On culture and language

By K.N. Pandit

A year and a half ago I wrote a piece on what I wished our community ought to be in times to come. My ideas appeared outlandish to many community members. I received many brickbats, not unexpectedly.

However, there were some well- meaning friends who thought that my ideas needed to be considered with seriousness. I would like to reflect on one or two aspects once again in the hope that it helps community members in making some realistic introspection.

Much is said about Kashmiri Hindu culture. In most of community meetings allusion is made to our past heritage, rich cultural manifestations, specific life style, language etc. Often running commentaries on these subjects are made generally by those who have had not the opportunity of either studying any authentic book of Kashmir history and civilization or having interacted with academia in all seriousness on the subject. 

Culture, as we know, is a comprehensive subject, and great societies have inherited great cultural heritage. Language is the most important vehicle of culture because it is through language that cultural fund is transmitted from generation to generation. Therefore culture and language go together hand in hand.

In a sense, Kashmir culture has not been a continuous process essentially owing to great cataclysmic times through which it has gone. Two centuries prior to the downfall of Hindu kingdom of Kashmir, viz. mid 12th century, the cultural heritage of Hindu Kashmir met with its decline, which could not be arrested until modern times. The main reason was the rise of great Mongol warlords of Central Asia whose vast conquests and subjugation of the then Eastern world cut off our traditional routes of trade and commerce with the regions north of Kashmir.

It should be reminded that King Lalitadittya in 9th century A.D.  had led an expedition right up to present Zarafshan Valley in Uzbekistan and established his sway over those parts of the Steppes.  The main purpose of his expeditions was to secure the trade routes including the arteries of the famous Silk Route from the rapacity of highway brigands.  Six centuries later, forays into northern regions or Central Asia were repeated by Sultan Shihab’ud-Din, precisely for the same purpose but with much less achievements.

Closure of trade routes and sizable reduction in the quantum of trade, especially of saffron, that flowed along the Silk Route resulted in the disaster which King Harsha tried to stem by pulling down gold and silver statues from the temples in Kashmir and melting them to refurbish the starved state exchequer and rejuvenate Kashmir’s sagging economy.

Fractured trade and commerce had very adverse impact on culture and life of Hindu Kashmir. The impact lingered for centuries and, unfortunately shaped the negative traits in the character of the people.

Therefore when we speak of Hindu culture of Kashmir, we should know that the first big break in the continuity of that culture happened around two centuries prior to the advent of the Muslims. Reverberations of this change and its forebodings are heard in Book VII and VIII of Rajatarangini. Any serious student of history will find that tone and tenor of Kalhana in these two concluding Books is different from what we find in his earlier recordings. He laments the demise of culture.

The advent of Islam from Iran and Central Asia, and mass conversions to Islamic faith during the 14th and 15 century further emaciated the once established culture of Kashmiri Hindu society. Temples and shrines were the centres of disseminating cultural fund. With their destruction, the Hindu society lost its cultural centrality.

Much more damaging onslaught was on the language. Hitherto Sanskrit had been the written and spoken language, which came to be replaced by Farsi when Muslim rule was stabilized. And Farsi was not of indigenous origination; it was a foreign language thrust upon the people by those who ruled over the state.  However the simplicity of the grammar of Farsi and essentially its humane and harmonizing temperament endeared it to Kashmiri literati of both converted and non-converted segments.

Decline and downfall of Sanskrit language as the language of culture, deprived the remnants of Hindu community of their links to their cultural heritage. Its space among the plebians shrank immensely because the people who would support and sustain it shrank numerically. In this scenario, two things happened. One Sanskrit language remained confined mostly to the practising priestly class among the left-over Hindus, and secondly the written fund remained confined mostly to liturgical expositions. Secular Sanskrit literature in Kashmir in the period following the advent of Islam is almost next to nothing though some scholars are disposed to believe that there was a sizable fund produced during the said period but that met with the vagaries of human nature and is lost to us.

Kashmiri dialect which must have evolved about two centuries prior to the advent of Islam came into being owing to two factors. One was the complexity and rigour of Sanskrit syntax and the other was unavoidable interaction with various groups of outsiders pouring into the valley for trade, travel or expeditionary purposes.

Kashmiri dialect grew essentially as the medium of ordinary working men and women. It did not become the language of the elite either during the last phase of the Hindu rule or later on in Muslim period.  The remnants of Hindu scholars of higher learning and status stuck to Sanskrit whereas the Muslim elite found favour with Farsi (and later on Arabic).  Kashmiri remained a dialect of the masses devoid of formal recognition necessary to graduate it to the status of a language of literature and refinement.

