A Note on the Development of Urdu / Hindavi During 17th & 18th Centuries

Rekhta (Urdu: ریختہ, Hindi: रेख़्ता rekhtā, Persian: ریخته “poured” or “molded”, symbolizing the mixture of Hindi, Persian, and Arabic) was the Persianized form of the Khariboli dialect of Hindi now known by the names “Hindustani”, “Hindi”, and “Urdu”. From the late 17th century till the closing decades of the 18th century, the term was used for the Hindustani language. It was largely supplanted by the name Hindwi / Hindavi and later Hindustani and Urdu, though it continued to be used sporadically until the late 19th century.

The Name ‘Urdu’:

An important question is how the word ‘Urdu’ came to be applied to a language. We have seen that the soldiers in Delhi at a very early date gave up the use of Persian among themselves and began to speak a modified form of the vernacular. In Delhi this form of speech, to distinguish it from the usual Khari Boli (and probably also from Persian), was called Zaban i Urdu, the language of the Army, or Zaban i Urdu e Mualla, the language of the Exalted or Royal Army. As the soldiers and the people intermixed and intermarried, the language spread over the city into the suburbs and even into the surrounding district. It was natural to keep up the separate name to distinguish it not only from the unmixed vernacular of the people, but also from the Persian of the court. This double distinction is not unimportant. It is possible, too, that in time the name served to mark still another distinction, viz. between the speech of Delhi and that of Lucknow. It is supposed that gradually the word ‘zaban‘ was dropped, and ‘Urdu’ came to be used alone.

In this explanation there is a difficulty. Though the royal camp was established in Delhi during the time of Qutb ud Din Aibak in 1206, the earliest known example of the employment of the word ‘ Urdû,’ standing by itself and meaning the Urdu language, is in the poems of Mushafï, 1750-1824, which are unfortunately undated, and in any case hâve only in part been printed. Gilchrist uses it in his Grammar (1796). The earliest examples of the phrase, Zabân i Urdu, the language of the Camp or the Urdu language, are in Tazkira e Gulzâr i Ibrahim by ‘Alï Ibrahim Khân (1783) and in Mushafï’s Tazkira e Shu ara e Hindi (1794). In this title we must note the word ‘Hindi’ (meaning ‘Urdû’). The expression Zabân i Urdû e mu alla (e Shâhjahânâbâd Dihli), the language of the Royal Camp, or the Exalted Urdu language (of Shâhjahànàbâd, Delhi) occurs in the anthology Nikât ush Shuarâ by Mïr Taqï (1752). In Qiyâm ud Dïn Qâim’s anthology Makhzan i Nikât (1754) we find muhâvira e Urdû e mu alla, the idiom of the Royal Camp. ‘Arsh, the son of Mïr Taqï, speaks of himself as Urdu e mu alla kâ zabândân, one well acquainted with the Urdû e Mu’allâ language. His date is unknown, but he seems to hâve been born in Mïr’s old âge.

Now the earliest of thèse is five and a half centuries af ter the foreign army had settled in Delhi ; and we naturally ask why during all this long period the language never received the name ‘Urdu/ and why people suddenly thought of that name after the lapse of so long a time, when it had ceased to hâve any particular meaning. This period of 550 years could perhaps be reduced; it has been claimed, but not proved, that the royal camp in Delhi was not known as the Urdu till the time of Bâbur, who came direct from Turkistan with a Turki force in 1526, It is a doubtful point. We may admit that before his time the foreign recruits had nearly all been Persian speakers or descendants of Persian speakers. But on the other hand the word ‘Urdû’ for army had been in Persian since 1150, for it is found more than once in the Jahânkushâ of Javainï with that meaning.

The first example of it in India is said to be in the Tuzuk i Bâburi, compiled by the Emperor Bâbur himself in 1529. But even if we accept these later dates for the first occurrence in India of the word ‘ Urdû ‘ with the mean-ing of army, we still have to account for the fact that for 226 years, from 1526 to 1752 no one seems to have thought of calling the language by that name, and that it was only after 1752 that this was done. It is almost incredible that none of the historians of the Mughal period ever used the name; yet such seems to have been the case. The language as spoken was generally called Hindi / Hindavi; when employed for literary, that is poetical, purposes it was known as Rekhta (see p. 3) or Hindi. Amir Khusrau and Shekh Bajan (d. 1506) speak of Zaban i Dihlavi, the speech of Delhi; while Vajhi in Sab Ras (1634) calls it Zaban i Hindostan, the language of Hindustan. But no one in the early days spoke of ‘Urdu’. Even in the end of the eighteenth century it was an uncommon word. People continued to talk of Hindi and Rekhta. As late as 1790 ‘Abd ul Qadir in the preface to his Urdu translation of the Qur’an said he was translating not into Rekhta but into Hindi.

