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Punjab - People of India

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Item Code: NAR137
Author: K. S. Singh
Publisher: Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata
Language: English
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 9788173041235
Pages: 532 (12 B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 10.00 X 7.00 inch
Weight 1 kg
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Book Description
About the Books

The Anthropological Suvey of India launched the People of India project (POI) on 2 October 1985 to generate and anthropological profile of all communities of India, the impact on them of change and development process and the links that bring them together.

As part of this all-India project the ethnographic survey of all communities of present day Punjab (95) was taken up in collaboration with local scholars. The results of the survey were discussed at the workshops held at Dehradun in November 1985 and October 1987 and at Patiala in August 1989.

The land of the five rivers was known as panchanad in the ancient period, and as Punjab in the medieval period.

Punjabiyat is a recent concept, but the regional identity denoted by it has long been shaped by language, territory, literary and folk traditions, classical and folk art forms including the vigorous bhangra, cuisine, dress including headgear and so on. Punjab has witnessed far reaching ethnographic accounts were written. Partition entailed immigration of populations of the Hindus and Sikhs. The reorganization of the Punjabi Suba led to the rise of the Sikhs as the dominant community. Of the ninety-five communities studies under the People of India project in Punjab the Sheduled Castes form a major chunk. The state is divided into three distinct eco-cultural zones, defined by the dialects of Punjabi language. While Punjabi is the most widely spoken language, followed by Hindi, sixteen other languages are also spoken by local communities and immigrants, all belonging to the Indo-Aryan family.

The ethnographic traits that stand out in Punjab include inter alia, heterogeneity, ethnic consolidation, village exogamy, fraternal polyandry, marriages by negotiation and exchange and by consent, clan endogamy, parallel and cross-cousin marriages and persistence of extended family along side nuclear family sororate and levirate, widow remarriage and divorce.

Punjab has been in the forefront of the green and white revolutions with the highest per capita income and lowest poverty levels. Punjab has reported lower infant morality and higher female literacy. Amidst reports of gender violence, the status of women generally perceived as low has improved particularly among middle classes. However, widespread practice of foeticide highlighted by the census of 2001, is a cause for concern.

About the Author

K.S. Singh is former Director General, Anthropological Suvey of India.


The land of the five rivers, Punjab, known as panchanad in the ancient Sanskrit texts derives its identity from the Persian compound comprising the words panj (five) and cab (water), watered by the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Satluj rivers. Of these rivers only the last three now flow in India's Punjab. Yet our informants insist that the Indian Punjab is still a land of the five rivers as they add Ghaggar and another river Baiene it could be any other to the three rivers. The eco-cultural zones in of Punjab are known as Malwa, Majha and Doaba. Malwa consists of the four districts, namely, Ludhiana, Patiala, Sangrur and Ropar which are situated between the rivers Satluj and Ghaggar; Majha of the districts of Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Ferozepur, Faridkot and Bhatinda, while the Doaba covers the districts of Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar and Kapurthala lying between the rivers Beas and Satluj. The dialects of Punjabi language define regional identities, Malwa is defined by Malwai, Majha by Majhia and Doaba by Doabi. Historically the people of Malwa, Majha and Doaba, were isolated as there were no bridges on the rivers. There is high concentration of Ramdasia Sikhs in Malwa, Ad-Dharmis in Doaba and Majhabi Sikhs in Majha. There are also stereotypes about the people in general and about the people of each region. Malwa is looked down upon Majha, and both are looked down upon Doaba. All this has changed and is changing. While the Jats are spread through all regions, the Khatris were traditionally concentrated in Amritsar of Majha and other towns. Malwa is considered the most important of the regions, followed by Majha and Doaba. The last is known for the migrants it has sent out to different countries.


The prehistory of Punjab is still to be reconstructed. The Siwalik hills have emerged as one of the theatres of human evolution in the sub-continent, with the discovery of the fossil of a hominoid. The Indo-Aryan languages like Sanskrit interacted with non-Indo-Aryan lanugage families, and there are Mundari words in Punjabi like kuri (girl), munda (boy), etc. The Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in Punjab hills. A DNA based study will help in establishing the pattern of the peopling of Punjab.

As a frontier region of India, Punjab has faced invading hordes and absorbed peoples coming from Western and Central Asia such as the Indo-Scythian, etc. A Central and Western Asian connection is seen in the bio-anthropological profile of the state. The historians trace the surnames of many communities to the Central Asian natal groups and to the ancient territories. The surnames, boon, sur, sobthi, are originally Central Asian but are now integrated with the ethnic mozaic of Punjab. The bahal derive their origin from the ancient territory of Punjab, known as vahilik.

