The term Punjabi is used to describe both the inhabitants of the Punjab and speakers of the predominate language there. Punjabi is an Indo-European language, related to Hindi and clearly related to languages spoken by neighboring people particularly Pahari. There are six major dialects, each associated with a different area. Majhi and Malwa are considered the most “pure.” [Source: Most of the information for this articles comes from the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Punjabis are tall and dark and have a reputation for being strong, aggressive, hospitable, warm and lively. “Masti” is an important Punjabi term. It means intoxicated with life.

The Punjab has a long history. The ancient Indus city of Harappa was in Ravi in the Punjab. Situated on the main invasion route into India, it was used by Aryans, Scythians, Greeks (under Alexander the Great), Arabs, Persians, Afghans, Pathans, Baluchis, Mongols and Europeans to conquer other regions. The main historic Punjabi cities of Lahore, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Patiala are a part of line of traditional commercial and military centers between the Khyber Pass and the Ganges Plain. Along this route are good water supplies, fertile soils and good weather. The line of cities also includes Delhi and Varanasi.

The Punjab has traditionally been ruled by feudal leaders. The most important level of government administration has traditionally been done on the district level. Local power has traditionally been in the hands of “panchayats”. After independence, these became elected bodies but were disbanded by the government of Indira Gandhi in part because of their association with the Sikh separatist movement.

Politics in the Punjab is highly factionalized and shaped much more by the self interest of villagers and landowners than by ideology. Political alliances on the local and village level are comprised of unions of household whose identity is “secret.” Their main goal is to gain and protect land and resources.

Many important Indian history events have occurred in the Punjab. See Alexander the Great, the Mughals and the Partition of India under History.

Many Punjabis are Sikhs. See Separate Articles on THE SIKHS factsanddetails.com


Punjab is split between India and Pakistan and contains the richest agricultural land and is regarded as breadbasket of both countries. Punjab means "Land of Five Rivers" in Persian, a reference to the five rivers that flow out of the Himalayas to join the Indus River: the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. The land between these rivers is known as a doab. Each of the five doabs is considered culturally different from the others. The region has fertile soil, and agriculture is highly productive thanks to canals and irrigation. Punjab is a major producer of wheat and other grains in both India and Pakistan.

The Punjab is mainly a nearly level plain that drops from an elevation of 300 meters in the northeast near the Silwalik range to about 100 meters where the Indus is united with the last if its main tributaries. Above the plain are the Salt Range in Pakistan and the foothills of the Himalayas in India. The entire Punjab covers about 270,000 square kilometers with 205,344 square kilometers in Pakistan and 50,362 square kilometers in India.

The climate is temperate with the hottest season from May to June when temperatures sometimes exceed 40 degrees C. The coolest months are in February, when nighttime frosts occur. Two thirds of the annual rainfall occurs during the June-to-September monsoon season. The amount of rain that falls decreases as one moves farther away from the Himalayas. Near the edge of Himalayas, rainfall amounts often exceed 100 centimeters a year. In Lahore, about 100 kilometers from the Himalayan foothills, the rainfall is around 50 centimeters a year; at Multa about 500 kilometers away, the rainfall is about 18 centimeters.

Before the British arrived, the Punjab was as almost as dry and dusty as the other parts of Pakistan but through their system of canals and irrigation ditches they made the desert bloom. Canal building not only involved building canals it also involved moving lots of people. Before the British built the irrigation system, flooding was common and towns died when rivers changed course. Under the British new towns sprung up along canals and old ones were abandoned. Canal colonies were established that involved moving the entire population of one region to another.

The main crops of the Punjab are wheat (the staple of the region), rice and sugar. The are two main agricultural season marked by two, prolonged, dry harvest periods: 1) the rabi in April and May; 2) the kharif from September and October. The winter monsoon is light but vital to the wheat crop.

When India and Pakistan were divided in 1947 Pakistan got the larger piece including the city of Lahore which was the center of the Mogul Empire. Parts of traditional Punjab, defined by the five rivers, are located in North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan and Hammu, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh in India.

Pakistani and Indian Punjab

Although the Punjab makes up perhaps a forth of the territory of Pakistan it is the home of almost half of the country’s people. Over 100 million people live in Pakistani Punjab. The population densities are relatively high, particularly in the central areas. With the exceptions of Lahore, the population is around 60 to 70 percent rural. Urban centers are sprawling and it often difficult to determine where the cities and town leave off and the countryside begins. The highest population densities are around Lahore. The lowest are in the desert of the Thal Doab between the Indus and the lower portion of the Chenab.

In Pakistani Punjab, Muslims make up 97 percent of the population; Christians, 2 percent; with small numbers of other groups. Pakistani Punjab comprises 25.7 percent of the Pakistan’s total land area and is far an away its most important agricultural area. Pakistan Punjab is home to 60 percent of Pakistan’s the population. Much of the land is covered by orchards and fields that produce rice, wheat, cotton, fruits and vegetables.

The Punjab in India is known as the home of the Sikhs but in Pakistani Punjab there are very few Sikhs. In Indian Punjab, Sikhs make up 61 percent of the population; Hindus, 37 percent; and Muslims, 1 percent. Christians, Buddhists and Jains and other groups make up less than 1 percent. Indian Punjab comprises only 1.7 percent of India’s total land area but produces 21 percent of India’s wheat and 8.5 percent of its rice. India Punjab has the best infrastructure and the highest per capita income in India.. It also has a lot of industry.

Punjabi Religion and Festivals

Religious beliefs in the Punjab are generally shaped by the religion one belongs to rather than anything uniquely Punjabi. There is some overlapping and sharing of beliefs. Some Hindu and Muslim groups have some similar customs with Sikhs who have traditionally been identified with the Punjab and live in Indian Punjab.

Regardless of religion, Punjabis generally have ceremonies to mark births, namings and death. There are also a number of rituals, ceremonies and festivals linked to the agricultural calendar. The ceremony of “tai” is celebrated by young girls and boys when the first rains arrive. “Kare” in the harvest season is celebrated my married couple in the home of their parents. “Behair” is celebrated by families in March when the weather is pleasant. A ceremony called “Tails” “meaning cattle”) is held in mid-winter and features cow dung fires and giving of sweets to children.

See Sikhs

Punjabi Men and Women

The Punjab suffers from a girl shortage that has increased with the introduction of ultrasound technology. In Punjab there were 793 girls born per 1,000 boys in 2001, down from 875 in 1991. See article BIRTH CONTROL AND FAMILY PLANNING IN INDIA Under People

In urban areas Punjabi women participate in the labor force and are present in many professions. In rural areas they are more likely to be relegated to the home. Women are generally have control over the family budget, take care of young animals, prepare food, care for children and distribute chores among other family members and servants. Among laboring classes, women work but generally do different tasks than men and are paid less.

Punjabi women and women in northern India wear a “shalwat kameez”, a long tunic with baggy pants and scarf. It was invented in the 18th century by Sikhs who wanted women to fight against Muslims on horseback but felt the sari was unfit for combat. Women like it because it is more practical and comfortable than the sari. It is also very popular in Pakistan, where it is usually worn by men. In the Punjab men traditionally have worn turbans, sarong-like “lungis” and “khusas” (kid-skin slippers that are so soft you can squeeze them into a ball in the palm of your hand).

Punjabi Marriage and Weddings

Arranged marriages are common and newlyweds generally live with the groom’s parents. The ceremonies vary greatly according to caste, religion and region. Generally, the family of the bride presents a gift to the family of the groom. The family of the bride pays for the wedding expenses. Gifts in the form of a dowry are given by parents to the bride. Divorce is difficult after children are born but are often inevitable if no children are born.

During grand Punjabi weddings the groom arrives on the back of white horse, wearing a turban, and sit s with his bride by a huge bonfire. A Punjabi wedding was brilliantly brought to life in the film “Monsoon Wedding”.

In Pakistani Punjab, the groom has traditionally been given a ritual bath by a barber at his home and afterward was dressed in a white satin wedding costume and a white turban with gold and floral decorations that hide his face. In the old days he traveled by horse to the bride’s home. Today he usually goes by car. When he arrives he is welcomed with firecrackers and music. While the bride is secluded, the groom signs the nikah, the marriage contract, in the presence of a religious scholar. Afterwards the bride’s father and the scholar go to the bride’s quarters to get her consent. After this the groom takes his wedding vows without the bride being present and passages of the Koran are read.

The following day the bride puts on a red dress adorned with jewels. She and the groom face each other with a mirror between them, their eyes cast downward. A clothe is then thrown over their eyes and the groom asks the bride to be his wife. There is then a celebration with music and dancing. At some point the bride and groom leave in a decorated car for the groom’s house where a large featst hosted by the groom’s father is held. Traditionally, the couple have moved in with groom’s family.

Punjabi Society and Castes

The most important social units in the Punjab are caste, clan, village, family and family groups within a clan known as “patti”s. Clans are generally divisions of a particular caste with a common ancestor. Marriages are generally between different clans within the same caste. Clan names are generally taken as part of an individual’s name.

Many higher caste members are descendants of successful invaders while many lower castes are descendants of people who were conquered or imported from other areas to serve as laborers. The upper castes are generally Brahmans, landowners and skilled artisans. Landowning castes include the Jats, Rajputs, Sainis, Kambohs, Brahmans, Jugars and Ahirs. People of lower caste use different names depending on their religion. For example, a Mazhbi is a leatherworker who is a Sikh. Caste discrimination is not strong. Islam and Sikhism are generally very egalitarian. Many local Hindu sects and movements, such as Radhoswami, also renounce discrimination. Conflicts occur mostly over land, women and water and the need of these things to perpetuate one’s family and property.

Punjabi Towns, Villages and Homes

In the old days, Punjabi towns and cities were fairly compact and walled for defensive purposes. There were many-storied houses and narrow parcels of lands. Now cities and towns are more sprawling and more spacious and don’t have defensive walls. They are administrative and education centers and have agricultural trading sectors and industry.

Punjab villages generally are home to around 1,000 people and are comprised of clusters of houses built together in a compact area and surrounded by a wall. House clusters lie next to each other along narrow roads, sharing many common walls. One can often move around quite easily along rooftops but generally the only access to the rooftops is from within the homes. Outside the walls are work areas, storage areas and sometimes a mill. Beyond these are fields and orchards. Beyond the fields are cremation grounds and ritual sites. Large villages are divided by caste. In canal colonies, villages are laid out in blocks at crossroads.

Typically, the main entrance to a Punjabi village is marked by a masonry gateway called a “durwaza”, which arches over the road and limits the size of vehicles passing through it. Durwazas also serve as meeting places. Around them are generally places where people can sit. Since independence more and more people have built houses outside the walls; sometimes in the middle of fields. Some small hamlets have sprung up. Nearly all villages in the Punjab have electricity and are connected by paved roads.

Most Punjabis don’t live in clay houses any more. Many homes in the Punjab have water tanks shaped like soccer balls, cars, hats or airplanes.

Punjabi Life and Culture

The Punjabi diet is closely related to the Punjab agricultural cycle. In the winter and summer Punjabis typically eat bread made from grains or pulses from last year’s crop and vegetables from the current crop. A typical meal is comprised of maize “roti” (a flat bread cooked in a skillet without oil) and “sarson ka sag” (a thick soup made with mustard greens, spices, onions, garlic and clarified butter). Other times of the year the most common meal is wheat rotl with curried lentils, chick-peas, potatoes, squash and okra.

Important foreign guests in the Punjab are welcomed with receptions with dancing camels, rose-petal alters and thousands of pungent oil lamps. When the guest walk by the camels they bow, rise and then kick high in the air.

The Punjab has distinctive forms of architecture, literature, poetry, dance and art. It is known for its bawdy folk epics, “sufi” poems by Shaik Farid, and romantic epics such as “Heer Ranijha”, “Sassi Punun”, and “Mirza Shahiban”, all by Muslim writers. “Pahadi” (or Hill Style) artists from the Punjabi hills have “displayed a fondness for perspective scene painted in soft colors, probably a result of their admiration of the Mogul imperial style.”

The Gidda is an ancient Punjabi dance performed by woman. Known for its simple, graceful movements, it has traditionally been performed in open courtyards The dance begins in a circle and breaks into two semi-circles and groups of four to six. Dances associated with Harayana include the duph, a dance named after a drum that begin slowly and builds in intensity as the dancers beat on their drums; and the Lahore, a dance performed after the work in the fields is completes and features witty call-and-response exchange.

Bhangra is a funky, beat-driven style of Punjabi folk dance music. Popular in India and Pakistan and among South Asians in Britain and the United States, it combines traditional Punjabi drum-and-percussion music of field workers with Western dance music "in every-shifting East-West hybrids.” It is know for driving, danceable rhythms, ecstatic singing and goofy keyboard riffs.

Traditional bhangra music is performed at harvest festivals called “bisakh”. The name of the music is derived from the word “bhang”—Punjabi for hemp or marijuana—the crop that was often being harvested. The chanting lyrics are meant to entertain fields works and keep their mind off their work. It often incorporates humorous references to wives and mother-in-laws. Bhangra dancing is very popular and performed during the Baisakhi festival in the Punjab. It is performed by men and is very robust and energetic. Drummers playing “dholak” drums usually play at the center of the dancers.

The rhythm for the music is intended to match the movement of a reaper with a scythe. It is provided by a “dhol”, a large barrel drum found in many places in western Asia. It is struck with a stick for the basic rhythm on one side. Complicated cross rhythms are played with the hand on the other side and embellished with rhythms from tablas and dholak drums. Dances were developed to accompany the music.

Around 200 years ago, bhangra became a popular form of entertainment. The “dhol” was replaced by the “dlolak”, which is quieter and better suited for playing more complex rhythms. Other instruments such as the “alghoza” (duct flute), “thumbi” (one-stringed fiddle), Indian harmonium, santoori were added.

Modern Bhangra

In the 1970s, second- and third-generation young South Asian Britons began playing Bhangra music at parties and clubs and groups began making their own music. The ground breaking recording was the album “Teri Chuni De Siare” by a group called Alaap, one of many groups in Britain that played for Punjabi immigrants at parties at weddings. They used a violin, accordion, acoustic guitar, dhol and tabla and stayed pretty close to traditional forms.

Over time Alaap and groups like Heera, Premi and Holle Holle began incorporated more modern elements into their music and molding a unique sound. The music because a fixture of all-day or daytimer clubs, geared towards Asian youths, particularly girls, that had trouble getting permission from their tradition-bound parents to go out late at night. It was not long before bhangra concerts were attracting 2,000 people.

As bhangra grew the groups began using electric guitars, synthesizers, Western drum kits and drum machines. By the late 80s, bhanga began showing up in clubs frequented by white and black youths and the London music press began hailing bhangra as a possible next big thing. A lot of modern bhangra has a Jamaican influence, particularly dancehall reggae, and hip-hop influence. Bhangra parties were all the rage at American universities in the early 2000s. Meadow on “The Sopranos” is shown boogying to it in her car.

Punjabi Agriculture and Industry

The richest agriculturally land in both India and Pakistan is in the Punjab, which has traditionally been regarded as the breadbasket for both countries. The Punjab's Khanna grain markets is one of the largest in Asia. Agriculture in the Punjab relies heavily on irrigation, and has very high cropping densities and levels of investment, with most farmers producing multiple crops and relying much more on machinery and fertilizer than in other parts of South Asia.

The key to the Punjab’s high agricultural productivity has been irrigation. Much of the currently productive land was once desert. The transformation began in 1905 when the British Raj dug a network of canals to draw water from three rivers for irrigation. More canals were built after the partition and farmers were given 15 acre parcels of land. Tube wells were added in the 1950s, making it possible to use water deep in the earth. Some have Persian wheels, driven by camels, which bring the water to the surface. Electrification made it easier to bore wells. By the 1970s the 15 acres parcels were either divided up into small farms run by children or else bought up by rich land owners who created large mechanized farms.

The main crops in the Punjab are wheat, sugar, rice (primarily in the Indian Punjab) and cotton (primarily in the Pakistani Punjab). Since the British era, cotton has been an important cash crop. Cotton was largely abandoned in the Indian Punjab because of the high risk of loss. Rice was introduced in the Amritsar area in the mid-1960s because of widespread flooding, caused in part by the construction of new canals in the area.

The Punjab has traditionally relied heavily on oxen, camels and water buffalo. Cattle populations are higher than elsewhere in India and the animals are generally larger and more productive. With increased mechanization, the number of work animals—namely camels, oxen and Indica cows—have been reduced while the number of milk-bearing animals, namely water buffalo, has increased. The size and productively of these animals has also increased through the use of artificial insemination. Many farmers have Indica-Jersey and Indica-Holstein cows.

Associated with agriculture is an extensive infrastructure, and agricultural and food processing industries and services. There are large distribution centers, dairies and food processing factories. The Punjab also has light and medium manufacturing for products such as textiles, electrical appliances, medical equipment and foodstuffs. Heavy industry produces tractors, railroad cars, cement, bicycles, rickshaws, machinery and tools. There are lots of brickworks around Lahore because there the soil is mostly clay. Outside the chimneyed brickworks little girls as young as six or seven dig mud and clay out of pits for bricks and load it in baskets they carry on their head to the factory.

Green Revolution and the Punjab

The Punjab is where chemical fertilizers and high-yield seeds introduced by the Green Revolution in the 1960s. This and the introduction of relatively small-scale machine and storage technologies and support systems suited for family-owned peasant farms in the 1960s and 70s dramatically improved crop yields.

Agriculture is more productive than it used to be. A field of wheat that produced food for 5 people 75 years ago now produces wheat for between 20 and 50 people. New plant varieties and advances in technology have boosted corn and wheat yields by nearly 80 percent.

This so-called Green Revolution began in the 1960s when the Iowa-born plant scientist Norman Borlaug developed a hybrid strain of wheat that was much more productive than natural strains. Borlaug's "miracle wheat" allowed Mexico to triple its grain production in a few years. When the hybrid was introduced to south Asia in the mid-1960s, wheat yields there leapt 60 percent. New strains of rice and other grains followed. Borlaug died in 2009 at the age of 95. The United Nations Word Food program credited him with saving more lives than any man in history. He received the Noble Peace Prize in 1970.

One of the key advances of the Green Revolution was developing wheat with very short stems. Compared with traditional taller stemmed varieties, the short-strawed strain shifted a higher proportion of plant sugars into the part of the plant where the grain were formed. In this way the plants produced much more food and the result was dramatically higher yields.

Crop yields have soared in Ethiopia and Malawi where modern farming technology has been introduced to peasant farmers. The so called “Malawi miracle” — in which the corn harvest reached 3.44 million metric tons, increasing food production from a 44 percent national deficient to an 18 percent surplus — came about after the country’s own government decided to fork out the money for hybrid seeds and fertilizer, and was assisted by the World Bank in making it happen, using a voucher system.

Problems with the Green Revolution

The Green Revolution has not been a total success story. The amount of landless peasant dramatically increased after Green Revolution was introduced. Studies have show that high-yield dwarf or hybrid crops are more labor intensive not less.

Some environmentalist have argued that the Green Revolution is really an "oil revolution." Higher yields, they say, are more the result of petroleum-fueled machines and petrochemical fertilizers than new plant hybrids. Moreover, the pesticides and fertilizer have been harmful to the environment and degraded the land over time.

The main problems with the short-stemmed wheat and high-yield rice is that they need lots of fertilizer and rely on heavy machinery to harvest the high yields efficiently. It can be argued that even though Borlaug created his plant strains for the developing world it was the farmers in the developed world — who in many cases have received subsidies to help pay for fertilizer and sold their grain as animal feed — that profited the most. In the developing world, farmers and the countries themselves in some cases went into massive debt to pay for fertilizers. And not only that, food from the subsidized farmers in the developed countries drove down prices making farmers and their countries poorer than they otherwise would have been.

Micheal Poolan, a professor at Berkeley told National Geographic, “The only way you can have one farmer feed 140 Americans is with monocultures, And monocultures need lots of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and lots of fossil-fuel-based pesticides, That only works in an era of cheap fossil fuels, and that era is coming to an end. Moving anyone to a dependance on fossil fuels seems the height of irresponsibility.”

Producing massive amounts of grains like wheat also degrades the soil. The land must be ploughed and cultivated each year and for long periods of time is bare, a situation that rarely occurs in nature. Stripped of its cover the soil’s organic matter oxidizes, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. The addition of chemical fertilizers offers temporary relief for crops but the soil itself is weak and easily erodes away.

Some have argued that the whole Green Revolution has been a sham. Vandana Shiva, a nuclear physicist turned agronomist, told National Geographic, “I call it a monoculture of the mind. They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down.” There were 250 kinds of crops in the Punjab before the Green Revolution. Now mostly wheat is grown. Shiva argues that biologically-diverse farms can produce more food with less petroleum-based additions. Her research has shown that compost can be just as effective as a fertilizer and is more beneficial to the soil in the long run.

Punjab Violence

Through the 1990s the Punjab was the site of frequent bombing and ambushes. Human rights groups "documented systematic torture, disappearances, summary executions, prolonged detention without trial and routine arrests by Indian troops." One Amnesty International report said: "Government official have subverted large proceedings initiated to clarify 'disappearances.'"

Between 1984 and 1992, an average of about 5,000 people died every year in Punjab violence that took the form of bombings and raids of villages, buses and trains. There were hundreds of different armed militias and terrorist groups in the Punjab, including Sikhs critical of Sikh violence that were attacked by other Sikhs. Many of armed groups were Sikh separatists that wanted the Punjab, India's breadbasket, to be an independent state.

The violence was sharply curtail in 1992 when the state's chief minister Beant Sing appeared to have defeated the largest insurgents groups. The disappearance of 25,000 Sihks was reported after one anti-terror campaign. In 1995, Sing was killed by a bomb that annihilated him, his 15 bodyguards and his armored car. A bomb blast in November, 1997 during a celebration in Hyderabad for a new film killed 26 people.

See History, Terrorism

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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