Notes from Punjab: Writing History: Self-Created Language Barriers – Journal


If you are on this side of the border in Punjab and want to find what for example the great epic Mahabharata says about Punjab and its people, you must rely on the verses (Shloka) quoted in the Roman letters which do not convey not the correct pronunciation and meaning of the words.

And if you insist on knowing how to recite the quoted verses, you will not find even a single teacher in this country to help you. You will need to contact someone in India or the West where you can find a number of scholars and scholars who know Sanskrit. But why, a student might ask in wonder, this Hindu epic? What we call Hindus were our ancestors because the majority of us belong here. We have changed our faith, but can we change our racial roots and ancestry?

Second, the Mahabharata is an unrivaled treasure trove of information about mythology, religions, culture, social life, tribes, races, regions, and caste and class structures. Third, the very name of the epic is derived from Kings Baharata ‘Jana’ and Bharata of Punjab. Fourth, due to the historical significance of Punjab, the homeland of Indus Valley dwellers and Aryan migrants, the Mahabharata was first recited in the city of Takshashila (now called Taxila) in Punjab by a disciple of sage Vyas named Vaishampayna at the king’s court. Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Pandavaprince Arjun, one of the protagonists of the epic. Arjun’s rival cousin Duryodhana Gandhari’s mother was from Punjab. It should also be kept in mind that Kurukeshatra, the field where Karuravs and Pandavas fought their bloody battle, was part of Punjab.

The question arises that why language learning is not given due importance? Why are some languages ​​discouraged and ignored? Such indifference to languages ​​is the result of certain ideological imperatives that advance plans to base our identity on faith alone. Therefore, we find that the writing of the story here is shoddy; it is either distorted or shaped by an ideology showing a complete disregard for facts. It is mainly based on presumptions, assumptions and ideological suppositions. In the context of Punjab, it is crucial for a historian to know or at least be familiar with a number of languages ​​as our region has been home to linguistic diversity. A historian must know at least five or six languages ​​if he wants to have access to original sources and produce a reliable account. The original sources can only be found in Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Punjabi (language of the peoples of the region), Urdu and English.

Sanskrit, elitist and liturgical, has its first origins in northern Punjab and the Swat Valley. How can one write the ancient history of Punjab without deciphering the Sanskrit, religious and secular texts? How can one be a reliable historian if he does not understand the Vedas? How to take them seriously if they are unable to analyze the original texts of “Arth Shastra” by Kautilya and “Ashtadhyayi” by Panin? Kautilya (aka Chanakya) and Panini, the exceptionally gifted theoreticians, had been associated with the glorious university of Taxila. There are countless other scriptures, books, treatises, poems, and tales that offer highly relevant material. Besides its own literature, Sanskrit is crucial in extracting the oral texts from Prakrits which it has subsumed as a hegemonic language.

The historian Wendy Doniger writes in her ‘The Hindus’: “…At the very least, these Sanskrit men had to be bilingual in order to be able to speak to their wives, servants and children. It is through these interactions that oral traditions set foot in the Sanskrit door…Sanskrit won the race for archives and was the first to be written down and preserved…”. This implies that a historian who knows Sanskrit well can detect the vitality of the Prakrit texts beneath its patina of elegance.

Punjab has a long history of interaction with Iran. That Sanskrit and Avestan/Zend have common origins is common knowledge. We almost forget that Punjab (also Sindh) was annexed by Darius I at the beginning of the 6th century. It was one of the high income satrapies.

Persia’s hold, at least on the official level, came with the Turkish armies in the early 11th century that conquered Punjab and later Delhi. The native language of the Turkish invaders was Turkish, but they declared Persian as their court language. Culturally backward, the Turkish elite presented themselves as an avatar of Persian imperial glory. One finds very precious elements on medieval society in the histories and chronicles composed in Persian. A historian who does not know Persian cannot boast of his knowledge of Punjab and India.

Arabic being a Semitic language had a limited but lasting impact on the society of Sind and Punjab and the rest of India. The Arabic vocabulary came in the form of borrowed words/loanwords. Arabic being the language of the Arab invaders lent us words and phrases in the areas of administration, revenue and faith most of which are still in circulation. Thus, a level of familiarity with Arabic will do a historian good.

Urdu can provide material though, to borrow Tamil actor Kamal Hassan’s words about Hindi, it is a layered language. One must know English not because of a colonial hangover, but because of the loads of material on almost every aspect of life that arose in the colonial and post-colonial periods.

Last but not least, the role of a natural language of the region, Punjabi in our case, which is a natural repository of peoples’ history, cannot be overestimated. Standard and official historians go ahead with their accounts based on a priori assumptions. How can one afford not to look at the classic Punjabi literature created over the past thousand years, which reflects people’s life in all its complexity. But historians, at the risk of their credibility, do so above all on this side of the border. Can anyone, for example, really understand the depth of the destruction caused by the Iranian Nadir Shah without consulting the epic of the poet Nijabat ‘Nijabat di Var (alias Nadir Shah di Var)? How can a historian know the tenacity of women’s struggle for emancipation and equality embodied by Heer and Sahiban, the characters created by great poets?

Language is what preserves. What we do and create in whatever form eventually lands in the boundless expanse of language and is intangiblely protected and preserved for times to come. As a historian, you can’t afford to be less than a polyglot. — [email protected]

Posted in Dawn, July 4, 2022

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