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  • Writer's pictureSanah Alban

PUNJAB: The History, Culture and Food of the Region

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Punjab - The land of the five rivers, Pakistan's largest province by population and home to 60% of the country's population... as well as where my family originate from!

In case you missed my earlier post, this is a weekly series in which I share some information about each of the regions in Pakistan and share a specialty recipe from the area.

This week, I'll begin with Punjab.

Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Punjab. A 17th Century, Mughal Era Mosque. PC: Muhummad Amer on Unsplash.


The Province of Punjab is located in the East of Pakistan. It is the only province to border every other province of the country as well as the Enclave of Islamabad (Capital City of Pakistan) and the Pakistan Administered Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The province of Punjab also borders the Indian states of Punjab and Rajasthan, and the Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir.

Punjab is the second largest province by area (205,344 sq km) after Balochistan but the largest by population (110 million), around 60% of the national population!

The Provincial Capital is Lahore which is also a historic cultural center of the wider Punjab region. Other major cities are Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Multan, Bahawalpur, Sargodha and Sialkot.

Map showing location of Punjab in Pakistan


Punjab has had many names over history depending on the ruling empire/dynasty and their language. But their commonality lies in recognizing it as a land of five rivers as there are five major rivers that run through the Punjab region, Punjab was referred to as:

  • Sapta Sindhu – land of the seven rivers in the Rig Veda;

  • Pentapotamia – region of five rivers by the Greek;

  • Panchanada – land of the five rivers in Sanskrit; and finally

  • Punjab – land of the five rivers by the Persian.

The rivers Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej flow via the Panjnad river into the Indus River to the Arabian Sea.

The five rivers of Punjab. PC: Punjab Data

Four of the five great rivers of Punjab are in present day Pakistan’s Punjab province.


Punjab was part of the Indus Valley civilization and is home to Harappa, an ancient bronze age fortified city, showing evidence of modern urban living despite being almost 5000 years old!

The region was invaded and ruled by different empires and dynasties including the Aryans, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Afghans and Mongols, each bringing their own influence to the region.

Punjab was predominantly Hindu and Buddhist before Muhammad bin Qasim conquered in 712 AD, and Mughals controlled from 1524-1739, giving Punjab architectural feats such as the Badshahi Mosque (photographed above) and Lahore Fort.

Punjab was under the Sikh empire from 1799-1849, mostly under the rule of the Sikh Empire's first ruler, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, known as Sher-e-Punjab (the Lion of Punjab). The British took control in 1849 after the first and second Anglo-Sikh Wars; Punjab was the last territory to be merged into British India!

Anglo-Sikh Wars : The 3rd Light Dragoons at the Battle of Mudki, 1845 by E. Croft

Punjab was the center of rising rebellion and the heart of the independence struggle.

India was divided by religion by the British (and I mean that in every sense!) known as the Partition. India gained independence and a new country was created, Pakistan, in 1947 when the British literally up and left, after setting foot in the subcontinent in 1608. The idea was to create a Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India. People would have to migrate to their designated country depending on their religion.

New borders were drawn but Punjab was divided, along with Bengal in the East of India. Muslim majority areas of Punjab became West Punjab, the present day Pakistani province of Punjab, whilst Sikh and Hindu majority areas became East Punjab, present day Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. And when I say majority, some districts were only so by a small fraction. People became refugees overnight.

Partition is known to be one of the largest mass migrations and one of the most traumatic events of the 20th Century. Both sides committed atrocities against fleeing refugees, and families were divided and lost forever. It is absolutely heartbreaking what happened and there are so many horrifying stories from this time. The violence has created tension and wars between the two countries to this very day.

These videos by Vox can give you a glimpse as to what took place:

A train carrying Muslims passes through the north Indian town of Kuinkshaha on its way from Delhi to Lahore, 1947. Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum

Punjab lost its Provincial status in 1955 and merged into a single province of West Pakistan, but regained it in 1972 when East Pakistan seceded and Bangladesh gained independence. Major battles took place in Punjab in the wars of 1965 and 1971 between India and Pakistan.

Peace process began in 2004, and trade and people-to-people contact through the Wagah border are common.

Wagah Border Ceremony takes places every evening, two hours before sunset, starting in 1986 as an agreement of peace. PC: Godwin Angeline Benjo on Unsplash


Punjab is predominantly plain level with some hilly areas in the Northwest and Southwest. The Potohar Plateau, hosting the country's major oilfields is adjacent to the mountains, and the Cholistan Desert Belt can be found in the Southeast. The Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi and Sutlej flow through this province, originating from the Himalayas and into the Arabian Sea. See diagram above.


The temperature in Punjab can range from −2° to 45 °C, but can reach 50 °C in summer and can touch down to −10 °C in winter. Climatically, Punjab has three major seasons:

  • Hot weather (April to June) when temperature rises as high as 43 °C.

  • Rainy season (July to September). Average rainfall ranges between 96 cm in the sub-mountain region and 46 cm in the plains.

  • Cold / Foggy / mild weather (October to March). Temperature goes down as low as 4 °C.


Punjab contributes a significant proportion of the countries GDP, ranging from around 50 to 60%. The main industries are agriculture, manufacturing and service. The main crops are cotton, wheat and rice and Punjab contributes 68% of the annual food grain production in the country.

A farmer cutting grass in Punjab, Pakistan. PC: Zubair Hussain on Unsplash


Punjabi is the major and native language of the province. It is written in the Shahmukhi script (Gurmukhi being its Indian counterpart).

Urdu and English are the near exclusive language of broadcasting, public sector and formal education despite the majority of people speaking the Punjabi language.

Saraiki is spoken in parts of South Punjab and Pashto is spoken in parts of Northwest Punjab.


Punjabi people find their commonalities in the Punjabi language, rituals, music, dance, food, and dress despite religious differences.

Traditional dress of Punjabi men and women is the salwar kameez, which includes a dupatta (scarf) for the women.

Many famous works of literature and folk tales like Heer Rhanjha, Sohni Mahiwal, Mirza Sahiban have come from this land.

Punjabi music has many genres like classical, folk, bhangra, Sufi and qawwali. Here are some absolute bangers to come out of Punjab, Pakistan:

And so, so many more. The talent and skill is unreal. Also have a listen to these beautiful renditions of Umran Langiyaan and Dastaan-e-ishq. These may be two of my favorite things to listen to, it's a blessing to the ears.

I'd also like to briefly mention Bewafa by Imran Khan which has become sort of a cult classic and ballad for heartbroken young Punjabis all over!

Epic tales like Heer Rhanja orginate in Punjab.


Punjab is full of beautiful Mughal era landmarks such as Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, Shalimar gardens and Sheesh Mahal in Lahore.

There are many historical sites to see like the ruins in Harappa, Taxila (housed one of the earliest universities in the world), Jahangir's tomb, Katas Raj Temples, Rohtas Fort, Derawar Fort and many more!

There are many Sikh shrines in Pakistan's Punjab province, including the birthplace of Guru Nanak (founder of Sikhism) at Nankana Sahib. My grandma's village is also in this district!

Top left clockwise: Derawar Fort, Katas Raj Temples, Minar-e-Pakistan and Badshahi Mosque

(PC: Naveed Mehdi from Pixabay, Mehroz Naqvi, Amjad Qureshi and Shazaf Zafar on Unsplash respectively)


Punjabi food is heavily influenced by the agricultural and farming lifestyle of the people from ancient times, so can be meat and dairy intense but has a lot of fresh vegetables, pulses and grains.

Punjab is famous for tandoori cooking (food cooked in a clay oven), so things like tandoori naan, roti and kebabs.

The most well known Punjabi meal is sarson da saag (mustard greens) and makki di roti (flat corn bread).

Sarson da saag & makki di roti. Image by NDTV.

Veggie dishes include: khichidi, channay, daal, red kindney beans, lobia (black eye beans), saag (greens like spinach and mustard greens), Began ka bharta, kadhi pakora, and seasonal vegetables like bhindhi, karela, lauki, tinday and kadoo. If you browse through my recipes on this blog, they are mostly Punjabi!

The breads are mostly flat breads, leavened or unleavened, and can be cooked in a tandoor, on a tawa (flat pan) or deep fried. Some examples are parantha, naan, roti, kulcha, puri, bhatoora and papar.

Cow and buffalo milk are used for dairy. Punjabis are known to love fresh dairy items like yoghurt, lassi, butter, buttermilk, ghee.

Pakistani Punjabis are also meat lovers and dishes like biryani, kebab, keema, tikka, karahi, korma, haleem, paya can be found in abundance around the region. I hope you can now understand why it's not easy to be veggie around my clan!

Desserts are mostly dairy based like kheer and kulfi, and halva is also popular sweet dish.

Halwa Puri Channay or Cholay Bhatooray are a popular breakfast item in Punjab. Image source: Food of Pakistan.

My thoughts

My mind has been blown learning more about Punjab and it's history and on a personal level has been very eye opening, heart wrenching and healing. I was born and brought up in the UK but have constantly been surrounded by Punjabi culture, the good, the bad and (can get) ugly! It's been fascinating to get a deeper understanding of the land of my ancestors and why people, places and things are the way they are, and my research will not stop here.

I only learnt about British history at school and there was hardly any mention of the Indian subcontinent, despite it's history being an important part of British history. I think a lot of second generation Pakistani and Punjabi immigrants have an understanding of the Partition but the way we receive the information can be so limited, whether it's been glossed over or simply too painful for our relatives to speak about, which is understandable considering the horrors that took place.

My take from this is that Punjab and the people of Punjab are beautiful, strong and fearless, be it India or Pakistan. We have a lot to work on and heal from, and that's ok. But the culture is so strong that it can withstand national and religious differences, survive AND thrive. If there's one thing I can learn from my ancestors is to stay strong, stand my ground and speak my truth.

Hausle buland raakhi malka, change madey din tan aunde he rende ne.

Always keep the courage, as good and bad days are part of life.

Stay tuned for this week's Punjabi Specialty Recipe!

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