The philanthropist and the dacoit
For whom the bell tolls
The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.
Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.
The journey back home is like reliving the past. In between the calm of old age and idle moments of prosperity, there comes a time on every man when he sets himself free to float on the tide of memories, intentionally losing track of his surroundings. The places he could never visit, the promises he could never keep and the wishes that could never come true, await him at this time unceasingly.
Wazirabad was a busy railway junction with trains connecting four parts of India. One to Jammu, one to Sialkot, another to Lyallpur via Hafizabad and lastly to Gujranwala through Dhaunkal, Gakhar Mandi and Rahwali.
This side of the Chenab was the land of care-free Jatts with an open heart. Discarding religion, there existed only one distinction, Jatt or not and they ruled this area. Their fields, horses, hounds and hunts had distributed their time amongst each other. Only in the August of 1947, did it dawn upon them that the times had changed … and changed a lot.
Next to Wazirabad, Dhaunkal is a small size town, almost entirely made up of legends of Sakhi Sarwar, a saint known for his philanthropy. The town derives its name from one of the many myths. In Klair Kot, the land of Klairs, there lived one Dhonkal Laal, the son of a Jatt Sardar, who was lost in a village fair. Though the father was a Sikh, yet he lived up the tradition of the Jacobs of crying his eyes out, and lost his sight. When he heard of Sakhi Sarwar, he approached him. The saint prayed and the father saw his son again. Indebted, they did not only convert themselves but also renamed the place Dhaunkal.
Dhaunkal and Sakhi Sarwar are synonymous to each other. The saint spent his life in Jhang, Multan, Baghdad, Dhaunkal and eventually settled in Nigah, Dera Ghazi Khan, where he breathed his last and is buried. His stay at Dhaunkal is featured with myths and characters, including the Raja of Eimenabad and the carpenter of Dhaunkal. Sir Edward Douglas Maclagan cannot be thanked enough for two things. Firstly, he oversaw the establishment of the Maclagan Engineering College (which later came to be known as University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore) and secondly he collected all the folklore of Punjab and transferred them from the memory of local performers to archives.
A shrine and a well in Dhaunkal are now the monuments of Sakhi Sarwar. The outer wall of the shrine is decorated with titles bestowed by devotees and the inner wall displays epic images. Other than the well, a large size pond (Baoli) is also attributed to Sakhi Sarwar. His Urs, celebrated in different places on different dates, starts from Vaisakhi in areas around Chenab to the Jhandon Wala Mela in Peshawar and Qadmon Wala Mela in Lahore. Before 1947, all the small sized shrines en route Nigah were known as Choki. The devotees would take a journey break here and sleep on the floor. This tradition of sleeping on the floor was known as Choki Bharna. Those who could not join the convoys to Dera Ghazi Khan would go to some Choki and spend a night there, sleeping on the floor. Others who could not afford leaving the house at all, slept on the floor for the days of Urs to mark the tradition. Another tradition was cooking the Rot, dough of equal quantity of flour and Gurr (Raw Sugar) was kneaded and baked. One fourth was kept for the household and the remaining was distributed amongst the devotees. Tradition binds human beings like nothing else does. He often succumbs more to tradition rather than God.
Sakhi Sarwar had faithfuls amongst all religions. In Guru Tej Bahadur’s time, many Sikhs reverted to the puritanical form but the bonds of tradition were too strong to break and they reconciled shortly. When the reformist movements gained strength, followers of Sakhi Sarwar, known as Sultanis, faced heavy critique. A scholar, Giani Dutt Singh, published a pamphlet with the name Pir Powara (the troubles of Pir) demeaning these practices but nothing changed. However, the reforms which the Akalis and Singh Saba wanted to introduce were finally brought in by the Muslim League and Nehru … in the form of a partition. The Sultanis from the other side of the border could not visit the shrine and many devotees on this side of line were caught between faith and survival. They chose the latter and left. Yet, in these days of new definitions of faith and the destruction of shrines (to purify the religion), a few green flags with Peacock figure, a Sakhi Sarwar emblem, can still be seen atop houses in Malwa.
Next is Gakhar Mandi, a place famous for hand-woven rugs, known as Durree. Now that carpets are a part of a lifestyle and people take offense in sitting on bare ground, durrees have lost their relevance, fading into darkness. The traditional weavers have adjusted to this transformation and have resorted to other rewarding businesses like automobile spare parts and medical stores. I asked one of the weavers whether he had inherited the craft. He remarked sarcastically, “Yes, my son is a qualified dispenser and works as a physician in the next village”. Everyone, we met alongside the track was contented with life yet cribbed about the changing times.
Next is Rahwali, an abandoned railway station with two references; a sugar mill and a garrison. The mill, constructed in 1936, was one of the largest industries in India and met a similar fate too. Now, the signboards stacked in a large junkyard and a pond are vague reminders of the mill that once existed here. On the other side of the road, however, the cantonment grows phenomenally.
Far and away, across the paddy fields, the city of Daska flourishes. The fields tell the story of the Jatt commitment to till the land, till the last moment. The name of the city has a geographical connotation. Located within the distance of 10 Kos (a unit to measure the distance) from the neighbouring cities and villages, it was initially called “Das Kos” deteriorating to Daska.
Now famous for tanneries and grain trading, the pre-partition fame of the place was Jaggat Singh aka Jagga, the dacoit. The Robin hood of Punjab amongst the officers of Raj, Jagga would rob the rich and distribute the wealth amongst poor. At the young age of 29, he stood as a symbol of local resistance to British imperialism and is immortalised in folklore as such. The story of Jagga has been featured in many movies on both sides of the border but the brevity of following lines remains unmatched.
Jagga jamiya fajar dee bangay
Tey loday welay khedada phiray
(Jagga was born at Dawn and was playing by the evening)
Jagga jamiya tay milan wadhaiyan
Tay wadda ho kay daakay marda
(When Jagga was born, greetings poured in and when he grew up he became a dacoit)
Jaggay marya Lyallpur daka
Tay taran kharak gaiyan
(Jagga robbed Lyallpur and it created panic all around (the administration telegraphed all the nearing police stations))
Jagga wadhiya borh dee chavain
Tay no mann rait bhij gayee
(Jagga was cut down under a banyan tree and tonnes of sand soaked his blood)
Though he was born near Chunian, Daska was the hub of his activities due to the affluent residents, loyal to the British Empire. He was survived by his wife and a daughter. The family later moved to Mukatsar, where his daughter lives to-date and tells the eventful career of his father as dacoit which spanned only three months.
Farmhouses dominate this landscape. Besides the fields, the mill and garrison of Rahwali, the market of Gakhar and the spiritual side of Sakhi Sarwar explain human anthology. It defines, how a man lives through the need to feed the body, builds shelter, trades, seeks protection and eventually takes a recourse to religion. The whole issue of existence is settled between the fields, the market, the garrison and the shrine.
Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.