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Ravi and Chenab: demons and lovers


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Photo courtesy Dawn file photo.

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.

Comments (16) Closed

Tahir Jan 18, 2013 10:56pm
Beautiful,just beautiful.
Nidhi Jan 19, 2013 06:00pm
B'fully written...
Surinder Jan 19, 2013 05:16pm
Kudos Dawn, it took us in awe and beauty of old Punjab and its history. wish people from both sides of the border come together and celebrate this culture left behind by our ancestors. what can I say more if only and only our politicians can understand ?
suraj Jan 19, 2013 01:00pm
Beautiful, i am from India (haryana) and I could never expect an such article from any of Indian national dailies. As a kid i grew listnings to tales of Puran bhagat in local folk songs only, which have gotten disappear now due to effect of Bollywood. Very surprised and delighted to hear about Puran Bhagat in Pakistani newspaper. In nutshell an excellent article and Dawn newspaper and it editors must be congratulated for this..well done keep it up. Thanks..
Varinder Abrol Jan 19, 2013 03:46pm
I was born in PASRUR, dist Sialkot and lies beween Ravi and Chenab. I was two when we left pakistan in 1947. Had been hearind the stories of the Region from family members, uncles and aunts. Always wanted to fly over and just spend my life at the Pasrur Railway staion coz thats where my Dad had a Rice mill and we lived. Inshallah, may be one day, if I lived to be long enough. Anybody from Pasrur, if you read it, please contact on my e mail. it will give me alot of solace.
Khalid Hussain Jan 18, 2013 08:20pm
An excellent read, much rewarding. Thank you for the painstaking research and the simple presentation!
ahsan Jan 19, 2013 09:27am
Absoltely beauiful... and thanks for reminding us of great cultural heritage
Ali Raza Jan 19, 2013 04:38pm
Great narrative of classical love stories of Punjab.
george Jan 18, 2013 09:07am
I disagree. Culture has everything to do with religion , and much more. But there need not be any clash as you can find in Indonesia. Their Islam is very much defined by their culture, and their religious belief has no clash with that. In the capital Jakarta, the largest Mall is called Ramayana. And the people of Java wish Eid Mubarak with folded hands. It is probably the only Muslim country where a mosque, a temple, a church and a Sikh gurudwara exists within 500 yards of each other, and they co exist without any trouble. The law of the land guarantees the safety of its minorities, and everybody flourishes, unlike Pakistan.
K G Surendran Jan 18, 2013 08:28am
Great article proves the point that culture has got nothing to do with religion, just like chalk and cheese.
zoro Jan 18, 2013 09:18am
Nice article ... keep it up ... Sooo informative ...thanks ..
Terry Bola Jan 19, 2013 12:26am
Mind soothing and uplifting article.
Sam101 Jan 18, 2013 12:16pm
Excellent article.
Sanjay Jan 18, 2013 04:20pm
Great article about the cultural history of the region and it is painful that in the land of lovers, what is happening today. smoke of Hate is mixed with atmosphere of Pakistan. countless people are being killed everyday.
Burhan Jan 18, 2013 03:19pm
The Chenab and the Ravi, two of the five great rivers that gave my Punjab its name. And today, 65 years after the Punjab was partitioned, the Chenab belongs to Pakistan, while the Ravi belongs to India. And neither has water in it. God Bless my Punjab...:(
Peeyush Prasad Jan 18, 2013 01:29pm
A very enjoyable article. Would love a vivid description of legends and stories behind the Ravi river as well!