The distinct Punjabi history is a result of centuries of convergence of diverse peoples. The Turks, Chinese, Mongols, Arabs, Persians and European migrants, traders and invaders have all left their mark.
Last Updated: 04 Nov. 2013
The heritage of Punjab is defined in huge part by its topography. The name Punjab is derived from two Persian words that combine to mean Land of Five Rivers, referring to the five tributaries of Indus: Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. The fertile plains and vast irrigation network thanks to this natural resource makes the Punjab the seat of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization; the sophisticated system boasts of such historical marvels as the city of Harappa in Sahiwal district.
The distinct Punjabi history and culture is a result of centuries of convergence of diverse peoples. The plains of the Punjab were an important access point to the rest of the subcontinent. Chinese, Turks, Mongols, Arabs, Persians and European migrants, traders and invaders have all left their mark.
The greatest impact made by a foreign people happened soon after Harappa was abandoned in 1800 BC. Around 1600 BC, the Aryan invaders arriving from the West were a key turning point for the history of the entire subcontinent. It is under the Aryans, arriving in the plains, that the historic period of the Punjab is said to have begun. The social structure of the subcontinent was altered forever under the influence of the Aryans, who consolidated the caste system and revived rural culture. Hinduism’s most essential texts, the Vedas came into shape under the Aryans between 1200 to 1800 BC, and the Aryan Vedic tongue developed into Sanskrit.
After the Aryans, the Punjab was the setting for consolidating the borders of vast empires. It was annexed to the Persian Empire under Darius I around 522 to 486 BC. And invaded by Alexander the Great, who conquered Taxila in 326 BC and went on to defeat Porus whose kingdom lay between the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers, yet whose army offered Alexander the toughest resistance faced in the subcontinent. Alexander’s army lost heart at the Sangla Hills to the south, threatening to break into mutiny, and so the Punjab defined the eastern-most border of his empire. It has been speculated that Alexander might have died because of a poisoned arrow that injured him in Multan.
The Mauryan Dynasty that followed, united northern and north-western India under Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BC. Under his grandson, Ashoka, Taxila became a great center of Buddhist and Hindu learning, and Buddhism flourished rapidly in the region under his reign.
Muhammad bin Qasim pioneered the Muslim Arab conquest in the Punjab as early as the 7th century, making the Punjab and Sindh a part of the Umayyad Caliphate. The Punjab became a center of the propagation of Islam. Multan, Pakpattan, Lahore and Uch were major hubs of the four silsilas of Muslim Sufism – Chishtia, Suharwardiya, Qadriya and Naqshbandiya – that were responsible for spreading Islam amongst the populace of the subcontinent. In the Sultanate period, Lahore was treated as the seat of government, though Delhi was the capital and became an important vanguard to the west of the sultanate. The era of Muslim rule continued under the Mughals from 1519 to 1821, at which point it was overwhelmed by the rising power of the British.
Before the British took the Punjab as part of their empire, it was consolidated under the rule of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh from 1801 to 1839, expanding the boundaries of his kingdom till the River Sutlej. The court of Ranjit Singh maintained relative secularism, and a common Punjabi identity based on language and cultural heritage flourished. With the death of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Kingdom fell into disarray, and the British, taking advantage of the situation, finally were able to annex the Punjab after two decisive wars against the Sikhs in 1849.
Political consciousness entered the age of modernity under the British Raj, and the imminent departure of the British in the first half of the 20th century resulted in a whole spectrum of political movements, each clamoring to voice the future of the Indian subcontinent. The Punjab was home to a great diversity in political opinion, an indication of the rich complexities of Punjabi society and history. There were those inspired by European fascist parties, such as the Khaksar Tehreek, which sought to establish an Islamic state throughout India after the departure of the British. At the other end were the Unionists who favored cooperating with the British to maintain provincial harmony that cut across communal divisions. The Muslim League’s mission to create Pakistan gained ground in Punjab only after the Cabinet Mission Plan and the subsequent elections for the interim government in 1946.
The partition of the subcontinent formed a pivotal point in the history of Punjab. No other province was affected so deeply; the new border of the states of Pakistan and India followed roughly the course of the Ravi and Sutlej, ripping the Punjab in two halves. As many as 10 million people migrated from either sides of the border, with unprecedented violence. The princely state of Bahawalpur acceded to Pakistan and became a part of Punjab in the 1950s, to form what is known as Punjab today.
To this day, Punjab remains an important military, political and cultural center that is at the administrative heart of the country, as well as its federal conflicts with each of Pakistan’s other provinces.
Ahmed, Ishtiaq. The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed. Karachi: Oxford UP, 2012.
Jalal, Ayesha. The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History. Karachi: Oxford UP, 2012.
Nadiem, Ihsan H. Punjab: Land, History, People. Lahore: Al-Faisal Nashran, 2005.