Friday, February 28, 2014

Hindi Nationalism

Recounting an incident related to the formation of the Eight Schedule of the Constitution (which contains a list of India’s official languages), Alok Rai says:

“Nehru had asked him [M. Satyanarayan] to draw up a list of languages, and he came up with a list of the twelve major regional languages of India. Nehru added a thirteenth, Urdu, before putting the list to the Committee. When “a Hindi friend” asked whose language this Urdu was, Nehru replied angrily:

Yeh merī aur mere bāp-dādā’oñ kī bhāshā hai (This is my language, the language of my ancestors!)

Thereupon the “Hindi friend” retorted:

Brāhman hote hue Urdu ko apnī bhāshā kehte ho, sharam nahīñ ātī? (Aren’t you ashamed, being a Brahmin, to claim Urdu as your language?)

Nehru did not reply. The Eighth Schedule was finally approved by the Constituent Assembly with the addition of one more language, Sanskrit.”

Of course, what the “Hindi friend” didn't know is that Kashmiri Brahmins (such as Nehru) as well as other upper-class urban Hindu communities such as Kayasts and Khatris had traditionally learnt and used Urdu before the creation of Shudh Hindi and its installation as the official language of India in 1947.

In fact, it is this act of creation that Alok Rai (who, coincidentally, is Hindi-Urdu author Premchand's grandson) outlines beautifully in his book Hindi Nationalism, from where this extract is taken. To quote again from the book itself, Hindi Nationalism is “a narrative of the violence done to the people vernacular Hindi by and in the name of “Hindi” [Shuddh Hindi], the Sanskritic usurper.” It is an account of how, Indian and Hindu nationalism intertwined in the late 19th century to produce the hyper-Sankritised register of “Shudh Hindi” which is now the official language of India and forms the core of our education system. The book charts how this “Shudh Hindi” battled the already entrenched register of literary Urdu (in which the ancestors of Nehru had made their living and was the official language of India till '47), other forms of Hindi-Urdu such as Braj Bhasha as well as everyday spoken Hindi-Urdu (Bollywood language, if you will) to emerge as the primary language of the Government of India.

If you've ever wondered why, say, the language of train announcements is so arcane or struggled with the bombastic vocabulary of Dinkar as a school student, this is a highly recommended read.

Bonus read:

A Debate Between Alok Rai and Shahid Amin Regarding Hindi: an engaging debate between historian Shahid Amin and the author Alok Rai around the book, amongst other things.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Modern Times

Yesterday, in a conversation with a colleague at lunch (I work in Bombay) I discovered she had recently been to Calcutta. I asked her what her impression of the city was. “Hated it,” she said, with some vehemence. “It’s like the city is stuck in the 19th century”.

“Yep, glad you noticed. Calcuttans work very hard to keep it that way,” I quipped.

That very evening though, when in a conversation with my mother I discovered that Calcutta’s 106-year old Chaplin Cinema Hall was being razed to the ground, the inadvertent veracity of my wisecrack became rather apparent.


The history of Chaplin Cinema Hall is closely connected to the history of cinema in Calcutta and, indeed, in India.

While today, Bombay might stand head and shoulders above any other Indian city when it comes to cinema, things weren’t always that way. In the early 20th century, Calcutta was, arguably, a bigger centre for films than Bombay. In 1932, this led Wilford Deming, an American sound engineer to call Calcutta’s film industry Tollywood, a portmanteau of the words Tollygunge, a neighbourhood of Calcutta where most film studios are located, and Hollywood. He wanted a catchy term to refer to Calcutta as India’s Hollywood for an article he was writing. The name stuck and was then taken up by film industries across the country, with the one situated in Bombay, of course, being called Bollywood (which should now be renamed to Mollywood, really. Hello, Shiv Sena?).

The beginnings of Chaplin lie in 1902 when Jamshedji Madan, a Parsi theatre magnate who had made his money in the Bombay Parsi theatre moved to Calcutta. He started a bioscope show in Maidan which was hugely successful. Egged on by his success, he went on to start the Elphinstone Picture Palace in 1907 (which would eventually be named Chaplin). This cinema hall is widely held to be the first permanent cinema hall in India. It also screened the first talkie in India—Universal Studio’s Melody of Love. Bad times led Madan to sell Elphinstone Picture Palace to a Sohrab Modi who renamed in Minerva, a name that many city old-timers would recognise. Later on, the CPI(M) government nationalised the hall, renaming it to Chaplin. If you think that’s a unique (but apt) name for a cinema hall, consider that Calcutta also has roads named after Shakespeare and Ghalib (the latter, ironically finds no place in his own city, Delhi). This is Calcutta, dada. Like the ketchup, it’s different.


As a child growing up in Calcutta, Chaplin was a familiar haunt. It was situated in the New Market area which housed almost all of Calcutta’s cinemas at the time. This area of the city was once the English quarter, the Black Town (or the Indian quarter) being what is now North Calcutta. Although this area has now gone to seed, the old single-screen theatres still remained till the 90s till they were replaced by the multiplexes which sprang up in the more posh areas of the city, mainly the South.

