History Of Urdu

History of Urdu
By Sanjeev Nayyar , November 2003

A couple of weeks ago, there was a very interesting article in the Economic Times that gave the break up of languages spoken by the people of Pakistan. Interestingly 48 % of the population speaks Punjabi while Urdu is spoken by only 8 %. I always thought that Urdu was the language of sub continent Muslims. A few weeks later there was a letter in the Outlook by Khushwant Singh where he complained that the Punjabis had killed Urdu in Punjab. An earlier essay titled Aligarh Movement read “Another development during this period was the emergence of Urdu as a literary language during the period 1818 to 1905”. Where did Urdu spring from?

The objective of this article is to trace the origins of Urdu and its development in Bharat starting with advent of Mughal rule (Persian-Arabic-Turkish were used by earlier rulers) and ending in 1947. I have also tried to find an answer to Khushwant Singh’s remarks and tell you how Urdu got caught in the Hindu Muslim pre 1947 crossfire. Incidental to the objective of this article was my realizing that Urdu has become another example of the Pan Islamic Muslim mind. The article has three chapters.
1. 1526 to 1707 A.D.
2. 1707 to 1947 A.D.
3. Analysis

1526 to 1707 Proto-Urdu    

Just to give you a perspective Mughal rule began with Babar in 1526 but started moving Southwards after the death of Islamic zealot, puritan Aurangzeb in 1707.

The word Urdu is derived from the Turki word Ordu, which meant “a military camp”. The language as we now know it had not come into existence during this period. Instead it was a product of the dialect used by the Muslims who ruled over Deccan and South India from the 14th century awards. The literary speech arising out of it, known as Dakhni or the Southern Speech may be traced back to the 15th century. It’s use was limited to the Deccan and South India and was used in literature by the Muslims of these regions who were less influenced by the local Hindu spirit of the dialects and languages of North India than the other Muslims living in North India. This difference becomes clearly manifest from the fact that the Perso-Arabian script was used in the Deccan, in writing from almost the beginning. Gradually the literature increasingly came under foreign influence in the sense that it became more and more Muslim and Persian in its attitude. However, it continued to retain till the end of the 17th century, a good deal of Indian vocabulary.

The chief centers of Dakhni literature were Gujarat, Golconda, Bidar, Bijapur and Aurangabad. It was patronized by amongst others Qutb Shahi Sultans of Golcondo, one of whom, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah was a gifted poet. One of his courtiers wrote a romantic poem whose theme was the love of this king, than a prince, for a Telegu Hindu girl named Bhagwati whom he later married, named the city built in her honor as Bhag-nagar and subsequently renamed with her Islamic name Haider-Begum. This became the city of Hyderabad. Various other poems were written by many rulers.

Dakhni literature flourished up to the end of the 17th century, but declined after the conquest of the Deccan and South India by Aurangzeb. By the first half of the 18th century, the mantle of Dakhni fell to the newly rising Urdu speech of Delhi into which this colonial form of a North India speech virtually merged and Urdu became well established with its present name by 1750.

The Persian literature produced during the heyday of the Mughal rule in India exercised a tremendous influence on the formation and shaping of regional literatures, especially those cultivated by the Muslims. One of the results was the evolution of literary Urdu. Other sister languages modeled on the Persian tradition are Punjabi, Pushtu, Sindhi, Baluchi and Kashmiri, all of which use the Persian script.

1707 to 1947      

1707 to 1815 - This period starts with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and ends with the Third Maratha War in 1818. It was an eventful period in the sense that it witnessed the end of Muslim rule, the rise and fall of the Maratha Empire and the foundation of the British Empire in India. In fact volume eight is named The Maratha Supremacy. If you want an answer to why was the volume named so, please go the history section and read Maratha Supremacy in the 18th century. In the post-Aurangzeb period, the status of the Persian language faced a challenge as a result of the collapse of the central authority of the Muslim rulers and the emergence of Urdu as the potential lingua franca of the country. However, it was not until 1837 that Persian ceased to be official language of India. Urdu, which later became the dominant language of education and administration, came only with the establishment of British rule over Punjab.

Delhi and Lucknow were the two centers of influence.

The Urdu poets of Delhi wrote under the influence of Wali (1667-1707), were partial to Iham, which was at that time practiced in Persian and Hindi especially in Dohas. The language continued to be in a fluid state. The rules of grammar and spelling were not cared for, Urdu poets also did bother about Radif and Wafiyas as the Arabic and Persian pets did. There were many poets who helped the Urdu language grow namely –

Shah Hatim (1699 to 1787) a leading poet time at the time of Muhammad Shah was closely connected with Ihami poetry. But he joined the reformers of his time and made a selection of his poetry and called it Diwan Zadeh (1757). Along with others, Hatim brought about many learned and academic changes in Urdu language and poetry. They believed in and insisted on using the loan words from Arabic and Persian in the original sense with original spellings. Subsequently it became fashionable for the then and future writers to follow their dictates ie increased used of Arabic / Persian in Urdu. Another was Mirza Muhhammad Rafi Sauda (1713 to 1780) who is considered as the greatest quasida and satire writer of Urdu. In his social satires he castigates the social, political and moral vices of his age. There was another notable poet Wali Muhammad Nazeer (1740 to 1830). 

There were a number of poets who gave a shape to the language and poetry of Lucknow. I am not getting into too much of detail about them.

As a language Urdu took birth during this period. Both Arabic and Persian contributed significantly to Urdu. As the religio-ethical and socio-economic health of the Muslim community came to be adversely affected by the weakening of the imperial authority, the intelligentsia felt the need to revitalize the Muslim morale by means of religious reforms. And Arabic became the natural medium for fulfilling the requirements of religious rethinking among the Muslims in the early part of the 18th century. This could also explain the influence of Arabic on Urdu. When the British came to India they realized the need to communicate in Urdu, which is why they set up a Urdu center at the Fort William College Calcutta to teach British employees the language. The college helped promote Urdu too.

1818 to 1905 - The origin of the literary language, now known as Urdu, in the 18th century from the local dialect of Delhi has been discussed in the paras above. Another development during this period was the emergence of Urdu as a literary language. It was born in the military camps from the Hindi Khari Boli during the later Mughal period. It was between 1818 to 1905 that Urdu developed into a language of expression for religious, philosophic thoughts. An Urdu translation of the Koran was made as late as 1791. Now Urdu became popular and replaced Persian as the language of the educated masses. It was only in 1837 that Persian was replaced as the official language of India.

Urdu poetry upto the fourth quarter of the 19th century was just a reflexion of Persian poetry. Nothing in it but a few common words, inflexions, postpositions and verbs were in Hindi. The Urdu poets thought and wrote in terms of Persian poetry, the references were things, events and ideas of Persia and Arabia. They use names of Persian flowers, all the little streams of Persia, and its towns and provinces, its hills and mountains but they never mention an Indian flower or an Indian river or mountain or town, much less an Indian hero. It was an absolute and deliberate shutting of their eyes to all the great things of their own country, the soil of which, according to a great Urdu poet, was napak or impure.

As referred to above, Muslim dominance over India had begun to wane. They had got demoralized because of that. In order to rejuvenate them the Islamic influence had to be reinforced. One of the ways was to take the local dialect Hindi and marry it with a strong Persian read Islamic influence. I wonder why they could not derive strength their motherland i.e. Hindustan.

Muhammad Nazir of Agra (1740 to 1830) was a remarkable Urdu poet who composed his poems on Persian themes but also all sorts of subjects relating to Indian life in a language that was not very Personalized, which is also the language of the Hindus. Among the great poets of the pre-modern period were Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1806 to 1905), Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq (1789 to 1894). Ghalib was the most popular. He was a Sufi and a mystic who wrote in Persian and Urdu and inaugurated literary history and criticism through his letters. He is generally regarded as the greatest poet of Urdu before the modern age because of his human sympathies and his Sufi feel for the ultimate Reality.

Lucknow and Rampur became the centers of Urdu literature in the 19th century.

