Rubaru: An Interview with renowned Shina Author Mohammad Shafi Sagar
In this conversation, Anwar Ali Tsarpa interviews Mohammad Shafi Sagar, a writer who frequently writes on culture and language. Sagar talks about his childhood and academic experience, which fueled his interest in writing and poetry. He also discusses the importance of preserving all aspects of culture, including traditional clothing, food habits, language, lifestyle, and sports, to protect the identity of the community. Sagar believes that preserving the language is particularly crucial, as it can lead to the protection of other parts of culture. He also talks about the three books he has published, including one that focuses on the Shina folk songs. The conversation highlights the significance of preserving cultural practices and knowledge to pass on to future generations.
Voice of Ladakh (VoL): How was your childhood and academic experience, and what inspired you to become a writer?
Since childhood, I have had a keen interest in reading and writing. By the time I completed the 8th grade, I had developed two primary habits: reading books and listening to the radio. My love for novels, in particular, was an obsession that helped me improve my writing skills and strengthen my grasp on the Urdu language. In 1996, when I landed my first job as a teacher, I was stationed in Zanskar. Despite my best efforts, I could not find any Urdu novels to read there, but I did manage to get my hands on some Hindi ones. Determined to continue reading, I spent a month learning Hindi from a teacher so I could read the books. These experiences fueled my interest in writing and poetry.
VoL: Where did you receive your education from?
I received my primary education from the Primary School Lamar in Drass. Later, I completed my high school education from Drass as well. Upon passing my 10th grade exams, I secured a job. I pursued higher education through distance learning, completing TDC, BA, B.Ed., and M.Ed. from Jammu Kashmir University. Additionally, I earned my MA degree from Maulana Azad National University.
VoL: As you frequently write on culture and language, how would you define culture since it has no agreed or uniform definition?
You have made a valid point. When people hear the term “culture,” they often think of singing, dancing, and festival celebrations. However, culture is not confined to these activities. It encompasses a broad range of topics, including our daily habits, lifestyle, food preferences, and methods of communication. It includes not only our artistic expressions but also our agricultural practices, work traditions, and even the architecture and design of our homes. Therefore, it’s essential to recognize that culture is a multifaceted concept that extends far beyond mere singing and dancing.
VoL: How do you perceive the practice of wearing specific attire and preparing special food on certain occasions, despite it not being a part of our daily routine?
Our culture used to have a unique identity, but unfortunately, we have lost it to the influence of Western culture. As a result, our traditional practices are now only observed on certain occasions, and very few people have managed to preserve them. These customs were once a part of our ancestors’ daily routine, but today, they are confined to specific days, and their significance has been reduced.
VoL: You make a valid point. Social scientists such as Albert Bandura emphasize the significant role of culture in social learning. For instance, the people of Ladakh value peace and are known for their peaceful nature, which is ingrained in our culture. Given the importance of culture in shaping our behavior and attitudes, it’s essential to prioritize the protection of certain aspects of our culture. In your opinion, which aspect of our culture do you believe deserves our attention and protection?
I strongly believe that all aspects of our culture, including traditional clothing, food habits, language, lifestyle, and sports, need to be preserved as they form the identity of our community. Unfortunately, our language is currently in decline, and it is crucial to work towards its protection and preservation. Literature can be a valuable tool in preserving our language, including old songs, short stories, and ancient wisdom. These resources can also help develop cultural values in future generations. Preserving our language is particularly important, as it can lead to the protection of other parts of our culture. For example, preserving traditional architecture and dress can attract tourism, generating employment opportunities for our youth. Therefore, it’s essential to prioritize the preservation of our culture in all its aspects.
If we preserve traditional practices such as basket weaving and milling, we can pass on important skills to our children. A student once asked me, “Sir, why aren’t there any scientists from Ladakh?” The answer lies in our history, where everyone in Ladakh possessed a skill. In the past, we were innovative and self-reliant. We developed paper and weapons locally, and even created rockets like the (toup) during the Dogra invasions. However, with the abandonment of our culture, we have lost these talents and now rely on outside sources. By preserving and promoting our culture, we can regain these skills and inspire our youth to become innovators and leaders in their fields.
