What kind of a language is Kashmiri?

I want to begin a series of posts on Brown Pundits on culture, history, language and politics of the Kashmir valley – a bit of an insider’s account. When writing about Kashmir it is unfortunately very easy to get drawn into, rather inextricable, India-Pakistan political tangles that the Valley has suffered from. I will try to describe the modern Kashmiri politics too (against the larger Indo-Pak backdrop) and its evolution since the early medieval period in one of my posts. However, for the rest I’ll try my best to steer clear of such political discussions when discussing the local culture and people.

Please note that when I speak of Kashmir, I speak only of the Valley of Kashmir – for that is what Kashmir really is. It is not Jammu, it is not “Azad” Jammu & Kashmir, it is not Gilgit-Baltistan and it is not Ladakh.

So, with that little introduction, let me begin by discussing a topic that is after my heart – my mother tongue, Kashmiri, or as we call it in Kashmiri: Koshur

Kashmiri language is primarily spoken in the Valley of Kashmir and by Kashmiri ethnic diaspora communities in other parts of India or abroad. It is one of official languages recognized by the Indian state and typically written in three scripts: Sharada (the original and oldest-known script used for the language), Devanagari (used today mainly by Kashmiri Pandits with some vowel modifications) and Nastaliq (used by both Pandits & Muslims). Due to its Constitutional status, one can find Kashmiri written (in Nastaliq) on any Indian banknote along with a dozen other languages. The use of Nastaliq for Kashmiri differs markedly from its use for, say, Urdu or Persian, in that the modified-Nastaliq used for Kashmiri always marks vowels and diphthongs.

Kashmiri is not similar to Hindi/Urdu (or to Punjabi, Pahari or other north Indian languages) at all. Needless to add that it isn’t mutually intelligible with any of them. Kashmiri is a member of the wider Indo-Aryan family of languages – but the kinship almost ends there. In terms of its development from early Vedic dialects, Kashmiri (and Dardic branch in general) split off very early compared to the Sauraseni Prakrit – which gave rise to modern-day Punjabi/Pahari/Hindi/Urdu/Gujarati etc.

Kashmiri preserves many archaic features of Sanskrit speech – lost in a majority of languages of the plains. Kashmiri is semi-inflected, more like Sanskrit, and unlike Hindi.


Skt. “drakshaH khadam” > K. “dachh khyeim”

Compare with “Mainey angoor khaye” in Hindi. Note that Kashmiri, like Sanskrit, inflects the verb “khyon” (to eat) and there is no need of the pronoun equivalent of Hindi “mainey”.

Skt. “tatra ma gatchha, tatra aast siMhaH” > K. “tot ma gatshh, tatyi aos suh”

Compare with Hindi “wahan nahin jao, wahan sher tha”. Again Kashmiri uses the verb “gatshh” (to go) in imperative tense just like in Sanskrit.

Kashmiri has a very different and much more extensive vowel system and uses the schwa and diphthongs (i.e. combinations of vowels) a lot compared to Hindi/Punjabi, which makes it sound very different (some say like Russian/Slavic languages).

E.g. no word in this ordinary Kashmiri sentence has a simple vowel – they are all long vowels or diphthongs:

“tsooraa, daeris dyoo shyenah-shyenah tsyal, makaana-maelyikh ha bozyee”

“O thief, to-window give slowly push, (or else) house-owner may-hear”

Note how the non-native Arabic loanword “malik” (lord/owner) has been changed in Kashmiri – by changing /a/ to the diphthong /ae/ and /i/ to /yi/.

Kashmiri also changes all word-final /k/, /t/ and /p/ to aspirates /kh/, /th/ and /ph/. Hence the final -k in “malik” changes to /kh/.

Skt. “taapa” (heat) > K. “taaph”,
Skt. “ropya” (silver) > K. “roph”
Skt. “taraka” (star) > K. “taarukh”
Skt. “prati” (every) > K. “prath”
Skt. “shata” (hundred) > K. “hath”
Skt. “pata” (fallen, behind) > K. “path” (behind, trailing, remote)

Also, notice the addition of the schwa, i.e, the (semi-vowel) -a ending, as in “makaan” > “makaana”. This is another feature that Kashmiri preserves from Sanskrit. Hindi, on the other hand, tends to delete the schwa endings in Sanskrit, e.g. Skt. “yoga” > Hindi “yog”.

And K. “shyenah-shyenah” is also from Skt. “shanaiHi-shanaiHi”, which translates to “slowly-slowly”.

Another overwhelming characteristic of Kashmiri is its frequent use of the voiced sibilant /z/ in native words (i.e. words it has not borrowed from any other language). Hindi-Urdu also uses /z/, but only in non-native (borrowed) words.

So, the verb “bozun” (to hear or see, to perceive) used in the above sentence is just the Kashmiri form of Skt. ‘bud/bod’ – 1st conj. parasmaipada (transitive) verb. cf. Skt. ‘bodam’ (I perceived) > K. ‘boozum’
Similarly, we have many other examples of Skt. /d/ or /j/ (and sometimes /s/) changing to /z/ in Kashmiri:

‘adya’ (today, now) > ‘az’ (today)
‘dvi’ (two) > ‘za’
‘raja’ (king) > ‘raza’
‘bhaja’ (cook) > ‘vaza’
‘vajra-mala’ (lightning) > ‘vuzmal’
‘puja’ (worship) > ‘pooza’
‘jivha’ (tongue) > ‘zyav’
‘jnana’ (knowledge) > ‘zaan’
‘jana’ (to generate, give birth) > ‘zyon’
‘jeeva’ (life) > ‘zoo’, ‘zuv’ [Cf. Greek ‘zoo’ which also means life and is a cognate]
‘dhyana’ (consciousness) > ‘zoan’ [Interestingly that the same Skt. word gives rise to Japanese ‘zen’]
‘jala’ (water) > ‘zal’ (urine)
‘maMsa’ (meat) > ‘maaz’

Finally, Kashmiri has no voiced aspirates /bh/, /dh/ or /gh/ – all of which change to /b/, /d/, /g/.

E.g. Skt. “bhavami” (I am) > K. “ba” (I)
Skt. “bhrhaspativara” (Thursday) > K. ‘brasvar’
Skt. “bhruma” (brow, eyebrow) > K. ‘buma’
Skt. “dhuma” (smoke) > K. ‘duh’ [Note Hindi “dhuaN” preserves /dh/]
Skt. “ghana” (viscous, thick) > K. ‘gon’ [Again Hindi “ghanaa” preserves /gh/]
Skt. “gharma” (warmth, sunshine) > K. ‘garm’ [Note Hindi “garmi” is via Farsi, not Skt.]

While there are many other aspects and complexities of the Kashmiri language which I have not mentioned here, the above details are enough to give most people a flavour of the language: how it sounds and why it sounds so different from Hindi or Urdu. I would urge people to visit the following extensive resource on the Kashmiri language for more details:
An Introduction to Spoken Kashmir

There are some differences in the usage of Kashmiri depending on whether the person speaking it is a Kashmiri Pandit or Muslim. Nonetheless, this division is not nearly as material as say that between (Sanskritized) Hindi and (Perso-Arabized) Urdu. The dialectical categorization of Kashmiri is more based on region (e.g. Anantnag vs. Srinagar) or economic/social status (as spoken in cities vs. as spoken in villages) rather than religion.

Of course, there are specific words in the language that specify religious concepts – and they are bound to be different for Pandits and Muslims. But for non-religious concepts the words used by Pandits or Muslims are essentially the same.

As an example of what spoken Kashmiri sounds like, I will end with a fantastic rendition of classic Kashmiri love poetry, sung by the inimitable Shameem Dev Azad – considered to be one of the best singers Kashmir has ever produced. She is married to ex-CM of J&K State, ex-Cabinet Minister and senior leader in the Indian Congress party, Ghulam Nabi Azad (whence Azad), though she was unmarried at the time this programme was produced.

This particular clip is from an episode of a series called Anhaar that was produced by Doordarshan Srinagar and ran from 1978-1980. The conductor (also the producer of this series) is Padma Shri Pandit Bhajan Sopori, a santoor maestro of the sufiyana mousiqi gharana of Sopore, Kashmir.

The song itself is a poem composed by the 19th century Kashmiri poet Rasul Mir. It expresses a sentiment very common in Kashmiri love poetry, about the woman pining for her beloved (K. madano < Skt. madana lit. beloved, god of love). In that respect, Kashmiri literature clearly continues the Sanskrit tradition of love-poetry (ghatakarparaH*, vikrama-urvashiyam etc) where it is always the woman singing about lost love, as opposed to, say, Persian poetry (of Khayyam or Sa’adi) which is typically from the male’s POV.


