Hatim Tilwonye: The Legendary Story Teller of Kashmir

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HATIM’S TALES: KASHMIRI STORIES AND SONGS: Recorded with the assistance of Pandit Govind Koul by Sir Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E and edited with a translation, linguistic analysis, vocabulary, indexes etc by Sir George Grierson, K.C.I.E. with a note on the folklore of the tales by W. Crooke, C.I.E. 

The book was first published in London for the Government of India in 1923. It is a transcription and translation by Sir Aurel Stein and Pandit Govind Koul of 12 stories narrated by the brilliant “Raawi” Hatim Tilwonye. The stories are;

  • Mahmud of Ghazni and the Fisherman. 
  • The Tale of a Parrot. 
  • The Tale of a Merchant. 
  • The Tale of the Goldsmith. 
  • The Story of Yusuf and Zulaikha. 
  • The Tale of the Reed-Flute . 
  • The Tale of a King. 
  • The Tale of Raja Vikramaditya. 
  • The Song of Forsyth Sahib when he went to conquer Yarkand.
  • The Tale of the Akhun . 

Without narrating the stories here or discussing the origins of the tales/ stories that are elaborately explained in the book I would like to focus on the narrator/ reciter Hatim Tilwonye and here too I wouldn’t use my imagination but reproduce text from the book noted by Sir Stein and Sir Grierson for readers to understand and appreciate the brilliance and the character of this humble soul Hatim and the art of story telling practised by successive generations of ordinary Kashmiris bringing warmth to the otherwise cold environs of the valley. 

“MY INTEREST in the language and folklore of Kashmir directly  arose from the labours which, during the years 1888-98, I devoted, mainly in the country itself, to the preparation of my critical  edition of Kalhana’s Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir and of my  commentated translation of it. The elucidation of the manifold  antiquarian questions which these tasks implied, and which in various ways constituted their chief attraction for me, was possible only in close touch with Kashmir scholars, and needed constant reference to the traditional lore of their alpine land………

I should in no way have felt qualified to decide between the conflicting authorities, even if I could have spared time for the close investigation of the differences of detail concerned. But I realized the value which might attach to an unbiassed phonetic record of specimens of the language taken down at this stage from the mouth of speakers wholly unaffected by quasi -literary influences and grammatical theories. In the course of my Kashmir tours I had been more than once impressed by the clearness of utterance to be met with in the speech of intelligent villagers, very different from the Protean inconstancy which certain phonetic features of Kashmiri seemed to present in the mouth of the townsfolk of Srinagar, whether Brahmans or Muhammadans. In addition, my interest had been aroused from the first by the rich store of popular lore which Kashmiri presents in its folk tales, songs, proverbs, and the like. 

So in the course of the second summer season, that of 1896, which I was enabled through a kind dispensation to devote to my Rajatarangini labours in the alpine seclusion of my cherished mountain camp, Mohand Marg, high up on a spur of the great Haramukh peaks, I endeavoured to use the chance which had opportunely offered itself for securing specimens both of the language spoken in the Sind Valley below me (the important Lahara tract of old Kashmir) and of folklore texts. Hatim Tilehwonye who had been mentioned to me as a professional story-teller in particular esteem throughout that fertile tract. He was a cultivator settled in the little hamlet of Panzil, at the confluence of the Sind River and the stream draining the eastern Haramukh glaciers, and owed his surname to the possession of an oil press. When he had been induced to climb up to my mountain height and had favoured Pandit Govind Kaul and myself with his first recitation, we were both much struck by his intelligence, remarkable memory, and clear enunciation. His repertoire of stories and songs was a large one. Though wholly illiterate, he was able to recite them all at any desired rate of speed which might suit our ears or pens; to articulate each word separate from the context, and to repeat it, if necessary, without any change in pronunciation. Nor did the order of his words or phrases ever vary after however long an interval he might he called upon to recite a certain passage again. The indication of two or three initial words repeated from my written  record would he quite sufficient to set the disk moving in this living phonographic machine. It did not take me long to appreciate fully Hatim’s value for the purpose I had in view. He did not at first take kindly to the cold of our airy camping-place nor to its loneliness, being himself of a very sociable disposition, such as befitted his professional calling exercised mostly at weddings and other festive village gatherings. But it was the cultivators’ busy season in the rice fields, some 5,000 feet below us, and his ministrations were not needed by them for the time being. So I managed, with appropriate treatment and adequate douceurs, to retain him for over six weeks. 

Owing to the pressure of my work on Kalhana’s Chronicle it was impossible to spare for Hatim more than an hour in the evening, after a climb, usually in his company, had refreshed me from the strain of labours which had begun by daybreak. Progress was necessarily made slow by the care which I endeavoured to bestow upon the exact phonetic record of Hatim’s recitation and the consequent need of having each word where I did not feel sure of it, repeated, eventually several times. Whenever a story was completed I used to read it out to Hatim, who never failed to notice and correct whatever deviation from his text might have crept in through inadvertence or defective hearing. Though able to follow the context in general, I purposely avoided troubling Hatim with queries about particular words or sentences which I could not readily understand. I felt that the object in view would be best served by concentrating my attention upon the functions of a phonographic recorder and discharging them as accurately as the limitations of my ear and phonetic training would permit……….fully fourteen years later, I was encamped once more at the very spot where we had recorded those stories. But, alas, Pandit Govind Kaul was no longer among the living to give aid ; and, what with years of Central- Asian exploration and long labours on their results intervening, those records seemed to me as if gathered in a former birth. Fortunately, Hatim was still alive and quite equal to the stiff climb which his renewed visit demanded…..,,His recollection of the story was as fresh as ever, though increasing years and prosperity had made him give up his peregrinations as a public story-teller. So it was easy for another old retainer, Pandit Kasi Ram, to take down from Hatim’s dictation the missing end of the story ; it ran exactly as my own record showed it.” Sir Aurel Stein. 

“THE stories and songs in the following pages were recited to Sir Aurel Stein in June and July, 1896, at Mohand Marg, in Kashmir, by Hatim Tilawonye , of Panzil, in the Sind Valley, a cultivator and professional story- teller. They were taken down at his dictation by Sir Aurel Stein himself, and, simultaneously, by Pandit Govinda Kaul, and were read again by Sir Aurel with Hatim in August, 1912……….

All these materials were handed over to me by Sir Aurel Stein in November, 1910, and a perusal of them at once showed their great importance. They were a first-hand record of a collection of folklore taken straight from the mouth of one to whom they had been handed down with verbal accuracy  from generation to generation of professional Rawis or reciters, and, in addition, they formed an invaluable example of a little- known language recorded in two ways, viz. : (1) as it sounded to an experienced scholar, and (2) as it was written down in the literary style of spelling. Moreover, Hatim’s language was not the literary language of Kashmiri Pandits, but was in  a village dialect, and Sir Aurel Stein’s phonetic record of the patois, placed alongside of the standard spelling of Kashmiri Pandits, gives what is perhaps the only opportunity in existence for comparing the literary form of an Oriental speech with the  actual pronunciation of a fairly educated villager. I therefore, gratefully undertook the task of editing these tales with a view to their publication. 

As I progressed, various difficulties asserted themselves, and Sir Aurel Stein took advantage of a stay in Kashmir in August, 1912, to interview Hatim once more, to read through the text  with him again, and, by inquiry from the fount of inspiration, to obtain a solution of the puzzles. The result was a remarkable proof of the accuracy of Hatim’s memory. As already intimated, he belonged to a family of Rawis, and delivered the stories as he had received them. After sixteen years, the text that he recited in 1912 was the same as that which had been copied down in 1896. It even contained one or two words or phrases of which he did not know the meaning. They were “old words” no longer in use, but he still recited them as he had received them from his predecessor.” Sir George A Grierson.


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