Roxy, Paradise, Hind, Jamuna, Jyoti, Elite, New Empire, Lighthouse and Globe were the some of the names which featured prominently as places to get away to on a hot weekend.  If you wanted to watch a movie, you looked up the listings in the newspaper. Timings were fixed and went by the quaint names of Afternoon, Matinee (3:00 PM), Evening (6:00 PM) and (the forbidden) Night Show (9:00 PM). The lack of say in timing was made up for by the choice in elevation. You could chose dress circle or stall in a single theatre hall. Since we mostly sat in the dress circle, I distinctly remember feeling cheated when I first went to a multiplex and, after paying a substantial sum of money, was made to sit in the “stalls”.

This was the heyday of the CPI(M) and Mamata was a far-away dream (nightmare?). Hence bourgeoisie luxuries such as movie-watching were heavily regulated. Ticket prices were capped at a piddling 35 bucks. However, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the USSR had collapsed. Communism wasn’t exactly killing it. Under these circumstances, even Calcutta felt like thumbing its nose, however subtly, at it. As a result of these ridiculous price controls, theatre owners would sell tickets in bulk to touts. Buying a “current” ticket (the other sort being “advance”) invariably meant seeking out a tout who’d be standing there furiously muttering “Dress Circle, 200″ or some such to advertise his wares. You’d pay him the cash and he’d hand you the tickets with a surreptitiously stylish, Azharuddin-like flick of his wrists, making sure to not make eye-contact as he did. When I first started reading spy novels, my visual template for the spy was almost always the ticket touts of Calcutta.

Of all these cinema halls, Chaplin along with Elite were my favourites. This has nothing do with their cinema—Chaplin mainly played arty stuff (being run by the government) and Elite played Hindi blockbusters. This was to do with their location. Both halls were within a hundred metres of the legendary Nizam’s. At the interval (yep, “interval”; we’re Calcuttans, we use only pukka British terms), a couple of us would rush out, buy the rolls from Nizam’s along with bottles of Thums-Up and rush back. No plastic bottles at the time, so we’d pay a deposit on the Thums-up to be returned if and when the bottles were returned. The first 15 minutes post-interval, as our whole family sat silhouetted against the light of the screen, munching their rolls while simultaneously passing and sipping their Thums-Ups is the visual image that defines my childhood.

Nizam’s in itself is an institution, being founded in 1932. It claims to have invented the kathi roll, Calcutta’s most famous street food. The (apocryphal) story goes that an Englishman from the nearby Calcutta Municipal Corporation headquarters loved the kaathi kabaab (kathi meaning stick in Hindi or, in this case, skewer) and paraantha at Nizam’s. But being all propah and all, he couldn’t eat “native style” with his hands. So Nizam’s seeing as how the customer’s always right (even when he’s not), rolled up the kabaab’s in a paraantha and voila: Roll!

Even before its closure, Chaplin had long since gone to seed. Jokes about rats scurrying about its floors were never funny given how the truth seldom us. Yet the building itself was a familiar sight, situated as it is just outside New Market in the Esplanade area. Its dilapidated two-storey frame with the word ‘Chaplin’ affixed onto the facade in red was just ‘there’ whenever we stopped by for rolls at Nizam’s or popped into Nahoum’s for cakes. The cinema hall was next to a park with a pavilion which had a roof shaped life a large bowler hat in homage to Chaplin. I wonder whether they’ll do away with that too.

Goodbye, Chaplin. We had some good times.

First published in NewsYaps

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Journey Down Nehru-Gandhi Memory Lane

I visit Allahabad and, with it, take a tour of the Nehrus’ ancestral house, Anand Bhawan, which has now been turned into a museum to the first family of Indian politics.

To say that the Gandhi’s are not popular on the Internet would be stating the obvious. Rahul Gandhi is probably the most ridiculed person on Twitter and every few days or so, the pappu tag starts trending as Modi supporters up the ante. His mother doesn’t get off too easily either.  I see material constantly popping up on my Facebook feed which purports to prove that Sonia Gandhi is not an Indian Citizen (or has became one illegally), that she lied about her Cambridge education (a line of attack that is also used on her son), she had KGB links, she has links to Quattrocchi and even posts which, in typical Indian fashion, make fun of the fact that she once held a job as a waitress—a    recent status by stand-up “comic” Rivaldo is: “Rupee crosses 64! Well that's what happens when an Economist takes orders from a Waitress!”

Of course, as the full page ads on Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary show, social media does not elect our rulers. Whether the twitterati like it or not, the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty is a curiously popular political force in the country.

Keeping all of this in mind, on a recent trip to Allahabad, I decided to pop into the Nehru-Gandhi's ancestral residence, Anand Bhawan, just to see where all of this began.


My adventure, though, started even before I arrived in the city. Air India uses an ancient ATR 42 propeller aircraft to cover the Delhi-Allahabad route. The plane was literally falling apart: a few of the overhead storage boxes didn’t shut and the seat I got didn’t have the pocket in front for storing books or phones or what have you. While I didn’t complain too much, another lady had a proper row over cockroaches on the flight, one of which, rather dramatically, scurried onto her food while she was eating. Shrug.

