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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Pakistan - India - South Asia: Our lost heritage

Pakistan - India - South Asia: Our lost heritage

Wednesday 11 September 2019, by siawi3


Our lost heritage – I

Parvez Mahmood on what modern-day Pakistanis have lost in their efforts to distance themselves from their Subcontinental origins

Parvez Mahmood

May 17, 2019

Image: Modern depiction of the Battle of the Hydaspes, or the Jhelum

Pakistan was created to allow Muslims to live as free citizens without the fear of being dominated by a resurgent, occasionally hostile, Hindu majority. However, not feeling secure even in independence, Pakistani people have driven themselves to a social and historical narrative that strives to align our genetic origins with our religious roots in the East. In pursuit of this goal, we have also shed our heritage; the very values and customs that defined a nation. Some of these trends to delink from the indigenous Indian society started a millennium ago in an atmosphere of insecurity due to frequent armed incursions from the Western passes. After independence, the Pakistani nation should have felt secure enough to display affinity with this land but then the religious zealots took us on a confounded and misleading trajectory.

At the outset, let it be clear that there is no illusion about religion being an important factor in the lives of people all over the world. Even in this age of relative atheism, “living together†and secularism in the liberal Western countries, where people have been estranged from religion, the church continues to hold a visibly important place in society. Irrespective of the level of affinity with religion, births, deaths and marriages are often solemnized as religious events in the church by a priest. Even under the communist regimes, where religion was officially abolished and legally suppressed for a hundred years, people continue to find solace in divine convictions.

Image: Modern depiction of Chanakya

However, we in Pakistan have employed religion as a pivot to distance ourselves from our own land, culture, history and heritage. There has been little realization that in attempting to be what we are not and in rejecting what we are, we will be lost as a people. Being neither here nor there implies that we are nowhere. We have an apt proverb in Urdu for this situation that describes a creature as one half partridge and the other half a quail. That is our true description too.

In trying to move away from being Indians, we have induced ourselves to be Arabesque or Persianate. Now, of course, the Arabs, Persians and Turks are our closest social and religious kith and kin, our natural allies and we feel a natural affinity for them. A large section of our people carries their genes, as well as habits of dress, food, culture and surnames. However, we belong to the South Asian Subcontinent. We are neither Arabs, nor Turks, nor Persians. Even if we try to be one of them, we shall become unacceptable intruders and imposters. Try telling an Arab that in being a Syed, one is an Arab; or telling a Turk that one’s surname of Bokhari entitles one to be a Turk; or a Persian that being a Shirazi by name, one is Persian. Instead of acceptance, such a claim can only raise a mocking smirk!

For some reason, we in Pakistan today portray Chanakya as a villain and a demon whereas he was a realist and understood the complexities of governing a large empire populated with diverse nationalities

One staggering loss in this identity crisis has been a name that has been appropriated by our Eastern neighbour. We are children of the Indus. Most of the country and its nearly entire grain producing farmlands are drained by this river and its numerous large and small tributaries. There are three major geographical divisions of the Subcontinent. One of them is the Vindhya Hill ranges that separate North and South India. The second is the gentle hump separating the east-flowing Ganges and its tributaries and the West-flowing Indus and its tributaries – this distinguishes the modern nations of Pakistan and Bharat.

The Persians called the land Hindush, a Sanskrit equivalent of Sindhu, which was the historical local reference to the Indus River. Even the ancient Greeks referred to the Indians as Indoi, which translates as “The people of the Indus†. We, the people of Pakistan were therefore in error in simply relinquishing the name ‘India’ to our eastern neighbour. It is our name.
Carving of Lord Buddha from the region that is today Pakistan

The great Sanskrit poem Mahabharata tells us that Bharat, meaning the ‘Cherished’, was a descendant of the Lunar dynasty and was the ancestor of Kauravas and Pandavas, two antagonists of that epic battle. We are also told that he sacrificed horses on the banks of the Yamuna, the Saraswati and the Ganges, but none for the Indus. Bharat, therefore, is the proper religious, cultural and natural name of a country that reveres the Mahabharata and the Ganges.

That the people beyond the Indus were called Indoos or Hindus, who happened to be of a different religion, is a geographical allusion and not a religious one. Nevertheless, we the people of Pakistan, irrespective of their religion, are the true Indians; the inhabitants of the land of the Indus. Of course this cultural loss has now gained permanence as Bharat and India are the official names of our eastern neighbour but we need to be mindful of our cultural loss in losing our rightful alternate name.

