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Koshur: the Kashmiri language in its past and present

By Geeta Vaishnavi

Language is the essence of humanity. Languages, as complex ways of interaction, distinguish human beings from other life forms. It is as great a part of our identity as religion or family is perceived to be. Each language is an inextricable part of the culture of the group(s) of people who speak it. The Kashmiri language, locally known as Koshur or Kashur, is a nearly universally spoken vernacular language in the valley of Kashmir, cutting across barriers of religion, class and gender. It has also been a language largely neglected by the socio-political establishment throughout the Vale’s long history. Emerging from obscurity in early centuries CE, Kashmiri has mostly remained a spoken language for centuries before taking the world of literature by storm. After centuries of neglect, it finally seems that the Kashmiri language is receiving the respect it deserves. The origins of Kashmiri are murky at best. Given the lack of documentary evidence in language history, it is generally difficult to trace the origin of any language in exact terms. This exercise is especially difficult regarding the origin of Kashmiri in the multilingual landscape of Kashmir.

The academic research regarding the origin of the Kashmiri language is fraught with debate and even today there is no consensus about the same. Initially, it was believed that like many other vernacular languages, Kashmiri was of Sanskritic origin. This notion was challenged somewhat by the German scholar Ernst Kuhn who claimed that Kashmiri and some other languages in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent could be placed under a separate category within the Indo-European language family. George Grierson, the Irish scholar-administrator who conducted pathbreaking research in the languages of British India and beyond, was the first to claim that Kashmiri belonged to the Dardic group of languages within the Indo-Aryan language family and hence could be considered as a ‘sister’ and not a ‘daughter’ of Sanskrit. The language, according to him, had emerged first in Dardistan (the region between north-west Punjab and the Pamir). Some other languages classified as belonging to the Dardic group are Shina, Kafiri, Kishtwari and Kohistani. N. L. Chatta also opines that Kashmiri has a Paschachi (Dardic) base. The 1911 Census pointed out that while local opinion classified Kashmiri as a language which had emerged from Sanskrit, a revised system of classification grouped the language with Shina-Kohwari. A number of scholars claim that Kashmiri, while being under the purview of the Indo-Aryan language family, does not identify with the Dardic group of languages. Still others claim that Kashmiri actually emerged from Saryani and Abrani, the languages spoken by the Jewish people when they reportedly arrived in Kashmir around 2000 years ago.

Kashmir has historically been a multi-lingual society, a fact that has had a cardinal influence in the development of the Kashmiri language. Grierson rightly suggested that Sanskrit has had a tremendous influence on Kashmiri. From the 14 th century onwards, Arabic and Persian deeply influenced the development of Kashmiri. As the modern age dawned and progressed, Urdu and English influenced the language. This influence has led to several phonetic and morphological changes in the Kashmiri language. Despite these varied influences or perhaps because of them, Kashmiri possesses a range of vowel sounds unique to it. It has a complex vowel system comprised of vowels, semi-vowels and shades of vowels, Kashmiri has a unique grammar as well which, unlike the neighboring Indic languages, follows a Subject Verb Object word order. It has two oblique cases, one nominative case and one genitive case. Subtlevariations can be seen in Kashmiri based on the identity of the speaker. While those from the Muslim community in general are seen borrowing more words from Periso-Arabic, there are differences between the Kashmiri spoken by the urban and the rural population as well. Like most languages inhabiting a multi-lingual and multi-scriptural environment, Kashmiri has been rendered in the written form through multiple scripts, even though the language has been used chiefly as a spoken language throughout most of its history. The earliest script that has been used to write Kashmiri is Sharada. Developing from a western branch of the Brahmi script, Sharada most probably originated in Kashmir but was used in a wider area covering Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and parts of Central Asia. The earliest evidence of the Sharada script found on a stone slab at the village of Hund in Attock in Pakistan was dated to around 774 CE. According to Pandit Anand Koul Bamzai, the script was first used to write Sanskrit and thereafter used to write down Kashmiri. The use of the Sharada script is said to have reached its zenith around 15 th -16 th centuries CE and an inscription in this script has even been dated to as late as 1789 CE. By this time, however, the use of the Sharada script had largely been forgotten. Since the 14 th century CE, the arrival of Central Asian-origin political regimes in Kashmir brought with it the use of Persian and Arabic as official languages and, with them, the Periso- Arabic script, also known as Nastaliq. Nastaliq was later used to write the Kashmiri language and is being used this way up to the present day. The Kashmiri language written in the Nastaliq script has gained official recognition from the government as well. Since 1959 CE, a team of enthusiastic scholars led by Chief Editor S. K. Toshakhani worked hard to produce a Kashmiri dictionary and a Urdu-Kashmiri dictionary In the Nastaliq script and ended up successfully standardizing the script for the Kashmiri language for the first time. A similar effort has been made in recent history by a team of scholars led by Dr. Roop K. Bhat who standardized the writing of Kashmiri through the Devanagari script by establishing a series of six diacritical marks in 2002 CE. This system is et to be recognized by the government. The use of the Devanagari script to write the Kashmiri language has also been popular among the Kashmiri Hindus (mostly Pandits) for quite some time. Kashmiri, as Grierson pointed out in 1919 CE, is the only Dardic language with its own literature. A comprehensive account of the history of Kashmiri literature is well beyond the scope of this article. A brief introduction to some of the significant works in Kashmiri has been provided here. The first recorded use of Kashmiri in a literary text is found in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, where reportedly a three-word phrase was in Kashmiri. There is a disagreement among the sources as to whether the first work on Kashmiri was composed by Lal Ded or Sitikantha Acharya (Mahanay Prakash), but it is generally agreed upon that the first truly great poet in Kashmiri was Lal Ded or Lalleshwari. Her ‘vaakh’ poetry appealed to people from all walks of life. Some early literary works in Kashmiri were the shrukhs of Sheikh Nuruddin and Sukhadukhacharitam by Ganaka Prashasta. Banasuravadha which was written in the earliest phase of Kashmiri literature is the first recorded Kashmiri epic poem. Bhatta Avatara, Utthasoma and Yodhabhatta were three poets who wrote in Kashmiri and adorned the court of Zainul Abidin. Bhatta Avatara’s Jainavilasa, Utthasoma’s Manaka and Yodhabhatta’s Jainacharita and Jainaprakasha were significant works of 15 th century CE. Love poetry witnessed significant developments in the Kashmiri language in the 16 th century CE. Apart from the mystical poems of Rupa Bhawani and Habibullah Navashohri, Hubba Khatton’s new genre of love poetry called lol poetry was universally popular. Lila poetry also flourished in the Kashmiri language. One of the greatest poets in this genre was Paramanand. Sahib Kaul, a contemporary of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, is remembered for his poems Krishnaavatara and Janamcharita. Prakasarama composed the Ramavataracharita and Lavakusacharita. Persian literature also had a great influence on Kashmiri literature in the mid-19 th century and two of the greatest poets during this period were Waliullah Motoo and Mahmud Gani. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, there was a proliferation in the writing of ghazals, masnavis and geets. The emergence of colonial rule in the rest of India brought with it the influx of modern ideas which greatly influenced Kashmiri literature. One of the greatest nationalist Kashmiri poets of the age was Pirzada Ghulam Ahmad Manjur (1885-1952). The use of Kashmiri for composing prose has been rare. One of the few attempts began only in the twentieth century and the only significant Kashmiri prose literature so far has been mostly translation work.

One of the few drawbacks of living in a multi-lingual society is experiencing a struggle for power between different languages, rather, those who prefer using certain languages for the purposes of bureaucracy and education. Kashmiri has historically been ignored as a potential language of administration, those in power preferring the use of Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, Dogri and English in different ages. Even in post-colonial times, it took a long time for Kashmiri to get the respect that is long overdue. Immediately after independence, the new government of Jammu and Kashmir began the instruction of Kashmiri language in the primary level of education, but this was scrapped suddenly in 1953 CE in the name of taking the load off of students. Half a century later, in 2008, Kashmiri was made a compulsory language up to the secondary level. Finally in 2020, Kashmiri was added to the list of the official languages of J&K by an Act of Parliament and placed in Schedule VIII.

The Kashmiri language has had a long and arduous journey through history, much like the valley that it calls its home. Neglected by the social elite, it has nevertheless been the language of the masses for over a millennium. It has changed forms numerous times, sometimes imperceptibly, through various linguistic influences from without. Various scripts have been used to give the language a written from and debates regarding which script to use are still fresh in the public discourse. It is, however, quite undeniable that Kashmiri is the soul of Kashmir.

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