Dobhashi (Bengali: দোভাষী, romanized: Dobhaśi, lit. 'bilingual'), is a neologism used to refer to a register which had the Middle Bengali language as its dialectal basis but was shifted to a highly Persianised format. Traditionally, it was the most customary form of writing in Bengali prior to the language's reformation during the colonial period. This style evolved in not only the Eastern Nagari script, but also in Sylheti Nagri as well as the modified Arabic script used in Greater Chittagong, West Bengal and Arakan. The register has had a major influence to the modern Bengali dialects of Eastern and Southeastern Bengal, such as Sylheti, Chittagonian and Rohingya among others.
Dobhashi means ‘bilingual’ in Bengali and implies that it contained vocabulary from Persian (and Arabic which Persian borrowed many words from itself). The term was supposedly coined by Muhammad Abdul Hye and Syed Ali Ahsan in their book History of Bengali literature published in 1968.
Musalmani Bengali (Bengali: মুসলমানী বাংলা, romanized: Musôlmānī Bānglā, Sylheti Nagri: ꠝꠥꠍꠟ꠆ꠝꠣꠘꠤ ꠛꠣꠋꠟꠣ, Perso-Arab: مسلمانی بانگلا) was coined later on in the nineteenth century by James Long, an Anglican priest. However, this term is considered incorrect as historically it has also been used by non-Muslim Bengalis as well.
Dobhashi was a very versatile vernacular, and in poetry, it could grammatically change to adapt to Persian grammar without sounding odd to the reader. Dobhashi was also used for forms of story-telling like Puthi, Kissa, Jangnama, Raag, Jari, Hamd, Na`at and Ghazal. Dobhashi writers were multilingual and multi-literate enabling them to study and engage with Persian, Arabic and Bengali literature. Dobhashi manuscripts are paginated from right to left, imitating the Arabic alphabet-tradition.
Dobhashi Bengali in the Bengali alphabet
- দফা ১: তামাম ইনসান আজাদ ভাবে সমান ইজ্জত আর হক লইয়া পয়দা হয়। তাঁহাদের হুঁশ ও আকল আছে; এই কারণে জরূরী আছে যে একজন বেরাদরী মন লইয়া আরেক জনের সাথে মিলিয়া মিশিয়া থাকে।
Dobhashi Bengali in phonetic Romanization
- dofa ek: tamam insan azad bhabe shôman izzôt ar hôk lôiya pôyda hôy. tãhader hũsh o akôl achhe; ei karôṇe zorūrī achhe je ekjôn beradôrī môn lôiya arek jôner shathe miliya mishiya thake.
- Point 1: All humans free manner-in equal dignity and right taken birth be. Their conscience and intelligence exist; this reason-in important is that one-person brotherhood-ly mind taken another person's with matching mingling remains.
- Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They possess conscience and reason. Therefore, everyone should act in a spirit of brotherhood towards each other.
The arrival of merchants and traders from Arabia, Persia and Turkestan to the Buddhist Pala Empire from as early as the 7th century gave birth to the Islamic influence in the modern-day Bengal region. Starting with Bakhtiyar Khalji's conquest in the 13th century, the subsequent Muslim expeditions to Bengal greatly encouraged the migratory movements of Muslim Turco-Persians and Arabs, who settled among the native population and greatly influenced the local language. Thus Bengali derived a large number of words from Persian and Arabic, which cultivated a form of Islamic culture on the language.
Dobhashi-style poetry (poetry using a mixed, off-Bengali language) is rarely produced today, but was in fact the most customary form of writing in Middle Bengali literature during the Sultanate and Mughal eras of Bengali history. Dobhashi was practised and taught culturally among households but was also promoted and supported by the Muslim dynasties who ruled over Bengal, establishing Bengali as an official language alongside Persian and Arabic. This period displayed the earliest emergence of Bengali Muslim literature, featuring Islamic terminology such as Allah, Rasul and Alim for the first time.
The late 14th-century Sultan of Bengal, Ghiyathuddin Azam Shah, Turco-Persian in origin, was a patron of literature and poetry. His court poet, Shah Muhammad Saghir, a Bengali Muslim, was a pioneer in the emergence of Dobhashi literature. His works included Yusuf-Zulekha and he is considered to be the first Bengali Muslim and Dobhashi writer. 15th-century works included Zayn ad-Din's Rasul-bijoy, Syed Sultan's Shab-i-Miraj, Bahram Khan's Laily-Majnu, Dawlat Qazi Arakani's Chandrani Sati Maina. By the end of the 15th century, it could be seen that the use of this register was not limited to Muslims. Hindus such as Bipradas Pipilai and the Chandimangal poets had begun implementing the "mixed language".