Image: Stone carving from ancient Taxila

The second loss is that of historical narrative. This is a great loss and has multiple dimensions. The Subcontinent was ruled by Sultans of Turkish and Persian origin. for seven hundred years, from the Ghaznavid raids in or about 1000 AD to Nader Shah’s invasion in 1739 AD. These ruling families, their fellow migrant noble compatriots and their chroniclers legitimately traced their history to their own lands of origin. Unfortunately, this trend, fuelled by the religious class, crept in the psyche of most of the Subcontinent’s Muslims. My paternal grandfather’s great grandfather converted to Islam. He was a migrant from Kashmir to Amritsar. My family had lived in the valley for centuries since the Aryan irruption from Central Asia. How do I shun or escape this history and at what point do I cut short my past and dishonestly develop factitious links to some prominent town or personality of the erstwhile Abbasid province of Khorasan? This is not to say that those who do so, believing that to be their factual lineage, are wrong but the question still stands: at what point in time does one start belonging to the land that has nourished one’s forefathers and delete the various prefixes and suffixes that indicate them to be progeny of intruders and raiders of this land?

When renouncing the history of our part of the land, we have become alienated from some of the sons of this soil who should have done us proud. The first of these is the dignified Raja Porus who was born in the Punjab and his kingdom extended over the Chaj Doab – the land falling between the rivers Jhelum and Chenab. His blood descendants are more likely to be living amongst us rather than across the border. We should claim him as one of our heroes. There is hardly any reason for repudiating his legacy from our national narratives especially when the famous battle of the Hydaspes, between the ancient Punjabi armies of Porus and Greek forces of Alexander the Great was fought in 326BC. That happened 900 years before Islam and 300 hundred years before Christianity came into being. We live on an ancient land that was a thriving concern much before these religions came into existence. We should be proud of that.


: The Bakhshali manuscripts are ancient mathematical treatises discovered near modern-day Mardan, which is today in Pakistan

Taxila – Takshashila – of the ancient world- was the centre of a great civilization. One of its greatest luminaries was Chanakya, also known as Kautilya, He was a philosopher, a political scientist and an economist. His Arthasastra is perahps the first ever treatise on politics, statecraft and economics, predating Machiavelli’s The Prince by 1,800 years. He mentored Chandragupta, the architect of the Mauryan Empire and served as his Chief Minister. He was in his 40s when Alexander traversed from north to south through the land that constitutes all four provinces of Pakistan. He helped in defeating and expelling the Greeks from Punjab to well across the Indus. He is perhaps the greatest Indian of the ancient world and he was born and raised in Taxila; on the northern slopes of Islamabad’s Margalla Hills.

For some reason, we in Pakistan today portray Chanakya as a villain and a demon whereas he was a realist and understood the complexities of governing a large empire populated with diverse nationalities. He was a great philosopher of political science and laid the foundations of this discipline of scholarship. His appearance in the sketches available on the internet casts him as a typical temple priest. They are images conceived by a Brahmanical mindset and may or may not bear any similarity to the historical Chanakya. However, that is immaterial. He, too, lived much before the advent of Islam or Christianity and Pakistanis should not hold a religious grudge against persons of pre-Islamic times. We should be proud that our land – in the neighbourhood of our capital city – gave birth to this sage. We could even establish a department in Taxila university in his name to teach political science and political economy, the subjects that he conceived.

The legacy of the Gandhara civilization is primarily our heritage and not necessarily that of the people of the Ganga-Yamuna or trans-Narmada regions

Among so many others, another local achievement of great significance that we have neglected to tell our children is the fact that the oldest mathematical manuscript in the world was found at Bakhshali, a village north-east of Mardan. The document, carbon dated to AD 224-383, contains the first recorded zero in history. The 70 leaves of birch bark contain mathematical rules, problems and their solutions in arithmetic, algebra and geometry, on topics of fractions, square roots, progressions and equations of linear and quadratic type. That is a lot of modern calculations. No wonder that India is acclaimed as the original home of numerals and mathematics! It flourished in the regions encompassing the Taxila civilization from where it spread eastwards to the rest of the Subcontinent and westwards to Persia and beyond.

The cultural and scientific achievements that are the legacy of the Gandhara civilization are primarily our heritage and not necessarily that of the people of the Ganga-Yamuna or trans-Narmada regions who now take the overwhelming amount of credit for these inventions.

The meeting of Alexander and Porus after their great battle on the banks of the Jhelum

It is actually the ancestors of modern-day Pakistanis who have given numerals and mathematics to the world. We should feel that pride and claim the honour.

The next part of this series will discuss our lost heritage in terms of festivals, names and religious figures.



