Braj, Awadhi and the rise of Hindi

Avadhi and Brajbhasha are no longer considered prestigious languages in North India, and their speakers are often thought of as गँवार (aided by the fact that most of their speakers today, live in villages)

This is quite ironical given that till the late 19th century, these were the most prominent languages for composing epic works in Hindi literature. Both Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas and Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat were composed in Awadhi, while Surdas’ Sursagar and Mira Bai’s verse were composed in Braj Bhasha.

What we call Modern Standard Hindi, came into its own only in the 1860s and 1870s when a brilliant young scholar by the name Bharatendu Harishchandra translated classic Sanskrit/Bengali/English plays and works into the Khadi Boli dialect, along with many original compositions.

Despite a history of monumental poetic works, neither Brajbhasha nor Awadhi had any works in prose to speak of, and with rising literacy, Harishchandra felt an acute need for a language that could serve the literary needs of the time, while at the same time, possessed a continuity with traditional Hindu thought and mythology.

He finally chose Khadi Boli in the Devanāgari script, mainly because it had already been popularized in the form of Urdu, and had gathered enough prestige (and comprehensibility) by the time. True to its purpose, this new strain of Khadi Boli borrowed vocabulary and themes more heavily from Braj, Awadhi and (especially) Sanskrit, compared to Persian.

But even till the early 1900s, Hindi authors continued preferring Braj and Awadhi for composing verse, and kept Hindi mainly for the purpose of prose. Starting from mid 1910s though, Hindi started becoming widely acceptable for composing poetry as well (and took off, in a manner of speaking)

Its an object lesson in the fact that mellifluousness and sweetness of tongue is more a function of what you’re habitual of, rather than any objective standard. Khari Boli, which was once derided as “vulgar” is now the standard prestige dialect, while the once “cultured” and “urbane” Awadhi and Brajbhasha, are now considered “abhadra” and uncouth.

P.S: The term “Hindi” was often used for many Indian languages, Urdu included, but starting from the 1860s, it began to be used more and more in the sense of today’s Hindi.

(Source: Chapter “The Progress of Hindi, Part 2“, in Literary Cultures in History – Reconstructions from South Asia”)

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Jesus and the adultress

Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Guercino, 1621 (Wikipedia)

“… Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees (priests) brought in a woman caught in adultery.

They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” ( 👉 Gospel of John 8:1-11)

P.S: This story is not found in the earliest manuscripts of the gospel, and is considered by most scholars as a later addition (“Misquoting Jesus” by the Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman)

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The ancient tribes of Aad and Thamud – A Historical Perspective

“And We certainly sent into every nation a messenger, [saying], “Worship Allah and avoid Taghut.” And among them were those whom Allah guided, and among them were those upon whom error was [deservedly] decreed. So proceed through the earth and observe how was the end of the deniers.” (Quran 16:36)

‘Aad and Thamud are two of several communities described in the Quran as recipients of God’s chosen prophets – and being utterly destroyed for rejecting them. But unlike most of the others, these two stand out for not having any clear counterpart in the Judeo-Christian tradition – a wellspring of Middle Eastern traditions, of which Islam draws in so small measure.

To ‘Aad was sent the prophet Hud; to Thamud, Saleh, and together with another mysterious figure, Shoaib, they constitute the only three pre-Islamic prophets mentioned in the Quran that have an exclusive Arab provenance. It would be unsurprising then, to find them in the archaeological/literary records related to ancient Arabia.

And indeed we do, but with an unexpected twist!

Traditionally, both the prophets – Hud and Saleh – and by implication, their respective communities – ‘Aad and Thamud, are thought to have existed generations before Abraham, placing them well before 1300 BC (at the very least1). But as we’ll see below, archaeological and literary records place them firmly in Northern Arabia/Jordan, well after the death of Jesus (33 AD)


Long before the Roman empire, before Alexander’s conquests, even before the great Persian monarchs, there were the Assyrians – lords of much of the Middle East, and archetypes of almost every empire that came after them. Its in their records, that we find out first mention of Thamud.

Sargon II, the Assyrian king who first records Thamud

Sargon II (d. 705 BC), the Assyrian emperor boasted of his conquest of Thamud in an 8th century inscription:

“The Thamudites, the (Ibadidites), the Marsimanites and the Khapayans, distant Arab tribes, who inhabit the desert, of whom no scholar or envoy knew, and who had never brought their tribute to the kings, my fathers, I slaughtered in the service of Assur, and transported what was left of them, setting them in the city of Samaria.”

