Influence of Persian Literature in Indian Subcontinent

Nameye Farsi (Monthly Magazine)
Summer 2000, Vol. 5, No 2
By: Abolqasem Radfar
Pages: 36 - 44
Word Count: 2311


Summary: The Persian language and literature continues to preserve its influence in the Indian Subcontinent and the lovers of texts in Farsi look at them as golden sheets of treasure. In the following article we will refer to the extent of interest shown in the prose and verse of Iranian literary figures in the Indian Subcontinent.


Text: The similarities and relationship between the ancient Iranian and Indian languages originating from a single route is quite apparent and such an affinity is evident when we compare words such as father, mother, brother, daughter, head, body, arm, tooth, elephant, cow, sheep, barley, wheat, pea, sugar, etc. in these languages.


With regard to literature too should we make a fair comparison of Persian literature with a major part of the subcontinent's literature, we will see many works in Indian literature fully influenced by Farsi texts or translation of Farsi texts. For example such an influence is quite visible in Urdu verse, prose, fiction and non-fiction. Of course the influence of Persian language and literature is not limited to the Indian subcontinent. Many languages and literary works in the world have been wholly influenced by Persian language and literature or the translation of Persian poetry and prose. However, a study of its influence on other countries is a separate and lengthy issue and in this article we will briefly refer to the reception given to several important poets in the Indian Subcontinent.


Existence of over 60 percent of Farsi terms in Urdu, nearly 40 percent of Farsi terms in Indian language and approximately 5000 Farsi terms in Bangalese language and many similar words in Marhati language during 350 years of relation between Farsi speaking governments with the Marhati speaking citizens, displays the influence of Farsi literature in the subcontinent.


Jawaharlal Nehru, the first independent Indian prime minister who was a scholar and intellectual repeatedly refers to Iranian culture and history in his works. When he speaks about the need for relationship between Timurid kings in India and Iranian Safavid counterparts, he zooms on the influence of Persian culture in India. Nehru says: "All the new languages in India are full of Farsi works. This is quite natural for all languages which are the offspring of the ancient Sanskrit specially the Indian language which is a combination of various tongues and dialects. But even Druidian language used in southern India is influenced by Farsi terms."


The existence of many Farsi and Arabic terms in `Ramine' also displays the popularity of the Persian language in the Indian Subcontinent and such a resemblance is copiously exhibited by Telsi Das in his works.




With regard to the influence and presence of Persian literature in the Indian Subcontinent, we will first start with Ferdowsi and his internationally recognized Shahnameh. The grand epic of the poet is a masterpiece which not only belongs to the Iranian mainland or Farsi speaking people but to the whole world as an immortal work. From the date of its creation up to present this masterpiece has been a very popular subject among experts, researchers and ordinary people. Its reputation and importance is such that some literary researchers believe it to be superior in quality compared to Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. However, it is enough to note that from nineteenth century onward 23 books on Shahnameh have been published in Bangalese language in the subcontinent.




My study and research about the influence of Persian poets in international literature has revealed that no Farsi speaking poet has been so widely translated into other languages than Khayyam. There are even countries and languages which have been influenced by the translation of Khayyam's quatrains. So far the quatrains have been translated into 40 living languages. With regard to such translations in local languages in the Indian Subcontinent it is enough to mention the preface to "Khayyam's Dedication", a book written by Raja Makhan Laal, the first translator of Khayyam's quatrains into Urdu language. In that book Laal refers to the translation of Khayyam into Bangalese, Gujarati, Tamil, Uria, Sanskrit, Indian, Telgu, Marhati, Urdu and even European languages. It is sufficient to note that in the past two decades over 16 translations or books have been published about Khayyam's life and his quatrains.




