The legacy of Persian can be seen in the new literary genres it introduced to South Asia. In the writing of history, Persian introduced the biography, memoirs, chronicles and letters. Thanks to this literature, we have a remarkably detailed picture of Indian society from the descriptions of Mughal court life, to the biographies of religious thinkers to descriptions of the musicians, artists and commoners of Delhi.
The legacy of Persian is felt in the many loan words that have entered modern Indian vernacular languages. The influence of Persian on Urdu is especially noteworthy. While the legacy of Urdu is talked about in India and Pakistan today in poetry, film and ghazals, this is no less the legacy of Persian from which Urdu inherited much of its poetic tradition.
The romance tradition in Punjabi and Bengali was inspired by the tradition of Persian language and culture. Persian is still sung in the qawallis of Amir Khusrau and it left its mark on Sikh religious thought and modern Islamic philosophy. Lastly, through the writings of Sufis like ‘Ali Hujwiri (Data Ganj Baksh) and Nizam ud-Din Auliya, Persian has enriched the religious and cultural life of Indians and Pakistanis in terms of love, compassion and human feeling.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Mughal empire declined and India fragmented into various competing kingdoms, confederacies and principalities. It was also during the eighteenth century that the British began to emerge as the dominant European colonial power.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Urdu grew in popularity and ultimately displaced Persian as the preferred language of poetry across much of North India. Nevertheless, Persian retained its prestige as the language of culture and refinement during this period especially in prose.
One of the most fascinating historical accounts of this period is Abu Mirza Abu Talib Khan’s (1752-1806) The Tales of Mirza Abu Talib Khan in Asia, Africa and Europe (Masir Talib fi Bilad Afranji). Born and raised in a wealthy family from Lucknow, Abu Talib travels to London, Paris, Constantinople, Cape Town and Baghdad and writes about the people he meets there and their social customs:
I was also much pleased to observe, that in European society, when a person is speaking, the others never interrupt him, and the conversation is carried on in a gentle tone of voice. One evening, while I was engaged in conversation with the lady of the house, the servant entered with a largely tray of costly china; and his foot catching the edge of the carpet, he fell, and broke the whole to pieces: the lady, however, never noticed the circumstance, but continued her conversation with me in the most disturbed manner.
On London, he writes:
The greatest ornament London can boast, is its numerous squares; many of which are very extensive, and only inhabited by people of large fortune. Each square contains a kind of garden in its center, surrounded with iron rails, to which every proprietor of a house in the square has a key, and where the women and children can walk, at all hours without being liable to molestation or insult.
In his Diary of the Revolt of 1857 (Dastanbu), Ghalib (1797-1869) writes about the siege of Delhi:
“The city has become a desert … By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonement. No fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses … Four things kept Delhi alive – the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes [it is said that] there was once a city of that name in the realm of India.”
THE COLONIAL PERIOD
The British abolished Persian as the official language of government in 1837. With the official institution of English and vernacular Indian languages such as Urdu and Bengali as languages of education, the status of Persian in India declined.
The growth of nationalism in India under the British and the idea of “one country, one language” meant that Persian was increasingly sidelined as a “foreign” language and one that belonged to India’s past.
Born in Sialkot in 1877, Muhammad Iqbal is one of the greatest poets in the Urdu tradition of the twentieth century and the National Poet of Pakistan. He wrote most of his poetry, however, in Persian and he remains one of the few Persian poets from India who is known in modern Iran.
Iqbal’s mostly long philosophical poems show the influence of Rumi and Bedil as well as Goethe and Nietzche. He interprets Sufi concepts such as ‘ishq (love) in light of the philosophy of the European Enlightenment, namely as a force of will that animates and motivates the self (khudi) to create, imagine and conquer the world:
The luminous point whose name is the Self Is the life-spark beneath our dust. By Love it is made more lasting More living, more burning, more glowing.
Iqbal’s epic poem, The Book of Eternity (Javednama), was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. In it, Iqbal journeys through the celestial spheres with the poet Rumi as his guide encountering the spirits of the Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, Muhammad, Hallaj, Ghalib and Nietzche along the way.
