not my friend—
May God be his friend.
And he who causes me distress—
May his joy increase.
He who places thorns in my path—
With malice in his heart,
May every flower that blooms in the garden
of his life
Be without a single thorn.

It is no exaggeration to say that no other language, apart from Sanskrit which is the mother of all modern Indo-European languages in the country, has left such a deep and enduring influence on Indian languages as Persian. There exist nearly 90 complete or partial translations of the Ramayana in Persian. One of them, said to have been rendered by Emperor Akbar’s famous courtier Abul Fazl, is profusely illustrated in gold dust and mother-of-pearl. It is in possession of Chiranji Lal Sehgal, a resident of south Delhi. The number of translations of the Ramayana in Urdu are even more numerous. The most popular rendering of the epic in the Awadhi dialect is Ramcharitmanas of Goswami Tulsidas. This version contains a large number of Persian and Arabic words.

Some years ago, Dr. Ata Karim Barq of Calcutta University had submitted a doctoral thesis to a German university on the influence of Persian on the Bengali language. Among other things, Bengali borrowed from Persian 19 forms of metre and the ghazal form. A similar kind of work has been done in respect of Asamese. Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Marathi have a substantial vocabulary of Persian words. What is remarkable is that all such words have become an inseparable part of the vocabulary of these languages. A large number of Arabic words, which are found in Indian languages, found their way through the medium of Persian. In some cases, Persian and Arabic words were adapted to local usage or combined with words from local languages. Hundreds of Persian words are still in use in Indian languages in respect of household utensils, ornaments, flowers, fruits, animals, plants and trees, occupational categories, agriculture, music, trade and commerce, architecture and legal and administrative matters. These include khoon (blood), nakhun (nails), zuban (tongue, language), punja (hand), seena (chest), baghal (under-arm), darwaza (door), kursi (chair), damad (son-in-law), shadi (marriage), qamees (shirt), izar (trousers), mewa (dry fruit), badam (almond), angoor (grapes), kishmish (dried grapes), anar (pomegranate), kharbooza (melon), seb (apple), zewar (jewellery) shehtut (mulberry), zafran (saffron), saunf (aniseed), nashpati (pear), amrud (guava), tarbooz (melon), gulab (rose), qand (yam), zeera (cumin seeds), etc.

It is significant to note that the influence of Persian is not confined to Muslims alone but has also encompassed other communities. For example, the commonly used word in Bengali and Assamese for consecrated food—which is known as prasad in northern and western India—is shirini, which is of Persian origin. The influence of Persian is also reflected in personal names among Hindus and Sikhs. Such names as Iqbal Singh, Upendra Bakhshi, Shamsher Bahadur, Darban Singh, Tegh Bahadur, Munshi Ram, Khushwant Singh, Faqir Chand and Hukum Chandare quite common in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In Emperor Akbar’s court there was a Hindu poet of Persian, knwn as Mirza Manohar Tausani. During the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir the Kayasthas, an upper caste among Hindus, acquired a high degree of proficiency in Persian language and literature, especially Persian epistlography. One of the rulers of Rajasthan, Raja Man Singh, had built a palace in the Rohtas Fort. The door of the palace bears a Persian inscription. Similarly, the gate of the grand fort at Jaipur bears a Persian inscription.

Rabindranath Tagore is widely known in India and abroad as an authentic symbol of Indian civilization. His father, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, was very fond of Persian poetry. He knew most of the ghazals of Hafiz by heart and used to recite them with great pleasure and felicity. When he was on his death-bed he requested that one of his favourite ghazals of Hafiz be recited. Someone recited the ghazal which begins with the following verse:

Lo! O bar tender! Draw the goblet and pour,
For love appears easy in the beginning,
But the end of it is hard!

When the ghazal came to an end, he departed for his heavenly abode. Rabindranath Tagore once observed that he and his family were a product of the influence of three cultures, namely, Hindu, Muslim and British. He grew up in a family atmosphere in which a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Hindu scriptures was combined with an appreciative understanding of Persian literature. The humanistic and cosmopolitan outlook, which is such a distinctive feature of Tagore’s thought, owed a great deal to the emancipatory influence of Persian literature.

The pervasive influence of Persian on Indian languages as well as cultural traditions reflects the interactive openness of Indian civilization. On the other hand, Persian language played an important role in the evolution and enrichment of India’s composite cultural legacy. It served as a bridge of understanding and reconciliation between Hindus, Muslims and other communities in the Indian subcontinent.

India’s contribution to Persian language and literature

The story of the significance of Persian in India will remain incomplete without recounting the wide-ranging and outstanding contributions of Indian writers and poets to the enrichment of Persian language and literature. These contributions cover the translation of Sanskrit works into Persian under the patronage of emperors and kings, compositions in Persian, archival material, including manuscripts, and the printing of Persian books.

