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The History of Punjabi Literature

Shahmukhi and Gurmukh:

Punjabi is written in various scriptures, the most common ones include Shahmukhi and Gurmukhi. While both Shahmukhi and Gurmukhi are used to communicate Punjabi, Shahmukhi is more prevalent in what is now Pakistan (Punjab) and Gurmukhi is more prevalent in now India (Punjab). Shahmukhi is nearly identical to the Urdu alphabet, both read and written from right to left , however, Shahmukhi includes additional Punjabi phonology (“Shahmukhi”). Gurmukhi is the Sikh scripture and is commonly used by the people of the Sikh religion to read their Holy Book.

The word Gurmukhi directly translates to “ from the mouth of the Guru”. This scripture is present in Sikh sacred literature and the Sikh Holy Book, The Guru Granth Sahib Ji. In Sikhism, there are 10 Gurus, or teachers, who are the spiritual masters of Sikhism. Gurmikhi was invented by Guru Angad Dev Ji, who was the second Sikh Guru, in the mid-16th century (Kuiper). The writings of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, are known to be written in Old Hindi, not in Punjabi (“Punjabi literature | Britannica”), nevertheless, it is argued that Guru Nanak may have some verses by incorporating characteristics of the early Gurmikhi alphabet and vocabulary (“Punjabi literature”).

Punjabi literature (that is further discussed in this article) includes works composed in the Punjabi language, by the people of Punjab. Historically, this area included Northwestern India and Northeastern Pakistan (Rafique).

This History of Punjabi Literature:

This history of Punjabi literature can be divided into five main categories: Medieval (from the 6th century to the 16th century) , Early Modern Period (16th century to the 18th century), Colonial Period (mid 18th century till around 1950) and Post Independence (1950- current). The economic and political history of Punjabi in each era contributed to the modernization of Punjabi literature.

The Medieval Punjabi Literature:

The Medieval Punjabi poetry and literature was first recorded by Hindu Yogis, who used the Punjabi language to send praise to God. The Yogis are followers of Guru Gorakhnath, some of whom originated in the Punjab region, which explains some common words that are still used in the Punjab scripture such as ‘Alakh Nirajan’. Because this time period is before Gurmukhi was invented by Guru Angad Dev Ji, it is assumed that Shahmukhi was used to conduct this poetry.

Figure 1

Title page of Sangit puranmal ka by Ramlal (Meerut, 1879). By per- mission of the British Library.

Shahmukhi is seen written on the front cover

Early Modern Period Literature:

In the post-medieval era, the main forms of literature that were seen were Sikh and Islamic texts, that were written by high priests and saints. As the era progressed, Sufi poetry, Quissay, Vaar, and Jangnama also gained popularity.

Punjabi is identified in the Janam- Sakhi, which is a biography of Guru Nanak Dev Ji; this literature was written by his companion, Bhai Bala. Guru Nanak Dev Ji and the Gurus following him also composed many pieces of poetry, which are regarded as religious literature. In 1604, the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev Ji, created a compilation of the poetry conducted by the previous Gurus, as well as other saints who belonged to various religions and castes (“Punjabi literature | Britannica”). This book was called the ‘Adi Granth’- The First Book, and is still regarded highly in the Sikh community. The works included in the Adi Granth were mainly produced in the Medieval century, however, the book was compiled in the beginning of the Early Modern Period, due to this some argue that the ‘Adi Granth’ was produced in the Medieval time.

Muslim writers and poets also made a tremendous impact on the Islamic works that were produced in post-medieval times. Around 1620 to 1670, a Islamic writer named Abdullah composed the ‘Bara Anva’- Twelve Topics, this work is an exposition that includes methodical discussion of Islamic principles; the entire work is written in 9,000 couplets.

