The culture of Punjab is an amalgamation of different languages, cultures, customs and ethnic groups. Punjabi people are generally believed to be the descendants of Indo-Aryan, Indo-Parthian and Indo-Scythian people. With arrival of Islam, brought settlers from Persia, the Middle East, Turkey, Afghanistan and Central Asia as well as groups closer to home such as Kashmiris, Pashtuns and Baloch. The majority of Punjab however trace their ancestry to native Jats, Rajputs, Khatris, Aheers and Gujjars. While the vast majority are Muslims there are significant numbers belonging to minority faiths such as Ahmadis, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Baha'i. Punjabis belong to groups known as biradaris, which descend from a common male ancestor. They have traditionally been farmers, soldiers and are still quite prominent politically and are one of the wealthiest and most successful groups in Pakistan. [Source: Ministry of Culture, Pakistan pakistanculture.org ]

Punjabis are the largest linguistic group and often are divided into three occupational castes: Rajputs, Jats, and Arains. Punjabis are generally lighter-skinned and heavily built than the slighter darker-skinned Sinds. They also have a reputation for being very friendly. A veterinary student from London told the New York Times: “People were very welcoming in Lahore — more friendly, actually than in India.”

Most of the Punjabis in Pakistan are Muslims while most of those in India are Hindus or Sikhs.

Punjabi Muslims and Pakistani Punjab

Punjabi Muslims form the majority of the Punjabi ethnicity. Numbering more than 90 million, they are the largest ethnic group in Pakistan and the world's third largest Muslim ethnicity, after Arabs, and Bengalis. The majority of Punjabi Muslims are Sunnis. A minority are Shia (Shiite) and other sects such as Ahmadiyya, which originated in Punjab. About 97 percent of the people living in Pakistan Punjab are Muslims but only 1.5 percent of the people in Eastern Punjab in India are Muslims. [Source: Wikipedia]

Missionary Sufi saints established shrines (dargahs) throughout the Punjab played a major role in introducing Islamic and converting the population. Sufis also made up the educated elites of the Punjab for many centuries and were behind early classical Punjabi epic like Heer Ranjha and Mirza Sahiban written by the Sufis like Waris Shah. Muslims also made major contributions to Punjabi music, art, cuisine and culture.

Saints (known as “Pirs”) are held in high regard in the Punjab, where many have had miracles attributed to them. One saint reportedly could make mud walls gallop. Another prolonged his life by his ability to sleep through the night on only one or two breaths. Maulanan Jalal ud din Rumi, the founder of the Sufi dervishes of Qunia, was reportedly flayed alive and then walked around for four days with his skin in his hand. Many saints broke rules and were in trouble with the mullahs. Madho Lal Husain is one of the most popular Sufi saints in Lahore. After studying long and hard it said he discovered the secret of God. As a test he threw a Qur’an down a well. When people who saw him started calling him a heretic, he called for the Qur’an and it returned to his hands dry and undisturbed. To celebrate he went on a binge of drinking, dancing and singing. He wore red clothes and was involved in scandal involving a young Hindu boy but no one wanted to confront him because they were afraid of his powers.

The Muslim Mughals controlled the region from 1524 until 1739 and blessed the region with magnificent buildings and projects such as the Shalimar Gardens and the Badshahi Mosque, both in Lahore. After the partition of Pakistan and India in August 1947, the minority Hindus and Sikhs in what is now Pakistan largely migrated to India while the Muslims in India Punjab and elsewhere in India settled in the Pakistan.

Punjab Province in Pakistan covers 205,300 square kilometers ((79,284 square miles). Although the Punjab makes up around a fourth of the territory of Pakistan it is the home of almost half of the country’s people. Over 110 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, Christians make up 2 percent of the population; Hindus less than 1 percent. There are small numbers of other groups. Pakistani Punjab is far an away its most important agricultural area of Pakistan. Much of the land is covered by orchards and fields that produce rice, wheat, cotton, fruits and vegetables.

Indian Punjab and Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs

Punjab state in India covers 50,362 square kilometers (19,445 square miles), is home to about 28 million people. It is about a quarter of the size and has a quarter of the population of Pakistan Punjab.. 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 Hindus are found in significant numbers in neighboring states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, which together forms a part of the historical greater Punjab region. Many of the Hindu Punjabis in the Indian capital Delhi are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from various parts of Pakistani Punjab. The Sikh religion originated in the Punjab the 15th century. There are 25-28 million Sikhs worldwide, making it the fifth- largest religion in the world. About half of them live in Indian Punjab.