One interesting detail is still sub judice. It has been asserted that the Persian dictionary, Muayyid ul Fuzala (1519) uses the phrase, ‘in the language of the people of the Urdu.’ But it is claimed on the other hand that the words are not found in good MSS. of the Dictionary; and the MS. in the British Museum does not appear to contain them. Even if it did, ‘urdu’ would not here be the name of a language. It is a fact worth noting that the word ‘Urdu’ is not given in this Dictionary at all with any meaning, either ‘army’ or any other. Possibly the explanation of the problem is that Zaban i Urdu, the speech of the Camp, or some equivalent phrase, was in conversational use from the earliest times, and that gradually, centuries later, it was admitted to books, while the use of the word ‘Urdu’ alone, without zaban, was still later. But the subject requires further investigation.

The origin of the Urdu language is obscure. Various theories have been given to explain it. Muhammad Husain Azad maintains that Brij Bhasha, a dialect of Western Hindi, is the basic language. After the conquest of Delhi by the Muslims, the Persian element was grafted which resulted to the existence of Urdu language.

Mahmud Sherani, on the contrary, holds that the Urdu language originated in the first contact of the Muslims and Hindus after the conquest and incorporation of the Punjab and Sind In the Empire of Mahmud of Ghazni. In his book Punjab men Urdu, he has discussed the structure and morphology of the Urdu language and has shown grammatical affinity which it has with the Punjabi language. After the occupation of Delhi by the Ghoris, the Punjabi Muslims and Hindus, who had already become familiar with the Persian language, migrated to Delhi in order to run the administration of the new government. This exodus of people on a large scale from Lahore to Delhi influenced the Khari Bholi or the Hindi spoken in Delhi and its neighbourhood. In course of time the Punjabi words and idioms became interwoven in the Hindi of Delhi and thus a new language came into being.

The third theory has been recently propounded by Dr. Masud Husain of the Aligarh Muslim University. He said that the basic language spoken in Delhi at the time of Muslim conquest was Hariyani. When Persian was grafted on Hariyani, it resulted in the creation of the Urdu language. He has discussed the grammatical structures of Hariani and Urdu and has based his conclusion on a comparative study of the two languages.

It seems fairly clear that after the Ghori conquest of Delhi, Persian and Punjabi words got interwoven with the language which was spoken there, which was a mixture of Khari Bholi, Brij, Rajasthani, and Hariani. Languages do not originate overnight. It must have taken at least a century to give shape to the new common language of Delhi which has been called “Hindawi” or “Dahlavi” by Amir Khusrau. Later Abul Fazl also called it the Dahlavi language. Amir Khusrau used “Dahlavi” or “Hindavi” medium in his compositions which he has mentioned in the introduction of his Ghurratu Kamal.

From the very beginning when Delhi became a great centre of the Sufis, they employed the Hindavi language for preaching their message. They found Hindavi to be the most suitable medium for conveying their messages to the masses. Baba Farid freely used Hindavi words in his conversation with his disciples. Some Hindavi utterances have been preserved by Mir Khurd in the Siyarul Auliya. In Fawaidul Fuad, Shaikh Nizamuddin also used Hindavi language in his conversation with his disciple.

In the development of early Urdu or Hindavi, the Bhagat poets have also played an important role. The language used by Namdeo, Kabir, Pipa and Ravidas is hardly different from the one used by the Sufis. As both the Bhagats and the sufis aimed atreaching the people, they employed the all-India medium available, the Hindavi, which have been familiar all over the country.

After the advent of the Mughals on the stage of Indian history, the Hindavi language acquired greater flexibility and range. Persian words and phrases came into vogue freely. The Hindavi of this period was known as the Rekhta, or the Hindustani and later as Urdu. Perfect amity and tolerance between Hindus and Muslims tended to foster the Rekhta or Urdu, which represented the principle of unity in diversity, so marked a feature of Indian life at its best.

During Akbar’s reign, translations were made from Sanskrit into Persian and Hindus and Muslims came very close to each other. Akbar’s intimate relation with the Rajputs indirectly helped the development of Urdu. Raja Todar Mal ordered all government officials to acquire proficiency in Persian as a condition for promotion. This indirectly led to the propagation of Urdu all over the country and finally to its standardization in the time of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, when the synthetic character of Urdu (Rekhta) acquired a complete form and greater content and power.

The famous poets of this period who wrote in Urdu were Chandar Bhan Brahman, Mu’izzuddin, Ja’far, Mirza Kashmir and Mirza Bedil. Shamsuddin Wali is regarded as the founder of modern Urdu poetry. He freely used the Persian izafat and tarkib. Wali was followed by Abru, Arzu, Hatim and others at Delhi who standardized Urdu prosody.

The Urdu language was enriched from generation to generation, mainly through accumulated wisdom, techniques and cultural traditions. Through its medium the different sections of Indian society found the way to perfect comprehension of one another.


It is convenient to divide this period into three parts, the first two running parallel: (1) Literature in Golkunda or Haidarabad, connected with the Qutb Shahi court (1590-1687); (2) Literature in Bijapur, connected with the ‘Adil Shahi Court (1590-1686); (3) Literature in the Deccan during the time of Aurangzeb and his successors (1687-1730).

The greatest poets of this period were the following:

GOLKUNDA : Muhammad Quli Qujb Shah, King of Golkunda (1580-1611); Vajhi (flor. 1600-40); Gavva’i (1639); Ibn i Nishati (1655); Tab ‘i(1670).

BIJAPUR: Rustami (1649); Nusrati (1650-70); Mirza (1660).

1687-1730: Vali and Siraj, both of Aurangabad.

The greatest of these was Vali.


Two men bearing the name, ‘Ajiz, viz. Muhammad ‘Ali ‘Ajiz and ‘Arif ud Din ‘Ajiz have sometimes been confused.

MUHAMMAD ‘Aii ‘AJIZ was the earlier writer; his style is simple, direct and forceful. He is author of a romance called Qissa e Firoz Shah or Qissa e Malika i Misr (1688 or earlier), 800 lines long, which deals with the story of the wife of Firoz Shah, King of Egypt. It is not known to what part of the country ‘Ajiz belonged, but he was alive when Aurangzeb conquered the country in 1686 or 1687.

VALI ULLAH QADRI, at the suggestion of his father, translated Marifat i Suluk from the Persian original. The date is 1688.

SHEKH DAUD ZA’IFI was a learned Sufi who left two poems; one, a romance in the India Office Library, is without date or title (720 lines long); it tells the story of a woman who burnt herself alive because of her love for Muhammad. Hindi words abound in it. The other is Hidayat i Hindi (1689), a long work on the beliefs of the Hanafi sect.

BECHARA flourished during Aurangzeb’s time. We know only that he was a servant of the emperor and visited Delhi.

SHAH HUSAIN ZAUQI‘ wrote in 1697 a poetical version of_ Vajhi’s Sab Ras, which he called Visal ul ‘Ashiqin or Husn o Dil, but it is much inferior to the prose original. He left also a number of other poems which have been lost, but MSS. of three works, a eulogy of ‘Abd ul Qadir Jilani, Mabap Nama, and an account of the well-known Sufi, Mansur, have been preserved.

AMIN in 1697 composed a long poem which was a retelling of the ever popular Yusuf-Zulekha mistakenly dated 1600-1 by Garcin de Tassy. He is not the same as Muhammad Amin or Amin.

QAZI MAHMUD BAHRI was a prolific writer of Sufi views, who flourished c. 1680-1700. He belonged to a village, Gogi, near Nusratabad, but went to Bijapur in 1684 and to Haidarabad two years later. On one of his journeys he was attacked by robbers who destroyed all his writings. In 1700 however he wrote a romance called Man Lagan which has been printed. It contained so many difficult words that a glossary was prepared shortly after the work itself. It is now out of print. He left also fourteen love poems, four elegies, two odes, and a mystical ode called Bange Noma.

MUHAMMAD FAYYAZ VALI of Velur (Vellore) is to be distinguished from his more famous contemporary and namesake of Aurangabad

His time of activity is 1690-1707. He was the author of a romance, Qissa e Ratn o Padm, 8,000 lines long, based on Muhammad Jaisi’s Padmavat, which has been attributed to the other Vali, and of a collection of elegies, about 10,000 lines in all, called Rauzat ush Shuhada, 1707. His authorship of a short poem of 100 lines known as Munajat is doubtful.

MAHMUD BEG of Bijapur, and FAKHRI, a pupil of the Vali just mentioned, were friends who wrote in the end of the seventeenth century.

AHMAD GUJRATI was a learned elegy writer in Aurangzeb’s time. He knew Hindi, Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit.

ARIF UD DIN ‘AJIZ, a much more artificial writer than his namesake, was the author of a romance named Qissa e Lal Gauhar and of other extant poems. The poem written by the other ‘Ajiz has been attributed to him, but the straightforward style in which it is written is a strong argument for believing that the earlier author wrote it. ‘ Arif ud Din was born in north India. His father came from Balkh in the time of Aurangzeb, 1659-1707. He soon died, and the future poet was brought up by the second son of Asaf Jan, the first Nigam of Ijjaidarabad, whose dynasty is still on the throne. He went with his benefactor to Aurangabad and was given a salary sufficient for his simple wants.

ABU TALIB TALIB was a Haidarabad poet who visited Delhi and lived there for some time. His date is the last decade of the seventeenth century.

SABAI of Ahmadabad (flor. c. 1695) has been compared in style with Nazir of Agra.

SHAH BIR ULLAH MUJRIMI in 1702 told poetically the story of Vajhi’s Sab Ras, entitling it Gulshan i Husn i Dil: as a poem it is mediocre, but it has the merit of brevity and simplicity.

‘IRAQI was another poet of that time.

FAQIR ULLAH AZAD, a contemporary of Vali Aurangabad, wrote with much pathos. This was the result of a disappointment in love which led to his wandering restlessly till he reached Delhi. Little is known of his writings.

MAHBUB ‘ALAM, known as Shekh Jivan (flor. circ 1720) wrote several poems, the chief of which are Dard Nama, 5,500 lines in length, and an elegy on the death of Muhammad. In the latter the speakers are ‘Aisha and Fajima. Others doubtfully attributed to him are Mahshar Noma, Khvab Noma and Dahez Noma. He was a religious writer, probably a Dakhni.

VAJDI (about 1710) wrote a long romance, Tuhfa e ‘Ashiqin, based on, or adapted from, Farid ud Din ‘Attar’s Persian work Khusrau Nama. The romance is extant, but owing to some confusion between this Vajdi and another who lived a century earlier, the authorship is not beyond doubt.

Vali. SHAMS UD DIN VALI ULLAH (1667-68-1741-42) is one of the greatest names in Urdu literature. He was born and brought up in the Deccan. His actual birthplace was Aurangabad and he is often referred to as Vali Aurangabadi, a name which distinguishes him from Vali Veluri or Dakhni . Little or nothing is known of his family, but he is supposed by some to have been descended from Gujrat ancestors, and possibly connected with the famous saint Vajih ud Din. When he was about 20 he went to Gujrat to complete his education, and he always retained a warm affection for the country, particularly for Surat, as his poem in praise of that town shows. While he was studying in Gujrat he became very much attached to a Sayyid called Abu’l Ma’ali, with whom he travelled to Delhi, perhaps in 1700. There he placed himself under the spiritual direction of Sa’d Ullah Gulshan to whom he showed his verses. He must already have written a considerable amount Of Dakhni verse, for he lived among Dakhni poets with a long line of nearly a hundred Dakhni poets behind him, whose works must have been familiar to him, but now probably his teacher, seeing how excellent his Dakhni verses were, advised him to give up Persian altogether.

We are not quite sure of the sequence of events or of individual dates. He no doubt recited his Urdu poems before the poets of Delhi. These men whose vernacular was Urdu were writing poetry solely in Persian, unaware of the fact that for nearly 400 years prose and verse had been written in Urdu; but they were immensely impressed by the facility with which Vali expressed his thoughts in that language. His verses became so popular that people began to sing them in the bazaar and he was everywhere received with honour. Vall’s visit to Delhi created a revolution in the poetry of north India. After a time he revisited his native land, but returned again in 1722 to Delhi, a city of which he was very fond. This time he took with him all his poems and his triumph was complete. He died in Ahmadabad in 1741. Vali’s writings may be divided linguistically into three sections, viz. pure Dakhni, about a third of the whole; ordinary Urdu but with many Dakhni words; pure Urdu. His lyrics number 422 and take up about three quarters of his collection; he wrote six odes dealing with religious subjects or eulogising saints; two masnavis, one being in praise of Surat; and a number of poems in other styles. He wrote no long poems, and he never wrote encomiums on earthly rank or greatness. One poem traditionally attributed to him, Dah Majlis or Rauzat ush Shuhada, is by the other Vali .

