Published: December 8, 2014 - 14:34 Updated: December 8, 2014 - 14:40

There is a lot of buzz these days about the origin of Urdu. Perhaps because it is the national language of the state of Pakistan, many people misunderstand the relationship of Urdu with the people
of India.

It may also trouble some folks that much is made of Urdu in India when it is claimed by Pakistan. However, Urdu was born in India and became the national language of Pakistan only due to the political and cultural pressure wielded by the Urdu-speaking people who migrated to the newly carved country in 1947 from Northern India.

It may not be too harsh to say that Urdu was even imposed upon the people of Pakistan without any consideration for other languages, like Bengali, Punjabi and Sindhi.

Today, some would like to believe that Urdu is the language only of Muslims in South Asia. The truth, however, is that Urdu is spoken by all people living in a particular part of the Indian subcontinent, irrespective of the religion they may follow.

The origin of Urdu is commonly traced back to Turkic and Persian-speaking soldiers who came to live in, and around Delhi in the 12th century. The word Urdu is the same as ordu, the Turkish word for army.

The argument goes that the vocabulary used by Turkic- and Persian-speaking warriors to communicate with the local soldiers gave birth to Urdu in the midst of Muslim militants.

However, reading Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the Allahabad-based Urdu critic, poet and novelist, reveals that ordu may be the word for army in Turkey but Urdu in India originally meant the portable royal court maintained by Akbar in the late 16th century, including an extensive market. The term implied a royal camp and its market.

Later, Urdu was another name for the royal court of Shahjahanabad, after Shah Jahan established that city as his capital in 1684. At first, the word Urdu meant the royal city and later the language of the exalted city-court of Shah Jahan.

Faruqi feels that all those who believe that Urdu refers to ‘army’ are trying to kill two birds with one stone. To insist that Urdu was introduced by Muslim invaders implies that the language is inferior, as it was imposed upon the local people by warriors.

The fact remains that at a time when Persian was the court language, Urdu became the most popular language of the people. It was born of syncretism, with more vocabulary taken from Sanskrit than from any other language, making it exclusively Indian.

The popularity of Urdu spread as it was used by the sufis to communicate with ordinary people who were not fluent in Persian. On the other hand, Urdu was made up mostly of words borrowed from different local dialects.

There are numerous examples of Muslims writing on Hindu themes in Urdu, and Hindu and Sikh writers inspired to meditate upon Islamic ideas in Urdu. Urdu writers liberally used rural Hindu images, words and themes that have little to do with the Persian or Arabic view of the world.

Faruqi gives the example of Sheikh Bahauddin Bajan who lived in Gujarat in the 15th century and loved music. His sufi poetry is steeped in imageries of the local culture.

That is how Urdu evolved over centuries into the lingua franca of Northern India. Later, Urdu was enriched with liberal contributions from the English language as well, till it was politicised in the first half of the 20th century and associated only with Muslims and with Pakistan.

This journey of assimilation and syncretism has trickled down to modern times. From the arrival of fair-skinned nomadic tribes who made a home in the ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation, the ruling elite of every religion has mostly been exclusionist while the large majority of ordinary people has always been more open to new ideas and to new people. It is they who are responsible for nourishing the syncretic traditions like Urdu in their midst.

“Urdu is the only modern Indian language to whose literature people of all religions and all literate communities have made substantial contribution... all have drunk from its well and all have poured their ambrosia in it,” reminds Faruqi at a time when divisive forces try to tear to shreds the exquisite embroidery of a composite culture that has taken centuries of fine needlework to perfect itself here.

This story is from print issue of HardNews