Our lost heritage – II

Parvez Mahmood on what modern-day Pakistanis have lost in their efforts to distance themselves from their Subcontinental origins

Parvez Mahmood

May 24, 2019

In the first of this two-part series, I argued that Pakistani people are becoming rootless social orphans. Our hiraeth for a non-existent Islamic utopia has compelled us to abdicate our organic connection to our land and to abandon our links to our past. In this part I shall carry the argument forward to various facets of our social existence.

The South Asian Subcontinent is home of two glorious civilizations based in the areas that constitute Pakistan. The Indus Valley culture started in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa before it spread to the Gangetic valley. And the Gandhara culture flourished along the river valleys between the Margalla Hills and the Hindu Kush Mountains. The earliest fossils of cotton were found at Mehrgarh near the Bolan Pass; a site that is dated to between 7000-2500 BC and is a precursor of the Indus Valley culture. The other signs of earliest cotton were found at Rakhigarhi, a town in Haryana, where the Indus culture had spread along the now extinct Ghaggar River that may have been either an independent sister stream of the Indus or, as the sand samples suggest, may have changed course to become the Sutlej River. It was the Indus and not the Gangetic people that gave cotton to the world and the earliest civilization to the Subcontinent.

Image: A Mughal depiction of a dervish with a lion and a tiger from around 1650

And yet we, the Muslims of the Subcontinent, are unique in the Islamic world in that when we converted to Islam, we changed our names from Indian names to Persian, Turkish and Arabic names.

There are, in reality, no Islamic names. When the Arabs converted to Islam, they retained their pre-Islamic names. There was a time in those early days when some persons with popular names as Amr, Hisham, Zainab and Abdullah were Muslims while others were non-Muslims. The Prophet (PBUH), too, did not specify any particular names to be used for Muslims. Similarly, pre-Islamic Turkish and Persian names became “Islamic†when people converted in these lands. Islamic scholars, too, agree on this issue but we the Indian Muslims have always changed our names on conversion.

My 8th ancestor, who converted from Hinduism to Islam after his migration from the Kashmir Valley to Amritsar in the early 19th century, also became Saddique Sheikh from whatever was his original name. He didn’t have to. On a personal note, I have always been partial to the name Sukhdev since my childhood. It’s a beautiful flowing name with elegant, humanitarian meanings. The equivalent word in Arabic and Persian is “Paikar-e-Rahat†. If our society had been a little tolerant, I would have added this as a suffix to my name. I find nothing wrong in being called “embodiment of happiness/comfort†in my own language.

Mir Taqi Mir in one of his long poems writes that Holi was the Nauroz of India. Nazir Akbarabadi wrote a poem on the festival

We also seem to have blurred the lines between culture and religion. It seems at times that every cultural festival with Indian roots has been labelled as un-Islamic. Muslims in other parts of Islamic lands have not shed their seasonal festivities. Iranian and Central Asians had been celebrating Nowruz as the spring festival for over a thousand years before the advent of Islam; at a time when they were overwhelmingly Zoroastrians. They continue to do so, to this day. Arabs didn’t celebrate the festival and they don’t do it now, perhaps because in the desert environment there is no meaningful spring season. In our time, Arabized Pakistani extremists raise vocal and physical resentment against the festival but they fail to realize that it has nothing to do with religion.

A number of Islamic festivals themselves have their roots in pre-Islamic celebrations. This may be said of the two Eids, too. And our Islamic greeting of As-Salam Alilkum and tbe response Wa-Alikum Salam come straight from the Jewish Semitic greetings of Shalom Alechem and its response Alechem Shalom, implying that it there are some events and traditions that are regional and cultural rather than religious.

Photo: Holi in Allahabad, India

With this background of a continuation of seasonal and cultural traditions even within Islam, it is strange that we have given up Holi as un-Islamic. It is a spring festival – much like Basant is in the Central Punjab or as Mela Charaghan (Festival of Lights) is in Lahore. Holi is a folk celebration of our land and not necessarily a religious festival. Common local Muslims celebrated this festival till the beginning of the previous century. Mir Taqi Mir in one of his long poems writes that Holi was the Nauroz of India. Nazir Akbarabadi wrote a poem on the festival. Its opening verse is:

Miyan tu hamse na rakh kuchh ghubaar Holi mein
Ki roothe milte hain aapas mein yaar Holi mein

He means that we should clear our hearts of resentments during Holi because even estranged friends greet each other on this day.

Holi, as the festival of colours, is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. It has been celebrated in UAE for some years now and was allowed in Saudi Arabia as well this year – where Saudis themselves participated while spraying colours on each other. A modified version in the shape of ‘Run for Colours’ is held in most parts of the world. I myself took part in one such run in Australia where organizers had placed colour spray guns at several places along the 3-kilometre route of the run/walk. It was great fun, with hundreds of people of every nationality participating in the festival and going back home in rainbow colours. We in Pakistan seem to be the only ones who have shunned it, though we the people of north Indian Punjab, Rajasthan, UP and adjoining states may be the originators of this festival!

