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Punjab, Punjabi, Punjabiyat




The following is based on distinguished Punjabi writer and teacher, Professor Pritam Singh's key-note address to the Fourth Punjabi Conference held in Delhi in 1993. It was published earlier in Sirnawan (June, 1993) and Watan (October - December 2010 issue):  


An important task that I wish to assign to this Conference concerns some words which will be bandied about frequently from the stage and which have already become current in the Punjabi world. The semantic boundaries of these words are still indeterminate and there is a need to bring to an end this indeterminacy so that we can be certain about their meanings and everyone knows where the Conference stands in regard to its basic concepts.

There are many other words also whose semantic boundaries need to be fixed, but today I'll take up three words only; these are "Punjab", "Punjabi" and "Punjabiyat".

My suggestion is that the help of eminent scholars should be sought to determine the semantic zones of these words. 

I am attaching priority to this task because in the future the connotations of these words will define the scope of the Conference. 

For instance, let us first consider the word "Punjab".

I had an opportunity to stay in Pakistan for about ten or eleven days in 1989. One day, while enjoying a cup of tea at a friend's in Lahore, I asked his daughter who was a sixth standard student, "My child, are you a Sindhi or a Balochi?"  

She laughed and replied, "No, Uncle, we're Punjabis."

I again asked: "Do you know the geography of the Punjab?"

She answered: "Yes, I do."

I said: "Would you tell me where Punjab begins and up to which place does it extend?"

The girl answered with alacrity: "The Punjab province extends from the Sindh and NWFP right up to the Lahore border." 

The same question I put to my grandson after I came back. He too incidentally happened to be a sixth standard student in Amritsar. His answer was, "It is all Punjab from the Wagha border to the Shambhu Barrier." As you all know, when you enter Haryana from Rajpura, Shambhu is the last village of Punjab bordering Haryana. 

These answers make it clear that whenever the talk of Punjab begins in front children from Lahore and Amritsar, two different maps of Punjab, both different from actual reality, appear in their minds. We all know that this is true not only of children from Lahore and Amritsar, rather for millions of people in Pakistan, Punjab means what it meant to the young girl from Lahore and for millions of Indians, the meanings of the word Punjab are the same as were given by the boy from Amritsar.  

The Second World Punjabi Conference was held in Lahore from 26 to 29 December, 1992. It was a world conference. The question that now arises is whether or not this 'world conference' held in Pakistan should adopt the official map of Punjab as the one issued by the Govt. of Pakistan?

And whether or not our World Punjabi Conference should, without showing any resistance, adopt that map of Punjab which has been issued by the Indian Govt.?  

The answer to this question will determine what this Conference and the one held in Pakistan will do and for whom.  

But the issue will not be resolved by these two maps alone because whenever scholars sit down and decide the semantic boundaries of these words, as I've appealed, they'll have to confront many more maps. You all know that the political and administrative boundaries of Punjab have changed considerably on many occasions. Even if we do not talk about the Iranian or Greek occupation of the western part of Punjab, and in the same manner, even if we ignore the altered Punjab boundaries in the period beginning with Mahmud Ghaznavi up to Ahmed Shah Abdali, and we start from the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, even then there is this apprehension that the number of maps will be quite large.

During the Maharaja's reign, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal and the NWFP (which is in Pakistan now) had become a part of Punjab. And then during the British colonial rule, Punjab remained a part of the vast North-West administrative unit which extended up to Agra. Will the World Punjabi Conference be prepared to accept the map of a multi-lingual and multi-national Punjab of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's period or that of the British period? 

The final decision I would like to leave to the specialists but I will not deprive you of my opinion. If your scholars think it prudent, they may consider my view, otherwise it is up to them and you. 

My view is that while trying to draw the right map of Punjab, the World Punjabi Conference, which is not a political organisation according to its own declaration, should step out of the erstwhile political and administrative enclosures and try to make culture and language the basis of the new map. The lines of the map drawn in such a manner will go beyond the boundaries of many states of at least two nations. It does not matter to me nor should it matter to the Conference, whether any country, province or political party accepts or rejects this concept of Punjab because my policy is to accept the honest findings of the linguists and scholars of culture and not to extend forcibly the borders of the Punjabi speaking areas.

It is natural that I ask the World Conference to do a similar thing. Whatever be the present boundaries, the real homes of the Punjabi-speaking people and the boundaries of Punjab will be drawn for the first time on this new map.

