Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Of Tunno and his Bijnot

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The sun set and the blue welkin above turned a nameless colour – the same as the dunes around us. The lowing of cattle and the dong-dong of their bells died down. And so too the bleating of the goats. Only the occasional harsh bray of an ass broke the silence. But even an hour after sundown, it did not go completely dark for the stars above shone with a passion as though this was the last night they were ever going to shine. In the flat, featureless (low dunes are hardly features) desert the stars became visible just as they cleared the eastern horizon. And if one had the patience, one could sit through the night to chart each star’s arc clear across the velvet dome above.

As evening progressed, spotted owls began to sound their churring calls as they swooped about after the various kinds of insects that prowl the desert at night. Still later, the little yelps of foxes, muted by the distance, could also be heard. Earlier, on the drive through the desert, we had surprised a couple of sand-coloured foxes en route. But without my Roberts’ book of mammals, I was unable to identify them. Above us, the wind soughed through the kundi tree under which our charpoys lay. The crisp evening turned even cooler and due east the horizon glowed with the lights of some Indian town across the border.

We had motored a hundred and twenty kilometres southeast across the Cholistan Desert from Derawar Fort to Bijnot. The Indian frontier was another twenty-five kilometres away and a hundred and fifty kilometres to the east lay Bikaner. Someone said the glow on the horizon was from the lights of that city. But that obviously was not true or we could also have seen the lights of Bahawalpur an equal distance to the north.

Outside the little compound where we were bedded down, rose the ruined turrets and shattered walls of Bijnot Fort – one of the dozen or more dotted across the grey dunes of Cholistan. The annals of Jaisalmer, as recorded by James Tod, tell the story of a Bhatti prince called Tunno. In the course of his various adventures that do not concern this tale, Tunno acquired a vast hidden treasure with which he built a fort. Since the goddess Beejaseni had led him to the treasure, he called his fortress Beejnot after her. The year of construction is recorded in the annals as CE 757.

The fort was held by the Rajputs for a full one thousand years until the 18th century. That was when the rising power of the Abbasi chieftains of Bahawalpur, began to eclipse that of the Rajputs in Cholistan. One by one, the fortresses of the desert fell to this doughty clan that claimed Arab descent. Bijnot was one among the last of the many that were taken by the Abbasis. Like the magnificent Derawar, Bijnot too must have been a mud-brick fort when it was built in the 8th century. Indeed, many ruined hulks sprinkled across the desert show that was how they built them in those long ago days.

Derawar was brick-lined after the Abbasis had taken over, so too must Bijnot have received its veneer not of bricks but of dressed limestone. For Derawar, they tell the story of a human chain conveying bricks, one by one, from Dera Nawab Sahib to the fort forty-five kilometres away. But that clearly is a myth and there must have been a kiln in the vicinity of Derawar. In the case of Bijnot there should have been a story about a quarry whence the limestone would have come. If there was such a story, I failed to discover it. It should have been an interesting yarn for nowhere within several days’ march of Bijnot can one see a limestone bed.

The Rajputs ceded Bijnot to the Abbasis. After more than two centuries of holding it, they in turn passed it on to the government after Bahawalpur was merged with Pakistan in 1956. As tensions grew between Pakistan and India, Bijnot Fort came to house a contingent of Pakistan Rangers. Seventy-year old Allah Wasaya of Bijnot who had dyed his whiskers and hair an unreal jet-black did not have anything to say about the 1965 war. But in the ‘Yahya war’ Indira bombed Bijnot Fort to pieces, he said. This was news for me. I hadn’t known the late Mrs Gandhi was a gunnery expert! She also sent planes to finish off the destruction she had started, he added.

What Indira didn’t know, Allah Wasaya said, was that the rangers had fled even before the fort had come into the range of Indian field guns. And when the shelling began, the fort was empty. Shortly after the shelling started, the villagers also followed the example of the valiant rangers. Wasaya said that was just as well for as they fled west, they saw a dark pall rise above the desert: they knew their village had been taken and torched. For a full one year Indira’s army held their Bijnot until Bhutto came around to redeem it to the rightful owners. When they got back, the fort of Bijnot was a ruin and nothing remained of their village. They had to build everything anew. Everything, except the fort which remains a wreck to this day.

The sun was low in the west as I entered the fort from its main gate. The wooden jambs had been wrenched away from the arched opening – perhaps by Mrs Gandhi’s soldiers. Above the entrance was the residence of the killadar – the keeper of the fort. It was a spacious hall flanked by two smaller rooms and an open terrace that looked in to the fort’s enceinte. Perhaps the killadar stood on this terrace to watch his men at drill. Flush with the east wall of the larger room was a banister-less staircase leading up to the roof where the flagstaff would have stood. Arched alcoves and doorways in unlikely places showed where rooms had once been. But Mrs Gandhi’s bombs had turned roofs into rubble and only the alcoves and doorways recalled the bombed out rooms.

Just inside of the entrance with the killadar’s quarters was a square of well-constructed barracks. These and the elongated galleries running to either side of the gateway reminded me of similar galleries in Kot Diji. Their domed roofs and thick walls would have kept the desert heat at bay while the soldiers rested during the hottest part of the day. From the extent of these barracks that run around the enceinte it could be said that this fort would easily have housed some three or four hundred armed soldiers. But now the interior of the fort was a mess of rubble and badly damaged hulks. So extensive was the destruction from Indian bombardment that it was even difficult to form a picture of Bijnot Fort’s pristine glory.

In the quadrant by the northeast corner of the fort, were two cisterns covered over by masonry. A round opening in the middle of the paving was the way the bucket could be lowered in to draw water. An opening to one side of this cistern was how rainwater washed into the underground tanks. One still had water at the bottom, the other was dry. Both were now domiciled by blue rock pigeons that broke out of the hole in the top with a loud clattering of wings as I approached.

There are forts that defend ancient byways. There are others that function as garrisons on turbulent borders. There are yet more that are built to be safe havens in times of adversity. And there are those opulent forts – more palaces than forts, that serve as royal seats. And in Cholistan there is, they tell me, a line of forts along the bed of the lost Hakra River. Dilettantes never tire of pointing out that all the forts in Cholistan are along the bed of the Hakra. If that were true, this long-lost river would win a prize for being the most tortuously serpentine river in the entire world. Tunno Bhatti’s Bijnot, obscure and remote, must surely have been built for no other purpose but to serve as a safe haven. Lying deep in the heart of the Cholistan Desert, it only received brief notice in Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. No more. Its lot was oblivion and we do not know what history unfolded within its walls.

My friend Raheal Siddiqui in Bahawalpur had sounded me on the story of Madho Singh and his mate Krishen who sometimes used the fort as their quarters. They were highwaymen, said Allah Wasaya who looted in India and took refuge here. Both were loyal to Pakistan, said he. The same way, I observed, as Pakistani outlaws would be loyal to India and old Allah Wasaya smiled. Krishen Singh, he said, was killed by a posse of Indian policemen in the shadow of the walls of Bijnot but Madho Singh was jailed for ten years. When he got out, he went to live in the service of Lal Mian Abbasi and that was where he eventually died. Allah Wasaya had no idea why Madho Singh was jailed in Pakistan when he was such a loyal non-citizen of the country.

It was Raheal who put me in touch with Sheheryar, the son of Lal Mian Abbasi. Soft-spoken and unhurried he seemed to have hurried only to go grey in his mid-thirties. Madho Singh died in 1983 in Sheheryar’s father’s home. As a teenager Sheheryar had been much intrigued by this giant of a man six feet three inches tall with a handsome face and proud bearing of a blue-blooded Thakur. He spent hours talking to him and today he is perhaps the only person who knows anything authentic and in detail about Thakur Madho Singh (a.k.a. Jagmaal Singh) of the clan Rathore, a native of Bikaner and his partner Krishen Singh. As the duo and their gang haunted the area of Bijnot and Allah Wasaya had seen them passing back and forth on their plundering and smuggling sorties to India, the story of this fort would not be complete without a word on the two characters. The story is told in the words of Sheheryar Abbasi as he had heard it from Madho Singh himself. The story is not to glorify an outlaw, it is just to put on record a bit of history that may never make it to the books.

It all started a few years before independence when Madho Singh’s father, a respected landowner holding two villages, was rudely put down by a neighbour whose cattle were grazing in his field. Madho, the youngest of three brothers, was much distressed when he heard of the incident and took it upon himself to avenge the slight to his father. One day Madho caught the offender unawares at a lonely spot and with his steel-tipped staff did him in. The long arm of the law reached out and Madho Singh became a fugitive. He moved to Jaisalmer and there fell in with a gang of petty blackguards who terrorised local traders to pick up a daily stipend much like the bhatta so much in fashion in Karachi these days. It was here that Madho Singh eventually met Krishen Singh and forged a friendship that lasted as long as the latter lived. The one superstitious and wary, the other outgoing and friendly.

Small crime leads to greater and soon it was time for the big heist. The lot fell for Bhoor Singh, a man of good means. One night as Jaisalmer slumbered peacefully, the Madho Singh gang stole into the rich man’s house and decamped with two hundred thousand rupees. The bonus they took was the man’s daughter. When the girl was eventually restored to her parents she was safe and untouched. Thakur Madho Singh had laid down a law: death to squealers and rapists. When the heat got unbearable in Rajasthan, the gang crossed the new border and hid out in Pakistan from where they made bhatta-collecting sorties across to the other side. That was the year 1948.

Order came to post-independence India and the people, lulled into a sense of security, stopped paying bhatta. To keep themselves in money, Madho and Krishen did a number of major cross-border heists. But crime, they say, never pays. And one day Krishen Singh’s lease on life ran out. A posse sent out by the Rajasthan government engaged him in a firefight by the fort of Bijnot in the year 1954. Even Allah Wasaya who would have been in his twenties at that time remembers no details. Only that Krishen Singh went to his Maker. His ashes, it is said, were taken to the Ganga River while a cracked brick and cement samadhi, a kilometre west of Bijnot Fort, marks the spot where his body was cremated.

Madho Singh who had until that time been living in the vicinity of Bahawalnagar and Fort Abbas moved south and petitioned the killadar of Derawar Fort to present him to the Nawab of Bahawalpur. The audience was granted and the Rathore Thakur, a fugitive of the law of India, presented the Abbasi ruler of the State with a richly caparisoned camel. Shortly afterwards the Rathore came to live in Dera Nawab Sahib, the seat of the ruler of Bahawalpur State.

Now, traditionally the guards of the Nawab’s harem were Poorbia Rajputs. But after merger of Bahawalpur with Pakistan, these people were expatriated to India. And so it fell upon Madho Singh and his gang to take the responsibility. Sheheryar relates that by then it was known that Madho Singh was a man of honour who kept his word; a man who was known for his fair dealing. They said of him that having pledged loyalty once, there was nothing in the world that could sway Madho Singh. And so Madho Singh and his mates stood guard outside the harem door in Dera Nawab Sahib. It was here that Madho Singh, by then a married man, begat the first of his two sons.

The stringent discipline of the royal residence did not suit the free-spirited Madho Singh and before long he began to yearn for the open spaces of the desert. And so sometime after taking the assignment, he requested the Nawab’s permission to go live among the dunes. It was granted with some reluctance and Madho Singh began operating across the border from Bijnot. In a few short months the name by which he was more commonly known became a byword for terror. For over a hundred and fifty years Pakhtun mothers quietened unruly children with Chup sha. Hari Singh raghle! (Be quiet. Hari Singh comes!). So too did Rajput mothers take to saying Jagmaal ayo ray to put children to sleep. By 1963 Madho Singh was wanted in one hundred and thirty-five cases in India.

Now Madho Singh had long harboured the notion that his mate Krishen Singh had been killed because of the heist the two friends had made on the home of Bhoor Singh. And so he had hankered to avenge his friend’s death. In 1963 he was finally able to kidnap Bhoor Singh and bring him over to Pakistan while three Indian DIGs followed with a heavy posse in hot pursuit. Ten days, it is said, a running fight was kept up across the sandy expanse of Cholistan but the outlaws could not be caught. On India’s request PAF fighter planes were sent in to flush out the fugitives, but to no avail. At Bijnot, at the very spot where Krishen had met his end, Madho Singh did Bhoor Singh in. But not before first telling the hapless man that his execution was to avenge Krishen Singh’s death.

At length Madho Singh was shot in the arm and taken. Now, there were no cases against him or his colleagues under Pakistan law. The gang was taken into custody to be repatriated to India as her citizens. But Madho Singh, who had already arranged for his wife and sons to be sent home to India refused to go. He said he did not recognise that country and had no wish to go there. Without trial or conviction he and his mates remained in custody for fourteen long years. Abid Minto, the well-known human rights activist and lawyer, took the case to the high court. In 1978 Madho Singh together with his associates Moolji, Pannay Singh and Gopi Singh was released and granted Pakistani citizenship.

Madho a.k.a. Jagmaal Singh was an outlaw with a known record of crime. But there were law-abiding, god-fearing people (very likely politicians) in Pakistan who rallied to the newly-released man inviting him to return to his old ways of crime. Surely they would have offered him protection in return for a portion of the spoils. But Sheheryar Abbasi, the teller of the tale, does not say as much. On his part Madho Singh refused, however. He was looking only for peace. A peaceful and aging person is good for nothing and only a drain on the larder. There were thus no offers of haven. And so Madho Singh and his men ended up at the threshold of Lal Mian Abbasi who offered him shelter against pledge of a lawful life.

But little was left of that action-packed life. In 1983 Madho Singh, tall, slim and erect with little subtracted from his proud Rajput countenance, passed away. Sheheryar says that on his death bed he extracted two pledges from his remaining mates. One, that they would never ever return to India but remain loyal and law-abiding citizens of Pakistan. And second, that they will forever remain unflinchingly faithful to Lal Mian Abbasi and his family for taking them in when no one else would. The word was kept until Moolji, the last of them, passed away in 1999.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Malakwal to Gharibwal

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 15 August 2014 at 09:25, Anonymous Anonymous said...

heartwarming story......happy AZAADI day to both India and Pakistan. .....meher ( india)

At 15 August 2014 at 09:26, Anonymous Anonymous said...

heartwarming story......happy AZAADI day to both India and Pakistan. .....meher ( india)

At 15 August 2014 at 11:33, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Meher.

At 15 August 2014 at 16:45, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Happy Independent day to both ( Pakistan and India) with a request to live like good neighbour and work for the welfaire of their people

At 16 August 2014 at 03:10, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Amazing piece, Salman ji. As for the above greetings on Independence Day, I wonder independence from what? Surely the independence from British but at the cost of partition from our next door neighbors and a hatred amongst communities that lived together for centuries. Is this what we call independence?

At 16 August 2014 at 13:16, Anonymous Anonymous said...

where are the spotted owlets of Lahore?

At 16 August 2014 at 14:18, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thanks Amardeep. All I can hope for is sanity.

At 16 August 2014 at 14:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The spotted owlets of Lahore still live in pockets. We had a pair in our jungle jalebi tree. But the tree died about 6 yrs ago and they left. Lawrence Garden, Mayo Gardens and Cantonment are good places to see them.

At 17 August 2014 at 01:06, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any idea what is the origin for Abbasis. Just curious if they are an indigenous tribe who chose a different name after converting or there is some Arab blood involved?

At 18 August 2014 at 05:59, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Be assured, Anonymous, that there is little chance of the Abbasis - or anyone else claiming Arab origin - to actually have that blood. This is a favourite fiction of all of us who converted.

At 18 August 2014 at 20:02, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response. What is your take on these two sources and can they be considered authentic?

At 28 October 2014 at 23:01, Blogger blue said...

It is a really nice piece salman sir,but kindly do give some credit to those 1000 year rulers of cholistan too...Bhattis,who have too much history in india and beyond.


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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

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Riders on the Wind

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