Zaff Syed



An unimaginable terror burst out of the Central Asian steppe in the early 13th century and rocked the very foundations of the civilization. Inspired by the brutal genius of Genghis Khan, the Mongols were a whirlwind of death and destruction. Like dominoes, kingdom after kingdom, state after state and city after city fell to them. In a matter of a few decades -- razing, torching, slaying and pillaging -- they held sway from Beijing to Moscow to form the largest contiguous empire in the history of mankind.


Before the reader starts wondering what all this has to do with Urdu, let me quickly append here that this cataclysmic upheaval of the world disseminated the word "Urdu" across the known globe. But first, some background etymology.


It has become almost a gospel that the word Urdu, meaning a “lashkar" or army, is of Turkish origin. This article is intended to add a new twist to this universal belief. For starters, let me offer a rather wild speculation: Urdu may have been derived from a Sanskrit word!


Actually, there is a word in ancient Turkish, "urta", meaning the center or core. The word later changed into "ordu" and came to be used as a palace or a capital. Now the Sanskrit word "hridai" -- heart -- is curiously close to both "urta" and "ordu" not only phonetically but also in meaning. I suggest that the words "urta" or "ordu" may have been derived by the Central Asian nomads either from Sanskrit hridai or a pre-Sanskrit language root. [If you are wondering that the Central Asia is too far away from India for this exchange to take place, consider this: most of the pre-Islamic Turkish texts deal with Buddhism. (Erkan Turkman, 1987)]. Moreover, the Sanskrit root "ur" also means heart (Brajmohan Kaifi, 1966), which further supports our case.


Now we focus on the transmission of the word. The oldest extant sample of written Turkish is found on a monument in Mongolia, called the Kul-Tegin Inscriptions. This monument was erected in 732 in memory of a king of the same name by his brother. Written in the Gokturk script, there are 66 lines in 13 columns on all three faces of the 12 feet high triangular column (in case you are curious, here is an English translation <>

The thing relevant for us here is that the inscriptions contain both "ordu" and "ortu" several times. The glossary given in the above-mentioned website defines the word as:


Ordu: kaghan's residence, capital (kaghan, king; "Khaaqaan" in Persian)


Ortu: middle, central part


Three and a half centuries later, Yusuf Khas Hajib uses the word in two senses in his book about statecraft Kutadgu Bilig (The Blessed Wisdom, 1072. This monumental work is available online). Translations from an Urdu version:


1. Every city, country and "urdu" had a different name for this book. [Dr. Erkan of the Saljuk University, Turkey, states that here urdu means a palace but IMHO, it could be a capital also]


2. [They] were the inhabitants of another "urdu" [city].


3. The world is like a prison; don't fall in love with it. Yearn for the bigger "urdu" and country so that you're in peace. [According to Dr. Erkan, palace, but could be city/capital again]


4. Death has devastated many "urdus" and countries [cities]. (Dr. Erkan Turkman, 1987).

Many people might not be familiar with the way the word Urdu has been used in Kutadgu Bilig, but it is interesting to note that there is a province in Turkey with the name Ordu and whatsmore, the capital of this province is also called Ordu! Situated along the Black Sea amid lush green mountains, Ordu is one lovely place.


But this Ordu is not entirely unique; there are many other examples of city names using the word Urdu: the Mongolian name of Kashgar (a Chinese city along the Pakistani border) was "Urdu qand." There was another city called "Urdu Baleegh", which later came to be known as "Korakoram" (Shirani, 1929).



Since there was a lot of intermixing between the Turk nomads and the Mongols during the first millennium (as you can judge by the presence of the Kul-Tegin in Mongolia), the Mongols borrowed the word from Turkish (belonging to the Altaic group of languages, Turkish and the Mongolian are close kins), and used it chiefly as "palace." Modern Mongol dictionaries describe the word as "ordo" (plural ordos) and mean a palace (For example,

[Note how the words are written in the unique Mongol script. I wonder if this is the only script where not only the sentences but the words also are formed from top to bottom]


The place where the remains of Genghis Khan were preserved is called Ordos and is considered as one of the most sacred places of the Mongols. (Oyunbilig, 1997). But since the Mongol were a nomadic people and spent their lives in tents, the word came to be used as a "camp" or "tent.”


In 1235, Ogodei Khan, the successor of Genghis, dispatched a special army on a mission to Europe under the command of Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. In a matter of a few years the Mongols overran Russia, Poland and Hungary. During the whole campaign Batu Khan used a dazzlingly embroidered golden tent, due to which the whole camp came to be known as Altun Ordu (Altun, Mongolian for golden). Batu established an empire in the Eastern Europe in 1241, which lasted till the fifteenth century. During the same time the word Ordu entered many European languages: becoming "orda" in the old Ukranian and Italian, morphing into "horda" in Polish and Spanish, transforming into "hord in Swiss and, marching farther westward, finally entered English in 1555 and French in 1559 as "horde". Richard Eden's "Decades of the New World" is the first English book to use the word. The Altun Ordu is now generally referred to as the Golden Horde! (<>)


Similar Ordus (tents) are still in vogue in Mongolia and are called a "ger" nowadays. An excerpt from National Geographic:


Somewhere out there, you will also see a ger, as Mongols call their round tent. We stopped at one to ask for hot water for tea. A woman named Gunga [Ganga?] hospitably put a kettle on her stove.


I asked if she wouldn't rather live in a house. "You can't move a house," she answered, as if that were all that mattered. "You can't take it here and" - gesturing with her hands - "here and here." To me, Gunga's home looked pretty permanent, with beds and chests, even pictures on the felt walls. But she told me that she and her family had moved three times that year to find good pastures for their animals. To collapse a ger takes only an hour or so. (Mike Edwards, 1996).


