Harking back: Sacred grounds that are the ‘killing fields’ of history

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn January 31, 2016

In the history of Lahore and its almost dead River Ravi, there are places to visit and wonder at events that changed the way we are. Beyond bricks and mortar are events that live in the mind’s eye.

Last week as I drove along Lahore’s Ring Road and approached the Mahmood Booti interchange, suddenly a series of events rushed through my mind. History does strange thinks to the mind.

We start respecting the lessons of the past. Our history is basically in praise of the winner. The people’s history is now finally being recognised as the real history worth pursuing.

As Mahmood Booti approached I indicated and headed towards the river. This is the place that in our collective memory is associated with ‘Moyaan de Mandi’, famous for Mughal era famines.

It is also associated with the killings of sepoys, the killings fields of ‘native mutineers’. A little upstream took place the slaughter of sepoys of Sialkot and Lahore in the 1857 War of Independence.

If you let your imagination run to ancient times this is the probable place where took place the Battle of the Ten Kings, on which the Rig-Veda and the ‘Mahabharata’ are based, took place, an event that changed the way all of us in the sub-continent live, think and exist.

In a way the entire story of the Hindu religion is strongly grouted in the “the greatest, most important and biggest battle ever to take place in the entire sub-continent” as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the great Indian philosopher and 2nd President of India said.

I turned the car and headed towards a village from where the river, as it now grudgingly ebbs, could be seen.

A villager tending to his crop stood up and approached my car. After initial greetings a conversation of sorts started. I asked him what made this place special.

He immediately said: “Because we still find bones of hungry people dumped here centuries ago. Our elders said touching the bones was a sign of bad luck”.

He was spot on and in my mind a picture arose the famine-struck people of Lahore being dumped by men serving the Mughal emperor Akbar.

The 1596-98 famine of Lahore is probably the worst ever to have hit the city, and the emperor appointed Sheikh Fareed Bukhari as a ‘Famine Officer’ with the duty to set up the ‘feeding kitchens’ to feed “over half a lakh starving people a day”.

The kitchen camps were called Hindu camp, Muslim camp and Jogi camp. To raise money a tax of ten ‘seers’ of wheat on every ‘bigha’ (3/4 of an acre) was imposed on land owners as long as the drought continued.

At that time the Lahore Fort was being rebuilt in burnt-brick and all able-bodied persons using the kitchens were made to work on the fort project.

From Lahore every day scores of carts loaded with dead bodies found every morning in the streets of Lahore and surrounding villages were dumped at Mahmood Booti. This site was selected, probably, in the belief that the river would take away the stinking rotting bodies.

Till this day many villagers believe that the stink exists in the very earth of Mahmood Booti.

The villager told of frequent visits by ‘bad magicians’ in search of bones. He laughingly told of a skull being a precious find which sells for Rs10,000. “In death doth starvation pay” said the Bard.

But just upriver during the 1857 uprising the revolting and fleeing soldiers of the 9th Light Cavalry from Sialkot along with other regiments started to move towards the river and towards Delhi.

It was in a river crossing that the British slaughtered them, over 293 as British accounts put them, and the bodies thrown in the Ravi at Mahmood Booti.

The heaps have been described as “a stink that spread for miles”. The remaining mutineers captured were taken to the police station near Wagah and locked in one room, were most died of suffocation, a tragedy that morphed the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ incident.

The remaining were shot in groups of ten. Again to Mahmood Booti came the carts of martyrs that are never remembered.

But then probably in the Rigvedic period, almost 3,500 years ago, thousands of soldiers were killed near this place in the River Parsuni, the Ravi’s ancient name, in the ‘Battle of the Ten Kings’, or ‘Dasanrajan’, on which the Hindu holy book ‘Mahabharata’ is based, as also described in the Veds.

This was a massive war by a confederation of ten kings against the Bharata tribe’s Trtsu clan, led by King Sudas the ancient ruler of Lahore. His victory sealed the name of the sub-continent as Bharat, the legal name of India.

The name India itself is derived from the name of River Indus, an Arab corruption of the original name ‘Sindhu’. In the end the victor achieves immortality through the names it leaves behind by court scribes.

That is why the ‘people’s history’ has now becomes such an important subject, and one where a lot of research is needed to reach the ‘truth’, if that is ever possible.

The ‘Ten Kings’ who opposed the ruler of Lahore as well as Harappa and other areas, came from far and wide.

The Purus, today known as the Puri clan, came down from Sialkot. Other clans came from Waziristan, from Iranian Baluchistan, from Chakwal, from Nuristan in northern Afghanistan, from Dera Ghazi Khan, from Multan, from Kashmir and from almost all the areas west of Lahore.

Who instigated this “greatest of all battles”? The Bharata tribe of King Sudas was advised to fight against impossible odds by their ‘Vedic Rishi’, their religious leader, named Vasishtha.

He had claimed that the deity Indra would eat those opposing him in the river. On the other side the ‘Vedic Rishi’ advising the Ten Kings was Viswamitra, a ‘rishi’ whom the rather secular Lahore leader had earlier dismissed. For Viswamitra it was a case of seeking revenge.

Both the ‘rishis’ read their secret verses and called on ‘magical’ powers.

It was an amazing case of “the lamb eating the lion” as Radhakrishnan calls it. The power of religion was, forever, embedded in the minds of the people of the sub-continent.

The Ten Kings lost their armies in the raging Parsuni (Ravi), with the remaining being killed off by archers on the other side. Indra had prevailed. Mahmood Booti, as the place is now called, was to have its first victims.

Over the ages this patch of land called ‘Moyaan de Mandi’ has consumed its fair share of victims.

Today nearby these sacred grounds is the city’s largest waste dump. The stink adds to the myth. We view history from our own unique religious perspective.

To one end a one-room church stands with a small cross on the wall. Nearby is an abandoned Sikh gurdwara, and then there is a Hindu temple in which now 1947 refugees live. They all exist side by side. In the nearby village a gleaming white mosque stands.

What is this to us today? ‘Sacred Grounds’ or ‘Waste Dump’ or even ‘Moyaan de Mandi’, it is all in the mind’s eye.

Surely the ancestors of all of us in the Indus Valley were represented in that ‘greatest of all battles’.

As I left the place the thought came to my mind: “I hope the bones of my ancestors are not buried here”. If they are I am proud of it. That is the way my mind’s eye views history.



Back To Majid Sheikh's Columns

Back To APNA Home Page