Irina Talashi: Kashmiri Proverbs
Kashmiri language is abundantly rich in proverbs, witty sayings and idiomatic word-combinations. Even slang is, in its own way, enjoyable. Accumulated through more than six centuries of historical development, these pithy utterances embody and unfold the salty common sense of generations. They embody the finer breath of our socio-cultural heritage, unfold our outlooks and attitudes, moods and modes of thought and action, and voice our views and aspirations. These expressions of collective wit and wisdom bear the signatures of the people in various walks of life. Some of these are quotes taken from the literary compositions of some famous saints of the past. A number of proverbs are borrowed from other languages.
Such a state of affairs is a natural outcome of the linguistic developments in Kashmir. Alongside the spoken Prakrit or what was called Desh gochar Bhasha of the land, Sanskrit continued to be the language of learning and administration during Hindu period. During Muslim rule, the growing importance of Persian as the language of court and culture had a mighty influence on the evolving patterns of Kashmiri folklore. Persian lingered on as the official language as late as the beginning of the 20th century when Urdu took over from it and English also gained access. The traces of these linguistic cultures are discernible in Kashmiri Proverbs. What is remarkable, however, is that the Kashmiri language has shown a wonderful genius for wholesome assimilation.
We have different types of proverbs in Kashmiri. Some proverbs are simple folk sayings. Such proverbs have their literal meaning quite prominent. Some proverbs are philosophical, and they aspire to deal with the great mysteries and complexities of life. Others are metaphorical, in which the literal meaning is redundant. Structurally, these proverbs can be divided in three categories. One a simple statement, such as “It is the roof beam that bears the entire weight of the building,” expresses the idea that a family owes its prosperity to the strength, and the wisdom, with which the head of the family conducts himself. Second, the proverbs that are conjoined phrases such as,v“Evenness is a blessing and unevenness a curse.” Meaning when there is equality, similarity of thought and outlook, co-operation and agreement of hearts between the parties, it is a blessing, and prosperity is the outcome. But when all this is lacking, it is curse and calamity is the result. Third, the proverbs which are question-answer type, like, ”O mother, no one abuses me, mother says, go and sit on the road.” This proverb warns an individual not to meddle in the affairs of others, as it ultimately becomes a cause of making enemies. From the point of view of technique, as in the proverbs of many other languages, the device of assonance, including initial, medial and final rhymes is one of the prominent features of Kashmiri proverbs. Another device is contrast, including paradox. The contrast may be point-counter-point situation or of a congruous idea, or both, usually of a cause and effect category. Thus we have proverb “There is no idiot - only eleven per home,” or “A man without wife is a dog without hair,” look how the idea is expressed in second proverb. Just as the fine filament growing on the skin of dog gives the dog a beautiful look and protects it against the odds of weather, so is the woman an adornment for a man in society and also his protection in times of trouble.
By and large these proverbs are characterised by a refreshing simplicity and zest for lively moderation. Steering clear of wild extremes, these Kashmiri adages advocate no hazards and justify no sloth. These short utterances, distilled from long experience, cover a very wide cross-section of the life of Kashmir. They take simile and metaphor from the flora and fauna, and visualise a common observation with an uncommon touch of delicious symbolism so that it suits a variety of contexts and occasions in day–to-day talk and gossip.
The most interesting aspect of Kashmiri Proverbs is their local colour, which survives all sorts of outside influences. Sometimes these Proverbs resort to the natural physiognomy of the land and sometimes they derive colour from the general milieu, domestic equipage as well as socio-economic environment. A few instances will suffice to illustrate the point. For instance “Selling ice in the month of Magha” expresses an idea as absurd as Carrying coal to New Castle. Or “Unto the Jhelam a candy-lump” conveys the idea of inadequacy as effectively as the Hindustani “Oon’t ke moh me zeera”. To express the idea of efficacy of company the Kashmiri proverb is “An apple catches colour on observing another apple.” But in Hindustani we find apple replaced by Kharbooza and in Turkish by grapes. proverbs quoted above indicate how the local colour is generally imparted by regional improvisation. These Kashmiri sayings have the stamp of their surroundings from where they have sprung. Different nations have different reasons for these improvisations, both technical and thematic, but by and large these are dictated by regional contours of nature and society and technical needs of linguistic cadence. For instance in the proverb “From afar the turf is green” it is the charming verdure of Kashmir that appears to have suggested the irony. Another Kashmiri Proverb which has parallels in many other cultures is, “Mother-in-law also is eminent, daughter-in-law is also eminent, the cooking pot on the hearth is burnt away, who shall put it off?” English parallel for this is “I stout and thou stout, who shall bear the ashes out?” Its Arabic counterpart is, “If I am master and you are master, who shall drive the asses?” And in Hindustani “You are a queen, I am a queen too, who shall draw water from the well?” It is evident that the master-servant scenario was not so dominant in Kashmir and being ruled by non-natives, the court atmosphere was beyond the thoughts of a Kashmiri. Kashmiri proverbs instead use mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships as the fulcrum of familial relationships and the bickering in this relation is realty of every household.
There are some proverbs which carry subtle hints of the spheres of their origin. Sometimes it is the peasants, sometimes the artisans: sometimes it is the temples or mosques. So the various spheres of socio-economic activity or cultural endeavour have given rise to proverbs like “Ploughing yields the crop and weeding out paddy, ” which speaks about the successful agricultural activity or “O butcher! why didn’t your bones sell today? None of my own people came to buy today.” The irony and sarcasm sharpen the edge of most of these proverbs, and equip the speaker with a number of verbal weapons against a variety of disturbing situations.
Like in other cultures, the love of the home used to be very strong sentiment with a Kashmiri. But in the case of Kashmiris, geographical conditions have played a prominent role. This is reflected in many proverbs. Before 1947 the life had its limited demands in Kashmir, a common Kashmiri’s view of life is expressed in the proverbs, “Eat less; why worry unnecessarily” or “He who cannot get it in his hometown, what shall he get in faraway places?” Sir Walter Lawrence, in his book, The Valley of Kashmir writes that Kashmiris are fond of their own country, its food, water and its dress, though oppression has driven them out of the valley. The Kashmiri proverb, “A bird is content when it is on own thorny branch” is often quoted by a Kashmiri when the advantages of service outside the valley are pointed out to him. These proverbs were coined by Kashmiris, perhaps, to justify their complacency, refusal to accept change and the strange sense of self-satisfaction that prevailed in valley. A common Kashmiri was always indifferent to mobility, and as such suffered on this score. He moved only when driven to wall or when no option was left for him. But this is also a fact that those who ventured to move out during devastating floods, famines, epidemics or suppression, moved to a better life ultimately, and made their mark in the new places. This shows that a Kashmiri possesses enormous survival instincts that remain unseen in his native land.
This is an admitted fact that a common Kashmiri is hospitable and generous enough to strangers as well as to guests. He is a good host, but at the same time, we have some proverbs which show him being aware that undeserving and unworthy persons shall only be spoiled and made more undeserving if ever shown a special regard. The same idea is expressed through the proverb, “A slice from a thigh to a long tongued will do him harm”. In meat preparations at great feasts, a slice of a meat cut from thighs of a sheep were reserved for the guests deserving special attention. Should such a slice be, somehow, offered to a fool, it would do him more harm than good. He would be too proud of himself and later go on bragging about it.
Many proverbs in Kashmiri have their origin in the events of the Kashmir of yesteryears. Such type of proverbs and allusions refresh the memories of our past and, at the same time, fill the gaps left by historians. Here I will give only a few examples. One of the commonly used saying in Kashmiri is “Only eleven households are left in Kashmir!” The proverb is used in a situation when one feels that there are limited options or paucity of resources. This saying has its origin in early 14th century Kashmir history. In the early spring of CE 1323, a Tartar invader, Zulchu by name, entered the valley at the head of a band of Mongol and Turk soldiers. He ordered his troops to carry out the wholesale massacre of the natives. Whosoever fell into their hands between the boundaries of Kashmir was put to the sword. Men were killed; women and children were made prisoners. These alien troops resorted to indiscriminate bloodshed, killing and pillaging beyond all limits for a period of about eight months.
Suh Dev, the ruler of Kashmir, frightened by the tyranny of Zulchu fled towards Kishtwar. After eight month’s loot and plunder Zulchu took 20,000 Kashmiris, including women and children, for sale as slaves in Turkistan; but the whole lot perished in cold snow while crossing the Devsar pass - a place referred to as ‘BATA SAGAN’ (Brahmans death oven). Jonaraja, a Kashmiri historian described the period as PRALAYA wherein rivers and streams turned red with human blood. The saying cited above expresses the magnitude of destruction caused due to this Pralaya in just few words and that also with decorum.
One more saying of the period that is attributed to 14th century renowned Shiv Yogni, Lal Ded is “Thou art not ashamed of being born, then how art thou ashamed of sucking in the milk.” Tradition says that when founder of Islamic Rishi order in Kashmir Shaikh-ul-Alam was born he refused to suck milk from his mother’s breast. At that time Lal Ded appeared upon the scene and spoke to new born in a mystic language the saying cited above. Thereupon the yogni put her own breast into the child’s mouth and he avidly sucked in the milk. This saying is testimony to the fact that her pithy and wise sayings have, to a large extent, determined the genius of the Kashmiri language and are remembered by heart by Muslims as well as non-Muslims of Kashmir.
