The Rich History of the Persian Language in India

The article written by Maryam Papi entitled “The Persian language has a rich history in India, but it’s slowly dying out” appeared in Quart India on September 7, 2017. It was first posted  on The article published in has been slightly edited. Prior to reading the article printed below, readers are also directed to the Persian Heritage journal’s 2019 publication of a two-part article on Persephobia written by Kaveh Farrokh, Sheda Vasseghi and Javier Sánchez-Gracia:

Note the following excerpt from the above article(s) with respect to British rule:

From the outset of the establishment of their rule in India, the British attitude towards Iran was ambivalent at best, and unfavorable towards the Persian language in particular. The English Education Act of 1835 essentially banned the teaching of Persian in India and its official use in Indian courts. Up to this time, Indians of diverse backgrounds (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.) were able to rely on Persian as a common Lingua Franca. Eliminating Persian was instrumental for the solidification of British rule over the Indian subcontinent. India’s large and diverse population was now also cut off from a wide swathe of Persian-speakers in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran. To further weaken the bonds between India’s Hindus, Muslim, Sikhs, etc. the British East Company also supported the promotion of extremist Islamist cults seeking to eliminate Persian and Indian cultural influences.


It is difficult to think of Persian as an Indian language today. Yet for hundreds of years, Farsi held sway as a language of administration and high culture across the subcontinent. It was brought in by Persophile central Asians during the 12th century, and played a role very similar to the one English does in modern India. So, in the 17th century, when the Marathi Shivaji wanted to communicate with Rajasthani Jai Singh, the general of the Mughal army in the Deccan, they used Farsi.

The elite of 19th century Bengal were bilingual in Farsi (Persian in English) and Bangla. Raja Rammohan Roy edited and wrote in a Farsi newspaper, and the favorite poet of Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranth’s father, was Hafez, a 14th century poet from Iran. So impactful was Farsi’s role that India’s largest language today, Hindi, takes its name from a Farsi word meaning “Indian.” With the coming of the Raj, English replaced Farsi, but pockets of the language still survive in India. This is an extract from the diary of a Persian teacher in Kolkata …

Kolkata Diary

This is my third visit to Kolkata and I am still overwhelmed with joy to see the city flourishing culturally. Kolkata’s extreme paradoxes, an intellectual environment existing alongside deprivation, create a combination of joy and struggle. My most educated Indian friends are from Bengal. I can see many similarly educated people on the streets of Kolkata. Every day, on their way to work, these intellectuals walk past crowds of hawkers and people washing themselves under the municipal water taps. Everything is wet in the monsoon, yet water is still a relief for people who live in the street.

A view provided by Maryam Papi of a student writing in Persian on a whiteboard (Source: Maryam Papi).

Kolkata does not show its reality to a tourist who only goes to the Victoria Memorial or Birla Mandir—the real Kolkata is on its streets. Part of this reality is also buried in the South Park Street Cemetery. This is where people like Sir William Jones (1746-1794), the founder of the Asiatic Society and the father of Orientalism, and Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-1831) have been laid to rest.

I went to this cemetery in the heart of the city, on a weekend, along with a group of Farsi language students who were attending the summer school held in Lady Brabourne College. The students gathered next to Sir William Jones’s tomb and listened to their professor, who was explaining how Jones had served oriental studies during his short life in the city.

Persian and Bengali

Looking for the city’s Persian legacies, the same group of students found their way to St John’s Church, where Farsi inscriptions are engraved upon the structure. They recount the life and death of people like William Hamilton, the surgeon who served the Mughal emperor Farrukh Siyar in Delhi. Farsi was a major language in the subcontinent for several hundred years. Despite Bengali having many words in common with Farsi, in Bengal, there are no longer any native speakers of Farsi.

It is still taught in a few schools of Kolkata as an optional subject. Some colleges, such as Lady Brabourne and Maulana Azad, have Farsi departments. Hearing the Farsi words coming out of their classrooms, it seems as though the Bengali tongue has forgotten how to pronounce Farsi words. The students could not read the inscriptions on St John’s Church, even though most were Muslims, familiar with Urdu.