Punjab is one of the more prosperous states in the nation. Naturally replete with fertile soils and rich water sources, it is primarily an agricultural state, and has continually and infinitely contributed towards the food security of the Indian Republic. Punjab’s many festivals–Teej, Lohri, Basant, and Baisakhi, to name some–are celebrations that mirror the farming ethos. Indeed, Bhangra, the traditional dance of Punjab revolves around, and replicates a farmer’s daily life.

Punjabi History

Historically, Punjab has played host to a number of ethnicities, including the Aryans, Persians, Greeks, Afghans and Mongols, thus bestowed with a rich tangible heritage. Reflecting this history are the countless sites that dot the state: impressive forts & palaces, ancient monuments, architectural marvels and many a battlefield.

Most Punjabis trace their ancestry to pre-Islamic Jat and Rajput castes. However, as they intermarried with other ethnic groups who came to the area, certain qaums (clan or tribal groups) came to predominate, especially Gujjars, Awans, Arains, and Khokkars in northern Punjab, and Gilanis, Gardezis, Qureshis, and Abbasis in the south. Other Punjabis trace their heritage to Arabia, Persia, Balochistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. Thus, in contrast with many other areas, where people often remained isolated, Punjabis had very diverse origins. The extent of this diversity facilitated their coalescence into a coherent ethnic community that has historically placed great emphasis both on farming and on fighting. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The coalescence of the various tribes, castes and the inhabitants of the Punjab into a broader common "Punjabi" identity initiated from the onset of the 18th century CE. Prior to that the sense and perception of a common "Punjabi" ethno-cultural identity and community did not exist, even though the majority of the various communities of the Punjab had long shared linguistic, cultural and racial commonalities. [Source: Wikipedia]

See Sikh Wars

Punjabi Language

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 and Company, 1992]

Punjabi, spoken by nearly half of the population of Pakistan, is an old, literary language whose early writings consist chiefly of folk tales and romances, the most famous being the eighteenth-century Punjabi poet Waris Shah's version of Heer Ranjha (the love story of Heer and Ranjha). Although Punjabi was originally written in the Gurmulki script, in the twentieth century it has been written in the Urdu script. Punjabi has a long history of being mixed with Urdu among Muslims, especially in urban areas. Numerous dialects exist, some associated with the Sikhs in India and others associated with regions in Pakistan. An example of the latter is the variant of Punjabi spoken in Sargodha in central Punjab. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]

Punjabi is closely related to Urdu while Sindh is more distinctive and has more unique features of its own. Siraiki, once regarded as a dialect of Punjabi, is now regarded as a separate language. It is spoken in southwest Punjab and neighboring areas. According to the CIA World Factbook, 2020, Punjabi is spoken by 48 percent of the population of Pakistan; Saraiki, 10 percent.

Muslim Punjabis in Pakistan use the Persian script to write the Punjabi language.

World’s Most Widely Spoken Languages

World’s most widely spoken languages based on the number of native speakers: 1) Chinese — 1.3 billion native speakers; 2) Spanish — 460 million native speakers; 3) English — 379 million native speakers; 4) Hindi — 341 million native speakers; 5) Arabic — 315 million native speakers; 6) Bengali — 228 million native speakers; 7) Portuguese — 220 million native speakers; 8) Russian — 153 million native speakers; 9) Japanese — 128 million native speakers; 10) Lahnda (Western Punjabi) spoken in Pakistan. — 118 million native speakers. [Source: Babbel.com]

World’s most widely spoken languages based on the number of total speakers — 1) English — 1.132 billion total speakers; 2) Mandarin Chinese — 1.117 billion total speakers; 3) Hindi — 615 million total speakers; 4) Spanish — 534 million total speakers; 5) French — 280 million total speakers; 6) Standard Arabic — 274 million total speakers; 7) Bengali — 265 million total speakers; 8) Russian — 258 million total speakers; 9) Portuguese — 234 million total speakers; 10) Indonesian — 199 million total speakers,

The above numbers are total number of people who speak the languages with some speaking it as their mother tongue and others speaking it as lingua franca, and others simply speaking it, perhaps to get ahead in business. Eight of the 10 languages are also most widely spoken languages based on the number of native speakers. But there are some key differences. English narrowly beats out Chinese for the top spot; Japanese and Punjabi drop out while French and Indonesian move up due to the fact that that more people speak them as a second language than as a native language.

According to Babbel.com: With varying estimates of around 118 million native speakers, the Lahnda is a Pakistani macrolanguage that primarily includes Western Punjabi!. More people speak it than German. And doesn’t even include Eastern Punjabi, which is spoken in India.

Punjabi Customs

An important aspect of Punjabi ethnicity is reciprocity at the village level. A man's brother is his friend, his friend is his brother, and both enjoy equal access to his resources. Traditionally, a person has virtually free access to a kinsman's resources without foreseeable payback. This situation results in social networks founded on local (kinship-based) group needs as opposed to individual wants. These networks in turn perpetuate not only friendly relations but also the structure of the community itself. There is great social pressure on an individual to share and pool such resources as income, political influence, and personal connections. Kinship obligations continue to be central to a Punjabi's identity and concerns. Distinctions based on qaum remain significant social markers, particularly in rural areas. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Punjabis predominate in the upper echelons of the military and civil service and in large part run the central government. This situation is resented by many Pashtuns, Baloch, and, particularly by Sindhis, whose numbers and wealth are comparatively small and who are proportionately underrepresented in public positions. Particularly galling to Sindhis is the fact that the muhajirs, who live mainly in their province, are the only overrepresented group in public positions, which is generally traceable to better education in India prior to migrating in 1947. In the early 1980s, tensions mounted between Punjabis and Sindhis because the latter group was feeling alienated from the state. The capital had been moved from Karachi (in Sindh) to Islamabad (in northern Punjab) and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (from Sindh) was not only ousted but hanged. Of the three most prominent national politicians in the 1980s and early 1990s, two were Punjabis: President Zia ul-Haq and Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. Only Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan People's Party leader and prime minister from October 1993, is Sindhi.

Punjabi Castes

Punjabis and often are divided into three occupational castes: Rajputs, Jats, and Arains. Most Punjabis trace their ancestry to pre-Islamic Jat and Rajput castes. However, as they intermarried with other ethnic groups who came to the area, certain qaums (clan or tribal groups) came to predominate, especially Gujjars, Awans, Arains, and Khokkars in northern Punjab, and Gilanis, Gardezis, Qureshis, and Abbasis in the south. Other Punjabis trace their heritage to Arabia, Persia, Balochistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. Thus, in contrast with many other areas, where people often remained isolated, Punjabis had very diverse origins. The extent of this diversity facilitated their coalescence into a coherent ethnic community that has historically placed great emphasis both on farming and on fighting. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In censuses taken in British India, Punjabis were typically divided into "functional castes" or "agricultural tribes." The word caste, however, is grounded in the Hindu notions of reincarnation and karma; Muslims totally reject these religious connotations and use the term qaum instead. Tribal affiliation, based on descent and occupational specialization, tends to merge in Punjab into a qaum identity. An occupational group typically claims descent from a single ancestor, and many tribes traditionally followed a single occupation. The traditional occupation gives the group its name as well as its general position in the social hierarchy. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Punjabi Farm Workers Versus the Nomadic Mahrs

Daniyal Mueenuddin, a member of a Punjab landowning family, wrote in The New Yorker: “The men who ran the farm, Sameer and his buddies, were Punjabis — that is what the indigenous tribes call them, not acknowledging them as locals. Many of their families had been resettled here in the nineteen-forties and fifties from my father’s farm near Lahore, when he geared up to bring this land under cultivation. Before, it had been desert, growing almost nothing, a few fields of chickpeas here and there, wherever the land happened to be level. Persian wheels watered bits of land around the wells, patches of green spreading in season like ink stains. [Source: Daniyal Mueenuddin, The New Yorker, December 3, 2012]

The Punjabis, Sameer and his clan, came with their energy and knowledge and turned the place around, levelled the dunes, made watercourses to link with the canals that the British had built, channelling water from the Indus. The desert people, the nomadic Mahrs, looked on with bemusement at this huffing and hauling, this scraping and striving, out here in the desert. They kept to their old ways, taking their flocks to the desert when it rained, grazing them in the settled areas, around the borders of fields and by the roads, when the fodder out in the desert failed. My father gave one group of them, led by old Jhanda Mahr, corrals and houses at the edge of our property for his extended family, and land on which to grow fodder, in return for the manure from their animals, which we used in our fields.

“The Punjabis persist in thinking the Mahrs witless and unenterprising, the Mahrs think the Punjabis vulgar and unprincipled; it is perhaps no surprise that when finally someone broke the code of omertà, which concealed the managers’ rapacities, it should be Jhanda. My old six-toed shikari did not know the desert. Only the Mahrs knew how to get around out there, and so as a boy whenever I hunted for chinkara antelope I took Jhanda with me in the open jeep, setting out past midnight, when all good children should be in bed, bumping through the night, then into the silkiness of the dunes, leaving the roads behind, the jeep’s little flat-four engine wailing in deep sand. Even Jhanda sometimes got lost under the stars, and would stop the vehicle, trudge up the ridge of the tallest dune, and look around, silhouetted in the moonlight, a figure as old as time, the man at night seeking the way — and then leap giant steps down the sand face, having found some star to steer by, some outline. We had shared the intimacy of the hunt, the kill; at ten or eleven, I shot my first deer under his eyes, had shared the cleanliness of the desert with him, been baptized by the dawn on the desert flats. Later, when I returned to claim the farm, the old man remembered all that.

Punjabi Food and Drinks

The Punjabis like healthy, working class food Bread pumpkins, potatoes, dal (lentils) chapatis, pea and potato curry, and milk are staple of Punjab diet. Punjabi cuisine is known for its rich, buttery flavors and wide range of both vegetarian and meat dishes. Main dishes include sarhon da saag (a stew made with mustard greens) and makki di roti (cornmeal flatbreads made). Karrhi is a spicy, yellow gravy with cakes made of chickpea flour (besan) is commonly served with rice or naan. Basmati rice is indigenous to Punjab.

Common dishes found in the Punjab and eastern Pakistan include “khaman dhokla” (salty, steamed cake made with chickpea flour), “dhansak” (lamb or chicken cooked with curried lentils and served with rice), “khadi” (yogurt and fried puffs spiced with chilies, ginger and bay leaves), “khicheri” (rice and lentils), “rajima” (spicy kidney) and “min vela curry” (fish curry with tamarind, coconut and spices).

Among the drinks found in the Punjab are dairy-based beverages such as lassi and butter milk. Water buffalo milk-based products are especially common. Mango lassi, mango milkshakes and chaas are popular. Juices derived from vegetables and fruits, such as watermelon shakes, carrot juice and tamarind juice (imli ka paani).

Heer and Ranjha

Perhaps the most famous story in the Punjab is the tale of the two lovers Heer and Ranjha, A sort of Punjabi version of Romeo and Juliet, it is a long story with many twists and turns about the love between a handsome, flute-playing, part-time yogi named Ranjha and a beautiful girl named Heer, who comes from a wealthy family.

Heer and Ranija meet after Ranjha was thrown out his house for quarreling with his brothers. They quickly fall in love. Heer prods here father into hiring Ranjha to work as a shepherd for her family. The couple meet secretly in the forest everyday until they are discovered together by Heer’s evil uncle and Ranjha is fired and Heer is forced to marry someone she doesn’t want to marry.

At the end of the story Heer and Ranjha are reunited and given permission to marry. As they are making plans for the wedding Heer is given a poisoned drink and dies. Ranjha is so distraught he lowers himself into her grave and falls dead from despair after he learns what has happened.

Everyone knows the story and everyone knows the ending. The art of the story is in the telling and the poetry. The trials and tribulations of the lovers is also viewed a s a metaphor the relationship between man and God. The most famous telling of the story is in a poem written by Syed Waris Shah in 1776. It is still a matter of debate as to whether Heer and Ranjha were real people or fictional characters. The fascination with the story is interesting because arranged marriages are still the norm and a union like Heer and Ranjha’s would be just as scandalous now as it was then.

Their shrine in Jhang is a popular pilgrimage site. It is said Heer and Ranjha are buried here. Among the hundreds of visitors are women that want to conceive a baby, newlyweds and lovestruck teenagers and lonely singles searching for a mate. One woman who came with her fiancee told AP, “I came to the shrine a year ago to ask the saints to help me find my true love. Now I have him, so we came back to say thank you.” A man visiting the shrine said he was there to say thank for a son after five daughters. The shrine was built in the 16th century and features a facade covered by green, blue and white tiles. It was built to look like a charpoy, a traditional South Asian bed, . Pilgrims eat a pinch of salt from a bowl before they pray before the tomb. The salt is said to bring good luck. Women bring flowers and clothes, Young grooms lay down their wedding clothes.

