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The ignored Dardic languages

Pakistan is home to over 70 languages. Some ten of them are widely spoken; the remaining ones are struggling to survive. In the north of Pakistan, there is a vast group of languages that transcends high mountains and meanders through passes and valleys: this is the Dardic group of languages.

In the absence of any government research efforts and support, languages are left to local experts and scholars who strive – in whatever way they can – to carry out self-financed research and scholarly work. Two of these outstanding personalities are Aziz Ali Dad, from Gilgit, and Zubair Torwali, from Bahrain, Swat. Both have published on the culture and languages of the northern mountains of Pakistan, in international journals and anthologies. This column will introduce some of the work that Zubair Torwali has done to preserve a few Dardic languages including the Torwali language.

It is a sad reality that in our 74 years of independent life, we have not been able to do much for promoting and protecting local languages. Right from the 1950s, the entire state machinery preferred to minimise, and even overlook, the importance of languages other than Urdu. Dardic languages such as Balti, Shina, and Torwali, which add to the richness of the linguistic cornucopia that Pakistan is, have not fared well in the government scheme of things. The state has mostly focused on promoting uniformity rather than appreciating the diversity of its cultural, ethnic, and linguistic smorgasbord.

The ‘Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi’ (IBT) or the Institute for Education and Development, established by Zubair Torwali and his friends in Bahrain, Swat, is doing some valuable work in that region. One of the feats that it has achieved is the compilation and translation of anonymous Torwali poets – both men and women – who have enriched the Torwali language by penning down their emotions and feelings. The first book that I came across was titled ‘Enan’ which is a Torwali word for rainbow. It is a marvellous effort to introduce the new generation of Torwali speakers – and the speakers of other languages – to the classical and folk poetry of the Torwali language.

‘Enan’ presented the poetry with its Urdu translation, making it accessible to a large number of Urdu readers who may be interested in the diversity of the languages present in Pakistan. It was a good effort to preserve the fine cultural heritage of Swat and Kohistan. This poetry shares folk traditions and wisdom which deserve appreciation and understanding at both the national and international levels. Pakistan as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country must cherish its rich heritage and present it to the world rather than promoting singularity and uniformity in whatever guise they come.

Zubair Torwali makes it clear that most of the problems that we face in terms of national cohesion and harmony are actually the result of the persistent negation of cultural, linguistic, and political aspirations of smaller ethnic groups and nationalities. Torwali is just one of the many languages that have not received any state patronage from the federal or provincial administrations. The federal government has been more interested in promoting Urdu whereas the present and previous provincial governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) have not even done much about promoting the Pashto language, let alone the languages that smaller ethnic groups speak.

The Awami National Party government was an exception in this case and deserves appreciation for the work that it did – or at least tried to do – for multiple languages that people speak in KP. Torwali is a language that many people in upper Swat and Madyan speak. The beautiful valleys of Bahrain, Sataal, Panji Gram, Puran Kaam, Kalaam, and many others have hosted thousands of Torwali-speaking people over the centuries. In these areas, another Dardi language called Gojari is also widely spoken. Zubair Torwali informs us that in these areas the first humans who arrived were Torwali people who belonged to Indo-Aryan Dardic culture.

They ruled in and around Swat for centuries before being outnumbered by other groups. The Torwali language descended from Dard which was a branch of the Indo-Aryan group of languages. In that sense, Torwali is not only a language, it also encompasses civilisation and culture that is a historical heritage of Swat. Today, speakers of the Torwali language are nearly 150,000, but if you compare it with some other Dardic languages of this region which have no more than a couple of thousand speakers, Torwali is spoken by a considerable number.

Zubair Torwali is proud that his language has nurtured folk tales, and its poets have kept the language alive despite having no script of its own. He believes that contrary to common perception, languages that do not have millions of speakers also have rich literature. All languages deserve appreciation, promotion and respect irrespective of how small a community speaks it. All communities have a right to learn, speak, and write their languages, and that’s what our ministries of culture and education must learn. The lack of promotion of smaller languages leaves them at the mercy of the whims of time.

Dardic languages are widespread from Baltistan and Gilgit to Indus Kohistan, Chitral, and Kalaam, and Nuristan in Afghanistan. Some researchers believe that this entire region was once called Dadistan or Dardi Land. In terms of phonetic similarities and terminology, Torwali is related to several Indian languages and contains a lot of Sanskrit words in it. Classical poetry of the Torwali language uses a typical genre called Zho which is sung in three distinct ways. Another genre in Torwali poetry is ‘Phal’ which is quite similar to ghazals and has three sub-genres.

Zubair Torwali – with his dynamic friends Aftab Ahmed Torwali and Mujahid Torwali – is also working to promote education with a particular focus on the Torwali language so that children of those areas can receive education in their mother tongue. They have prepared a syllabus in the Torwali language and the poetry book ‘Enan’ is part of that. Most of the poets included in this anthology are no more in this world, but their art survives – thanks to Zubair and his friends. They have done painstaking work by collecting, compiling, and translating this poetry that would have disappeared without their strenuous efforts to preserve it.

A second volume of this series appeared in 2021, compiled by Javaid Iqbal Torwali and translated by Zubair. ‘Sarbuland’ is another achievement to Zubair Torwali’s credit. It is an academic journal of High Asia, which means the northern areas of Pakistan. It contains 40 articles and essays on cultural and social issues of that region. Its highly informative and enlightening papers carry the names of authors such as Aziz Ali Dad, Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Mumtaz Hussain from Chitral, Razwal Kohistani, S Kaverin and AZ Shmelyoff from Russia, Hasan Hasrat who has written over two dozen books on these areas, and Kashif Ali from Gujrat University who has a doctorate on Kalash culture.

Some of the best papers in this collection are by Imran Khan Azad on Swat, Zubair on Torwali language and literature, Ashfaq Ahmed on the lost history of the Balor state, Aftab Ahmed on education in the mother tongue, Mufti Inayat on the Mankiyali language by, and Zaman Sagar on the Gowri language spoken in Dir, Kalaam, and Kohistan.

Email: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "The ignored Dardic languages," The News. 2021-10-17.
Keywords: Education , Education development , Promote education , Education Ministry , Institutions , Literature , Scholars , Aziz Ali Dad , PM Imran Khan , Gilgit , Kohistan , IBT