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Punjabi is a robust and vibrant language, as is Punjabi culture, rich in literature with traditions in folk and modern literatures alike. Though it is mother tongue of the natives of Punjab in India and Pakistan, it is now spoken internationally by an estimated 100 to 125 million people. The language finds a place of pride in many countries including Canada where it is the fourth most spoken language. It is also the second official language of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi states of India and the de facto sacred language of Sikhs, the Sikh scriptures and religious literature being written in it. In Pakistan though, Urdu and English are the official languages, Punjabi speakers form the largest single linguistic group.
Punjabi, as noted above, is spoken as a minority language in several other countries, including Afghanistan, as well as many nations where Punjabis have emigrated in large numbers, such as Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States. However, Punjabi culture much like its Bengali counterpart, suffered a split between India and Pakistan during the Partition of 1947. As such, Punjabi language and culture tend to be uniting factors for the people of India and Pakistan in spite of national and religious affiliations.
Like other North Indian languages, is derived from Sanskrit and therefore belongs to the Indo-European family. Modern Punjabi has shown much flexibility and has borrowed extensively from other languages, including Hindi, Urdu and English. In addition, like English, Hindi and Urdu, it has a substantial number of borrowed words from Persian, and even a few from Turkish. It uses the Gurmukhi script though Pakistan Punjabis use a modified Arabic script called Shahmukhi. The script has evolved over centuries and passed many phases from Brahmi to Landas and finally with the great contribution of Sri Guru Angad Devji, the second Guru has assumed the modern day form, though it continues to evolve. Like other Indic scripts it is most scientifically ordered.
Much like English, Punjabi has moved around the world and developed local forms by integrating local vocabulary and cultures. While most loaned words come from English, Hindi and Urdu and indirectly from Persian, Punjabis around the world have integrated terms from such languages as Spanish and Dutch. A distinctive "Diaspora Punjabi" is thus emerging.
During medieval times, Punjab repeatedly bore the brunt of Afghan invaders and internal battles, and these warring times were not exactly feasible for any sort of literary or cultural expansion. Punjabi literature as such came into existence only from the end of the 16th century, when Punjabi was already in its Middle Period and was evolving fast, though the origins of Punjabi Literature can also be traced back to the 12th century. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, gave a new lease of life to the language. The fifth Guru, Arjun Dev compiled the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth or Sri Granth Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the tenth and last Guru, composed a number of religious works mainly in Brajji and Farsi with the exception of Chandi-di-Var which is in Punjabi.
The period between 1600 and 1850 covers the entire Middle Punjabi literature. Hindu and Sikh writers wrote in Punjabi during that period, but it were Muslim Sufi Saints who were the most creative. Their compositions, entirely Punjabi in spirit and content, form an integral part of Punjabi literature. Bullhe Shah (1680-1758) is perhaps the greatest Sufi poet who wrote Kafis which are very popular. Ali Haidar (1689-1776), one of his contemporaries, wrote a large number Si-harfis. Shah Hussain was another great contemporary Sufi poet. The tragic love story of Heer and Ranjha became the source of many a Kissa, a distinct Punjabi literary genre, written by various writers, but the most extensive and popular was the one rendered by Waris Shah in 1766. Waris is regarded as the greatest poet of Punjabi literature before the start of the modern age. Shah Mohammad’s Jang Nama, a fine piece of poetry, describing the fall of Sikh rule is another landmark in Punjabi literature.
The Modern Punjabi Literature period is characterized by the advent of prose writers viz., Bhai Vir Singh, Prof Puran Singh and later Nanak Singh and Gurbakhsh Singh. Among the poets the most popular poet of the `modern’ age is Mohan Singh who has been described as occupying ‘the central place in Punjabi letters today’. He brought in a modern outlook in life and everything related to Punjabi. Other noteworthy poets in Punjabi are Pritam Singh Safir, Shiv Batavi, Surjit Patar and Amrita Pritam, a Jnanpeeth awardee. I C Nanda and Balwant Gargi are eminent dramatists. The wealth of Punjabi literature can be regarded as the finest that the Punjabis possess.
Ancient Punjabi Culture during the period of the Indus valley civilization is one of high sophistication and many world firsts, such as the world's first planned cities and is a counterpart of ancient Chinese, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek cultures. Scholars believe, at its peak, it surpassed the sophistication and cultural achievements of its counterpart fellow cultures, during that time, to become the world's leading advanced civilization.
The folklore traditions and legends link Punjab to e.g. Ramayan through Lahore (Luv), Kasur (Kush) and Khemkaran (where Sita forgave Ram). The medieval period saw the birth and rise of a new world-religion in Punjab, Sikhism. This had a dramatic effect on the Punjabi culture and gave it additional dimensions self-sacrifice and martialism. The Modern Punjabi culture is marked both by richness and variety exhibited in all walks of Punjabi life. The Punjabi festivals have a special significance in its rich heritage, bringing together the people in a spirit of love and harmony and of celebrating it collectively, in an atmosphere of sharing and caring, forgetting all distinctions of caste, creed and religion. The numerous fairs and festivals like Diwali of Amritsar, Maghi of Muktsar, Hola Mohalla of Anandpur Sahib, Basant Panchami, Karva Chauth and Raksha Bandhan signify both the religious and secular traditions of Punjabi life. The modern Punjabi life continues to be intimately intertwined with agriculture celebrated through Baisakhi, the harvest festival.
Any description of Punjabi culture is incomplete as long as the dance and music traditions of Punjab do not find a mention. Bhangra and Gidda are world famous and are irresistible to any one of any age or sex from any nook or corner of the world. The spirit of Punjabi boy and girl is amply exhibited by the pop element of the Bhangra and Gidda as also by their apparel and jewelry, the Kaintha and the Jhanjar. The Punjabi cuisine, the Makke di roti and Sarson da saag and the Makhan and lassi are no less irresistible than the Punjabi dance and music.
Due to the large Punjabi diaspora distributed throughout the world many people are increasingly experiencing the Punjabi culture and becoming influenced by it the world over. Traditional Punjabi culture is being strengthened and expanded in the Western world e.g. U.S., UK, EU, Canada and Australia etc. The added pop touch borrowed from Western cultures lends even more color to Punjabi culture and it continues to thrive.