In ancient times the Punjab had seven major rivers. The one called Saraswati or Hakra dried up due to hitherto unknown geological changes thousands of years ago. The Rig-Veda calls it Saptasindu, the land of seven rivers.
It says: “The Seven Rivers bear his glory (Indra’s) far and wide, and heaven, sky and earth display his comely form (1.102.2)-- Who slew the Dragon, freed the Seven Rivers, and drove forth the cows from the cave of Vala (2.12.30).”
Later the epic Mahabharata states: “Where these five rivers, Satudru (Sutlej), Vipasha (Vias), the third Iravati (Ravi), Chandra-bhaga (Chenab) and Vitasta (Vehit/Jhelum) flow and where there are Pilu-forests and where Sindhu is the sixth to flow out, this country is called Aratta.”
Aratta is one of the ancient names of the Punjab. Of all the rivers the Ravi called Iravati/Prushni and known to Greeks as Hydarotes has been the most important for the Punjab, not because of its size but because of its historical significance; it supported the glorious Harappa civilisation. The ancient Harappa city was built on its banks.
A few know that even before its archaeological discovery by Sir Alexander Cunningham in the Raj era, Harappa was a well-known site to Punjabi scholars who had some sense of history. “Sutta ain ta jag, amal samhaal ke/Harappay muhraan pa saraf dikhaal ke (Wake up you still in slumber and get your act together / gather stamps from Harappa and get them assessed by the jewelers),” says the poet Shah Murad (died: 1702) .
Along the Ravi’s banks two other great cities came up defining the evolution of our urban development; Lahore and Multan are Ravi’s progenies.
Three other epoch-making events are associated with Iravati. The hymns of the Rig-Veda were revealed to rishis (seers) who meditated in a trance surrounded by its murmuring waves. This spiritual and historical document of Vedic age is invaluable being one of the earliest texts found in our human journey. Secondly, Rig-Veda (7.18.5) says that Dasrajna Yuddha, the great Battle of the Ten Kings, was fought on its banks. King Vishwamitra pitched ten kings against Bharata king Sudas who came out victorious. Bharat, the present day official name of India, is borrowed from Bharat tribe.
Thirdly, Alexander, the Macedonian, after his pyric victory against Porus, the brave king of Bharat clan in the Punjab, failed to persuade his demoralised solders to cross the River Bias and face the Nanda army of Magadha and forces of the kingdom of Bengal. Disheartened he decided to call it a day. On his way back home his army marched along the River Ravi and it was here that his troops were constantly harassed, ambushed and cut down by ferocious fighters of redoubtable Malloi/ Malli and other tribes. An arrow struck Alexander in a battle at Multan that nearly killed him.
This fast-flowing perennial river that zigzags down the plains of the Punjab originates in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh which has been part of the Punjab in the near past. What we find in the folklore on the Ravi is intriguingly interesting but it needs to be put in perspective and decoded to understand its true significance.
An old adage says: “Ravi sona, Channah chandi, Sindh suaa (the Ravi is gold, the Chenab is silver and the Sindhu is ash). It means that the Ravi’s water is like gold as it brings alluvial deposits that adds to the land’s fertility, and the Chenab’s water is like silver which is good for irrigation but the Sindhu’s water is like ash because it carries in its currents sands that can cause desertification.
Another adage says: “Ravi rakshaan, Channah Ashiqaan, Sindh sadiqaan (The Ravi has demons, the Chenab lovers and the Sindhu upright people).” If people along the Ravi are demons at all, they are, in the words of remarkable historian Malti J Shendgi, ‘civilised demons’ if history is anything to go by. Remember the Rig-Veda’s verse quoted in the beginning? It mentions freeing the cows from the cave of Vala.
Aryans when arrived in the Punjab were pastoralists and the prized animal for them was cow. Harappa people adopted cattle rustling as a form of resistance against the newcomers. They would harass the Aryan tribes by stealing their livestock. Among the Ravi people especially from town of Pattoki to Khanewal (Ganji Bar) rustling was developed into an art. To be a dauntless rustler was a matter of pride for any man worth his salt. So much so that in the area of Sahiwal along the Ravi among some of the clans, a young man would not get wife for himself unless he displayed his prowess in stealing. So the rustlers and thieves were dubbed by Aryan tribes as ‘Rakash’ (Punjabi version of Raskshas/ demon). Thus rustling was resistance by other means. What was dishonourable act of theft for Aryans was a badge of honour for Harappans marked by daring.
History needs to be upended, decoded and re-interpreted from the people’s perspective who have been at the receiving end since ages. Apart from its rustlers the Ravi can rightfully boast of its lovers and fighters. Who can forget fearless Mirza, an immortal son of the Ravi and a young legendary lover, who went down fighting the formidable fighters of his beloved’s tribe in the jungle of Sandal Bar? “Riding his horse, Mirza would always float on air,” says poet Hafiz Barkhurdar. Ali Haidar, the great poet of the Ravi, loudly condemned the foreign invasions against Punjab and the rest of India. We cannot push to the margins the fearless septuagenarian Ahmed Khan Kharal either who mustered forces of multiple tribes to fight the colonial occupation force in 1857.
About him the balladeer says; “The gatherings at the Ravi miss you, Ahmed Khan / Wish you could come back and get the prisoners released!” The sparkling waters of the Ravi lost their lustre as they were sold to India by our money-hungry elite after the emergence of Pakistan. The Ravi is now a shadow of its former glory. Hoping against hope we expect that some day when relations between Pakistan and India become normal if not cordial, we would see some water released by India going down the Ravi’s dry course saving at least what little is left of its flora and fauna. Dear Indians, it would be sacrilege to see the dry course of the Ravi that has been celebrated from the Vedic times to the 20th century by sages, seers and tribes. It’s the same river whose waves were the building blocks of Harappa society, the bedrock of sub- continental civilisation. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2023
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