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A Brief History of Punjabi Poetry.

by Durlabh Singh


From eleventh century onwards , foreign invasions into Northern India and Punjab caused the

gradual disintegration of the fabric of the society , its law and order and the political traditions

of  its people. It was a nasty blow to the society at large and its cultural traditions.

 As it is always the case with invaders, they consolidate their position. The first thing they have to do is to destroy the native language of the people, resulting in destruction of the common culture of the people.

Persian and Arabic languages were imposed and people were subjected to learn these colonial languages.

  Education system was changed and schools began to teach these languages. Middle classes took to it readily as to get good jobs for themselves and their children , the whole business of commerce began to be conducted in these languages. It infiltrated into law courts and in order to get any justice a person has to have a consultation with a legal representative who was well verse in the languages of invaders.

 Thus wholesale exploitation of poor and underprivileged began to happen and the ruling classes had a hay day, by seizing land from the Punjabi peasants and profiteering in other ways.


As the invaders were mostly Muslims and the conquered people mostly Hindus , a seed of conflict was sown between the two classes. Mullahs and Pundits became the leaders of their own sects and gained  much prestige. They soon imposed their own laws and ideologies on the illiterate masses and people had no choice but to obey them.


 The situation became intolerable. The sensitives , the poets , the freethinker rose in unison against this oppression by the ruling classes. Saints , Sadhus and Sufis came forward and preached a greater law of humanity than the narrow law of the kings , the powerful and of the ruling bureaucrats.


As a backlash, emergence of Punjabi language occurred , co- joined with popular mass movement of the people of Punjab. These new thinkers found Punjabi as an excellent vehicle to propagate their new ideas of equality and justice, for all the people irrespective of their caste or creed. This language spoke directly to people as against the language of the middle classes who always conversed in Arabic Persian dialect.


A new era of classical Punjabi poetry was ushered in starting with Baba Farid and ending with Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah. The other major poet of Punjabi who came after them was Guru Nanak.





Earlier Punjabi language had no script of its own and was written in Landha or Mahajani script and which had no vowel sounds but which had to be imagined . With the birth of Sikhism a new alphabet was needed

urgently , for the  language to define a separate cultural identity and  a vehicle for the new religious teachings.


 Landha or Mahajani scripts were derived from Sanskrit and did not represent all the sounds contained in Punjabi language. Muslim poet wrote their Punjabi writings in Persian script and it was called Shahmukhi script or the script uttered from the mouth of Shah or the king.


The second Sikh Guru Angad Dev did a great service to Punjabi people by inventing a new script called Gurmukhi or  utterings from the mouth of the guru. It had  thirty five letters in its alphabet to incorporate all the sounds, not found in other languages. Muslims Punjabi writers always have an inbuilt prejudice against Gurmukhi script, even up to the present day and still carries on with Shahmukhi script especially in Pakistan.

The same things used to happen among Punjabi Hindu writers who wrote their Punjabi in Hindi script.


 The birth of Khalsa or Sikhism is deeply entwined with Punjabi poetry as almost all the Sikh Gurus were accomplished poets/musicians and created moving verses set to classical music and thus laid the foundation for  a new religious utterings combined with a quest for Punjabi identity. In a sense Guru Nanak was the first real ‘Punjabi’ who gave its inhabitants a pride in reclaiming their separate identity.


Following is the short chronology of ten Sikh Gurus:


Guru Nanak Dev Ji  -(1469-1539 ) The founder of Sikhism who preached the brotherhood of man and equality of sexes. He travelled over vast distances including India , Tibet , Shri Lanka , Afghanistan , Iran , Iraq and Saudi Arabia and taught his message of peace and love. A prolific poet who composed hymns and other compositions which became the basis of Adi Granth.


Guru Angad Dev Ji – (1539-1552) The guru who devised new alphabet of Gurmukhi thus giving people an identity ,  a faith and beginning of a new Punjabi sensibilty.


