A Persian-Bengali dictionary: Politics of purity in lexicographical space 

Guest post by Mr. A.B.M. Shamsuddoza


During my recent trip to Kolkata*, I came across a lexicographical work titled Parsik Abhidhan (Persian Dictionary) at the rare section of the National Library of India. It is a Persian-Bengali bilingual dictionary compiled by Jaygopal Tarkalanker (1775-1846). The dictionary was published in 1838, immediately after the abolition of Persian as court language in British India. In James Long’s A Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Works (1855) this dictionary is enlisted along with two other Persian-Bengali lexicons published in the same year from Calcutta: A Persian and Bengali Vocabulary by Lakshmi Narayan and Paraseabhidhan by Nilkomal Mustaphi. [1] Jaygopal’s Parsik Abhidhan is one of the earliest specimens of Persian-Bengali bilingual dictionary.

Jaygopal was a renowned Sanskrit scholar. He was associated with three famous orientalists of his time: HT Colebrooke, William Carey and JC Marshman. In 1824, he was appointed as a lecturer in vernacular literature at Sanskrit College and worked there until his retirement in 1845.

In Parsik Abhidhan, Jaygopal collected more than 2,500 Persian words. At the beginning, Tarkalanker explains his effort to collate Persian words used in Bengali language to replace them with Bengali equivalents so that “the purity of Bengali language could be preserved, and the language could be salvaged from the humiliation inflicted by 900 years of Muslim rule in India.”

Jaygopal defines purity as cleansing the Bengali language altogether of Persian words. He suggested “স্বদেশীয় সাধুভাষা” (native chaste language/high Bengali dialect) as the true alternative. But what he chose as the native tongue was largely derived from Sanskrit words instead of everyday Bengali words. In this deliberate Sanskritisation effort, he coined equivalents of commonly used Persian words in Bengali language following Sanskrit morphology. A few examples from his dictionary are given below:

রসিদ > স্বহস্তচিহ্নিতপত্র

সবুজ> দুর্ব্বাদলবর্ণ

বকসী> ভান্ডারাধ্যক্ষবিশেষ

মজুর > জীবিকার্থ কায়িকশ্রমকারি

মোজা > বস্ত্রাদিনির্মিত পাদাবরক

বরফ> শিলীভূতহিম

রুমাল> মুখমার্জনবসন

If we situate Jaygopal’s work in its historical context we will see that except the work of Manuel da Assumpção almost all the lexicons produced up to the first half of nineteenth century borrowed heavily from Sanskrit in their attempts to standardise Bengali vocabulary. The standardisation process was largely informed by the notion that Sanskrit being the sacred language of Hindus was the purest of all extant languages. The orientalists’ effort to trace Bengali’s origin in Sanskrit also bolstered this notion. For example, in the first edition of William Carey’s A Grammar of the Bengalee Language (1801) he stated:

“The language in which the classical books of Hindoos are written is principally derived from the Sangskrito [viz. Sanskrit]. This is called pure Bengalee [viz. Bengali].”

Built up over its main Prakrit structure Bengali largely borrowed from Persian language in respect of phonology, vocabulary, morphology and syntax during the course of history of well over 600 years. Even going through the normal philological process of changes in loan words, many Persian words in Bengali lost more or less their own phonology to adapt to the phonology of the borrower language. But Jaygopal considered this amalgamation process as corruption of the language and hence attempted to purify Bengali language by reversing its natural course.

Further research into the Persian-Bengali dictionaries produced during the same period will help understand the anxiety about the standardisation of Bengali language in colonial Bengal and the politics of purity associated with it.


  1. Long, J. A Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Works. Calcutta: Sanders, Cones & Co., 1855.

*I am grateful to Dr Nandini Chatterjee for providing me the wonderful opportunity to explore the archives and libraries in Kolkata.

Fieldwork in Bengali zone Part II Mar18

In March, I was back in Bengal in just over a month, this time in its western part, centred around the colonial city of Calcutta (now Kolkata). I was fortunate to once again be supported in my research by Mr ABM Shamsuddoza Sajen, who had worked together with me in Bangladesh. We joined and split forces according to our respective skill-set and interests – Sajen concentrating of Bengali and print materials, I concentrating on Persian manuscripts and documents.

