Ahmed Yar, my friend, is a Bandial; and as blue-blooded as they can come. A native of village Bandial on the highroad between Sargodha and Mianwali
, he is a romantic despite his urbanity and education. His line of work takes him all over the country, but his heart remains rooted firmly in the wide, fertile plains of western Punjab – the Lahnda, ‘land of the setting sun.’ Here the blue hills of Sakesar loom on the northern horizon and here the searing summer winds bring the sands from the Thal Desert in the south. Ahmed Yar is a teller of folk tales as they were told long before television put paid to the tradition of story-telling in rural Pakistan – and he might well be the last of a dying school. His tales naturally come in that Lahnda dialect; a language so beautiful that it can raise goose bumps on the most blasé of listeners. And that is how he relates the story of Aali Ghanjera.
Aali, of the Ghanjera tribe from the village of Vijhara, was a cowherd. One day as he was tending his flock, he came upon a group of banias (Hindu merchants) resting during the midday heat. Among their horses, browsing nearby, was a filly not yet into her second year that caught the eye of Aali who knew his animals well. In rapture this animal pranced about galloping through the meadows to the stream and in one great leap clearing the wide waterway. ‘If so young a horse can do this what will she grow up into,’ thought Aali and resolved to buy the animal off the banias.
The owner named a price. Aali, knowing full well what he was doing, doubled it and took possession of the filly. The banias, thinking they had duped a simpleton, happily went their way and Aali immediately took to training his new horse. Within the year, having been fed on the choicest fodder, butter and almonds, the filly indeed grew into a handsome mare – just as Aali had imagined. Trained with loving attention, she was soon to outdistance the best race horses in the land. She was truly Aali’s pride and joy and men travelled to Vijhara from distant villages to see for themselves what they heard of her.
Now it came to pass that this wonderful mare’s fame reached the capital of Akbar, the great Moghul. This was a mount truly fit for a king and since it was royal prerogative to possess what the heart desired, a group of courtiers arrived at Aali’s door to purchase his mare. Of course he would not part with the animal for all the wealth in the world. Aali refused; but the king’s bidding was to be done and the animal was forcibly taken away. There was nothing that Aali, a mere cowherd, could do against the might of the Moghuls but lament his loss.
Weeks went by and when Aali could bear it no longer he set off for Delhi just so as to be able to see his dearly loved horse. Not far from the capital he heard it being said that the king’s newly acquired but favourite horse had taken seriously ill and that the royal veterinarians had failed to diagnose the disease. Consequently, the king had announced a vast sum of money to the hakeem who would put the animal on its feet again. This was his chance to get close to his beloved mare and so Aali arrived at the court of Akbar in the guise of a hakeem. Among his terms to make the horse well, Aali asked for no interference or supervision from the court veterinarians. It was granted and Aali was led to the royal stables.
If his disguise had fooled the court, it of course failed on the horse. Seeing her master, she whinnied for joy and within no time, the animal that had refused to be fed was eating out of Aali’s hands. Over the next few days the horse regained her strength and then very early every morning Aali started to take her out to exercise. The good news was passed on the to the king who, in his great joy, promised a grand prize to Aali. Aali thanked his highness mostly humbly, but he knew his prize lay elsewhere.
Then one day, when Aali thought that his horse was herself again, he took her out ostensibly to exercise. But beyond the city walls, he turned her into the west wind and digging his heels hard into her flanks sped away. His flight was discovered only when he did not return the mare to the stables at the usual hour and report the day’s progress to the chief vet. Inquiries were made and when it was established that the hakeem had indeed fled with the horse, royal troopers were sent out in pursuit. But not only did Aali have a good head start, their steeds were no match for Aali’s mount. Faster than the windstorms that sweep across the parched Punjabi plains in the month of Harr, Aali’s mare carried her master homeward.
The sun rose higher into the sky, evaporating the coolness of night with the heat that turns the wheat gold in April. It came overhead and then it westered; yet the rider and the steed did not pause. In the gloaming the sluggish waves of the Sutlej, the Satadru or the ‘Hundred-Channelled One’ of the Vedas, were crossed. Through the night they bore ever westward across the sandy wastes of the central part of the Bari Doab between the rivers Beas and Ravi. When the new day dawned even the Ravi had been left far behind.