Guru Amar Das Ji  - (1552-1574) He condemned and demolished the practice of Sati ( widow burning) and divided Punjab into 22 districts of Sikh faith and appointed a learned preacher as the head of each.


Guru Ram Das Ji – (1574-1581) He founded the holycity of Amritsar  and laid the foundation of the pool

Of nectar at Golden Temple.


Guru Arjan Dev Ji – (1581-1606) He organised Sikhism into a fresh mission and stated that no field of life whether temporal, social or political was to be excluded from the operation of mystic venerations and the divine light. He was the first Guru to be tortured by the Mogul Emperors of India and was later executed. He compiled Adi Granth as the sole scriptural authority for the Sikhs.


Guru Har Gobind Ji – (1606-1644)


Guru Har Rai Ji  -- (1630-1661)


Guru Har Kishen Ji – ( 1661-1664)


Guru Teg Bahadur -   (1664-1675) This was a period when there was a wholesale forced conversion of Hindus to Islam . The Pundits from all over India approached him for spiritual guidance. He challenged the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb and was tried and beheaded for championing the cause of Hindus.


Guru Gobind Singh – (1675 -1708) The great warrior poet who founded the Khalsa panth and gave Sikh their distinctive dress code.





There was a revival of Punjabi poetry under the reign of Sikh king , Maharaja Ranjit Singh ( 1780-1839) who was a great pattern of arts and encouraged poets and painters to his durbar. He was a secular king and did not make Sikhism as the state religion and employed Sikhs , Hindus and Muslims to top places in his cabinet.


  The British were at the door of Punjab by then as they have annexed rest of India  already and looking for Ranjit Singh to die so they could snatch this last out post to British Empire . Due to internal dissention after the death of Ranjit Singh , the Sikh army lost the battles and British rule was imposed on Punjab in 1849.


The British imposed their own rules  and regulations. Urdu became the official legal language and teaching of Punjabi was prohibited in the schools. They brainwashed the people with the notion that Urdu was a superior language for the literati and the Punjabi language was only fit for the peasants. It was a good ploy for divide and rule strategy.


 The Punjabi literature went into decline until Bhai Vir Singh came on the scene . He was the doyen of modern Punjabi literature and established a new land mark with his first novel Sundari .

 He became an example to others and a new generation of  Punjabi poets , playwrights , novelists were born .Among the prominent poets  was Bhai Vir Singh himself together with contemporary writers such as Amrita Pritam and Shiv Kumar Batalvi.






Baba Farid  - ( 1173 -1266)


 He is the Chaucer of the Punjabi poetry. He was a mystic and belonged to radical sufi Chishti school. He participated in people’s struggles for salavation as against the ideologies of supremacy of the ruling classes. He built his poetry on simple expressions based on folk traditions, typically being the Dohra or a couplet. Though simple in form , his poetry disclosed a deep truth about human life.


          Dohra  - Baba Farid.

Farid Kaaley maindey kaprey, kaala mainda wais,

Gunahan Bharehan main pheraan, Lok kahain dervish


Oh Farida ! I have taken to

Wearing black clothes and my

Whole garb is of black phase

Full of sins a dress I wear

But people call me a dervish.




Bulleh Shah – (1680-1758)



He is one of the greatest Sufi poets of punjab and was so unorthodox in his life that he was refused by the Muslim priest to be buried in the community grave yard after his death. He was born as Abdullah Shah but changed his name according to poetical convictions. He had sister and like him , remained celibate and spend her life in meditation. Under master Inayat Shah he achieved great poetical and spiritual attainments.



In the city of love I got lost

Being cleansed , I am withdrawing

From my head , feet and hands

I even got rid of my eyes

I have attained my goal

It has ended so well.


O Bulleha ! Lord prevails everywhere

Now none appears a stranger to me.



Quazi and mullah stray away

And paddle their religion

like hawkers

They are like bird trappers

Of this world

And throw away their nets

 Everywhere to catch innocents.