When the Mongols settled down in Persia, the word found its way into Persian. The oldest book containing the word is believed to be "JahaaN-Kushaa" by Alauddin Ata (Shirani, 1929).



Although some intermittent pre-Mughal examples of the usage of the word urdu do exit but there is evidence that the texts might have been tampered with later. However, the word was definitely in vogue during Babur's reign (1526-30) and he used it himself in his autobiography, "Tuzk e Babari." During the era of Akbar the Great (1556-1605), we come across the word most of the times in phrases like "urdu e mu'alla", "urdu e uliyaa", "urdu e hazrat", "urdu e buzurg" and, even, "urdu e lashkar!" All these terms mean "royal encampment." (Shirani, 1929) In "Aaeen e Akbari", 1593, the official chronicle of Akbar's life and deeds, the distinguished scholar Abu ul Fazl has described one of the imperial encampments, "Urdu e Zafar QareeN" in great detail. Some excerpts:


A plain, 1530-yard long tract was selected for the royal residence and the harem. The foremost is the "gulaal baaR", a fortress-like, foldable, wooden quarters, measuring 100 by 100 yards. South to it is the court with 54 sections, each measuring 14 by 24 yards. In the center is a two-story wooden palace where the king prays at mornings. Women of the palace cannot enter this place without permission. Next to it are 24 wooden "rowties" (quadrangular tents), each of 10 by 6 yards, where the women of the royal family live … In the center is the great court, made of wood, measuring 150 by 150 yards. One thousand servants install it. It has 72 doors and has the seating arrangements for 10,000 people. Here the courtiers and the military officers meet the king.


This movable city, which is spread on several miles, is Akbar's Urdu e Zafar Qareen. (Shirani 1929).


Fredrick Augustus documents in "The Emperor Akbar" (I used an English translation; the original is in German):


Each encampment such as has been described required for its transport 100 elephants, 500 camels, 400 carts and 100 bearers . . . One thousand tent pitchers were employed, 500 pioneers, 100 water carriers, 50 carpenters, tent makers and torch-bearers, 30 cord-wainers and 150 sweepers. (Augustus, 1885).


This Urdu had even a mobile mint, also called Urdu e Zafar QareeN. This mobile mint was in use in Jahangir's and Shah Jahan's time also and was called just Urdu. (Shirani 1929). Numerous coins from each period are extant on which "zarb e Urdu e Zafar QareeN" (struck in Urdu e Zafar QareeN) is inscribed. Some of these are enlisted in online catalogs as well, such as here

(Look closely for the name of the mint on the 12th and the 13th pairs of coins.)



Apart from Babar, the earlier Mughal kings did not like Delhi much, ditching it in favor of Agra, Fatehpur Sikri or Lahore. Akbar the Great - who spent more time in Lahore than in any other city - had never set foot on Delhi's soil; in fact, the closest he ever got to Delhi was Panipat, some 80 miles away! It was Shah Jahan who got tired of both Lahore and Agra and ordered his engineers to select a place between the two for a new city. They chose a tract adjacent to Delhi on the bank of the Yamuna River and after a decade of extensive construction work, this new city, christened Shahjahanabad, was made the official capital. The date was April 18, 1648. Some of the important structures constructed here were the Red Fort, Jamia Masjid, Bagh e Hayat Bakhsh, Imtiaz Mahal and a two-story covered bazaar. (Shah Jahan Nama, 1660).


Shortly after the settling of the king in the new capital, the Red Fort and its surroundings, and later the whole of Shahjahanabad come to be known as "Urdu e Mu'alla" and sometimes, just "Urdu". For example, Khan e Aarzoo, the illustrious linguist and the "ustaad" of a whole generation of poets, including Mir, Mir Dard and Sauda (by the way, he was also the step-uncle of Mir Taqi Mir), writes in his dictionary Navaadir e Alfaaz (1747-52), under the headword "chhanel":

"We, who belong to Hind and live in Urdu e Mu'alla, are not familiar with this word." (Navaadir e Alfaaz, 214). Similarly, he writes in another book, Mismir (1752):


"And thus it is proven that the language of Urdu is the standard language. The Persian of the same place is reliable . . . the poets of various cities of every country, like Khaqani of Shurvan, Nizami of Ganja, Sinai of Ghazni and Khusrau of Delhi used to write in this standard language. And this language is none other than the language of the Urdu."


Two things are clear from this excerpt:


1. Urdu is used not as a metonym of a language, but for the city of Shahjahanabad.

2. Khan e Aarzoo says that the language of Shahjahanabad is Persian! This means that as late as mid-eighteenth century, the phrase zabaan e Urdu e Mu'alla [Shahjahanabad] is being used for Persian! But again, this is not surprising as we see that Persian was the official language of India throughout the Mughal rule.


Even in early nineteenth century, Insha ullah Khan Insha and Mirza Qateel write in "Dariyaa e Lataafat" (1807):


"The residents of Murshidabad and Azeemabad (Patna), in their own estimation, are competent Urdu speakers and regard their own city as the "Urdu." (Tr. by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, 1999.) Very obviously, by "Urdu" the authors mean Shahjahanabad. The language Urdu in those times was called - gasp - Hindi . . . but more about it later.



1. Urdu is a Turkish word which might have been derived from Sanskrit.

2. The word, across centuries and continents, assumed many meanings and evolved along many lines.

3. One course that is relevant to this article can be depicted as:

Heart --> Center --> Palace --> Capital --> City --> Encampment -->

Tent --> Encampment --> City --> Language