What do we mean by "Pahari"?

“Pahari/Pahar”; Background Facts

Aside from conventions in transliterating the word into English-Roman script which is not based on any agreed standard, the term Pahari is actually pronounced Pári by speakers of the Pahari language. There are variations in how the word is pronounced mainly on account of diglossia or more correctly triglossia; these terms apply to linguistic environments where two or more languages are used but for different purposes by the same speakers. Whether as separate languages or dialects of the same language, they are perceived to have ‘high’ and ‘low’ varieties and so the ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ reserved for official uses and formal communication is usually perceived as more prestigious. The every-day language of informal communication or what is considered the ‘low’ variety (as is the case with Pahari) assumes non-formal airs and almost always is placed at a disadvantage, not being afforded the same patronage and cultivation that is ordinarily reserved for the ‘high’ variety.

In the Pahari-cultural-sphere as would be expected Paharis are generally accustomed to being multilingual by virtue of the fact that their ‘mother tongue’ is not the language of official communication, education and media, although in the case of the latter this is now gradually changing in British Pahari-Mirpuri circles. This reality is not unique to Paharis and applies to societies where diglossia is the norm. In the Pahari-cultural-sphere, this norm has obtained for many generations and in previous centuries if not for a millennium, the lingua franca (a common language adopted by speakers of different languages to communicate with one another) was Persian.

Aside from the fact that diglossia has crippled the chances of Pahari being cultivated for writing in both modern and pre-modern times with the one notable exception of Gandharan 'Prakrit', the ancestral predecessor of 'Pahari', crucially for us today, it has affected how certain common words are now being pronounced. (There have been sporadic attempts to develop a standard script by Pahari speakers but these generally have had limited impact on changing the fortunes of the language).

Today’s lingua franca in the Pahari-cultural-sphere is Urdu (Urdu originated from North India around the environs of the ruling Mughal class in Old Delhi) and so words common to Pahari and Urdu (cognates) are often time pronounced with Urdu pronunciation. And so whenever members of the Pahari community seek to transliterate Pahari words into a modified Perso-Arabic script ('nastaliq') for the purposes of writing their own indigenous language they usually adopt the Urdu conventions of spelling which distort the pronunciation of the original Pahari words. Without an established and agreed standard script, this is difficult to avoid and so our readers should nonetheless be aware of such conventions.  

So what does the word Pahari mean?

The word ‘Pahari’ is connected with the word ‘Pahar’, which of the two is a derivation of the other is not clear and can be difficult to ascertain for all sorts of reasons not worth discussing here. That said the word ‘Pahari’ is categorised as an adjective and literally translates to ‘being of, or belonging to the hills and mountains; hilly, mountainous.’ No subtle distinctions are made in the nuances ‘hilly’ or ‘mountainous’ perhaps on account of the fact that the upland terrain of the Pahari-cultural-sphere is remarkably uniform and stands in stark contrast with the lowland plains of neighbouring regions most notably the Punjab Plains. For obvious reasons, the word also implies an inhabitant of the ‘upland, hilly or mountainous region’, as in ‘hillman’, ‘mountaineer’, ‘uplander’.

The word ‘Pahar’ on the other hand is categorised as singular masculine and translates to ‘mountain, hill’ or any environment that is ‘mountain-like, hill-like, rocky, steep or undulating’ in the sense of an ‘undulating countryside’.

Linguistic derivations from the root-word that ‘Pahar’ originates also include the words pára, (adj., 'heavy')pár (n., load', 'weight), and phárrna (vb.,‘to rip, to tear to pieces’). To metaphorically contextualise these derivations within the context of the Pahari-landscape and the Pahari people, they capture wonderfully extra-territorial but popular nuances that cohere in the related words. The Pahar region is thenceforth seen as an ecology that is ‘hard, rugged, broken, uneven country' that produces 'rugged, strong people’ especially in the sense of a community of uplanders possessing strong physical constitutions. 

Understandably, these extra-territorial nuances can produce both positive and negative connotations and do often lead to stereotypical and crude representations.

Turning to the etymology of the words ‘Pahar’/‘Pahari’, we learn that they are of Indo-Aryan origin with cognates (words that originate from the same linguistic source) in other related languages including Punjabi (MSP), Dogri (akin to Pahari in debates about its exact status; language or dialect of 'Modern Standard Punjabi') and Nepali to name a few. In classical Sanskrit, an ancient literary language that evolved within the North West region of the subcontinent and which is closely connected and contemporaneous with the linguistic forerunner to Pahari, (Gandharan 'Prakrit' or Middle Indo-Aryan, 600 BCE - 1000 CE), we learn of the cognates ‘párvata’, ‘being in or growing on or coming from or consisting of mountains; mountainous, hilly’; ‘párvatika’, ‘a multitude of mountains, mountain-range’; ‘párvatíya’, ‘living or dwelling in the mountains; mountainous; a mountaineer’; and ‘Párvatí’, ‘a mountain stream’, ‘a kind of fragrant earth’; personal name of the God ‘Shiva’s’ wife (as daughter of Hima-vat, the personification of the Himalayas, King of the snowy mountains).

It should not come as a surprise to then learn that these meanings underpin usages in a host of languages that have all descended from Indo-Aryan, the parent language of all north Indian languages. The cultural ecology of these languages include vast upland terrains, hilly and mountainous areas that stretch for vast distances right through the North West regions of the subcontinent to its North East regions. This long belt of terrain (that includes the Siwalik Hill Regions) is conterminous with the foothills of the great mountain complex of the Himalayas.

And so in popular usage, the term Pahari can and has been used by any number of unrelated Indo-Aryan peoples more often in a colloquial fashion to describe the ‘ecology, culture and language’ of communities living on hills or mountains. Some of these unrelated ethnic groups have also used the term as a self-ascription although its usage can vary greatly in application from the vantage of those using it to describe others from within their own cultural-spheres. In other words, whether “X” are Paharis from the vantage of “Y”, “Y” may feel that “Z” are actually more Pahari than themselves, creating a highly malleable and fluid situation where the term is passed around with no definitively ascribed communities. 

Historically, these communities self-ascribed on the basis of their tribal (caste/clan based) identities, a norm that was quite common throughout the world prior to the advent of nation states post 1800 CE. Regional designations did exist and people were identified on the basis of the regions they hailed from, whether as independent polities or polities controlled by an Empire located elsewhere. However throughout these periods in history, these regional designations did not form the basis of identities we take for granted today especially ‘nation state’ or ‘nationalistic’ identities.

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