Medieval Period

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Indian literature in the medieval period developed from many different strands. Regional court poets composed poems in praise of kings and warriors; many poets produced works on themes taken from the Sanskrit epics and Puranas; and Persian-speaking Muslim courts introduced elements of Islamic culture to India.

In particular, the spread of Hinduism produced large amounts of religious literature, often dedicated to the deities Rama and Krishna. This was the literature of bhakti (devotional religion), based on the importance of a loving relationship between the worshipper and God. Meanwhile, varieties of folk poetry celebrating the seasons and festivals were passed down from generation to generation and are still recited today.

The bhakti literature is the most important development of the medieval period. Krishna and Rama, the two main incarnations of the great god Vishnu, began to be worshipped widely. Many temples were built for them, and their worshippers formed a number of different sects, each one following a particular religious teacher. Much bhakti literature was written in the form of hymns, still sung today. These hymns praised the deities and their deeds, or humbly requested their help.

Poetry in praise of Krishna, the cowherd god, centres on his playful activities with the gopis, the cowherd girls among whom he spent his youth. The stories come mostly from the Bhagavata Purana and the Gitagovinda. They describe a very different aspect of Krishna from the noble and kingly Krishna of the Mahabharata. His worshippers are charmed by his pranks and his romantic lovemaking.

Rama, on the other hand, is revered as an ideal and heroic king, and his wife, Sita, is the model of Hindu womanhood. The monkey god Hanuman, faithful henchman of Rama in the war against Ravana, appears as the ideal devotee.

The Islamic influence. Various Muslim dynasties ruled much of India from their arrival in the 1100's and 1200's. Most of them spoke Persian or Turkish. These were the languages used, in a slightly Indianized form, for the business of government and court.

Muslim poets Malik Mahammod Jayasi, Raskhan, Rahim, and others wrote Sufi and Vaishnava (pertaining to Vishnu) poetry. The religious and cultural synthesis of Islam and Hinduism that was a special concern of medieval India finds frequent expression in their literature. Bulleh Shah, the most famous Muslim Punjabi poet, popularized Sufism (Islamic doctrine of divine love) through Punjabi kafi (verse form). Shah Laatif, a Sindhi Muslim poet, wrote an important Sufi text, Risalo.

In the medieval period, Urdu came into being. Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), a great Sufi poet and an early architect of India's composite culture, experimented with poetry in a language that was a mixture of Persian and Hindi. This was the origin of Urdu. Urdu poetry has largely followed Persian forms and metres, but it has also adopted some of the purely Indian forms. The ghazal (lyrical couplet), qasidah (ode of praise), and marsia (elegy) are of Iranian origin.

The poet Sauda (1706-1781) gave rigour and versatility to Urdu poetry. Dard (1720-1785) and Mir Taqi Mir (1722-1810) gave Urdu maturity and ushered it into the modern period of literature. The Mughal Empire of the 1500's to the 1700's offered a livelihood to many poets. Richly illustrated memoirs of emperors form part of the historical and artistic heritage of this period.

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