Like that of "Punjab", the meanings of the word "Punjabi" also are not uncontested. If the map of Punjab is to be drawn by ignoring linguistic and cultural aspects and under purely political and religious considerations, then believe me, these very considerations will come into play at the time of fixing the semantic zones of the word "Punjabi" which denotes language.

If you do not believe what I say, then listen to what an admirer of the Pakistani writer, Mushtaq Basit's book Pak Punjabi says while summarising the book:

      After a thorough comparison of Punjabi from across the border with Pak Punjabi, Basit Sahib has reached the conclusion that the cultural and literary fount of Pakistani Punjab is Arabic and Persian. The literary heritage of Pakistan begins with the writings of Waris Shah, Bulle Shah, Mian Mohammad Bux, Sultan Bahu and other Sufis. In our Punjabi, slokás and bhajans are neither recited nor heard.

Basit's book is a beautiful example of how a lover of Punjabi, dyed in the hues of religion and politics, uses the Punjabi language for nationalistic purposes by giving it the colours of his own politics and religion. Basit Sahib is a well wisher of Punjabi, he wants development of Punjabi but he has such firm faith in the concept of purity and impurity that if, even inadvertently, his Pakistani Punjabi were to come into contact with the Indian Punjabi, then to him the entire Pak Punjabi would become impure. Obviously, the proclivity of a person who recognizes Islamic-Pakistani Punjabi as the only Punjabi is born out of his deep but warped love of Pakistani Islamic Punjabi.

A quasi-political and quasi-cultural movement in the name of "Saraiki language" has been going on against Pakistani Punjabis. The proponents of Saraiki claim that this dialect of Multan-Bahawalpur is a separate language and on this basis they are asking for a new Saraiki province.

Like the Sindhis, the anger of the advocates of Saraiki is directed more against Punjabi than against Urdu. Deeming Saraiki to be a dialect of Punjabi, the scholars of Punjabi in Pakistan oppose a separate status for Saraiki.  

In this part of Punjab also, almost a similar situation prevails. Punjabi scholars deem the languages of Kangra and Jammu to be dialects of Punjabi, but some political leaders of these areas consider Dogri language and Pahari culture to be essentially different from Punjabi language and culture. They have embraced Hindi, and considering Punjabi to be untouchable, cannot bear to have it even at their doorsteps where they keep their shoes.  

As it is, even from a purely linguistic angle unhampered by any politico-religious considerations, there are several viewpoints about Punjabi language. This is exemplified by how Mohan Singh Diwana and Igor Dmitriyev Serebriakov consider literature written by Punjabis in Hindi, Urdu and even English to be Punjabi literature. Perhaps for them, Punjabi literature means literature written in Punjab.

In his first speech made after taking over as Professor of Punjabi in Delhi University, Harbhajan Singh, like Mohan Singh  Diwana, had advocated enlarging the sphere of Punjabi. And in my Preface to a 1990 Punjab University publication, Selected Medieval Punjabi Poetry, I took a position which is close to this.

But contrary to this view, many Punjabi writers, starting with the late Prof. Teja Singh, consider Punjabi spoken in Lahore and Amritsar and various other dialects spoken in Punjab as part of the Punjabi language, but do not consider literature composed in Hindvi, Bagri, Sadhukri, Hindi and Urdu as Punjabi literature.  

You all know that the basic grammatical structure of Punjabi and Urdu is the same. But since Hindi, in the manner of a beggar, makes a mendicant's call at the doorstep of Sanskrit when it has to coin new words, and the practitioners of Urdu generally borrow their words from Arabic and Persian word-smithies, two different language styles have gradually emerged as two separate, independent languages; more so because these two have different scripts.

Some Pakistani scholars cast in Basit Sahib's mould, making an example of the breach between Hindi and Urdu, are bent upon creating hurdles in the way of affinity between Pakistani Punjabi and Indian Punjabi. However, on both sides of the border, there are people who, by quickly repairing this breach, do not want these two languages to become independent languages. I belong to this group. 

Given such a linguistic scenario, the World Conference, whenever it employs the word "Punjabi", will have to decide what it means by it.

While taking a decision, it will have to be kept in mind that Punjabi is one of the largest languages of the world. It is said that the number of speakers of Punjabi has crossed sixty million. On the basis of this number, it ranks eleventh or perhaps twelfth in the world. Hence, it is no disgrace that Punjabi has a large number of dialects. If this trend is accepted, then there will be a need to make some adjustments in the continuously expanding frontiers of Punjabi language.