Allahabad airport is probably the smallest airport there is and just about as big as your average office. It achieves this by doing away with needless luxuries such as, er... conveyer belts. Charmingly, your luggage is brought to you by attendants on carts. An insipid sign in front of the only office proclaims, “Hindi hain hum, watan hain Hindostan Hamara” proudly declaring that the verse is by “Sir Mohammed Iqbal”. Indian transporters, it seems, have a particular fascination for this line—I’ve seen it painted on railway carriages as well.

The journey from the airport to the hotel was just as eventful, conducted as it was in an auto with an extremely odd mix of religion and sappy romance. The vehicle was plastered with golden 786’s, a large painting of the Buraq, the mythological flying horse of Islam as well as the word aashique bookended with a pair of large, pink bulbous hearts.

Allahabad is precisely the sort of place for which Indian English had to coin the word “mofussil”. Dusty, congested roads, crumbling buildings and a refreshing lack of drainage; yep, Allahabad fits the Hindi-heartland-small-town template to the hilt. In all of this dust, heat and general North Indian small town-ness, though, rise the magnificent Indo-Saracenic spires of Allahabad University. I’ve grown up in Calcutta and lived in Bombay, so when I say that this was the most amazing specimen of the architecture I’ve seen, you know it’s a big deal.  An extremely tall gothic tower next to a huge Islamicate dome flecked with the remains of blue glazed tiles, the grandeur of (the now decrepit) Allahabad University harks back to a past somewhat rosier past than the present for this city.

It was 1877 and Allahabad was sort of a boomtown. The British had just set up a new province, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (which corresponds to modern UP) and, with it, made Allahabad its capital.  To practise in this new capital, and its new high court, arrived Nandlal Nehru, elder brother of Motilal Nehru. Academically brilliant, Motilal also set up a roaring practise as a barrister in due course of time.  In 1900, to show off his new found wealth, Motilal bought a veritable mansion in the European quarter of the city and named it Anand Bhavan. Both his son and his granddaughter grew up in this house. In the next half century or so, this house remained the hub of Indian politics given that both Motilal and his son were major Congress politicians. Fittingly, given her role in cementing the role of dynasty in Indian politics, Indira Gandhi turned Anand Bhawan into a museum to the memory of the Nehru-Gandhi’s.


Anand Bhawan is an oasis of peace in an otherwise noisy city. Primly manicured lawns house the large blue and white mansion. The structure is surrounded by a verandah which once, no doubt, had khaas curtains to cool the Nehrus in the oppressive North Indian summer. Two storeys high, Anand Bhavan is topped off with a large chhatri on the terrace—a perfect spot for lounging about during the evening, I would think.

The main house has had its rooms frozen in time, and apart from the opulence, there really isn’t much to see. Nehru might or might not have been an extraordinary man, but his bedroom is rather ordinary, populated as it is with a bed (!), books and other such mundanities of daily life. The museum also takes great care to mark out parts of the house where “Gandhiji spent his evenings”, the exact spot where Feroze and Indira got married or the platform on which Nehru’s ashes were kept. It’s a testament to the Indian capacity for hero-worship that this sort of material actually makes up a whole museum. Of course, there was more to come.

The outhouse is more of a conventional museum, mostly populated with photos. A particular gem was a display of “Jawaharlal Nehru in different moods” which shows the man, as promised, in different moods: seriously walking out to bat, laughing at a joke, serenely staring into the distance and so on. There’s also a genealogical chart of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has serious potential to embarrass. Did you, for example know that Rahul has a distant aunt who is called ‘Meenu’? Or an uncle called “Chunmun”? Or that a certain Nehru-Gandhi’s first name is “Lolita”?

The museum, like every other, also has its own souvenir shop where you can buy a range of metal key-chains embossed with the faces of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Because that’s what you need to be cool: an Indira Gandhi keychain.

The only thing that actually caught my attention in the souvenir shop was a reproduction of the wedding card of Indira’s and Feroze’s wedding. It started off with an invitation in both Hindi as well as Urdu and then, interestingly, went on to describe the Hindu wedding ceremonies in great detail. Nehru, it might be noted, was against the marriage of Indira to Feroze, a Parsi born in Bombay. Personally, his objection had nothing to do with Feroze’s religion but was more to do with the fact that Feroze was, not to put too fine a point on it, a loser. He did not have a university degree, was unemployed and had no source of steady income. That said, however, Nehru was aware of the political objections such an inter-religious match could generate, given his role as India’s leading politician. Indeed, when news leaked out of the impending marriage, the backlash was furious. Many years later, Indira recalled how it seemed that “the whole country was against it” at the time. To counter this, Nehru had to issue a public statement, clarifying his stand in favour of the marriage. And to strengthen his protégé’s hand, so did Gandhi, explicitly supporting the marriage. To further lessen the fallout, the ceremony was kept unambiguously Hindu although, at the time, British Indian law did not recognize a marriage between two people of different faiths (even today, it’s extremely difficult). The wedding card it seemed, acted as an advertisement, broadcasting the Hindu-ness of the wedding. As luck would have it, many years later, this would come in handy as Maneka Gandhi challenged her mother-in-law’s status as a Hindu in court in a dispute over Sanjay Gandhi’s property. Since she had married a Parsi, Maneka argued, Indira was not a Hindu anymore. As proof of her being a Hindu, Indira’s explicitly Vedic wedding was presented as clinching evidence.

