Heroes of their ages: Hanuman and Ekalavya

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 10, 2013

From the Lahore Fort, in all probability, Hanuman, the ‘banda’ – a term used in Punjabi for a loyal selfless servant -- of the ruler Rama, kidnapped, probably eloped with his master’s queen Sita. Such things still take place in Punjab.

Hanuman was definitely no ‘ape man’. He was a ‘banda’ of the ruler Rama, and as Lahore, and the Punjab, was ruled by the Rajputs, it makes sense that a massive posse set off to arrest the couple. But this story of Lahore and Hanuman started off when I was trying to find the origin of the word ‘collie’. Hanuman belonged to a tribe, known as ‘Kala’ that lived on the banks of the Ravi. They still do and I will dwell on that at the end of this piece. From ‘kala’, meaning black, the word ‘coolie’ formulated. The racist past of our forefathers live with us.

How many readers have ever read the ‘Mahabharata’, or even the ‘Ramayana’, the two great epics written on the banks of the River Ravi? To imagine that they are the religious texts of Hinduism speaks eloquently of our utter ignorance of our own ancient history. Yes they certainly do mention the great battles and characters of ancient times, a time we have forsaken. Yes the Hindus do revere them. But then, in a very secular manner, so should we be proud of them, for they constitute our past.

Of the thousands of characters that come and go through the pages of the ancient texts that have sprouted from our land, today my attention is focused on two characters, one is Hanuman the ‘banda’ of Rama, and the other is ‘Ekalavya’, one of the most skilful archers in the great epics. My interest in them is so because they belonged to Lahore.

The ‘Mahabharata’ specifically mentions them both as belonging to the ‘Nishadha’ people that inhabited the land between the Ravi and the Sutlej as we now know them today. Their caste is specified as being ‘Erukala’ and it is specifically stated that they learned their skills from a guru who lived in Lavapur, the ancient name of Lahore. In ancient times during the Harappa period this city was called Salatura. I followed the root of ‘kala’, and came up with the ethnic origin of both Hanuman and Ekalavya. Now Hanuman was no ‘ape man’, of this rest assured. The popular pictorial depictions of him show an ‘ape-like’ man with huge evil eyes. This ‘banda’ of Rama the ruler probably was a strong, tall dark-skinned warrior who probably was disloyal to the Rajput code of honour. It is most probable that Sita was a willing partner. That Hanuman eloped with Sita is very much possible, and that troops from Lahore went to recover her is what makes up that specific story.

The word ‘kala’, part of the word ‘Erukala’, is what led our past British rulers to coin the word ‘coolie’. The ‘Nishadha’ people were basically bird hunters, and it was their tradition to use the first blood drawn to mark the forehead of their ‘raja’. But that is another story. Let me concentrate on Ekalavya, the master archer who learnt his skills from his guru, the greatest archery ‘guru’ called Dronacharya, who belonged to Lahore. Archery and Lahore have an ancient connection.

If you walk up Mochi Gate you will, while walking through the main bazaar, pass Kucha Teer Andazaan (Archer’s Lane). Even the word Mochi Gate is derived from the word ‘morcha’ - a defensive barrier. In all probability at this point a hail of arrows prevented a direct attack on the walled city. There are a number of lanes and ‘mohallahs’ associated with archery. For that matter one of the finest bows of the old world is known as the Lahori Bow, which finds a place in any respectable war museum all over the world. It is a multi-layered bow, flexible, small and able to shoot while riding. Some experts claim it was an improvement on the Genghis Khan Bow.

As legend has it, the guru of Ekalavya was worried that his level of skill would pass that of Arjuna the prince. So he ordered that his right thumb be cut off, which the obedient pupil did, depriving himself of his greatest skill. But then he was a loyal ‘banda’ to the Rajput ruler. When Krishna eloped with Shishupala, daughter of King Jarasandha, it was Ekalavya who was sent to chase them. Sadly the loyal archer was killed.

So here we have in the same story in the ‘Mahabharata’ two men of the ‘Erukala’ tribe, living along the bank of the River Ravi, in two opposite roles. Sadly, both get killed trying to settle the act of elopement. Ironically, unlike as it happens these days, both the women were returned to their Rajput families, and both lived a happy life thereafter.

Now let me return to Mr. Hanuman. The ‘Erukala’ people have lived along the banks of the rivers Ravi and Sutlej. Over the centuries these people have faced the wrath of various invaders. They moved westwards to avoid further invasions, and came to ultimately be known as gypsies. The word ‘gypsy’ is derived from the French word ‘le egypt’, a description of the ‘Erukala’ people who migrated when invasions threatened them. These people landed in England for the first time in 1461; at least research tells us this.

Among the first wave that moved along the North African coast, ending up in Spain, they were shipped off to South America in an attempt by the Christian armies that had defeated the Muslim rulers. My interest in them is because of a huge research being carried out by the United Nations to determine their ethnic origin, overseen by researchers in Rome. Over 120,000 samples of gypsies have been collected, and I helped them collect 50 samples from Lahore.

It is clear that the DNA of all of them match the original ‘Erukala’ people that still live in the Punjab and Indian Rajputana. They are discriminated against in the sub-continent, and they are discriminated against in Europe and the Americas. The curse of Hanuman prevails. But for me Hanuman is a hero, a true man of my land, a tall, strong, handsome hero with huge luring eyes (poor Sita did not stand a chance), just the description that we read by Ptolemy of our hero Porus, the ‘puru’ (ruler) of Bhera. Yes Sir, we remain firmly racist.




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