We began our efforts to discover the story of Persian in Kolkata with a visit to the Nakhoda masjid, said to be established by Kucchi merchants in the early twentieth century. Reading the Persian inscriptions in the mosque, however, pointed to a much earlier date – at least the mid-19thcentury. If nothing else, this beautiful mosque hinted at stories of a multi-lingual Kolkata de-centred from the assumed Anglocentrism.

Nakhoda mosque

We started our survey of libraries and archives with the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad – that institutional legacy of language activism that we often incorrectly fold into a unilinear story of the Bengal (Hindu) Renaissance, opening with Ishwarchandra Sharma, and continuing through Bankim to Tagore.  As Sajen explained to me, Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad, one of the most active language activists of the twentieth century, had catalogued the entire collection. Later, however, the manuscripts deemed to be “Musalman puthis” (based on content, rather than language) were moved to Dhaka University. The scholar Ahmad Sharif wrote the Puthi Parichay as an introduction to this enormous multi-volume catalogue, and also published several other books on medieval Bengal. Incidentally, it appears that Ahmad Sharif’s collected works in 10 volumes from Adabi publishers, and books by Sajanikanta Das and Bomkesh Mustafi (available on archive.org) may offer a road map through the world of Persianate Bengali. In this connection, in order to grasp the pathos of Bengali language for the majority of its speakers, these articles and books must be basic reading:

Abdul Karim, “What is the language of Bengali Muslims?”

Gautam Bhadra, “Baṃla puthi talika nirmaṇ o atmasattar rajniti, munshi Abdul Karim sahityabisharad,” in Gautam Bhadra (ed.) Munshi Abdul Karim sahityabisharad o atmasattar rajniti(Dhaka: Saṃhati Prakashan), pp. 11–. 80

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Romantic Archive: Literature and the Politics of Identity in Bengal,” Critical Inquiry, 30: 3 (2004), 654-82

Salimullah Khan, “Abdul Karim’s discoveries,” Daily Star

The beauty of the Sahitya Parishad is that it is open on weekends (closed Thursday), so we were able to use the weekend to find out about their collection. It turned out that they have 1600+ Bengali puthis – of which there are 5 catalogues, which catalogues up to 1500 – I bought the latter 4.

The first volume, in two parts is on internet archive.

 Amulya Charan Bidyavushan(ed.) Bangla Prachin Punthir Bibaran, vol3 no.1. Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, 1330 BS

Taraprasanna Bhattacharya, Bangla Prachin Punthir Bibaran, vol3 no.3. Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, 1339 BS

A visit to the manuscripts rooms showed us that the manuscripts were collected by specific individuals, for example, around 200 by Ishwarchandra (Vidyasagar). Unfortunately, the catalogues do not respect the integrity of such collections, so the only way to discover what kind of materials a particular scholar had been interested in would be to work in the manuscripts rooms, for which permission may be difficult to procure.

It is not clear whether there are any Persian MSS.

There is a printed catalogue of all books, which runs into 500 pages, with many interesting books – maybe up to 100,000. These books include B165 – Assam Burunji 4 vols. This is a history book, there are copies in the Rare Book section of the National Library.

These are a great number of Bengali epistolaries – Patra Kaumudis – which are clearly relevant and to be collected.

While at the Sahitya Parishat, we were given a very interesting tour of the folk art gallery by the curator, Ms. Debishree Kundu; we reciprocated by reading some part of two Husain Shahi inscriptions in their collection, once a hadith and the other a Persian inscription recording the establishment of a jami‘ mosque.

The Asiatic Society at the corner of Park Street was an obvious place to visit. Here the Persia manuscripts were well catalogued by the intrepid Russian Orientalist Vladimir Ivanow (on whom Farhad Daftary has a great book). There are two collections of Persian manuscripts – one with the shelfmark PSC, which includes parts of Tipu’s library; the other the Curzon collection (collected by Denison Ross with government funding).

The collections include some interesting inshas, and a majmu‘a (collection) of (copies of) sanads associated with zamindārs under Tipu’s regime.

There is also a catalogue of Persian books, from which Sajen listed some interesting books.

The Victorial Memorial Hall is a wonderful place to work in, principally because of its current director, Dr. Jayanta Sengupta, and his team. As it happens, I have a dual connection to the VMH; my colleague Dr Andrew Rudd (English) and I are leading a collaboration between the University of Exeter and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, aimed at a digital exhibition of “Company paintings” based on the collections in the RAMM and at VMH. This is is a wonderful project in itself, about which I will write separately; it has has led me towards an interest in Mughal and late-Mughal  art, and specifically in artists’ signatures.

