The Dawn: Nov 20, 2015

Punjab Notes: Vehat: where great warriors clashed

Mushtaq Soofi 

The Jhelum River is one of our major rivers that originates in Kashmir and flows through the northern Punjab and merges into the romantic Chenab (Chandrabhaga) river at Trimmu in Jhang district. The appellation Jhelum for the river is comparatively modern. Its original name is Vitasta recorded in the ancient scriptures. Vitasta is surely one of the Sapta-Sindhu (major seven rivers of Punjab) mentioned many a time in the Rig-Veda which was revealed/composed in Punjab way back in time.The Kashmiris and Punjabis inhabiting the both sides of the river call it Vehat. Nilamata Purana (7th century) explained how the river came into being and got its name. Sage Kashyapa (the Kashmir valley is named after him) knelt in supplication before Goddess Parvati to come to Kashmir, inhabited by the tribes of Naga and Pisacha, so that it could be rid of evil practices. Pisachas in the mythology are denigrated as ghosts but the great Panini (4th/5th century BC) in his Ashtadhyayi described them as a ‘warrior clan’ living in northern India. The Goddess in response to the sage’s request assumed the form of a current in the bowls of the earth. Lord Shiva, looking for his consort, struck the earth with his spear at a point now called Verinag Spring and the goddess came out gushing forming a river. Shiva named it Vitasta which was derived from the word Vitasti. The stroke of Shiva’s spear caused a hole measuring one Vitasti, a measure of length less than a foot. So the lord named it Vitasta. Srimad Bhagavantam, a religious treatise, says that Vitastais is a transcendental river that flows in the land of Bharata, an ancient tribe of Punjab.

The ancient Greek historians called this river the Hydaspes.Nonnu, the poet, describes it as the son of the sea god Thaumas and the cloud goddess Elektra. The Vehat became well known in the East and the West because of the great historical encounter between Alexander of Macedonia and King Porus that took place on its marshy banks in 326 B C.

According to the traditional account, Alexander won the war which is being increasingly contested by modern researchers.

It was a pyrrhic victory for Alexander as the Greek armies suffered heavy losses. It was the costliest battle fought by the invaders that demoralised them so much that they lost the appetite to go to the other side of the world and thus refused to cross the river Hyphasis (Beas). Plutarch writes: “But the last battle with Porus took off the edge of the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but twenty thousand foot and two hundred horse into the field, they thought they had the reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges..”. One with discerning eye can draw their conclusion as to who stood emaciated, Alexander or Porus?

How brave was Porus, let us hear from Arrian: “Throughout the action Porus had proved himself a man indeed, not only as a commander but as soldier of truest courage. When he saw his cavalry cut to pieces, most of his infantry dead, and his elephants killed or roaming riderless and bewildered about the field, his behavour was very different from that of the Persian King Darius: unlike Darius he did not lead the scramble to save his own skin, but as long as a single unit of his men held together, he fought bravely on”. On the Porus’s grace, demeanor and looks, Arrian writes: “Alexander informed of his (Porus) approach, rode out to meet him, accompanied by a small party of his companions. When they met, he reined in his horse, and looked at his adversary with admiration: he was a magnificent figure of a man, over seven feet high and of great personal beauty; his bearing had lost none of its pride; his air was of one brave man meeting another, of a king in the presence of king, with whom he had fought honourably for his kingdom. Alexander was the first to speak, ‘What’, he said, ‘do you wish that I should do with you?’ ‘Treat me as a king ought,’ Porus is said to have replied”. This son of Punjab was no pushover. Even after his apparent defeat, he never for a moment behaved as if he was no longer a king.

The invading and the defending armies clashed somewhere between present-day city of Jhelum and ancient town of Bhera. Alexander built a city called Bucephalus close to the river, in the memory of his favourite horse by the same name that died shortly after the battle of Hydaspes.The present-day town of Phalia carries the historical echo of the Greek name. Alexander’s troops, home-sick and battered, departed from Punjab but they left deep imprint on Punjab’s society which can be seen even today in the racial features of the people living in the area along the river Vehat. One can see people especially in the tribes of Milyar and Khateek who have copper skin and, blue and green eyes providing an unmistakable signs of racial intermingling as a consequence of the Alexander’s invasion and the Greeks who instead of going back home settled here and married Punjabi women. Men and women living close to the River Vehat are among the most beautiful among the Punjabis. This is how a folk-song of the area describes its people: “Flying cranes have landed on the walnut trees/Punjabi folks, endowed with white teeth and rosy lips, tell their stories/go your way after hearing a bit of what they say”. And what they say is the whisperings of history; the Vehat has been witness to. —

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