LOCATION: Pakistan (Punjab province); India (Punjab state)
RELIGION: Hinduism; Islam; Buddhism; Sikhism; Christianity
Punjabis derive their name from a geographical, historical, and cultural region located in the northwest of the Indian sub-continent. Punjab comes from the Persian words panj (five) and ab (river) and means "Land of the Five Rivers." It was the name used for the lands to the east of the Indus River that are drained by its five tributaries (the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej). Culturally, the Punjab extends beyond this area to include parts of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, the foothills of the Himalayas, and the northern fringes of the Thar (Great Indian) Desert in Rajasthan.
The Punjab is an ancient center of culture in the Indian subcontinent. It lay within the bounds of the Harappan civilization, the sophisticated urban (city-based) culture that flowered in the Indus Valley during the third millennium BC . Harappa, one of the two great cities of this civilization, was located on the Ravi River in what is now Pakistan's Punjab Province. The Punjab has also been one of the great crossroads of southern Asian history. Nomadic tribes speaking Indo-European languages descended from the mountain passes in the northwest to settle on the plains of the Punjab around 1700 BC . After then, Persians, Greeks, Huns, Turks, and Afghans were among the many peoples that entered the Indian subcontinent through the northwestern passes and left their mark on the region. Punjabis, who are basically of Aryan, or Indo-European ancestry, are the modern descendants of the mixture of peoples that passed through the region.
At times in the past, the Punjab and its population have enjoyed a special political identity as well as a cultural identity. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD , the region was administered as a province of the Mogul Empire. As recently as the nineteenth century, much of the area was united under the Sikh nation of Ranjit Singh. Britain administered the Punjab as a province of its Indian Empire. However, in the redrawing of political boundaries in 1947, the Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan. In spite of their common cultural heritage, Punjabis are now either Indians or Pakistanis by nationality.
Punjabis number about 88 million people. About 68 million live in the Pakistan Punjab, and just over 20 million live in the Indian state of Punjab. Punjab Province in Pakistan includes just about all of the Punjab (West Punjab) that was assigned to Pakistan in 1947. The Indian Punjab State (East Punjab) extended from the international border with Pakistan to Delhi. In 1966, however, agitation for a Punjabi-speaking state led to the creation of the present Punjab State. The location of India's Punjab State along the border with Pakistan and only some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the city of Lahore, gives it great military significance.
The Punjab is an agricultural region. Punjabis, whether in India or in Pakistan, share the agrarian (farming) social structure based on caste that is found throughout southern Asia. The Jats , who are mainly landowners (zamindars) and cultivators, are the largest caste in the Punjab. Other agricultural castes include R a jputs, Arains, Awans, and Gujars. Among the lower-ranked service and artisan castes are the Lohars, Tarkhans, and Chamars.
The homeland of the Punjabis lies on the plains of the upper Indus Valley, covering an area of roughly 104,200 square miles (270,000 square kilometers). It stretches from the Salt Ranges in the north to the fringes of the Thar Desert in the southeast.
The western margins lie along the base of Pakistan's Sulaiman Range. The Shiwaliks, the outer foothills of the Himalayas, define the Punjab's eastern boundary. The region is a vast plain, drained by the Indus River and its tributaries. In the northeast, the plain lies at just under 1,000 feet (about 300 meters) above sea level, but it declines to under 250 feet (75 meters) in elevation along the Indus River in the south. The hills bordering the plain are higher than 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) in the Shiwaliks and about 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) in the Salt Range.
The Punjab has a subtropical climate, with hot summers and cool winters. The average temperature for June is 93° F (34° C ), with daily maximums often rising much higher. The mean maximum temperature for Lahore in June is 115° F (46° C ). Dust storms are common in the hot weather. The average January temperature is 55° F (13° C ), although minimums drop close to freezing and hard frosts are common. Rainfall varies from about 49 inches (125 centimeters) in the hills in the northeast to no more than 8 inches (20 centimeters) in the dry southwest. Rain falls mainly in the summer months. However, weather systems from the northwest bring valuable amounts of rain in the winter.
