It is said that the genius of a people can be told from their proverbs, idioms and maxims they employ in common parlance. Cultural values, a people’s ethos and their prejudices are often not explicitly stated but rather, carefully handed down each successive generation through ambiguous yet striking proverbs and idioms.
The ingenuity with which the Kashmiris, a once isolated population from up North, string their words and weave their tales is exceptional. For a primarily spoken language, Kashmiri has kept alive its repertoire of proverbs across centuries. Some that have their origin as far back as the 13th century can still be overheard from amongst its people. It is no surprise then, that these verses have over time covered many facets of their culture. Today, a glance through a collection of Kashmiri proverbs will tell you about its people what thick texts of anthropology miss, for it is the ‘real people’s speech’. It is said that ‘proverbs embody the current and practical philosophy of an age or nation’, and Kashmiri has within it the philosophies of many ages tied together.
Kashmiris are fond of stories. As a people, they live in stories and talk in tales. Their fondness for this stems from a decidedly superstitious ancestry, loaded with mythology, which many haven’t been able to shed off. This is also why they have a special reverence for saints and their stories. They are dramatic; they don’t swear, they curse. This legacy of story telling has passed down generations and today, is kept alive through their entertaining speech.
It is said that saints used to curse hamlets in their time. The curses are said to stick to these places and to this day define their characteristic.A little distance from Srinagar lies a town called Pantha chowk. Legend goes that Sheikh Nur-ud-Din, Kashmir’s patron saint, cursed this village saying,
‘Pandhah-chhuk, noshan such tah korin dukh’
(Let there be peace to your daughter in laws but trouble to your daughters.)
Till today, it is said to run in the back of people’s minds there as most families in this region intermarry because they find themselves under this spell.
Ones speech brings out prejudices. Srinagar was earlier divided into mohallas, each with deep-seated hostility towards another. This is illustrated by the humorous proverb,
‘Wupar mahalluk gav kukar tsur’
(A man from another district is a fowl thief.)
These prejudices also exist towards residents of a particular area or village. Accordingly, there exist proverbs specific to these locations, very telling of characteristics of its people. The people of Sonawar, for instance had a reputation for wearing either a clean turban and dirty garments, or the other way round. Thus, the idiom, ‘Sonawari Saban’ (The soap of Sonawar) came into being, often used for there being something wrong in an arrangement. Those from Sopore are famous for not treating their guests with generosity. ‘Sopur-i-mazarat’, an invitation from a Sopur man, is today a common idiom for inhospitality.
Khuyhi-hom, now Zainageer was once notorious for its sly populace. The proverb goes,
‘Khuyi-hom. Wuthamodur, dilaoam. Halishrakh, naelgudoam.’
(The people of Khuyi-hoam are sweet on the lips but raw at heart.
They carry a knife in their pockets while donning the garb/robe of friendship.)
Although there wasn’t any explicit caste distinction in Kashmir, what existed was occupational stratification of a similar kind. The watals, formed the lower section of the society engaging in sweeping, scavenging and cobbling. Not only were these people looked down upon for their occupation, a decidedly roguish character was assigned to them reinforced by speech.
‘Hun mazas watal waza’
(The watals are the cooks of dog’s flesh.)
Terms like ‘watalbatawaar’ and ‘watalbreswar’ (a cobblers Saturday and a sweepers Thursday) are used to indicate the lack of trust one can place in the watals once a job has been assigned to. They procrastinate and make promises they cannot fulfill. Once again, although the prejudice against them isn’t explicitly stated, we see maxims employed to describe their unreliable character.
There is history too stored in our proverbs. In the 1877-79, Kashmir faced what is now known as a great famine. Before that, Kashmir faced a series of famines in the early years. The proverbs, ‘Drag tsalih ta dag tsalihna,’ which means ‘the famine goes but its pain and stains remain,’ holds true in all senses. It remains a sad truth for most calamities that have befallen Kashmiris. It isn’t easy to forget. Lawrence, who wrote the Valley of Kashmir, partly attributes this to our artistic ability to exaggerate. They are the people who can best be described by the idiom, ‘Raomut pula har, chaandanshehtmohur.’ (He has lost his grass shoes,and claims seven gold mohurs as compensation).They exaggerate their losses and most incidents for us resemble great calamities.
‘Khuda senz khar the nawida sunz chep’
(God sent the scald-head and the barber gave it a gash.)
The disease, khar or scald-head, was very prevalent amongst the labour class Kashmiris. It is one of those idioms that have travelled across time. It is not uncommon to hear it being used till today as part of the curses Kashmiris employ.
Many proverbs give a fair idea of the former condition of the country but traits still carry on. ‘Kenh mahtah ditam tah kanitali nitam’, (Don’t give me anything but let me have your ear), recalls days when influence with a person in power could be used for personal gains. Not a lot has changed for this too, is a common practice till date.
In fact the study of the idioms gives you enough information about the flora, fauna and topography apart from the characteristics of the people and bits and pieces of history. Many proverbs revolve round the bear or haput, most centered around the stupidity of the animal and how he causes much harm. The idiom ‘hapathyaraz, (the friendship of a bear), is employed for a stupid friend who leads a man into more trouble than good. Other proverbs revolve around vegetables like the mujj (radish) or haakh (collard greens), both indigenous and cheap foods part of the daily meals of the locals. Similarly, batta (rice), which is the staple food of Kashmiris finds place in many idioms.
I have picked out but a few of these. More such instances exist, for Kashmiri retain their Kashmiriat wherever they go. As the old and wise often say, Tsari chu kandi-thari peth karar (There is rest for a sparrow upon the thorn bush which its own.)