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The Persian language in the Indian subcontinent (Persian: زبان فارسی در شبه قاره هند), before the British colonization, was the region's lingua franca and a widely used official language in North India. The language was brought into South Asia by various Turkic and Afghan dynasties, in particular the Turko-Afghan Ghurid Dynasty, Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Dynasty. Persian held official status in the court and the administration within these empires.
Persian's linguistic legacy in the region is apparent through its impact on the Indic languages. It played a formative role in the emergence of Hindi and Urdu (Hindustani), and had a relatively strong influence on Punjabi, Sindhi, and Kashmiri. Other languages like Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Rajasthani, and Odia also have a considerable amount of loan words from Persian.
Persian's official status was replaced with English in 1835 by British East India Company. After 1843, Hindi/Urdu and English gradually replaced Persian in importance in the Indian subcontinent as the British had full suzerainty over it.
Persian's arrival in the Indian subcontinent was the result of a larger trend in Greater Iran. In the aftermath of the Muslim conquest of Persia, new Iranian-Islamic empires were emerging, reviving Persian culture in a new Islamic context. This period is known as the Iranian Intermezzo, spanning the 9th to 10th centuries, and reestablished in the Persian language the refinement and prestige that Arabic had laid claim to. The Samanids were one of the more significant leaders of this development.
These empires were affecting Turkic peoples in and around the region in two primary ways:
- They inherited the Abbasid tradition of employing Turkic slave warriors in their military, which assimilated them into a Persianate culture. These warriors were able to rise up the ranks and gain political power, effectively creating a class of Turko-Persian conquerors.
- Their rule extended over the Turkic peoples of Transoxiana. This began to Persianize them, and some were absorbed into the courts.
This assimilation of Turkic culture led to the synthesis of what is called the Turko-Persian tradition. The warrior class that emerged from this had Persian tastes; for example, Mahmud of Ghazni was a great patron of Persian writers such as Farrukhi.
Immediately adjacent to the lands of the Persians and Turks, the Indian subcontinent became a target for these new conquerors looking to establish themselves, and they would carry with them the roots of Persian's 800-year presence in India.
The Ghaznavid conquests introduced Persian to the Indian subcontinent. As Persianate power consolidated itself in India, the centers of Persian literary patronage shifted from Ghazna to the Punjab (Lahore, Uch, Multan), and Delhi in the 13th century, through the exploits of the post-Ghurid slave kings. This began a steady influx of Persian poets and scholars from Iran, Khorasan, and other parts of the Persianate world, which was increased when the Mongols overran Asia. Notable Persian poets of this early period include Abu-al-Faraj Runi and Masud Sa'd Salman, both born in the Indian subcontinent.
Persian was thereafter furthered by various Islamic dynasties across Northern India, all of whom adopted it as the language of the court. The 13th and 14th centuries saw the Delhi Sultanate, under the Khiljis and Tughluqs, sponsor many literary works in Persian. Celebrated poet Amir Khusrau produced much of his work in this period. Persian established itself as far as the Deccan, through the Bahmanis and their successors. The language was simultaneously diffusing outside of Islamic nobility; by the early 16th century, Hindus had begun to learn the language for purposes of employment, and there is evidence of Hindus even teaching the language in this period.
Persian experienced a revival with the advent of the Mughal emperors (1526–1857), under whom the language reached its zenith. This was not only because of the Mughals' Timurid roots: Humayun's reconquest of India was with the aid of Safavid Iran, and ushered many Iranians into India. His successor Akbar developed these ties by attracting many Persian literati from Safavid Iran. Akbar's heavy patronage of Persian effectively transitioned the Mughal royals from Central Asian to Persian court culture, leading to a "golden age" of Persian literature in India for the next 200 years. Additionally, Akbar's secular and pluralist rule resulted in many Hindus becoming open to learning the language, and he introduced educational reforms that emphasized Persian learning. He became the first king in India to institute Persian as the sole "official" language, a policy the Mughal Empire would retain till its demise. Persian took prominence as the language of culture, education, and prestige, resulting in a process of "Persianization" by which many Indian communities increasingly adopted the language for social purposes. In this way, Persian became a second language to many across North India.
Apart from the realm of the court, Persian also spread through religion, particularly the Islamic faith of Sufism. Many Sufi missionaries to India had Persian roots, and although they used local Indic languages to reach their followers, they used Persian to converse amongst each other and write literature. This resulted in a diffusion process into the local followers of the faith. Sufi centers (Khanqah) served as focal points for this cultural interaction. Sufism also interacted with Hinduism through the Bhakti movement; Abidi and Gargesh speculate that this could have further introduced Persian to locals.
Following Aurangzeb's death, Persian began to fall into decline, being displaced by Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu). Beginning in 1843, English accompanied Hindustani in phasing out Persian's importance on the subcontinent. Colonial-era poet Muhammad Iqbal's Persian literature is considered the last great instance of the Indo-Persian tradition.
Evidence of Persian's historical influence can be seen in the extent of its influence on certain languages of the Indian subcontinent. Words borrowed from Persian are still quite commonly used in certain Indo-Aryan languages, especially Urdu (also historically known as Hindustani), Punjabi and Sindhi.
As the primary entry point and frontier region of the Indian subcontinent, the Punjab region has had a long association with the Persian language. Following the defeat of the Hindu Shahi dynasty, classical Persian was established as a courtly language in the region during the late 10th century under Ghaznavid rule. After Lahore was made the second capital of the Ghaznavids, it played host to great poets in the court, and was settled by many Persian-speakers from the West. The first Indian-born Persian poet was from Lahore.