At a two-week summer school in Lady Brabourne College, organized by the Institute of Indo-Persian Studies, 54 students from various colleges in Kolkata had the chance to learn Farsi from native speakers for the first time. Some students could recite Farsi poems but as a native Farsi speaker, I could not grasp anything they said. The students in the Bachelor’s program as well as some completing their Master’s had to go back to the Farsi alphabet, to learn its correct sound and to distinguish letters like “f” and “p,” which were being pronounced in a similar way due to their vernacular accent.

Next, they moved on to the formation and usage of simple and complex Farsi words, and reading out Farsi text in a proper Farsi accent. On the fourth day, they began memorizing the ghazals of Hafez and Khusro and Iqbal. They also glimpsed the magnificent worlds of Firdausi, Rumi, Hafiz, Khusro, and others.

Considering things from a wider perspective, I wondered how this poetry might change their lives. Would an understanding of Sufism in Farsi poetry create better human beings? The literature may change their world outlook. But what is more solid? The grammar of a language or the rules of a society?

A view provided by Maryam Papi of Bengali students of the Persian language (Source: Maryam Papi).

Tagore connection

I was teaching Farsi through films to familiarize students with the everyday life of Iran, and to improve their listening skills. To my surprise, I realised that the Farsi studies students did not know much about Iranian culture. They were not even familiar with well-known film directors from the country.

Some of my questions were answered at Rabindranath Tagore’s house, another location the Farsi students visited as a part of the extracurricular program provided by the summer school. The house has been turned into a museum, and certain rooms have been used to depict the cultural interaction between Tagore’s home country and some of those he visited. Each of these rooms serves as a reflection on the cultural connections between India and the country visited by him. There is no room dedicated, however, to the Indo-Iranian cultural connections of Tagore—despite his having traveled to Iran twice in a two-year period. Considering such negligence of Indo-Iranian heritage, it is no wonder that the Iranian Embassy and the Iranian Cultural Center in New Delhi made a minimal financial contribution to Kolkata’s Farsi summer school.

A view provided by Maryam Papi of students learning the Persian language (Source: Maryam Papi).

Promotion versus Preservation

Iran might be the home of the Farsi language, but it is also spoken in countries like Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Despite having a claim over Farsi, the Iranian government does little to promote the language abroad. In a place like India, Farsi does not need to be promoted—it merely needs to be preserved. Most Farsi manuscripts lie unused and locked in Indian libraries and archives. The task of documenting, digitizing, and preserving these manuscripts is beyond the capabilities of Persian Studies Centers in India.

A view provided by Maryam Papi of an Indian enthusiast of the Persian language applying ink on Persian poetry that has been etched upon a stone stand (Source: Maryam Papi).

The future of the Farsi language in India is ambiguous. Efforts are underway by the president of IIPS, professor Syed Akhtar Husain, to revitalize the language as well as Indo-Persian culture. Husain refers to the glorious era of Persian in the subcontinent, during which valuable books, records, and documents were produced. He said:

It is a pity that the current generations have kept themselves away from the vast treasure troves of Persian literature preserved in various libraries and archives in Bengal.

The Hêrbedestân

The article below by Firoze M. Kotwal on Hêrbedestân is posted in the CAIS (Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies) venue but was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 2003 and last updated on March 22, 2012. This article is also available in print in the Encyclopedia Iranica (Vol. XII, Fasc. 3, pp. 227-228).

Kindly note that the pictures and accompanying captions describing these do not appear in the original postings of this article in the Encyclopedia Iranica and the CAIS venues.


Hêrbedestân (school for priests, religious school), is a Middle Persian term designating (1) Zoroastrian priestly studies and (2) an Avestan/Pahlavi text found together with the Nêrangestân manuscripts.