 The word “modern” is not without its problems, but it refers here to a period where, even before the advent of European colonialism, India was opening up to the world. The Mughal Empire was part of a cosmopolitan Persianate world and India at the height of Mughal rule was well-integrated into a larger world economy.
For over two centuries, the Mughal Empire united and ruled over much of India. It created a classical culture which combined the finest aspects of Persianate and Indic traditions. It united peoples from various cultures and religions across the subcontinent while the Mughal courts in Delhi, Agra and Lahore welcomed artists and traders from across Europe and Asia and Iran in particular.
Under the Mughals, Persian became the official language of education and its use expanded among the various religions, classes and castes of North India. It became the language of court literature not only in Delhi, Agra and Lahore but also among regional sultanates such as the Golconda Sultanate (1519-1687). Its use as a literary language also grew through poetic assemblies (mushaira), storytelling traditions (dastangoi) and Sufi monasteries (khanqahs) as well as the language of culture.
Iranian poets increasingly flocked to the Mughal courts so much so that India had become the leading centre of Persian poetry during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By this time, a classical Persian canon (Sa’di, Nizami and Hafiz) was in the making and the Mughals patronized not only new poets but also oversaw the translation of works in Sanskrit, Greek and Arabic into Persian.
The Indo-Persian tradition of romance (qissa or dastan) was already known during the Delhi Sultanate. Amir Khusrau’s The Tale of the Four Dervishes(Qissa-ye Chahar Dervesh) was a collection of tales and stories told by four dervishes as wise counsel to a king seeking immortality.
The Epic of Hamza(Hamzanama), composed under the reign of Akbar, was based originally on an oral tradition of storytelling. It tells of the adventures and exploits of Amir Hamza (an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad) in a world of battles, courtly politics, magic, fairies and trickery.
The writing of history flourished under the Mughals. Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnamacombined biography and chronicle in its portrayal of Akbar as the ideal monarch. The memoirs of the Emperor Jahangir (Jahangirnama) tell us about the rivers and lakes of Kashmir while Dargah Quli Khan (b. 1710) provides a glimpse into the lives of the commoners, musicians, dancers, poets and artists of Mughal Delhi.
Poets like Faizi (1547-1595), ‘Urfi (1556-1590), Talib (d. 1626), Qudsi (d. 1656), Kalim (d. 1650) and Sa’ib (d. 1677) continued writing in the classical Persian style while also expanded Persian’s poetic vocabulary through exchanges with languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Turkish and Arabic.
In his masnavi (long narrative poem), Nal Daman, Faizi adapted a story from the Mahabharata with its themes of love, exile into a Persian saga on the lover and the beloved:
The burning of desire and heartache Like wine poured at once in two glasses Like the same note sounded from two different keys The same intoxication in two different spots. The suffering that love induced in the Lover, the Beloved welcomed as her guest. The bell the Lover told in grief, echoed in the Beloved’s heart.
The poet Kalim wrote about a famine in the Deccan:
Not only the laughing buds Are always fleeing from me … Their relationship to me Is like that of the shore to the sea: Always coming towards me, Then ever fleeing from me. Life’s tragedy lasts but two days I’ll tell you what these two are for: One day to attach the heart to this and that; One day to detach it again.
‘Urfi crafted a more personal and emotional style:
From my friend’s gate – how can I describe The manner in which I went, How full of longing I came, Yet how embittered I went! How I beat my head on the wall In that narrow alleyway … In ecstatic intoxication I came In troubled silence I went.
Mughal poets praised the Sufi path of love and union with the divine over the formalism and hypocrisy of organized religion:
Give up the path of the Muslims Come to the temple To the master of the wine house So that you may see the divine secrets.
This was carried to the point of blasphemy by Sarmad (c. 1590-1661):
He who understood the secrets of the Truth Became vaster than the vast heaven; The Mullah says “Ahmed [the Prophet Muhammad] went to heaven”; Sarmad says “Nay! Heaven came down to Ahmed!”
By the eighteenth century, all classes in Mughal society who were educated in Persian began using it as a literary language.
Born in 1644 in Patna, ‘Abdul Qadir Bedil was of Turkish descent. He was raised by his uncle after the death of his parents and was educated in Persian, Arabic and Turkish. He studied Sufism and was also known to the Mughal court (most notably Aurangzeb’s son, Muhammad ‘Azam).
Bedil is considered one of the leading poets of the “Indian style” of Persian poetry (sabk-i-Hindi). His philosophical and mystical verses are complex, challenging and captivating:
I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint.
A delicate act is learning the secrets of love The pen slips in scribing the word of error
The trappings of desire adorn every heart’s shop There’s no mirror but its house of clarity reflects a bazaar
Regard the spring painted with hues of new secrets What your imagination never held the spring carries
Only wonder I seek from the world’s estate Like the wall’s mirrored image is my house and what it holds
Bedil was cited as an influence on both Ghalib and Iqbal in their Urdu and Persian verse. His verse remains popular in Afghanistan and Tajikistan where they are studied extensively.
 Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (Columbia University Press, New York: 2012), 204
Masnawi Nal-Daman Faizi, ed. Muhammad Taiyab Siddiqui (Patna: 1987), 191 (12-15) cited in cited in Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics (Columbia University Press, New York: 2012) 216.
 Annemarie Schimmel, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture (Reaktion Books Ltd., London: 2004), 247.
Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil (1644-1720) is one of the leading poets of the Indian school of Persian poetry.
Born in Azimabad (Patna) into a family of Uzbek descent, Bedil lost his parents at an early age and was raised by his uncle. He received a classical education, but also mastered poetry and philosophy through self-study. Bedil served in the Mughal army, but returned to Delhi during the reign of Aurangzeb. It was there that he devoted himself to writing poetry.
Bedil composed over 16 books of poetry including ghazals, rubais and masnavis. His poetry deals with philosophical and metaphysical themes and his verses are complex, challenging if also captivating. He was not well received in Iran which generally disdained the “Indian School” of Persian. He remains, however, an iconic poet in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Urdu poets Ghalib and Iqbal cited Bedil as an important influence on their poetry.
The selected verses below were translated from Persian into Urdu by Afzal Ahmed Syed and from Urdu into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (unless otherwise noted).
For too long the heart’s desire bound me
With a drop of blood I was painted whole Ulfat dil umr haashad dast o paaim basta ast
Qatra-e khoon az sar taa paa hunaaim basta ast
I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form
The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint Mara ma’aena shad az khat-e shakasta mauj
Ki naqsh-e paa-e hava sarnoshat-e aeen darya’st
What heart’s shop is not adorned by desire?
The mirror’s realm of clarity reflects a bazaar Ko dil-e kaz havas aaraaesh-e dakaanash neest
Dar safaa khaana har aaena baazaare hast
Behold the spring painted with hues of new secrets
What your imagination never grasped the spring reveals Chasm va kun rang-e asraar-edagar daard bahaar
Aan cha dar vahamat naganjad jalwa gar daard bahaar
In the desert of fancy there are no fixed points
To find our bearings no need have we
Dar dasht-e tauham jahate neest ma’een
Maa raa chi zaroor ast badaaanem kujaayem
In contentment’s land seek not the sun and moon
If a bread and lamp in night rations has been provided to you Dar mulk-e qanaat ba ma o mahar mapardaaz
Gar naan-e shabe heest o chiraagh-sar-e shaame
For ages we’ve been amused at expressing worthlessness
We are the opener of the pages of stories of nothingness
You could expect nothing from us, but name
we are the messengers of the world of nothingness
’aumrîst kî sargarm-e bayân-e heechîm tumâr gushâyee dâstân-e heechim bâ nâmi az ân mîyân, zi mâ qane’a bâsh mâ qâsed-e paighâm-e jahân-e heechîm (Translated by Nasim Fekrat)
One of the best things that happened to me was a chance to study Persian language and literature with Nazir Saab. …
Nazir Saab was a gifted teacher. He taught us — there were only three or four students — with devotion. Never missing a class, and never wasting any time. In fact, there was never any wasting of time when he was around. He didn’t gossip, and he only talked about the research he was engaged in, sharing his excitement with his colleagues as we eavesdropped. …
Naizr Sahib was an extraordinary scholar. There is not likely to be one like him in India for a long time. Textual analysis and editing, and lexicography were his favorite subjects. His scholarship was well recognized and honored in the Persian world (Iran, Central Asia, South Asia). Those who had the privilege to study with him will long remember him with reverence.