In the 13th century, Nasiruddin Qabacha declared himself independent of the Ghurids. His dominion, the Sindh, was conducive to Persian literary activity at the centers of Multan and Uch, where Muhammad Aufi wrote the Lubab ul-Albab.
Employed by Punjabis in literature, Persian achieved prominence in the region during the following centuries, as the region came under the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. The Sikh gurus sometimes used Persian in their literature - examples are the Zafarnama and the Hikāyatān. Persian continued to act as a courtly language for various empires in Punjab through the early 19th century. It served finally as the official state language of the Sikh Empire, preceding British conquest and the decline of Persian in South Asia. Muhammad Iqbal, a Punjabi, was one of the last prolific writers of Persian in the subcontinent.
The Bengal Sultanate witnessed an influx of Persian scholars, lawyers, teachers and clerics. Thousands of Persian books and manuscripts were published in Bengal. The period of the reign of Sultan Ghiyathuddin Azam Shah, is described as the "golden age of Persian literature in Bengal". Its stature was illustrated by the Sultan's own correspondence and collaboration with the Persian poet Hafez; a poem which can be found in the Divan of Hafez today. An excerpt:
Šakkar-šakan šavand hama tūtīyān-e Hend
All the parrots of India will crack sugar
A Bengali register emerged amongst the common Bengali Muslim folk, based on a Persian model. Known in the modern-day as Dobhashi among other names, this register of Bengali was patronised and given official status under the Sultans of Bengal; whose first language was Persian, and was the most popular literary form used by Bengalis during the pre-colonial period, irrespective of their religion.
In the 16th century, the Bengal region came under the Mughals to form the Bengal Subah. The imposition of Mughal administrative practices on the region meant that the populace came into contact with officers that did not know Bengali. This led to locals learning the Persian language in order to communicate with them.
Although considerably distanced from North India, the Deccan was also a recipient of Persian's linguistic impact. Persianate culture was brought to the Deccan fleetingly through the efforts of the Delhi Sultanate in the early 14th century. Persian finally gained a foothold in the region with the establishment of the Bahmani Sultanate in 1347, which used the language for official purposes. The dynasty had a great interest in Persian culture, and several members of it were proficient in the language, producing their own literature. Literati from Northern India found themselves welcome at the court, and scholars from Iran were invited as well. Madrasas were built over the expanse of the kingdom, most notably the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa at Bidar, where Persian was taught.
The Bahmani Sultanate later splintered into the Deccan Sultanates, which were also Persianate in culture. They too adopted Persian as an official language, and patronized Persian literature. This patronage continued when Aurangzeb conquered the Deccan in the late 17th century, bringing the Deccan into the Mughal Empire.
Major cities of this region that served as centers of Persian patronage included Gulbarga, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda. Notable Persian literature produced includes Futuh-us-Salatin, and the Bahmannamaah.
Influence on Indic languages
As a prestige language and lingua franca over a period of 800 years in the Indian subcontinent, Persian exerted a vast influence over numerous Indic languages. One of the main impacts was the transfer of loanwords into virtually every sphere of usage. Many Arabic words also entered through Persian.
Abidi and Gargesh provide the following lengthy list of loanword categories: (Regal) titles, parts of the body, kinship terms, food, clothing, place names, rooms of the house, ornaments, fruits, vegetables, animals, flora, professions, agriculture, law, administration, writing, measurement, and military. Many of these words have been loaned into all the impacted languages, rather than just Hindustani.
Several place names were and are formed using Persian suffixes. Examples include -abad (Ahmedabad, Hyderabad) and -ganj (Raiganj), both used for towns and cities. The suffix -stan (Balochistan, Kohistan, Hindustan) is used for generally larger geographic areas, and its usage is ubiquitous in Asia.
A lesser but notable impact of Persian is the transfer of simple grammatical structures. These are the ezāfe (Salaam-e-Ishq, Sher-e-Bangla) and -o- (roz-o-shab). They inherit the same meaning as Persian, but are generally used in more formal, literary contexts. They appear in multiple impacted languages, but to varying extents, with the most usage occurring in Urdu.
The prevalence of Persian also resulted in the Perso-Arabic script being adopted for several languages, such as Hindustani (Urdu), Punjabi (Shahmukhi), Sindhi, and Kashmiri. Their alphabets differ slightly to accommodate unique sounds not found in Persian. Additionally, the Nastaliq calligraphy style popularized by Persian is almost universally used when writing these languages in their Perso-Arabic form.
There are many stone carvings and plasters of Persian inscriptions in India. There are also many handwritten books mostly from the time of Humayun, a Mughal emperor who had heavy admiration for anything West Asian, and Persian in particular. Humayun lost Mughal territories to the Pashtun noble, Sher Shah Suri, but, with the aid of the powerful West Asian Safavids, regained them 15 years later. Humayun's return from Persia, accompanied by a large retinue of Persian noblemen, signaled an important change in Mughal court culture, as the Central Asian origins of the dynasty were largely overshadowed by the influences of Persian art, architecture, language, and literature. There are many carved stones and Persian manuscripts in the Indian subcontinent from the time of Humayun.
The Persian language is now largely defunct in the Indian subcontinent. Some colleges and universities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh offer Persian as a course of study. There is also a small population of Zoroastrian Iranis in India, who migrated in the 19th century to escape religious persecution in Qajar Iran and speak a Dari dialect.
- Indo-Persian culture
- Lisan ud-Dawat, Perso-Arab-influenced Gujarati
- Persian Inscriptions on Indian Monuments (book)
Calligraphy of Persian poems (18th century)
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