The term hêrbedestân, which derives from Middle Persian hêrbed (q.v.), is generally translated as “courses of (advanced) priestly studies” or “religious studies.” It refers to courses of study offered by a priestly teacher (hêrbed). The evidence of the Zand î Wahman yasn (2.2-4) shows that, at least until the time of Sasanian Khosrow I Anôširavân (r. 531-79), attendance at the hêrbedestân was open to priesthood and laity alike. Advanced Zoroastrian priestly studies focused on the Pahlavi translation and exegesis of Avestan texts (Zand), which future scholar priests were required to study profoundly and in some cases to learn by heart. For lay people, on the other hand, such studies may have consisted essentially of listening to the explanations of the hêrbed (see Kotwal and Kreyenbroek, 1992, p. 17). Perhaps as a result of Mazdak’s revolt, Khosrow I found it necessary to bar the laity from studying the Zand, thus restricting attendance at the hêrbedestân to the priesthood.


Herbedestan Text-KotwalThe Herbedestan and Nerangestan by Firoze M. Kotwal and Philip G. Kreyenbroek published by ISD in 2009 (Source: Strand Books).

The text known as Hêrbedestân deals with the conditions affecting advanced priestly studies. Like the Nêrangestân and Vendidâd, the text appears to represent an ancient Zoroastrian learned, rather than liturgical, tradition. It was originally transmitted orally and committed to writing at an unknown date. Whereas liturgical texts were usually recited by at least two priests, who could check each other’s recitation, learned texts were taught by a single priestly teacher, whose mistakes were not corrected. This could result in a decline in the accuracy of the transmission; many Avestan passages in the Hêrbedestân are obviously corrupt.

The topics discussed in the Hêrbedestân are arranged in twenty chapters: The first chapter addresses the two questions of who shall go to do advanced priestly studies, and under what circumstances one may leave a piece of property that one is responsible for taking care of. The next chapter continues discussing the last topic and then addresses the questions of how far it is proper to travel, the relative merit of pursuing religious studies versus caring for one’s property, and the remuneration of the priestly teacher. The question of priestly studies versus care of property is resumed in the third chapter, followed by a comparison between the relative merit of pursuing religious studies and that of observing the rules for menstruation. Chapter 4 deals with the issue of how often and for how long should a person pursue religious studies. Chapter 5 is about female students and the women in charge of sacred fires. Chapter 6 is devoted to the question of female students, a question complicated by the fact that, in order to study under a priestly scholar, women must travel, which means that they need male escorts. Then the question arises as to which of the normal womanly duties she should perform for such a companion. The degrees of culpability incurred by a man who has illicit sexual intercourse with the woman he chaperones are discussed, as well as the respective responsibilities of the husband and the offending escort. The passage is followed by an aside on female nubility in general. Chapters 7-11 deal with the subject of accompanying a child to attend advanced priestly studies, and the responsibilities of the escort vis-a-vis the parents or legal guardians of the child. Chapter 12 is on the duration of the priestly studies and on those who are barred from them. It also discusses the situation of the wife and children of a man who converts to Zoroastrianism, of the estate of a deceased foreigner who has converted to the faith, and of a woman who dies shortly after embracing the faith. Relations between Zoroastrian men and non-Zoroastrian women as well as the case of non-Zoroastrians seeking refuge in Iran are also dealt with in this chapter. Chapter 13 is on learning how to recite the sacred texts, while the next four chapters focus on the teacher’s responsibilities (chaps. 14-15) and on valid and invalid reasons for failing to recite and study properly (chaps. 16-17). The remaining three chapters are about priestly teachers who are not good Zoroastrians (chap. 18), teaching those who are not good Zoroastrians (chap. 19), and feeding a non-Zoroastrian (chap. 20). The most important manuscripts are the 17th-century TD (see Kotwal and Boyd for a detailed survey of the MS tradition) and HJ, which had been copied in 1727 (ed. Sanjana).

