Brahui is a Dravidian language spoken by close to 2 million in the Pakistani province
In a piece written some years ago, the political commentator and writer Mohan Guruswamy talks of meeting Baloch children on a visit to New Delhi. The children were evidently surprised when they discovered that uru and arisi were words that meant village and rice in their tongue as well as in Tamil, a language that Mohan Guruswamy understood. In the same piece, Guruswamy also talks of his father, who served in Quetta before Partition, hearing a language spoken by some of the employees that sounded vaguely like Tamil. The children and the employees in question were both Brahui speakers.
Brahui is a Dravidian language spoken by close to 2 million mostly in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Besides Pakistani, small groups of Brahui speakers are also found in Irani Balochistan, Afghanistan and in and around the Marw oasis in Turkmenistan. The language doesn’t have any connections with those spoken around it, but is connected to the Dravidian tongues of distant southern India. Another example of a language that is unrelated to its neighbours would be Magyar, spoken in Hungary in central Europe. Magyar is related to Finnish, the language of Finland, which is at a considerable distance from Hungary and shares no borders with it.
The Brahuis as a people first appear in history around the 17th century when the Khanate of Kalat became an independent principality. Prior to that, it is conjectured that they were under Mughal rule though very little historical evidence exists. In attempting to explain to how a Dravidian language came to be in an area completely surrounded by Indo-Aryan languages, some experts opine that the Brahuis are the descendants of the people of the Indus Valley civilization which is supposed to have been Dravidian. When the civilization disappeared for reasons that are still obscure, a group made its way westward to Balochistan where they preserved their ancient language. Another theory contends that the Brahuis moved to their current area around the 12th century. Conclusive proof exists for neither theory.
The Khanate of Kalat existed from around 1666 right up to 1955 when it was absorbed into the Pakistani state. It was founded by Mir Ahmad Khan Qambrani Baloch and its last ruler was Mir Ahmad Yar Khan Ahmadzai Baloch. The Khans of Kalat were Brahui speakers in private, but preferred to make Baloch their court language as it was the language of the majority.
The word ‘brahui’ itself is non-Brahui in origin. It is borrowed from the Siraiki braho which is a Siraiki rendering of Ibrahim. The name appears to have become current probably a thousand years ago when Brahuis are said to have moved into their current region. But of course, this is merely a supposition and lacks substantial evidence.
At present, twenty-seven tribes constitute the Brahui universe. But not all those who identify as Brahuis are necessarily Brahui speakers. Brahui is also a term for a group of tribes—some speak Brahui, some are bilingual in Brahui and Baloch, and some are exclusively Baloch-speaking. A Brahui tribesman and a Brahui speaker do not actually refer to the same group of people. This puzzling situation has resulted in inaccurate estimates of Brahui speakers and what numbers exist are at best guesstimates.
That Brahui was different from the languages spoken around it was first noticed by the British as they scythed their way through the subcontinent. In 1816, H. Pottinger first mentioned it. In 1880, E. Trumpp published the first scientific study of the language and identified it as Dravidian. It is today classified under the North Dravidian sub-group along with languages such as Kurukh or Oraon (spoken in Jharkhand and West Bengal) and Malto (spoken in Bihar and West Bengal).
When one looks at the many similarities between certain Brahui words and words used in other Dravidian languages, the connection is clear. In addition to arisi and uru, a few more Brahui words that are clearly Dravidian in origin are listed below:
Today – Aino (Brahui), Innu (Tamil, Malayalam)
You – Ne (Brahui), Ne (Tamil, Malayalam)
Come – Baa (Brahui), Vaa (Tamil, Malayalam)
Snore – Khurkao (Brahui), Khurtai (Tamil)
Eye – Xan (Brahui), Kan (Tamil)
Stone – Xal (Brahui), Kal (Tamil)
Milk – Pal (Brahui), Pal (Tamil)
News – Haval (Brahui), Thahaval (Tamil)
For its numbering system, Brahui draws from a Dravidian source for two (irat akin to the Kannada eradu) and three (musit akin to the Tamil moonu and the Kannada mooru) but from four onwards, the words are clearly Indo-Aryan borrowings (char, paanch and so on). The Brahui word for one (asit) seems to have no connection with any other language. Owing to its long isolation from other Dravidian languages, Brahui morphology has drawn greatly from those around it. Some experts opine that only about 15% of its vocabulary is now Dravidian, with the remaining drawn from Balochi, Persian, Sindhi, Urdu and other languages in its vicinity. Brahui’s vowel system is drawn entirely from Baloch. But experts have also noted that Baloch words, too, have been drawn from Brahui.
Owing to the fact that Brahui is essentially a spoken language, and its speakers are mostly illiterate—the literary tradition is rudimentary. The first written work in Brahui is Tuhfat-al-ajaib (The Gift of Wonders) written around 1759-60 by Malikdad Gharsin Qalati. The original manuscript has been lost and what exists is drawn from a 1916 reprint. In the late 19th century, a script was also created for Brahui based on the Perso-Arabic system that was in use for the other languages of the region. Later, an Englishman, Sir Denis Brays, wrote the first grammar of the language. Publishing efforts in Brahui have been intermittent primarily on account of poor literacy levels. The struggle continues.
Today, Brahui is listed by Unesco as an ‘endangered’ language. Its speakers seem to be dwindling and are being replaced by the dominant Baloch owing to livelihood issues and the lack of state support. The Pakistani state has awarded prime status to Urdu and to an extent marginalized the other native languages of the region due to political and historical reasons. That Brahui has survived for so many centuries is no small wonder. It would be a pity if it were allowed to die out.
Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer.