How the Dakhni language defines cultural intimacy and regional belonging

Dakhni is still largely spoken today, even among the youth, which shows no sign of the language dying down
A group of disciples at Peeli Dargah
A group of disciples at Peeli Dargah
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This piece is part of TNM’s Deccan Series brought to you in collaboration with the Khidki Collective, a collection of eight essays that will look at what it means to belong to the Deccan, which does not exist as a state or administrative entity, but still defines people and communities, how they live, what their politics is.

In mid-2019, I embarked on a month-long language homestay program in Jaipur to train myself in spoken and written Hindi. After which, I confidently journeyed to Hyderabad to commence my fieldwork for my PhD dissertation in anthropology. To my dismay, I found it difficult to comprehend what the local people in Hyderabad, particularly the cab drivers and stall vendors were saying. There were words I had never heard before, such as “Nakko”, and also a Telugu-ish accent to their spoken Hindi or Urdu. Some people I met who migrated from Delhi to Hyderabad affirmed my confusion, that even though they were fluent in Hindi, they were lost in translation speaking with people in Hyderabad. I came to realise subsequently that these people in Hyderabad were speaking in a regional tongue called Dakhni, which is not exactly Hindi or Urdu, but a dialect of Hindustani bearing a composite tongue of Persian, Marathi, Telugu and Kannada. My exposure to Dakhni deepened through an Urdu teacher that I met in Hyderabad. In our everyday Urdu classes, I noticed that she spoke the Dakhni tongue with much ease and affection.

My Urdu teacher is among the many Hyderabadis who are a product of the composite language and cultures of the Deccan. Having completed her education in the University of Hyderabad, her PhD thesis was on Sufi saint Miranji Shams-ul Ishshaq of Bijapur (d. 1496), a prolific poet, and one of the key figures who established Dakhni language as a recognized medium of Sufi literature. Miranji Shams-ul Ishshaq became much more than a thesis project for her, his life works and spirituality as a Sufi deeply impacted her and influenced her poetry styles in Dakhni and Urdu (she doesn’t like the term Urdu but prefers to call it as Zubaan e Aali i.e the tongue of the exalted).

My urdu teacher singing a hamd in prayer while visiting her grandfather’s Sufi shrine. Credits: Amy Phua

Sufi figures such as Miranji Shams-ul Ishshaq, one of the towering poets of his time, had a large hand in the establishment of pre-modern Dakhni as a language. Dakhni, in its pre-modern form, was birthed after the Bahmani Sultanate was established in the Deccan in the 12th century, departing from the Delhi Sultanate due to on-going wars during that period. Persian was being used as the official court language and language spoken by the elites at that time. However, Sufis who came with these Persianate empires, wanted to bring Islamic tenets and reach into the heartlands and among the common folk, who spoke Sanskritic languages. They began establishing the vernacular language of Dakhni, which combined Persio-Arabic languages with a large range of Telugu and Kannada vocabulary.

A proliferation of poems and literary works were produced during that time. In this, poetry known as namas were among one of these many works. I was introduced to the Khush e Nama, written by Miranji Shams-ul Ishshaq, as a form of poetry in Dakhni for women to understand how to gain happiness through the tenets of Islam.

It is important to note that the Dakhni spoken during the time of the Bahmani sultanate is different from contemporary Dakhni spoken today. The use of pre-modern Dakhni declined after the 18th century, with the decline of the Bahmani and Qutb Shahi empires. Contemporary Dakhni today is loosely associated with this premodern Dakhni, but draws largely on the tradition and spirit of creating vernacular tongues that speak to the hearts and culture of people in the Deccan.

A depository of written pre-modern Dakhni is stored physically in places such as dargahs, where the bodies of Sufi saints were laid to rest. Sufis play a significant role in the circulation of language and literary texts, through their deep networks of Silsila or also known as spiritual genealogy which is transmitted through generations of Pir-Murid (Master-student) relationships, and connections weaving between different Sufi orders. These connections extend across Hyderabad through the Deccan, to Delhi and up till the Persian Gulf. Through these relationships, it fostered the amalgamation of Perso-Arabic languages with local Sanskritic languages, birthing Urdu and Dakhni. Sufi saints’ hagiographies and works were also recorded into a vast literature of poetry and musical works such qawwalis, samas and namas to name a few; where these poetries and works get sung and recited time and again till today. The Chishti order in particular sing of their Sufi masters’ poetry on most occasions at the dargahs, such as their qawwali sessions every Thursday night, and Urs (death anniversary of Sufi saint) in which they stay up all night and sing till dawn.

A book of poetry written by Sufi Saint Hazrat Aashiq e khwaja of Peeli dargah. The book is used by his followers for singing their weekly samas. Credits: Amy Phua

While the official languages of Hyderabad changed over the centuries from Persian to Urdu to present-day English, Telugu and Hindi, Dakhni in its contemporary form is still persistently and affectionately used among people from Hyderabad to Karnataka and some parts of Maharashtra. All of these places were formerly a part of the Hyderabad-Deccan. Dakhni is still largely spoken today, even among the youth, which shows no sign of the language dying down. A college student in Hyderabad, whom I had taught Mandarin to, spoke Dakhni in her everyday tongue with the female domestic help in her house, even though she was Punjabi in ethnicity, but her family had settled in Hyderabad for a few generations. Schools also played a large role in familiarising the young with Dakhni, through socialisation with fellow Hyderabadi peers and classmates.

Speaking and representing the Dakhni tongue as a way of regional belonging and affection is evident in other sources such as films and modern-day rap songs. Films such as Hyderabad Blues and Hyderabad Nawabs feature the use of Dakhni in their dialogues. They bring up cackles of joy and laughter as viewers fondly identify these phrases with the words they speak every day. Sometimes thought to be crass, the language is affectionately represented through an unofficial medium like comedy films. Rappers such as Mo Boucher and Pasha Bhai rapping in Dakhni have been part of the proliferating local music scene in recent years.

This is a departure from the more traditional forms of qawwali or ghazals, showing Dakhni’s persistence and relevance even among the youth today. Articles about Dakhni have been written profusely on various forums and lifestyle websites. As a Singaporean who proudly speaks Singlish, similarly an unofficial but much beloved creole of English, Malay and Chinese dialects, with its own historical and colonial discourse, I could almost identify with that joy and pride of seeing Dakhni represented on various forms of media.

This officially unrecognised tongue, but still used commonly and fondly among the people in Hyderabad, could be a form of cultural intimacy, a term coined by anthropologist Michael Herzfeld, where cultural intimacy is defined as “aspects of an officially shared identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality….which may erupt into public life and collective self-representation” .

Perhaps the persistence and proliferation of Dakhni as a form of cultural intimacy might be a reaction towards the broad sweep of nationalistic narratives that abruptly took over Hyderabad in 1948. In a short span of time, boundaries and territories were suddenly regrouped into linguistic regions, separating Hyderabad from the Deccan to merge with the eastern parts of the Telugu speaking regions in Andhra Pradesh. The artificiality of regrouping these regions without considering its linguistic and cultural contexts might have contributed to the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in 2014. However, beyond these official state borders, memories of the Deccan and its Persianate histories are retained and proliferated through the everyday tongue of Dakhni today.

Amy Phua Mei Yen is a PhD candidate from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research looks at Sufi culture and practices in urban Hyderabad.

The Khidki Collective is a group of scholars committing to reimagining and building perspectives on regional identities with a view to challenging established narratives around history, nationhood and belonging. Regions have existed even before India came into being and continue to exist. By not neatly fitting into dominant notions such as Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan, regions expand our imaginations. The collective takes its name from Khidki – window, the early medieval name of Aurangabad city, as well as the name of a famous octagonal mosque in Delhi built by an administrator who identified himself as a Telangani. The collective is anchored at the Hyderabad Urban Lab.

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