Many centuries elapse before we find Thamud again in the textual record, though their name crops up many times in (undated) inscriptions throughout North Arabia.

The earliest abundant references for Thamud in our literary sources are in relation to the Nabataean empire – a large Arab kingdom encompassing parts of modern Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (including the Hejaz, the area containing Mecca and Medina) and even parts of Sinai. Heavy contact with Romans resulted in us having a pretty decent record of its territories and people. After several centuries of independent existence, it was finally incorporated into the Roman empire in 106 AD.

al-Hijr, the second most important centre of the Nabataean empire, is the title of the 15th chapter of the Quran. Verses 15:80-83 describe its inhabitants as carving their homes out of mountains and being decimated by a loud shriek – characteristics ascribed by the Quran elsewhere to the people of Thamud2. A report in the hadith collection of Bukhari makes this connection between Thamud and al-Hijr quite explicit.

Ruins of al-Hijr. Massive tombs were carved out of rock, outside the city

In the Nabataean period, several impressive facades were carved into the hills outside al-Hijr, between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD. As Suleyman Dost observes, “The Qur’ān’s reference to rock-cut dwellings… fits the picture perfectly with the exception that these carved niches do not seem to have functioned as living areas”3

Returning to textual references, Diodorus, a Greek historian writing in the first century BC, mentions a group called Thamoudēnoi in North-Western Arabia4. A little later, Pliny, the Elder (d. 79 AD), a Roman historian, while writing his “Natural History”, mentions the Thamudaei5 – a people dominant in Hegra, adjoining the Nabataeans. Later still, we find them mentioned by Ptolemy (d. 168AD), in his Geography.6

More than a century after Jesus, in the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 AD), we find that a part of the Thamud tribe was enrolled in the Roman army. A temple they constructed at Rawwafa, 200 miles north of Medina, mentions the following in a Greek-Nabataean bilingual inscription:

“For the wellbeing of the rulers of the whole world . . . Marcus Aurelius Anthoninus and Lucius Aurelius Verus, who are the conquerors of the Armenians. This is the temple that was built by the tribal unit of Thamud, the leaders of their unit, so that it might be established by their hands and be their place of veneration for ever”7

Further confirmation of their service under the Romans, comes via a late 4th (or early 5th century) military document Notitia Dignitatum, which clealy mentions two cavalry units of Thamud, one serving in Egypt and the other in Palestine.


“Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Aad; of Iram of the lofty pillars?” (Quran 89:6-7)

‘Aad are mentioned as another Arabian tribe destroyed by God for rejecting their Prophet Hud. Traditional Quranic commentaries assumed that they were a South Arabian people, but it turns out, they had their base in Wadi Ramm in present-day Jordan. In fact, we even know the scripts they used!

Wadi Ramm – the place identified by archaeologists as the home of ‘Aad

Ptolemy (d. 168 AD), describes a people called Oaditai8, bordered by Aramaeans to the north, and Thamud to the south, close to what is today called Wadi Ramm.

That these are the people of ‘Aad, is hinted by a Nabataean inscription in Wadi Ramm, at a temple dedicated to the goddess Allat. It mentions the elusive city of Iram (mentioned in the above Quranic verse), and reads “May Abdallâhi son of ‘Atmo be remembered for all time before Allât, the goddess of Iram.”. Several broken columns in the ruins of Wadi Ramm have been interpreted as the “lofty pillars” associated with Iram in the Quran.

Signature of a man in Safaitic script: “By Zhy son of ʿâmer of the lineage of ʿâd”

Another inscription from the same temple mentions ‘Aad by name, and reads, “by Ghawth son of Aslah son of Thokam and he constructed the temple of Allât, of the people of Ad“. Several other inscriptions bearing the names ‘Aad and Iram have been discovered in Jordan.

The scripts used in these inscriptions is mostly Hismaic and Safaitic – writing systems native to Arabia, and quite distinct from the one later adopted for writing the Quran.


The Quran mentions ‘Aad as successor to the people of Noah (Q 7:69), and Thamud, as successor to ‘Aad in turn (Q 7:74). This has led traditional Muslim historians to place the two quite early in history, much before the time of even Abraham and Moses. But as is clear from the above discussion, Thamud were thriving as late as maybe the 4th century AD, while the people of ‘Aad have left their final trails, only a few centuries before that.

