Harking Back: An ancient conflict over waters of the Ravi

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Feb 19, 2017

Conflict over water invariably has ancient origins. In our times with soaring populations the use of scarce water resources is increasingly leading to dangerous tension. Probably the oldest conflict over water rights is that of the River Ravi.

That is why we must research the ‘Battle of the Ten Kings’, for this is what the legendary ‘Mahabharata’ is all about. The way history is written, especially the lethal communal doses our children pick up from their school textbooks, leaves a warped and lasting impression on innocent minds.

The way facts are presented determines the way a people think. A good example would be the manner in which Greek historians described, in great detail, about Alexander the Macedonian invader defeating the Puru (Porus in Latin) of Bhera on the banks of the Jhelum. Modern researchers, especially Russian scholars, have finally reached the conclusion, based on scientific methodology that it was the other way round.

New research, mostly emanating from Harvard, tells us of how Alexander was overcome, only to be deftly used by Porus with immense skill to quell Porus’s rivals to the East. The 600,000 force of six rulers, led by the Puru of Lahore, faced 32,000 tired Greeks on opposite sides of the mighty River Beas. The message surely was crystal clear to the tired Greeks. Battle would mean the end of the entire Greek force. Common sense made them return to Greece along the western bank of the Ravi, avoiding, for good military reasons, the Puru of Lahore’s territory. At Sangla and Multan, as Greek historians also acknowledge, he was mauled and badly wounded, only to die of his wounds (and malaria) at Alexandra in Egypt.

Yet today we, because of the way history has come down to us, prefer to name our children after invaders like Sikander, Ghori and Abdali, but never after patriots like Porus. Our interest in this piece is to describe an incident, almost 3,500 years ago, which in the ‘Mahabharata’ is called the Battle of the Ten Kings, or Dasarajna. In this grand battle, probably the greatest ever fought on the banks of the River Ravi near Lahore, was between the ruler of Lahore, described in the Rigveda as King Sudas, the Puru (ruler) of the Trtsu-Bharata tribe and the ten tribes led astray by the priest Vishvamitra. Priests are very good at this pastime. Very few Indians, let alone history-starved Pakistanis, know the real reason this battle took place.

It comes as a surprise that the reason for this grand battle was a dispute over the waters of the Ravi, very much in line with the current problems the Indus Water Treaty is facing. If we are to imagine the Indians as representing a force supported by Afghans coming in from the Bolan Pass and the Khyber Pass in support of other Indian tribes, led by a priest-politician of the Vasishtha clan, one of the seven Brahmin tribes, and the Pakistanis representing the forces of Lahore, then not much has changed over time.

The attempt to divert the waters of the River Parushni (River Ravi) led to these forces trying to conquer the city, only to be badly mauled. Amazingly, the river a few years later changed its course, as all rivers do because of the ‘looping erosion’ phenomenon, only to be claimed as the miracle of a deity.

We love miracles still. It’s in our DNA like the flying horsemen claim during the 1965 War. If anything this battle saw the germination of the caste-based priestly class – Brahmins – with the word ‘dasa’ being a pre-Aryan term for “a sort of slave tribe”. Later this word meant a robber, and the Vedas tells us of the attributes of the people of the ‘Dasarajna’. But these are communal terms that are best left alone, for they only breed further hatred.

The point is that we know that over a thousand years after the ‘Dasarajna’ took place on the banks of the Ravi at Lahore, the Puru ruler of Lahore had played a huge part in facing up to the Macedonian invader, blunting him considerably. Finally the Puru of Lahore, and five other eastern rulers formed an alliance to see Alexander flee our land. These are undeniable facts, ones that we are not facing up to. Instead we have communal-based logic in the sub-continent, and Pakistanis are no exception, which is taught to our children.

Once we tell our children, though their history books, that both the names ‘Bharat’ and ‘Hindustan’ are terms that belong to the land that is today Pakistan, at least they might begin to think, and question. The word ‘Hindu’ itself is a corrupt version of the word ‘Sindhu’, the name of the great River Indus of Pakistan. The first Arab invaders could not pronounce the sound ‘sindh’ and stuck to their Arabic version of ‘Hind’, hence Hindustan. The word Bharat, naturally, comes from the ruling tribe of Lahore and Punjab that has been with us since before the Vedas were written. The communal connection is not difficult to see.

That is why the learning of our history, and one must acknowledge that it cannot be written without a bias, must be toned down to the optimum. The only way out is to try to write a ‘peoples’ history’. The outcome would be a reasonably balanced population more willing to seek peace with their neighbours. This does not mean that our neighbours to the East are any better than us. They also have a curious ability to see Pakistan only with coloured lenses.

But as both countries head towards probable conflict in the years to come, it is best to seek lessons from our ancient texts, the ones we have forsaken and which have become sacred texts for our neighbours. Probably it would be better to seek solace in the lessons of the great Gautam the Buddha, who came and spent a long time in the small city of Lahore. One researcher points to a few probable places in the Lohari gate portion of the old walled city where he stayed.

We have never been told that the great Buddha passed through and stayed in Lahore, that Rama and Sita belonged to Lahore and their son Loh, after whom Lahore is named, was born here on the highest mound. Today that is where the Lahore Fort is. Loh’s Temple exists there. Lahore has been a city of Jains, of Buddhists and of Hindus before the Muslims came here, only to completely erase it to the ground. For that matter this city has been raised flat seven times over the last one thousand years.

The earliest time that we currently know of, was when it was threatened because of a dispute over the waters of the River Ravi. Today there is no water left because of a warped deal over this dispute. Today that very dispute has raised its head again.

Does it spell disaster in the future?

That depends on how sensibly we approach the matter. We may even decide to ignore it, the way most things are these day. We may even find ourselves sold down the river … you never know these days.


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