Across the bandit-infested peelu forests of the Rachna Doab – the belt of land between the Ravi and the Chenab rivers, they flew while their pursuers struggled on miles behind them. The dark waters of the Chenab – the Black One, as the ancients called it, were forded without pausing to rest. By the time the sun was ready to set on the second day of their flight Aali’s mare had made it across the Jhelum. Far away in front the hills of Sakesar rose darkly through the evening mist. Now Aali was on home ground. Now, he thought, it was safe to rest. And so, having thus far studiously avoided habitation and fellow man so that he was not tempted to pause, he finally drew rein at an inn.
As he waited to be served, Aali overheard the women at the tandoor.
‘Have you heard,’ asked one, ‘that Aali has contrived to escape from Delhi with his mare?’
‘Yes. And try as they may, the king’s riders have failed to catch up with him,’ said another. Aali was horrified. How, he thought, could there be another rider swifter than he? He had not been overtaken, yet these women knew of his flight. Surely there was a rider with a mount that had outrun his mare and had brought word of his escape from the capital. There was, then, the very real threat of yet being overtaken and taken back to Delhi in chains. Aali’s poor mare had hardly got her breath back, but he saddled her and set off again. Faster and faster he urged her to the utmost limit of her endurance until at last the hapless animal collapsed. There was no thrashing about. The exacting strain had been too much, the animal’s heart simply stopped.
It is said that although he had outdistanced his pursuers and precluded every possibility of being captured, Aali had lost his horse to the idle gossip of women. The moral in the Lahnda, Ahmed Yar says, is that a man should pay no heed to women’s gossip. But there is a far deeper meaning to the story of Aali Ghanjera and his fabulous mare.
The Moghuls came from the west and subjugated the Punjabis, as indeed they subjugated the other peoples in the lands that came under their sway. So far as the average Punjabi was concerned, they were outsiders. Though they were by and large accepted as rulers placed above them by fate, there was, nevertheless, a degree of resistance to their might. There are Punjabi ballads that recount such resistance. Though some of the incidences that these ballads relate never made it to official histories, simply because to the Moghuls they were nothing but minor localised irritants, nearly all of them are based on historical fact.
There is mention in Moghul chronicles of the actions fought against the Baloch tribes of the Thal Desert, but there is no mention, so far as I know, of any trouble between the Moghuls and the Bandials and Tiwanas – the two established leading families of the Lahnda. But that there was a man like Aali Ghanjera who could outwit the great Moghuls and make off with his mare from right under their noses, and that all the might of the Moghuls could not catch up with him, tells another story. It is the story of the latent antipathy for the Moghuls. This hostility is all to evident in the term ‘Chaggata’ used for the Moghuls in rural Punjab to this day. Though the term is simply the Punjabi pronunciation of Chaghatai, a Moghul family name, it is not difficult to discern the shade of contempt and derision it carries even today.
Aali, just a common cowherd, was therefore the doughty hero who had the audacity to defy the arms of the Moghuls and get away with it. But today, as in the time of Akbar the Great, the Ghanjeras were a tribe lower in status than the landowning Bandials and Tiwanas. So why did the hero of this fable have to be a Ghanjera, and not a Tiwana or a Bandial? If Aali Ghanjera, subservient to the foremost families of the Lahnda, could be so dauntless and heroic, what would the leading men of that land have accomplished against the Moghuls had the need ever risen?
Though the wish to defy may have come and gone without any actual resistance by the men of the Lahnda, there must always have been the inward desire to stand up and be counted. And though Aali Ghanjera and his mare may or may not ever have lived, the legend is symbolic of that desire. It is, without doubt, the most beautiful story from the Punjab of resistance to the might of the Moghuls.
Labels: Prisoner on a Bus: Travels Through Pakistan, Punjab, Telling a Story
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
At November 22, 2013 at 12:54 PM,
Nayyar Julian said...
You have saved this tale from dying. Thanks.
At November 24, 2013 at 7:15 PM,
Lahnda? I am from Charda.
(Very few will know what is Lahnda, Charda, Dakhan and Parbat. No? )
At January 12, 2014 at 11:58 PM,
Ahmadyar Bandial said...
Salman , you,re great. Your writing gets me goose pimples, bro. Period
At January 15, 2014 at 4:03 PM,
Salman Rashid said...
Ahmadyar, Thank you, old friend. We have a date for March. I'll be in Bandial.
At March 29, 2014 at 11:20 PM,
Ahmadyar Bandial said...
March ends. so when you come, bro ?
At March 29, 2014 at 11:22 PM,
Ahmadyar Bandial said...
still waiting, salman
At March 30, 2014 at 11:48 AM,
Salman Rashid said...
Ahmadyar! Ki dassaN. This assignment is lingering and killing me. The good weather passes by.
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