Waris Shah – (1736-1790)



In the tradition of Punjabi Quisa , the arrival of Waris Shah was an epoch making event. His Heer Ranja is a romance of star crossed lovers who are doomed to a tragic end, something akin to Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare. This ballad like form consists of 600 stanzas and is full of a true classical dimension of beauty and pathos.


It depicts in details the customs of Punjab , lives of  ordinary men and woman and tenderness of love. It has been reviewed as a sociological , artistic and mystical episode in the secular spirit of Punjab. It is sung in a special mode of musical composition based on folk and classical ragas. It is popular in both sides of Punjab

and when rendered by a competent singer, can reduce its listners to tears.


It is very difficult to render in translation the flavour & sounds of Punjabi words but below I give extract from my own composition which is directly inspired by this quisa. Heer was forced to marry against her wishes but was not happy with her forced marriage as she was always pinning for her lost lover Ranja.

Ranja then renounced his family and became an ascetic or a jogi. He calls upon Heer for alms but she failed to recognize him in his new guise with shaven head and ringed ears. Heer refused to believe that she will ever see her beloved Ranja again. She thus complains:-






No soul enamoured in this wide world

That can bring about my heart’s satiation

Certainty within my soul will never again

Gaze upon starred face of Ranja yaar

And never again the buds of my heart

Blossom anew in cloudy tales of romance.


I will sell my skull for vessel to be made

My dark tresses for silken rope to be woven

My gory skin for the shoes to be soled

And gauged eyes to blinds for instructions.


Oh my lord if my heart was not so worn

Glimpse of Ranja yaar was enough

To restore my soul.



Guru  Nank Dev Ji.


A great poet and founder of a new religion and saw invasion of Punjab by Baber , the first mogul king

and misery of his people as it result. He took up poetry to give a voice of protest against this cruel fate of Punjab. He championed the cause of week , the poor and the women and incorporated into his verses a new innovation of poetical form and expression.


He composed verses of great beauty about divinity , human relationship with God and the salvation of an individual through a philosophical teaching which  though simple in appearance speaks of great profundity. His composition Japji Sahib gives essence of his teaching and is set in vigorous verses. It is used by faithful as their daily meditation.


Following extracts are taken from Prof. Puran Singh’s translation.



He is One. He is first. He is all that is.

His name is Truth.

He is the Creator of all.

Fearing naught, striking fear in naught

His Form , on lands and waters

Is Eternity ; the One Self-existent.


Through the Grace of His servant

Continually repeat His name

He was  in the beginning

He is though all ages

He shall be the One

Who lives for ever.






Abundant is His mercy, as great as Himself

He giveth and giveth, taketh not even

A mustard seed from aught else.


The great warriors beg their might from Him

and numberless wrecks of sin wait at his Door.


There are others who receive His plenty

and eating His Bread deny Him

fools think not on His mysteries.


In Thy courtyard die thousands of hunger

and of the ills of flesh.


O Almighty Giver ! this too is Thy mercy

this too is Thy love.


By Thy will the chains of the prisoners drop

the bound are freed and the free are bound

who else could divine Thy purpose ?


If any dare go against Thy Will

he will know for himself how painful

to him is his pride.


He knows us better than we know ourselves.




Guru Gobind Singh.


His writings have universal appeal touching the tender  strings of heart and arousing courage for a life of purposeful action.


 He wrote his ‘Zafarnama’ in chaste Persian to Mogul king Aurangzeb reminding him of the teachings of Quran as opposed to plunders of his army against the week and the destitutes of India.


Dasam Granth is anthology of his writings , a voluminous book of 1066 pages in gurmukhi. He gave Guru Granth Sahib , the holy book of Sikhs , its final form and as a scriptural authority for the people to follow. He was the last guru of the Sikhs.


He is the perfect example of manhood , highly educated , chivalrous and generous in character. His mission was to transcend sectarianism as he considered God as beyond religions and division of mankind into castes, colours and nationalities as meaningless.