The Jats are among the ancient people in Punjab. They are referred to as Jety by Pliny and Ptolemy. We studied a pastoral community called Jat Muslim in Gujarat which provides a link of the Jat with the pastoral past. The transformation of the Jats from a pastoral people into peasants is one of the most fascinating stories waiting to be reconstructed. As Jats settled down as peasants, they set up a most elaborate system of relationship based on family, kinship, and a set of patriarchal norms. Wherever they acquired political power, they founded states. They chafed at their status as Shudras in the Brahmanical order inspite of their control over land and their dominance. It is estimated that one third of the Jats became Muslims, one third became Sikhs and one third remained Hindus some of whom entered the fold of Arya Samaj.

In the medieval period, following repeated invasions there was conflict and violence. Bulhe Shah (1680-1758) in his well known composition describes the condition of Punjab as topsy turvy.

`Other adverse times have come. The crows have beaten the hawks and falcons have been eaten by sparrows. The horses are being whipped and the asses are being fed on green wheat plants. Who can change the orders of the highest authority?' Says Bulhe.

`The Mughals have drunk the cups of poison. The jats with blankets have been made the kings. All the gentle persons walk silently, and they have been slighted by you. 0 love, you may stay away, you have put me to grief. Tell me whom you have ferried across?' (cited in Ko pp. 28-9)

Bulhe further speaks of hatred and fear between Hindus and Muslims. A translation 'slightly' modified says The Muslim fears the flame, and the Hindu the tomb, Both die in this fear, such is the hatred between them' (Subrahmanyam, p. 44 ).

There was large scale conversion to Islam, of pastoral tribes, higher castes, artisan groups bound by the jajmani system. That the upper castes had converted extensively to Islam and Sikhism, is shown by 1931 census which records 51 per cent population as of Muslims which contained 4.57 lakh Muslim Rajputs, a substantial portion of arusans and lower castes, Jats, etc. This was however only one side of the picture. Punjab probably presents one of the finest examples of syncretisim that emerged in the medieval period and shaped policies of liberarlism particularly followed by the local rulers including Sikhs. Punjabi emerged as a language that became the most important identity marker. Hindu and Islamic traditions mingled; the Sufi and the Bhakti traditions blended. There were endearing examples of how people mixed together. A branch of the Saraswats, Mohiyal recall having travelled all over the medieval world of Arabia, Iraq, Persia and sacrificed seven sons in trying to save the grandsons of the Prophet in the battle field of Karbala. They came to be known as Hussaini Brahman. Folklores reflect the inter-community linkages that developed as a result of the people living together in the space called Punjab. Apart from the common heritage built upon by the saints and sufis, there was a great deal of interaction, and mutual accommodation in political and administrative spheres. And yet there was the devastating experience of partition, with 5 lakh people killed and 10 lakh people uprooted, and thousands of women dishonoured of which Punjab bore the brunt. However Malerkotla remained an island of communal harmony because it represents a unique expression of the continuing gratitude of a people for the descendants of a ruler belonging to another religion who dared to defend the tenth Guru's sons before his co-religionists. The flowering of this syncretic process could best be seen in the rise of Sikhism. Sikhism as a religion was life-affirmative, renouncing ‘renunciation', it frowned upon the caste system, inequality and untouchability. For our purposes, it is interesting to recall that Sikhism stressed collective action through sangat (congregation), and pangat (inter-dinning). Later kar-sewa was added, a feature of the religion that at one stroke did away with the taboo on working with hand and with a culture that excluded many classes of people from touching the plough and treated those who worked with hand as 'menial classes'. The opposition between manual and non-manual labour brokedown. Sikhism was the most comprehensive assault on the caste system. It was not as radical in its attempts at eradication of endogamy as attempted by the movement led by Basava in twelfth century in Karnataka. Sikhism was however more enduring with its repeated declaration of the values of social equality, abolition of untouchability, inter-dining and community living. The holy Guru Granth Sahib compiled by the fifth Guru is a compilation of the compositions not only of the Sikh Gurus and Hindu and Muslim Bhagats, Brahmans (Giza Govind and Surdas), Sheikh Farid, and. Bhikan (Sufis), but also of the subalterns, belonging to different castes-tailor (Namdev), butcher (Sadhan), vaisya (Trilocan), barber (Saila), Jats (Dhanna), weaver (Kabir) and cobbler (Ravidas),

Sikhism stressed identity for its followers by prescribing the five K's, surname monogamy, and abstaining from the use of tobacco, drinks, and meat by halal. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh (A.D. 1668-1708), organized the Sikhs into a distinct fratenity by ordaining them to keep the five symbols—(i) uncut hair, (ii) comb, (iii) iron bangle, (iv) underwear and (v) the sword for both men and women. The turban as the head gear of the Khalsa Sikh was also added later. The Guru laid stress on the equality of various castes, symbolically by choosing the Five Beloved from all castes in an assembly of thousands of Sikhs gathered at Anandpur to celebrate the Baisakhi festival. When these five chosen ones drawn from different castes (Khatri, Jat, Nai, Jheewar, Chhimba) were initiated into the new fraternity of the Khalsa `the pure', others followed drinking from the same bowl and eating from the same plate, adopting the surname Singh for men and Kaur for women signifying one common brotherhood. This ceremony, known as cemrit chakna, that is the practice of eating from the same plate and drinking from the same bowl is followed at the time of initiation of a Sikh into the Khalsa. The holy book of the Sikhs, the Granth, succeeded the tenth Guru and was recognized as the Guru of the Sikhs.


Punjab, earlier known as Sapta Sindhu, has been traditionally a land of peasantry who believe in hard work. Punjab is no longer the land of the five rivers, but its identity defined by culture and history remains inact.

Punjab state is situated in the north-west of the Indian Union approximately between 29° 33' and 32° 32' N latitude and 73° 54' and 76° 56' E longitude. It is bounded by Jammu & Kashmir in the north, by Himachal Pradesh on the east and on the south by Haryana. Punjab is one of the smallest states covering an area of 50,372 sq. km forming 1.6 per cent of the total area of the country. Physiographically the state may be divided into three parts: (i) The Sivalik hills in the north-east with an elevation of 300 to 1,000 metres; (ii) the narrow undulating foothill zone dissected by closely spaced torrents (choes), several of which terminate in the plain below without joining any stream; (iii) the flat alluvial plains of sub-mountain tract which is narrow and constitutes the small strips of the territory stretching between the Himalaya and the Indo-Gangetic plains into which the spurs of the Himalaya run. The upper portion of the districts of Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur and Ropar lie in this region. The flat alluvial plains form the largest natural region of the state comprizing the eight remaining districts Amritsar, Kapurthala, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Patiala, Sangrur, Bhatinda and Ferozepur. The three snow-fed perennial rivers the Satluj, Beas and Ravi flowing through the state, and the 95 tributaries of the Indus river serve as the most important source of irrigation. The sub-mountain region has forests and hilly soils which are slightly acidic and rich in humus. The soil in the districts of Ferozepur and Bhatinda is sandy and arid. Alluvial soils covers the remaining districts of the state.

The climate of Punjab ranges from bracing cold in winter to scorching heat in summer. Extremes of temperature and the two monsoons produce a variety of seasons and constantly changing landscape.

Punjab has traditionally been divided into three culture zones: (i) Malwa, (ii) Maiha and (iii) Doaba. The communities of the present Punjab see themselves as belonging to one of the three regions. For instance, the Sikhs inhabiting the areas south of the Satluj river are called Malwa Sikhs (Ludhiana disfrict is in Malwa area); between the Satluj and Beas rivers there are Doaba Sikhs and those inhabiting, north and north-west of the Beas, Majha Sikhs. Of the three, the Majha Sikhs consider themselves superior since they feel that they observe the religious tenets more closely than the other two communities. The Majha Sikhs also believe that they possess greater physical vigour than the Sikhs of the Doaba and Mal-vva areas. However, there does not appear to be great cultural difference among the Sikhs of these areas (Izmirlian, 1979: 26).

Punjab has served as a cradle of Indian civilization and as a melting pot of innumerable ethnic entities. Its antiquity goes deep into the past. The banks of the Indus nurtured advanced and fairly organized rural communities using implements of copper and bronze around 2500 B.C. The sculptures, pottery, jewellery, fabrics, seals embossed with human and animal figures and architecture demonstrate that the people of the Indus valley had attained a high degree of civilization. Cities flourished between 2500 B.C. to 1500 B.C., and were presumably destroyed by the Aryans. The Aryans were followed by the Parthian hordes under Darius (521-485 B.C.), who conquered northern Punjab. Around the fourth century B.C., Greek references mention that Punjab, was a land inhabited by warlike gana-Malava, Kahudraka, Madra, Ushinara, Gandhara, Kaikey, Bharata, and Yaudhey. The term mall (champion) comes from Malaya, and yoddha (warrior) is connected with the Yaudhey clan. The Hindustani word pabalwan (wrestler) is derived from Pahlava, who migrated from Iran to Punjab and got miscegenated with the local population in course of time. Thereafter, Greek armies led by Alexander crossed the Indus and advanced as far as the Beas. Punjab, at that time, was mostly tribal. Though rich in human and animal life, it always remained disunited and indulged in constant internal conflicts. It was Chandragupta Maurya, who effected political unification of Punjab and led the people of Punjab in revolt against remnants of the Greek rule. The people of Greek origin left behind by Alexander were thus divested of their political power by the rising Mauryas. Bactrians were followed by the Scythian tribes and the Mongoloid Huns. The Huns were subdued and expelled by the Vardhanas, but Harshvardhan's empire soon disintegrated.

After the Aryans from Central Asia, came the Iranian, Tibetan, Kamboj, Pahlava, Hun, Pathan and Mongol who subsequently settled down as part of the Punjabi community. When Subaktagin and later his son Mehmood of Ghazni tried to cross the borders of Punjab, they were resisted by the Sahi rulers of the Punjab.

Muslim invaders started pouring into the Punjab. Mahmud Ghazni came in A.D. 1001, closely followed by the Afghans, Gori, Tughlak, Suri and Lodhi. The Afghans were followed by Taimur and his descendant Babar, who defeated Ibrahim Lodhi at Panipat in A.D. 1526. Humayun, who succeeded Babar lost and recovered his kingdom by defeating Sikandar Suri at Sirhind. The Mughals were now firmly seated on the throne for the next one and a half centuries till their power saw a decline after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707.

During the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan, Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, witnessed its heyday, as it was equidistant between Delhi and Kashmir and between Agra and Kabul. Akbar's successors often moved from Delhi to Kashmir via Lahore, Bhimbar and Pir Panjal in order to escape the heat of the northern plains during the summer.

Various religious faiths flourished in the Punjab. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism have left a long lasting impression. The Aryans introduced Vedic religions based on veda (knowledge) and sruti (hearing). They are also said to have introduced caste system. Under this social system, the Brahmans were given the highest place in social hierarchy to be followed by Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Thus Brahmanical Hinduism came into being wherein the autochthones were denied all social privileges and pushed out of the centre-stage. Some of them were declared as Untouchables and were assigned 'polluting' jobs. However, an important aspect of Hinduism was its philosophy of the Vedas and the commentaries written about them that gave spiritual sustenance. The Upanishads and the epics which followed determined the ethical code of behaviour of the Hindu masses.

Bhakti movement in India started as a reaction to the rigid Brahmanical order. The liberal Hindu reformers endeavoured for a better adaptability of Hinduism by a larger section of the Hindu society. Efforts were made to throw temples open to all classes irrespective of the caste hierarchy. The earlier proponents were Shankaracharya, Ramanuj, Namdev, Jaidev and Rarnanand. They stressed oneness of God, who was the Ultimate Truth. The best way to serve God was by absolute submission to his will. The way to approach Him was through tapasya (mediation) and chanting of mantras (hymns), under the guidance of a guru (spiritual preceptor). The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw a swift spread of the Bhakti movement throughout India. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengal, Gyaneshwar, Namdev and Tukaram in Maharashtra, Mira Bai in Rajasthan, Kabir, Surdas and Tulsidas in Uttar Pradesh and Guru Nanak Dev in the Punjab were the leading poponents of their day.

The most important event which took place in the medievel Punjab was the emergence of Guru Nanak Dev, a contemporary of Babar. The faith Sikhism, he preached, was a synthesis of Hinduism and Islam, but more than that Guru Nanak Dev was a reformer par excellence. He protested many aspects of the predominant Hindu society and the arrogant and aggressive behaviour of the ruling Muslim society. Guru Nanak Dev would think of himself as neither Hindu nor Muslim, but as an enlightened member of humanity proclaiming without fear the oneness of all mankind. This humanistic approach to the solution of all the prevalent social ills led Guru Nanak to forge and develop altogether a new system of human values that stressed the oneness of man; that men of all beliefs and religions are brothers born of the same source and created by the Supreme Creator. Guru Nanak visualized a Utopia. He merged the concept of a welfare state with religion, raised his voice against caste discrimination and disagreed with the Muslims, who thought that the non-believers were inferior infidels. The caste hierarchy in Hindu society and the superior (conformist) and inferior (nonconformist) dichotomy as imposed by the Muslim rulers were repugnant to him. Thus, Guru Nanak Dev is the most important landmark in the history of the recent religions in the history of world religions.

Guru Nanak Dev, the chief propounder of Bhakti movement in Punjab, was the founder of Sikhism. He preached the theory of samsarg—of birth, death and rebirth in a cyclic manner. God is the cause of all creations and sets this world and the life within in motion. Human beings being oblivious of death indulge in pleasure, but the virtuous ones abstain from indulging in worldly pleasures; they seek and find Truth. To him God was a spiritual concept if God is the ultimate Truth, to speak untruth is to be ungodly. Guru Nanak Dev established the institution of 'Guru'. Without a guru, he stressed, no one can attain moksha (salvation). The Guru guides his followers to the path of Truth. He disciplines them as a rogue elephant is disciplined from running amok; he applies the jyan anjan (salve of knowledge) to a follower's eyes enabling him to see the Truth (God); He is the divine ferryman, who takes them across the bhav sagar (ocean of life). He insisted on the separation of God and Guru; Guru is to be consulted, respected and cherished, but not to be worshipped. He is a teacher, but no incarnation of God. Asceticism, penance or torturing one's body as a step towards enlightenment were anathema to him.

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