Dakhni, an Indo-Aryan language, mostly used with Urdu in Hyderabad’s ‘deccan era’. The flavours of Hyderabadi slang in literature with the expressive node to convey the meaning of conversation. As this adopted in the literature and during a particular era, it flourished with royal customization in fermaans and decrees.

Once one of the subcontinent’s most politically and culturally important cities, Bijapur is now a small town in Karnataka state, peripheral to the centre of regional power, located over five hundred kilometres away from the state capital. It is home to a host of historically and architecturally significant mosques, palaces, stepwells and mausolea—built during its time as the capital of the vast Bijapur Sultanate, ruled by the Adil Shahi dynasty from 1489 to 1686. The striking contrast between the grandeur of Bijapur’s medieval monuments and the shoddiness of its modern infrastructure gives it an almost palpable aura of institutional neglect.

To the northwest of Bijapur’s modern city limits lies what was once the bustling market town of Shahpur. A hillock here long served as a base and focal point for Chishti Sufi activity in Bijapur. Today, the hillock is primarily known for the dargah of the seventeenth-century Sufi Amin al-Din Ala, which is built in the distinctive Adil Shahi style.

The shrine’s importance goes far beyond its religious significance. Around its entrance are 15 couplets written in an immaculate calligraphic hand, each couplet the verse of a ghazal. Its content is mostly spiritual and esoteric, referencing the Sufi concept of achieving union with god and his wisdom. A chronogram at the end of the inscription dates it to 1088 Anno Hegirae, or 1677–78 CE.

The inscription is a sight to behold. The verses of the ghazal flank the entrance, the exquisitely written text looming above the faithful who flock to the shrine. According to a report by the Archaeological Survey of India, this is “perhaps the largest single inscription to be found on a Muslim tomb in India, and indeed, even on other buildings, too.”

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Remarkably, these verses are written not in Persian or Arabic, as one might expect, but in Dakhni, the mother tongue of most of the Deccan’s Muslims. Dakhni is an Indo-Aryan language whose early form was transplanted to the Deccan following Mohammed bin Tughlaq’s decision, in 1327, to move the capital of the Delhi Sultanate over a thousand kilometres south, to Daulatabad.

Dakhni inscriptions are rare, and the one at the Bijapur dargah is the oldest surviving inscription in the language. When Hakala went to visit an older specimen in Ahmedabad—dating back to the mid-sixteenth century—he learned, much to his dismay, that it had recently been lost to negligence.

Dakhni is today commonly considered a regional variant of Urdu, and scholars often term its classical literary form qadīm—old—Urdu. While Urdu and Dakhni are linguistically distinct, they are seen as sharing a certain literary tradition and canon, effectively making this inscription—far from the traditional heartland of Urdu tahzīb, or cultural refinement, in the Gangetic plains—the oldest extant Urdu inscription.

Classical Dakhni emerged as a literary language with the epic poem “Kadam Rāo Padam Rāo,” written by the poet Fakhruddin Nizami in the late fifteenth century at Bidar—the capital of the Bahmani Sultanate—as well as in the verses of numerous local Sufis. This tradition consciously looked towards the cosmopolitan Persian language, long patronised by India’s sultanates, as its reference point, borrowing from it literary themes, forms and aesthetics. With the splintering of the Bahmani Sultanate, Bijapur and Golconda rose to become centres of political power in the region, eventually also evolving into cultural loci for the production of courtly literature in Dakhni.

As a language unique to the Deccan, Dakhni spoke directly to a local audience: an audience that took a certain pride in its local roots, and whose identity revolved around this rootedness. This was the Dakhni faction at court: descendants of early settlers from Delhi and local converts.

The Dakhnis were perpetually in conflict with the Afaqis, or westerners, who were primarily immigrants from Persia. While the Dakhnis represented local elites, the Afaqis were part of transregional cultural and commercial networks that linked myriad polities within the Persian cultural cosmopolis. Each faction was associated with its own modes of cultural production, shaped by these same allegiances and orientations.

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The patterns of cultural production in the Deccan sultanates responded to the needs of both the Dakhnis and the Afaqis, indicating “a process of localization while maintaining old trans-regional affiliations and identities,” Roy Fischel, a researcher of Deccan history at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, argues in a 2015 paper.

Although the fortunes of both factions waxed and waned over time, the political importance of the Dakhnis grew rapidly in the seventeenth century, in the wake of a growing existential threat to the Deccan sultanates: the southward advance of Mughal expansionism. The Mughals conquered Ahmednagar in 1633, and were showing increasingly clear designs of annexing Golconda and Bijapur. With their ties to global networks weakened by dwindling resources, the local sultans had to decisively secure the support of the Dakhnis. After an alliance of Deccan sultanates defeated the Vijayanagara Empire at the Battle of Talikota, in 1565, the material gains from the plunder enabled a cultural renaissance, one accompanied by an efflorescence of Dakhni literature. This lent voice to newly forming local anxieties.

The very name we now know this language by—Dakhni literally means “of the Deccan”—betrays its intimate ties to the region. According to the linguist David Matthews, the name Dakhni was first used in a Bijapuri poem, “Qissā-e-Benazīr,” written in 1645 by the poet San’ati, before which it was generally referred to as Hindi. This change in name asserted an almost conspicuously patriotic identification with the Deccan, an identity embodied by the Dakhni elites. As the historian Richard Eaton writes, Dakhni was “a term reflecting the new point of geographical reference, and the new spirit of cultural independence, of the language’s native speakers—the Deccani class.” Dakhni poetry had always freely referenced local place names, seasons, flora and fauna, even Hindu deities and festivals; used Sanskrit and native Dakhni vocabulary and names over Persian and Arabic ones; and was effusive in its praise of the Deccan. These literary traits articulated through verse the spirit of belonging the Dakhnis felt.

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With the survival of their states—and patrons—now under question, Dakhni poets began to denounce the Mughals. The Bijapuri poet Nusrati, for example, wrote that the Mughals’ treachery had made “Satan their pupil for eternity.”

The story of literary Dakhni, however, had an almost poetically tragic ending. With the fall of Bijapur and Golconda to Aurangzeb’s forces less than a decade after the inscription was issued, the Dakhni tradition was almost entirely extinguished, as its elites no longer held any relevance.

They lost their voice as well as their verse. With time, this tradition faded from the collective memory of the Deccan. According to MN Sayeed, a former head of the department of Urdu at Bangalore University and an expert on Dakhni literature, literary Dakhni remains solely the preserve of specialists today. “Most Dakhni speakers are unaware that epic poetry was once written in their language,” he told me.

“The dargah inscription’s choice of Dakhni is intriguing, but leaves us with unanswered questions,” Hakala argued. “It tells us nothing about its background, intended audience, or indeed its reception. Did most worshippers recognise the language of the inscription, its words and poetry?”

Pausing to take a swig of his beer, he continued, “The dargah is prominently visible from what is likely a royal Bijapuri pavilion that directly faces it. Did it carry some ceremonial importance?” An analogy with Delhi’s Qutub Minar and its prominently visible floriated inscriptions would be worth developing, he said.

The dargah’s inscription today stands as a mute and singular witness to the rise and fall of the literary tradition that birthed it, an almost unique testament to the majesty of Dakhni at the court of Bijapur. #KhabarLive