The Pathan who wrote the largest Punjabi dictionary

Published: January 24, 2015

Sardar Muhammad Khan was born in a Punjabi-Pathan family in Basti Danishmandan in undivided Punjab’s Jalandhar district on the first day of 1915. He studied at the Islamiya High School Jalandhar and received his BA from the University of the Punjab in 1934. Sardar Muhammad Khan joined the British Indian Army as a civilian employee but soon found that what he truly loved were words, their sounds and their meanings. His love for words drew him to the world of dictionaries and linguistics. It is said that he knew the Oxford English Dictionary by heart.

But the language he loved and worked on the most was Punjabi. Sometime during the turbulent years of the partition, he set forth on a marvelous work. For the next 50 years, not many people knew what this reclusive person was doing for hours and hours in an old Rawalpindi quarter or at a small press he ran after his retirement. He was writing a dictionary, a Punjabi-Urdu dictionary which would prove to be the most detailed and authoritative on the subject.

Sardar Muhammad Khan, or SMK, did not suffer fools gladly. A friend once tried to provoke him by saying he did not know the four-letter expletive in Punjabi. “The next day I gave him a list of 300 four-letter expletives about anatomical parts in English,” SMK told Nadir Ali in an interview in 1996.

In 1965, he published 152 pages of the ‘Aleph’ part of the dictionary under the name of S Khanam, which was actually his wife’s name. He did not publish anything under his own name to stay clear of bureaucratic red-tape. But this was a voluminous work and SMK alone could not undertake its publishing. He handed over the final draft to the then Punjabi Adabi Board secretary and a Punjabi scholar, Asif Khan, and bid adieu to this world on May 26, 1998.

No public or private body, including the Punjab government, was willing to publish the dictionary, a project SMK gave his life to. It would have been a great loss had it not been for the Punjabi Adabi Board and Sachal Studios that contributed human and financial resources to bring SMK’s magnum opus to life in 2009. The dictionary comprises two volumes of 3,600 pages and lists 64 dialects of Punjabi. It contains idioms, riddles and treatises on traditions and customs. It is undoubtedly the best Punjabi dictionary in the Shahmukhi script. Thank you Sardar Muhammad Khan!

Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • mushtaq soofi
    Jan 24, 2015 - 2:50PM

    Thanks Arsalan sb for remembering great Sardar Khan who did us proud. We stand truly enriched by his inimitable contribution.


  • Harjit Singh Dhanoa
    Jan 24, 2015 - 3:13PM

    This is fascinating and highly important for Punjabi language and I hope that it can be published in Gurmukhi as well for the benefit of East Punjabies. I hope that Punjabi University Patiala will take note of this.

    In my view Punjabi language has suffered a great tragedy after partition. It is people like Sardar Muhammad Khan who have tried to preserve it and ALL Punjabies owe his great deal of gratitude.

    Sardar Sahib your name shall live as long as the Punjabi language does.


  • Nuzhat Abbas
    Jan 24, 2015 - 4:12PM

    I am so lucky to have Sir Sardar Muhammad khan’s best dictionary in the shahmukhi script. Which is helping me in so many ways but the most importantly this wonderful work is opening new doors for those who value or devalue their own mother language Punjabi.

    Thank you very much for such a great work.


  • Balraj Cheema
    Jan 24, 2015 - 10:12PM

    It sounds like a monumental treasure and must be preserved besides being printed for the good of lexicographers as well as Punjabi writers and readers. It shall add , i am positive, a positive impact on the future of Punjabi language and the course it takes in times to come.
    Punjabi university has the finances and the resources to obtain a copy of it reproduce in Gurmukhi script without loosing time,
    Hope the appeal shall have a sympathetic response from the university.


  • Harjit Singh Dhanoa
    Jan 25, 2015 - 3:42PM

    @Balraj Cheema:

    Dear Sardar Cheema Sahib,

    Knowing how the system in India works, may be you and I can give a bit of nudge.

    If you are based in Punjab, I am willing to pay for the book and have it sent to you
    and you could hand over to the Punjabi University/ Please let me know.

    Of course to do this we need Mr Arsalan Altaf’s help or any other reader like Ms Nuzhat Abbas may wish to help.


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