Chenab literally means Moon River. The etymology of the word says it all. Moon and water signify the sky and the earth. The Chenab emits cascades of invisible energy creating an aura of romance that makes it iconic. It evokes the idea of love as tranquil as moon and that of day to day life as dynamic as the flow of a turbulent river. The Chenab, as quoted earlier, ‘flows for lovers’. It encapsulates our unending longing for human unity. Hence the most celebrated river in our folklore and classical literature.
The Chenab has its origins in the Bara Lacha Pass in Himachal Pradesh in India. Two streams flowing from the north and the south of the pass called Bhaga and Chandar meet at Tandi to form the Chandarbhaga River. It becomes the Chenab when it flows from the Jammu region into the plains of Punjab. In the Vedic times it was called ‘Ashkini’ and Mahabharata mentions it as ‘Chandarbhaga’. The Greek historians referred to it as ‘Acesines’.
The waters of the Chenab, called silver in folklore, helped Punjabis build three cities -- Sialkot, Gujrat and Jhang -- close to the river, which gave rise to four great legends of the Punjab: Puran Bhagat, Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahinwal and Sahiban Mirza. Sialkot like Multan is an ancient city. Oral traditions and scriptures believe that Sakala (Sialkot) was founded by Raja Sul, the king of Madra Desa who was the brother of black-eyed and dusk-complexioned Madri, the second wife of emperor Pandu and mother of Nakula and Sahadeva. So the Raja Sul was the uncle of the famous Pandavas of Mahabharata.
The earliest legend that became subject of classical literature is that of Puran Bhagat of Sialkot. Puran, son of Raja Salhwan and Rani Ichhran, banished on his birth from the royal palace on the advice of astrologers to be brought up in a hideout to avert the influence of ill omen, returns as a young man to the royal palace. His young stepmother, Luna tries to seduce him and after having failed in her attempt, accuses him of sexual assault. The Raja in his rage orders the execution of his son. The executioners take pity on Puran and dump him in a dry well. The disciples of a great ascetic, Balnath of Nath Order rescue him. Puran learns the secrets of spiritual life. After years he returns to the desolate kingdom of his father to find his father devastated and his mother blind grieving for her lost son. He restores the eye sight of his mother with his magical touch and forgives his stepmother but refuses to ascend the throne.
Shiv Kumar, a modern poet, developed an alternative narrative, asserting that the reviling of Luna reflects the caste prejudice because a low-caste woman like Luna could never be accepted as a queen in a caste-ridden hierarchical structure. Legend of Puran Bhagat (Qissa Puran Bhagat) composed by classical poet Qadar Yar is loved for its haunting simplicity and effortless artistic craft.
The next city down the stream is Gujrat which according to Gen Cunningham was founded by Raja Bachan Pal Gurjar (Gujjar) in 5th centuries BC. In ancient times this area had a large population of pastoral people, the Gujjar. Along the Grand Trunk Road from Lahore to Rawalpindi one finds cities and towns named after this tribe like Gujranwala, Gujrat and Gujjar Khan. Strangely Gujrat owes its fame not to the sturdy and belligerent Gujjars but to a brave and beautiful young working class woman of ‘kumhaar’ caste known for making fine pottery.
Izzat Baig, a princely trader from central Asia, leading his trade caravan on his way to Delhi, stops at Gujrat. He goes to a shop to buy pottery and sees young Sohni (the beautiful), the daughter of the owner. Smitten by Cupid, they fall in love. Izzat Baig, a noble Turk, forgets his wares and caravan. He decides to stay close to his love in Gujrat and becomes a cow herd (Mahinwal) on the other side of the Chenab. Sohni surreptitiously crosses the river every night, riding a baked pitcher to meet Mahinwal. One night, Sohni’s sister-in-law, jealous of her rendezvous, replaces the baked pitcher with an unbaked one, well aware of the consequences. A poet very aptly describes Sohni’s dilemma: ‘If I go ahead, I will face a certain death and if I retreat, my love will prove to be false’.
Sohni in her bid to cross the river, aware of the unbaked pitcher’s fragility, is swept away by the furious waves of the Chenab. Bulleh Shah reminding us of Sohni talks of ‘the nosy banks of the Chandar’. Mahinwal after knowing what befell his Sohni, jumps into the river longing to join her in eternity. Thus Sohni’s death becomes an abiding metaphor for supreme sacrifice in love and the Chenab that of an ordeal, of perilous journey to the unknown. The tale has been penned down by many including the great poets like Hasham Shah, Qadar Yar and Mian Mohammad.
The area along the Chenab is inhabited by tough people who had to face the historical chaos and carnage created by invaders from the north. Alexander’s troops crossed the Chenab at Chinot and plundered this ancient town known for its breathtaking woodwork. The Gujjar, the Jatt and the Rajput tribes of the Chenab, proud of their historically conditioned bellicosity, do not shun feuds and love to wreak vendetta on their foes. Hence we find the greatest storytellers of the Punjab at the Chenab.
One such remarkable storyteller was Mian Kamal whose out of this world tales have been audio recorded, transcribed and published by Prof Saeed Bhutta. The book ‘Kamal Kahani’ is a must read to understand the psyche of the tribes of the Chenab in a socio-cultural spectrum.
Jhang though not as old as Sialkot or Chinot, is much more prominent on the mental map of the Punjabis. Jhang produced the two greatest legends Heer Ranjha and Mirza Sahiban which continue to haunt our imagination generation after generation. Heer Ranjha in particular became an eternal metaphor for human predicament. The protagonists theoretically as well as practically reject social hierarchy, class distinctions and repression of woman.
Heer, with her unique sense of individual and social consciousness, demolishes the traditionally subservient role which has been the fate of woman. In her struggle against the social repression she is the leader, not the led, a subject, not an object. She creates a new role model embodying female emancipation. In a reversal of roles, Heer looks more of a male and Ranjha looks more of a female to the dismay of misogynists. In the social context created by Damodar Das (the first to compose the tale) and Waris Shah, Heer and Ranjha become a symbol of authentic male-female relationship based on freedom of choice.
The river Chenab with its banks and mangroves, waters and marshes provides the setting for the story. Not just that. It also appears as a hurdle as well as an inspiration in the arduous journey of the lovers.
Another legendry character Jhang gave birth to is Sahiban. She, though much misunderstood, raises her powerful voice against male chauvinism and patriarchic norms. Her elopement with Mirza is still a contentious issue in terms of traditional morality. Sahiban and Mirza go down fighting their tormentors and emerge as a symbol of active defiance which one rarely finds in romantic tales.
Truly, Chenab flows for lovers. ‘Waters of Chenab do not stop flowing/your course smells of lovers playfulness’ is a refrain of a folk song.
The Ravi is our mind and the Chenab our soul. The former reflects the high point of our material development, the Harappa civilisation and the latter signifies our spiritual odyssey in quest of love and immortality. But it still remains a mystery how the Chenab created such a stunning world of transcendence. ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’, advised Ludwig Wittgenstein.