Photo montages of Nehru which much like Filmfare would carry of your reigning superstar, key chains with faces of Indira and Rajiv and genealogical charts of the whole Family, Anand Bhavan isn’t in the slightest bit apologetic about praising, what is after all only a family, to the skies. In some ways, that’s not surprising; Indians are hardly subtle when it comes to hero-worship. But it did leave me with a vague sense of unease, even foreboding, as the museum reminds us of the rather solid position dynasty has in politics and just how much power it had—and still has—over  India.

First published on NewsYaps

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Short History of the Blasphemy Law Used Against Wendy Doniger And Why it Must Go

The main stick used by Dinanth Batra to silence Wendy Doniger was a law called Section 295 (A) of the IPC.

I have a piece up on which goes back to 1920s Lahore and explores the history of how this blasphemy law came about [link].

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Chai, Autos and Sher Shah Suri

Nothing good comes of having your status as capital snatched from you by Delhi. As a Calcuttan I know the pain. Of course, my city’s had it relatively easy when you consider the fate of Sasaram in Bihar. That’s where Afghan warlord (what a useful phrase: right from Bihar in the 16th century to the US invasion in the 21st) Sher Shah Suri had his capital, as ruler of Bengal and Bihar,  before he overthrew Humayun and moved shop to the Purani Qila in Delhi. Unlike the Afghan warlords of today though, Sher Shah was a pretty impressive ruler. He introduced the rupiya which was the predecessor of the modern rupee. More interestingly, he introduced a small denomination coin called the dam which probably gave rise to the English phrase “I don’t give a damn”. The administrative set-up introduced by him was so impressive that Akbar copied liberally from it and Sher Shah’s ideas therefore ruled India for centuries after the man’s death.

Six hundred years later though, Sasaram is yet to get over the rejection of being passed over for Delhi (that three hundred years later, yet another empire would use Bengal and Bihar as stepping stones to capture Delhi is something that we will get into—to use an Ayesha Jalal phrase, Bengal has always been a “milch cow” for Delhi). The town is, to not put too fine a point on it, in shambles. It’s congested, ugly, has no power or water and, most egregiously, has no good food. All you get in restaurants is a really bad Punjabi/Mughlai pastiche: Do-Pyazas, Mattar Mushrooms and Dal Tarkas. (I don’t mind Punjabi but India’s self-destructive obsession with it baffles me.) The only exception to this was the chai I found at a roadside stall quite by chance. It was boiled just the right amount with not too much milk (the bane of chai in small town India). And while it was too sweet for my comfort, a little bit of cajoling and a small white lie (“I have diabetes”) later I had them brewing me a fresh sugarless pot.

Sadly there is no place to enjoy that chai in comfort. The town centre is a seething mass of chaos: Cars. Samosa shops. Banana vendors. Autos. Children. Lorrys.

The bloody autos in Sasaram insist on putting in the shrillest horns they can find and then blow them CONTINUOUSLY as they pass through. In spite of all this effort though, they are pretty much blown out of the water when a lorry passes through blowing its shrill horn CONTINUOUSLY.

The day I visited, just in case there it wasn’t chaotic enough, there was an RJD politician berating Nitish Kumar for, interestingly, being a casteist. “Doesn’t a poor child of a forward caste feel hungry”, thundered the man on a very loud mic to make himself be heard over all the noise. Shoe on other foot and all that I thought through my headache.


Unfortunately, going through the town square is a must in order to visit Mr. Suri’s impressive tomb. Placed in the centre of an artificial lake, the first thing that strikes you is its lack of ostentation. Pretty is not a word you would use to describe the tomb. More like spartan, rugged or muscular. If the Taj Mahal were Chitrangada Singh, pretty and elegant, Suri’s Maqbara is more Schwarzenegger. The closest structure it reminded me of are the tombs in the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi, the Sasaram tomb of course being far more impressive and has far fewer rich Delhi-ites jogging around it.

Made of sandstone, the tomb’s pretty big, around 150 feet high. It stands on a square platform which leads down to the water in the form of steps. The domed chamber itself is octagonal and has entrances on seven sides the eighth being a Mehrab sort of wall niche.

The chamber is surrounded by a pillared verandah of sorts decorated by the usual graffiti you find at monuments.

The abusive: Maadar Chod, Gaand, Ch**th

The banal: Sasaram

The romantic: Rohan hearts Pinki

The forever alone: Ayub (whoever he is, hope he finds that special someone to carve his name along with)

The most interesting piece of "graffiti" though is a stone plaque put up by the British in 1882 which boastfully proclaims that the tomb was repaired by the British Government.