Against this ground situation of Kashmiri dialect, Urdu developed much faster on Indian plains with which Kashmir had much to do in post-Hindu period. Kashmir had already fallen to the Mughals towards the closing years of the 16th century and the Kashmir Muslim elite had embraced Farsi as powerful instrument helping them to come closer to the higher echelons of Mughal administrative structure in Hindustan.  Notably some clever Pandits of that period egged on by a sense of reformation or adventure or oppression could make a mark in circles closer to royalty surely through their linguistic skills in Farsi.

Unable to absorb fresh phraseology and linguistic finesse either from Sanskrit or Farsi, Kashmiri dialect fell into long limbo. As against it, Urdu language developed by leaps and bounds not only because of court patronage but also because it liberally borrowed both from Farsi and the indigenous vernaculars that immensely widened its canvas.

The richness of a language lies in its prose writings. In the absence of patronage from the ruling class, in a scenario in which it was pitted against an overwhelmingly expansive language, meaning Urdu, Kashmiri dialect remained static and confined to the non-literati segment of Kashmirian society. Circumstances favouring its gradual development were not forthcoming because during the rule of the Sultans, Kashmir sank knee-deep into internal dissensions and mutual rivalries leaving no time for any of the rulers to pay attention to the embellishment of arts and culture. In that respect it is a sordid period of Kashmir history, and much of its earlier period was consigned to the destruction of the remains of ancient culture.

Ironically, with Jammu and Kashmir transforming into a non-monarchical system in late 1947, the populist regime adopted Urdu and not Kashmiri as the official language. It struck the last nail into the coffin of this dialect. Today the Muslim community of Kashmir at all levels feels much pride in communicating in Urdu rather than Kashmiri. The fact that Muslims of the sub-continent accepted Urdu as their cultural vehicle of ideas did not lose its impact on the mind of Kashmiri Muslim literati. In this way, Urdu outstripped Kashmiri in the valley and among the Muslim dominated areas in the State. They feel happy to be part of the linguistic fraternity of the sub-continent, and perhaps that is a healthy sign in the wider context of things.

I have traced in length the background and present position of Kashmiri dialect because when in the assemblies of Kashmiri Hindu community, I hear a loud noise from many sides about protecting and preserving Kashmiri dialect as manifestation of their cultural heritage, I wonder whether the eloquent speakers have any idea what they are talking about.

A word about culture is also called for. Culture is not a static entity; it changes with the changing times.  In linguistic terms our mythological fund which is the fountain of our cultural manifestations, is inaccessible to us because we have lost hold on Sanskrit language. Throwing this great and ancient language of India, the mother of many Indo-Aryan languages into disrepute and disuse is the greatest damage done to human civilization by the leaders of India to whose charge fell the shaping of her post-independence destiny.

Thus in cultural terms, our, meaning Kashmiri Hindu, religion remained confined to oral tradition which loses its shine with the passage of time. It remained what is called “kitchen religion”. From the days of advent of Islam in the middle of 14th century down to present day, we the Hindus of Kashmir did not have a single school of art, dance, music, song, drama, yoga, and devotion etc. — the vibrant manifestations of culture of a community —- in the valley. We lost originality for refurbishing our drying cultural fund. How pathetic that some of our talented people with creative potential had to remain content either with liturgical exercise (leela/bhajan) or make crude and insipid imitation of Urdu/Farsi versification. From 14th century onwards we in Kashmir compellingly had to move away from the mainstream Hindu civilization into a sort of a void, which we now naively call “distinct Kashmiri Hindu culture.” There is nothing of distinctiveness in it: it is rather a descent into virtual chaos.

It is time that our community thinkers revisit our cultural history and formulate new parameters of modern Kashmiri Hindu culture. We are a community of literate persons with access to world history through the medium of English language. We are fortunate in that respect. Let us imbibe frugally the waves and breezes of new world culture and dovetail it to our needs, taste and environs. The time has come that we throw off the unwanted baggage of cultural donkey-load and step into new world with space to give flourishing to our potential.

Now after our exodus, we remain linked to Kashmir and to our history only through nostalgic reminiscences. Can’t we carve out new path for ourselves? Can’t we lay foundation for a new culture and new ethos? We need to come out of our centuries old mindset just because we are in an entirely new and unprecedented situation. Let us adapt ourselves to this situation and look beyond our immediate present. We are a Diaspora; and Diasporas have made great civilizations.
(The writer is the former Director of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

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