Hunza News

Voices from the North

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Professional groups of musicians, musical instrument makers, blacksmiths and metalworkers are losing their language because of the stigma attached to it.

“Payu, tigon, kiri’ma, chuni behn, chuna biraya, shilda, kono, kimune!” — You no longer hear children speaking these words anymore while playing in the streets of Mominabad, a picturesque village lying below the southeastern base of Karimabad Valley in central Hunza. Their language, which once glued their ancestors together, is dying.

The small community in Mominabad is willingly and knowingly switching over to Burushaski, because of a ‘cultural-shame’ about their language. The ghost of an archaic social system and prejudices still haunt this highly talented community living here for centuries. Despite having an end to social restrictions and its gradual integration into the larger society, the community still perceives its language as inferior. Rather, it is seen as a big barrier to their upward social mobility.

The result: the people of Mominabad have gradually stopped using their own language in public, let alone its preservation for future generations.

Domaaki, the very name given to this old Indic language, is a major factor in developing negative attitudes towards the language. The ruling elite in Hunza along with local communities, intellectuals, scholars and writers who have studied this socially and linguistically distinct group must all share the blame for causing humiliation to the language of Mominabad by naming it Domaaki, which literally means ‘the language of the Doms’.

Almost every Pakistani knows that the word Dom or Doom is commonly used in the country to designate the people from lower castes, generally those who earn their living by playing music and dancing. Hence, when we say Domaaki for the vanishing language of Mominabad, we characterise it as ‘the language of low-castes’. Imagine the feeling of insult if someone in Pakistan is addressed as a low-caste or his/her mother tongue is labelled as the language of low-level people.

Elderly residents of the present-day Mominabad narrate two contrasting stories about the advent of their ancestors in the region.

The people of Mominabad themselves neither use Doms to refer to themselves nor do they call their language Domaaki, obviously because of the stigma associated with their profession and social restrictions once imposed upon them by the local rulers. Linguistic evidence shows that their unique language is not closely related to any of the three languages spoken in Hunza that are Burushaski, Shina and Wakhi. However, living in close proximity for a long time the language has absorbed the vocabulary and other elements of Burushaski and Dardic languages including Shina.

Scholarly works on the language by D.L.R. Lorimer, Georg Buddruss, Gerard Fussman, and Peter C. Backstrom are all in agreement that the language belongs to the Central Group or the Old Indic Group of Indo-Aryan languages of South Asia with an origin somewhere south of Kashmir. Its speakers moved to their present location in Gilgit-Baltistan through gradual migration.

Other studies including Hermann Kreutzmann, Anna Schmidt and Matthias Weinreich link this with the immigration of Prakrit or Middle Indic speakers that probably started about a millennium ago. It eventually led to the occupation of the lower parts of the valleys in Gilgit and Chitral. Along with these migrants the speakers of the Mominabad language also arrived in the mountain belt and became prominent as professional groups of musicians, musical instrument makers, blacksmiths and metalworkers.

Mominabad Kettledrum Player. — Photo by Ghazi Karim

Elderly residents of the present-day Mominabad narrate two contrasting stories about the advent of their ancestors in the region. According to the first narrative their forefathers arrived in several waves in the Nagar and Hunza valleys from Kashmir travelling through Baltistan, Gilgit, Darel, Tangir and Ghizer. This indicates that these migrants set off from different areas of north-central India or possibly within the Gilgit-Baltistan region may be to flee “social and political difficulties in their homelands”.

This can also mean that the people living in Mominabad are not “descendants of a common ancestor”. With the passage of time each immigrant group evolved into a clan and named it after the founder. In today’s Mominabad, this is the way the community designates its own people who prefer to be addressed by their clan names rather than calling them the Dom en bloc.

There is another fascinating story about the origin of the Mominabad community quoted in Barbara Bower and Barbara Johnston’s book  Disappearing Peoples. The book says that the community in Mominabad and their ruler “belong to the same family”.

According to this narrative, an ancient ruler of Hunza had four sons. He designated one of the princes to become his successor and sent the other three to receive education from a teacher at a far off place. On their way the three princes ended up with another old man who taught them to play musical instruments. On their return, the king was both disappointed and overjoyed at the same time. He did not like their training but enjoyed the sweet voices of the musical instruments.

These three sons could not assist their father in the affairs of the state but accompanied him everywhere and played music to announce his arrival, departure and other actions. Despite their relegated ranks the princes were able to raise the status of music and musicians in front of the ruler.

Whichever version of the story is true for Mominabad, it is a well-known fact that this exceptional group of skilful persons was once scattered over many parts of Gilgit-Baltistan. Until recently, the group comprising musicians, musical instrument makers, blacksmiths, sword smiths and metalworkers lived in small communities in, at least, every capital town of the principalities of the region including Astore, Baltistan, Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Punial, and Yasin. Small communities of musicians were also found in Chilas and even in Kohistan as well.

However, due to religious restrictions on music the group has become extinct in Kohistan. A few groups of musicians have survived in Chilas and other parts of Diamer where they still play music at local marriage ceremonies and polo events.

In most of the places in Gilgit-Baltistan the people of this distinct group have abandoned their vocation and assimilated the culture and language of the dominant communities in the region. This makes it even more urgent to save the language and culture of the last few hundred surviving members of this brilliant community in Hunza. It is not easy, especially when the native speakers themselves have developed a negative attitude towards their language and, sadly, perceive its demise as tolerable to ensure their upward social mobility in the larger Burushaski-speaking society.

Hunza Musical Instruments. — Photo by Ghazi Karim

It is a daunting task, as the people in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan in general have developed apathy towards the country’s precious heritage, its cultural and linguistic diversity. Many of us are astonished at this fact and ask why should we be bothered by the death of a language? And, at a time when every culture and language community has the right and is free to be part of the globe. We are not bothered by the fact that the death of a language means the extinction of a certain human identity and a worldview.

It also means the disappearance of whatever little knowledge of humanity the language community might have in store. The death of a language is the loss of oral literature, sayings, proverbs, riddles and beautiful songs, which add colour to our rich cultural heritage.

In the words of well-known linguist Joan Baart, “good, sustainable development is concerned with empowerment of local communities, and efforts towards this purpose should build on the local cultures and languages and the knowledge encoded in them, rather than replace them.”

Let’s hear Mominabad’s call to end the characterisation of their language. Let’s embrace the community and its language. One possible way to show our love to the Mominabad language is to stop calling it Domaaki and give it a decent name: Mominaaki!

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