The Hindavi language

In his book Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and her Greatest Poets, Saif Mahmood traces the evolution of our Hindavi language which, according to him, can be traced back to Mahavira and the Buddha who, in the 6th BCE challenged the hegemony of Sanskrit and started preaching in the natural language of the people: Prakrit. The purists who continued to maintain that only Sanskrit was the “language of the Gods” derisively referred to these emerging languages as apabhramsas, the fallen language, and one such language was Shurseni.

A rough timeline of the emergence of Hindavi, and its subsequent division into Hindi & Urdu is as follows:

6 BCE : Prakrit evolves.

Mahavira and the Buddha teach in Prakrit.

1 BCE: Shurseni evolves.

Shurseni, a “fallen language”, an apabhramsas evolves.

1179 CE to 1266 CE : The Sufis preach

Baba Sheikh Fareed lived in Multan. He was the founder of Chisti Sufi order (the most famous follower of this order was Amir Khusro, who shaped Hindavi). The influence of the Sufis on our spiritual and cultural life continues to resonate well over 800 years after the first of them set foot in Hindustan. The Sufis established a number of monasteries (khanqah) and the language Saraiki (the language of the sarai, the inn) evolved due to their influence.

12 CE to 14 CE: Evolution of various strains of language,

In this period, the speakers of the Indo-Iranian languages principally, Turkish, Persian and Pashto moved into North India and into Delhi, seeking the famed wealth of Hindustan. “Among the new arrivals were traders, men of faith and adventurers. The new arrivals brought with them new lifestyles and knowledge systems, all of which began to be gradually absorbed, adapted and appropriated by the older inhabitants of the subcontinent. This interaction between two civilizational streams, the Central Asian and the South Asian, led to hybridization of all markers of cultural identity and eventually to the emergence of new music, architecture, cuisines, attires, etiquettes of social discourse and—most important, in the context of this essay—new languages.” (1)

A number of languages and tongues evolved in this period. These include:

  1. Hindavi: During this period, the evolving, hybrid language spoken here, often referred to as Hindavi or Hindi, moved to Gujarat, Deogiri, Deccan, Gulbarga, Golconda, Bijapur, Aurangabad and returned, richer and more vibrant, to Delhi again.
  2. Lashkari: the language of the Lashkar, the army camp also evolved at this time. Its grammar and syntax relied on local usage but its vocabulary drew many words and phrases from Turki, Farsi, Dari and Pashto. Sandooq, bandooq, tafang, zarrah baktar, band-o-bast, kamaan, kamaandaar, sipahi, pyada, gasht (trunk, gun, muzzle-loaded rifle, armour, arrangement, bow, commander, sepoy, foot soldier, beat) and hundreds of other words travelled and became a part of the vocabulary of common people as soldiers dispersed after battles and returned to their villages.
  3. Saraiki : Sarai ki Zabaan—the language of the sarai—or Saraiki evolved in this period. Sufi influence was predominant. The doors of the Sufi khanqah (hospice or monastery) were open to all creeds, classes and castes. “The khanqahs became centres of dialogue, debate and exchange of ideas and of music and poetry. This culture of inclusion and openness produced some of the finest literature and music of the medieval period. The Sufis, who mostly spoke Turki, Persian, Dari or Pashto, wished to communicate with the growing number of new adherents in their own languages. As they travelled far and wide and settled across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, they acquired new languages. Those who settled in Punjab and Multan and neighbouring areas chose Saraiki, Sindhi, Multani and Punjabi as the languages of their discourse, just as those who travelled to the east chose Awadhi.” (1)

1253 CE - 1325 CE : Amir Khusro lived in Delhi

Amir Khusro belonged to the Chisti Sufi set, was the disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya, who was the successor of Baba Sheik Farid. He was instrumental in giving shape to Hindavi, the language that split into Hindi and Urdu.

“Khusrau is the first—and best—known poet of Hindavi, the language that was to later evolve and, unfortunately, get divided into Hindi and Urdu. These two languages, the music and poetry of India—especially of North India—and much of what went into making us an inclusive society, owes a lot to Khusrau.” (1)

16018 CE - 1707: Aurangzeb rules.

1700 CE: Dakhani or Rekhta (Urdu) evolves

Hindavi had spread from Delhi to present-day Gujarat to different parts of the Deccan, absorbing words, phrases and expressions from Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu and Kannada and enriching these languages, too, with words, expressions and phrases from Hindavi, Gojri, Persian, Dari and Turkish. This exchange and intermingling gradually led to the rise of a dialect called Dakhani—a flexible, adaptive language of daily life in large parts of the Deccan. The Sufis are believed to be the first group of people to write in this language

In 1700 CE, Dakhani arrived in Delhi from Deccan as an almost fully developed language with the poetry of Wali Dakhni. Dakhani, the language in which Wali wrote, was derisively called ‘Rekhta’ or mixed language. It was considered a language of the marketplace and therefore lacking refinement and unfit for civilized discourse. All the master poets of Delhi were soon trying their hand at writing in a language that had started life in their own city and virtually been a gypsy for 350 years, before returning to the land of its birth. The story of Urdu as we know it today begins here.


  1. Mahmood, Saif. “Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and her Greatest Poets.”
  2. Interview With Javed Akhtar