Owing to increasing means of collaboration between speakers of different Punjabi dialects and also because of growing practice of written literature, a standard Punjabi has emerged and is getting stronger by the day.  

Mushtaq Basit's parochial concept of "Punjab" does suggest such a narrow and provincial concept of "Punjabi", but what is happening in actual practice implies that: 

  1. Having given up their love of Arabic-Persian words, many writers on this side of Punjab have just about agreed to take refuge in Hindi-Sanskrit. A majority of writers belonging to older generations considers this a sign of contemporary Punjabi writers' apathy and servitude to the prevailing linguistic environment. But the present generation is not troubled by any such qualms.
  2. Just as some writers from the West Punjab knowingly boycott Punjabi writers from this side in their articles and research papers, writers from the East Punjab do not do exactly like that, but they generally make references to Punjabi writers from the East Punjab only and do not evaluate new Punjabi writers from the West Punjab.
  3. The way Mushtaq Basit has given Islamic tinge to Punjabi, the Punjabi of several East Punjabi writers is dyed in Sikh colours.
Forgive me for saying all this, but I feel that unwitting actions of a majority and deliberate actions of a minority of people from West and East Punjab tend to drive people away from each other. And since religious and political differences and currency of separate scripts tend to widen this gap to the point of effecting a split, I wish that the World Punjabi Conference should try, as early as possible, to be very clear about the meanings of the words "Punjab" and "Punjabi" and it should also clarify them to all Punjabis all over the world.  

It will have become clear from what I have suggested up to this point that it is not essential that one may get the same type of goods from all the shopkeepers who have opened big showrooms of "Punjabiyat"; the signboards may be the same, ostensibly the same goods may be hawked, but practical experience reveals that goods of different kinds are traded at these showrooms.

It is worth remembering that that the kind of concept of "Punjab" and "Punjabi" a person entertains, his "Punjabiyat" will also be of the same type. "Punjabiyat", which means authentic Punjabihood, has directly to do with the common threads uniting the desires, needs, qualities, interests, aspirations, instincts, temperament, thoughts, emotions, imaginings, sympathies, and likes and dislikes of all Punjabis. Believe me that a person who can identify these common threads and tell them apart has found the route to "Punjabiyat".

But the problem arises when scholars such as Basit Sahib start painting the image of "Punjabiyat" cast in a communal mould, and not as it really is. For instance, the essence of Basit's "Punjabiyat" is that if a person is a loyal Pakistani, a chaste Muslim and a staunch Punjabi, only then his "Punjabiyat" can be considered authentic.  

I too have a concept of "Punjabiyat". And it is quite different from Basit Sahib's notion. My view is tied neither to Islam, nor Sikhism, nor Hinduism, though it has no intrinsic disunity or antagonism with either of these ... and not at all with Sikhism because it is Punjab's own indigenous produce.

But the natural trajectory of my curiosity is in the direction of those common, shared cords which bind the minds of all Punjabis irrespective of the religion, country and area to which they belong. These are those common cords with which the fabric of Punjabiyat is woven. I believe the stronger these cords are, the more rugged and enduring Punjabi solidarity will be. But there seems to be no way out; these common threads only are not traceable.

Basit Sahib has found one type of thread and I another. What strategy should we employ to get into our hands all the common threads of unity and solidarity prevailing among all the Punjabi speaking people?

All the scholars of the world who have thought deeply about this problem believe that all the common threads can be found in a people's history and culture. And culture subsumes everything that is included in folklore, folk beliefs, superstitions, social taboos, folk games, traditions, folk dances, folk dresses and food habits. All this is applicable to Punjabi culture as well.  

Many Punjabi scholars do proclaim the oneness of Punjabi in a loud voice like me, but nobody bothers to doggedly unravel the aforementioned subtle layers of culture. The result of this apathy is that beneath the very ground on which loud and passionate proclamations of Punjabi solidarity are being made, a strong undercurrent seeks to erode the very foundations of this solidarity.

Let us see how. 

From the birth of a child to his death, many customs and rituals are performed. On such occasions, there may be some communal sharing of drinks, mirth and laughter, and joys and sorrows but the real customs deriving from the parents' religion are totally different. Not only this, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are particularly ignorant of each others' customs. Likewise, the Muslims and Sikhs neither believe in nor do they worship the Hindu pantheon. The same thing can be said about the Hindus and Sikhs in regard to the Islamic pantheon. Their places of pilgrimage are different - one looks toward Mecca and Medina and the other toward Kashi and Prayag. And the Sikhs have made paying obeisance at and taking a holy dip in the sacred sarovar at the Golden Temple, Amritsar part of their daily prayer.2

Hindu, Muslim and Sikh places of worship are also different.