The chamber houses a number of graves the largest being Sher Shah’s. Interestingly, Suri’s grave has been mazaar-ified. There’s a rich red-rimmed green chadar spread over it which is in turn covered with small change (the highest denomination note was a 20). The guard later explained that this wasn’t because people weren’t generous but it was because it’s tough to keep an eye on things all the time and some people have frisky fingers. There were also a couple of chaadars on the wall in case you wanted to do a bit of spreading yourself “all free of cost”, said the guard in a tone which was to indicate he expected to be tipped.

While I’ve seen this happen elsewhere (Mehrauli and Hauz Khas for example) the tomb of so un-religious a man being turned into a mazaar confused me. So I asked the guard, Bindeshwar Singh, to explain. Tall and strapping with a handlebar moustache to die for, he listened to my question, looked at me as if I was retarded and asked me whether I wanted to put some money on the grave. I turned down this invitation to tip a long dead emperor and asked him again. In what was becoming a worrying trend he again replied with a question:

“Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?”

Not wanting to colour his answer, I prevaricated and mumbled something unintelligible.

Cornered by my persistence and forced into answering Singh told me: “See Saheb, it is very simple. This man, Sher Shah was a man favoured by the fates. Uski taqdeer achhi thi. He was the most powerful man in India. Did he or did he not become badshah of Hindustan? If so what is wrong if people ask wishes of him. If he had so much power during his lifetime maybe he can still spread some of it around.”

I nodded. This was sound logic; couldn't argue with it.

“Look at his pitaji’s tomb (Sher Shah’s father’s tomb is located about a kilometre from his), would anyone do prarthana there? Of course they wouldn't. He was a nobody.”

(Bindeshwar was right. I visited Hasan Khan’s tomb after that and it’s far from being treated as a religious place. In fact, children were using the courtyard to play cricket.)

Turning down yet another offer to tip Sher Shah Suri and impressed by Bindeshwar’s theory of the fundamental relationship between power and religion I headed back to the city—I could hear the autos of Sasaram beckoning shrilly to me.

A slightly edited version of this piece was first published on Kafila

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"The theory of Pan-Islamism has long ago exploded" - Jinnah

Came across this very interesting interview of Jinnah given to Reuters recently. There are many remarkable things here, one of which is that Jinnah had no idea that Mountbatten and Nehru have already decided to partition the Punjab and Bengal. He is still making a pitch for their unity unaware that it’s little more than an academic exercise.  In the end-game leading up to 1947, Mountbatten kept the AIML out of a lot of key decisions.

However, all that is well known. What is really interesting is Jinnah’s casual dismissal of pan-Islamism. When the interviewer asks him, “Do you envisage the formation of a Pan-Islamic state stretching from the Far and Middle East to the Far East after the establishment of Pakistan?” he starts of his answer by saying, “The theory of Pan-Islamism has long ago exploded…”

Jinnah’s reflexive opposition to pan-Islamism might be seen in the light of his criticism of the Khilafat movement (1920) in which he opposed moves to make a political movement out of a theological issue (the deposition of the Caliph) and warned of the “religious frenzy” that such a move might unleash.

Given that the state he founded is now in some serious hot water due to forces which do believe strongly in some form of pan-Islamism, this might be an interesting point for the beleaguered liberals of Pakistan.

You can read the entire interview here.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Trip to Bijapur with Shivaji and Afzal Khan

A trip to Bijapur gets me some Dakhni Biryani, tales of mano-a-mano combat, mass graves and equestrian statues

When I eventually broke though the thicket, all my struggle and exhaustion gave way to an overwhelming feeling of eeriness. In front of me lay 9 rows of graves. Symmetrically arranged, this was not a regular graveyard since each of the grave markers was identical. All these people had, in all probability, been buried here at the same time.

Something terrible had happened here.

This rather morbid historical monument, situated around 10 kilometres east of the city of Bijapur in Karnataka,  is called Sāth Khabar (sāth meaning 60 and Khabar being the local Dakhni pronunciation of qabar or grave). R and I had gotten here with much difficulty, hiring an auto rickshaw to take us to this place. And while communication in Bijapur was hardly a problem, the city being mostly Dakhni speaking, once out in the countryside, Kannada took over and we had to search for Sāth Khabar using Umar, our auto driver as our Hindi-Kannada translator—an irritatingly laborious process. Even when we did get to the monument, as it turned out, we would have to trek the last kilometre on foot, there being no road. And trek we did dutifully, through thick bush, scrub and bramble. Halfway through this trek, unsure of whether we were even headed anywhere, we came across the corpse of decomposing goat—an image (sign? warning?) that would play itself up greatly when we were in the middle of 60 graves out in the middle of nowhere.

