On December 11, 2019, the Delhi High Court issued a ruling in a public interest litigation asking that the Delhi Police be stopped from using difficult Persian and Urdu words in their first information reports, or FIRs. The judgement listed over 383 Persian and Urdu words that routinely appeared in Delhi Police documents, caustically remarking that police officers work for the common public and “not always for those who are Doctorate degree holders in Urdu, Hindi or Persian languages”.

“There is no need for Police to show their knowledge of Urdu and Persian words and these words should not be used by them mechanically without knowing their exact meaning,” the judges noted.

This observation that bureaucrats routinely deploy florid, archaic terms was only the most recent instalment in a centuries-old story of anxiety about Persian terms, their proper usage, and whether they were easily understood or obsolescent.

Though Persian ceased to be the language of the East India Company by 1837, heavily Persianate vocabulary persists in legal documents, in land records, in official correspondence and in revenue and taxation documents. Despite several attempts to purge these terms, they remain in all areas of administration.

As early as 1839, the Sudder Adawlut of the North West Provinces issued a circular instructing “...native ministerial officers, hitherto accustomed to write a somewhat impure Persian” not to “merely substitute a Hindoostanee for Persian verb at the end of a sentence under the mistaken idea that such a practice will be considered as fulfilling every object in view…”

Clearly, over 150 years of circulars and orders have had little impact on bureaucratic vocabulary in India. Even today, if you hand in a typewritten complaint to a police officer in Uttar Pradesh, it will result in a Devanagari script FIR saying “Naql tahrir type-shuda… (copy of typed statement)”, mixing English words like “type” with the past-participle form of the Persian verb “shudan” (to become).

The convoluted origin of ‘clean chit’

Though Persian ceased to be a language of governance, administrators in all Indian languages, from Bengali to Gujarati to Telugu continued to borrow, adapt and mix Persian terms with local words.

Scholar Nandini Chatterjee cites one example of how the templated form of one Persian legal contract, the farigh-khatti (deed of release from obligations [of debt]/ discharge letter), took on a life of its own in Bengali and in Marathi as a pharkhati.

She describes how in “attempting to produce the most foolproof legal contract, Bengali scribes …included literally meaningless but semantically loaded opening formulae in Sanskritised Persian…”

A literal translation of the Persian concept –“farigh-khatti”, meaning release deed – entered local vocabularies in Hindustani as “chhad-chitthi’’ connoting everything from a “no-dues certificate”, pass, or permit in British times, and through an even more convoluted turn of events forms the basis of the term “clean chit”, a word that occurs only in Indian English writing.

In 1855, the scholar Horace Hayman Wilson in his Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms noted that “Indian words, when transferred from their native garb to an English dress, are often so strangely disguised…often, baffle conjecture…pass my ingenuity to propose substitutes…and had long been found a source of much inconvenience.”

Almost all Indian languages, including Hindi, continue to use a number of words of Persian (or Persianised forms of Arabic words) origin in their regular vocabulary. In most cases, these words have diverged significantly in meaning and form from their usage in modern Persian, to an extent of being almost unrecognisable.

Language purism, India and Iran

More than 200 years ago, a strange kind of linguistic change happened. A number of Urdu writers, led by Mirza Mazhar Jan-e-Janan (d. 1780), and Imam Baksh Nasikh (d.1838), tried to purge several hundred Indic words from poetry and replaced them with Persianate vocabulary. This proposed purge was not suggested on religious or ideological grounds but on the grounds that these were rustic, unfashionable and archaic.

Words frequently appearing in early Urdu and Hindavi poetry, like piya (lover), sansar (world) and naina (eyes) were deemed matruk (archaisms), and replaced with Persianate words in poetry, despite their popularity. Today, in an ironic echo of this, Persian words are being purged from Indian languages on similar grounds: of being archaic and incomprehensible.

At around the same that Nasikh and others were purging Hindi words, another writer, Inshallah Khan “Insha”, was arguing against the necessity of “bringing Behistun and the Palace of Shirin from Iran…” into India, and even composed a short book, Rani Ketaki ki kahani in 1803, as a linguistic experiment of sorts, that used only pure Hindi words, eschewing all Arabic or Persian terms and started with the line:

“Yah vah kahānī hai ki jisamēin hindī chhuṭ।
aur na kisī bōlī kā mēl hai na puṭ”

“This is a story in which besides Hindi, pure,
there is no other tongue, mixed in nor implied ”

His experiment did not go too far though, because of his heavy reliance on totally obscure, Hindi words and metaphors to replace Persian origin terms.