In the Sylhet and Bankura areas, the use of a modified Kaithi script became popular, which in the former area would be standardised in the 19th century and become known as Sylheti Nagri. This is thought to have happened during Bengal's 15th-century Hindu and Sanskrit reawakening led by Krishna Chaitanya.
মানসিংহ পাতশায় হইল যে বাণী, উচিত যে আরবী পারসী হিন্দুস্থানী;
পড়িয়াছি সেই মত বৰ্ণিবারে পারি, কিন্তু সে সকল লোকে বুঝিবারে ভারি,
না রবে প্রসাদ গুণ না হবে রসাল, অতএব কহি ভাষা যাবনী মিশাল।
mansingh patshay hôilô je baṇī, uchit je arôbī, parsī, hindustanī
poriyachhi shei môtô bôrṇibare pari, kintu she shôkôl loke bujhibare bhari
na rôbe prôshad guṇ na hôbe rôshal, ôtôeb kôhi bhasha jabônī mishal
This translates to: "The appropriate language for conversation between Mansingh and the Emperor are Arabic, Persian and Hindustani. I had studied these languages, and I could use them; but they are difficult for people to understand. They lack grace and juice (poetic quality). I have chosen, therefore, the Yāvanī-mixed language".
According to the 19th-century Chittagonian historian and Persian scholar, Hamidullah Khan, the contemporary 17th-century Arakanese poet Alaol borrowed many linguistic techniques and ideas from Persian literature. Alaol's works included Padmavati, Saif al-Mulk Badi uz-Zaman, Haft Paikar and Sikandarnama. Alaol gained recognition from other Arakanese poets such as Quraishi Magan Thakur. There were many other 17th-century poets who were polyglot in a number of languages such as Abdul Hakim of Sandwip and Hayat Mahmud.
Shah Faqir Gharibullah of Howrah was a very prominent Dobhashi writer who is said to have introduced its use in Western Bengal. He initiated the trend of Muslim puthis with the puthi Amir Hamza and his successors even transcribed his Bengali works using the Arabic script. Another notable example of the use of Arabic script is a late 19th-century Bengali theological work, which is now kept in the Bangladesh National Museum.
Medieval tales of Persian origin such as Gul-e-Bakavali were being translated to Dobhashi and being popularised in Bengal. Dobhashi puthis about the latter tale were written by the likes of Munshi Ebadat Ali in 1840. Muhammad Fasih was also a renowned Dobhashi puthi writer who was known to have written a 30-quatrain chautisa (poetic genre using all letters of the alphabet) using Arabic letters, totalling 120 lines.
The famous Bangladeshi academic, Wakil Ahmed, states that Jaiguner Puthi (Puthi of Jaigun), written by Syed Hamzah of Udna, Hooghley in 1797, is "one of the finest examples" of puthis in Dobhashi. It took inspiration from earlier Bengali Muslim works such as Hanifar Digbijoy by Shah Barid Khan and Hanifar Lorai by Muhammad Khan (1724). Muhammad Khater was a late Dobhashi writer who wrote a puthi about ill-fated lovers in 1864, taking inspiration from the 16th century Bengali poet Dawlat Wazir Bahram Khan.
The English Education Act 1835 banned the use of Persian and Arabic in education. Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, an employee of the East India Company, wrote books on Bengali language and considered the Perso-Arab vocabulary as pollutants and dismissed them from his works. Dobhashi is considered to have lost popularity as the Nadia variant of Bengali (inspired by the highly Sanskritised Shadhu-bhasha), became more institutionalised by the British, who worked alongside the educated Brahmins who chose to learn English, and created a standard (shuddho) form of Bengali. In reaction to Sanskritisation, educated Bengali Muslims, refusing to learn English, took to the initiative to revive Dobhashi literature hoping to maintain their identity and linguistic traditions. The dialect came to be known as Musalmani Bengali since then. In the mid-nineteenth century, printing houses in Calcutta and across Bengal, were producing hundreds and hundreds of Musalmani Bengali literature. In 1863, Nawab Abdul Latif founded the Mohammedan Literary Society. The Christian Missionaries in Bengal also translated the Bible into what they called "Musalmani Bangla" in order for Bengali Muslims, that were uneducated in English and the standardised Bengali, to understand.
Nowadays, traditional Dobhashi is mostly used for research purposes though it is sometimes used to achieve particular literary effects. Remnants of the register are present in regional Bengali dialects, in particular amongst rural Muslim communities in eastern Bengal. The 20th century educationist and researcher, Dr Kazi Abdul Mannan (d. 1994), wrote his thesis on The Emergence and Development of Dobhasi Literature in Bengal (up to 1855 AD) for his PhD from Dhaka University in 1966.
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