Other Punjabi poetry was conducted by Sufi poets; Sufi is a form of writing that includes Islamic mystical ideas and themes. This poetry form was developed under poets such as Bulleh Shah, who is one of the most prominent poets and scholars of his time. Bulleh Shah is known to have been main stimulus to Punjabi literature in the medieval period (“Punjabi literature | Britannica”). Additional, Sufi poets of this time include Baba Farid, Shah Hussain, Nosha Ganj Bakhsh and Sultan Bahoo (Batool). This poetry can include topics such as love, God, humanity or a combination of any of these factors (“Sufi Poetry”). Punjabi Sufi poetry further influenced Punjabi literature, in particular, Punjabi Qissay, which is a type of storytelling, was influenced heavily by Sufism. Some famous Punjabi Qussay are Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah (1706–1798), Mirza Sahiba by Hafiz Barkhudar (1658–1707), Sassi Punnun by Hashim Shah (1735?–1843?), and Qissa Puran Bhagat by Qadaryar (1802–1892) are some Qussay that are still well known all over the world, even today (“Punjabi literature”).

Another form of oral tradition that is popular in Punjab is Vaar, which are heroic Ballads, and are depicted in works of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the 10th Sikh Guru. One of the more famous Vaar includes the epic poem, Chandi di Vaar (1666-1708) by Guru Gobind Singh. Some other Vaars include Nadir Shah Di Vaar (1739), which is an account of the invasion of India by the Iranian ruler Nader Shah. Towards the end of the Early Modern Era, War Chronicles were introduced into Punjabi Literature as Jangnama, which is a type of epic or heroic poem. One of the notable Jangnama in Punjabi literature includes the Jangnama of Shah Mohammad (1780–1862) recounts the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845–46 (“Punjabi literature”).

Colonial Period:

The colonization of India by the British marked the beginning of the next major era in Punjabi literature and history. India had lost its power and independence to the British East India Company, which exercised its control over many sectors of the Indian subcontinent by creating new political governance systems, new education systems and creating new cultural paradigms. Through their colonization, the British introduced English literature into Punjab such as Victorian Novels, dramas, free verse poetry, satiric/ humorous verse poetry and other experimental poetry. Printing and translating Punjabi literature was also heavily influenced in the colonial period as the first Gurmukhi Printing Press (1835) and the first Punjabi Dictionary (1854) were both created by English men. These events collectively gave rise to modern Punjabi literature.


Some notable authors of this time include Nanak Singh (1897–1971) and Vir Singh. Nanak Singh was known as the father of Punjabi novels. He was involved in compositions that raised questions about the social reform that was being conducted by the British. These literary works supporting the Indian indepance movement led to his arrest by the British. He also worked on novels that linked the Quissa storytelling traditions to modern Punjabi literature.

Vir Singh is known for his political and controversial pamphlets that he wrote as part of the Singh Sabha Movement. The Singh Sabha movement was started by Sikhs in the early 1870’s and aimed to protest the conversions of Sikhs into Christians and Hindus. Their campaign was focused on increasing religious literature in Punjabi by decreasing illiteracy. The Singh Sabha leaders utilized the new technology such as the printing press to further publicize knowledge of Sikh history and literature. Leaders emphasized the importance of both, Punjabi (Gurmukhi) in conjunction with Westernized education and worked with the British to elucidate the significance of treating the Sikhs as a distinct political community (“Singh Sabha | Sikhism | Britannica”). Vir Singh also wrote romance novels such as Satwant Kaur and Baba Naudh Singh.

Professor Puran Singh and Amrita Pritam are some other another household names in Punjabi literature in the Colonial Era. Prof. Singh's poetry explored the experiences of the common and poor man during the British rule and Amrita Pritam is one of the few women who are acclaimed for their literature. Her work centers around the experiences of women during the Colonial Period as well as the partition of India and Punjab at the end of the Colonial Period. Some of the last literary pieces produced in the Colonial Era include Ghadar di Gunj (Echoes of Mutiny), which highlight the revolt against British rule and the longing for independence (“Punjabi literature”).