Similar movements played out in Iran too – against Arabic. As early as the 1850s in Qajar Iran, the prince Jalaloddin Mirza in an attempt to “purify” Persian and rid it of foreign terms. He also tried to reintroduce a number of old Persian words in lieu of their Arabic versions and to create a Farsi-ye-sade (pure, simple Persian).

Ironically, in trying to discover old pre-Islamic Persian terms he relied heavily on a text composed in India during Akbar’s time, the Dasatir of Azar Keyvan, a possibly Zoroastrian priest who propounded an esoteric, new theosophy. It is of uncertain origin and uses an obscure invented “asmani zaban” – the language of the heavens.

Iranian writers from the late 19th century onwards, but especially during the Pahlavi period (1925-1979), as part of a process of Persianisation in the context of an increasing sense of national identity and pride in the pre-Islamic heritage of Iran, set up multiple farhangestans (academies) to develop technical vocabulary. They also attempted purges of Arabic words that they saw as an alien element in their language.

Qajar prince Jalaloddin Mirza. Credit: Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ghaffari, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As the scholar Mehrdad Kia points out, some Persian scholars preferred European terms in place of Arabic forms. “You can not call a train conductor a camel driver and you can not call a telegraph a butterfly,” they said. Others tried to return to an older, imagined pure Persian. This de-Arabisation and pure Persian movement ceased after the Islamic Revolution to some extent.

But the result is that modern Persian continues to use a number of terms that do not appear in Indian-Persian dictionaries – either European in origin such as “merci” for thank you, or “pure” Persian terms like “bimaristan” for hospital, and “zist-shenasi” for biology.

As modern Persian continued to absorb new vocabulary, and periodically weed out its archaisms, a number of new words entered its lexicon, These include word that an Indian munshi would struggle to understand, such as “otaq” (room), or muze (museum, which in Hindi-Urdu was once called an “‘ajaib-ghar” or house of wonders).

Indians similarly attempted to indigenise, adopt and cloak Persian in Indian dress, conjuring up words in the British period such as lumberdar (which is a uniquely Indian corruption of the English word “number,” with the Persianate suffix -dar) for a land revenue collector who “pays the government dues, and is registered in the collector’s roll according to his number, as the representative…”

Other administrative words and posts unique to India are terms like subedar, tehsildar, darogha, and even gumasta (a corruption of the Persian “gumashta,” which is now rarely used in Iran), which refers to a low-level clerk, peon or agent. In colloquial Indian usage, they have the same connotations of ineptitude as does “babu”.

Even terms for current administrative boundaries used in India – such as zilla for district, and tehsil/ taluk for sub-district – derive from Persian or Arabic roots and defy attempts at replacement with Sanskritised equivalents such as the Hindi term “janpad (district).” Hence, for instance in Uttar Pradesh, a district is now called “janpad”, while a District Collector remains a ‘Zilla Adhikari.”

Credit: Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms, HH Wilson via Google Books.

Persian in India once had such a pervasive influence that it was considered an essential part of an educated person’s learning. Despite the loss of widespread fluency, it continues to popup and resurface, in creative, new and entirely Indianized forms in the most unexpected of places.

A popular Hindi proverb says, “Haath kangan ko aarsi kya, padhe likhe ko Farsi kya”, meaning that things that are self-evident, require no proof – just like a mirror is not required to put on a bangle, just like Persian is no big deal for a educated person. This proverb, from a time when reliance on Persian in official documents was still widespread, remains in currency today, even if the analogy does not necessarily hold.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy grew up on Imam Khomeini Road in Hyderabad and studied some Persian. Mohammad Dawood has a PhD in Persian from Jawaharlal Nehru University with an interest in Indo-Persian.

The Dancing Peacock is a series on the enduring existence of Persian in modern India-in film, music, books, religion and culture. Views expressed are personal. Read the other parts here.