Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Pathan who wrote the largest Punjabi dictionary

SMK 1Dictionary

Sardar Muhammad Khan was born in a Punjabi-Pathan family in Basti Danishmandan in undivided Punjab’s Jalandhar district on the first day of 1915. He studied at the Islamiya High School Jalandhar and received his BA from the University of the Punjab in 1934. Sardar Muhammad Khan joined the British Indian Army as a civilian employee but soon found that what he truly loved were words, their sounds and their meanings. His love for words drew him to the world of dictionaries and linguistics. It is said that he knew the Oxford English Dictionary by heart.

But the language he loved and worked on the most was Punjabi. Sometime during the turbulent years of the partition, he set forth on a marvelous work. For the next 50 years, not many people knew what this reclusive person was doing for hours and hours in an old Rawalpindi quarter or at a small press he ran after his retirement. He was writing a dictionary, a Punjabi-Urdu dictionary which would prove to be the most detailed and authoritative on the subject.

Sardar Muhammad Khan, or SMK, did not suffer fools gladly. A friend once tried to provoke him by saying he did not know the four-letter expletive in Punjabi. “The next day I gave him a list of 300 four-letter expletives about anatomical parts in English,” SMK told Nadir Ali in an interview in 1996.

In 1965, he published 152 pages of the ‘Aleph’ part of the dictionary under the name of S Khanam, which was actually his wife’s name. He did not publish anything under his own name to stay clear of bureaucratic red-tape. But this was a voluminous work and SMK alone could not undertake its publishing. He handed over the final draft to the then Punjabi Adabi Board secretary and a Punjabi scholar, Asif Khan, and bid adieu to this world on May 26, 1998.


No public or private body, including the Punjab government, was willing to publish the dictionary, a project SMK gave his life to. It would have been a great loss had it not been for the Punjabi Adabi Board and Sachal Studios that contributed human and financial resources to bring SMK’s magnum opus to life in 2009. The dictionary comprises two volumes of 3,600 pages and lists 64 dialects of Punjabi. It contains idioms, riddles and treatises on traditions and customs. It is undoubtedly the best Punjabi dictionary in the Shahmukhi script. Thank you Sardar Muhammad Khan!

(This article was originally published in The Express Tribune)


‘Who reads your gazetteers, anyway?’


The British were ruthless. They killed everybody who stood up and challenged their rule from Rai Ahmad Nawaz Khan Kharal in 1857 to Bhagat Singh in 1931.

But they were great administrators, too, and governed India meticulously. They also cared for the people and places they ruled. Apart from a splendid network of railways, and colleges and hospitals, a lesser known legacy of the Raj is their efforts to understand and document the people, the land and cultures of India.

To acquaint themselves with an alien land, the new foreign administrators surveyed and documented the wide expanses from the north-west frontier to Bengal. In the process, they produced a whole genre of literature called ‘gazetteer’. These gazetteers, in many ways, were the first ever attempt to record the society, economy and culture of the Indian subcontinent. The only previous document is Abul Fazl’s Ain-I-Akbari, which records Akbar’s empire (1556 -1605).

Produced in the late 19th and early 20th century, the gazetteers are the best historical documents available to date for many districts. One is amazed by the details as minute as the number of villages of a particular clan in a district and exact distance between its towns contained in these documents. They contain the district’s detailed geographic aspects, agriculture, castes and their social standing, languages and religions. There has never been such a large-scale attempt to catalogue an area after the Raj.

Called the Bible of the viceroy’s administrators, the gazetteer and other scholarly works of the English bureaucrats remain a work of reference to date. Most people, however, are unaware that such things as gazetteers ever existed. And the question “Who reads your gazetteers, anyway?” still holds true.

While the British-era gazetteers and other historical literature such as the land settlement reports have been preserved and catalogued in the British Library, one is hard-pressed to find this literature in Pakistan. The Punjab Archives is famous for denying access to most of its literature for being a “top secret”.

Most of the district gazetteers of Punjab and what is now the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province have been reprinted by the Sang-e-Meel Publications in Pakistan. What is needed, however, is the promotion of these gazetteers.

Following India’s lead, the provincial or the federal governments should put the district gazetteers online and encourage their inclusion in the history discourse, because the pre-Partition history is also our history. The people and places discussed in these documents are our forefathers and the towns and villages we inhabit today.

(This article was originally published in The Express Tribune)