Post Independence:

After their independence from the British, Punjab was divided into two sectors, Punjab Pakistan and Punjab India. This separation displaced millions of families and caused the deaths of thousands of individuals, majority of whom were Sikh and Muslim. In Punjab people lost their lives, languages, literature, property, heirlooms and much more. This event was deeply scarring to people living all across the border, as it caused the displacement of families from the land they had lived on for generations. After the separation, literature depicting the partition emerged, this literature is referred to as ‘partition literature’ and includes writings that explore the experiences, history and stories of individuals from all sides of the borders. Both non-fiction and fictional narratives are included in this category of literature. Today, Partition literature is studied in many universities in India and Pakistan, some work include Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, 'Subah-e Azadi (The Dawn of Freedom) and Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam's 'Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu' (Ode to Waris Shah) (Chandigarh Times).

In Punjab Pakistan- West Punjab, Shahmukhi is more commonly used to produce Punjabi works. Literature produced in West Punjab today shows the rediscovery of the Punjabi language as well as the discovery of Pakistani literature. The rise in scholars and poets also fostered the growth of literary criticism in Punjabi (Rafique). Some notable writers in West Punjab are Najm Hossein Syed, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza and Afzal Ahsan Randhawa and they have been composing literature since approximately 1940. Recently, author Mir Tanha Yousafi has gained much acclaim and popularity due to his novels and short stories. His work has been translated from Shahmukhi to Gurmikhi for all Punjabis to enjoy. Ali Arshad Mir is also identified as a household name for literature produced in the 20th century. His Leftist publications show his activism and advocacy for the underrepresented communities in Punjab. Later, his works were compiled into a book- Ik Katha Di War (Lahore: Saanjh Publications, 2009) (“Revolutionary Papers'').

In Punjab India- East Punjab, Gurmukhi is more commonly used to produce Punjabi works. Because many of the authors that composed during the Colonial period were/ are still alive, their works portray experiences and anecdotes from before and after the partition. Amrtia Pritam, for example, was an active writer Post- Independence.

In this time period, authors in East Punjab were observed using socialist themes of post revolution in their compositions. Other noteworthy authors and poets include Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936–1973), Surjit Paatar (1944–) and Pash (1950–1988). Pash was the pen name used by the poet Avtar Singh Sandhu, whose work portrayed his activism and left-winged views. His writings were possibly some of the most influential pieces of work at the time as they challenged socio-political norms and showed strong rebellion towards the compositional system. He was assassinated in 1988 by the Sikh after he voiced criticism against Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (Rafique).

Punjabi diaspora has greatly contributed to current Punjabi literature. Punjabi diaspora refers to the descendants of ethnic Punjabis who emigrated out of the Punjab region before Independence of Pakistan and India to the UK, Canada, Australia, the US and Africa. Their writings are vital to Punjabi literature, as they show the experiences of the modern world through a cross-cultural lens. People living in Punjab would never have to face cultural appropriation, racism and discrimination. (Rafique)

Works Cited

Batool, Syeda Sajida. “The Concept of 'Murshid' in Punjabi Sufi Poetry.” Pakistan Research Database, 2018, Accessed 19 January 2023.

Chandigarh Times. “Gathering pieces of the partition in poetry for world audience.” Hindustan Times, 13 August 2019, Accessed 20 January 2023.

Kuiper, Kathleen. “Indic writing systems | Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 19 January 2023. “Punjabi literature.” Wikipedia, Accessed 19 January 2023.

“Punjabi literature | Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 19 January 2023. Rafique, Fauzia. “A Short History of Punjabi Literature « Uddari Weblog.” Uddari Weblog, 28 January 2013, Accessed 19 January 2023.

“Revolutionary Papers.” Revolutionary Papers, Accessed 20 January 2023.

“Shahmukhi.” Wikipedia, 07 January 2023, Accessed 19 January 2023.

“Singh Sabha | Sikhism | Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 20 January 2023.

“Sufi Poetry.” what-when-how — In Depth Tutorials and Information, Accessed 19 January 2023.

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