Literature exists in manuscript form (the first two images above)
and as printed books (the images on the right).
Click on one of
the images to view in more detail.
The Sylheti Language
Sylheti is the language of the Surma valley region, consisting of most of Sylhet Division in Bangladesh and Cachar District in Assam, and is spoken by over 9 million people. It is related to the rural dialects of eastern Bengal, but with a high proportion of words derived from Persian and Arabic, and a distinct grammar.
There are two things that make Sylheti an important language in its own right, and not a colloquial or 'peasant' corruption of Bengali as some have alleged. Firstly, Sylheti is the language of choice not just of the illiterate, but also of educated Sylhetis who can function well in Bengali when they choose to. Secondly, Sylheti is the only regional language related to Bengali which developed its own folk literature in its own script.
The Sylheti script is not related to Bengali. Some Bengali writers have called the script 'Devanagri' or Hindi, quoting from a book by a British author 100 years ago who had not himself seen any examples, but this too is wrong. The Siloti Nagri alphabet seems to have been derived from the Kaithi script of Bihar, though with a number of differences. Nobody knows when it first arrived in Sylhet - some say with the companions of Shah Jalal who invaded Sylhet in 1303 CE, others believe it came later.
Sylhet has a rich heritage of literature in the Siloti Nagri script going back at least 200 years. Books in Siloti Nagri, whether manuscript or printed, are known as ‘puthis’.This literature has been largely unknown and neglected since Sylhet’s incorporation from Assam into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1947, and is only recently being rediscovered. We have included short descriptions of some puthis in the list below.
The examples above show pages from two manuscript and two printed puthis. The first page of a book is often beautifully decorated with an Islamic design and some Arabic calligraphy, followed by an opening section consisting of a ‘bondona’ or poem in praise to God.
The rest of the puthi is also in verse, and is designed to be sung or chanted. The content can be a story, such ‘Jongo Nama’ which tells the history of the war of Karbala and ‘Mohobbot Nama’ which tells the story of Joseph and Zulaikha. Or it can be the teachings of a Sufi master or ‘pir’ to his disciples, in the form of songs in the ‘baula’ style each followed by an explanation in simple ‘poyar’ metre.
Many manuscript puthis, as in the examples shown, have no gaps between words, which can make reading difficult for the modern reader.
Books in the Siloti Nagri script
The Sylhet District Gazetteer (1975) lists 44 works published in Siloti Nagri script, dating from 15th C to 1930. The following is a shortened list of the titles currently being studied by STAR:
- ‘Halot-un-Nobi’ (Account of the Prophet) by Sadeq Ali (19thC); edition printed c.1920, 275 pages
- ‘Mohobbot Nama - Yusuf Zulikha’ (The Love Story of Joseph and Zulaikha) adapted from the Persian of Jami (1475 CE) by Sadeq Ali (19thC); edition printed 1918, 95 pages
- copies of several hundred diverse fragments of manuscripts collected from villages in Sylhet (18th/19thC?)
- ‘Nur Poricoy’ (Introduction to Light) by Afzul Shah (undated); manuscript, 139 pages
- ‘Nur Nosihot’ (Teachings of Light) by Syed Shahnur (1820 CE); manuscript, 420 pages
- ‘Iuropio Mohajuddher Kobita’ (Vol.2) (Poems of the European Great War), collected by Sheikh Abdul Wahid al Adiri ol Hanofi (undated); printed c.1950, 16 pages
- ‘Bhed Johur’ (Discernment of Excellence) by Pir Mozir Uddin Ahmed (1863-1933); manuscript, 130 pages
- ‘Bhed Johur’ (later expanded version of same book); manuscript, 193 pages of 14 lines
- ‘Puthi Sahadote Buzurgan’ (‘The Traditions of the Elders’) by Pir Mozir Uddin Ahmed; manuscript, 842 pages of 21 lines
- ‘Sitalong Shaher Puthi’, the collected songs of the Sufi Pir Sitalong Shah (1806-1899); manuscript, 604 pages
- ‘Jongo Nama’ (Account of the War), the history of Hasan and Hussein and the massacre at Karbala, by Wahed Ali; printed, 460 pages
- ‘Puthi Shohorchorit’ by Shah Asod Ali Pir (1813-1905); printed 1878, 104 pages
- ‘Silet Nagri Pohela Kitab o Doikhurar Rag’ (A Sylhet Nagri Primer and Doikhura’s Songs) by Md Abdul Lotif, including songs by Munshi Mobin Uddin ‘Doikhura’; printed 1930, 14 pages
- ‘Baula Dukhkhit’ (a Sad Baul Song), a collection of songs by Munshi Moshahed Ali; printed 1937, 15 pages
We are grateful to a number of people who have kindly loaned
or allowed us to copy their original Siloti Nagri materials.
STAR contents |
Sylheti Literature |
Printed Sylheti |
Books from STAR |
Siloti Nagri Font