History of Punjabi

Originally was not planning to compile an article on P but Ma said being a Punjabi you must do so, would enable you to discover your roots.

This article is verbatim from The History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan. After that compared notes with The Cultural Heritage of India published by the Ramakrishna Mission and made additions. If you go the article on Hindi it tells you about the development of various modern Indo Aryan languages including P.

Language, its origin and Growth

P is the language of Punjab, the land of the five rivers. It evolved out of the Apabhramsa of the region. It is said that from Sanskrit originated Prakrit, whence the Aprabhramsa language. Therefore the characteristics of Sanskrit, Prakrit and Aprabhramsa can be found in the P language.

The Vedic language has been called the oldest Punjabi, because it is nearer to Punjabi than Hindi. Classical Sanskrit evolved from the Vedic is the main source of P vocabulary and Sauraseni Prakrit is nearest to Classical Sanskrit. It was Sauraseni Apabhramsa that gave birth to P and was also the mother of the saint’s language, known as sant-bhasa.

In both poetical and prose works of P literature, the standard literary medium is the dialect known as Majhi, though the influence of other dialects is also found. With the Muslim invasion of Punjab, there was a great Perso-Arabic influence on the P language. The Muslims used the Persian script for their writings in P, but phonetically, it could not reproduce the actual P sounds as it lacked necessary sound signs (letters). The composition of Guru Nanak named Patti establishes that this script was being used in Punjab much earlier.

Punjabi at the present day is found in two forms: Eastern P which is now primarily used for literary purposes and runs close to Hindi and Western P or Lahndi or Hindki dialects. While a literary speech has developed in the eastern Punjab during the last two hundred years, Western P has not been so fortunate, and the language has split up into a number of dialects without any literary cohesion at the moment, and Western P speakers, if they write P at all, now take to Eastern P.

The period covered is 1300 to 1947.

1300 to 1526

In the pre-Nanak period, Nathas and Yogis were very active in Punjab. Their compositions were found in two languages – Apabhramsa and the language of the common people. Gradually the language of the common people replaced the Apabhramsa and manifested itself as sant-bhasa. The language contained words from Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsa and Persian – Arabic due to the Muslim invasion as even Muslims could be initiated into the fold of Yogic cults. This new language became popular with the saints who traveled from place to place in order to preach their creed.

The oldest specimens of vernacular poetry written by a poet of Punjab are two devotional compositions attributed by Baba Farid-ud-din 1173-1266 of Multan and Pak-Pattan. The former was a mystic of a very high order. Because of the purity and sincerity of his mystic fervor, his poetry is included in the Adi Grantha by way of four hymns and 112 slokhas. He is famous for his love for God. The verses of Baba are composed in Lahndi, a dialect of P. The authors do not have any authentic specimen of pure P literature for the period under review. Most of it has been destroyed due to foreign invasions.

The oldest book that we have in P at the present day is a prose biography of Guru Nanak known as Janam-Sakhi which is attributed to one of the disciples of Guru Nanak namely Bala. This was supposed to have written shortly after Guru Nanak’s death about 1538. In these works there is also a comparative study of the thoughts of Nanak and the religious systems of the areas visited by him.

1526 to 1707

There is no written record of any P literary work prior to the time of Guru Nanak. The P language of course is much older having developed out of a Sauraseni apabhramsa along more or less the same grammatical lines as Braj-bhasa, Rajasthani and Pahari by about 1300 AD.

The poetry of Guru Nanak was chiefly Upanisadic in its theme. His masterpiece Japji is considered an epitome of the Adi Grantha. There are references to all creeds and sects of his time in Nanak’s lyrics. Most of Nanak’s poems were not in pure P but in old Hindi, Braja-bhasa and the speech of Delhi occasionally mixed with P.

Guru Angad 1539 to 1552 the third Guru turned his attention to the Nanak’s hymns, which were written in Lande Mahajani script. It is rather rough and crude with vowel sounds omitted. To avoid misinterpretation Angad beautified the Lande alphabets by giving them a better shape, like the alphabets of Dev Nagari script, which was used for Sanskrit. He also modified the order of Lande alphabets. The new script came to be called Gurumukhi, meaning that it came from the mouth of the Guru. It was in this script that Angad wrote the hymns of Guru Nanak.

Adi Granth – The Adi-Grantha was compiled first in 1604 by the firth Guru Arjun but here the language primarily is Brajabhasha mixed with Kosali with occasional P forms in some of the poems. The earliest authentic record of writing in P is the Adi Granth, which is an unparalled treasure house of northern Indian medieval literature and verbal forms.

As far as the character of its language it is only in part pure or nearly pure P. For the rest it is either some variety of Hindi or combined Hindi Marathi (confirm the Marathi bit please). The arrangement of the hymns in the Adi Granth is, as was customary in medieval India, in accordance with the ragas or musical measures in which these are to be sung.

The Granth written in verse in Gurumukhi script has 974 hymns of Guru Nanak, 62 of Guru Angad, 907 of Guru Amar Das, 672 of Guru Ram Das, 2218 and 116 Shabads of Guru Arjun including his famous Sukjmani or Psalm of Peace, saying of 16 Bhaktas both Hindu and Muslim such as Farid, Kabir, Namdev, Dhanna, Surdas. 115 hymns of Guru Tegh Bahadur and one verse of Guru Gobind Singh were added later.

Quote Khuswant Singh ‘While the Adi-first Granth is essentially a distillation of Vedanta in Punjabi, the last Dasam- tenth is a compilation of tales of valor of Hindu goddesses. Of the 15028 names of Gods that appear in the Adi Granth, Hari occurs over 8,000 times, Ram 2533 times followed by Prabhu, Gopal, Govind and other Hindu names for the divine. The popular Sikh coinage Wah Guru appears only 16 times’.

The themes which form the basis of the devotional compositions of the Guru are the nature and attributes of the Creator, the spiritual conquest which consists on the one side in freeing the mind from the great illusion Maya, and on the other hand in fervent devotion of God conceived of as the Beloved Lord, the supreme importance of relating the spiritual life to the realization of moral responsibility, the objective of the religious life as the attainment of Mukti Nirvana, which in essence means the attainment of the state of spiritual-moral enlightenment and untiring emphasis on the essence of the religious life as devotion, enlightenment (Jnana) and acts of disinterested good (Seva). The entire message is expressed in poetry, which through powerful image and symbol impresses the movement of the soul on the listener’s mind and thus acts so as to convert him.

Significant words from Muslim tradition are also employed, particularly those made familiar to the people in general by the propagation of Islam and the mingling of the Hindus and Muslims in the population of three centuries. A fairly large collection of words of Persian or Arabic origin can be made from the pages of the Granth.

A considerable part of the terminology employed by the Gurus comes from the practice of medieval Yoga, particularly in its adumbration of the spiritual ideal to be attained.

The style in which Guru Nanak has poured forth his soul is generally highly compact and aphoristic, as indicating a mind given to expressing itself in formulae or Sutras as in the Indian spiritual tradition. Deep, reflective and intuitive processes of the soul, blossoming forth in these aphoristic utterances – such is the impression which Nanak’s compositions leave on the mind. Nanak’s successors reexpress his themes and purport.

One relevant characteristic of the hymns of the Adi Granth, poetically of greater relevance, teaching or message, is the adoption by the Gurus of that Indian tradition of devotional-lyrical poetry in which the entire symbolism of erotic poetry, applied to men and women is transferred to the spiritual quest and passion. In other words, this poetry is devotional-mystical as well as highly metaphysical adopting the style and tradition of medieval Indian eroticism, made current by the devotees of Krishna cult. The Gurus, of course, adopt as the object of their devotion not the divine cowherd Krishna but the Transcendent Creator, Par-Brahman.

Other Sikh writers – Besides the Gurus another great poet was Bhai Gurdas 1559 to 1637. He truly transferred to his own language the thought, tradition and philosophy of India, which till then had been confined to various forms of Hindi and Bengali. He was a great poet who deserved to be better known outside the circle of those who can read P in Gurumukhi.

A good deal of devotional poetry was produced during this period. They may be divided into a) The Biographies called Janam-Sakhis, b) exposition and exegesis of the principles and texts of Sikh faith. Amongst the oldest Janam-Sakhis is the one that covers the life story of Guru Nanak and is known as Puratan whose only copy is in the British Museum.

The Romancers – Most of those who composed romantic tales were Muslims. Their works were called Kissas or tales. One of the earliest tale writers was a Hindu Damodar Ghulati who composed the famous Hir and Ranjha. Because of the finish given by Waris Shah his version became the most popular, though the ending in this case was tragic.

Sufi poets – The folk Sufi poets while basing their experiences within the four walls of the Muslim Sufi doctrine have employed mainly the symbols and images drawn from the Punjabi countryside. The language used is generally pure P of the western variety with the rarest touch here and there of Hindi drawn from the lore of the parallel Hindu order of Yogis. Sufi poetry because of its appeal to the heart became popular in Punjab. There were Bulhe Shah, Shah Huussain, Sultan Babu amongst others.

1707 to 1818

There is a tradition which is part of Sikh history, that in order to inspire his followers Guru Govind Singh (1666-1708) kept in his employ 52 poets who composed in the prevalent mode of neo-classical Hindi poetry works whose themes were heroic and philosophical. All the writings of these poets were also written down in the Gurumukhi script and recited at sessions convened by the Guru. Most of these poems have been lost.

A dominant theme of these poets was to give poetic form to the teachings of the Guru, who enunciated the gospel comprehending the supremacy of bhakti and meditation, the urge for heroic action to defend the right (dharma) by which the Indian mind would be able to remember the ideals of ancient India. All this literature is called Vidya-sagara (ocean of learning).

At some time during the 18th century got together whatever remained of these poems Bhai Mani Singh, priest of the Hari Mandir or the Golden Temple compiled them into the Granth of the 10th master or the Dasham Granth. This work contains three versions of the epic of the goddess Chandi based on the story of her fight with Mahisasur, the Buffalo-Demon. Two of these are in Hindi while the third is in Punjabi. The third is believed to be the Guru’s own composition while the other two by some poets. The Guru got a great deal of literature written based on the tales of heroism drawn from the history of India whereby he sought to arouse the people to crusade for higher values which he gave the name Dharma. Towards meeting a similar objective are some Puranic tales on the incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

Some portions of the Dasham Granth are devotional and philosophical. These rephrase the monistic-monotheistic teachings of the founders of Sikhism, in a classical idiom, taking their phraseology from the Indian spiritual sources, incorporating at the same time vocabulary from Islam. This was done to inculcate a spirit of tolerance where the creeds melt into the universal mystic vision. A number of hymns form part of this Granth, set to the classical Indian ragas. A considerable portion is taken up with short tales portraying the wiles of women (Chharitropakhyam) in the medieval Indian tradition of social thought.

A number of similar stories in Persian called Hikayat or tale are also given. One of these is Zafar-Namah (epistle of victory) believed to be addressed by the Guru to Aurangzeb in the Deccan, castigating the emperor’s deputies for treachery and breathing the spirit of freedom. Thus the Granth is a treasure house of history, devotional literature and treatment of mythological themes. Oh Ishwar some day may I get to read it.

He also composed some important works in Apabhramsa style of Hindi, including the autobiographical poem, the Bichitra Natak (the wonderful Drama).  

Another remarkable work is Prem Sumarg. Although name of author and period is not known it appears to be an early sketch of Sikh polity of a period when Sikhs has established their rule over Punjab without fear of the Muslims. Now they could think of the principles on which their rule might be established. The principles articulated are humane. Its language is a mixture of Hindi and P  with the former dominating.

Bhai Mohan Singh, the compiler of Dasham Granth is credited with two works on Sikh religious works. One is Bhagat Ratnavali containing brief biographical episodes about the devoted Sikhs who were contemporary with the first six Gurus of the Sikh faith. The other Gian Ratnavali is a commentary on Japaji.

A number of Hukam-Namahs of Guru Govind Singh, Mata Sundari his widow and Banda Bahadur were circulated to the Sikhs in the early part of the 18th century. Their language is Punjabi with an admixture of Hindi.

Some short stories called Vars in P appeared during this period. A Var is a typical P poem that celebrates the exploits of heroes fighting in the battlefield. Nadir-Shah-Di-Var narrates the story of the devastation and loot of Northern India by Nadir Shah. It is in bardic P. Gurdas Singh, a devoted follower of the 10th Guru composed his Var on the Guru’s eulogy, which is generally appended to the pre-existing Forty Vars of Bhai Gurudas who flourished in the 17th century. This is a powerful poem on the glory of Guru Govind Singh and Khalsa and the famous refrain runs through it  - Wah Wah Govind Singh ape Guru-Chela Allied to the Var is Qissa, a form based on the Persian masnavi, and touching generally from Muslim religious lore or romantic tales current among the Muslim people.

A great deal of romantic and Sufi poetry was composed by Muslim poets during this period. The Sufis wishes to express the spiritual poetry in universal terms, inclining however, to employ Muslim vocabulary. Bullah is the greatest Sufi poet. Muslim poets as a whole may be distinguished by their use of Perso-Arabic sources though in their general orientation they are overwhelmingly P. The P language was till then the favored medium of expression. Urdu, which later became the dominant language of education and administration, came only with the establishment of British rule over Punjab.

Modern Literature 1818 onwards

With the advent of British rule came the missionaries and adoption of English language as the medium of instruction in schools / teaching of literature. The plus is that it led to a great social awakening amongst the people of P. Taking advantage of the Brit rule several religious missions started criticizing Punjabi Sardars and Monas. A few Sardar intellectuals decided to take these missions, awaken the community. This led to the commencement of the Singh Sabha movement. An organization named Khalsa Tract Society was established with Bhai Vir Singh 1872-1957 as one of its founder members. On the other hand the founder of Arya Samaj Swami Dayanand Sarasvati came to Punjab to help the Monas withstand the missionary onslaught. Both these movements were of considerable social and religious significance.

Modern Punjabi literature begins with the works of Bhai Vir Singh. His Rana Surat Singh, a long narrative poem of 13,000 lines in a sort of blank verse (called Srikhandi Chhnand) of 20 morae, is an outstanding work in P. The story is romantic with an allegorical idea – the heroine Rani Kaur stands for the soul, the hero Rana Surat Singh, represents the Godhead. The work is thus one of religious mysticism in its essence, and its general background is that of Adi-Granth. His biography of Guru Nanak is a well-known modern classic in P as also his biography of Guru Govind Singh. He made important contributions to the study of the Granth Sahib, wrote short poems and lyrics.

Bhai Puran Singh1882 to 1932 has been called the Tagore of Punjab. He is well known by his Sisters of the Spinning Wheel and Unstrung Beads, his versions of a number of his own poems and of portions from the Granth Sahib. He had intense love for the beautiful and the good in Indian village life.

Another important poet was Kirpa Singh 1879 to 1939 is well known for his romantic poem with a historical background, the Lakshmi Devi. His poetic qualities of imagination and his power of nature description are of a really high order. Dhani Ram Chatrik 1876 to 1954 is a poet of nature, his Himala, Ganga, Rat are noteworthy as well as a poem Kora Qadir, where we have his passionate cry against the division of humanity through diversity of creed.

The most popular poet of the present day is Mohan Singh who has been described as occupying ‘ the central place in P letters today’. He is one of the pioneers of a modern outlook in life and things in P. Other poets include Amrita Pritam, Pritam Singh Safir, Gopal Singh Dardi, Kulwant Singh Virk.

There are a handful of P writers in other departments of modern literature like the novel and the short story, the drama and general prose writing. English influence is manifest everywhere. Early in the 20th century drama in P came to the front. I C Nanda and Gurbaksh Singh came forward with a number of plays of which the former’s Subhadra and the latter’s Purab te Pacham are social plays with criticism of modern ways.

Nanak Singh is the most popular novelist and short story writer. His writings all have a great sympathy for the poor and the downtrodden. He has some 100 short stories to his credit. There were other writers too.

The above article covering the developments in P language for nearly thousand years shows the origin of P language from Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhramsa – the impact of various movements, invasions, forces on a people full of life and vigor. While Guru Nanak and Sufis like Baba Farid enriched this literature with their lyrical outbursts delineating their spiritual and mystic experiences, the romantic ballads of Damodara and Waris Shah depicted the secular aspects of life.

At the end of this article I have got to know about the developments in language and literature of my mother tongue P that unfortunately the convent educated me cannot speak the language.

Also read in languages section
1.    History of Urdu.
2.    History of Hindi.

Receive Site Updates