VoL: Yes, a foreign writer who lived in Ladakh for several years wrote that while the younger generation in Ladakh receives a good education from outside, they often neglect the traditional local skills that include taking care of their homes, domestic animals, and agriculture techniques. Can you describe the three books that you have published?
In 2015, I published my first book titled “Shina Rasmul-Khat” which translates to “Shina Script”. This booklet focuses on the Shina script and grammar developed by Mohammad Zia. Several scholars have contributed to the development of the Shina script, including Dr. Shuja Mohammed Namus, Mohammad Amin Ziya, and Ahmed Jawan from Drass. My second book, “Shina Lok Adab,” was published in 2019. It is a collection of Shina folk songs from Drass, while including similar songs from Gilgit, and Gurez Valley was a tedious job, thus skipped. The book includes translations in Urdu and footnotes that explain their importance and relevance on different occasions like weddings. My third book, “Baraf Paray,” was published in 2020 and consists of 30 short stories. Writing short stories is my passion, and this book includes all the stories that I wrote until 2020.
VoL: How do the Shina dialects spoken in Drass and Gilgit differ from each other?
The differences between the Shina dialects spoken in Drass and Gilgit are not very significant. Both are considered dialects of the Shina language, with Gilgiti, Astori in Drass and Gurez, and Kohistani Shina in Kohistan and adjacent areas. There are some minor variations in certain verbs like “khana” and “khunnu,” which Gilgit calls “khok,” and they use the Urdu alphabet “keep” to spell it. All dialects have been influenced by nearby languages like Kohistani, Khor, and Wakhi, influencing Gilgit Shina, while Guresh Shina has words borrowed from Kashmiri, and Drass Shina includes words from Balti, Purgi, and Ladakhi. Therefore, when these three Shina dialects interact, they may not understand the borrowed words from other languages. For instance, people speaking Shina in Drass may not comprehend the Kashmiri origin words in Gurez. Additionally, there is another Shina language that is entirely different from Shina known as Batalik Shina or Brok-skat. It comprises 50% Shina words and 50% mixed Balti, Purgi, and Kohistani words, and it has evolved into a new dialect that many people cannot comprehend.
VoL: How has the Turkish language influenced the Shina-speaking community considering the historical presence of Turkish traders in Ladakh?
You are correct that this is not a very old story. During the Silk Road era, our ancestors used to travel along with the traders on this route. However, the Turkish language has had no considerable influence on the Shina language. Shina is an Indo-Aryan language that has primarily been influenced by Persian, Urdu, Hindi, and Sanskrit. While some Kashmiri and Punjabi words do resemble Shina words, there are only a few words, such as “asab,” which means horse in Persian, that have been incorporated into the Shina language and are now considered as Shina words.
VoL: How did the arrival of Islam influence the Shina-speaking community in Ladakh?
Many aspects of life in Ladakh underwent changes after the arrival of Islam, including the festivals and rituals that were deemed incompatible with the new faith. For example, the practice of sacrificing a goat or sheep in honor of a deity, which was once common in Drass, has disappeared. There used to be a tradition of taking food into the shed where livestock were kept in the Shina community, who were mostly Dard. They believed that each house had an owner or deity known as “sab-dag,” who controlled the house but was invisible. These rituals were a part of the Bon religion, which was once prevalent throughout Ladakh. However, after the introduction of Islam, some of these rituals became incompatible and were abolished. For example, the practice of sacrificing a goat or sheep in the name of a deity was common in Drass but disappeared after Islam.
Some rituals, such as the use of a white lamb decorated with beads and other decorative items to help a woman conceive a child, have disappeared but many such rituals still persist. For example, the practice of slaughtering the white lamb on a stone and dividing her among unmarried ladies if she did not conceive a child has almost completely vanished. Similarly, the practice of making predictions through a mark left by an unconscious man near his bedside has also disappeared. Nonetheless, some traditional practices are still attempted if a woman is having difficulty conceiving a child, even after trying other remedies and medications.
