Cover Story/Linguistic Miracles: Where Language is Carrier, Not Barrier
Bharat is the land of amalgamation and assimilation which is very difficult for an outsider to understand and pretty hard for an insider to explain. No wonder Europeans who formed nation-states on linguistic basis could not comprehend the fact that a nation with 23 official languages and more than 720 recorded dialects can exist as a unit. The post-Independent political process of linguistic reorganisation further strengthened the fear of language based regional identities. Still, there are certain linguistic communities who migrated to other regions, amalgamated themselves with the new set of community and still managed to maintain their own language and culture at personal level. Rod Marathas in Haryana or Sikhs of Uttarakhand or Konkanis of Kerala are one of the threads of our national integration. This Independence Day, Organiser salutes these unique communities who present the path of synthesis to the fragmented world
Dr J K Bajaj
Director, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai
India is a country of great diversities: diversities in climate, in soils and waters, in language, in culinary habits and cultures, in ways of dressing, in ways of worshipping, and so on. There is also a perceptible unity underlying all these diversities. A distinct and unique Indian identity – both geographic and cultural –envelops and unites all the visible separateness.
India has always been proud of her diversities and of the distinct unity that binds them. Today, perhaps more than ever before in the past, we talk of the diversities of India all the time; these are repeatedly emphasised in our public discourse; these find a mention in the manifestoes of our political parties, in our school text-books and in the formal statements of policy adopted by our public institutions. The underlying unity is also mentioned, though not quite as strongly and as often as the visible diversity.
There is certain hesitancy in talking about the underlying unity of India, especially in the political discourse of today, mainly because of the compulsions of the electoral polity that thrives on emphasising the distinctness of ever smaller and smaller groups. But, even though we do not often talk about it, the unity and unique identity of India is no less real and visible than her diversities. This unity and unique identity has deeply impressed innumerable savants, saints, soldiers and traders who came to India from distant lands in the course of her long history. Thus, Kingsley Davis, the pioneering demographer of India, could write as recently as 1951 that:
“Indian ideas and institutions, taken as a whole, resemble those of no other people. They have a peculiar shape and flavour of their own. They have tended to transform and absorb any foreign elements that trickled into the region; for India, though politically conquered by outsiders, was never culturally conquered.
This peculiar culture has to some degree penetrated and pervaded nearly every part of what is geographically India. It has everywhere been affected by local, indigenous variations. …But neither the geographical nor the social barriers inside the subcontinent have been sufficient to prevent the widespread diffusion of a common, basic culture, which despite great variation is peculiar to India.”
This vaunted permeability and porosity of the geographical, cultural or social barriers in India has always facilitated the movement and intermixing of people across the length and breadth of India. From the ancient times, people have moved from one part of India to the other, for reasons of war and commerce and also as carriers and seekers of faith and knowledge. Many would have moved along with Sri Ram when he traversed through the country clearing it of the evil everywhere. Many more would have moved during the Mahabharata war, when massive armies from all parts of India came together at Kurukshetra in a great cleansing exercise. Historically recorded memory of those great movements is largely lost. But, in every part of India, you come across groups and communities, who trace their settlement to the events connected with the Ramayana or Mahabharata.
There have been similar, though perhaps not as large and revolutionary, movements of people in more recent historical times. The largest of such movements occurred in the eighteenth century when the Marathas briefly established Hindvi Swaraj across much of India. As the Maratha armies ranged through the country in this great indigenous effort to establish a modern Chakravartya, many Marathi-speaking people moved with them, and many stayed behind in diverse parts of India to build new homes and new lives for themselves. They settled down so well that today their Marathi origins are no more than a distant memory for them.