The Aligarh Movement by Sir Syed Ahmad gave rise to modern Urdu literature at the beginning of the fourth quarter of the 19th century. His greatest contribution were his letters and historical work Asaru-s-Sanadia. The Aligarh movement made the Muslims more and more conscious of their Islamic rather than their Indian heritage and instilled in them the concept of Pan-Islamicism. I maintain that Sir Syed Ahmad gave birth to the Pan-Islamic movement in India, the Khilafat Movement by Gandhi united the Indian Muslims like never before and lastly Muhammad Iqbal with his poetry cemented the concept in the minds and hearts of the sub-continent Muslim. Thanks to the Aligarh movement a number of Muslim Urdu prose writers of eminence, historians and essayists came to the front. There were several prominent Hindu writers of Urdu too.

As time passed by Urdu came to be seen as the language of the Muslims, part of their an Islamic baggage, an example. Evidence given by Muslim leaders before the Hunter Commission (between 1883 to 1890) in Bengal demanding entire separate arrangements for the primary education of the Hindu and the Muslim and insisting upon Urdu as a medium of instruction even in a province like Bengal where 99 % of the Muslims were ignorant of that language. Their spoken language had always been the medium of instruction but the decline of Muslim power in India had to be reinforced with a Pan Islamic identity. Even in 1947 and thereafter Bengali and not Urdu was the most widely spoken language. One is however, not sure how long it will be the case.

The Urdu press flourished during this period and the majority of the Hindu organs of North India at the beginning of 1861 were edited by Hindus.

Muhammad Iqbal (1873 to 1938) referred to in the essay on Wahabi movement was also largely responsible for popularizing Urdu amongst Indian Muslims. Actually speaking he only consolidated the efforts laid down by his Muslim brothers before. He was comfortable in Persian and Urdu. His doctrine went counter to the quietism and acceptance preached by traditional Sufism. It was a rather militant doctrine of action, of fight to achieve an ideal placed before man, and this ideal was of primitive Islam which in Iqbal’s opinion was preached by the Prophet – to select the narrow path of shaping one’s destiny and forging ahead, heart within and God overhead.

This doctrine of action made Iqbal the great leader of Indian Muslims. His two longer poems Shikwa (complaint) and Jawab-I-Shikwah (Reply to the Complaint) are looked upon as the Mein Kampf of Muslim revivalists in India who were for separation from India in both spirit and political rehabilitation. These poems give in the form of a complaint before Allah about the adverse circumstances in which the Indian Muslims had fallen, and the sequel given the remedies prescribed by God for Muslim uplift. So his poems in Urdu cemented the thought in the sub-continent Muslim mind that Urdu and Islam in India were synonymous.


The chapter is presented in three parts. Part one is a summary of the above, part 2 attempts to answer Khuswant Singh’s statement and part 3 tells you how Urdu became a tool by which the Muslims wanted to establish parity with Hindi and Hindus.

Part One - Summary

1. The word Urdu is derived from the Turki word Ordu, which meant “a military camp”. During the period 1526 to 1707 it was called Dakhina and used in the Deccan and South India.
2. As the religio-ethical and socio-economic health of the Muslim community came to be adversely affected by the weakening of the imperial authority, the intelligentsia felt the need to revitalize the Muslim morale by means of religious reforms. And Arabic became the natural medium for fulfilling the requirements of religious rethinking among the Muslims in the early part of the 18th century. This could also explain the influence of Arabic on Urdu.
3. Urdu is Hindi Khari boli (Delhi Hindi) with Persian and Arabic thrown in. Although the language came into existence after 1730 it is only after 1818 did it become a language of expressing thoughts.
4. Its main centers of influence were Delhi and Lucknow. Sir Syed Ahmed and Muhammad Iqbal did a lot to promote the language and make it the lingua franca of the Indian Muslims.
5. With the establishment of British rule over Punjab, Urdu became a dominant language of education and administration there.
6. Starting the 20th century Urdu became a bone of contention between Hindus and Muslims.

Part Two - K Singh’s, How did the Punjabis kill Urdu?

Before I answer the question it would be useful to know the state of Hindi, Punjabi in Punjab around 1700-1720. Guru Govind Singh (1666-1708) kept in his employ 52 poets who composed in the prevalent mode of neo-classical Hindi poetry works whose themes were heroic and philosophical. All the writings of these poets were also written down in the Gurumukhi script and recited at sessions convened by the Guru. Most of these poems have been lost. Bhai Mani Singh, priest of the Hari Mandir or the Golden Temple. At some time during the 18th century got together whatever remained of these poems and compiled them into the Granth of the 10th master or the Dasham Granth. This work contains three versions of the epic of the goddess Chandi based on the story of her fight with Mahisasur, the Buffalo-Demon. Two of these are in Hindi while the third is in Punjabi. The third is believed to be the Guru’s own composition while the other two by some poets. The Guru got a great deal of literature written based on the tales of heroism whereby he sought to arouse the people to crusade for higher values which he gave the name Dharma. He also composed some important works in Apabhramsa style of Hindi, including the autobiographical poem, the Bichitra Natak (the wonderful Drama). So both Punjabi and Hindi were prevalent.

Urdu, which later became the dominant language of education and administration, came only with the establishment of British rule over Punjab. Since the British captured Punjab only in 1849 (Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839) Urdu became dominant after that. Another perspective. Till 1857 the Muslims hated the new rulers, Christians, for snatching away the throne from them. It was only after 1857 that Sir Syed Ahmad made the Muslims realize that it was in their interest to support the Christians read Brits. The British too realized the importance of having the Muslims on their side and using them as a counter to Hindus. Hence they decided to support the Muslims by making Urdu the official language of Punjab. Undivided Punjab had more Muslims than Hindus but Hindus were in large numbers thus if the Brits were not bent on enhancing the Hindu Muslim divide they could have made both Urdu and Hindi languages of education / administration. Also note that undivided Punjab consisted of modern day Punjab on both sides of the border, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

It is the Arya Samaj that led the movement for revival of Hindi. The founder of the Arya Samaj Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1875) used to communicate in Sanskrit till he met a leader of the Brahmo Samaj Shri Keshub Chandra Sen who stressed the importance of carrying on his propaganda in a popular language. So Dayanand decided to propagate his teachings in Hindi. Since the Arya Samaji movement had strong roots in Punjab, Hindi became Arya Bhasa there. Subsequent Samaj leaders carried on the movement for usage of Hindi.

The eighth of the ten principles of the Arya Samaj points out to the Arya that he should endeavor to diffuse knowledge and dispel ignorance. In Punjab and the United Provinces the Samaj have done excellent work ahead of the missionary effort. No single organization could claim to have as many schools for boys and girls as the Samaj. For the boy’s education there were two types of colleges, one affiliated with the Government University and other independent of official control. The Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College was started at Lahore in 1886. A number of educational institutions were opened in Punjab and modern day Uttar Pradesh. By 1914, the Samaj had the largest number of institutions in Northern India and probably the second largest in the country. For the girls the Samaj maintained a large number of schools and colleges. One of them is the Kanyamahavidyala at Jullundar where my mother studied.

The impact of the Arya Samaj is also to be seen in the adoption of Hindi as a language of administration in Rajputana and U.P. Dayanand wrote all his works in Hindi or Sanskrit. Under the persuasion of Sir Pratap Singh, several states of Rajputana were convinced to adopt Hindi script for official work. It came to be adopted as an alternative medium of administration in U.P. early in the 20th century.

Therefore, the emergence of the Arya Samaji movement in North India led to the resurgence of Hindi. Since the Arya Samajis (mainly Punjabi) opened a number of schools, colleges in North India these institutions were used to promote Hindi. Also the Arya Samaj movement made Hindus pride of their past, led to a revival of their confidence levels. It made them shun foreign influence understood as Urdu, the language of the Muslims. Digressing a bit, this single decision of using Hindi enabled the Arya Samaj movement to grow beyond Punjab unlike the Punjabi sect Sikhism that restricted itself to using Gurumukhi as a medium of communication limiting its acceptability in the process.

I spoke to two seventy plus Uncles in my building who had grown up in undivided Punjab. They told me that during their childhood 1930-47, Urdu was indeed the language of the courts and administration. In schools too Urdu was taught. However, only boys learnt Urdu since they had to work thereafter while girls learnt Hindi since they did not normally work. However with the growth of the Arya Samaj a greater number of Hindus began to learn Hindi only.