Zain-ul-Abidin who succeeded to the throne of Kashmir in 1417 and ruled Kashmir for fifty two years. He was popularly known as Budshah, which means ‘great king’ and his long reign of fifty two years is even now quoted by the Kashmiris as the happiest period of their history. Being a popular king, his death could not be an ordinary affair that would remain unknown in any quarter. In fact, the news must have spread like wildfire and reached every corner the very moment of its occurrence. His popularity is effectively depicted by a proverb, “The deaf man learnt twelve years after that Badshah was dead.” It applies to a person who seems to possess no knowledge of the day-to-day happenings, however important, and who expresses surprise when some such event is mentioned to him or talked over in his presence.
Kashmir, from the time of the Mughal occupation till 1947, experienced the worst type of inhuman treatment at the hands of the governors and their officials. . During their rule the poor natives at times became the victims of their wrath and were harassed and embarrassed. After Mughals it remained for the Afghans to continue the work of spoliation and slaughter already begun. There was no let-up in oppression during the rule of Sikhs and Dogras. During these oppressive regimes, peasantry suffered the most and deserting of land and flight to outside Kashmir was common. This is supported by recorded evidence. Moorcraft who visited the valley towards the beginning of the Sikh rule, saw the desertion of land by the oppressed peasantry having already assumed dangerous proportions. No doubt, Kashmiris have voiced their discontent in number of ways through a hoard of oral expressions, such as this satirical proverb, “We cry food food! And the revenue collector is after us.” This conjures the sordid picture of oppression perpetrated on the helpless peasantry, by revenue-officials during the Pathan and Sikh regimes. In the same way when there was no let-up in the coercion at the hands of rulers proverbs like “The water of this stream is colder than that of previous stream” were coined. Kashmiris have tried all possible ways of giving fight to their oppressor, but when all weapons in their arsenal were exhausted they preferred to desert the land rather than to get annihilated by the oppressor. This is at least what has been the collective decision of the collective mentality of the people of Kashmir. It is patently reflected in the proverb “If you couldn’t overcome your adversary, why didn’t you run away.” Or “Pack up your clothes and run away.”
Kashmiris, throughout the ages, have never been revengeful. If they had to take revenge for the oppression, they would take it not through the action but through words and the revenge was a ridicule, a taunt or giving a nickname or some satirical comment like in this proverb, “Badri Nath’s ever wet stamp.” Badri Nath was Deewan during Sikh rule in Kashmir. He used to issue orders one after another. Before the first order was implemented or executed, the Deewan issued a fresh order and the common folk was confused as to which order they were to obey. The fickle mindedness of this officer gave rise to the proverb. This allusion, even today is used for an official who changes his decisions so often.
In the end abiding by a golden principle advocated by one of the Kashmiri proverb, “In much words there is less gain” I must confess that proverbs do not have to be always true and folk wisdom is sometimes contradictory. This is true about folk wisdom reflected in Kashmiri proverbs, too. For example, the following two proverbs regarding a couple or a friend are contradictory. “Bent and broken pots catch lids of the same shape”. The proverb applies, in particular to husband and wife who live a “cat and dog” life and in general to the quarrelsome parties of equal strength and similar mischievous bent of mind. The idea expressed is like meets like. But this not always correct as there are proverbs which are in contradiction to this idea, e.g., the proverb “Horses get donkeys as their companion and donkeys get horses” reflects the idea that one gets the partner just opposite to his/her choice and expectations. The fact is that the proverbs of Kashmiri like proverbs in other languages comprehend a vast diversity of collective as well as individual moods of thought and action. It would, therefore, be neither safe nor scientific to judge the national character and wisdom of whole people by an utterance without taking into consideration the context in which it is used by the speakers themselves. Their outlook on the utterance matters most, and none can afford to ignore that.
- Kumari, Gai Ved. Nilmatpurana, (Eng. Translation), Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, Srinagar, 1978.
- Koul, Omkar N. Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs, ILS Delhi, 1987.
- Sultanpuri, Mashal. Ethical Values in Kashmiri Folk-lore, Aspects of Kashmiri Folk-lore,Edited by Prof. Gulshan Majid, Centre for Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University, Hazrat bal Srinagar, 1999.
- Kulgami, Nazir. Kashiri Talmihi (Kashmiri), Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, Srinagar, 1982.
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- Kashkari, Sudershan. Wit of Kashmir, J& K Department of Research, 1998.