The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 21, 2001

The early migrants from Punjab
Review by Padam Ahlawat

India and Central Asia: Cultural, Economic and Political Links
edited by Surendra Gopal. Shipra Publications, Delhi. Pages 200. Rs 400.

THIS is an anthology of seven papers by four scholars. Surendra Gopal has contributed three essays on Indian and Central Asian contacts from the 16th century to the 19th century. That there have been contacts with Central Asia since ancient times is well known, and the book concerns itself with the recent contacts, migration, trade, travel and political contacts. One of the interesting essays is by I.M. Oranski on the Indic-speaking people in Central Asia.

People and soldiers from Central Asia continued to come to India, but there was also a negligible flow of Indians in the opposite direction. This is what the book is all about. Timur took a large number of skilled artisans, craftsmen and masons to Samarkand. Among the goods India sent were the best variety of spices (nutmegs, cloves and ginger). It was common for Central Asian rulers to send their mission to various Indian kingdoms.

Central Asian exports to India were silk, crimson velvet, carpet, bronze and copper utensil, satin, knives, shields, armour and fresh fruits such as apples, melons and grapes. Dried fruits such as almonds, pistachios and raisins also came from Central Asia. Indian exports in the 19th century included tea, indigo, muslin and Kashmiri shawls.


The most important item of trade from Central Asia was their horses which were considered superb. The demand for horses never slackened. Babar noted that every year between 7000 and 10,000 horses came to India. Manucci has stated that Indian traders purchased 1,00,000 horses of Balkh and Bukhara at Kabul at the end of the 17th century. Bernier, the French traveller (1658-67), put the figure at 25,000 annually. Ever since their entry from Central Asia, horses were in great demand. Uzbekistan horses commanded the best price, while the horses from Baluchistan and Khorasan were also in demand.

Traders carried their goods on carts and camels. What was a great surprise was that the fruits arrived fresh. How they did it is a wonder as the journey took two or three months.

There were several routes to Central Asia. Among them the Srinagar, Muzaffarabad, Peshawar and Kabul road was used by the traders of Lahore and Kashmir. Another popular route was from the Multan-Kandahar-Ghazni-Kabul road to the cities on the Oxus river to enter Uzbekistan. Marwar traders from Rajasthan (Marwar and Bikaner) used this route.

The traders travelled with caravans in a group so as to avert highway robbery. Indian traders were all over Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan but lived in separate colonies.

Elphinstone found that the banking business was in the hands of Hindus. They derived their profits from lending money at high interest. Traders too derived enormous profit and used the money lenders for bills of exchange and buying goods for trading.

The political contacts with Central Asia in the 19th century grew with the expansion of British control over India. The essay on this subject is by Devendra Kaushik. He holds the view that the first Afghan war was fought by the British not to secure their Indian empire. At that time the Russians were nowhere near and the British had yet to annexe Punjab and Sindh.

This however is not the point. The British colonialists went to Afghanistan fearing that Russians would advance into the region. Russians had not advanced into Central Asia by 1830, but by 1865 they had annexed Tashkent. To keep Russians out of Afghanistan the British had gone into that country. They established intelligence gathering. They might have beaten Russians to it, but it was not an alibi for their aggressive policy. The Russians did expand into Central Asia and annexed all the area.

The essay on ethnography of a group of Indic-speaking people in Hissar valley of Tajikistan is interesting. These people speak an Indo-Aryan dialect and the Tajik language and have a vague idea of coming from India through Afghanistan. They remember the names of Multan and Peshawar. They now profess the Sunni Muslim faith. Their songs, which they call git are sung in Pushto and the group consists of a number of quarn. The group comprises various groups such as Kalu, Jitan, Juni, Magar, Bisiyan and Musalli. Of these the Bisiyan do not speak pure Pshto language. The core group of Kalu, Jitan and Juni do not consider Magar or Musalli as socially equal. In the frontier towns the Musalli carry excreta and on the border of Peshawar he serves as a grave digger.

This Indo-Aryan language speaking people are also called Changar. Changar means those who winnow grains. This term, the writer believes, is related to the Punjabi tribe of Changar of Lahore. Of the 11 sub-divisions among Changar, five coincide with the names of Kale, Maghare, Jiteyan, Basian and Jenu. In this group these are called Kalu, Magara, Jitiyan, Bisiyan, Juni.

Comparing these names of these people to the castes and tribes of India, it is found that they are similar to the agricultural clan of Jats. Kallu is mentioned in the report prepared in last century as living in Amritsar, Montgomery and Shahpur. A similar clan called Kalo was found in Amritsar and Multan. As Kalo they were found in Shahpur and Montgomery. Among the other Jat clans are Junhi in Montgomery, while Mahara, Mahare and Jhotan were found in Multan. These are similar to the Juni, Magar and Jitan of the present Central Asian group.

Another small group (a tribe of Jats) called Baluj, migrated from the Indus basin and Baluchistan to Central Asia. The dialects of the Baluj had important differences.

There is a similarity of the language in terms of phonetics and grammar with Hindi, Punjabi, Lehenda, Rajasthani and Gujarati. The Periah dialect is an independent dialect different from all the above. The Pariahs have one curious custom similar to the Jats. In the event of death of the elder brother, the younger brother can marry the widow. The elder brother is however not entitled to marry the widow of his younger brother. The last essay is a translation from Russian and is brief.