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 a 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 train whistles away from Choohar Kahna and halts at Safdarabad. From the jungles of Sheikhupura to the reservations of Lyallpur, the whole place was once called Sandal Bar, one of the five bars of Punjab. Bar is the local name for the area that lies in between the rivers. Free spirited and generous, the inhabitants of this area bear the signature of this environ. Their temperaments remind one of wild plants, and their moods identify with the flowing rivers. When invaders made it a routine to loot and plunder Punjab, Baris were the first to resist. From the Moghuls to the British, they lived up to the tradition of resistance. It was the free spirit of these people that irked the imperialists to either belittle them as Jaangli or, in a subtle manner, eliminate them from history.
As a result of this, the locals resorted to a unique method of preserving their history. To avoid this abduction, they converted their history into rhymes and poems. Instead of writing them in words and publishing them in books, they encrypted these stories into lullabies to keep them safe in their hearts. These songs were synchronised with the rhythm of windmills, the spinning wheels of cycles and the beats of a heart. This practice saw the chivalry of forefathers travel from generation to generation, and saved of heroes from dishonest historians. When the train stopped, I got down looking for the market of Dhaba’n Singh, which was originally Safdarabad and found this song:
Tera kon vechara
Dullah Bhatti wala
Dullay dee dhee viyahee
Ser shakkar payee
This was a lohri, a song for many occasions. Some sang it on weddings, others celebrated the birth of a precious son and for many others it marked the change of seasons. There was a time when all the boys gathered in front of a house and sang loudly:
Dabba bharya leeran daa
Ayeho ghar ameera’n daa
The box is full of rags,
This house belongs to a rich man
When the door opened, they sang the lohri and demanded shagun. The returns were sugar, chickpeas or at times, gurr. Nobody returned from the lohri party without a gift for it was considered a bad omen. But that was different; those were the days when festivities were neither Muslim nor Hindu and people departed from each other by a simple rab rakha. Those who greeted with a Khuda Hafiz were not called back and corrected with an Allah Hafiz, an Arabian influence.
Lohris was declared un-Islamic in the early 50’s and no efforts today, can locate it in Punjab. A few years ago, the song once again reverberated in Pakistan through an Indian flick. Taken by its melody, Punjabis had difficulty identifying with the song and the pangs while disassociating from it. The tune sounded familiar and the words touched the heart but somewhere someone frowned so the head shook a strong “No”. Two men, aged and wrinkled, on both sides of Ravi, wept bitterly; Charhda Punjab and Lehnda Punjab
The character of Rai Abdullah or Dullah Bhatti is another feature of the Bar. His mention, in the lohri, has a history. Dullah rescued a poor girl from the wrath of a landlord, raised her and married her off as his own daughter. The grandson of Sandal Bhatti, who had Sandal Bar named after him and the son of Farid Bhatti, Dullah was a scion of the Chandravanshi Rajput’s Bhatti clan, who lived in Punjab some four centuries ago. When Akbar ascended the throne, his first priority was eliminating the rebellions. Sandal and Farid Bhatti, a father-son duo that headed the Bhatti clan, offered stiff resistance to the Empire. He ordered the arrest of both and subsequently hanged them.
On growing up, Ladhi, the mother, told Dullah the fate of his father and grandfather. Angry young Dullah vowed to avenge and ruin the Moghuls. He refused to acknowledge the writ of the Moghul Empire and stopped paying any levy. Meanwhile, he raised an army and started attacking Royal Convoys, Pro-Moghul landlords and men of authority. On the other hand, the love of Anarkali had distanced Saleem from his father, so he also encouraged Dullah’s activities and formed an alliance. Another tradition reveals that at the time of his birth, Saleem was undernourished and Ladhi nursed the young prince for some time. Regardless of reason, the alliance soon forced the Moghuls to shift the capital to Lahore.
Irritated by the daily ambushes, Akbar dispatched two of his able generals; Meerza Ala-ud-din and Meerza Zia-ud-din with the command of over 12000 troops. The army reached Dullah’s village but could not find him. Due to his Robin Hood personality, Dullah was popular amongst masses. Akbar had ordered the generals to bring Dullah, dead or alive and failing that, bring the women of his house to the court. In obedience of the orders, the army secured the women and started marching towards Lahore.
When word reached Dullah, he charged back. The two sides fought with courage but the Moghul army was soon on the run. The generals begged Ladhi for their life, who then ordered Dullah to forgive them. After the shameful defeat, the Moghuls invited him for talks and deceitfully arrested him. Upholding tradition, he was kept for a while at the Shahi Qila and was hanged in front of Kotwali, a police station now marks the place. His funeral was administered by the Sufi poet, Shah Hussain. The story of this son of the soil spans from the graveyard of Miani Saheb to Dullewala in Bhakkar District. Moghuls had thought that burying Dullah would suppress the rebel soul but the Chughtais knew little of the Punjabi tradition. Written on the lines of Mirza Saheban, the mothers of Punjab sang the epic of Dullah to their children for quite few centuries.
With partition, everything changed … forever. Now the famous men from the lineage of Dullah Bhatti have stopped riding horses and have taken up trade. They are famous for saving democracy rather than honor, and as far as lullabies are concerned, the children no longer sleep with their parents, they prefer their privacy.
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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.