The Web of Languages
Thus the Rod community, inhabiting mainly Panipat and Karnal districts of Haryana, is said to have descended from the Maratha soldiers left behind after the tragic defeat of the Maratha armies in the Third Battle of Panipat. The Rods are integrated so deeply in the Haryanavi society that it required a great effort by a couple of highly motivated amateur historians to discover their Maratha roots. These roots are now seen only in occasional use of a Marathi name or a Marathi motif here and there. The great difference between the land, culture and language of Haryana and those of Maharashtra has hardly come in the way of their complete integration. And, they have flourished so well in the Haryanavi ambience that beginning from just 500 Maratha soldiers the community now counts nearly 6 lakh members. The links of Rods of Haryana with their supposed Maratha roots are so tenuous that many doubt the historical accuracy of this attribution.
In our times, another great intermingling is happening in Haryana. Because of the highly skewed gender ratio of Haryana, many young men are looking elsewhere to find brides and they have been getting them from places as distant as Kerala. No geographical, social, cultural or linguistic barrier seems to have come in the way of these brides from distant lands making their home in Haryana and raising perfectly normal families. But returning to the Maratha armies of the eighteenth century, it is known that they established Maratha kingdoms in many parts of India that often outlasted the Maratha Empire. Thanjavur of Tamil Nadu was one such kingdom. Many families in Tamil Nadu trace their origins to the Marathas of Thanjavur. But they are so deeply integrated in the Tamil milieu that their Marathi roots can only be distinguished from the curious mixture of Marathi and Tamil that they speak in their homes. There are only a few among them who retain Marathi as their mother tongue. The Census of 2001 counted only 60 thousand persons in Tamil Nadu with Marathi as their tongue; of them only 1,753 were in Thanjavur and only 432 in Thiruvarur, the two districts that formed the core of the Maratha kingdom. There are not thus many Marathi people in Tamil Nadu now who retain the mother tongue, but their influence can be seen in the making of the modern social life and culture of many districts.
Tamil Nadu also was the destination of a great migration of the people from Saurashtra. There are no historical records of this migration, but it is said that anywhere between one-fourth to one-fifth of the population of Madurai, the great centre of Tamil culture, are from Saurashtra. The numbers are difficult to confirm, but the Census of 2001 did count more than 67 thousand persons with Saurashtra language as their mother tongue. It is said that in Saurashtra proper, there are no speakers of this language today. Only these migrants to Tamil Nadu have preserved that language.
Saurashtrians are so well integrated in the Tamil society that the community is better known by its Tamil name of Patanulkarar, meaning weavers of the silk thread. And, their language is often referred to as Patanuli. They are excellent weavers and are found in all places that are associated with high weaving. They are the weavers of the famed Maduarai Chungadi saree. They weave the famed heavy silk sarees of Kumbakonam and there are many of them in the famed silk weaving centre of Kancheepuram. In the villages of Tamil Nadu, one often hears about another kind of migration, that of the Brahmins of Kashi. All old villages have a foundation story, the Sthala-Purana as it is called. And the villagers while narrating this story always tell you that they established the village, they built the temple, and then they went to Kashi to invite a few Brahmins to come and consecrate the temple and settle in the village. Because, how could there be an Oor (the habitation) without the Agraharam (the Brahmin street)?
Such migration of people and consequent intermingling of languages, cultures and customs has always occurred in India and keeps occurring all the time. In our own time, a large number of Sikhs from Punjab have moved to Pilibhit and Udham Singh Nagar of Western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to open up agriculture in the difficult tarai region. Many of them still claim Punjabi to be their mother tongue. But the Punjabi they speak is greatly influenced by the Hindi around them. Soon they would begin to think of themselves as Hindi speakers, and the Hindi they speak would be greatly influenced by their own Punjabi. And after a few generations, they would be as much local as anyone else. In this process of integration, the locality would have been enriched by the unique inputs they have brought, and they would have been enriched by the new land and people among whom they have come to settle down.
This is a continuing process of integration and enrichment. This has been going on in all parts of India from times immemorial and shall continue into the future for all times. This is a land that is known to have assimilated and absorbed all foreign conquerors. What can come in the way of the assimilation of any Indians in any part of India? It is a land without barriers and boundaries.