Kashmiri Language Script - Synchronic Digraphia

We, as a community have been forced to take an inventory of our lives  especially after the recent dispersion. We find ourselves lost in so far as our Culture is concerned .The pangs of separation from homeland may perhaps have subsided but the burden of assimilation in societies where we had to settle down has put extra pressure on the diaspora.

Communities, in normal circumstances, do ponder over state of one’s culture every now & then, but it is always perhaps a natural and slow process. It manifests itself in terms of reforms that could be ushered in to suit the changing times .Elders who in normal times have the responsibility of passing on the traditions     et -al to gen-next are confused to say the least. Liberal traits in our community had already caused the rot to set in  ,but  now, the fear of losing our cultural roots  is real & we have become very sensitive about it.

We find a lot of written material in the form of Books and Articles, Blogs  on the Net .But it looks like a huge library without indexing. There is a need to build an Encyclopedic corpus for our Cultural fund in Kashmiri  language. 

Let us now take up one of the sub-stratums  of these Markers we are considering in this write-up, based on excerpts from various articles and information available: Language

Kashmiri or Koshur is generally accepted as a member of the Dardic subgroup of the Indo-Aryan language. In my opinion, a serious academic research, without any bias or pre- conceived ideas  is needed ,to put the issue of origin of Kashmiri language, to rest. Six million Kashmiri speakers scattered in India, Pakistan, UK, USA and Gulf Countries as in 2018, is a fair indication of the numbers.

Let us briefly  trace the historical passage of our Mother tongue with regard to our script. This issue unlike the issue of Origin has an important bearing on our efforts to preserve and nurture this cultural marker. There are now four orthographical systems  used to write  in the Kashmiri language: the Sharada  script, the Devanagari Script , the Perso- Arabic script and lastly  the Roman script  which started informally but is  gaining currency especially with dispersed Kashmiri Pandits.

Kashmiri first appeared in writing during the 8th century AD in the Sharda alphabet. This script has evolved from Brahmic family of languages. Gurumukhi script is derived from the Sharada  script.

As Mr. K N Pandita in one of his write-ups on Kashmiri Script writes,…”Sharada script, that was in vogue in Kashmir a couple of centuries before Kalhana (1149 AD) wrote his chronicle. The manuscript of Rajatarangini on which Stein worked and is preserved in Germany, is in Sharada. Stein had to study it and perfect it with the learned Kashmiri Pandits in Srinagar of whom he is highly appreciative.”…

The  Encyclopedia Iranica  describes the impact on the Kashmiri language through  contacts with Persians as follows: ……” The influence of one language on another primarily takes place as a result of linguistic contact.  It is always the dominant language that influences another language or languages on different linguistic and literary levels.  Main contacts between Kashmir and Persia were both political and cultural. …….”

”With the establishment of Muslim rule in Northwest India towards the middle of the 11th century, Perso-Arabic words made their way into native Indian vocabulary of the languages spoken at that time. Kashmir is said to have had cultural and trade relations with Persia from ancient times, but the influence of the Persian language and culture did not dominate until the introduction of Islam during the middle of the 14th century. The pace of Perso-Arabic influence in the valley was accelerated with the immigration of Sayyads, nobles, and other scholars from Persia and Central Asia.  Persian began to be studied in earnest by Kashmiri scholars in the educational institutions founded by the rulers and presided over by eminent scholars from Persia.

As a result of foreign invasions, Muslim rule, and the spread of Islam in Kashmir, the Persian socio-cultural patterns had a profound influence on Kashmiri art, language, and literature.  According to Prithivi  Bamzai (p. 422), “the impact of the Arabic and Persian cultures which followed the wholesale adoption of Islam in Kashmir, produced profound and far-reaching effect on diet, dress, marriage and morals, art and literature, which is discernable among the people even today. The profound and most important influence was that of Persian language and literature on Kashmiri language and literature. “…

Mr. K N Pandita further elucidates this point  …”With the advent of the Muslim rule in about AD 1339, Sharada continued to be in use for a number of years. But simultaneously Persian Arabic script was also introduced. Down to the times of Zainu’l- Abadin, both scripts continued to be used, Persian by the ruling class and the elite that had converted to Islamic faith and Sharada by the plebeians and particularly the Purohit class who were most concerned with theological and astronomical literature. Though Sharada remained the script for writing Kashmiri for many years after the rise of the Sultans, yet Sanskrit continued to be the mainstay of Kashmirian literary and historical scholarship. The Brahmans and the Purohit class, if they meant to maintain their reputation as the custodians of ancient Hindu Kashmirian lore, had to perfect their knowledge of Sanskrit language and literature. The fact of the matter is that not only during those early days of transition, even in later times and also now, when we talk about the Kashmiri Pandit scholarship, we unmistakably mean Sanskrit scholarship. In this scenario, Sharada remained limited to writing some of the Kashmiri texts and recording such matter as had liturgical content. In this sense it is not perhaps very safe to say that Sharada script is perfect to represent all vowel and consonant sounds of Kashmirian language. “…..

Iranian Encyclopedia further elaborates….” After about a century of Muslim rule, Persian became the official language of Kashmir. With the patronage of Muslim rulers, the Persian language became popular with the educated people. Instead of writing in their mother tongue, Kashmiri creative writers considered it a matter of great honor, pride, and dignity to write in Persian. The Kashmiri language in the 14th century had proved itself a successful medium for the vakhs (poetic renderings in four-line stanzas mostly related to Kashmiri Shaiva philosophy of the poetess Lalla) and šruks (poetic compositions in four-line stanzas mostly related to Sufi philosophy of Shaikh Nur-al-Din Wali). Later it became dominated by the Persian language and its literary styles. Kashmiri continued to be used as a medium by semi-literate creative minds, such as the 16th-century poetess Habba, in their compositions. Persian continued to be the official language during the rule of Mughals and Afghans.”

Explaining the transition, Mr. K N Pandita further explains ,….”With the rise of the Sultans followed by the Sayyids of Baihaq and then the Chaks, only Persian language received full patronage from the royalty and acceptability with the common Kashmirian  literati. I don’t think any of the Muslim rulers ever felt the necessity of evolving a script for Kashmiri or reviving the Sharada script of olden days. It is true that a bias against Sanskrit and Sharada developed, and the small Pandit community continued for some time to record their liturgical fund in one of the two languages/scripts viz. Sanskrit and Sharada. Persian flourished for a long time, from 1339 to 1846, a period of nearly five hundred years. I am not going to deal with this aspect except to reiterate that Persian being a very sweet language with very simple grammar and almost musical intonation supported by very rich prose and poetry genres of literature, became very quickly acceptable to the Kashmiris. Perhaps the humanistic teachings of stalwarts of Persian poetry and prose writings left a deep impression on the minds of Kashmiris. The Pandit Karkuns had to learn Persian in order to earn a living by doing clerical jobs. In the process, the major segment of Pandit Karkuns lost touch with both Sanskrit and Sharada and when the Afghans seized power in Kashmir in the early decades of 18th century, the remnant of the Pandit community -identified itself with the new and imported cultural ethos. The Muslims of Kashmir, if and when they needed, began adopting Persian script for Kashmiri idiom. It was not a policy matter with the contemporary government for the government never needed it. It was only on personal level. 

With Sikhs assuming power in Kashmir, Persian continued to be the official and formal language of Kashmir. Historical record available to us today of that period is all in Persian, especially historical fund. Birbal Kachroo, a Pandit scholar of the day, wrote the history of Kashmir in Persian. Many Pandit Persian versifiers earned a name during this period.

During the later period of Maharaja Ranbir Singh, Urdu gradually began to replace Persian. I have myself examined minutes of cabinet meetings of Maharaja Pratap Singh written in Urdu. We can find these reports in the archives department with J&K Government. The reason for this shift was that at that point of time, interaction between the State government and people, with the Punjab government and people received a strong boost. In other words, this was the beginning of exposure of Kashmir to the world outside.

As Urdu grew to replace Persian and interaction between Kashmiris and outsiders increased phenomenally, some literate Kashmiris with taste in letters, began to use Urdu script for writing Kashmiri. They had no innovative skills to adapt the Urdu script because the complexity of Kashmiri pronunciation defied such attempts. We can say that every writer adopting Urdu script for Kashmiri had his own methodology and a uniform code of scripts was totally absent. …”

“It was replaced by Urdu in 1907, and the latter continued to be the official language of the state of Jammu and Kashmir even after its independence in 1947.”

The scene, post  independence  left the script issue veering towards Urdu even if it was not found suitable to Kashmiri language. There was also not even a feeble attempt to revive Sharada as a script.

It is important to revisit History, as it helps indicate a path for future progress. This  Cultural marker, for both the communities, has unfortunately got entangled in the larger context of “Kashmir problem” .This  is one of the main obstacles in going forward in so far as script issue is concerned.

Kashmiri Muslims in Kashmir write their language with the Arabic script . Kashmiri as a language was introduced in the curriculum with this  script in seventies and has found a place in regular curriculum in University of Kashmir. The fact remains ,that Kashmiri as a language got the state patronage. The State  by recognizing it as a state language and the Center , by putting it in the  Scheduled list would mean that it will evolve as a powerful competitor to Urdu or English and eventually replace it, perhaps, has not happened.

Sadaf Munshi  in her blog in 2016 laments thus- “Many factors continue to be hurdles in efforts towards the promotion and revitalization of the Kashmiri language, the biggest among them being the choice of script. A socio-historical account of the situation can help clarify some of the complexities in understanding the controversy around the question of the Kashmiri script, which has become the focus of intense debate between Muslim and Hindu Kashmiris recently following the HRD Ministry's proposal to introduce an "alternate" official (Nāgri-based) writing system for the language. Many Kashmir-based writers, language activists and critics are threatening to launch a protest in opposition of such a move.”

MHRD has indicated it as an alternative script and not as a replacement of  State’s official Perso-Arabic script.

How do we preserve our Cultural inheritance – by written literature ,as it can then get to our next generation. Written in what language – Kashmiri ,  in scripts that will make it read widely .Both communities need to concentrate sincerely to tackle the problem of preservation of our language amongst new generations and not  bicker over script.

Common sense will dictate that  Muslims should use Perso-Arabic script as Pandits will use the Sharada /Devanagri  /Roman script. Script is not the problem but sincerity in preservation of Kashmiri language as a Cultural marker  is.

Sadaf Munshi has bared open the reality which both communities should give a heed to ,the status as per her blog is  : “Today, when the Kashmiri language has been introduced into the school curriculum of Kashmir after efforts by various local non-government organizations, there has been an enormous dearth of qualified teachers trained to teach it. Many "teachers" have been assigned the job of teaching the language without a background check on their qualifications, eligibility and proficiency levels. In some cases, even non-native speakers who have very little proficiency in spoken and/or written Kashmiri are assigned to teach the language. What is extremely unfortunate and ironic is that often the medium of instruction in the classrooms, even during a Kashmiri language class, is a language other than Kashmiri. Under these circumstances it is hard to imagine how successful the attempts to revitalize the language will be unless effective measures to promote it are taken in time. …”

…“With globalization and the dominance of English all around the world, the status of Kashmiri was relegated to the bottom of the language hierarchy.”…

…”Because of the dominance of languages other than Kashmiri and lack of institutional support... younger generations are rapidly shifting to other prestige languages…”

Dr K N Pandita reflects on this issue too – “Children of the Kashmiri diaspora -- Hindus and Muslims -- have little or limited exposure to their heritage language, and speak languages other than Kashmiri as their primary medium of communication. ….Native language literacy is dismally limited.”

Pandits ,dispersed as they are , are trying to revive the Sharada Script within the confines of the community. Devnagari and Roman script is currently favored and understood by most Kashmiri Pandits. Whether alternative scripts get a nod from MHRD eventually ,should not distract the Pandit community from going ahead with adopting script of their choice. I earnestly wish that this issue be  dis- entangled from the  Kashmiriyat, ‘Kashmir Problem’ and allow us to progress on preserving it for gen next.

A Standardized Devanagari-Kashmiri script is already in place- developed by the Northern Regional Languages Centre, Patiala. An Indo-Roman script for the Kashmiri language has also been evolved by the Lalla Ded Educational and Welfare Trust under its prestigious Project Zaan. Rationalized Roman for Kashmiri devised by Dr R L Bhat is a pioneering work to transmit Kashmiri to the young generations.

Advocating ,the need for a rational script for gen -next of Kashmiri Pandit community , Dr. Pandita makes his point thus: “Our children in exile speak all the local languages except their original mother tongue. They need a language that brings them closer to the environs and social milieu surrounding them. They need a language that will open the doors of livelihood upon them. Kashmiri language is least qualified to address these imperatives. Therefore those who are fanatically committed to a search for a scientific script for Kashmiri should not overlook these harsh realities on the ground. Now supposing that we have to develop a script in any case for Kashmir either for the preservation of our cultural fund or for prompting our futuristic aspirations for cultural advancement, then, in my opinion the time is ripe that we come out of emotions and sentiments and begin thinking like cool and considerate scientists. “….

Modified on scientific lines, the Romanized script will give great advantages in preserving this Cultural marker, Dr. Pandita postulates

In conclusion , both  Kashmiri speaking community activists should focus sincerely on preserving the corpus of our literature, liturgical fund and future writings in the scripts of our choice .

Muslims can go ahead and focus on Perso-Arabic script and use the existing agencies to promote our language and its corpus of literature .Kashmiri Pandits should go ahead and use any or all of the scripts including Perso-Arabic which will support to preserve our language and also help us preserve our Cultural and pass it on to gen-next. 

We have a lot of Kashmiri Pandits who have  a considerable contribution in the existing corpus of Kashmiri literature in Perso-Arabic script. I would like that this ,as well as that of Muslim writers   be translated in other scripts under consideration for wider readership and also for preserving it for gen-next.

It will be a loss to all of us, if we build walls and not bridges, to harness all writings in Kashmiri irrespective of which religion the writers belong to. It is our common cultural heritage that we should focus on instead of cribbing about a common script.

We should channelize our energies for a Synchronic Digraphia i.e., the coexistence of two or more writing systems for the same language. False narratives that MHRD is going for a Diachronic Digraphia i.e., the replacement of one writing system by another for a particular language should be avoided and resisted by both communities.

After all we shall not be an exception, Nationally or Internationally  in this domain. Have a look at the following:

In India:

Kashmiri (written using Devanagari, Perso-Arabic, Śāradā scripts,Roman );Konkani (Kannada, Devanagari, Malayalam, Roman (Romi Konkani) and sometimes in Persian scripts);Pali (Brahmi, Sinhala, Devanagari, Khmer, Burmese, Thai, Mon ;Punjabi (Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi);Sanskrit (originally unwritten, it started to be written using Devanagari, Brahmi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada or some other Indian language script depending on the author's first language);Saurashtra (used its own script, but largely uses Tamil and occasionally Devanagari these days);Tulu (Kannada, Tulu); Dogri, The language of Jammu (not Kashmir), spoken by about 5 million people in India and Pakistan, mostly around the Jammu region and has historically been written in at least four scripts -Dogra Aakhar(adapted from the Takri scrip, which itself is closely related to both the Sharada script for Kashmiri and Gurmukhi script for Punjabi) Devnagri, Roman, Perso Arabic.


Serbian, which is written both in Serbian Cyrillic alphabet and Gaj's Latin alphabet ; Malay, which is written in both the Latin alphabet and Jawi alphabet; Ladino (aka Judaeo-Spanish), which is written both in the Hebrew alphabet and the Turkish variant of the Latin alphabet.; Inuktitut, which is written both in Inuktitut syllabics and Latin, Japanese is a language which uses multiple scripts: there are  minimum three different character sets used in the language.

In the end ,I shall put a Vakh in different scripts. I urge all readers of this blog to try and realize that if you are looking for some meaning ,script does not matter. Cynics may , no doubt, split hairs but essence remains the same in any script.

“Preservation of one's own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.” --Cesar Chavez (American Activist and Labor Organizer. Founder of the National Farm Workers Association; 1927-1993)

Ashok Dullu