A Historical Perspective of Urdu

Urdu is a major language of South Asia, and it has been gaining in popularity since the independence of the Indian sub-continent. It is one of the eighteen national languages of the Union of India as well as the declared national language of Pakistan. Although influenced by Arabic and Persian, but quite unlike Arabic and Persian, Urdu is an Indo-Aryan, language akin to Hindi, which originated and developed in the Indian sub-continent. Both Urdu and Hindi belong to the new Indo-Aryan sharing the same Indic base. At the phonological and grammatical level, they are so close that they appear to be one language, but at the lexical level, they have borrowed so extensively from different sources (Urdu from Arabic and Persian, and Hindi from Sanskrit) that in actual practice and usage each has developed into an independent language. This distinction is most marked at the orthographical level, where Hindi uses Devanagari, and Urdu uses the Arabo-Persian script indigenously modified to suit the requirements of an Indo-Aryan speech. According to a general estimate, Urdu and Hindi taken together form the third largest speech community in the world today.

In Pakistan, Urdu is the official language used in instruction at government schools, at the district level administration, and in the mass media. According to the Census of Pakistan, 1981, the number of Urdu speakers in Pakistan has been estimated at almost 11 million with the largest concentration in the metropolitan city of Karachi, and in Punjab. The Urdu speakers in India number almost 44 million (Census of India, 1991) with the largest numbers in the state of Uttar Pradesh, followed by Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, which together account for 85% of the national Urdu-speaking population. Delhi still enjoys being the major centre of Urdu literature and publishing. Urdu is also spoken in countries surrounding India and Pakistan, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Practically, Urdu has become the culture language and lingua franca of the South Asian Muslim diaspora outside the sub-continent, especially in the Gulf and the Middle East, Western Europe, Scandinavia, U.S.A. and Canada.

Historically, Urdu developed in the post-12th century period under the impact of the incoming Muslims as a linguistic modus vivendi from the sub-regional apabhramshas of north-western India. Its first major folk poet is the great Persian master, Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), who is known to have composed dohas (couplets) and riddles in the newly-formed speech, then called Hindavi. Through the medieval time, this mixed speech was variously called by various speech sub-groups as Hindavi, Zaban-e-Hind, Hindi, Zaban-e-Dehli, Rekhta, Gujari. Dakkhani, Zaban-e-Urdu-e-Mualla, Zaban-e-Urdu, or just Urdu. There is evidence to establish that the name Hindustani was in vogue in the late 11th century, which later became synonymous with Urdu. Literally, the word Urdu (originally Turkish) means camp, or the royal camp. It also stood for the city of Delhi which was the seat of the Mughals for centuries. Nonetheless, major Urdu writers kept referring to their speech as Hindi, or Hindavi till as late as the beginning of the 19th century:

najane log kehte hain kis ko suroor-e-qalb
aya nahin ye lafz to Hindi zaban ke beec

Mir Taqi Mir (d. 1810)

Mushafi farsi ko taq pe rakh
Ab hai ashaar- e-Hindavi ka rivaj


The divide between Urdu and Hindi occurred under the colonial impact with the growing cultural consciousness as part of the processes of political modernization. A beginning, in fact, was affected at the Fort William College, Calcutta (established 1800), under John Gilchrist (1789-1841). There is enough evidence to show that the British rulers tied down the question of the varieties of 'Hindavi', first to the cultural heritage and social hierarchy, and later to religion and political power play. Thus, it was at the Fort William College that the two distinct trends in literary prose writing came to the fore. On the one hand, we had Mir Amman's Bagh-o-Bahar (1800-1802) and, Hyder Bakhsh Hyderi's Aaraish-e-Mehfil (1802-1804) as Urdu prose, and, on the other, Lallu Lal's Premsagar and Sadal Mishra's Nasiketopakhyan as Hindi prose. Later, with the rise of India's freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi sensed the communalization of the language issue and the political twist given to it by the British. He, therefore, supported the composite concept of Hindustani as a common variant of the colloquial usage written in both the scripts as the national language of the country. It is interesting to note that much before Mahatma Gandhi's proposal of Hindustani as a language of composite Indian culture, Raja Shiva Prasad in his book of grammar, in the year 1875, reiterated that Hindi and Urdu have no difference on the level of the vernacular. He wrote: "The absurdity began with the Maulvis and Pundits of Dr. Gilchrist's time, who were commissioned to make a grammar of the common speech of Upper India made two grammars... The evil consequence is that instead of having a school grammar of the vernacular as such... we have two diverse and discrepant class books, one for the Mohammedan and Kayastha boys and the other for the Brahmins and Banias." (cf. Srivastava p.3O). But the die had been cast and, spurred by the cultural renaissance, the linguistic divide was there to stay. After the partition, though there were no official takers of the idea of Hindustani, it is this common core speech that rules the roost. It is, in fact, the vehicle of communication at the level of mass culture and is widely used in movies and all forms of entertainment.

Grammatically, the hallmark of Urdu based on Khariboli of Delhi is its '-a' ending in masculine nouns and adjectives, 'is', 'us' and 'in', 'un' as oblique forms of pronouns, and a sound sequence of a long vowel with a non-geminate single consonant, i.e., -vcc > VC. The dialectal base of old Hindi including Brajbhasha, Kanauji and Bundeli show 'au' or 'o' as the nominal ending, and have 'ya', 'wa' form of pronominal. On the other hand, Punjabi and Bangaru preserve the sound sequence of double consonants preceded by a short vowel. They also retain the homorganic nasals while the a-ending dialects show in their word formation a development of nasalized long vowel. When the Muslims came to Delhi and Agra, it was this a-ending dialect which was gaining prominence in the speech communication system of the people of the north. The Urdu vocalists are the same as Hindi with slight variations in the short vowel allophones. Urdu also retains a complete set of aspirated stops, a characteristic of Indo-Aryan, as well as the retroflex set except for n (as in Krishna) which is simplified n > n. Of the loans, Urdu does not retain the complete range of Arabo-Persian, consonants. The largest number of consonants retained being among the aspirants, i.e., 'f, 'z', 'zh', x', 'gh'; and only one sound among the stops, i.e., glottal 'q'.

The grammatical and lexicographical tradition of Urdu is now almost three centuries old. Initially, it was attended to by the European orientalists, beginning with the Dutch scholar, Ketelaar, in the 17th century, and continuing through Schultze (1744), Ferguson (1773), Gilchrist (1800), Shakespeare (1817), Forbes (1848), Fallon (1879), Plalts (1884), and others down to Grierson in the early 20th century. While Platts' work has become a classic and is reprinted time and again, and Grierson's Linguistic Survey of India cannot be replaced, the others have been forgotten. The notable indigenous lexicons include Farhang-e-Asafiya (1895-1908) by Syed Ahmad Dehlavi, Noor-ul-Lughaat (1924-31) by Noor-ul-Hasan Nayyar Kakorvi, Jame-ul-Lughaat (1934) by Feroze-Uddin, and Standard English-Urdu Dictionary (1937) by Baba-e-Urdu, Abdul Haq.

Lately, with inputs from modern linguistics, and the fresh impetus given by the new status of Urdu as a national language as well as a cultural vehicle of the South Asian diaspora, the need for new studies is ever on the increase. The work of modern scholars such as M.A.R. Barker, R.S. McGregor, Ralph Russell, Christopher Shackle, R.N. Srivastava, Ashok Kelkar, Eugene Glassman, Donald Becker, Bruce Pray, C.M. Naim, Tej Bhatia, Helmut Nespital and others is considered significant. Ruth Laila Schmidt supported by Gopi Chand Narang has lately published Urdu: An Essential Grammar (1999), which is the first comprehensive reference grammar of Urdu.

Urdu literature made its beginning away from Delhi, in Deccan, in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. As the Mughal rulers in the north generally patronized Persian, court patronage came to the new speech in South India, i.e., Golkunda (present Hyderabad) and Bijapur, where for literary pursuits the new speech was used in the first place by the Sufi saints and folk poets. Hence the name Dakkhani. The earliest work extant is a verse narrative, Kadam Rao Padam Rao by Nizami (1421-1434). Sabras, an allegorical tale by Wajhi (d.1635) is considered the first prose classic. The major Dakkhani poets include Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah (d.1626), Gawwasi (d.1631), Nusrati (d.1674), Ibn-e-Nishati (d.1655) and Wali Aurangabadi (d. 1707). Inspired by Wali's example, the Delhi poets adopted their speech for poetry, considering it as elegant for poetic creation as Persian. This virtually proved the turning of the tide in favor of Urdu.

The 18th and 19th centuries are considered to be the golden period of the classical Urdu poetry when language reached its highest degree of sophistication and excellence. The great masters include Mir Taqi Mir (d.1810), Sauda (d.1781), Khwaja Mir Dard (d.1784), Insha (d.1817), Mushafi (d.1824), Nasikh (d.1838), Aatish (d.1847), Momin (d.1852), Zauq (d.1854) and Ghalib (d.1869). They were mainly poets of the Ghazal (lyric). For masnavi writing the highest honor is given to Mir Hasan (d.1786), Daya Shankar Nasim (d. 1844) and Nawab Mirza Shauq (d.1871). Nazir Akbarabadi of Agra (d.1830) is considered the folk poet par excellence of Urdu. In Marsiya (elegy) writing, no one surpassed Anis (d.1874) and Dabir (d.1875) of Lucknow. Ghalib who was a contemporary of the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is considered to be the last of the classical as well as the first of the moderns.

Though prose had made its beginning in the 18th century, Ghalib's letters set the standard for modern prose, followed by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (d.1898), Mohd. Husain Azad (d.1910), Hali (d.1914) and Shibli (d.1914). During the 19th century, the cyclic tales running into thousands of pages and several volumes like Tilism-e-Hoshruba and Dastan-e-Amir Hamza (1881-1917) gave way to shorter prose tales, such as Bagh-o-Bahar (1802) and Fasana-e-Ajaib (1831) by Rajab Ali Beg Suroor. The beginning of the novel, however, was made by Nazir Ahmad (d.1912), Ratan Nath Sarshar (d.1902) and Mohd. Hadi Ruswa (d.1931). The 20th century saw the rise of the Urdu novel with Premchand (d.1936), whose Godan is considered to be a classic. The other modern classics include short fiction by Saadat Hasan Manto (d.1955), and novels like Aag ka Darya (1960) by Qurrat-ul-ain Hyder, Udas Naslen (1963) by Abdulla Husain, Ek Chaadar Maili Si (1962) by Rajinder Singh Bedi, and Basti (1979) by Intizar Husain.

Allama Iqbal (d.1938) is considered to be the most outstanding Urdu poet of the 20th century followed by N. M. Rashid (d.1975), Miraji (d.1949), Josh Malihabadi (d.1982), Firaq Gorakhpuri (d.1982), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (d.1984), Makhdoom Mohi-ud-Din (d.1969) and Akhtar-ul-Iman (1996). The notable essayists, non-fiction prose writers, literary critics and scholars include Baba-e-Urdu, Maulavi Abdul Haq (d.1961), Abul Kalam Azad (d.1958), Patras Bukhari (d.1958) Mahmood Shirani (d.1946), Sheikh Mohd. lkram (d.1973), Syed Mohd. Abdulla (d.1986), Masood Hasan Rizvi Adib (d.1975), Abid Husain (d.1978), Kalimuddin Ahmad (d.1983), Ehtisham Husain (d.1972), Mohd. Hasan Askari (d.1978), Imtiyaz Ali Khan Arshi (d.1981), Qazi Abdul Wadood (d.1984), Malik Ram (d.1993), Kanhaya Lal Kapoor (d.1980), and Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui (d.1977).