The name Sāth Khabar though was a slight misnomer or approximation, if one were to be charitable. There were actually 63 graves mounted on a plinth a foot high. On the eastern side of the graves stood a typical Bijapuri pavilion. Behind this pavilion was a well, choked up with weeds but still filled with water. If legend it to be believed, it was here that Bijapuri general Afzal Khan had drowned each one of his 63 wives just before he rode out to battle a recalcitrant Shivaji. Khan had volunteered for this battle but had also been told by an astrologer that this encounter would be his last. In an act of pre-posthumous jealousy, he killed his wives, drowning them in the well, so that they would be unable to remarry after he was gone. It was this mass burial ground that is now called Sāth Khabar[i].


Bijapur today is a small town in the north-west of the state of Karnataka, very close to its border with Maharashtra. Unlike towns of a similar size in North India, Bijapur is rather clean and well-organised with a surprising amount of infrastructure. The roads are well maintained and adequately lit, the place is dotted with open areas and parks and, surprisingly for an Indian town of only 3 lakh, it has a bus service. Just one stroll around the city though will tell you this is no ordinary mofussil town. Bijapur is absolutely dotted with monuments; masjids, tombs, gateways and dargāhs pop up with every turn you take. Markers of past greatness, strewn around like so many pebbles on a beach.

Founded in the 11th centuries, the name Bijapur is the local Kannada/Dakhni version of the Sanskrit Vijayapura, or city of victory. It was in the 16th and 17th centuries though that this city, as the capital of the remarkable Bijapur Sultanate, achieved its greatest glory.

The most amazing Bijapur

The Bijapur sultanate was a break-away from the first Muslim kingdom in the south, the Bahmani sultanate which in turn was carved out of the Delhi Tughlaq sultanate as it struggled to hold on to its southern regions.

For much of the reign of the Adil Shahis, the dynasty that ruled Bijapur, the kingdom was actually more prosperous than its Sunni counterpart in the North. That prosperity meant that the city of Bijapur was, till the reign of Shahjahan, far grander than the urdus (or cantonment cities) of North India such as Delhi, Agra or Lahore.

This wealth resulted in a fantastic intermingling of cultures—Persianate (which included the ethnicities of Afghan and Turk), North Indian (mainly Muslims from Delhi and its surroundings), Siddi, Maratha, Telugu and Kannada—to produce a sparkling syncretic Dakhni culture well before a certain Jalaluddin Akbar could begin his project up North.

Dakni zabaan

Arguably the greatest outcome of this syncretism is the local language of Dakhni, spoken in urban centres across the Deccan in places as varied as Bijapur in Karnataka, Hyderabad in Andhra (Telengana?) and Beed in Maharashtra. The language was first bought into existence as the armies of Khilji and subsequent North Indian rulers rumbled into the Deccan to try and annexe it for Delhi. These immigrants from the North carried with them dialects such as Khadi Boli, Haryanvi and early forms of Punjabi[ii] which, in the cities of Deccan, mixed with Marathi, Telugu and Kannada to give rise to Dakhni. Existing only as a street patois today, Dakhni was the first formal literary expression of Khadi Boli, the local dialect of Delhi and West UP. The Sufis of the Deccan used it as a utilitarian tool to preach their creed and in the hands of poet-kings such as Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (founder of Hyderabad) and Ibrahim II of Bijapur it reached the dizzy heights of literary expression.

Anecdote has it that a Dakhni poet, Wali Mohammed, displayed his poetry to the literati of Delhi who were impressed by this new literary language, most composition in Delhi at the time taking place either in Persian or other Hindustani dialects such as Braj and Awadhi[iii]. In this way, Dakhni gave rise to modern North Indian Urdu in the 18th century and 150 years later, North Indian Urdu would in turn give rise to Shudh Hindi, making Dakhni a grandfather of sorts to India’s current official language. Of course, once Urdu and Hindi had established their sway, they deposed their once grand predecessor and Dakhni was stripped of its status as a literary language, left only as a street argot in cities across the Deccan, right up to Madras. Given the status of the language today, in a fittingly symbolic gesture, the tomb of Wali Dakhni—the man who reintroduced the language to the North—situated in Ahmedabad, was razed to the ground in the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom.

The Dakni Akbar

The most remarkable work of Dakhni in Bijapur was also composed by a remarkable man, the 6th sultan of the dynasty, Ibrahim Adil Shah II. Ibrahim II would be the Deccan’s Akbar, a philosopher king with an eclectic taste in spirituality. An intense lover of music, his book Kitāb-e-Nauras is a treatise on Indian classical music which opens with an invocation to Saraswati. Much like Akbar, he founded a new city, Nauraspur, around 10 kms east of the original city. Very little of it survives now; when I visited the place, there were only two buildings, each in an advanced state of decay, the Sangeet Mahal and the Nari Mahal. The ASI was carrying out work there and the supervisor of the team, Anil was kind enough to show me around. As per him, Ibrahim II had only built Nauraspur in order to visit the ancient Narasimha Temple, situated nearby, in peace, away from the watchful eyes of the city’s orthodox ulema. Narasimha had cured Ibrahim’s daughter’s blindness and ever since then, he was a bhakt, informed Anil.