Some spend all their lives in dark jungles

In useless endeavours wasting their lives

Pay attention as I speak the truth

Only who love can find God.


Some worship stones

Some hang lingams around their necks

Some says God dwells in the South

Others worship the west

Some worship idols or put trust in tombs

All go astray in false rituals

None knows the secrets of God.


Without wisdom they are ever

Subject to fearful death

Shivas come and go

Incarnations of Rama and Krishna

Are many

But  all in the end

Went their way under noose of death.



Bhai Vir Singh – ( 1872-1957)



The father of modern Punjabi literature , he single handed brought a renaissance of Punjabi poetry. He was the first one to use blank verse form in poetry and was the author of numerous novels , plays and poetry collections.

He was a pioneer in starting first Punjabi daily news paper. Winner of many literary awards and he was a grand personality.He gave Punjabi verse a sophistication and new expressions.



 In his poem lagian Niban , a girl is complaining about  her insensitive lover.


I have fallen in love with a stone

Who owns neither laughter

Nor any expression

But I admit he is handsome

And enchants my heart

But he is so secretive of nature

And never lets me into his heart.


I wanted to run away from him

But even that I cannot depart

Though there is no warmth

In his closeness when I meet

Alas! I have to accept the situation

As I cannot bear to be without

 His physical presence across my heart.




Amrita Pritam – ( 1917-2005)



A household name in the sphere of poetry. Her single poem ‘Aj Akhan Waris Shah noo ‘ brought her fame across both sides of Punjab. It refers to the situation after partition of India in 1947 when thousands of people were uprooted from their homes , murdered , raped and blood flew everywhere.


She was chosen as poetess of the millennium in India and have won Sahitya Akademi award  for outstanding collection of poetry Sunehray. She has published 24 novels , 15 collections of short stories and other numerous anthologies. Her work has been translated into 21 Indian languages , English , Albanian , Bulgarian, Russian , French , Polish and Spanish. Her poetry is a wonderful blend of earthiness and psychic sophistication. A lyrical quality derived from Sufi and Sikh traditions with an undercurrent of feminism.



AJ Akhan Waris Shah noo

Kite kabran wicho bol

Te Kitabe ishak da koi

Aglaa varka khol.



Today I implore Waris Shah

To speak from beyond his grave

And I ask him to open anew

A page in book of love again.


When a single daughter of Punjab cried

You penned verses upon verses of grief

Today thousand daughters of Punjab are crying

Come back and give tongues to their dark briefs.



A Needle of Light.



Our destiny has been tattered

There are torn patches in sight

My country now requires

A needle of the Light.


I was repairing my phulkari

With a needle to thread

But the earth shook

With a great fright

And broke my needle

The needle of the light.




Shiv Kumar Batalvi – ( 1936 -1973)



A bohemian poet of Punjab who drove himself to an early death through drinks and an epilepsy.

His verse play Loona won him the Sahitya Akedmi award which brought to light a new interpretation of legend of Pooran Bhagat in modern media. He expressed his inner sufferings through brilliant lyrics. Like John Keats, he was ‘half in love with the easeful death’


He was uprooted from his native land by traumatic happenings of partition of India in 1947 which affected his  psyche deeply, as a source of melancholy and fearful sorrow  but he never expressed it in his early poetry. Only he was able to express it at the end of his poetic career. Dudh da Katal or the murder of milk

which signifies  murder of the milk of his mother, the mother Punjab who was murdered by its division .


I still remember it today

And you must remember it too

When together we murdered our mother

They killed my childhood they killed my mother

And a cold corpse was left at my place to rot.



I have a longing to die young

To go to realm of youth

After my demise.


I sing to conceal my agonies

Under the guise of lyrics

Sweet and serene the curses

Miserable and doleful verses.


I have been occupied

With burning the lamps

Of my own existence , fears

Feeding it with  flowing oils

From my own saline tears.



Copyright  © 2011 Durlabh  Singh.








Book: Shattered Sighs