Some important voluntary organizations working for the promotion of the Urdu language and literature in India are:

  • Idara Adbiyat-e-Urdu (Diwan-eUrdu, Panjugutta, Hyderabad - 500082)
  • Abul Kalam Azad Oriental Research Institute (Public Gardens, Hyderabad - 500004)
  • Aiwan-e-Ghalib (Mata Sundri Lane, New Delhi - 110002)
  • Anjuman-e-Taraqqi Urdu (Hind) (Urdu Ghar, Din Dayal Upadhiyaya Marg, New Delhi 110 002)
  • Ghalib Academy (Nizamuddin West, New Delhi - 110 013)
  • Anjuman-e-Islam Urdu Research Institute (Dadabhainaroji Road, Bombay V.T.)
  • The State Academies working for Urdu in India
  • Andhra Pradesh Urdu Academy (11-4-637, AC Guards, Hyderabad - 500004)
  • Bihar Urdu Academy (Urdu Bhawan, Ashok Rajpath, Patna - 800004)
  • Delhi Urdu Academy (B-Block, 1st Floor, 5, Shyam Nath marg, DElhi-110054)
  • Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Academy (Old Assembly Building, Sector - 17, Gandhi Nagar - 382017)
  • Haryana Urdu Academy (Kothi No. 516, Sector - 12, Panchkula - 134 112)
  • Himachal Academy of Art, Culture and Languages (Shimla, H.P.)
  • Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Arts, Culture and Languages (Lal Mandi, Srinagar/Canal Road, Jammu)
  • Karnataka Urdu Academy (Kannada Bhavan,J.C.Road, Bangalore-560 002 Telefax : 080-22213167)
  • Madhya Pradesh Urdu Academy (Sanskriti Bhawan, Ban Ganga Road, Bhopal - 462 003)
  • Maharashtra State Urdu Academy (D.D. Building, 2nd Floor, Old Custom House, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Road, Mumbai - 400 023)
  • Orissa Urdu Academy (Paryatan Bhawan, Museum Complex, Bhubaneshwar - 751 014)
  • Punjab Urdu Academy (Delhi Gate, Maler Kotla, Punjab 148023)
  • Rajasthan Urdu Academy (J 3, Subhash Marg, 'C' Scheme, Jaipur - 302 001)
  • Tamil Nadu Urdu Academy (3 Santhome High Road, Chennai-600004)
  • Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy (Vibhuti Khand, Gomti Nagar, Lucknow)
  • West Bengal Urdu Academy (75/2-A, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Marg, Calcutta-700 016)

Libraries in India rich in Urdu collections are at the Aligarh Muslim University; Delhi University; Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi; Osmania University, Hyderabad; and Kashmir University, Srinagar. Besides, The Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library (Bankipur, Patna) and The Raza Oriental Library (Fort, Rampur) are designated as libraries of national importance, and maintained by the Union Government.


  • Bhatia, Tej. A History of the Hindi Grammatical Tradition; Leiden: Brill. 1987.
  • Faruqi, Shamsur Rahman, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History, Oxford, 2001.
  • Kelkar, A.R. Studies in Hindi-Urdu I; Poona: Deccan College, 1968.
  • King, Christopher. One Language, Two Scripts; Delhi: OUP, 1994.
  • Russel, Ralph & Khurshidul Islam, Three Mughal Poets, Oxford.
  • Sadiq, Mohammad. A History of Urdu Literature; Delhi: OUP, 1964.
  • Schmidt, Ruth Laila. Urdu: An Essential Grammar; London: Routledge, 1999.
  • Zaidi, Ali Javed, A History of Urdu Literature, New Delhi, Sahitya Akedemy.