[*] A correction to meghadutam, which, as Pramathanath Sastry points out below, is from the male’s POV.

Romanticizing the regressive

A few months ago I happened to watch the film Meet the Patels. Though you do meet all the “Patels”, the film centers around the love life, or lack thereof, of the actor Ravi Patel.

Filmed by his sister, the documentary predates Patel’s current modest fame by many years (he has a small recurring role in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None). As his life has changed in many ways, perhaps his views and outlook have too. The comments I’m making in this post are not about Ravi Patel, but rather about the views he expressed many years ago in this documentary at a particular point in his life, and how it reflects a thread of South Asian American nostalgia and romanticism of our cultural roots.

Like many young Indian Americans Patel and his sister grew up between worlds. Their parents arrived in the United States among the very first wave of Indian immigrants, which today makes them somewhat unique, as there has been a huge migration since the 1990s from India due to the H-1B visa program. At one point the matriarch of the small American Patel clan bemoans how Americanized her children are compared to many other Indian Americans, who arrived later, when various South Asian American communities were more mature.

But Ravi and his sister are not entirely Americanized. Or they weren’t. Both avoided the conventional dating rituals of American life deep into their 20s, and as of filming Meet the Patels Ravi had had only one girlfriend, Audrey. Attractive, and depicted as level-headed and kind, on paper Audrey seems to have been the perfect girlfriend. But there was a major problem with her biodata: Audrey is a white American.

Eventually Ravi broke up with Audrey because of his confusions as to what he wanted in his life, and whether she belonged in it. Did he want what all his friends had? The American dream of love and marriage. Or, did he want what his parents had? An Indian arranged marriage with commonalities of culture.

But there is more to the Patels than just an Indian arranged marriage. Ravi Patel’s parents want him to marry someone from the same subcaste of Patels from the region of Gujarat that they come from. This is entirely typical of Indian culture. But it is rather peculiar in an American context. Though in some ways Ravi finds this all strange, some part of him also entertains the idea that his parents have a mutual comfort, a cultural identity, which he envies. At one point he goes back to Gujarat to a celebration of his people, his subcaste of Patels, and he looks around at wonderment at the safety and security of being among his his kith and kin. A sense of belong clearly has come over him.

As far back as Herodotus Indian society seems to have been characterized by caste. Genetically the castes, and more precisely jatis, are very distinct. And their persistence on the Indian scene suggest some level of functional utility.

Realistically Ravi could never recreate what he felt in Gujarat in the United States because such a community does not truly exist. Yes, there is kinship among Patels, as recounted by stories about Ravi and his family on the road, staying at Indian owned motels. But in the United States the Patels are a Diaspora, an archipelago of families scattered across the 50 states.

The romantic notions that Ravi airs in Meet the Patels about group solidarity, and cultural affinity of the sort his parents have, would seem creepy and disturbing if you posited it in the context of an upper middle class WASP from New England. But the strong group cohesion evident among the Patels of Gujarat, and many Indian communities, also generates as a byproduct the sort of exclusion illustrated in the 1970 film Love Story.

And the exclusionary tendencies of middle class Gujaratis is reflected in part on the social-political nature of the state of Gujarat. It is in this state that the current prime minister of India, a tribune of lower middle class Hindu nationalism, grew up, and originally came to power and prominence. It is in this state in the early 2000s that communal riots occurred, and accusations of organized genocide against Muslims have been leveled.

The connections between liberal Democratic Indian Americans and right-wing Hindu nationalism in India have been extensively discussed. That is not what I am getting at. Meet the Patels is not a political film, it is a personal one. There is no reason that Ravi should address political topics in the documentary, and much of what I am saying here would be implicit to any South Asian watching Meet the Patels. But to many Americans these darker realities would not be visible or implied in the cultural practices which Ravi admires.

The attitudes expressed in Meet the Patels is no different from pining for the “good old days.” The reality is that the old days were often not so good. Or they weren’t how you remembered them. And just as some people pine for the days of yore, others romanticize the “homeland”, where everyone was your uncle, and the aunties took care of you when your mother was a way. But this world is in many ways fundamentally regressive and constrained, and the benefits of communal responsibility are often correlated with inter-communal tension and conflict.

Again, there is no reason that Meet the Patels should have gone into this. But I wanted to put into the record what was unsaid so that those who see in it purely a charming inter-cultural story comprehend the other dilemmas latent within the narrative.

Related: Ravi’s AMA.