One's feet are irresistibly drawn towards a mosque, another's towards a temple and the third one's towards a gurdwara.

Cremating their dead is a taboo for the Muslims and internment, a taboo for the Hindus. The Hindus go to Hardwar on the occasion of the Kumbh festival and the Muslims undertake pilgrimages to the mausoleums of pirs and fakirs on their death anniversaries.

The Hindus celebrate the festival of Holi, the Muslims do not. The Hindus celebrate Dusshehra and Diwali, but the Muslims do not. The Muslims celebrate Eids, the Hindus and Sikhs do not.

And history is a witness to the fact that on some occasion or the other, Hindus have tended to avoid living together with the Muslims and Sikhs, Sikhs with the Hindus and Muslims, and Muslims with the Sikhs and Hindus.

In such a situation, isn't shouting hoarse over unity turning a blind eye to the actual reality? Shall we have to say, in one voice with Basit Sahib, that there is no undivided Punjabiyat? Is there a common cultural ground offering a glimpse of coexistence of all Punjabis?

Even if the organizers of the World Punjabi Conference wish to run away from this question, people will not allow them to do so. This question will have to be answered. If the Conference has any concrete model of Punjabiyat, then it needs to issue clear-cut guidelines, otherwise Basit Sahib's thesis of two Punjabs, two Punjabi languages and two Punjabiyats is already there.  

I have already given my views about Punjab and Punjabi language. I have no dilemma in my mind even about Punjabiyat. To me Punjabiyat appears to be one, undivided unity; its fissures are only superficial and the strength of its unified base is beyond any doubt. I do not lay claim to this undivided unity of Punjabiyat because I stand to gain personally, religiously, territorially or nationally by making such a claim, or because my personal problems or that of my co-religionists or countrymen are linked up with this claim. I believe it because it is a fact which everybody can see.

For example, someone should tell me if folk dances like Bhangra, Giddha and Sammi are the creations of a collective feel of all Punjabis for music and rhythm or they are inventions of Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs alone? Are ghorian, allhanian, bollian, tappe, mahiye and dholley shared gems birthed by the ocean-hearts of youngsters and maidens or are they manufactured in mosques, temples and gurdwaras? Are vaaran, kafian, sahafian, baranmaah, satware, kissey and ghazals not an integral part of the exquisite, shared heritage of the two Punjabs?

Do the names of Raja Salwan, Puran, Ichhran, Luna, Gorakh Nath, Rasalu and Hodi, Gugga and Sakhi Sarwar not invoke familiar emotions in our minds which are common to all Punjabis? From King Porus to Dulla Bhatti and from Dulla Bhatti to Sardar Bhagat Singh, do their memories and of moustachioed Punjabis not warm the cockles of the hearts equally of all Punjabis on both the sides?

Ask any Punjabi any time of the day if anyone among them on both the sides would be eager to banish Heer-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnu, Sohni-Mahiwal, Mirza-Sahiban or Rode Jalali beyond the Raavi on that side or drive them on to this side of the river from beyond? She may be naani (maternal grandmother) or daadi (paternal grandmother), bhua (father's sister) or maami (wife of mother's brother), mother or maasi (mother's sister), if she is a Punjabi woman, the first story she narrates to her children is that of the sparrow and the crow who very nearly succeeded in cooking khicchrri (a dish of rice and lentils), but their game was completely spoiled by the treachery of one party.

Do the sparrows and crows of West Punjab now cook beef instead of khicchrri to humour Muslim children? Is it that for the children of the affluent Punjabis, the place of the humble birds in this age-old tale has been taken over by peacocks and bul-buls, and the khicchrri has been replaced by pulaao, shammi kebabs, or cakes and pastries?   

Have we ever paid attention to the common folk instruments such as vanjhali, algoze, toombi, iktara, dafli, dhadd and dhol? Those whom we call "folk", God forbid me from telling a lie, I have seen them on both sides of the border swinging and dancing with gay abandon to the music of these instruments.

Let us cast just a perfunctory glance at our popular folk games. There is equal passion in both Punjabs for thaal, kikli, hide-and-seek, kotla-chhapaki, gulli-danda, khiddo-khoondi, kabaddi, sonchi, and so on and so forth.

Now let us consider our shared identity. Try taking the names of the organs of your body from head to toe - hair, head, skull, brow, eye brows, eye lashes, eyes, nose, nostrils, mouth, lips, teeth, gums, tongue, uvula, throat, neck, chest, armpit, arm, wrist, hand, thumb, finger, wrist, loins, thigh, leg, ankle, knee, palm and toe, etc. A majority of words is of those that are common to all Punjabis.

Now let us look at the kinship markers of our relations. First, on the maternal side: ma, naana (grandfather), naani, maasi, maasarrh (husband of mother's sister), maama (mother's brother), and maami (his wife). And now, on the paternal side: pey-oh  (father), daada (grandfather), daadi (grandfather), taaya (father's elder brother), taayee (father's elder brother's wife), chaacha (father's younger brother), chaachi (wife of father's younger brother), bhua and phupharrh (husband of father's sister).

Likewise, there are many other words acting as kinship markers such as auntri (a childless woman), matreyi (stepmother), sass (mother-in-law), sauhra (father-in-law), saala (wife's brother), saali (wife's sister), sanddhu (co-brother), and many more which Punjabis from both the sides use with equal felicity.

If we start looking for common words being used by all Punjabis for plants, vegetables, agriculture, live-stock, clothes and apparel, and those associated with trade and business, we may spend an entire day but still the list will remain inexhaustible.

These are the words which are commonly used in East and West Punjab but they are either not found at all in any neighbouring province, and even if they are there, they exist in an altered form.

We should involve our children in this game of finding common words in different walks of life. The grown-ups need not despair. I have another game for them, and that is of compiling a list of expletives. Any Pakistani researcher, who embarks upon this route as a pioneer, should not be surprised to find in the streets of Indian Punjab all the choicest abuses and obscenities being used on his side of Punjab. How can these blessings full of bombast, these wonderful exemplars of originality and creativity, transgressive of all moral and social interdictions and always looking for new illicit relations be found in their fullness in any other Indian or Pakistani province?

Well, it all boils down to the fact that countless proofs of our common heritage are there for a keen scholar to observe. That is why I have desisted from making too much of the commonality of Punjabis' favourite folk-tales, anecdotes, jokes, proverbs, fairs and festivals, and idioms, etc. If somebody is not already sworn to disagree then beneath the seeming differences of nations and religions, the basic unity of Punjabi culture cannot be hidden, even if one tries to do so.

So far as the role of political and religious leaders who try to create dissensions is concerned, I have only one answer to it: the more determined and stronger the line-up of those who believe in cultural unity is, the weaker will be their divisive opponents. Great caution is required when using religion on international level.

I hope that in the light of what I have said about Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat I will not have to answer the question why I have chosen this opportunity to tell the Punjabi World Conference to be clear about its stand on Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat and also to spell it out to others.  

I do not know if I have been able to win over the World Punjabi Conference on to my side on the issues of Punjab, Punjabi and Punjabiyat, but suppose the Conference endorses my views; then what expectations can we harbour about the outcomes?

Perhaps it will improve cooperation between Punjabis; perhaps the gulfs separating them from each other will narrow down,  thus making much smoother the way to spontaneous Punjabi unity. I am not oblivious of the fact that while trying to promote Punjabi unity, it is not easy to openly confront a society seeped in religious bigotry and fanaticism. But in a world full of differences that separate people, petty jealousies, parochialism, and in a pining and desiring world, who will not like to imagine a blueprint of "Beg[h]umpura"? ["Beghumpura" - GGS, Bhagat Ravidas: literally, 'a world without sorrow'.] 

I also have a dream that all Punjabis shall unite on the basis of common language and culture. And I feel that this should be the dream of all Punjabis as well.


[Translated from the Punjabi original by Swaraj Raj. Courtesy: South Asian Ensemble, vol. 2, Number 3, Summer 2010. ]           October 13, 2010            


Conversation about this article

1: Raj (Canada), October 13, 2010, 10:37 PM.

In the music world, Raag Majh is from the Majha region of Punjab. The Tukhari Raag is another example. In the tabla world, the Punjab Gharana is considered pioneer in classical music. Taal Talwara is from, of course, the Talwara region. There're many unique meters and raags in Guru Granth Sahib.

2: Jamil Mirza (Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan), November 02, 2010, 3:58 AM.

Interesting article. Very informative. Thanks for publishing it.

3: Rawinder Singh (Amritsar, Punjab), August 04, 2016, 8:08 AM.

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