2-Darmesteter-Zend Avesta

James Darmesteter’s translation of the Zend-Avesta (Source:

James Darmesteter’s French translation of the Avestan part of the Hêrbedestân and Nêrangestân was published in 1893, followed by the English version of it in 1895. The year 1894 saw the publication of the Darab Peshotan Sanjana’s facsimile edition of HJ manuscript. The entire text was translated into English by Sohrab J. Bulsara in 1915. A German translation of the Avestan parts of both texts and their immediate Pahlavi renderings were published by Anatol Waag in 1941. After a long interval, the study of the Hêrbedestân was taken up again by Firoze M. Kotwal and James W. Boyd, who published a facsimile edition of TD manuscript in 1980. This was followed by a critical edition and translation of the text by Kotwal and Philip G. Kreyenbroek (with contributions by James R. Russell) in 1992. This had been preceded by Helmut Humbach and J. Elfenbein’s edition and translation of the same text in 1990.


Sohrab Jamshedjee Bulsara, tr., Aêrpatastan and Nirangestân: The Code of the Holy Doctorship and the Code of the Divine Service, Bombay, 1915.

James Darmesteter, Le Zend-Avesta, 3 vols., Paris 1892-93, repr., Paris, 1960.

Idem, The Zend Avesta, SBE 4, 2nd ed., New York, 1895. Bamanji Nasarvanji Dhabhar, ed., Pahlavi Yasna and Vispered, Bombay, 1949.

Helmut Humbach (in cooperation with Josef Elfenbein), ed. and tr., Ê, Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft, N.S. 15, Munich, 1990.

Firoze M. Kotwal and James W. Boyd, Ê, facs. ed. of the MS TD, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1980.

Firoze M. Kotwal and Philip G. Kreyenbroek (with contributions by James Russell), eds. and trs., The Hêrbedestân and Nêrangestân I: Hêrbedestân, Studia Iranica, Cahier 10, Paris, 1992; II: Nêrangestân, Fragard 1, Studia Iranica, Cahier 16, Paris, 1995.

D. N. MacKenzie, A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary, London 1971. Darab Peshotan Sanjana, ed., Nirangistan, Photozincographed facs. ofa ms. Belonging to Hoshangjee Jamaspjee of Poona, Bombay, 1984.

Anatol Waag, Nirangestan: der Awestatraktat über die rituellen Vorschriften, Iranische Forschungen 2, Leipzig, 1941.

Zand î Wahman yasn, ed. and tr. Carlo G. Cereti as The Zand î Wahman Yasn: A Zoroastrian Apocalypse, Instituto italiano per il medio ed estremo orient, Serie orientale 75, Rome, 1995.

Remnants of a Centuries-old structure Discovered in Northwest Iran

The news report “Remnants of centuries-old structure found in northwest Iran” was originally posted in the Tehran Times on October 2, 2019. the version published below has been slightly edited from the original version posted in Tehran Times.


Archaeologists have recently unearthed a vast centuries-old structure during excavation in Rab’-e Rashidi, a 14th-century educational complex in East Azarbaijan province, northwest Iran. Senior Iranian archaeologist Bahram Ajorlou said on Wednesday:

Remnants of a vast structure, measuring some 3,600 square meters, have been found in six archaeological trenches in Rab’-e Rashidi, where an excavation and restoration project is underway … The newly discovered structure is estimated to date from the 8th century AH (1299 CE – 1397 CE) to 10th century AH (1495 CE – 1591 CE) and it also bears fragments of tilework, which date back to the 8th century AH”.

The archaeologists have also discovered three stages of wall architecture, evidence of industrial activities. They have acquired some data from archaeobotanical researches, Ajorlou concluded.

A frontal view of the Rab’-e Rashidi site in Iran’s East Azarbaijan province (Source: Tehran Times)

The third round of excavation and restoration work is carried out by a panel of international cultural heritage experts, archaeologists, and restorers from Iran, the German Archaeological Institute, the Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg, and the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Cultural Heritage and Tourism Research Center in collaboration with Tabriz Islamic Art University completed the first phase of the international project to lay the groundwork for UNESCO recognition.

