Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

History’s forgotten Page

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It was the middle of the 5th century CE. And it was a time of despair for the lands now called Afghanistan, Pukhtunkhwa and Punjab. The bleak, windswept steppes of Central Asia, fertile only with destructive storms of savages, had unleashed yet another howling monster: the White Huns. From the same stock that had set Attila on Europe only decades before, these savages under a man called Tor Aman (Toramana of English texts) had destroyed all that was sacred in the land of the Pukhtuns. With smouldering ruins of once great cities and rotting carcasses of man and beast littering their wake, these barbarians were poised to cross the Sindhu.

Cross this great river they did. Taxila and her monasteries were sacked, the populace was put to the sword, only the lucky ones escaped with their lives to hide away in unknown mountain fastnesses and God’s earth trembled as the Huns moved on deeper into the Land of Five Rivers. By around 510 CE Tor Aman was dead, only to be replaced by his even more barbarous son Mehr Gul (Mihiragula). Soon it was that the Huns’ reputation preceded them. Kings and chieftains deluded that surrender to the Huns would spare their lives laid down their arms without a struggle and were ruthlessly put to death. Their armies and subjects were either drowned in the rivers or distributed amongst the savage soldiery. None were spared. Armies that chose to resist, simply folded against the superior mobility and tactics of the Huns.

The Rajatarangni (Chronicle of Kings) written circa 1150 by a Kashmiri pundit of great learning gives graphic descriptions of the Huns’ progress across the land. We learn from its pages that these savage killers of ‘three crores’ knew no pity either for women or children or the aged. And we read too of the dark cloud of crows and vultures that advanced with the Hunnic army to feed on the corpses left behind. None that crossed the Huns’ path lived and there was no recourse, neither to leniency nor to help from any quarter. It seemed that all India lay at the mercy of these dreaded fair-skinned warriors.

The long and unbroken string of victories (including a successful raid against Sri Lanka, as reported in the work of the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang) filled the savage head of Mehr Gul with illusions of his own invincibility. And so while ruling from the Punjabi city of Sangala (possibly Sialkot), he heard of the gathering of a numerous confederacy of Rajput warriors far away on the fringes of the southern desert. Those who had dared to face his military might had not lived to rue the day. And neither would these supposed warriors. He set out for the desert dreaming of yet another victory.

Records are scant, but we learn of two Rajput princes, Yasodharman the king of Mandasor and Baladitya of Magadh, raising the confederacy. As patriots, the unfolding of events in the face of the Huns would surely have dismayed them. Without doubt they would have fretted about the safety of their own thrones, but surely the thought of saving the land of their forefathers from these northern savages would also have been prominent in their minds. It was the beginning of the year 528 CE, a time when the sun was yet mellow and when our ancestors would celebrate the spring festivals to honour the fertility of the Earth. It was, according to some records, February when the Rajput army gathered ‘in the region of Kehror between Multan and the castle of Loni,’ writes the 11th century intellectual Abu Rehan Al Beruni.

Now, there is at least one Loni (or Looni) in Rajasthan. Between Multan and this desert settlement lies Kehror, a sprawling town some thirty kilometres northeast of Bahawalpur. Once just a little village, Kehror now sprawls in an irregular, dusty jumble over a mound that rises about thirty metres above the surrounding plain – its only attestation to antiquity. Once it was celebrated for its block-printers and its courtesans. Today only the former flourish. The courtesans to whom the rich of the Seraiki belt resorted not only for their own pleasure but also for their sons’ education in etiquette, civility and the norms of conduct for high places, are a sorry tale. Today their ‘bazaar’ is no more than a sad-looking brothel.

We were driving to Kehror to commemorate the great victory of the Rajputs over the Huns. For my friend Kashif Noon, himself a Rajput and a native of Kehror, it was a pilgrimage of sorts: he was on his way to celebrate the signal triumph of his ancestors. For me it was a journey to see if they remembered that history did indeed unfold here even before the light of Islam blessed our land.

In the light of early morning the jumble of houses sitting atop the mound looked neat. But it was no different from any other Pakistani town with scarcely a building older than thirty years: Gulf oil money and the upstart mentality of replacing everything ancient with new blockhouses had taken the toll. The tall 16th century brick dome of Ali Sarwar, a Lodhi governor of Kehror, dominated above the sprawl of packed houses. Since the domed mausoleum was at hand, the crafty machinations of the man’s descendents (supposed or real, we shall never know) have turned the dead man into a great saint, replete with stories of the miracles he wrought in his time. They now grow fat on the monetary harvest of this fiction.

Kashif had warned me earlier that nobody would remember, or even be interested in, the battle fought almost fifteen hundred years ago. Nevertheless, as Kashif was parking his car I asked a shopkeeper what his town was famous for.

‘Nothing. The town is famous for nothing,’ he said with a laugh.

‘The block printers.’ I suggested.

‘Scarcely a reason for renown,’ he countered.

‘What of the courtesans then?’ I asked somewhat diffidently. He set up a song and dance about the depravity of that business and that as a Muslim he would have nothing to do with it. How we just love to parade our sham religiosity.

The only claim to glory for poor old Kehror was the looming dome of Sarwar Lodhi where one’s heart’s desire was fulfilled, the man said. Even for him who, by his own admission, prayed five times a day, Allah was not a suitably proficient Provider. He needed the so-called saint to reinforce Allah’s work. I pointed out that our worship of tombs was as un-Islamic as harlotry and therefore equally unfavourable in the eyes of God. Pat came the response that as a person of great godliness, such a one as the long dead Sarwar Lodhi, enjoyed direct intercession with God on behalf of us sinners. Thus the power to get God to fulfil desires.

The man listened intently as I told him of the epic battle of February 528 that delivered Punjab from Hunnic oppression.

‘Yasodharman would be a Hindu?’ he observed solemnly when I had finished.

‘He was indeed,’ I said.

‘And Mehr Gul a Muslim?’ It wasn’t really a question; it was more a statement of known fact. I very nearly called him an ignorant bloody idiot.

‘He couldn’t possibly have been a Muslim. There was still over a century to go for the advent of Islam.’

‘How can that be?’ he said incredulously. ‘Mehr Gul is a Muslim name!’

The retrogression of the Pakistani intellect, carefully planned at the highest level of the State and brought about from the grass roots upwards, leads us to believe that even names have religions. But names evolved long before modern religions were contrived and Mehr Gul (Sunflower, or Sun Rose) has been a man’s name in Persian-speaking countries for a few millenniums if not longer. My friend, the shopkeeper, was unable to comprehend this. He insisted on posthumously converting Mehr Gul to Islam and a Pukhtun to boot. So far as he was concerned mankind did not exist prior to the coming of Islam to the subcontinent.

When my man was half convinced that the battle did indeed predate Islam, I asked if the fact that a desert prince, perhaps even his own ancestor, had defeated the foreigners warmed his heart. Indignantly he told me that no Hindu could be his ancestor for they had come from Arabia with the conquering army. There is no Muslim worth his or her name in the subcontinent today that will admit of a local origin. We have all invented Arab ancestries and the shopkeeper was no exception. Mankind really must not have existed in this great and wonderful land of the Indian subcontinent prior to the Muslim conquest!

The only history the people of Kehror know is that their town has nothing to do with ‘crore’ (ten million), but that it is named after a long ago king of that name. And that the suffix of ‘Pukka’ does not signify it was famous for its burnt brick buildings, but that it comes from the suburb called by that name. Like no one knew of the Rajputs’ struggle against the Huns, none could tell me when Raja Kehror lived. These details were not a part of our history. They were from a pagan past, they were not to be remembered and commemorated.

On the periphery the houses of Kehror straggle out into the surrounding fields. I knew there would be no memorial to that battle, yet I asked to be driven around. Fifteen centuries muted the sounds of battle and dulled the vision, yet it was not difficult to see it as it would have happened. The scantiness of historical record permitted the imagination to run wild: the Rajputs, dark of skin with upturned moustaches and colourful turbans, in their chain mail on their ponies were a vast multitude. The fair-skinned Huns with their pointed helmets astride lightly on their bigger horses. Their buff-coats were sewn on with metal plates as armour. From under the helmets that concealed shorn pates, the hair of their fringes hung in ringlets. The Rajputs brought into the field longbows, swords, axes, javelins and maces. The Huns came armed with their shorter, multi-cusped bows that permitted rapid fire from horseback. For close quarters they carried broadswords and lances.

For the Huns it was a battle to gain yet more slaves and women to sleep with. For the Rajputs it was a fight to the finish for they would have left behind in their cities and villages their women and children awaiting word of the outcome of this struggle. Were the Rajputs to fail, those at home, rather than face the savagery of the victors, were to destroy themselves to the last person. That was the way of the Rajput; it had always been done, and it was to be repeated this time as well should the tide turn against their fighters.

The contest was hard fought. Even in the face of unfamiliar Central Asiatic tactics, the sons of the desert rallied to the exhortations of their leaders and held their ground. The Rajputs were troubled most by the wave after wave of archers that came galloping in to release their volleys just as they began to wheel away. The Rajputs would surely have expected a charge. The wheeling away must have come as a complete surprise, and it would have taken a couple of waves for the Rajput archers to be prepared to let lose with their longer shafts of greater range. And only when many Hunnic archers were lost would Mehr Gul have ordered a closing in for hand-to-hand combat. The Huns fought hard; the Rajputs harder still until the blood of the Rajput and the Hun, kinsmen from an ancient past, mingled to drench the dunes surrounding Kehror. That fateful day the arrows flew as thick and dark as Bhadon clouds across the sky and the clash of swords and the yelling and screaming of the contestants rose to one mighty and ceaseless ear-splitting roar. The sun had barely crossed its highest point when the Huns faltered. They fell back. The Rajputs closed in. And then the rout began.

For the Rajputs mortal combat had always been as sport in the arena: it was never their way to pursue and slaughter a vanquished and withdrawing enemy. As the Huns retreated, the commanders of the confederacy held back their warriors to wait and see if the enemy rallied around a second time. But the Huns only receded in headlong rout. The Indian trumpeters were ordered to sound the cessation of battle. In triumph Yasodharman and Baladitya turned homeward at the head of their host.

Smarting under the humiliation of defeat that he had until then never known Mehr Gul made straight for the cold climes of Kashmir. There he wrested control of that kingdom. But even that signal defeat in the desert did not temper his cruelty, for the pages of history are rife with stories of brutality. One in particular tells of how a war elephant fell over the precipice as his army was negotiating the Pir Panjal Pass. The beast’s terrified trumpeting as it plummeted to its death so delighted the barbarian that he ordered dozens of elephants to be driven over. The spot of this macabre sport is to this day commemorated as Hastivanj.

Mehr Gul lived on until about 542 CE. Then, decrepit with age and disease, he ordered his own funeral pyre. As the flames licked around his body, one wonders if he would have thought of the agony of those he had burnt in some of the greatest cities of the Sindhu Valley. That is something we will never know, but at least we know that he met his deserved end – even if it was of his own making.

Excerpted from 'Sea Monsters and the Sun God' - the book is available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 19 May 2014 at 07:56, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

Excellent details. You inspired me to pick up Rajatarangni, which has been lying unread on my bookshelf for quite sometime. I also appreciate the section where you mention "retrogression of the Pakistani intellect, carefully planned at the highest level of the State and brought about from the grass roots upwards, leads us to believe that even names have religions". Salman, the same can be said on this side of the border in India. Under the broad banner of Hinduism, a regression happening in the same style as you have mentioned. Wonderful read and keep sharing more of your writings.

At 19 May 2014 at 11:43, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

A well thought full historical article. It has given me lot of missing details.Thanks sir keep it up.

At 19 May 2014 at 16:38, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Have to buy this book soon. Amazing anecdote. You are making my teaching a lot more fun.
Our kids know so much about Greeks war heroes n others but very little about the history of their own land. But we have U :)) and ur remarkable research.

At 20 May 2014 at 13:49, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Amardeep, I think both nations follow each other in stupidity.

At 20 May 2014 at 13:59, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you so much, Memoona. I am so glad my work is being helpful.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days