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Ravi and Chenab: demons and lovers

January 11, 2013

Ravi and Chenab are the rivers which symbolise the very quintessence of Punjab. Not that the others are unimportant. But these two due to certain geographical factors contributed more to creating the historical and cultural identity of Punjab and its people. The Ravi though the smallest of the five rivers played the biggest role in the evolution of society not only in Punjab but also in the entire subcontinent. A tall claim? Remember Harrapa, the great city of the Harrapan civilisation, 110 miles from Lahore on the eastern bank of this river. From Harrapa and its interaction with Aryan invaders, emerged what is known as Indian civilisation.

The Ravi originates from Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh (once a part of Punjab) in India and meanders into Punjab. We find the earliest reference to the Ravi in the Rig-Veda that was composed by Rishis on its banks. It is called Eravati and Parusni in the ancient literature. The Rig-Veda mentions the battle of ten kings (Dasa Rajna) that took place at the Ravi between the Bharata king, Sudas and a confederation of ten Aryan and non Aryan tribes led by the Puru chief.

But strangely one finds this river, the creator of a sophisticated civilisation, demonised: The Ravi ‘flows for demons and the Chenab flows for lovers’, goes a saying. The demons were the people who after being vanquished were dubbed evil by their enemies. It is a classic example of the other dehumanised. In order to understand it we have to look back in history.

Indra, the Aryan warlord, deified later, is glorified in the Rig-Veda for having liberated the ‘imprisoned river’. The obvious hint is that indigenous people had denied water to the Arya from their dams. In one of the hymns Indra is praised for his smashing of Vala cave and enclosures where Panis, a Harrapan tribe, had hidden the cows. Blocking the course of the river and cattle lifting were forms of resistance adopted by the local population in the face of Aryan onslaught. Cattle were the wealth the Aryan nomads lived off.

So rustling became an element of the strategy that could undermine the enemies, the Arya. If you travel along the river you will invariably hear thrilling stories of rustling and dauntless rustlers. Among some of the tribes it was required of a young man to steal cattle before he could be accepted as an adult qualified to attend the assembly of elders. Rustling was developed and honed as an art to a point that it could bring a man name and fame. A young man incapable of rustling could risk a refusal of woman’s hand in marriage. So if you connect the dots, you will discover how cattle lifting first emerged as a tool of resistance and then with the passage of time degenerated into an irresponsible social practice.

It is also worth remembering that in the absence of cash crops, cattle played an important role in sustaining the subsistence economy. Love of animals is still an obsession with the people of the Ravi. The famous Ganji Bar (the area between Okara and Khanewal) water buffalo, reputed to be a great milk giver, is almost worshipped.

Another significant reference we come across is in the writings of Greek historians on the Alexander’s invasion of India in the 4th century BC. When Alexander’s troops, tired and exhausted after a long campaign, refused to go beyond the river Beas, he gave up his wish to solve the ‘problem of ocean’ the limits of which puzzled the Greek geographers. On the way back his army was relentlessly harassed and attacked along the river by a warlike Punjabi tribe Malloi. Multan, an ancient city on the route put up a great resistance against Alexander, demoralising his troops further. And it was here in Multan under the shadows of its near impenetrable walls that this great invader was struck with a deadly arrow which almost killed him.

The wounding of Alexander by Malloi resulted in a general slaughter of the locals by the Greek army. The Ravi can rightly be proud of its unknown soldiers and unsung heroes of bygone era, who went down fighting against the invaders. But two of its sons in not so a distant past, left indelible imprint on the psyche of the people of Punjab.

Mirza and Ahmed Khan Kharral, both loved by people and celebrated by bards, are the stuff legends are made of. Mirza, young and bold, free of decadent moral shackles born of a repressive tribal society died fighting, determined to defend his right to live with his love Sahiban. He was immortalised by poets for his courage to defy the age-old social restrictions the existential relations between man and woman suffered from.

Ahmed Khan was an old man when the rebellion against the British colonialists erupted in 1857 in India. He though old and frail, organised a tough resistance against the British administration in Gogera (now a part of district Sahiwal) in the jungles and the marshes of the Ravi. He attacked the district jail and released the prisoners. His force killed Berkley the assistant commissioner. He, betrayed by quislings, was killed and his captured comrades exiled to Andaman Islands (Kala Pani in Punjabi).

Ahmed Khan became a legend and popular subject of inspiring ballads called ‘Dhola’, a literary genre close to free verse. “Gatherings at the Ravi wait for you, come back and set the prisoners free,” says a verse. It is a strange coincidence that both Mirza the romantic hero and Ahmed Khan the freedom fighter, belonged to the same tribe, the Kharrals of the Ravi.

Another Punjabi saying about the rivers: ‘The water of Ravi is gold and that of Chenab is silver’. The gold signifies the quality of the Ravi’s fecund water which created the alluvial soil conducive for agriculture and cattle breeding. So it is not surprising that the three great cities of Punjab, Harrapa, Multan and Lahore have savoured the nourishing sweetness of its water. A remarkable sign of dynamic life at the Ravi has been the long-standing traditions of ‘Ratha chari’ (knightly code of conduct/chivalry sans passion for women) which highly prized the values of honour, friendship, fair play and protection of the under-privileged.

And that was the past. The Ravi no longer flows. It is not even a pale shadow of its past glory; now a desolate dry bed with no songs of mermaids, only good enough to be used as a sewer for the disposal of effluent of industrial waste. Anybody listening in India? No issue with the Indus Basin Treaty sir. Please let some water run into the Ravi to wet its dry sand. Let the water sing of the Harrapans and the Arya, of Alexander and the Malloi, of Mirza and Ahmed Khan Kharral. And above all let it sing of Guru Nanak, the great seer of Punjab, who breathed his last at the Ravi deciphering the secrets of its waves.

(To be concluded)