Archaeological speculations, geophysical surveys, 3D laser scans, and endoscopy of the ancient structure were carried out during the first phase.

Situated in the northwestern city of Tabriz, Rab’-e Rashidi includes several archaeological layers that date from Ilkhanid, Safavid and Qajar eras. It is said that students from Iran, China, Egypt, and Syria studied there under the supervision of physicians, intellectuals, scientists and Islamic scholars.

The ancient complex embraces a paper factory, a library, a hospital (Dar-al-Shafa), a Quranic center (Dar-al-Quran), residential facilities for teachers, students’ quarters and a caravanserai amongst other facilities.

Iran is considering the possible inscription of the site on the UNESCO World Heritage list by 2025.

Persian Language Summer and Winter Courses offered by the ASPIRANTUM Language School

Every year Armenian School of Languages and Cultures – ASPIRANTUM organizes summer and winter schools of Persian language in Yerevan, Armenia.

These Persian language courses are primarily targeting students and researchers engaged in Iranian Studies, Islamic Studies, Middle Eastern Studies and other relevant fields. The courses are structured in a way, that BA, MA, PhD students, professors and researchers representing a variety of fields in the humanities and social sciences could benefit from the classes as much as possible.

Students at the ASPIRANTUM academy – for testimonials of previous students of ASPIRANTUM click here …

ASPIRANTUM has started it’s language courses from 2014 offering Armenian language classes. In 2018 it organized the first Persian language summer school in Yerevan as well as a winter school of Persian language in December 2018. In summer 2019 around 15 international students participated in the second Persian language summer school in Yerevan. It is planned to have Persian language summer and winter schools also in Tbilisi or a combined summer school of Persian in Tbilisi and Yerevan.

All summer and winter schools of ASPIRANTUM also include a huge portion of cultural trips to the most intriguing and interesting historical sites of Armenia. The summer and winter schools of Persian start with a trip to a pagan temple of Garni, built in 1st century CE as a temple to the god Mithra. Other trips during the summer schools include Geghard Monastery, Sevan lake and the monasteries around Sevan lake, Amberd fortress and one of the most Iranian related places in Armenia the mausoleum of Arsacid kings in Aghdzk village.

The Temple of Garni in Armenia. An example of Classical Armenian architecture bearing a Hellenic inspiration, this Temple was first ordered to be built in dedication to Mithras by Tiridates I in approximately 66 CE. The god Mithras in time became merged with the Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) of the Roman Empire (Picture Source: Skyscraper City).

During summers ASPIRANTUM offers 3 and 6 weeks Persian language courses and during winters only 3 weeks. Every day students receive 4 hours of Persian language instruction – divided into classes to strengthen vocabulary, speaking, listening, reading and grammar.

Dr. Khachik Gevorgyan, Director of ASPIRANTUM – Armenian School of Languages and Cultures (Tel: +37491557978; e-mail:

ASPIRANTUM currently does not offer beginner and advanced level courses of Persian, so anyone with upper elementary to intermediate level of Persian language are welcome to apply.

Besides Persian, ASPIRANTUM also offers Armenian and Russian language courses in Yerevan and Tbilisi.

A Thousand Years of the Persian Book

The article below A Thousand Years of the Persian Book” was originally posted on the US Library of Congress website.


Beginning in ancient times Persia has been a center of scientific achievement and was often the conduit of knowledge from China and India in the East to Greece and Rome in the West. Persian-speaking scholars have been active in furthering knowledge in fields of science and technology, such as astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, biology, botany, cosmology, mathematics, engineering, and architecture.

Ancient Sassanid Persia was home to some of the earliest universities and libraries of the ancient world. After the Islamization of Persia (651), middle Persian Pahlavi texts as well as Indian, Chinese, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin scientific texts were translated into Arabic. Although Arabic remains the primary language used for scientific writing in the Islamic world, many scholars have also produced a range of scientific manuscripts and works in the Persian language. The Mughal court in India (1526–1858) became a major center for the production of scientific works in Persian.

Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence

Over the centuries many scholars and scientists of Persian origin have written in Arabic, the preferred language for religious and scientific subjects. The iconic Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence, originally written in the thirteenth century, is a popular work of cosmography that has been translated into various Islamic languages. The Library holds manuscripts in the original Arabic, as well as Turkish and Persian translations. This sixteenth-century Persian text contains several unique illustrations, including these depictions of mythical creatures.

Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazvīnī. عجايب المخلوقات و غرائب الموجودات (Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence). Persia, 1565. Manuscript. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (016.00.01).

This sixteenth-century Persian text contains several unique illustrations, including a gold leaf map that clearly demonstrates how the world was viewed in the medieval Islamic period.

Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazvīnī. عجايب المخلوقات و غرائب الموجودات (Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence). Persia, 1565. Manuscript. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (016.00.01).

The Book of Indian Castes and Kinsfolk

In India from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, during the reign of the Mughal court and the subsequent British Raj period, many manuscripts were written in Persian. The manuscript on display, illustrated in vibrant colors and detailing the distinguishing characteristics and customs of India’s various castes, religious communities, and the trades and technologies of each group, is by James Skinner (1778–1841). The son of a Scottish lieutenant colonel and an Indian Rajput princess, Skinner was fluent in Persian and wrote extensively in the language. His manuscript portrays professions ranging from surgery to papermaking with miniature paintings produced primarily by Mir Khalan Khan.

James Skinner. کتاب تشريح الاقوام (Book of Indian Castes and Kinsfolk). India, 1825. Manuscript. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00, 20.00.01).

The Study of Medicinal Plants

The study of medicinal plants and their effects on humans has been an age-old tradition in Persian-speaking lands. This publication, written by two commanding officers in the Muhammadzai Pashtun tribal confederacy during the Barakzai period (1826–1973), is a lithographic printing of a pharmacology. By the 1860s, lithographic book printing extended from India to the frontier territories of Afghanistan and was preferred to typographic printing because it better retained the traditional calligraphy. This book, the earliest work in the field of medicine printed in Afghanistan, contains a list of various substances, herbs, flowers, minerals, and potions used for healing purposes in traditional medicine.

Ṣāliḥ ibn Ṣāliḥ Muḥammad and Gul Muḥammad Khān Muḥammadzāī. کتاب عمل الصالحين (Book of Effects [Medicinal Plants]). Kabul, 1898. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00).

Explanation of Human Anatomy

This comprehensive manual in three volumes deals with the human body, ailments, and the medicinal properties of plants. The book was the first detailed handbook of modern medicine in Iran and was probably used for teaching purposes at the Polytechnical College (Dar al-Funun) in Tehran. The first volume contains numerous detailed images illustrating human anatomy, such as this one showing the lower half of the female body. The illustrations are most likely copied from a European book.

‘Abd al-Sabur Mirzā Muhammad.‏ تشريح البشر و توضيح الصور (Pictorial Explanation of Human Anatomy). Tabriz, Iran, 1855–1856. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00).

Geographic Survey of Persian Lands

This lithographic book, of which apparently only volumes one, two, and four were published, aims at a comprehensive treatment of the geography of Iran in an alphabetical arrangement. The volume displayed here follows the model of the famous Mu‘jam al-buldān (Dictionary of Countries) compiled by thirteenth-century Arab author Yāqūt. It includes entries from Persian letters “alif” through “te,” including a lengthy entry on Tehran and its history from the early Safavid period through the 1870s. The image on display, most probably copied from a contemporary photograph, shows the Ayvān (or Tāq)-i Kasrā (Palace of Khusraw), which was the legendary palace for the Sassanid kings (224–651) located in the vicinity of modern Baghdad.

Muhammad Hasan-Khān. مرآة البلدان ناصرى (Mirror of the Lands, A Geographic Survey of Persian Lands). Volume 1. Tehran: Nasiri Publishing House, 1877. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00).