Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Where Mehr Gul was routed

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As the luggar falcon flies, Kehror Pucca lies 35 km northeast of Bahawalpur. Once famous for its courtesans, the town is now not celebrated even for its fine block-print textiles. Ask the average townsperson and you will be told that Kehror is just another one of those many Punjabi villages with nothing to show for itself. But then we do not know our own history — especially when it goes back to the time we were still Hindus.

The second half of the 5th century saw the great incursion into the subcontinent by unwashed savages from Central Asia. Unremittingly ruthless, these fair-skinned, fair-haired men were led by their chief Tor Aman. To writers in India they were known as Huna or Turushka; we know them as the White Huns or Ephthalites. Crossing the Oxus River into Afghanistan the Huns devastated the land, their wake littered with virtually thousands of rotting human cadavers. It was rare for the Huns to pass through a habitation and leave any living soul.

Working their bloody way through the land of the Pushtuns, the Huns came over the Suleman Mountains, crossed the Sindhu River and entered Punjab. Around the beginning of the 6th century, Tor Aman died only to be succeeded by his even more bloodthirsty son Mehr Gul. Uncultured, unlettered as they were, the Huns did not preserve their acts in writing. But in this land of great learning, there were chroniclers who survived Hunnic barbarity who left behind a record of the visitation. One among the earliest chroniclers whose work survives to this day was Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim.

In 630, having travelled through Afghanistan, when Xuanzang arrived in Taxila Mehr Gul had been dead for a full one hundred years. But tales of his barbarity were then alive either on the tongues of the people or in books that are no longer extant. Those tales of cruelty did the Chinese pilgrim record in his own account. And he has a good deal to tell us of Mehr Gul. In fact, Xuanzang even reports of Mehr Gul's successful campaign against distant Sri Lanka!

Five hundred years after Xuanzang, the Kashmiri Pundit Kalhana also tells us of the savagery perpetrated by the Huns. The Rajatrangini (Chronicle of Kings) that he wrote about 1160 tells us that these savage killers eliminated 'three crores', drowned others for sport in the great rivers of the land and knew no pity either for women or children or the elderly. We also learn that a dark cloud of crows and vultures advanced with the Hunnic army to feed on the corpses they left behind.

But by and by, while he ruled over the land from Sangala (very likely Sialkot) he received word of the gathering of a great confederacy of Rajput warriors on the fringes of the distant desert in the south. Because of his numerous victories over the supine Pushtuns and the people of Punjab, Mehr Gul was convinced of his own invincibility and would have perhaps smiled at reports of this uprising. Those who had faced his arms had not lived to rue the day, and so too would these supposed warriors. With these thoughts in mind, he led his army southward dreaming of yet another victory.

Records are scant, but we know that the Rajput princes Yasodharman of Mandasor and Baladitya of Magadh led this confederacy. It was the beginning of the year 528 and about the time when spring had already broken in the south and people were celebrating the spring festival to honour the fertility of the Earth. By one account, it was February when the Rajputs gathered near Kehror. The remarkable Abu Rehan Al Beruni leaves us no doubt about the location of Kehror which, by his reckoning, lay 'between Multan and the castle of Loni [Rajasthan].'

Little is known of the actual battle, but as one stands on the vantage of Kehror, the imaginative mind can see the battle unfolding: the Rajputs, dark of skin with upturned moustaches and colourful turbans in chain mail on their ponies were a great host. The fair-skinned Huns with their pointed helmets from which their hair hung in ringlets astride their bigger horses, their buff coats sewn with metal plates as armour. The Rajputs carried broadswords and long bows the length of the archer while the Huns had shorter swords and bows to use from horseback.

The Huns were seeking yet more slaves and women to sleep with. The Rajputs had come to the field to fight to the finish for they had left behind in their towns and cities their loved ones awaiting word of the final outcome of the struggle. Were the Rajputs to fall, those at home were to commit themselves to flames in the act of committing johar. That was the way of the Rajput; it had been done before and was to happen again.

The battle was hard fought, the tactics of Central Asia unfamiliar to the Rajputs. The wave after wave of riding archers who loosed their missiles just before they wheeled away, perfected by the Parthians over five handed years earlier, was devastating. Taking the advancing line of horse to be a charge, it may have taken a few such waves for the Rajputs recognise the move and to let loose with their bows of considerably longer range to wreak havoc in the distant lines of the Huns and their charging archers.

Only then would have Mehr Gul ordered the closing in for hand-to-hand combat. The Huns fought hard, but the Rajputs harder still. The blood of the Rajput and the Hun, kinsmen all from a distant past, mingled to drench the dunes around Kehror. Neither side sought quarter nor was prepared to give. Then the Huns faltered. They fell back. The Rajputs closed in and 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 see if the enemy rallied around a second time. But the Huns only receded in headlong rout. The trumpeters were ordered to sound the cessation of battle and in triumph Yasodharman and Baladitya turned homeward.

When I told this story to a man in Kehror many years ago, he was indignant that I could be pleased about the victory of Hindus over Muslims. No amount of parading the fact that the event preceded Islam by almost a hundred years convinced him. Mehr Gul (Sunflower or Sun Rose), he insisted was 'Islamic' and a Pushtun name to boot. The man was incapable of recognising that names do not have religions and that most 'Islamic' names had been in use centuries before the advent of Islam or any other religion.

But this incapacity to see history as it really is, is the national bane brought upon us by sixty years of being fed a history subservient to a national ideology.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Riddle in the Kech Hills


posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:00,


At 22 October 2014 at 08:51, Anonymous meher said...

Very interesting read.....again!. For a lot of people in the sub continent ,there was no pre -Islamic history.....!!!

At 22 October 2014 at 09:33, Blogger Nikhil said...

Proud of my legacy ....if only we were half the men and women that our rajput ancestors were RESPECT

At 22 October 2014 at 14:22, Blogger Khan Baba said...

More of an imaginative tale than a historical account.

Is Salman Rashid a Rajput? :P

At 23 October 2014 at 15:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Khan Baba

I doubt it. Rajputs are not the same people any way. Like Rajputs of Rajasthan have nothing to do with, say, the rajputs of Azad Kashmir.

You sound very insecure though.

At 21 October 2017 at 01:02, Anonymous Anonymous said...

proud history of natives.


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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

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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