One important reason for the influence and spread of Persian language in the Indian Subcontinent is existence of many manuscripts of Farsi speaking poets in various libraries in the subcontinent. For example according to an article by Professor Hussein Qasemi so far 292 books have been written only about Nezami Ganjavi, the author of the celebrated Quintets, since the sixth century A.H. (12th century A.D.) and these books are preserved in 37 Indian libraries. Some of these books explain the meaning of Nezami's poems by Indian professors. However if we attempt to take a full inventory of Nezami in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi libraries, we can trace over 1000 manuscripts about the poet and should we add the printed books, researches, essays, paintings, miniatures and calligraphy about Nezami to the above figure, it will rise to 2000 works.




Attar's reputation among the Indians is such that in a letter to Akbar Shah, Feizi (954-1004 A.H.), his poet laureate, referring to a story, mentions the following lines from Attar which is a solid proof of Attar's extensive reputation in the Indian court:


From sheer deceit and folly
You resort to Abubakr and Ali,
Since you cannot rid your self of such whims
I wonder when you can worship God.


The number of manuscripts, prints and translations and research on Attar in the Indian subcontinent is in excess of Nezami. As an example we may mention that Attar's Pandnameh (The Book of Counsels) has been translated ten times into Urdu and Punjabi languages, his Advise to Elders, translated 6 times, and his Manteq-ut-tair (Conference of the Birds), translated thrice. Also an article entitled Attar in the Subcontinent mentions over 555 books belonging to Attar including his manuscripts, printed books, commentaries, translations and other works which is another proof of penetration of Iranian thought, poetry and literature in the Indian subcontinent.




Even in his lifetime Saadi's works spread so vastly in the Indian subcontinent that his books were used as textbooks at seminaries, religious and ordinary colleges and schools. The books were popularly received by all Indians as a textbook on literature and ethics. The existence of numerous manuscripts and printed books from Saadi and various commentaries, vocabularies and research works about the life, works and philosophy of this grand Iranian poet of the seventh century A.H. (14th century A.D.) in the subcontinent, displays the influence and the solid rank of Farsi literature and language in the region. Only in the past two decades 33 translations from Saadi have been made into in Bangalese language and so far over 60 books have been composed imitating Saadi's Gulistan. These two examples are enough to show the extent of the influence of Saadi's works and thoughts in the literature of the Indian Subcontinent. However, one must note that Saadi's influence is not limited to the Indian Subcontinent. The impact of his stories and ethics are quite obvious in the works of a several famous European writers such as La Fontaine. Only a study of a book from Henry Masse, the well known French orientalist, can shed light on the deep influence of Saadi's works in western literature and specially French literature.




With the exception of Saadi no Iranian poet's works have spread its influence so vastly into foreign countries than Molavi. This is because of the depth of his thoughts and spiritual domination of his words in the minds and hearts of Farsi, Indian, Turkish and Arabic speaking nations. Such a deep influence is not only manifest in their philosophy and mysticism but in their literature as well. In an article entitled "Translation of Molavi's Works" I have detailed the translation of Molavi's works into various languages including Urdu, Bangalese, Punjabi, Sindian and Kashmiri languages. According to Dr. Abu Albashar only 21 books and commentaries on Masnavi have been published within the past 200 years in Bangalese language.


Molavi's Masnavi used to be regularly read in the "Sama" mystical dancing circles and the assembly of mystics and dervishes and is continued still. Since old times many books have been written about the influence of Molavi's poetry in the hearts of his followers and mystics and the biographies of mystics. These books and biographies show that Molavi's teachings have at times wholly revolutionized the mystics' souls. Even mystic scholars used to teach Masnavi in order to purify their students' souls of impurities and to explain the delicate codes of mysticism. To be brief we will only quote a passage from Zi-ul-Manan, The History of Elders of Dekkan, by Abdoljabar Malekapoori: "Speaking about Shah Noorollah Saheb, the Indian, the author of the Five Treasures, says: "Shah Noorollah Saheb was a complete mystic and sage. He used to teach the Masnavi and fully explain its meanings. The Dekkanese citizens called him the Molana of Masnavi. The majority of Sheiks in Dekkan received endorsement from Noorollah Saheb about their understanding of Masnavi. Shah Burhanullah Qandehari and Shah Miran Saheb Heidarabadi learnt Masnavi page by page from this eminent teacher. Noorollah Saheb used to teach the Masnavi in his house from afternoon until evening every day."


In fact three years after Molavi's death the Masnavi was taken to India by Ahmad Rumi, Molavi's student. Molavi's Masnavi and his other lyrical poems have not only influenced the Muslims but the Indians and other religions too. For example a Muslim poet called Kabir who was living in the ninth century A.H. invented a new mystical school of thought called Bahakti School from a combination of Islamic mysticism and Indian philosophy whose foundation is laid on single God and respecting all religions and faiths.




Hafiz can be rated as one of the few important internationally accepted poets whose poetry and thought has pierced and deeply influenced poets and writers in East and West. The existence of innumerable collections of this great scholar and lyricist in small and big, private and public libraries around the world, point to the warm reception and popularity of Hafiz's poems. For example Hafiz's lyrics enjoyed immense fame even during his lifetime in the Indian Subcontinent as the poet himself confesses in the following couplet.


All dance and sing and revel with Hafiz's poems,
Both the black-eyed Kashmiri and Turkish dames.


Such a glorious and warm reception of Iranian poets including the celebrated Hafiz had reached a stage that until a generation ago no educated person could be found in the subcontinent who had not read Saadi, Hafiz or Molavi or failed to remember several lines from Hafiz or retain his divan in his/her home. Since 1791 when Hafiz's divan was published for the first time by Abutaleb Khan Isfahani, known as Laknahu, in Calcutta, many such divans have been published in India, Iran and Turkey. Of course this is separate from printed books, researches or translations in which the influence of Hafiz is quite evident in poems composed in local languages in the subcontinent.


Should we decide to take into account these works, we will have a very lengthy list. However, we will suffice with the following passage to display Hafiz's immense reputation in the subcontinent:


Hafiz's thoughts and philosophy had so influenced the first great leader of the Sikh religion that he said: "Faith in religion cannot be proven by a hermit's cloak, a dervish's staff, ashes spread on the body, shaved heads or church bells. If you are seeking the true path you must clean yourself of all the impurities of this earthly world."


This passage reminds us of the following lines from Hafiz.


Not she who paints her face can charm or lure,
nor mirror builders can imitate Alexander's mirror;
not he who swells and a big cap does wear
knows how to lead or be a governor;
a thousand delicate points are at work here
Not all who shave their heads are mendicants Sir.


Now we must dedicate a larger space to speak about Hafiz's translations because his poems have been translated into thirty languages in the world and have been repeatedly reprinted. As an example in the subcontinent only in the past two centuries Hafiz's divan have been translated 19 times into Bangalese, 7 times into Punjabi and 24 times into Urdu languages. Moreover his odes have been translated into Kashmiri, Asami and Indian languages.


Of course the influence of Hafiz is not limited to the elites or common people in the subcontinent. The number of manuscripts, printed books, independent researches, translations, commentaries and imitations is so vast that it reflects the influence of his lofty thoughts among thinkers and scholars. As an example one might refer to Allameh Iqbal Lahori who was deeply affected by Molavi and Hafiz. Such an intense influence can be traced in Iqbal's books about Molavi edited by Dr. Seyed Mohammad Akram (Lahore, Iqbal Academy, second edition, 1982) and Hafiz over Iqbal edited by Dr. Yousef Hussein Khan (Printed in Ghaleb Academy, New Delhi, 1976) and other sources. It is said that before starting his daily business Tagore's father used to read a stanza from Hafiz and he was known as the memorizer of Hafiz. Hafiz's eloquence and magic art has succeeded to win millions of hearts in the past 600 years all over the world.


The above examples can shed some light on the influence of Persian language and literature in the subcontinent. Obviously the influence of Persian language and literature is not limited to poetry or prose and has far bigger dimensions which is out of scope of this article.