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.

UBC Lecture (November 29, 2019): Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe

Kaveh Farrokh will be providing a comprehensive lecture on November 29, 2019 at the University of British Columbia:

“Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe”

Lecture Time & Location: 29 November 2019 6:30-8:30 pm – Room 120, CK Choi Building – For details view below poster – and also click here …). The lecture is free, however due to limited seating interested participants are encouraged to obtain their (Free) tickets (for details view below poster – and also click here …)

This lecture will be hosted by the Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies, Persian Language and Iranian Studies Initiative at UBC (University of British Columbia), UBC Asian Studies, UBC Persian Club and the UBC Zoroastrian Student Association.

Abstract & Overview of Lecture

This lecture provides a synoptic overview of the civilizational relations between Greater ancient Iran and Europa (Greco-Roman civilization as well continental Europe). The discussion is initiated with an examination of the conduits of exchange between Greater ancient Iran (the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties of Iran as well as the role of Northern Iranian peoples), the Caucasus and Europa. The lecture then provides an overview of learning exchanges between east and west spanning the time era from the Achaemenids into the Post-Sassanian eras, followed by examples of artistic, architectural, and engineering exchanges between Greco-Roman and Iranian civilizations. Select examples of the ancient Iranian legacy influence upon the European continent are also discussed, followed (time permitting) by examples of the musical legacy of ancient Iran as well as Iranian-European exchanges in the culinary domain.

Select References & Readings

Ahmed, A. & Zaman, O. (eds.) (2018). Dialogue Between Cultures & Exchange of Knowledge And Cultural Ideas between Iran, Turkey & Central Asia With Special reference to the Sasanian & Gupta Dynasty, Proceedings of Conference 8-10 February, 2018. Assam, India: Department of Persian Guawahati University.

Akhvledinai & Khimshiasvili, (2003). Impact of the Achaemenian architecture on Iberian kingdom: Fourth-first centuries BC. The First International Conference on the Ancient Cultural Relations Between Iran and Western Asia, Abstracts of Papers, Tehran, Iran, August 16-18, 2003, Tehran: Iran Cultural Fairs Institute.

Angelakis, A.N., Mays, L.W., Koutsoyiannis, D., Mamassis, N. (2012). Evolution of Water Supply through the Millennia. London & New York: IWA Publishing.

Asutay-Effenberger, N. & Daim, F. (eds.) (2019). Sasanidische Spuren in der Byzantinischen, Kaukasischen und Islamischen Kunst und Kultur [Sasanian Elements in Byzantine, Caucasian and Islamic Art and Culture]. Mainz, Germany: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums.

Azarpay, G. (2000). Sasanian art beyond the Persian world. In Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian periods: Rejection and Revival c.238 BC-AD 642, Proceedings of a Seminar in memory of Vladimir G. Lukonin (ed. J. Curtis), London: British Museum Press, pp.67-75.

Azkaei, P.S. (1383/2004). حکیم رازی (حکمت طبیعی و نظام فلسفی) [(The) Wise Razi (Natural Wisdom and System of Philosophy)]. Tehran, Iran. Entesharate Tarh-e Now.

Babaev, I., Gagoshidze, I., & Knauß, F. S. (2007). An Achaemenid “Palace” at Qarajamirli (Azerbaijan) Preliminary Report on the Excavations in 2006. Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia, Volume 13, Numbers 1-2, pp. 31-45.

Beckwith C.I. (2011). Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press.

Canepa, M. P. (2010). Distant displays of power: understanding cross-cultural interaction interaction among the elites of Rome, Sasanian Iran and Sui-Tang China. Ars Orientalis, Vol. 38, Theorizing Cross-Cultural Interaction among the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean, Near East and Asia, pp. 121-154.

Carduso, E.R.F. (2015). Diplomacy and oriental influence in the court of Cordoba (9th to 10th centuries). Dissertation, Department of History of Islamic Mediterranean Societies, University of Lisbon, Portugal.

Compareti, M. (2019). Assimilation and Adaptation of Foreign Elements in Late Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Taq-i Bustan. In Sasanidische Spuren in der Byzantinischen, Kaukasischen und Islamischen Kunst und Kultur [Sasanian Elements in Byzantine, Caucasian and Islamic Art and Culture] (eds. N. Asutay-Effenberger & F. Daim), Mainz, Germany: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums, pp.19-36.

Curatola, G., & Scarcia, G. (Tr. M. Shore, 2007). The Art and Architecture of Persia. New York: Abbeville Press.

During J., Mirabdolbaghi, Z., & Safvat, D. (1991). The Art of Persian Music. Mage Publishers.

Farhat, H. (2004). The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Farrokh, K. (2018). Germania, Vikings, Saxons and Ancient Iran. Persian Heritage, 90, pp.28-30.

Farrokh, K., Karamian, Gh., Kubic, A., & Oshterinani, M.T. (2017). An Examination of Parthian and Sasanian Military Helmets. In “Crowns, hats, turbans and helmets: Headgear in Iranian history volume I” (K. Maksymiuk & Gh. Karamian, Eds.), Siedlce University & Tehran Azad University, pp.121-163.

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

Farrokh, K. (2007). Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا/کویر (انتشارات ققنوس ۱۳۹۰ و انتشارات طاق بستان ۱۳۹۰) – see Book review from peer-reviewed Iranshenasi Journal

Feltham, H. (2010). Lions, Silks and Silver: the Influence of Sassanian Persia. Sino-Platonic Papers, 206, pp. 1-51.

Freely, J. (2009). Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gagoshidze, Y. M. (1992). The Temples at Dedoplis Mindori. East and West, 42, pp. 27-48.

Garsoïan, N. (1985). Byzantium and the Sassanians. In The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods, Part 1 (ed. E. Yarshater), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 568-592.

Gheverghese, J.G. (1991). The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics. London: I.B. Tauris.

Gnoli, G. & Panaino, A. (eds.) (2009). Studies in History of Mathematics, Astronomy and Astrology in Memory of David Pingree – Serie Orientale Roma CII. Rome: Italy: Istituto Italiano per L’Africa e L’Oriente.

Kayser, P., & Waringo, G. (2003). L’aqueduc souterrain des Raschpëtzer: un monument Antique de l’art de l’ingénieur au Luxembourg [The underground aqueduct of Raschpëtzer: an ancient monument of the art of engineering in Luxembourg]. Revue Archéologique de l’Est, vol. 52, pp. 429-444.

Kurz, O. (1985). Cultural relations between Parthia and Rome. In The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods, Part 1 (ed. E. Yarshater), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 559-567.

Miller, A.C. (2006). Jundi-Shapur, bimaristans, and the rise of academic medical centres. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99 (12), pp. 615–617.

Miller, L.C. (1999). Music and Song in Persia (RLE Iran B): The Art of Avaz. Great Britain: Routledge.

Overlaet, B. (2018). Sasanian, Central Asian and Byzantine Iconography – Patterned Silks and Cross-Cultural Exchange. In B. Bühler & V. Freiberger (eds.), Der Goldschatz von Sânnicolau Mare [The Gold Treasure of Sânnicolau Mare]. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, pp. 139-152.

Roberts, A.M. (2013). The Crossing Paths of Greek and Persian Knowledge in the 9th-century Arabic ‘Book of Degrees’. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 293, pp.279-303.

Silva, J.A.M. (2019). The Influence of Gondeshapur Medicine during the Sassanid Dynasty and the Early Islamic Period. Archives of Iranian Medicine, 22 (9), pp. 531-540.

Sparati N. (2002).  L’ enigma delle arti Asittite della Calabria Ultra-Mediterranea [The enigma of the Asittite arts of Calabria Ultra-Mediterranean]. Mammola, Italy: MuSaBa – Santa Barbera Art Foundation & Iiriti Editore.

Ward. P. (1968). The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 112, No. 3, pp. 170-181.

Wulff, H. (1968). The Qanats of Iran. Scientific American, Vol. 218, No. 4, pp. 94–105.

Select Major Reference Resources in Kaveh

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Article on the Lur Language, Pahlavi terminology and the Shahname

An article on the relationship between the Lur language, Pahlavi terminology and the Shahname has been published by Dr. Gholamreza Karamian and Dr. Kaveh Farrokh in the special edition academic text book dedicated to prominent Iranologist scholar and literary specialist, Professor Jalal Khaleghi Motlagh:

Karamian, Gh., & Farrokh, K. (1396/2018). Characteristics of various ancient Pahlavi terms in the Lur language and the Shahname of Firdowsi. Studies in Honor of Professor Jalal Khaleghi Motlagh (ed. F. Aslani & M. Pourtaghi), Tehran: Morvarid Publications, pp.451-455.

Professor Jalal Khaleghi-Motlagh was born in 1937 in Tehran. Upon completion of his education in Iran, he enrolled in the University of Cologne in Germany where he obtained a degree in Eastern Studies, Anthropology and History. He then studied Persian language and literature at the University of Hamburg. Professor Khaleghi-Motlagh has conducted extensive research on the epic literature of Iran and the Shahnameh. His research papers have been published in the most prestigious international academic journals. Among his extensive works are his editing of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, which has been published in eight volumes under the late editor and founder of the Encyclopedia Iranica, Ehsan Yarshater. Too numerous to summarize here, professor Khaleghi-Motlagh’s numerous appointments include his teaching posts in Germany, faculty membership in the International Millennium Congress of the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi as well as being a board member of the Trustees of the Ferdowsi Foundation.

Select scholars were invited to write articles for the above textbook dedicated to the exemplary scholarship of Professor Khaleghi-Motlagh. These include prominent Iranologists such as Richard Davis, Dariush Akbarzadeh, Gholamreza Karamian, Kamyar Abedi, Touraj Daryaee and Shaul Shaked.

Gholamreza Karamian is a professor of archaeology and an expert on Parthian and Sassanian Pahlavi. In this endeavor he has written a book that outlines the presence of Parthian-Sassanian terms in Luri, one of three major West-Iranian languages that also includes Kurdish and Persian.

.غلامرضا کرمیان (۱۳۹۳). واژگان اشکانی و ساسانی در زبان لری. تهران: خانه تاریخ و تصویر ابریشمی

Karamian, Gh. (1392/2014). Parthian and Sassanid terms in the Luri language. Tehran: Khaneye Tarikh va Tasvir-e Abrishami.

Dr. Karamian is also an exceptional archaeologist, having excavated for example, an entire Sassanian place at Ramavand – see “Excavations in 2013 of Partho-Sassanian site at Ramavand, Loristan

The “woman” of Ramavand discovered by Dr. Gholamreza Karamian, possibly Anahita? (Photo: Dr. Gholamreza Karamian).

Dr. Karamian has written four seminal archaeology articles with Dr. Kaveh Farrokh and co-authored these with a number of researchers (download the below articles in pdf from

Dr Karamian has also co-authored with Prof. Katarzyna Maksymiuk, a book on the Sassanian army with Dr. Kaveh Farrokh (this was displayed at the 11th Annual ASMEA Conference in Washington DC on November 1-3, 2018):