The orthodoxy of Bijapur, it seems are still fighting a losing battle, even after 400 years. The city has a thriving Sufī culture, consisting mainly of the Chistī, Qādri and Shattarī orders. On a visit to the popular mazār of Abdul Razzaq Qadiri (commonly known as the Jod Gumbaz or “twin domes”) I was intrigued to see women queuing up at the back with coconuts in hand. As their turn would come, a chap would take it from them, crack it open with practised ease and pour the water over the dehlīz (threshold) of the dargāh. “Isse mannate pūri hotī hain, betā,” a woman, who was probably younger than me, said by way of explanation, maybe being obligated to add the betā as a mocking response to my somewhat daft query of why she was doing this. All dargāhs in Bijapur also have a jot/deep/charāgh lit constantly. At the Ameen-ud-din dargāh, when I asked the sajjādā nashīn what the significance of the lamp was, he just nodded sagely and said, “Yahi dakkan ka rivāj hai” (this is the tradition of the Deccan).
The naryal-breaker hard at work at the Jod Gumbaz
The charagh inside the Ameen-ud-din dargah

The Empire's Maharashtrian backbone

In the 17th century, this syncretism also extended to the bureaucracy and army of the Bijapur Empire, in a form much deeper and more stable than seen in Delhi. Much of the Bijapur Empire was run and administered throughout its length and breadth by Maharashtrian desais and deshmukhs. This was due to a confluence of factors such as it already being an existing practise under the earlier Bahamani sultanate as well as the ethnic factionalism within the Bijapuri[iv] court itself. The court in Bijapur has always seen a tug of war between Deccan Muslims and foreign Muslims (such as Turks, Persians and Afghans). As Eaton points out, whenever Deccan Muslims have gotten a chance, starting from Ibrahim I, they have always appointed Maharashtrians to key position in order for it to act as a check against the foreigner class.

Linguistically, the result of this large scale intermingling meant that Marathi was inundated with Persian loan words, the language of the Bijapuri court along with Dakhni. In fact, As GH Khare points out, this resulted in a distinct register of Marathi being born (which Khare called Perso-Marathi) which was used to administer the Bijapur Empire. Rajwade’s analysis of the documents of the period reveal that nearly 40% of the words used in the Marathi used by the upper classes of the period were of Persian origin; an astonishingly high number[v]. And in what is probably one the most telling legacies of Bijapur, around 10%[vi] of the lexicon of modern Marathi is derived from Persian[vii].

Bijapuri general Shahji's son, Shivaji

One of the key examples of how important Maharashtrians were to Bijapur was Shahji Bhosle, the father of Shivaji, who was a key general in the Bijapuri armies (and had earlier served both Ahmednagar as well as the Mughal Empire[viii]) and responsible for conquering much of Karnataka for the Empire. In fact, to note one of the many ironies of that period, Shahji, had served under Afzal Khan in 1641, as the armies of Bijapur endeavoured to crush an uprising of Hindu Rajas in the general region of Vellore.

In the late 1650s, though, Shahji’s estranged son, Shivaji was creating ripples in the Bijapur court for his temerity of taking over a number of Bijapuri forts as well as capturing the lands of a prominent feudal family, the More’s.  However, caught up in the problems of succession (the emperor, Mohammed Adil Shah was on his death bed) as well defending itself from the armies of the belligerent Mughal prince, Aurangzeb, the empire did nothing and Shivaji got a free rein to build up his power. In 1659, however, with a new emperor in place, Bijapur decided to act. It marshalled one of its most capable generals, Afzal Khan to capture Shivaji. Khan already had a reputation for being a tyrant—in another story about his cruelty, he had once threatened to have officials squeezed to death in a mill for dereliction of duty—so combined with his combat with Shivaji, it is little surprise that legends like Sāth Khabar have sprung up.

Afzal Khan marches to Shivaji

As he marched from Bijapur to Pune (which is where Shivaji was) with a force of around 10,000 troops (a massive force by the standards of the depopulated, famine-stricken Deccan), Afzal Khan decided to adopt a policy of intimidation of the worst possible kind by destroying a number of Hindu temples on the way, the most important of which was the Vithoba Temple in Pandharpur. Till today, you see advertisements of tours to Pandharpur all over Bombay and it is probably Maharashtra’s most popular temple, a status it had even in the 17th century.  Though, as Stewart Gordan points out, “this behaviour was unprecedented for a Bijapuri force” given the Empire's past history of syncretism. And not only was this act by Afzal Khan morally unconscionable, but it was also highly impolitic since it served to alienated the bedrock of Bijapur's civil and military bureaucracy who were, as pointed out earlier, largely Maharashtrians. In the end, the strategy behind the destruction, that of forcing Shivaji to come down from the hilly Ghats to meet Khan’s large army on the plains was also a failure—Shivaji, wisely, did not budge.