Many emperors, kings and princes commissioned the translation of works from Sanskrit and other Indian languages into Persian. Emperor Firoz Tughluq commissioned the translation of important Sanskrit works into Persian. A treatise on Hindu astronomy and astrology was translated into Persian under the title Dalail-i- Firuz Shahi. Sultan Zainul Abideen of Kashmir (1420-1470) commissioned the translation of the Mahabharata into Kashmiri. During the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, Atharva Veda, Ramayana and Mahabharata were rendered into Persian. Emperor Akbar’s revenue minister Todar Mal translated the Bhagvata Purana into Persian. Dara Shikoh, who was well-versed in Sanskrit, translated the Upanishads into Persian—called Sirr-i-Akbar—in1656. Sir William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the father of comparative Indo-European linguistics, was first introduced to the Upanishads through Dara Shikoh’s translation. In the 18th century, a French scholar Anquetil du Perron rendered Dara Shikoh’s translation into Latin, which was published from Paris in 1801. The celebrated philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer turned into an admirer of Indian philosophy after reading this translation. Thus Indian scholars and men of letters played a pioneering role in expanding the horizons of Persian literature, in laying the foundations of Indology, and in introducing India’s rich intellectual legacy to Europe.

Indian writers and poets made seminal and wide-ranging contributions to Persian mystic literature, Persian lexicography, poetry and historiography. The oldest book on Sufism in Persian, Kashf al-Mahjub (Unveiling the Veiled), was written in India by Shaykh Ali Hujwiri in the 12th century. The first Persian translation of Shhyakh Shihabuddin Suharwardi’s classic work Awarif al-Ma’arif was accomplished in India. The first complete Persian translation of Imam Ghazali’s magnum opus Ihya Ulum al-Din was done in India in the 13th century. A number of commentaries in Persian on Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi’s classic Mathnawi were written by Sufi scholars in India.

The first chronicle of Persian poets, Lubab al-Albab, was written by Awfi in 1220. The oldest book in Persian on techniques of warfare—calledAdab al harb wal-shuja’a—was written by Fakhr Mudabbir in the 13th century. A highly significant contribution of Indian writers relates to Persian lexicography. The second oldest Persian lexicon, called Farhang-i-Qawwas, was written in India in the 13th century. Another significant Persian lexicon, called Farhang dastur al-afadhil, was compiled by Hajib Khayrat Dehlavi in 1342.

It is significant to note that Hindu writers and poets, for whom Persian was a foreign and secondary language, made a significant contribution to Persian lexicography, epistlography and poetry. Dr. Sayyid Abdullah of Oriental College, Lahore, has written a learned and comprehensive treatise on the subject. In respect of Persian lexicography, mention should be made of Bahar-i-Ajam by Tek Chand Bahar and Miartul Istilah by Anand Ram Mukhlis. Chandra Bhan Brahman and Jaswant Rai Munshi were accomplished poets in Persian and had a diwan to their credit. Bhopat Rai composed a mathnawi in Persian.

A large number of Indian poets made outstanding contributions to Persian literature. Mention may be made of Mas’ud Sa’ad Salman (d. 1121), Amir Khusrau (d.1325), Amir Hasan Dehlavi, Faizi, Urfi, Naziri, Saib, Kaleem, Bedil, Ghalib and Iqbal.

The quantum and range of archival material in Persian, especially manuscripts, that have survived the ravages of time in India, are truly amazing. Half of the eight oldest Persian manuscripts dating from the 10th and 11th centuries are found in India. They are older than any Persian manuscript found in Iran. The Cama Institute in Mumbai has the oldest illustrated manuscript of Firdawsi’s Shahnama. The second oldest manuscript of the diwan of Hafiz, written in 1415, is preserved in Hyderabad.

A number of rare Persian manuscripts were first printed in India. Interestingly, Naval Kishore Press in Lucknow and Lala Chiranjilal in Delhi, both Hindu publishers, have rendered a great service to the printing of Persian books in India. The Persian translation of Tabari’s monumental Tarikh was published for the first time by Naval Kishore and later in Tehran. Fih ma Fih, a collection of Mawlana Rum’s letters addressed to one of his disciples, was edited and published for the first time in India by Mawlana Abdul Majid Daryabadi in 1924.

It is interesting to note that quite a few words of Indian origin have found their way into Persian. Mention may be made of the Persian word qand, which was derived from the Sanskrit word khand. The Persian word, in turn, found its way into several European languages. Thus the English word candy and the German word kandis have been derived from the Persian word. The Sanskrit word karpas (cotton) found its way into Persian and became kirpas. The Persian and Arabic word for ginger is zanjabil, which is also mentioned in the Quran (76:17). This word is of Sanskrit origin, where it is known as shrangaver. The Persian and Arabic adaptation of this Sanskrit word became ginger in English, Ingwer in German, gingembre in French, zenzero in Italian and jengibre in Spanish. The Persian word sandal has been derived from the Prakrit word chandan. The Persian word sandal travelled to Europe and became sandalwood in English, santal in French, sandelholz in German and sandalo in Spanish. The English word musk (a strong aromatic substance derived from a gland of the male musk deer found in India, Tibet, China, Mongolia and Siberia) has been derived from the Persian word mushk, which in turn has been derived from the Sanskrit word mushka. Similarly, the English word camphor has been derived from the Persian and Arabic word kafur, which has been adapted from the Sanskrit word karpur. Since camphor tree is found in Borneo and Farmosa, the Sanskrit word was probably derived from the Malay word kapur.

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