AM Khan

Etymology of the Word ‘Mahraka’

Like very few words in Khowar language, Mahraka has its etymology subsists in varied ways and connotations, and keeps unfolding in Chitral. Its this positioning, with time and space, continued in state’s court and waning with the accession of tribal state of Chitral with Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947.

What Lord Curzon, the then viceroy of British India visited Chitral in 1890, had written in the Leaves from Viceroy’s Notebook and Other Papers, about the nature and structure of mahraka seems to have its storyline been expanded by other writers subsequently. His analogy of ‘durbar’ for what ‘mahraka’ in Chitral is courting it in such a way in which the ruler seated in a platform with a certain dignity ‘dispensed justice or law’. This was a sort of assembly where the ruler asserted himself simultaneously a judge and lawgiver.

Mahraka was a sort of an assembly or gathering where the ruler held discussions on anything on state were also attended by nobles and durbaris. ‘very often twice a day’ as Curzon notes, making it a less formal when there was food after meeting and music for recreation was arranged. It may be said that the mahraka in Chitral state was not what durbar (Persian-originated word) in India.

Taking the cue from Indian rulers, British also took on with it but the coronation durbar of 1911, Chandrika Kaul underlines, was ‘a uniquely royal and ritualised realm’ for the occasion ‘cost £60,000 drawn on the Indian exchequer’ meant to inaugurate a ‘new political roadmap for the Raj’ in India.

Mahraka in the Chitral: A Study in Statecraft, refers to a special ‘occasion of taking meals’ of mehtar in the company of nobles. It reads further that “The mehtar took his afternoon and evening meals in the company of his nobles. Both lunch and dinner sessions, called the Mahraka, were also a time to discuss matters of state.” Anita Christy, in an obituary (2010), using the analogy of Lord Curzon posits that Mahrakas (sic) a ‘Chitrali form of durbar in which nobles dined with the mehtar and discussed affairs of state’.

Relating it with hierarchy and state of precedence in the court, Hussam Ul Mulk adds that confining mahraka only on meals is wrong but it ‘conceals many secrets of government’ where mehtar ‘encouraged and honored his favorite by giving the higher position in precedence’. What may be filtered out from this is that there was a strict seating hierarchy in mahraka determined by the person of mehtar. He who was his favorite took precedence no matter what was his status, age and position in the court or outside it.

Mahraka had also the protocols of rewarding and honouring prominent visiting personages, state officials and supporters, and ‘exhibitions of horsemanship, falconry and hunting’. Apart from their ‘social attributes’ many of the goods awarded to anyone during mahraka had an ‘additional economic character as value-retaining and portable liquid assets’ John Staley notes in the Economy and Society in the High Mountains of Northern Pakistan.

In a blog post, local historian Hidayat ur Rehman, writes that mahraka (rather arguing on the word mahraka) has derived Pashto word ‘maraka’ means delegation. He further adds that it is the part of ‘Pashtunwali system’ and ‘Jerga’(sic) but maraka is a ‘form of small scale Jerga’. Wisdom Library on the other hand shows that ‘maraka’ (not the word mahraka used in Chitral) means something in Hinduism, Sanskrit, Buddhism, Pali, Marathi and Hindi. However, Dr. Noreen Nasreen clarifies that the word maraka, in Pakhto, is an action that Jirga performs by holding maraka to resolve issues. It is a cultural aspect of Pakhtuns but Jirga organizes maraka. It could be between two people or more than two. Maraka in Pakhto or Pakhtunwali is not used specifically for delegation, dispute or any issue settlement but has several other meanings too such as it is used for in holding debate on national/tribal importance. It is also used as sending a proposal to any girl’s family for marriage, and also asking for pardon in any civil-tribal or family problem.

The word ‘maraka’ has different meanings, explanations and usage, and its derivation is uncorroborated yet. It can be posited that the word maraka continued to have a place as an action which Jirga performs has varied meanings and usage in cultural aspects of Pakhtuns. It also means ‘something’ according to a dictionary meaning, however, deriving the word maraka in Pakhto or any other Indian language is quite contesting yet.

The traditional mahraka in Chitral according to Mumtaz Hussain, a local historian and editor, was a forum of discussions and deliberations, whether it was held in the court of the central Mehtar, a provincial Governor or some other chief. But mahraka, as a body had no powers to make decisions. That power rested with the ruler only. Moreover, the topics discussed in mahraka were not necessarily of political and administrative nature. Culture, literature, traditions and history were also discussed.

The word mahraka has also widely been used in Yasin, in northern areas of Pakistan, for musical and youth gatherings. The view that mahraka was ‘just a gathering of a group of people headed by a religious leader from majority’ religiocizes and democratizes it but practically it was a ‘secular and undemocratic assembly’ was attended by ruler and his courtiers.

Now, the usage of mahraka quite dramatically transforms in Chitral. Anywhere people, particularly youth people, engaging in discussions, imitations and jokes, it is described that they are engaged in mahraka. This cultural practice has also been institutionalized as to support the artisans beyond their craft Mahraka Centre was setup to represent their voices, personal development and ensure opportunities to earn sustainable livelihood through this platform. Unlike it, now Mahraka.com is an online hub and forum of deliberation on topics relating to culture, history and literature. There is also a mahraka inn and mahraka guesthouse in Chitral serve as hospitality centers. Chitral Press Club also organizes mahraka to debate and discuss matter of public or general importance in Chitral.

Mahraka has been a sort of an assembly or gathering, less formal from durbar in India, likely became famous from mehtars’ court, may continue from Raees dynasty, in Chitral. It may be a word of Persian origin, has also been in use during Sasanian Empire in Iran, used for the court— not necessarily surrounded by the courtiers, of the king in which matters of general importance in state were discussed. During mahrakas in Chitral subjects related to government, administration, war and peace, threats and war strategies, culture, history and daily affairs were discussed but its nature has been secular and undemocratic. Its continuity made it a form of a forum of less formal in nature where hierarchy persisted for participants, however, it is difficult to argue when the word mahraka adapted with Khowar language. As Mirza Ghufran writes (pp.379-338) like Raees mehtars, Katoors also received peoples (theologians) from places i.e. India, Kabul, Turkistan, Samarqand, Bukhara, Kashghar, including Iran. When Iranians, even during Iranian influence in Chitral, visited mehtars’ court was likely the beginning of introducing the word and functioning of mahraka in Chitral. Since then and now, with the time and space, the word mahraka unfolds in different meanings and connotations in Chitral and northern areas where Khowar is spoken.

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