VoL: What initiatives have you taken to preserve the Shina language?
The preservation of Sheena language has been a priority for us, and we have taken various initiatives in this regard. The first and foremost is the creation of literature and books. We have collaborated with Hindi Sansthan Agra to develop a Hindi-to-Sheena dictionary, and have also written Sheena Lok Sahitya in Hindi. In the past, we worked with the Board of School Education in J&K to include the language in school textbooks for grades 4 to 6. After schools were affiliated with CBSE, we developed e-content, including classroom lectures, in Sheena language and uploaded them on the Diksha app. We are currently working on creating e-content and translations at DIET Kargil. We aim to introduce certificate courses in Shina at the University of Ladakh and to include a subject on Shina language at Govt Degree Colleges in Kargil and Drass. Furthermore, we are planning to develop school textbooks in Shina language. Ultimately, it is up to the teacher to emphasize the use of the mother tongue in the classroom.
VoL: What is the script used to write Shina language?
According to the script found during excavations in Navpura, Gilgit, the script used for Shina language in earlier times was Sharda, which is a script similar to Hindi language. However, after Islam or due to some other reasons, people abandoned that script. Dr. Shuja Mohammed Namus, who has written a book titled “Gilgit and Shina language,” had adopted a new script for the first time. After that, different people tried different scripts for the language, and most of them were Urdu and Persian scripts, particularly Nastaliq and Nasaq. With the advent of computers, a person named Shakeel from Pakistan and another named Simon from Gurez developed scripts for Shina language, which are now widely used by Shina speakers. The script developed by Simon was used to write the textbook developed by the J&K Board of School Education. The alphabet for this script is Nastaliq and includes the same “Alif” to “yay” alphabets, with only a few new alphabets developed to ease writing in this language. Another script developed in Pakistan is Naskh, which is also in use for writing books in Shina.
VoL: What are Shina Shiloks or short stories, and what do they reveal about Shina culture and traditions?
“Shilok” is a Shina word that means “dastan” in Urdu. The tradition of dastan is prevalent in many parts of the world, particularly in India. Similarly, the Shina language has dastans that were a source of entertainment in olden times. One of our writers, Raza Amjad Badgami, has collected at least 20-25 short stories of the Shina language, which we have translated into Hindi and published through the Hindi Sansthan Agra. Shina dastans are not too lengthy; they are mostly short. There is a significant difference between short stories and dastans. Short stories usually relate to our lives, while dastans are often mythological and cognitive, such as “a ghost comes and picks up a mountain.” In dastans, things are often supernatural and beyond our rational understanding. Therefore, the time and place are chosen to be very distant, such as “in olden days,” “in a faraway place,” or “long, long ago.” If someone were to say, “the day before yesterday in Kargil,” people would say it is not true. Shina dastans often mention animals like cows, goats, and bears, and they play a vital role in the stories. For example, in one story, a mother dies, and the bones of a cow are collected and buried. In another story, a mother turns into a cow by magic, and when her children face hardship, they tell them in front of the cow. Cold and hunting are also commonly mentioned in Shina dastans. Unfortunately, we are left with only a few people who actually remember Shina stories. However, I have not come across long stories like “Kesar Saga” in Balti or “Ameer Hamza” in Urdu. Shina dastans are short, similar to Arabian Nights.
VoL: What message would you like to convey to the Sheena speaking community regarding their language and culture?
I would like to emphasize the importance of preserving one’s culture, tradition, and language. They are an integral part of our identity, and if we don’t protect and preserve them, we risk losing our unique heritage. It is the responsibility of the locals to take the initiative to preserve their language and culture. External efforts to preserve the language may not be effective unless the indigenous people themselves are actively involved. By preserving our language and culture, we not only protect our identity but also attract more tourists to the region. Therefore, I urge the Sheena-speaking people to take pride in their language and culture and do their part in preserving it for future generations.