The Dawn: June 13, 2014

Punjab Notes: Bar: forgotten glory of Punjab

Mushtaq Soofi 

Western Punjab, now a part of Pakistan, to a large measure, defined the character of Punjab from medieval era to modern times which started with its conquest by the East India Company in 1849 in the aftermath of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death. Punjab, being the land of rivers, had its oldest human settlements along the river banks.

The area stretching from the river Sutlej to river Chenab to the confluence of river Jhelum and Chenab had the generic name ‘Bar’. Bar in Punjabi language means a threshold, an outer space, an area away from the human settlement, a barrier between populated area and wild forest, a natural jungle etc.

This Punjabi word having Indo-Aryan origins is not unconnected in etymological terms with the English word ‘bar’. Some of the meanings of ‘bar’ in the Oxford English Dictionary are: a barrier or gate closing the entrance into a city, a material structure of any shape, forming a barrier etc. So the area between two rivers that formed a natural barrier between two different settlements on their banks was called Bar in Punjabi.

The area from the eastern side of river Jhelum (vahit) beyond the ancient city of Chiniot to the banks of river Sutlej was divided into four major Bars (Baran); the stretch between eastern side of Jhelum and western side of Chenab is called ‘Karana’ Bar, between Chenab and Ravi ‘Sandal’ Bar, between Ravi and Sutlej ‘Ganji’ Bar and on the eastern and western sides of Sutlej lies ‘Nili’Bar.

All the ‘Bars’ had and still have almost the same culture and language or dialect with slight variations.

It is the Bar that for reasons not inexplicable shaped and defined the culture, economy, social norms, moral values and the literary tradition of Punjab from the 11th to late 19th century. Most of the greats of the Punjab during the last thousand years were either born in the Bars or spent a large part of their lives there.

The society was part agrarian and part pastoral. Lands close to rivers were irrigated with the river water. Cattle proved to be backbone of the economy which thrived on the pastures and grasslands of the Bar.

The size of the livestock was the yardstick used to determine the economic and social status of its owner. Of all the animals water buffalo stands glorified in the folk-poetry, ballads and stories of Bar. A household that could not afford a buffalo was an unambiguous sign of being poor of the poorest.

The celebrated Ravi buffalo is virtually a milk machine that can butter the bread of a large family. That is why Noori Kenboke, the most popular poet of ballads (Dhola), using an ethereal metaphor called the buffalo ‘the dome of light’.An enduring and unique contribution of the Bar has been in the realms of culture and literature.

The great tales like those of Heer Ranjha and Mirza Sahiban are the most imaginative products of Sandal Bar, the area between Ravi and Chenab that has been the biggest and the richest of all the Bars.

Apart from the legendry romantic characters, the Sandal Bar also produced great warriors like Dulla Bhatti and the Ganji Bar was home to Ahmed Khan Kharral. The former defied the might of Akbar, the great, and the latter fought the British colonialists in the 19the century.

And let us not forget the formidable Mallians of Sandal and Ganji Bars who ferociously fought Alexander, on his way back home, along the river Ravi. Alexander himself was struck with a near fatal arrow by the Mallians in Multan.

The modern literary language of Punjab, evolved over a long period of time (11th to 19th century), is largely based on the highly expressive and vigorous dialect of Bar generally known as ‘Lehndi’ or ‘jaangli’ (Lehndi means western and Jaangli means that of jungle).

Baba Farid, the pioneer of the Punjabi literary tradition, after shifting from royalty infested Delhi to Pakpattan (Ajodhan) lived on the borders of Nili and Ganji Bars.

He in his couplets employs a blend of Multani and Lehndi. One of the greatest sons of Punjab, larger than life seer and poet of unmatchable quality to emerge from the Bar was none other than Baba Guru Nanak who added a large number of genres to our literary repertoire.

He was the first to employ the Lehndi idiom in his expression. When he says: ‘Rajay, rayyat, sikkdaar, Koi na rahsi o’ (the kings, the subjects and the barons all will perish), the deep echo of Lehndi is unmistakably clear to the ears.

And about the Bar he says; ‘the hovering black bees look so beautiful/the woods are abloom in the Bar region’. Another great poet from the Sandal Bar with Tolstoy like sweep was Damodar Gulati who composed the legend of Heer and Ranjha and immortalized the lovers with his imaginative magic and profound social consciousness.

The greatest poet of Punjab in terms of linguistic mastery and fecund imagination, Waris Shah, too born in Sandal Bar, retold the story with such a poetic force that it became an inseparable element of Punjabi psyche. ‘Intoxicated by pride, in the company of her companions she swaggers about like a startled deer in flight in the Bar’ is how he describes Heer, her heroine. At the fringes of Sandal Bar we hear the chaste and highly polished voice of inimitable Sultan Bahu which expresses humanist vision born of deep meditation and intellectual contemplation. ‘Heart is a river, deeper than ocean. Who can fathom its secrets’?

After Peelu of ‘Dhann’ (Chakwal and its surrounding areas) Hafiz Barkhurdar, the second poet to write the absolutely thrilling tale of irresistible young lovers, Mirza and Sahiban, also lived and died in the Bar. He describes the beauty and the dread of Bar.

‘The parrots of the Bar squawk and the peacocks scream in the treetops/grave with its gaping mouth awaits the lover and the hero’. Nijabat was also son of Bar who composed his great epic on the Nadir Shah’s invasion of India.

Not far away from him another classical poet Siddique Laali paints a fascinating image of his homeland. ‘Chandal, (river Chandra/Chenab), the queen of rivers, is where I belong/my Karana Bar with its reddish soil is the haunt of fluttering larks’.

Downward in Ganji Bar, famous for its livestocks and undaunted tribal fighters, we find yet another poet, Ali Haydar, whose classical verses carry the spontaneity and sweetness of folk-songs. Mian Mohammad who did not live in Bar too had a fascination for it: ‘deer munching your grass in the Bar beware; the hunter is all set to breathe down your neck’.

In early 20th century the colonial administration created a huge and intricate canal network with the purpose of bringing large swathes of wild land under cultivation that changed the topography and landscape of Bars beyond recognition.

But the fact remains that without delving into the past of Bars we will never able to understand the specifics of society between the rivers that on the one hand produced mighty lords (Rath) and highly skilled rustlers, and on the other gave us lovers’ tales of eternal beauty and the literary language that in the words of Maulvi Suleman of Chakwal ‘is understood and appreciated by the people from Peshawar to Jumna to Chamba to Dera (Ghazi Khan)’.

All of this shouldn’t surprise us if we know a bit of history. It was the Bar that birthed the great metropolis of Harappa which thousands of years back laid the foundation of our civilization in the subcontinent.—

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