Victoria Memorial Hall

There is a fully typed list of Persian manuscripts (around 136 in total), most of which have been digitized and can be consulted for research.

The collection includes some very interesting MSS related to Tipu, among which is the Treatise on the art of artillery (C210), dated to AH1197 (f. 104b), of which the digitized copy begins on folio 38. The text includes a section on accountancy, including the cryptic accountancy or siyaq numbers (ff. 51-53), on military protocol including when Muslims can/cannot fight (ff. 53b-69), with illustrations, on types of forts and maps (ff. 70-71) and detailed rules for rules for the army and various posts therein.

There is also a Victoria Memorial Document Collection, which includes a small number of miscellaneous documents in Bangla, Persian (including a sanad of Aurangzeb’s period given to Rai Mahasai of Bansberia), and documents in Persia, English and Modi from Pudokottai. Clearly these were donated by the various zamindari families to the VMH some time in the early 20th century, and would offer useful, if fragmentary glimpses into a range of private collections.

National Library

The Persian printed books collection developed out of several sources, which includes the Buhar collection and the Hidayat Hussain collection.

There is no separate catalogue for the Persian printed books; they have to be searched on the NL’s online catalogue. Browsing the shelves yielded a copy of the Hyderabadi administrator Bashiruddin Ahmad’s Farāmin-i Salātin (1926), which includes a very large number of letter forms. Searching the catalogue by this author name revealed that he published other books of ‘Persianate’ interest, such as the Vagiyat-i mamlikat-i Bijapur (Agra, 1915).

The Persian manuscript collection consists of several distinct collections, including the Jadunath Sarkar collection and the Buhar collection.

I found the manuscript of Ruqa‘āt-i Nawāzish Khan within the Jadunath Sarkar collection. I have been looking for this for a long time, for it was written by a minor mansabdār  associated with a family of zamindārs in Malwa, on whom I am completing a monograph. The MSS is unfortunately in a bad condition, not possible to copy; I have hand-copied some parts of it.

The West Bengal State Archives on Bhavani Dutta Lane is clearly the biggest repository for the kind of material that I am looking for.

West Bengal State Archives

There is a catalogue, Guide to the Records of the State Archives of West Bengal (Calcutta, 1977), Part I 1758-1858, which revealed that there are thousands of Persian records in this institution, contained within the Khalsa records (the Murshidabad Nawabi’s treasury records, later moved to Calcutta); the Bazi Zamin records (pertaining to tax-free lands and titles to them) and various categories of records collected as well as issued by the East India Company during its political and financial takeover in Bengal until the transition to Crown rule. The excellent archivists in the relevant reading room also told me that there were even more thousands of Persian records, tucked away in the files of revenue proceedings. This is clearly a treasure house, which I will tackle in the coming years.

During future visits, besides the institutions discussed above, Sajen and I planned to look at the Ashutosh collection, which occupies an entire room in the National Library, with a catalogue in the Rare Books Room. The Bangiya Sahitya Sangshad also has significant manuscript collections. Another angle worth investigating to understand the collections of the Calcutta Madrasa (now mostly in Dhaka) is via the book Tārikh-i Aliya, which offers an institutional history of the Calcutta Madrasa, later Aliya Madrasa). We clearly also need to undertake broader study into the history of Bengali language and script use, about which I wrote a light-hearted guest blog elsewhere some weeks ago.

Books to read include:

R.D. Banerjee, History of Bengali Script

Suniti Kumar Chatterji

Also, while we remained in Kolkata this time, Chandernagore could clearly offer an interesting Franco-Persian angle; Sajen spotted a book in the Biswa Bangla book store on Park Street, published by the L’institut de Chandernagore. The book has a facsimile of a farmān.

There is clearly a great deal more to do, if the idea of “Persianate Bengal” is to be pursued with seriousness. While that would spill beyond the immediate scope of the project, such a sub-project could cross-fertilise it immensely.  There is clearly a Ph.D. in there.

Fieldwork in Bengali zone Part I Jan-Feb18

In January-February 2018, I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in an interesting performance within the Dhaka Art Summit, a beautiful gathering of artists and performers. The event that I was part of was a ‘Retrial’ of a famous legal case of the early 20th century, that of a missing heir who apparently returned from the dead. The protracted trial and associated political-social drama, inspired a major Bengali movie and an important micro-history. This performance, directed by Zuleikha Chaudhuri, was aimed at being a questioning of the legal process itself, its capacity for delivering justice, especially to the vulnerable individual who cannot produce adequate documentation. I was called upon to perform as well as criticise the role of James Hamilton Lindsay, the colonial district magistrate, who tried to squash the claim of the returned heir by use of violence.

This was a beautiful way to visit Bangladesh for the first time. The survey proved to be rich with results in a variety of ways, most importantly through the forming of relationships with scholars and scholarly institutions in Bangladesh.

I found an intellectual home in the ICSBA, a premier institute for the study of Bengal art in all its forms, created through the enthusiasm of Professor Enamul Haque, erstwhile director of the National Museum of Bangladesh. I was invited to present a paper here, which I did, and to which I received very kind feedback from the assembled scholars, including the eminent scholar of Person-Arabic inscriptions in Bengal, Muhammad Yusuf Siddiq. These conversations confirmed what had been a suspicion for some time, that I must consider inscriptions within the range of material artefacts encompassed by the concept of legal documents.

I was given access to study the Persian manuscript collection at Dhaka University library, and here I found a collection marked by a significant number of locally composed and/or locally scribed, many in the 19th century, signalling a very prolonged life of Persian in Bengal. I found an interesting manuscript, a set of summary translations of Sadr Diwani Adalat court judgments related to Hindu and Muslim law, apparently to facilitate local understanding. Persian clearly made more sense to people in Bengal, or at least to lawyers in Bengal than either English or Bengali.

The National Museum of Bangladesh is a wonderful institution for a number of reasons (I really admired the breast-feeding booth, clearly signposted). Room 33, which displays manuscripts showed me the full range of manuscript culture in Bengal, which ranged from a manuscript of Alaol’s Bengali-language Padmabati, to Persian-language kabin-namas. I requested digital copies of some of these materials.

I was also able to make a trip to Chittagong University, where I found significant collections, both at the Museum and the University library. Both yielded a small number of documents, but this was supplemented by a range of manuscripts, which I am still processing.

The biggest discovery for me, however, was the understanding of the intense interplay of languages and scripts in the Bengali zone. Even today, Arabic is frequently written in Bengali script in Bangladesh, as on this bus, which says “Fi aman Allah” (In the protection of God) and on this auto-rickshaw (CNG, in Bangladesh lingo) which says “La ilaha il-Allah Muhammad al-rasul Allah.” (There is no God but God, Muhammad is hisProphet.)

But there is nothing new about this play with scripts; the medieval Bengali tradition is famously ‘dobhashi’ – a loosely applied term that usually means one language written in another script and/or a language with a highly mixed vocabulary.

I learnt, especially from a thrilling meeting with Prof. Anisuzzaman, eminent historian and translator of the constitution of Bangladesh, that this inter-lacing of languages extends from medieval Bengali “puthi” literature into the realm of legal documents. I am now following Prof. Anisuzzaman’s lead into the Persian-Bangla document collections in the India Office collections and the BNF, Paris.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the generosity and contribution of Mr Muhammad Sajjadur Rahman and Mr Shamsuddoza Sajen, without whose friendship and support I could never have achieved any of this.

On scripting Bengali

A couple of months ago, I wrote a guest blog post for কথকতা, a really interesting blog edited by my friend Mr. Mohammad Sajjadur Rahman. It took a lot of prodding on Sajjad’s part to get me to write in Bengali, in the course of which, I made some very useful technical discoveries about typing in non-cursive Indic scripts, such as Bengali. I will write a separate blog post about this soon.

I am very proud of my first little ‘thoughtful’ post written in Bengali, so here is a link to it.

Here is also an English version of it. Here is also an opportunity for me to than Sajjad for his encouragement in writing critical, if not academic pieces in Bengali, and to Mr ABM Shamsuddoza (Sajen) for teaching me much that is in the piece below.

Bengali in many forms, or, the play of scripts

Bengali is considered to be one of the New Indo-Aryan languages that emerged from Sanskrit. Despite the technical accuracy of that proposition, Bengali vocabulary abounds in Arabic and Persian words. Such mixed-vocabulary languages used in medieval Bengali literary compositions, is known as ‘dobhashi’ language, and since such language was used in the pre-print age, it is also referred to as ‘puthi Bangla’ or manuscript Bengali. Although both Hindu and Muslim authors of the pre-modern age used such language, after the linguistic reforms of the 19th century, such language (and register) came to be referred to as Musulmani Bangla. Possibly the pro-peasant social reformer and linguist, Rev. James Long, had something to do with the coining of this term. In any case, much has been said by experts on this topic, and I have nothing to add to it. What I wish to attract attention to in this little piece, is Bengali’s flexible use of alternative scripts,  and the use of Bengali script to write other languages.

Historically, di-graphia exists in other South Asian languages, most famously in the language that eventually separated into Hindi and Urdu. But in that case, the separation is complete, or at least is perceived as complete: written in the Arabic script, the language is called Urdu, written in Nagri script, it is Hindi. In Bengali, the play between scripts continued for much longer, and, I would argue, extends until the present day.

Let us take an example from the streets of present-day Dhaka. On vehicles and store-fronts, one frequently encounters substantial chunks of Arabic text, written in Bengali script. This can be the kalima: ‘La ilaha il-Allah Muhammad al-rasul Allah,’ as seen on the rear of this auto-rickshaw or ‘CNG.’ It can also be autonomous Arabic sentences or fragments, such as ‘Fi aman Allah’ (in God’s protection), as seen on the front of this bus.

In both cases, the phenomenon described extends beyond the adoption of key words from a high status or sacred language (in this case Arabic), within the local or host language (Bengali). Both examples are entirely Arabic, grammatically and on the basis of vocabulary; but written in Bengali script. Clearly, in both these examples, the Arabic sentence or phrase serves invocatory purposes, and as such, is adopted phonetically and semantically by Bengalis who use it, but who do not necessarily have or need technical grammatical understanding of it. As such, it makes full sense to transliterate it in Bengali script, but it is still striking that Bengalis choose to do so, overriding the sacred quality ascribed to the Arabic script across the Islamic world.

I am not sure when exactly Bengalis developed such a passionate attachment to their script. The significant debates preceding the language war of 1971, for example the refusal to keep the language but relinquish the script, as proposed by the Pakistani side, are illustrative of that attachment. However, the examples of transliteration and preference for Bengali script that I offered from present-day Dhaka may not entirely be explicable with references to the 1970s. As it happens, I came across a document from the 1780s, where we see a linguistically similar phenomenon (another language written in Bengali script). This time, however, the purpose was entirely non-religious; it was written by the infamous Sikh merchant Omichand (Amir Chand), who played a well-known role in the conspiracy to remove Nawab Siraj al-dawla from the throne of Bengal. Amir Chand was a banker and litigated frequently in the Mayor’s court of Calcutta, pursuing defaulting British debtors. Perhaps in the course of one of these cases in the 1730s and 40s, Amir Chand wrote the letter below, and signed it in a highly cursive Nagri script.

This letter, despite being written in Bengali script, remained illegible to me until recently, that is until I realized that  the language of this letter may have been some thing other than Bengali. Indeed, the letter ends by stating great injustice has happened to him – ‘bahut be-insafi hua.’ The entire letter, in fact, is in Hindi, but it is written in Bengali script.

The opposite was also true – Bengali was also written in other scripts. Of this, the phenomenon of Sylheti Nagri is perhaps best known; but Bengali was also written in Arabic-derived scripts. We have one such example from Gharibullah’s translation to Bengali of the Persian story series: Qissa-yi Amir Hamza (Stories of Amir Hamza). Gharibullah was perhaps from Hughli, and wrote in the second half of the eighteenth century, the manuscript that was preserved in Jessore, and commented upon in the 1920s was in Arabic script. Moreover, the book was printed in the nineteenth century in two scripts; Arabic and Bengali.

So, what are the implications of this graphic variation and flexibility? While this is something that would require far more research, I think it represents Bengal’s continued cosmopolitanism (in the Sheldon Pollock sense, but refusing his specific arguments) and resistance to the disciplines of linguistic standardization that print-culture and national education has been trying to impose on populations throughout the world since the nineteenth century.

While the post itself ended here, I am beginning to reflect on the history of constriction of the scope of Bengali language and script; when and how did our vision of Bengali language forget the possibilities outlined above? Who were/are the agents of that process?

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