News ID: 323607
Published: 0836 GMT August 20, 2022

Teaching Persian as an Imperial Language in India and England

Teaching Persian as an Imperial Language in India and England

Persian served as the imperial language in India for 300 years, from the time of the Moghul Empire through the early British Empire. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries in both India and England, Persian teaching became highly contested by rival representatives of these conflicting imperial cultures.

Indian scholar-officials, who for generations had served the Moghul Empire or one of its successor states, sought to perpetuate the types of Persian-based learning that they embodied.

In both India and England, they and also Persians worked to instruct the British in Persian language, literature, and high culture generally. British authorities, however, gradually reduced the standing of these Persians and Indians both as teachers of Persian and as imperial officials. Thus, the official uses and cultural meanings of Persian shifted fundamentally during the transition from the Moghul to the British empires.

From the late 18th century onward, as the British rapidly extended their conquests across India, they sought mastery of Persian as the prime language of command and means of rule over India. While the East India Company invested in Persian education, it did so largely to provide its British civil officials and military officers with this technology of governance.

In the early 19th century, the English East India Company established advanced training institutions in India, most notably Fort William College in Calcutta, and also at Haileybury and Addiscombe colleges in England. In all of these East India Company establishments (as well as in long-established British universities), British professors asserted their presumed superiority over Indian teachers of Persian and also over the content of officially sponsored education in Persian language and literature. While some Britons certainly studied and savored Persian language and literature, few personally identified themselves with Persian or composed their own poetry or literary prose in it. Rather, many of the most knowledgeable among these British scholars analyzed Persian through their British-style grammars, dictionaries, and other educational tools, or translated the works of Indian or Persian authors into English.

Further, especially after 1837, British advocates of Anglicization displaced Indian teachers in England and replaced Persian with English as the official language of imperial rule in India.

Yet, some scholars are currently coming to recognize the problematic role that Indians themselves played in resisting but also collaborating with the British appropriation of Indo-Persian administrative technologies and cultures. In India, especially in regions or courts outside of direct British control, Indians continued throughout the 19th century to produce Persian literature as a means to perpetuate and advance their self-identified culture. But, as these regions and courts fell to British annexations, such sources of patronage for this Persianate culture diminished in number and, in some cases, in resources.

Instead, to secure employment as teachers or officials under the British, Indians had largely to accept British formulations and uses of Persian. Indian employees of Fort William College in Calcutta were commonly hired to become tutors of their British students, while those at Haileybury or Addiscombe colleges in England could at best be only assistants to British professors. Thus, while employed on the basis of their mastery over Persian at levels beyond those achieved by any Briton, their status nonetheless became dependent on their British superiors and became degraded with the decline of the prestige of Persianate culture itself.


The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled, ‘Teaching Persian as an Imperial Language in India and in England’ from a book entitled “Literacy in the Persianate World”, edited by Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway, published by University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Philadelphia.


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