Punjab’s own Robin Hood
By Mazhar Abbas
Dawn: May 31, 2020
For many centuries, Abdullah Bhatti, alias Dulla Bhatti, lived through the memories of Dhadis (ballad singers) before his life was penned down by well-known Punjabi writers.
He is now well-known as a legendary hero of the sixteenth century Punjab. By rejecting the highly regressive tax policies of Emperor Akbar, Dulla launched himself as a revolutionary leader of the working class. He became a popular leader amongst the local community on account of his bravery and promotion of social justice.
Like his father, Farid, and grandfather, Sandal alias Bijli, Dulla challenged Akbar’s rule in the Punjab. Already overburdened by agricultural levies, the economic situation provided the three generations of Bhattis an opportunity to resist the regime.
It is difficult to separate folklore from the fact in Dulla’s case. For example, unlike court historians, who treat him as a rebellious chieftain and bandit, others hail him as a trendsetter for peasant resistance in the medieval Punjab.
It is worth mentioning here that the fear of a local revolt twice forced Akbar to shift his capital from Delhi/Agra to Lahore during this period. It is said that when Dulla was being executed, Shah Hussain, the poet, versified: Kahay Hussain Faqeer Sain Da Takht Na Milday Mangay (Says Hussain, the Lord’s beggar, ambition alone does not get one a throne).
Bards still romanticise his death like they did his life. After a ferocious war, they say, the Mughals captured Dulla’s wife. They then captured Dulla by seeking a meeting to negotiate her release. He was hanged in 1599. According to another account, he was poisoned with milk and buried in the historical graveyard of Miani Sahib in Lahore.
Dulla’s stature and folklores grew posthumously. For instance, it is recounted that Prince Salim, the eldest son of Akbar, and Dulla were brought up in the same household by Ladhi, the mother of the latter. Some storytellers say that some astrologers had told the Emperor that his son should be fed by a Rajput mother, who had given birth to a son on the same day the prince was born. That way, his son would grow to be brave and strong like the Rajputs.
Others, who accept this legend, argue that this was a political tactic on the part of the emperor to win over the rebellious Rajputs.
Legend has it that Dulla and his soldiers once captured Emperor Akbar during a hunt. However, it is said, the latter secured his release by pretending to be the emperor’s fool. Dulla was aware that the captive was the emperor himself, but let him go because he had lowered his stature by acting the fool and begging for mercy.
Another legend relates that Dulla remained unaware of the execution of his father and grandfather during the early part of his life. They had only been executed a few months before his birth. His mother, instead of sharing this information with her son, had kept it a secret because she was afraid he might follow in their footsteps. However, a taunt from a poor woman of the village, whose pitcher Dulla broke with his sling, revealed the secret.
Subsequently, his mother was forced to unlock the room where she had kept the weapons used by the deceased. Dulla distributed these weapons among his friends and followers and started a revolt to avenge his father and grandfather. Professor Ishwar Gaur argues, on the contrary, that he decided to fight against the mighty Mughal empire as a class war.
Tales of Dulla’s bravery and generosity are common themes of Dhadis’ poetry. Two accounts of him chastening and humiliating Emperor Akbar and Prince Salim are reported here. First, the crown prince was captured by Dulla’s soldiers when he entered the latter’s territory during a hunt. He released the prince arguing that he had a conflict with the emperor, not the prince. Second, Dulla and his soldiers captured the emperor during a hunt. The latter secured his release by pretending to be the king’s fool. It is said that despite being aware that the captive was the emperor himself, Dulla let him go because he had lowered his stature by denying his identity and begging for mercy.
His valour is also commemorated by celebrating the Punjabi folk tradition of Lohri (a festival celebrated on the winter solstice — January 13). The story goes that Dulla rescued two Brahmin girls, Sundri and Mundri, from the Mughal soldiers. His protecting the honour and lives of the Brahmin girls despite being a Muslim landlord himself is celebrated alike by Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. A popular Lohri song goes: “Sunder Mundriye ho! Tera Kaun Vichara ho! Dulla Bhatti wala ho! (Oh Sundri and Mundri! Who will think about you! He is Dulla Bhatti!).”
Legends glorify him as the Robin Hood of the Punjab because he is believed to have looted the Mughal treasures and distributed those amongst the needy. Thus, he has been eternalised as a symbol of resistance and Punjabi identity. His bravery, generosity, struggle for the rights of the peasants have been immortalised through Punjabi folk poetry.
The possibility that Dulla was a local hero cannot be ruled out. The celebrations of Lohri and Besakhi (start of the wheat season) commemorate his respect for general rights and social justice. His seemingly futile resistance to the rule of Akbar, the Great, suggests that his defiance served a public, not personal, purpose.