In the historical and archaeological record, both were contemporaries, but by the time of the Prophet in the 7th century AD, they had become little more than a distant memory, and their ruins, places of myth and legend.

As Dost aptly observes, the “description [of ‘Aad and Thamud] in the Qur’ān is the sum of historical memory and topographical observations modeled on the familiar configuration of perished peoples”

(This is part of series on Arabia. You can find the first one here)


(Written by Daud)

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A, Alif and the Egyptian Ox

Like the alphabet rhyme A, B, C, D.. in English, there’s the equivalent Alif, Be, Te, Se.. in Urdu. Though the letters might look radically different, both these alphabets are ultimately derived from a single ancient writing system.

Both A (and the Urdu “alif“) is derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphic character (picture) for ox (called “aleph” in Egyptian).

B (and the Urdu “be“) is similarly derived from the same language’s picture for a home (called “Bet“). That’s why “bayt” is used for “house” in so many Semitic languages (including Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac and many others).

Around 1200BC, a writing system evolved out of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, which used, for the first time, one symbol for one sound.

Before this, most writing systems used one symbol to represent an action or a thing. Since there are so many possible actions and things, “writers” had to memorize a huge number of symbols.

This new innovative writing system (which we now call the Phoenician alphabet) spread like wildfire, and was adopted (with modifications) by many Middle Eastern languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and others.

But there was one problem with it. This writing system didn’t have any characters for vowels. Only consonants were represented. That’s why in Urdu and Arabic writings, short vowels (zer, zabar) are often left to the reader’s imagination (and consonants are re-purposed as vowels – see the note at the end)

Anyway, it was the Greeks who first came up with the idea of adding characters for vowels too, to the script, and their script, after centuries of modifications, gave rise to the modern English script.

Isn’t it fascinating, that students 3000 years ago, were probably singing a rhyme so similar so us.. “aleph, bet…”

P.S: Languages and scripts are totally different things. Punjabi is written in Gurmukhi script in Indian Punjab, but in the traditional Urdu script, in Pakistani Punjab.

Note: In the traditional scripts of Arabic, Urdu, and many other Semitic languages, long vowels (“eee”, “ooo”, “aaa”) are written using existing consonants. Whether these consonants are going to be read as consonants or vowels, depends upon context.

For example, و can be used as a consonant (“w”) in the word اول, or it can be used as a vowel as in اردو. This feature is technically called “mater lectionis

(Author: Daud Khan; Image via Wikipedia)

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Pre-Islamic Quranic divinites of Arabia


  al-Lat, a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess

“So have you considered al-Lat and al-‘Uzza? And Manat, the third – the other one?” (Q 53:19-20)

In the above verses, the Quran talks about three goddesses that were being worshipped in ancient Arabia in the 7th century AD. While their worship swiftly came to an end following Islam’s conquests, they were representative of a long series of Arabian cultures that are too often dismissed in traditional Islamic history as “jahiliyya” – the age of ignorance.

al-Lāt, Allah and the Nabataean empire

Al-Lāt was first mentioned by the Greek historian Herotodus (called the “Father of History“) around 440 BC. He counts her among the only two divinities that Arabs worshipped, and gives her name as Alilat (Incidentally, this is one of the earliest records of the Arabic language too, as it uses the characteristic definite article “al” of Arabic, equivalent to the English “the“)

Later on, al-Lāt came to be prominently featured in rock inscriptions and graffiti found throughout Arabia, but predominantly in its northern part. Around 4th century BC, an Arab kingdom called the Nabataean Empire emerged in Northern Arabia, Jordan, Palestine and the Sinai area of Egypt. It encompassed the Hejaz region (containing Mecca and Medina) and was a major military power before falling to Romans in 106 AD.

Such was the Nabatean influence and prestige that when the Quran came to be written down, the script chosen wasn’t one of the many that were native to central Arabia (or South Arabia), but a modified form of the Nabataean alphabet.

In this kingdom, al-Lāt was a major goddess (along with al-Uzza and Dushara). Heavy contact with Romans led to her identification with the Greek Goddess Athena. We know this because in a bilingual inscription, the Arabic titlewahab ul-Lāt (gift of al-Lāt) is translated into Greek as “gift of Athena“. Similarly, al Uzza (“The Mighty”) was associated with the goddess Aphrodite.

The name of the other major god Dushara, should be read as dhu-shara, with the initial “dhu” representing the common Arabic prefix meaning “having” (like, dhu-al-Qarnain in the Quran refers to a person “having two horns” – Alexander, the Great).

Of course, Allah was another major god of the Arabs mentioned in the inscription. He is sometimes mentioned as a specific god alongside others, but more often, in the sense of a general God (pre-Islamic Arab Christians also used Allah for God)

Relation between Allāh and Al-Lāt

An interesting coincidence is that the word Allah is derived from “al-ilah” meaning “the god“, while “al-Lāt” (derived from al-ilat) can be considered the female counterpart of al-ilah, as feminine nouns in Arabic are constructed by adding “t” at the end. (“Kabeer“, meaning a big man, becomes “kabeerat” (pronounced as “kabeerah“) when referring to a big woman).

Like in many Semitic religions, the original Nabataean (or Arabic) pantheon possibly (but, by no means definitely) included a male and female divine pair represented by Al-lah (“The God”) and al-Lat (“The Goddess”). After all, the ancient Semitic god El, had a wife called Elat (and/or Asherah), and the Jewish God Yahwehis also believed to have had a consort named Asherah initially.

In fact, according to certain hadiths, the original audience of the Quran was making this very claim and insisting that al-Lat is just the female version of Allah, betraying the possibility that at least some of the Arabs remembered the (possible) ancient connection. The Quran berates such people, saying: “And leave [the company of] those who practice deviation concerning His names. They will be recompensed for what they have been doing” (7:180)

(Note that since Elat is already attested as a female divinity from much earlier times and languages, al-ilat need not be derived in the context of Arabic grammar. On current evidence, its difficult to conclude whether there was an explicit connection between al-Lat and Allah)

The various names of God

Notice the following Quranic verse:

Say, “Call upon Allah or call upon the Most Merciful [al-rahman]. Whichever [name] you call – to Him belong the best names. (Q 17:110)

The word al-Rahman above, was actually a famous name for the (monotheistic) god in Southern Arabia, attested in numerous inscriptions. According to tradition, the reason this verse was revealed, was that people were confused given that al-Rahman was the title for God that Musaylama (another rival claimant to Prophethood) had been using. The above verse emphatically asserted that al Rahman is the same God as Allah.

Another interesting thing to note is that the Quran repeatedly emphasizes that “To Him [Allah] belongs the best names” (Q 17:110, 20:8, 7:180). Removed from its original context, we assume that this is just to emphasize all the qualities of God that these “best names” represent. The real import of these verses, though, might have been quite different.

“The Hearer” (al samee’), “The Patient” (al-haleem), “The Merciful” (al-Rahimand “The Mighty” (al-Aziz) – “beautiful names” of God emphasized in the Quran, were all names of separate gods in Arabia! The Quran’s repeated insistence that all of these names belong to Allah alone, was meant to subsume these gods as simply attributes of the one true god Allah, and incorporate their worshippers into Islam.


The third divinity mentioned in the divine trio at the start was Manat – the goddess related to Fate. Note that her name doesn’t start with “al” (the), unlike that of al-Lat and al-Uzza, showing that this was a proper name from the very start, and not a divine attribute that later morphed into a full-fledged god (quite a common occurence in Semitic religions).

As an interesting side note, when Mahmud Ghaznavi invaded India and ransacked the Somnath temple, his propaganda machinery insisted that Somnath housed the last remnants of this goddess Manat, which had been saved from destruction by the Prophet’s companions, and transported by her worshippers to Gujarat. The entire story was manufactured to bolster his image as a pious Muslim who gave the final touches to the Prophet’s unfinished work in destroying Arab paganism.

The gods of Noah’s people

Finally, there are the five gods (Wadd, Suwa’, Yaghuth, Ya’uq and Nasr) that, according to the Quran, were worshipped by Noah’s people before the Flood (Q 71:23). The 8th century Iraqi scholar ibn al Kalbi, in his Kitaab al Asnaam (Book of the Idols), tells us that these were, in fact, all local Arab deities, and gives us the names of specific areas and tribes where they were worshipped (the same information comes to us from certain hadiths).

This was also confirmed by the discovery of the names of some of these in inscriptions from the Arabian peninsula.

Early Muslim scholars were in a fix to explain how idols from Noah’s time (after complete destruction in the Flood) could end up being worshipped in Arabia. One of the stories narrated to explain this says that a jinn inspired a person called Amr ibn Luhayy to go and recover these idols that had been brought to Arabia by the Flood waters, and buried in the sand. He promptly did that, and introduced Arabs to Noah’s gods.

Another explanation holds that Arabs, for some reason, renamed their existing gods to correspond to Noah’s ones.


Analyzing the evidence from inscriptions and earlier texts is critical to placing the Quranic discourse in its proper context.

Ancient Arabian historiography is still very much a developing field, and there’s far more to discover, especially in the critical Hejaz area. With the discovery of new inscriptions (pretty abundant, but thoroughly under-studied), and the proper catalouging of old ones, some of the long-held assumptions about jahiliyya are bound to be overturned.


(Posted by Daud Khan)

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“This daughter of mine is better than many sons”, said Iltutmish for his beloved daughter Razia, who had the distinction of being the only woman to sit on the throne of Delhi…until Sushma Swaraj

Recognizing her ability at a young age, Iltutmish appointed Razia as the heir to the throne instead of his sons. After the king’s death his son Ruknuddin usurped the throne and threatened to kill Razia if she did not let go of her claim on the throne.
The lady however, was not to be bogged down. On a Friday afternoon, dressed as an aggrieved pilgrim, she went to the mosque and appealed the populace of Delhi in the name of her father for help to get back what was rightfully hers. The stirring speech moved her audience to a frenzy, and with the support of the masses behind her, she took her rightful place on the throne of one of the most powerful kingdoms of the world.

Razia refused to be called ‘Sultana’ as that would mean a king’s daughter or wife, choosing instead the title of ‘Sultan’ or the sovereign for herself. The mullahs, true to their character, could not digest the “humiliation” of being ruled and ordered around by a woman. Along with court nobles, they plotted her downfall and encouraged rebellions across the empire, Razia Sultan continued to crush the rebellions with an iron fist until she lost to Malik Alatunia, the governor of Punjab. But shrewd and diplomatic as ever, Razia married Alatunia. In the meanwhile, the greedy and ambitious nobles crowned one of her brothers as the titular king. Accompanied by her husband, Razia Sultan marched to Delhi to reclaim her throne. She was however defeated and killed at Kaithal near Delhi in 1240. Her body along with that of her husband was brought to Delhi and buried.

As a sovereign, Razia Sultan was a patron of arts and learning, dedicated to the study of ancient Indian texts and civilizations. She proved herself more able and successful as a ruler than all of her successors in the slave dynasty.

Most of the information available about Razia Sultan is recorded in the chronicles of Ibn Batuta, a traveller from Northern Africa who visited Delhi around 1335 almost 100 years after Razia’s death. Through his writings we come to know about how Razia was venerated as a saint by the populace of Delhi a century after she died and how her reign was considered the golden era of the Mamluk dynasty.

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Descarte’s Demon

Descartes (pronounced as “day cart”) was a French philosopher who wanted to know if we can be sure of *anything*.

He imagined an extremely powerful demon who is hell bent on deceiving us. Whenever we see other people, mountains, rivers, and even our own bodies, it’s nothing but an illusion created by the demon to deceive us. Descartes wondered if there is some way to prove that such a demon doesn’t exist.

He came to the conclusion that we can’t. There is no way we can be sure that the outside world exists. After all, arent we equally sure that the world in our dreams exists?

So, can we be sure of anything? “Since I am wondering about this question”, Descartes insisted, “at the very least, I must exist.”

“I think, therefore, I am”

(Author : Daud Khan)

(Image via Wikipedia)

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The oldest image of Jesus

This pic, of a crucified man with an animal head, is the oldest visual depiction of Jesus ever found.

It was discovered as part of a series of graffiti crawled into walls by students in a Roman school some 1800 years back.The text underneath means “Alexamenos worships his God“.

Apparently, it was made by a bully who wanted to mock a fellow classmate by the name “Alexamenos”. Actually, Christianity was a very new religion at that time, and was often pilloried by Roman pagans. Even the government was wary of Christians because people of this new faith refused to pay homage to any of the ancient god, except their own (bloody “anti-nationals” )

The above drawing depicted a crucified Jesus with a _______ head, telling everyone in the school, “This is the God this idiot worships”. One can only imagine how hard it must’ve been for the boy.

Less than 200 years after this event, all pagan religions were banned in the Roman Empire.

How the times change

— Daud Khan

(Source :

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