An Ode to Gurmukhi, Shahmukhi, and Beyond

by Manjari Singh

In the heart of the Indian subcontinent lies a land with a rich and diverse cultural tapestry: Punjab. A region that has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, Punjab’s history is deeply ingrained in its language and scripts. The Punjabi language, with its two primary scripts—Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi—serves as a window into the region’s vibrant past and its distinct cultural identity.

Gurmukhi: The Divine Script

The Gurmukhi script, which translates to “from the Guru’s mouth,” has its roots in the Brahmi script, an ancient writing system used throughout the Indian subcontinent. Gurmukhi was formalized and popularized by the second Sikh Guru, Guru Angad Dev Ji, in the 16th century. This script was designed to be simple and efficient, making it accessible to people from all walks of life.

Guru Angad Dev Ji believed in the power of the written word to disseminate knowledge and wisdom. As such, he employed the Gurmukhi script to transcribe the sacred hymns of the Sikh Gurus, which were eventually compiled into the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of Sikhism. Gurmukhi thus holds a special place in the hearts of Sikhs around the world as the script that enshrines their sacred texts.

Shahmukhi: A Legacy of Persian Influence

While Gurmukhi thrived in the eastern part of Punjab, the western region developed its own script: Shahmukhi. Shahmukhi, meaning “from the king’s mouth,” is an adaptation of the Persian Nastaliq script, which was prevalent in the Islamic courts of South Asia. Shahmukhi was introduced in Punjab during the Mughal era, which brought the Persian language and culture to the region.

Shahmukhi script is written from right to left and is used predominantly by Punjabi-speaking Muslims in Pakistan. The script has a rich history in Sufi literature, with many Sufi poets like Bulleh Shah and Sultan Bahu having penned their mystical poetry in Shahmukhi.

Unity in Diversity

Despite their differences in origin, Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi scripts share a common linguistic heritage. They both represent the Punjabi language, which is spoken by millions of people across India and Pakistan. These scripts serve as a reminder of the region’s diverse cultural roots and the unity that can be found in its shared language.

The cultural identity of Punjab is deeply intertwined with its linguistic heritage. The Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi scripts not only symbolize the distinct historical influences on the region but also demonstrate the resilience and adaptability of the Punjabi people. By preserving and promoting these scripts, the people of Punjab ensure the survival of their rich cultural legacy for future generations.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the Punjabi language continues to evolve and adapt to new influences. While Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi remain the primary scripts, the Punjabi language is now also written in Devanagari, Roman, and other scripts, reflecting the global reach of the Punjabi diaspora. This evolution is a testament to the enduring spirit of Punjab—a region that has always embraced change while staying true to its roots.

Manjari Singh

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