Punjabi is the name of the language, as well as the people, of the Punjab region. In Pakistan, Punjabi is written using the Persian-Arabic script, which was introduced to the region during the Muslim conquests. Punjabis in India use a different script. Punjabi is spoken by two-thirds of the population of Pakistan. In India, Punjabi is the mother tongue of just under 3 percent of the population. Punjabi was raised to the status of one of India's official languages in 1966.
Punjabis have a rich mythology and folklore that includes folktales, songs, ballads, epics, and romances. Much of the folk tradition is oral, passed on through the generations by traditional peasant singers, mystics, and wandering gypsies. Many folk tales are sung to the accompaniment of music. There are songs for birth and marriage, love songs, songs of war, and songs glorifying legendary heroes of the past. The Mahiya is a romantic song of the Punjab. Sehra Bandi is a marriage song, and Mehndi songs are sung when henna (a red dye) is being applied to the bride and groom in preparation for marriage.
Heera Ranjha and Mirza Sahiban are folk romances known in every Punjab household. Wandering Sufi (Islamic mysticism) clergymen are well known in the Punjab for their poetry and music. They contributed a verse form that became special in Punjabi literature. The mixture of Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim themes in Punjabi folklore mirrors the presence of these religious traditions in the region.
The religious variety of the Punjabis reflects the Punjab's long and varied history. Early Hinduism took shape in the Punjab, Buddhism flowered in the region, and followers of Islam held political power in the area for nearly six centuries. Sikhism had its origins in the Punjab, where Sikh states survived until the middle of the twentieth century. The British annexed the Punjab in the nineteenth century and introduced Christianity to the region. Thus Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity are all represented among the Punjabi peoples.
When India and Pakistan were separated in 1947, Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan for India, while Muslims sought a home in Pakistan. Armed conflict at that time among Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims left as many as one million people dead. Today, Punjab Province in Pakistan is 97 percent Muslim and 2 percent Christian, with small numbers of Hindus and other groups. Sikhs account for 61 percent of the people in India's Punjab State, while 37 percent are Hindu, and 1 percent each are Muslim and Christian. Small numbers of Buddhists, Jains, and other groups are also present.
Festivals are events shared by the entire community, no matter what their religion. Many are seasonal or agricultural festivals. Thus Basant , when the mustard fields are yellow, marks the end of the cold weather; Punjabis celebrate by wearing yellow clothes, going kite-flying, and feasting. Holi is the great spring festival of India and a time for much gaiety and for visiting friends and relatives. Vaisakh ( Baisakh) , in April, marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year and also is of special importance for Sikhs, since it commemorates the founding of the Sikh Khalsa. Tij marks the beginning of the rainy season and is a time when girls set up swings, wear new clothes, and sing special songs for the occasion. Dasahara, Diwali , and other festivals of the Hindu calendar are celebrated with much enthusiasm. The Sikhs have gurpurbs , holidays associated with the lives of the gurus (holy men), while Muslims commemorate the festivals of Muharram, Eid al-Fitr , and Bakr-Id .
Punjabi rites of passage follow the customs of the community to which a person belongs. Among Muslims, the mullah or priest will visit a house within three days of the birth of a boy to recite holy words, including the Call to Prayer, in the baby's ear. The child is named in consultation with the mullah. Males undergo circumcision (sunnat) at any time before age twelve.
Sikh birth rituals are simpler. The child is taken to the temple for offerings, prayers, and the naming ceremony. The Adi Granth, the sacred book of the Sikhs, is opened at random, and the parents choose a name that begins with the first letter of the first word on the left-hand page. An important ceremony for the Sikhs is the baptism, or initiation into the Sikh religion. This usually takes place in the late teens.
For Hindus, it is important that a child be born at an auspicious (lucky) time. A Brahman priest is consulted. If he judges the time of birth to be unfavorable, special ceremonies are held to prevent any harmful effects. In the past, a mother had to stay away from other people for forty days after giving birth, but this custom is disappearing. The ritual shaving of the child's head is usually performed during the first five years of the child's life.
At death, Muslims wrap the body in white cloth before taking it to the mosque. White is the color of mourning throughout southern Asia. At the mosque, the mullah reads the holy words over the body, which is then buried in the graveyard. Sometimes a stone slab is placed on the grave, and each of the mourners places a handful of earth on the grave. This symbolizes breaking ties with the person who died. The mullah prays for the dead for three days. Hindus and Sikhs cremate their dead. On the fourth day after cremation, Hindus collect the ashes and charred remains of bones from the funeral pyre and place them in the sacred Ganges River, at the city of Haridwar if possible. Sikhs usually place the ashes at Kiratpur Sahib, on the River Sutlej.
Forms of address and greetings vary according to the situation and social context. In rural areas, a man is usually referred to as Bhaiji or Bhai Sahib (Brother) and a woman, as Bibiji (Mistress) or Bhainji (Sister). Sikhs are addressed as Sardar (Mr.) or Sardarni (Mrs.). When they meet, Sikhs put their hands together in front of them, with their palms touching, and say, Sat Sri Akal (God is Truth). Hindus accompany the same gesture with the word Namaste (Greetings). The common Muslim greeting is Salaam (Peace or Greetings) or Salaam Alaikum (Peace be with you).
Punjabi villages are compact settlements, with houses clustered around a mosque, temple, or gurdwara (Sikh temple). The houses on the outside edge of the village are built to look like a walled settlement with few openings. The main entrance to a village is through an arched gateway called a darwaza (door or gate), which is also a meeting place for the village. Houses are built close together, often sharing walls. Rooms are built around a central courtyard where animals are tethered and farming implements are stored. Most villages are made up of people in the variety of roles needed in a farming economy—landowners, cultivators, artisans, and service castes.
Households usually have comfortable furniture, ceiling fans for the hot summers, and conveniences such as telephones, radios, televisions, and even refrigerators. Many farmers have tractors. Scooters and motorcycles are common, and the wealthier families have cars and jeeps. Punjabis have one of the highest standards of living in Pakistan. However, some areas lack the transportation infrastructure and some other developments seen in the rest of the province.
Caste or jati, is the most important social grouping among Punjabis. It defines social relations, possible marriage partners, and often jobs as well. Castes exist even among Muslims and Sikhs, whose religions condemn the caste system. Castes are divided into numerous gots, or clans. One cannot marry within the gots of one's four grandparents.
Among Muslims, castes are known as qaums or zats , but at the village level it is the biradari, or patrilineage (descent from the father's side), that is the more significant social unit. All men who can trace their descent back to a common male ancestor belong to the same biradari, and all members of the biradari are regarded as family. Members of a biradari often act united in village business and disputes, for they share a sense of collective honor and identity.
The family is the basic unit of Punjabi society. The joint family is most common; sons and their wives and children, plus any unmarried adults, live in the household of their parents. The men oversee the agricultural or business activities of the family. Women, directed by the mother-in-law or senior wife, see to the running of the household, the preparation of foods, and the care and raising of children. Among peasant farmers, women as well as men do the agricultural work. Both men and women in the laboring castes work for hire, as agricultural workers or at other manual labor.
Women are expected to marry and have children as their main role in Punjabi society. Marriages are arranged by the parents of the boy and girl, and each community follows its own marriage rituals and customs. Among Muslims, for example, the best match is thought to be marriage between first cousins. The Muslim marriage ceremony is called the Nikah . The girl is given a dowry, which she keeps as her property.
Hindu Punjabis seek marriage partners within their own caste but outside the specific clans that are closed to them (the clans of one's grandparents). The dowry is an important factor in negotiations for a Hindu marriage. Hindu rituals include the traditional journey of the barat (wedding party) to the bride's house, the draping of garlands of flowers on the bride and groom, and the ritual walk around the sacred fire.
Sikhs, on the other hand, do not give or take dowries, and they solemnize their marriages before the Granth , their sacred book. In all communities, however, residence is patrilocal—the new wife moves into the home of her husband's family.
