“Our thoughts bring us to diverse callings, setting people apart: the carpenter seeks what is broken, the physician a fracture, and the Brahmin seeks someone who presses soma ---I am a poet; my dad’s a physician and Mom a miller with grinding stones /with diverse thoughts we all strive for wealth, going after it like cattle” (Rig Veda- 9.112 /translation-- Wendy Doniger).

What the verses composed in the ancient Punjab reveal is an interesting historical fact; people followed different professions of their own free will. Their professions weren’t strictly determined by the accident of birth as was the case later when caste dictates predetermined the profession a person born in a certain caste would adopt. But in Punjab new professions were open to people but one wasn’t coerced to abandon their ancestral callings if they wanted to retain them. One such group of people or tribe who lived in what Rig Veda describes as a floating city [Nau-nagara]. They are also called lake-dwellers. These people, to the surprise of Aryan poets [Kavis], literally lived on the surface of flowing and semi-stagnant water.

Flowing water points to rivers which were no less than the big seven and semi-stagnant to lakes and vast natural water reservoirs. It also implied that the livelihood of lake-dwellers in the ancient Punjab and Sindh called ‘Daasha’ depended on fishing, sailing and trade. They were familiar with rivers, lakes and sea which enabled them to go as far as Mesopotamia and Egypt where archaeologists found Harappa seals. It isn’t that surprising that later Aryan religious leaders and lawgivers being not familiar with the riverine and oceanic failed to realise their significance and banned voyages and slapped fine and punishment on those who violated. This unwise act born of sheer ignorance had much later disastrous consequences for the subcontinent as it not only discouraged but also rejected navy as a defence force.

When Arabs invaders landed on the coast in the early eighth century or European marauders disembarked on their soil in the 18th century, Indian kingdoms had no naval force to stop the intruders. China committed even a bigger blunder when one of its foolish kings dismantled its formidable navy in the 15th century to allay the elite’s fears of foreign traders.

However Daasha persevered and continued their way of life but with the passage of time their economic clout diminished and they got increasingly marginalised. We still have a delectable metaphor in our folklore, stories and poetry bequeathed by the people of floating cities; the crow as the herald that would announce in advance the arrival of guests / loved ones/ lovers.

Talking of cabins of boats Professor Malti J, Shendge in her remarkable book “The Civilized Demons: The Harappans in Rigveda’ writes: “The two birds sitting on the sides of the cabin might have been used like the crow of Baveru Jataka where it is said that Indian merchants sailed along the coast, using a compass crow who was released to find the direction of the nearest land in case the ship should have been driven out of sight of any landmark---The inference of Kosambi [a great Indian historian] that the method of navigation recorded in Baveru Jataka [Baveru is ancient Babylon] of a late date may really have been a ‘ far earlier’ tradition is correct. The tradition may be as old as the Harappan civilisation in India and might have been known to the ancient world”.

One comes across innumerable verses on the crow such as “Kaanwan, tainu kutt kutt churian paawan, teri sonay di chunj marhawan [Crow, I will feed you the buttered morsels with my own hand / and will bedeck your beak with gold leaf] or Kaan baneray bolia [The crow caws on the parapet]”.

In Hafiz Barkhurdar’s composition defiant heroine Sahiban, who is about to hang for loving the man of her choice, asks an aged crow to tell her tragedy to poet Pilu.

The ancient Daasha and their practices have submerged presence in our culture. We also find references to such people in our classical literature. Damodar Das has a prominent character in his composition of Heer from this lake-dweller tribe named Luddan Mallah. The name Luddan itself hints at its origins buried in ancient times because it sounds as if it’s neither connected with Hindu nor Muslim nomenclature. Ludden is also a place on the River Sutlej in district Vehari. Mallah which means boatman perhaps tells us more of his profession than his tribe. Noora furious with Luddan contemptuously calls him “Jhewar” which means a fisherman. Despite being poor and lowly, he is a man of dignity. When insulted by his powerful employer Rath Noora, he, as a mark of protest, raises anchor and sets sail with his lord’s prized boat in the river Chenab. He is eventually given shelter by indomitable young Heer, the daughter of a formidable chief.

Waris Shah in his version of the tale retains the character of Luddan with a difference who now appears as a representative of rising cut-throat mercantile class, reminiscent of his ancestral origins. But Waris Shah describes him and the boatmen responsible for the upkeep of Heer’s resort at the bank of the river Chenab by their tribal names; “Jhabeel”. “Jhabeel” still have a sort of presence at some points along the river. Poet Sultan Bahu in one of his most celebrated four liners says: “Dill darya, samandron dunghay, kaun dilan dian jaane hu / vichay beray, vichay jheray, vichay vanjj muhanay hu--- (The heart a river, deeper than ocean! Who can fathom its secrets? /it has in it the fleets, the hullabaloo, the oars and muhanas/sailors)”. In Punjab and Sindh people of floating cities are known by different names such as Muhana, Mallah, Jhabeel, Maachhi [fishermen] and Jhewar/ Jheor. They still have visible presence in Sindh with their large spectacularly painted boats at Manchhar Lake and Sindhu River. But sadly they are a fast dying breed. They are almost extinct in Punjab despite being one of the ancient peoples of our region who were mainstay of our domestic and international trade in the distant past. Historical changes especially the improved land routes have rendered them marginal. Their very existence depended on waters which have become scarce with passage of time due to natural and man-made factors. “—People mentioned in Rig Veda as Dāśa were essentially a people who lived, not on agriculture but on sailing, for fishing and trade. This is how they were distinguished from the Asuras who were mainly agriculturists”, says Professor Malti. Shrinking waters along with other factors wiped out Daasha. Let’s see when water, which is becoming scarcer by the day, pushes the Asuras, the agriculturists, out of existence. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2021

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