Once Khan reached Pune, he found Shivaji had retreated to his fort in Pratapgarh. Shivaji dare not take on Bijapur's massively larger force on the plains and Khan did not have enough siege equipment to force Shivaji out of his fort. Sieging was a core part of medieval Indian warfare and the two sides settled down to 5 months of a protected cat and mouse game. Supplies though were a factor for both sides—food was running out for Shivaji, trapped inside his fort, and there was only so much the ghats could throw up for Khan's massive force. Both sides therefore engaged in protracted negotiations leading up to a truce meeting between Shivaji and Afzal—probably the single-most celebrated incident in Maharashtrian history. In the meeting, as is well known, Shivaji killed Khan. What is hotly contested, though, is who attacked first, a point on which there is little agreement between primary sources of that period. Marathi sources such the bhākās attribute the treachery to Khan. Mughal and Bijapuri sources such as Khafi Khan accuse Shivaji of premeditated murder. From a historiographical point of view, most colonial historians such as James Grant Duff and Stanley Lane-Poole blame Shivaji while nationalist historians such as Jadunath Sarkar blame Khan (naturally, it is this version which is disseminated in India).

Shivaji, a brilliant tactician

This, of course, is a ridiculously minor point. Both Khan and Shivaji had committed many deeds prior to this which would be considered highly immoral by today’s standards, including premeditated murder; you did not become a solider in the medieval Deccan by being any sort of mahatma. The morality (or lack thereof) displayed in this particular incident is immaterial. The issue should purely be seen from the point of view of strategy—an angle from which Khan comes out to be an overconfident fool and Shivaji a brilliant tactician—rather than any woolly notions of ethics. The problem is that the history of this period and this incident in particular has been sharply communalised and Shivaji and Afzal Khan are forever being moulded, twisted and contorted into shapes which conform to the Hindu-Muslim communal politics of the 20th century. Remarkably, as late as 2009 (three and a half centuries after the incident took place), the issue led to communal violence in the town of Miraj in southern Maharashtra as Hindus and Muslims clashed over the ostensible provocation of a welcome arch, put up by the Shiv Sena, depicting Shivaji killing Afzal Khan. In response to the bungling efforts to bring peace, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray attacked the government asking whether “Afzal Khan [was] a relative of the government” and in true Thackeray-style opined that “had it not been for Shivaji Maharaj, we all would have been reading namaaz today”.

Unaware of the controversy that this would generate 350 years later, the real Shiv Sena, on a signal from their commander, attacked the unsuspecting Bijapur army. The ensuing Battle of Pratapgargh was short and decisive as Khan’s leaderless troops (composed largely of Marathas, it might be noted, fighting loyally for Bijapur as they had done for centuries) were routed. This would be one of many instances in the career of Shivaji when his razor-sharp intelligence combined with his remarkable personal bravery resulted in an improbable victory.


On the way back from Sāth Khabar, we asked Umar to take us to the best biryani joint in town, rather than back to the hotel. The Kutchi Biryani of the Deccan is a marvellous creation and takes the standard the North Indian dish and adds some Dakhni masalas to it, to make it far spicier than anything found in, say, Delhi or Lucknow. As we stood at a crossing, waiting for the light to turn green, I looked out and saw a magnificent bronze statue of Shivaji astride a rearing horse, bang in the middle of the capital of his greatest foe, the Bijapur Empire. An old rotting garland was dangling from his neck, no doubt the result of the last political function.

Shivaji and His Times, Sarkar, Jadunath
The Marathas, Gordan, Stewart
The Mughal Empire, Richards, John
The Value of Dakhni Language and Literature, Mohamed, Sayed
A History of the Mahrattas, Duff, James Grant
Aurangzib and the Decay of the Mughal Empire, Lane-Poole, Stanley
The Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700, Eaton, Richard Maxwell
A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761, Eaton, Richard Maxwell

[i] Jadunath Sarkar had visited the place in 1916 and also noted the “utter desolation” of the spot (Shivaji and His Times). In his time though the story was still alive. When I visited it almost a 100 years later, none of the farmers in the area knew anything about the legends associated with Sāth Khabar other than its name.
[ii] Sufis of Bijapur, Richard Eaton. Eaton mentions that the language bears far closer resemblance to Punjabi than does modern Hindi-Urdu
[iii] Other people telling us about our own culture seems to be a rather entrenched Indian habit. See the urban popularity of yoga after its popularity in the West.
[iv] A practice inherited by all the Deccan Sultanates, not only Bijapur. Stewart Gordon, for example remarks that “virtually all of Malik Amber's [of Ahmednagar] troops were Marathas”
[v] Since this analysis was done using documents, the amount in in spoke speech would be lower. Perso-Marathi might have been a ‘high’ written register.
[vi] Joshi, “Kingdom of Bijapur”
[vii] I am not a Marathi speaker but having lived in Bombay some words I have picked up are phakt (faqat), jakāt (zakāt), bajār (bāzār), majā (mazā), rajā (razā). Of course, given Bombay’s status as a large city, a lot of them might have come in via Dakhni/Hindi-Urdu rather than directly from Persian as such.
[viii] In the absence of any Anti-Defection Law like instrument, this constant shifting of sides was rather common in the Deccan at the time.