Paleo-Talibothra Found!!

in homistan


A chance conversation reminded me of something, which led to another trip down the ‘stacks in Reg and Google Books and, lo and behold, I may have hit at the birthplace of TALIBOTHRA! Now, understand that this is an exercise in what professional historians call “speculative scholarship”. As a professional historian, I believe it is my right to engage in such activities that are strictly off-limits to the lesser yous.

We all know that the word Taliban is plural of the Arabic Talib meaning “one who seeks”. Most commonly it is a contraction of Talib-i ‘Ilm, “one who seeks knowledge/learning” aka “student”. Our current Taliban got the moniker because they belonged to a particular generation of seminary/madrasa students in Pakistan (’86-’90). So, Taliban = Talib-e ilm. All good? Now check it:

I. “The Talib ilm or Student in Affghanistan is very different from the same species usually so called in India and Sindh. Like the members of our European Universities in the middle ages, the Affghan Student carries about his sword and dagger, and is fonder of broil than he is of his books. The duello of course is unknown, as the usual way to resent an insult is to draw a sword and cut the opponent down. As Mussulmans, they dare not openly indulge in the “wine and wassail” but the “emerald cup”, in other words Cannabis sativa under the forms of bhang and charas, forms no contemptible succedaneum.”1

II. “One evening in the month of September 1853 he had completed his day’s work, and as he was seated outside his house receiving and hearing petitions, a man came up and handed to him what appeared to be a petition. As Mackeson was examining it, the miscreant drew a dagger, either from his sleeve or beneath his shirt, and stabbed him. He lingered some days, but the wound was fatal, and he died on September 14, 1853. The assassin was a Talib-ul-Ilm (a searcher after knowledge, i.e. a religious student), a resident of the Kuner Valley.”2

III. “Everywhere Mullahs, Shekhs and Sayads are objects of reverence, whose temporal wants are freely attended to. Mullahs of note attract to their mosques a number of wandering adventurers from other countries known as talib-ilm or seekers after learning; but who are most frequently idle vagabonds, ready to join in any piece of mischief which comes in their way: and sometimes the regularly employed spies of robbers and dacoits.

The Talib-ul-ilm, or ‘seeker of wisdom’ is the name applied to a mixed class of vagrants and idlers who, under the pretense of devoting themselves to religion, wander from country to country, and on the whole lead an agrreable and easy life.”3

Say what you will, those British were preceptive people.4

Related: Check Talibothra here.

  1. Richard F. Burton, “Notes and Remarks on Dr. Dorn’s Chrestomathy of the Pushtu or Affghan Language,” The Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Jan 1849. []
  2. Robert Warburton. Eighteen Years in the Khyber, 1979-1898. (London: John Murray, 1900) []
  3. Gazetteer of the Peshawar. 1897-98 (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 1989): 102-12 []
  4. I can’t help but share some other gems from the Gazetteer about the Pathans: “Their superstition is incredible and knows no bounds”. “The Pathans are a lively people, superstitious beyond belief and proud to a degree but brave and hospitable, two virtues compensating for many vices, among which may be mentioned distrustfulness, envy, resentment and vindictiveness.” “The Pathans are said to be naturally very avaricious and grasping, selfish, merciless, strangers to affection and without gratitude.” And perhaps my favorite colonial recommendation ever: “The poetry (of the Pathans) possesses some merit, and is worthy of attention from us by way of encouragement. Their music, too, though noisy, and the result of vigorous performance, is not without its peculiar merits, to judge from its exciting effects on a Pathan audience.” Good Times, yeah? []

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