British-Paharis and Understanding Our Background; “Azad” Kashmir

Understanding the language of British-Paharis, the Pahari cultural sphere


Background Facts

Aside from conventions in transliterating Indo-Aryan words into English-Roman script which is not based on any agreed standard, the term Pahári is pronounced Pári by speakers of the Pahari language. I am concerned here with a particular dialect of a wider dialect-continuum that is spoken in Jammu & Kashmir and neighbouring areas.

Variations in how words are pronounced and spelt is on account of diglossia or more correctly triglossia. We use these technical terms to describe linguistic environments where two or more dialects are used by the same speakers but for different purposes. Whether as separate languages or dialects of the same language, people accord them different statuses.

How linguists determine the exact status of dialects and language is a separate discussion.

The ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ reserved for official uses and formal communication in a territory is usually perceived as ‘prestigious’, what we would call the ‘high’ variety. The every-day language of informal communication would be considered the ‘low’ variety. This is how ‘Pahari’ is perceived by locals and outsiders speaking the high variety within the Pahari-cultural-sphere in ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir and neighbouring areas. Low varieties where ever they are spoken in the world assume non-formal airs and are placed at a significant disadvantage. They are not afforded the same patronage and cultivation that is ordinarily reserved for the ‘high’ variety.

This does not mean that the ‘low variety’ is a ‘lessor-language’ and should be subjected to derision, not least on account of those who natively speak it. All languages whether they have written scripts or extensive literatures perform the same function to facilitate communication between people. How a language accrues its ‘low’ or ‘high’ variety status is on account of a complex history connected with power-dynamics which I hope to discuss in other posts. It has absolutely nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of a language. People who think like this arguing that certain languages or dialects are better than others are incredibly ignorant of linguistic realities. Their language prejudices tell us a lot about them as opposed to the people they ‘stigmatise’.

Dialects and Patronage; changing fortunes

In the Pahari-cultural-sphere, Paharis are generally accustomed to being multilingual on account of their ‘mother tongue’ not being the language of official communication, education and media. This is now changing, albeit gradually, as British Paharis mostly from the old Mirpur Division of Jammu & Kashmir State are showing a strong inclination to celebrate their ancestral language.

All languages are dialects by definition. Why some dialects receive patronage, whilst others are left at the wayside is not unique to Paharis. Diglossia is an almost universal norm. In the Pahari-cultural-sphere, this norm has obtained for many generations. In previous centuries if not for almost a thousand years, the lingua franca (a common language adopted by speakers of different languages to communicate with one another) was Persian. Persian has greatly influenced the morphology, syntax and the everyday vocabulary of Pahari. Similarly, many Indic or Indo-Aryan languages spoken on the Indo-Gangetic Plains of India have been influenced by Persian on account of this history.

But, aside from the fact that diglossia has crippled the chances of Pahari being cultivated for writing in both modern and pre-modern times, this does not mean that the predecessor to Pahari was afforded the same fortune. Old Pahari, without making allusions to developmental or periodic stages, as spoken in ‘Gandhara’ in an area conterminous with the Pahari-cultural-sphere was cultivated and used for writing.

In ancient times, Gandhara (1200 BCE – 800 CE) was an affluent region that benefited immeasurably from its frontier location between India and Central and West Asia. The language of the ordinary natives was written down for commercial reasons; traders wanted to record their transactions and commercial agreements with their ‘international’ partners. As time progressed, the language was transported across huge distances as the silk road opened up new opportunities. Buddhist monks travelled the same paths to proselytise their religion, as the locals from these areas returned to Gandhara to learn their new faith. Old Pahari was also also used in the ancient universities of Neelum and Taxila.

We think of this language, the forerunner to modern-day Pahari as a ‘Prakrit’ which simply means the ordinary, or non-polished language of the locals as distinct from ‘Sanskrit’, the polished language used by Brahman priests. This is not to say that the ancient Pahari ‘Prakrit’ was not refined or cultivated for writing purposes or the production of highbrow literature, but merely to distinguish it from the sacred language of the Vedic Canon. The forbears to our modern-day Paharis were in fact mostly Buddhists and not Hindus as many wrongly imagine, and this state of affairs obtained for more than a thousand years until the advent of Islam around the turn of 11th century CE. The Buddhists of this region did not share the anxieties or prejudices of their Brahman counterparts on the India-Gangetic Plains and were more egalitarian in how they interacted with their own native population. In many ways, they were a lot more socially enlightened than their Brahman counterparts in North India when we appraise modern values of human rights.

The fortunes of modern-day Pahari have massively waned from the success of its earlier predecessor. There have, however, 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.