Attacks in Women in the Punjab

Attacks on women and honor killings are a big problem in Pakistan and they seem to be particularly numerous in the Punjab. Alex Rodriguez wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In Punjab province, women are often treated like chattel. Cases persist of teenage girls forced to marry men in rival families to settle blood feuds. Women who marry against their families’ wishes often become victims of honor killings. In a part of the country where local economies are driven by sprawling textile factories and sugar mills, women rarely own property or run their own businesses. Victimization of women is especially prevalent within the underclass here, where education is lacking and large, extended families scrape by on a few hundred dollars a month.” [Source: Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2012]

In May 2016, Punjab police arrested a man and charged him with killing his wife, who was seven months pregnant, the Express Tribune newspaper reported. Using a club, the man apparently beat the woman to death after she refused to allow him to take a second wife. [Source: Aamir Iqbal and Tim Craig, Washington Post, May 5, 2016]

Also in Punjab around the same time a man tossed acid onto a 37-year-old woman, resulting in burns over 30 percent of her body. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that the woman’s nephew is the main suspect. The man apparently wanted to marry one of the woman’s daughters — his cousin — but was refused. “He was annoyed with his maternal aunt for turning down his marriage proposal,” Azhar Akram, a police officer in Multan, told Dawn.

Woman Stoned to Death in Downtown Lahore

In May 2014, pregnant 25-year-old Farzana Parveen was stoned to death by her own family in front of a downtown Pakistani high court in Lahore before a crowd of onlookers for marrying the man she loved. Associated Press reported: “Nearly 20 members of the woman's family, including her father and brothers, attacked her and her husband with batons and bricks in broad daylight before a crowd of onlookers in front of the high court of Lahore, the police investigator Rana Mujahid said. Hundreds of women are murdered every year in in so-called " honor killings" but public stoning is extremely rare. [Source: Associated Press, May 28, 2014]

“Mujahid said the woman's father has been arrested for murder and that police were working to apprehend all those who participated in the "heinous crime". Another police officer, Naseem Butt, identified the slain woman as Farzana Parveen, 25, and said she had married Mohammad Iqbal against her family's wishes after being engaged to him for years. Her father, Mohammad Azeem, had filed an abduction case against Iqbal, which the couple was contesting, her lawyer Mustafa Kharal said. He confirmed that she was three months pregnant. Arranged marriages are the norm among conservative Pakistanis, who view marriage for love as a transgression.

“Even Pakistanis who have tracked violence against women expressed shock at the brutal and public nature of Tuesday's killing. "I have not heard of any such case in which a woman was stoned to death, and the most shameful and worrying thing is that this woman was killed in front of a court," said Zia Awan, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist.

“Parveen's relatives had waited outside the court, which is located on a main downtown thoroughfare. As the couple walked up to the main gate, the family members fired shots in the air and tried to snatch her from Iqbal, her lawyer said. When she resisted, her father, brothers and other relatives started beating her, eventually pelting her with bricks from a nearby construction site, Iqbal said.

“Iqbal, 45, said he started seeing Parveen after the death of his first wife, with whom he had five children. "We were in love," he told the Associated Press. He alleged that the woman's family wanted to swindle money from him before marrying her off. "I simply took her to court and registered a marriage," infuriating the family, he said. Mujahid said the woman's body had been handed over to her husband for burial.

Punjab Education Reforms

According to the Woodrow Wilson Center: “Punjab was an early mover in education reforms. The province’s “Schools Reform Roadmap” attracted international attention in 2013. However, Punjab’s education reforms actually started in 2003 under former President General Pervez Musharraf, with support from the World Bank. The high frequency of ghost schools and ghost teachers was uncovered around that time. Musharraf once said that “there are between 30,000 and 40,000 ghost schools, amounting to 20 percent of all schools.” [Source: “Pakistan’s Education Crisis”, Woodrow Wilson Center, July 2016 ==]

“In 2010, power over education devolved from the federal government to the provinces. At the same time, Department for International Development (DFID, Britain’s main aid organization) entered Punjab after it re-organized its global programming to focus on countries that were the most poor.

By 2011, when DFID initiated their program, the teacher absenteeism rate was 20 percent. Within one year, the teacher absenteeism rate was reduced to 9 percent.90 Today it is approaching 6 percent. The education program in Punjab became DFID’s largest program in the world. Pakistan is also now the largest recipient of DFID funding in the world. Today, the United Kingdom has displaced the United States as Pakistan’s largest bilateral donor. ==

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (tourism.gov.pk), Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (pakistan.gov.pk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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