His style was simple and dignified, sometimes rising to real eloquence; he was essentially a religious man of a mystical cast of thought, and his writings present a vivid picture of the life of the time. He ranks probably in the first half-dozen Urdu poets, and his importance as being the man who induced the Delhi poets to write in their native language can hardly be over-rated. In the days when the wealth of early Dakhni poetry was not known, he received the title of Baba e Rekhta, Father of Urdu; and so far as his relationship to Delhi is concerned he almost deserves it.

Mir Muhammad Ja’far, who gave to himself the unlikely and self-mocking pen name of Zatalli (“babbler of nonsense”) was a phenomenon in many ways. Besides being the first Urdu writer with an uninhibited love for words, he was the first Urdu satirist, the first Urdu humourist, the first social and political satirist in Urdu, the first and the greatest Urdu writer of obscene and bawdy prose and verse, and the first Urdu prose writer in North India. He did all this almost entirely on his own. Doubtless, Persian with its great treasure house of the bawdy, the erotic, the pornographic, and the obscene, provided precedents of sorts. But there was no Persian writer who devoted himself exclusively to these modes.

Almost nothing is known of Zatalli’s life, except that he came from a good family in Narnaul, a small town not far from Delhi in modern day Haryana. A person called Sayyid Atal Narnauli may have been his elder brother. His date of birth is not known, but can be determined tentatively as 1658. He put together his poetry and prose in perhaps 1685-6. Whatever he wrote later might not have been collected in his lifetime. The earliest known manuscript of his works dates from 1791/92.

At some time or the other, perhaps in his middle life, he was employed at the court of Kam Bakhsh, fourth son of Aurangzeb. He seems to have been dismissed some time later when he composed a satire on the prince. Before this, he was employed at the court of Muhammad A’zam, Aurangzeb’s eldest son.

According to Mir in his Tazkira Nikat ush-Shu’ara, when Zatalli was presented before Muhammad A’zam, he composed the following verse in praise of the prince:

This very great Name, A’zam

Was engraved on the brilliant seal

Of Solomon.

The point in the she’r is that a secret and most potent name of Allah is called isme a’zam, (The Greatest Name); traditionally, the Prophet Solomon possessed the ism-e a’zam. According to Mir, the prince suitably rewarded Zatalli, but if personal references in his “Unedited Court Journal” are to be believed, he was a thriftless person and would have been soon parted from the prince’s bounty.

Zatalli died in 1713, most probably executed at the order of Farrukh Siyar (r. 1712-1719), the ruling Mughal king for whose coronation Zatalli had composed a scurrilous sikkah.1 It went as follows:

Sikka Zad Bar Gandum-Wa-Moth-Wa-Matar

Badshah Dazakasha Farrukh Siyar

Struck coin on Wheat and Lentils and Peas

The Grain-Gatherer Emperor, Farrukh Siyar

He struck his coin on grains of wheat

And on coarse pulses, and peas:

Farrukh Siyar, that garrotter of a king.

This was a parody of a couplet written on a coin of Farrukh Siyar:

Sikka Zad Az Fazl-e-Haq Bar Sim Wa Zar

Badshah Bahr-Wa-Barr Farrukh Siyar

[Struck coin by the Grace of Truth, On Silver and Gold

Emperor or Sea and Land, Farrukh Siyar]

It must be remembered that the bulk of Zatalli’s admittedly small output is in Persian, or in Rekhta. Rekhta began as macaronic verse in which Hindi/Hindavi (or Urdu, to give its modern name) and Persian were freely mixed in various proportions. Hence the name rekhta, which means, among other things, “mixed, poured.” Very soon the poems written in the rekhtah mode came to be themselves called rekhtah, which thus became the name of a genre instead of a form. Later, when Hindi/Hindavi poetry became popular, the name rekhtah was used for compositions in Urdu as well, and the language Hindi/Hindvi itself began to be called Rekhta. There was no poetry or prose in main-line Hindi/Hindavi in Delhi before Ja’far Zatalli, and Zatalli also favoured the rekhta mode oftener than the Hindi/Hindavi mode. It is clear that in Zatalli’s time Rekhta had not been adopted as a language name. The language name “Urdu” occurs much later still.

Literature in the rekhta mode is regarded as Urdu literature because its impulse came from Hindi/Hindavi and it was written in the Perso-Arabic script and the conventions that it followed were largely Indo-Iranian.

There is not much to choose between Zatalli’s Persian, Rekhta, and Urdu. He is equally inventive and equally vituperative and enthusiastically “wicked” in all the three.

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