The Portmir Foundation, with the assistance of professional linguists, will be developing a Latin based script to ensure that the language can be cultivated for writing and enjoyed by a younger British-Pahari audience who can speak the language but not read it.

No attempts have been made by either the Pakistan government or the government of ‘Azad’ Kashmir to preserve the language. In the Pothohar Uplands, where the related ‘Patwari’ dialect is spoken, studies have shown that this native dialect is ‘endangered’ and will eventually become extinct within a couple of generations. Many Patwaris are consciously adopting ‘Urdu’ and in many ways are ashamed to speak it, contributing their own death-blows to the language of their forbears.

Fortunately for the language, the Pahari dialect spoken across the border in ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir, mostly in areas around Mirpur is thriving and language activists here are cultivating it by writing stories, poems, dramas and using it in their media productions. These activists do not suffer from the same anxieties on show in the Pothohar Uplands with whom they are increasingly becoming distant and separated.

The Pahari-cultural-sphere & Pakistan’s Urdu Policy

Today’s lingua franca in the ‘Pahari-cultural-sphere’ is Urdu. This language has become a cancer for the native languages of Pakistan not least because it is connected with an hegemony that is gradually destroying the original character of Pakistan’s indigenous cultures. When we criticise this state of affairs, we are not criticising the Hindi-Urdu language, a beautiful language in its own right, but the policies of unenlightened people who create artificial fault lines between diverse ethnic peoples to further their own priorities and entrench their own social anxieties. These individuals demand that everyone speak Urdu and the not the language of their parents and grandparents thereby unfairly stigmatising languages and linguistic communities that have been native to modern-day Pakistan.

The word ‘Urdu’ is of Turkish origin and is derived from the ‘Indic’ phrase ‘Zuban-e-Urdu-Mu’alla‘ (the language of the military camp). Reference to the phrase can be found in Muslim texts from around the middle of the 12th century CE. Other phrases were used to describe the language, but over time, they were dropped and the ‘Urdu’ word became a metonym for a dialect that was being cultivated for writing and locally-produced literature around the turn of the 1700s. ‘Urdu’s’ emerging literature cannot be dated earlier. The locals who spoke this language referred to it as Hindi or variations of this term (Hindvi, Hindustani etc), but as colonial linguists went about their business writing ‘Urdu’s’ grammar and trying to locate the language in some distant past, new attitudes around it formed.

In essence Urdu is ‘Hindi’, an Indian language with a huge smattering of Persian/Arabic words and linguists prefer to describe the language as Hindi-Urdu as opposed to Urdu or Hindi. Its roots are in North India, around the area of Delhi, but it was also cultivated in Lucknow and on the Deccan Plateau. It was not the language of the Mughals who were very keen to speak Persian, the official language of their court and numerous ‘Indian’ regional courts, but the language of ordinary and well-to-do North ‘Indians’.

Erroneously, many Pakistanis, or those with highfalutin attitudes of their own importance wrongly imagine the language to have Mughal connections which it clearly lacks. They are making allusions to a past that they are imagining, not least because they think Pakistan is the successor State to India’s Muslim past. If that was indeed the case, they would be speaking Persian without having the need to also speak English, the colonial language, as proof of their social class.

In fact the only reason why Urdu assumed an ‘official’ position outside local patronage was because the British promoted the language to statecraft. In a bid to demote ‘Persian’, now deemed the language of India’s ‘foreign’ Muslims, colonial officers wanted to adopt a ‘native’ Indian language which would be used in official capacities by ‘native’ Indians. This policy was then adopted by a number of British Indian Provinces and Princely States.

For those adopting Hindi-Urdu as distinct from Bengali or Sindhi even in areas that had no connections with the dialect, a number of cleavages emerged as Muslims were keen to use the language with a Persian-derived-Arabic script whilst Hindus insisted on using a ‘native’ ‘Indian’ script. The language was then fought over as a symbol of contested identities. Gradually, self-affirming Hindus for their part expunged the old Hindi language of its original Persian-Arabic vocabulary replacing ‘Persian’ with ‘Sanskrit’ derived words in a bid to make the language more ‘authentic’. Self-affirming Muslims did the complete opposite, relying almost entirely on Persian-Arabic words for the language’s higher lexicon in a bid to make the language sound more ‘Muslim’. Eventually, the evolving varieties of Hindi and Urdu were artificially ‘engineered’, a stark contrast to how the earlier but shared dialect naturally evolved. Today as speakers of these two distinct lexicons speak their respective dialects, mutual-intelligibility becomes greatly hampered.

Once Pakistan came into existence, and Urdu was legislated as the official language new fault-lines emerged. The attitudes of Urdu speakers did not help, as they began to denigrate speakers of other languages, languages and dialects that were native to the lands of East and West Pakistan. They looked down at the Bengalis and exploited them. They argued that the Bengali language and its use of its ‘Indian’ script was not sufficiently Muslim in character. They demanded that the Bengalis use ‘Urdu’ and not their native tongue, an indigenous language that was much older than ‘Urdu’ with a more extensive literature. It was from this cleavage, that the Bengali independence movement finds its first seeds, not as an independent movement but a movement to protect the ‘Bengali’ language.

Astute social commentators in Pakistan have observed the fault-lines caused by the State’s ridiculous language policy and the attitudes it creates. They have even observed the hypocrisy of an ‘elite’ that insists that every Pakistani learn Urdu whilst they educate their children in English. They argue that this policy will stop the country from imploding given its huge ethnic diversity. The irony of this position couldn’t be more poetic, not least because, it is this ‘social class’ that benefits directly from denying the indigenous ethnic groups of Pakistan the right to preserve and enjoy their culture whilst personally availing themselves of opportunities by ’employing’ their native tongue in official capacities. The Urdu-language policy disconnects local people from state patronage. It guarantees a small class of Urdu speakers government jobs all the while they maintain their grip on the country as privileged ‘English’ speakers too conducting the affairs of the country in English, a reality denied to the majority of the population who are encouraged to learn ‘Urdu’ to get ahead in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s education system is two-tiered, one designed for the elite where the language of instruction is English, and the other, designed for the masses, where the language of instruction is ‘Urdu’. The elites pay for private education, rely on the old schools set up by the old colonial administrators, and oftentimes send their children abroad. The poor have to rely on government schools, and if you understand how tiny budgets are allocated between Pakistan’s ministries to cater for nearly 200 million people, you’d realise that the poor have got the short end of the stick.

In their minds, to get ahead in Pakistan, ordinary Pakistanis think they must deny their ethnic heritage whilst adopting ‘Urdu’, a language that has no native constituency in any of the indigenous lands of Pakistan. They then confuse Urdu with an even older Islamic heritage.

Lessons to be learnt

As British-Paharis we should have no qualms with speaking Urdu. It is a beautiful language that should be accorded respect as we accord respect to all languages. We do not make fun of other people’s languages for we are not ignorant bigots. But Urdu is not our native tongue, English is, as we live and work in Britain and even think in English. According to linguists if you think in a particular language then that is your ‘mother tongue’. Pahari is our ancestral language and we must protect and preserve it as it connects us with our past, the cultural past of our grandparents and their forebears.

So what does the word ‘Pahari’ mean?

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.

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.’ The English distinction between hills and mountains has no equivalence in India-Aryan languages, and this also applies to the ‘Pahari’ language.

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’), ‘phárrna’ (vb.,‘to rip, to tear to pieces’), ‘pár’ (adv., ‘over there’, ‘on the opposite side’). The undulating nature of the terrain has clearly impacted these derivations.

To contextualise these derivations metaphorically and within the context of the Pahari-landscape, 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 and do produce both positive and negative connotations and oftentimes lead to stereotypical representations. For instance, Pahari women are considered attractive because of their fair complexions whilst the men are seen as being rude and vulgar. The population is considered ‘simpleton’. These are crude stereotypes for the population is varied and diverse, and should not be viewed through the anxieties of others.

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.

Previous articleThe History of Mirpur as told by Mirpuris and not Wikipedia
Next articleBad diets and lousy lifestyles

Editor at Portmir Foundation; liberal by values, opposed to tribalism in all its guises; love languages and cultures – want to study as many as I can; proficient in some; opposed to social and political injustice wherever it rears its ugly head even from within my own British-Pahari community (a little unsure about the juxtaposition. The term ‘Pahari’ can mean different things to different people – stay posted. Grandparents from the Himalayan mountains of Jammu, presently split between India and Pakistan – get the impression no one cares about the people stuck between the LOC – currently researching the ‘Pahari-cultural-heritage’ outside political and territorial paradigms and the narratives of the political ‘mainstream’. Ultimately, hoping to create a space for members of the British-Pahari community to discover their own wonderful heritage. I believe – ‘life’ is a wok in progress so nothing is fixed even our thoughts! If you’re from the region, feel free to contact me – always prepared to widen my intellectual horizons and stand corrected – don’t insult me though. Be grown up and tell me why you think I’m wrong. If you make sense, I’ll change my views.

My opinions are not necessarily those of the Portmir Foundation; the Foundation does not do censorship; if you disagree with any us, and you’re from our background, write your own opinion piece and we’ll publish it. You can contact us at


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

20 − 19 =