Photo: The Sindh government declared a public holiday for Holi

Basant has now been officially banned due to safety reasons but it had been facing stiff resistance from religious extremists in the country, along with the beautiful marriage festival of Mahndi and the solemn Qul day after a death. The tragedy of our times is that for a large section of our society, everything is either “Islamic†or “heretic†. That is a very unhealthy social attitude.

This state of disorientation has become so acute that the Sindhi and Southern Punjab culture of joining hands to wish someone and show respect, or touching of feet or knees of an elder, is dubbed as “un-Islamic†by many people in Northern Punjab and KP – as if the peaceful and loving people belonging to the lands of the Sufis need a lesson in Islam from the people of the north!

The consequence of a violent divorced from our land and our past, and of making ourselves cultural and historical orphans, are not emphasized nearly enough in Pakistan.

Image: Figurines from the Mehrgarh civilization

Consider this: since 1947 we have produced two Nobel laureate Pakistanis but a very large majority of us do not own either of them. We had a world respected philanthropist in Edhi, yet many elements of our religious leadership considered him misguided at best or heretic at worst, because he rose in compassion to serve humanity rather than Muslims.

We have five Nobel laureates affiliated with Lahore itself: Rudyard Kipling whose Kim is set in Lahore, Arthur Compton who taught Chemistry in Punjab University, Har Gobind Khorana who was born in the city and studied in Punjab University, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who was born in Lahore and Abdus Salam who was educated and taught at Government College Lahore. There are not many cities in the world that can boast of such scholarship attached to them, yet we honour none of them publicly (on religious grounds?) nor have we set them as role models for our students. Any other city would have erected monuments to them. A large majority of Lahoris, even old residents with historical roots in the city, would be astonished to learn of this glory.

Image: Remains of a settlement from Mehrgarh

Can we name any other country where scholarship is accepted or rejected on religious grounds?

We should take notice that some of the equally religious and devout peoples in the Muslim world cling to their past without any qualms. Egyptians are proud of their civilization with no loathing for deities such as Ra the sun god, Thoth the god of wisdom or Hathor the goddess of fertility/motherhood. This, despite the fact that a large percentage of Egyptians is either of Arab stock or, in case of ancient section of population, has completely Arabized and are collectively considered – and perhaps some in Pakistan may not not like this – actually better practising Muslims than us. Our western neighbour Iran, who themselves are now officially more devout than us, have pride in their imperial past from the Achaemenids (the dynasty that was terminated by Alexander) to the Sassanids (the dynasty that was liquidated by Muslim Arabs).

Our land has been a centre of spirituality. Sufism started its journey in Baghdad, Spain and Khorasan, but it found perhaps its most ardent followers in the entire length and breadth of the Indian Subcontinent, as evidenced by the presence of innumerable khanqahs throughout the land. Even one poet of the calibre of Bulleh Shah, Shah Inayat, Shah Abdul Latif, Sachal Sarmast, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Shah Inayatullah, Shaikh Ayaz, Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, Waris Shah, Sultan Bahu, Shah Hussain, etc would be the pride of any other nation.

We have five Nobel laureates affiliated with Lahore itself

We have a rich tradition in this genre of literature as well as in its musical rendering.

Punjab has given birth to one religion as well – and contains most of the sites considered holy by its adherents. We must recognize that despite a lot of historical bad blood between Muslims and Sikhs, the latter religion has survived for the last five hundred years and is still flourishing today. Its followers have gained a well-earned respect the world over. They admire our saints almost as much as most of the Muslims do. Let’s rejoice in our brand of spirituality and not give it up for alien austere attitudes towards culture.

On a final note, I would like to emphasize that a good gauge for who we are is “how others see us†In my travels abroad, I have found that my wife, attired in the traditional shalwar-qameez and dupatta, was called a Hindi in Saudi Arabia or an Indian Sikh in the West. Even when corrected that we are Pakistanis, some people continue to insist “OK. But Indian.â€

We don’t like it, of course, but to them, that’s what we are: Indians. Let’s remember that we shall never be accepted as Arabs or Persians or Turks, whatever prefix or suffix our names may stress.

We have a bountiful land in terms of culture and history. Our history goes back to the earliest times of antiquity. We are inheritors of two different civilizations. We have rich traditions of poetry, traditions and seasonal festivals. We need to develop a sense of belonging to and taking pride in this land. Only then we can truly love this country and become one nation, and be thankful for what the Almighty has granted us.


Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues.