In Other Words

How India became the home of Persian lexicography

shahid tantray for the caravan
01 November, 2019

Every Saturday, Chander Shekhar, a professor of Persian at Delhi University, meets old friends at the Iran Culture House, opposite the Supreme Court. Over many cups of tea and gentle banter, with Abida Parveen’s ghazals playing in the background, their agenda has been the same for the last thirty years: to work on the Farhang-e-Aryan, a lexicon of the Persian language, with translations of words into Urdu, Hindi and English.

Dictionaries are essential to imagining the social, cultural and material histories of a people—they are full of minute descriptions of objects, customs, ideas and beliefs, drawing on idioms, colloquialisms and poetry. “We have gathered over seven hundred and fifty dictionaries, in Persian, French, German, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Arabic,” Abdur Rasheed told me. Rasheed is a professor of Urdu at Jamia Millia Islamia and a member of the dictionary committee, which also includes the senior archivist Madhukar Tewari; Gobind Prasad, a professor of Hindi at Jawaharlal Nehru University; and Ravinder Gargesh, a retired Delhi University professor of linguistics. “We’ve looked at all kinds of terms in these, ranging from history, weaponry, sports, agriculture and botany to Sufism, mysticism and natural sciences,” Rasheed said.

Persian lexicography in India has a long history. During the reign of Alauddin Khilji, the poet Fakhruddin Mubarakshah Qavvas Ghaznavi compiled the five-volume Farhang-e-Qavvas. Ghaznavi writes in the preface that he was inspired to write it at the behest of friends who found it difficult to read the Shahnama, a chronicle of the kings of Iran by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. The prevalence of Persian poetry in the subcontinent generated the need to understand its lexical elements. Thanks to royal patronage, Indians produced many of the major Persian dictionaries, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Sirajuddin Ali Khan Arzu’s Siraj-ul-Lughat and Charagh-e-Hidayat. Arzu’s works took words used in ancient texts, as well as contemporaneous words used by the poets of his time. He is credited with discovering a linguistic affinity between Persian and Sanskrit—his Navadir-al-Alfaz was the first Persian lexicon of Indic words that had been used in Persian poetry written in India.