Urdu vs Hindi Part 3

1. Excerpts from the essay on the Aligarh Movement “What complicated matters further was the Hindi Urdu controversy originating from a movement by the Hindus of Kashi in 1867 to replace Urdu by Hindi and the Arabic script by Nagari. It must be mentioned that a similar movement for the use of Hindi was started in Punjab by Swami Dayanand Saraswati. These movements convinced Syed Ahmed Khan that Hindus and Muslims could never join whole-heartedly together and the differences would only increase in the future. Nawab Mulk said “Although we do not have the power of the pen, our hands are still strong enough to wield the might of the sword”. Muslim league pg 25.

2. Another Hindi Urdu controversy erupted in 1900. It was the practice in Uttar Pradesh that all petitions to the court must be written in Urdu. The Hindus protested against it forcing the govt to pass an order on 8/4/1900 that Government offices and law-courts should also entertain petitions written in Hindi and Devanagari scripts and that court summons and official announcements would be henceforth be issued in both Hindi and Urdu. The Muslims protested that it was lowering the prestige of Urdu, the matter got politicized, led to a worsening of Hindu Muslim relations. This decision and the reversal of the partition of Bengal in 1905 by the British made the Muslims realize the need to counteract the political organization of the Hindus, read Congress. And so on 30/12/1906 was formed the All India Muslim League at Dacca. And so Urdu became one more reason for the increasing Hindu Muslim divide.

3. Urdu got caught in the Hindu Muslim crossfire that got accentuated after Khilfat movement. When the Hindus insisted on use of Hindi, the League denounced it as a sign of Hindu domination and could not think of co-operating with the Congress unless Urdu was made the national language in place of Hindi. That too when Urdu was nothing but a Persianized dialect of Hindi. Its script is Persian and the grammar is of Hindi. The Congress could not face the League onslaught and effected a compromise. A new hybrid language half Hindi half Urdu named Hindustani was sought to be created, which the Congress accepted in place of Hindi.

4. Like many others, Vande Mataram, national flag Urdu became a rallying point for Muslims. Unfortunately searching for this mirage of Hindu Muslim unity, the Congress capitulated before the Muslims every time that was to result in Partition later and a permanent source of violence in the Indian sub-continent. Urdu became one more symbol of their Persian / Arabic identity, to the Hindus it is one more reminder of Muslim rule over India. Hindi movies have both Hindi and Urdu words so do news channels like Zee News.

5. The bottom-line that Indian Muslims derive strength, a sense of identity with Islam by the use of Urdu. When a child is in pain he always looks for his mother. So also when the Indian Muslim lost political power, condition began to detiorate he looked for ways to rejuvenate himself, one of them was having a language that though derived from an Indian language borrowed heavily from Persian and Arabic. Today a 250-year-old language has become a symbol of his Islamic identity.

6. It has become one more stick that is used to browbeat Hindus with. Hindi movies producers are forced either subtly or otherwise to increase the use of Urdu in movies. Why even Television serials have not been spared. Channels like Zee News that derives virtually all their revenues from India use Urdu words more often than not.

7. Is it not ironical that Urdu is more widely spoken in India than in Pakistan, a country that was created to satisfy the separatist needs of the Indian Muslims? The Pakistani Muslim lives in an Islamic state thus does not need to reinforce his Muslim identity, is comfortable speaking Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashtuni. On the other hand the Indian Muslim is living in Hindu India, needs to reemphasize his Muslim ness, Urdu is just one more tool.

Urdu like Persian, Arabic reminds the Hindu of Muslim domination that is why he is averse to it. Muslims see Hindi as a symbol of Hindu domination. Where Islam is in a dominant majority, Dar-ul-Islam must be created meaning “Muslim sovereignty pure and simple.” To the Indian Muslim it means increase usage of Urdu. Rationalists might ask, which language is older? Look at any conflict in the world involving Islam, does one associate rationalism with it.

This article is based on inputs of volumes 7 to 11 of the History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan.