Harking Back: Getting to know Lahore’s exquisite tile mosaic

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn May 29, 2016

Very often the solution to our problems lie in looking back and learning from our past experiences as a people. That is why talking to the original inhabitants of our ancient land is always a paying pastime. To understand our ‘language’ problem I went to meet Fayyaz Bibi on the bank of the River Ravi.

It’s good to be back in the research mode after a stint of teaching about the history of ‘Lahore’ and ‘The Punjab’. What amazed me most, as it did sadden me, was that less than ten per cent of my students in Lahore’s premier university spoke Punjabi as spoken in Lahore, or as in other parts of Punjab. This is a sad reflection on our linguistic state of affairs. Learning in our mother tongue is completely missing, or even looked down upon. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that we are among the least literate on Mother Earth.

Yes we can point out a few brilliant persons, but taken as a national average the state of education, whose responsibility the State has completely forsaken, is pathetic. It has created on the one hand an elite wishing to migrate to foreign lands, while on the other it is churning out, in absolutely massive numbers, semi-literate religious zealots, who again imagine their country to be like a foreign sandy land and proud of a foreign language. Our laws support both extremes. The few left in the middle are the stranded original inhabitants of the land.

It, therefore, is no wonder that we are economically and culturally progressing at a snail’s pace, far far slower than all other countries in Asia, and more importantly, the sub-continent. Very soon, it seems to me, Pakistan will face two major and very divisive problems, they being that of ‘cultural moorings’ and that of our ‘mother tongue’.

But then in such a context we need to understand the various strands that our people have had to face in history. To understand the enduring power of our mother tongue I ventured out to meet a few gypsies in their tents living on the banks of the dwindled River Ravi. They have been here for hundreds of years. This I did because I was soon to venture out to meet other gypsies in faraway countries, especially those I had met years ago while assisting a UN international DNA matching exercise of 150,000 gypsies the world over, even in South America. The amazing fact that all gypsies have the same basic DNA means that their origin is unmistakably Punjabi/Rajasthani. The various invasions of the sub-continent have seen them scattered the world over. But that is another very interesting story which we care nothing about.

Many believe the legend about gypsies that they are eternally cursed to travel forever, almost an adaptation of the ‘curse of Cain’. Mind you in most Semitic languages the word ‘cain’ means a blacksmith. Discrimination against these original people of our land persists still. The gypsy book ‘The Song of Songs’, an adaptation of the poet Firdausi’s verses, says it all, for it reads: “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, look not upon me because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me …”

So at Kasurpura, on the banks of the dying River Ravi, last Monday morning I looked up my old contact Bibi Fayyaz, who I was happy to learn had got married. The poor woman had a few operations after being ‘thoroughly misused’ in police stations, and is unable to have children. “Kismet” she calls it. But as a beggar that worries her not for she hires a child of a neighbour to use as a begging aid, and provides her useless drug-addict husband with a hefty daily earning. Her gypsy family told me stories they had heard from their elders, ones that I will be using in my research. I also picked up a few slang words that are, in the world of gypsies, universally used. For example ‘pichon de ruby’ means ‘wicked child’. In France the word ‘pichon’ is uttered in a very French manner, but in Lahore it has a very wicked connotation. Amazing similarity.

Other words also have an amazing similarity with foreign languages like German. A gypsy pickpocket in German is called ‘zeih-Gawner’, while in Olde Punjabi, as spoken by gypsies along the rivers and in Rajasthan, it is ‘zaganar’. In history, mostly written by Europeans, a negative image has traditionally been in place. The 14th century poet Eustache Deschamps classifies them as: “Wizards, witches and diviners, knaves, horse-copers, Saracens, Jews, convicted thieves, debauchees, rakes and ribald.” To the pious these are unacceptable traits, but to a pen-pusher like myself they are such a colourful lot.

It is sad that with the fencing off of national frontiers in the deserts and plains of Sindh, Punjab and Indian Rajasthan, the ancient connectivity of these people has been severed. But they have faced greater calamities and I am sure will see this through. Over time and distance these people have travelled, but their mother tongue remains the same. Yes, there are words added depending on where they end up. But the basic Punjabi base remains the foundations on which they operate, no matter where they be.

In this piece my interest is to study the manner in which urbanisation has changed the way our gypsy population operate. The common name for them is ‘banjara’, or even ‘changar’. They all are of Rajput origin. But then over the last 3,000 years people on both sides of the rivers and deep in Rajasthan where once two rivers flowed – mind you in ancient texts Punjab was known as the land of seven rivers, or Sapta Sindhu. In Vedic Sanskrit the word ‘satt’ is ‘sapta’ and Sindhu means a ‘sea’. Hence the original name of the Punjab was Sapta Sindhu.

We notice, just like in most European countries, with cities expanding to the ten million mark and motorways hindering the mode of transportation of the gypsy, for they operate on the outskirts. So it is in Lahore. It is a major switch taking place as opposed to them fleeing invasions.

The reason our dwellers of our riversides migrated to faraway countries was because of the terrible invasions that led to the massacre of hundreds of thousands. We know that the invader Taimur murdered everyone in Lahore, took away our young as slaves and captured thousands of gypsies who worked as unpaid employees of his army, mostly to tend to their horses and weapons. Hence the blacksmith connection makes sense. Because of them they reached the outskirts of Europe.

Just in case you are wondering how come Rajput DNA was found in South America, the answer is very simple. The gypsies moved along our southern coasts after invasions crossed over to Egypt (the word ‘gypsy’ is a French for ‘la Egypt’, hence gypsy) and along the North African coastline to Morocco and into Muslim Spain.

When the Christians took over from the Moors they either massacred these gypsies as “evil persons”, or deported them to Brazil as slaves for their new colonies. Victims they have always remained, but have silently moved on. Even today when I hear stories of our exceptionally brave people crossing borders to a ‘better life’, it is a reflection of a remarkable people who never say die. As my research unfolds you will be hearing more about our original inhabitants.




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