Remembering Obaidullah Baig

Published: September 4, 2012

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore khaled.ahmed@tribune.com.pk

Back in the 1990s, I had the occasion of spending time with Obaidullah Baig (1936-2012), once doing a journalism workshop in a forest rest house near Faisalabad and again at the Quetta PTV station talking about documentaries on his show. Why he thought I could be any use still escapes me, but I am grateful I could be together with him.

I loved the way he spoke Urdu. I was greatly affected by his courtesy although he kept referring to his Mughal extraction and the decadence attached to it — which, if the Muslims get their minds off war, is pure culture. He fitted into my memory album of friends from Rampur. He could transfix you with his knowledge about Pakistan — from its wildlife to its people — because he had wandered the length and breadth of it, shooting film.

I also participated in his quiz show with another great personality, Quraishpur. Both did me the honour of allowing me to spend time with them chatting at the Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore. I remember the personality I quizzed them with was Max Muller. I don’t recall if it was guessed right.

Baig constantly talked about the origins of words. He passed the disease on to me. He was awarded the Pride of Performance (2008) — rather late, I thought. I remember writing a profile of him in The Friday Times under the title “Endangered Species”.

Baig is the name-ending of the Mughals. You also write it as ‘Beg’. The masculine form is reserved for Mughal men but its feminine form ‘begum’ is attached to all female names Mughal or non-Mughal without a surname. Traditionally, girls were not given the name, their status and name being subject to change after marriage.

‘Baig’ is supposed to be a Turkic word denoting ‘honour’. Since honour radiated only from military rank, ‘Baig’ or its mutated form ‘Bey’ meant ‘an army general’. The baigs are supposed to belong to the Mughal tribe of Barlas, at times attached to names to indicate noble origin. In India, they were also called Mirza which is a shortened version of  ‘amir-zada’ (of noble birth). Mirza Aslam Beg is thus a true-blue military aristocrat.

The Ottomans ruled the area around the Black Sea. One Georgian who became associated with the revival of Sindhi letters was Mirza Kalich Beg of whom Obaidullah Baig used to talk often. But the origin of  ‘Baig’ or ‘Bey’ was not originally Turkish, just as the Turkish word ‘effendi’ was derived from the Greek word ‘authentic’. Greeks pronounced ‘th’ as ‘f’, which converted ‘authentic’ to ‘effendi’. Slavs also pronounce it like that: ‘Theodor’ is ‘Feodor’.

But ‘Baig’ stands for ‘god’, too. I stumbled upon this connection in Ancient Persia by Josef Wieshofer (IB Tauris 2001, p.165):

“The fact that the king referred to himself as god (Middle Persian ‘bay’) shows that the subjects were to consider their ruler not only as some kind of overlord, but as a king with divine qualities. Greek uses the word theos for both king and god.

Here the king is given the epithet bay (Old Persian baga). For the Iranians of the Sassanian period, there were accordingly two kinds of gods: First the great king and his royal father, no matter whether alive or dead, as god-men and consequently material beings. Secondly, however, the remote ancestors, gods in the real sense, who are to be conceived as spiritual beings”.

In Russian, ‘god’ is ‘bog’ which they pronounce ‘bokh’. ‘Bagh’ in Baghdad is the Aryan god that became ‘bhag’ in Rigved and is today familiar to us as ‘bhagwan’. I hear the word ‘Afghan’ is also derived from it. We will discuss that later.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • American Desi
    Sep 4, 2012 - 9:20PM

    Illuminating as usual. Keep up the great work.

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  • THINK
    Sep 4, 2012 - 9:29PM

    uh! not sure what the purpose of the article was. Its a random trail of thought and does not do any justice to the Mr. O Baig – you might have just called the article “Who are Baigs” for that matter.

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  • Raw is War
    Sep 4, 2012 - 9:33PM

    enlightening.

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  • sid
    Sep 4, 2012 - 10:06PM

    Great as usual……………Recommend

  • lota6177
    Sep 4, 2012 - 10:24PM

    Loved it!

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  • Ustad Changezi
    Sep 4, 2012 - 10:30PM

    How is this remembering Obaidullah Baig?

    Its all about “I, Me, Mine”. Decadence of journalism.

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  • sam
    Sep 4, 2012 - 10:46PM

    i am actually getting tired of Khalid Ahmed’s juggle with words and their roots. Almost every second article is about words and history attached with them. He rightly called it “disease”. no doubt its meaningful but we need a fresh breath, a new topic, a new theme always.

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  • John B
    Sep 4, 2012 - 11:31PM

    While the root word Bagh is traceable to Sanskrit and early Persian, the assertion that “Bagh’ in Baghdad is the Aryan god that became ‘bhag’ in Rigved and is today familiar to us as ‘bhagwan’” is questionable.

    The city name baghdad ( not the present city, founded much later in Islamic period) appears only in 6-3BCE and Rig Veda predates the time period. The word Bagh was rarely used in reference to god in Rig Veda. Considering the origin of Indo – Aryan civilization, it is likely that Bagh was a common name referring to god, as Allah was during preislamic period.

    The claim of god- king as surname in mogul period is in tune with the divinity origin of mogul as claimed by mogul historians, which is a tradition going back to Egyptian times and Hellenistic period and Persians.

    It is interesting while Jewish history mentions babylon over and over, the word baghdad was never mentioned, especially in the book of Daniel ( an epistle of conflict in worshipping god- king) which was likely written during 2 BCE and is daringly absent throughout the biblical history going back to Abraham.

    It is likely the city was named Baghdad in reference to god-king seat of power which shifted throughout the Persian history and came to be for present location after it was established in 7 century CE.

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  • yousaf
    Sep 5, 2012 - 9:59AM

    @THINK::No offence please.I once was visiting the ruins of SARKAP near Taxila when a bus-full of college students arrived.They were on a STUDY tour.After the students alighted from the bus one of them exclaimed.’what is this?nothing but stones and stones all around’.I didn’t dare tell him that these STONES held a history and culture of several thousand years of ours .To see and understand all that,one had to visualise not behold,I didn’t tell this to that youth for fear of reprisal which they usually do without trying to understand the facts

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  • Roti, kapra aur..
    Sep 5, 2012 - 3:51PM

    Loved it. Words carry history, they are not only the source of knowledge but of wisdom too. Thank you for the piece, but it has only intensified my thirst :)

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  • Sep 6, 2012 - 6:05PM

    This ignorance about heritage is because we do not teach cultural history in school and colleges. We only teach military history of Arab, Afghan and Mughals.

    Greeks left a heavy imprint on our food..Nan (Greek pizza), Yogurt, and tikkas (souvlaki), baingans are some of the example.

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  • A.Baig
    Sep 17, 2012 - 8:24PM

    Obaidullah Baig himself would have enjoyed reading this, and probably lent a random thought thread of his own:) He would argue though that most Baigs probably hail from different clans, as Baig itself means general, quite simply – so what is the surname that was dropped in favour of retaining the Baig?

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