Different Punjabi communities have different customs regarding divorce and remarriage. Although Islam makes provisions for a man to divorce his wife, in rural society divorce is strongly opposed, and there are strong social pressures against it. Muslims do not approve of widows who remarry. Sikhs do not permit divorce, but do allow widows to remarry. Widow remarriage is not common among Hindus, but the Jats permit a widow to marry the younger brother of her husband. Divorce is not customary among Hindus, but there are ways in which marriages can be brought to an end informally.
The standard clothing for men in the rural Punjab is the kurta, tahmat, or pyjama, and turban. The kurta is a long shirt or tunic that hangs down to the thighs. The tahmat is a long piece of cloth that is wrapped around the waist and legs like a kilt. The pyjama , from which the English word "pajamas" is derived, is a pair of loose-fitting trousers. Turbans are worn in various styles in different areas and by different groups. Among farmers, the turban is a relatively short piece of cloth, about three feet (one meter) in length, and is wrapped loosely around the head. The formal Punjabi turban, worn by men of social standing, is much longer, with one end starched and sticking up like a fan. The Sikhs favor the peaked turban. Locally made leather shoes complete the outfit. During the winter a sweater, woolen jacket, or blanket is added. Men wear rings, and sometimes, earrings.
Women wear the salwar (baggy pants drawn in at the ankles) and kamiz (tunic), along with the dupatta (scarf). Sometimes a ghaghra, a long skirt dating back to Mogul times, replaces the salwar . Ornaments decorate the hair, rings or jewels are worn in the nose, and earrings, necklaces, and bangles are popular.
In cities and towns, traditional clothes are giving way to modern styles. Men wear jackets, suits, and ties. Women wear saris (a long cloth wrapped around the body and draped over the shoulder), dresses, skirts, and even jeans.
The basic diet of Punjabis consists of cereals (wheat, corn, or millet), vegetables, legumes (such as lentils), and milk products. Goat meat is eaten, but mainly on special occasions, such as weddings. A typical meal consists of flat bread (roti) made from wheat, a cup of lentils or other legumes (dal), and buttermilk or hot tea. In winter, the bread is made of corn, and vegetables such as mustard greens (sag) may be added.
Dal and sag are prepared in a similar way. Sliced or chopped garlic and onion are fried in butter, along with chili peppers, cloves, black pepper, and ginger. The vegetables or legumes are added and the food is cooked, sometimes for several hours, until it is tender.
No utensils are used; food is eaten with the fingers. People use only the right hand, taking a piece of roti to scoop up the lentils or the vegetable. A recipe for roti accompanies this article.
Tea is drunk in generous quantities at all times of the day. It is made with half water and half milk and sweetened with three or four teaspoonfuls of sugar. Fish, chicken, and eggs are rarely eaten.
Serve with salad, soup, or dip. Break off pieces of roti to scoop up food, and eat.
Punjabis have made great strides in education in recent years, although there is still room for improvement. According to 1981 census returns from Pakistan, some 45 percent of the population under ten years of age attended school, but less than 20 percent completed high school and only 2.8 percent earned general university degrees. The literacy rate (the proportion of people who can read and write) in the population over ten years of age in the Pakistan Punjab was 27 percent. However, this varied from 55 percent among men in the cities and towns to only 9.4 percent among rural women. Comparative 1981 figures for the Indian Punjab are 41 percent overall—61 percent for city men, and 28 percent for rural women. The overall literacy rate in the Indian Punjab jumped to 59 percent in 1991.
Both Indian and Pakistani Punjabs have a tradition of education, with many institutions of higher learning. The University of the Punjab and the University of Engineering and Technology are located in Lahore, Pakistan. Among the institutions of higher learning in the Indian Punjab are Punjab University in Chandigarh, Punjabi University in Patiala, and Guru Nanak University in Amritsar.
Alhough Punjabis never developed any classical traditions of dance, they are known for several forms of folk dance. These are usually performed at religious fairs and festivals or at harvest time. The most famous is the Bhangra , which is performed to celebrate a marriage, the birth of a son, or a similar event. Young men of the village, dressed in brightly colored clothes, gather in a circle around a drummer who beats out the rhythm of the dance. Moving around the drummer, slowly at first, then faster as the tempo of the drum quickens, they dance and sing with great abandon. The Giddha is a dance for women and girls. Jhumar , Sammi , Luddi , and the sword dance are all popular folk dances of the Punjab.
In addition to the music associated with folk culture (songs, epics, and dances), Punjabis share in the traditions of Sikh sacred music and Sufi mysticism. The religious compositions of the Sikh gurus combine aspects of classical Indian music with popular Punjabi folk tunes. The contributions of wandering Muslim mystics, along with the sacred songs of the Hindus and Sikhs, became part of the Punjabi regional musical tradition. More formal Muslim music forms, such as the qawwali and ghazal, continue to be popular in the region today.
The folk epics and romances, Sikh sacred literature, and poetic compositions of the Sufis (Islamic mystics) are all part of a literary tradition that continues today. Modern Punjabi literature has its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, with writers such as Charan Singh and Vir Singh. Noted modern writers include Amrita Pritam, Khushwant Singh, Harcharan Singh, and I. C. Nanda.
Most Punjabis are farmers. With its development as a center of modern commercial agriculture, the Punjab (both Indian and Pakistani) is one of the most important agricultural regions of southern Asia. The Punjabi also have a proud military tradition that extends back several centuries and continues in modern times. Between the two world wars (between 1918 and 1939), Sikhs made up 20 percent of the British Indian Army, although they accounted for only 2 percent of the Indian population. This tradition of military service continues today, with Sikhs making up an unusually high proportion of the Indian armed forces. In Pakistan, too, Punjabis—especially Jats and Rajputs—have a distinguished tradition of military service.
Among games popular with children are hide-and-seek, kite flying, and Indian cricket (gulli-danda), a stick-game played by boys. Kabaddi, a team wrestling game, is played by boys and men. Wrestling, partridge fighting, cock fighting, pigeon flying, and gambling are favorite pastimes of Punjabi men.
Modern sports such as soccer, cricket, and field hockey are widely played and watched. Punjab State in India has a government department that organizes and promotes sports and athletics, and the National Institute of Sports is located at Patiala. Punjabis are well represented in Indian national sports teams. In Pakistan, too, Punjabis have a strong presence on the country's national sports teams.
In the past, Punjabis found much of their entertainment and recreation in their traditional sports and games, in religious fairs and festivals, and in their rich tradition of folklore and folk culture. They had their songs, romantic epics, folk dances, and castes of traveling entertainers. This has changed in recent times with the increasing popularity of radio, television, and movies. Soundtrack music is popular, and the Indian Punjab even has a small film industry producing feature films in the Punjabi language.
Modern folk arts in the Punjab represent traditions that may extend back several thousand years. Village potters make clay toys that look very similar to figurines recovered from archaeological sites. Peasant women follow a tradition of painting intricate designs on the mud walls of their houses for festival days. The Punjab is noted for its elaborate embroidery work. Local crafts include woodwork, metalwork, and basketry.
In spite of overall prosperity, problems exist among the Punjabis, ranging from alcoholism in rural areas to unemployment in the cities. Illiteracy (the inability to read and write) is still high in villages, especially among women. Punjabis who have migrated from rural areas to cities are cut off from the ties and support system of their families and their village communities. If they do find work, it tends to be in low-level office jobs.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Punjab has experienced conflict between Sikh extremists and the central government.
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Aryan, K. C. The Cultural Heritage of Punjab: 3000 BC to 1947 AD . New Delhi, India: Rekha Prakashan, 1983.
Bajwa, Ranjeet Singh. Semiotics of Birth Ceremonies in Punjab. New Delhi, India: Bahri Publications, 1991.
Fox, Richard Gabriel. Lions of the Punjab: Culture in the Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Singh, Mohinder. History and Culture of Panjab. New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1988.