The Dawn: 15th March, 2013

In Praise of animals!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Punjabis being an agrarian society have a long history of association with animals. Love of animals is an economic necessity as much as a reflection of biological reality that we, regardless of our development, are an inseparable part of animal kingdom. Punjabis have an overweening passion for animals like horse, buffalo and camel, to name a few. “Horses for sultans and buffalos for lords” would tell you our elders.

Arya brought horse to the Indus Valley that gave them a decisive edge in their battles against the Harappa people. Horse has not only been a sign of speed but also of power. The quality of horse displayed the status of its rider as is the case with auto vehicle today. An ancient legend celebrates one of the king’s Salwahan’s sons, Raja Rasalu, step-brother of famous Puran Bhagat, for his heroic adventures. He fights tyrants and defends ordinary folks against oppression. In his exploits what stands out is an animal, his horse known for its speed and strength.

Rasalu’s mount enables him to reach wherever and whenever people cry for help. The legend subverts the traditional image of horse, giving it a new symbolic connotation. Rasalu’s horse though sign of his royal status, becomes an emblem of a friendly force.

The most adored in the classical poetry is the ‘Nili’/Bakki (grey horse) in the tale of Mirza Sahiban that has interestingly a combine of mythical and human traits. Nili is Mirza’s mount as well as his confidant. It has the speed, that of lightning, and the judgment, that of humans. It is a celestial being on earth to be companion of Mirza in his arduous journey of love.

Astride two rivers (Ravi and Chenab), he will shake the earth/Rider of the Nili will live the life of wind thus describes Hafiz Barkhurdar the two. Another poet from ‘Dhanni’ (Chakwal and its surrounding area), Pilu narrates that Sahiban, whose father has a stable full of Arabian steeds, ready to elope, looking at an apparently lean Bakki, taunts Mirza “what have you brought? A beast of burden snatched from beggars! /if your father did not have a fine horse, you could have borrowed one”.

Mirza’s retort shows highly-charged passion for his horse as well as his view of love based on free choice of individual. “Mount the animal for the sake of your love if you will/do not berate my Bakki/Angels fear my horse and the Lord in heaven fears me”.

In both the tales horse is stripped of its traditional trappings and assumes a new symbolic significance; in the former it is an earthly means to provide succour to the downtrodden, while in the latter it is heavenly presence in support of earthly union of lovers in search of eternity.

Buffalo, though it may look odd to those unacquainted with the culture of Punjab, is the animal loved most both by our lords and peasants. Folk poet Keeme in his ballad (Dhola) describes the herd of buffalos as “a dome of light… a flock of cranes”.

Baba Farid talks of the sweetness of buffalo’s milk. Buffalo is what sustains the poor peasant family. It literally butters peasant’s bread and also provides dung as fuel for the hearth. It is an asset for the lord. The bards sing; bigger the herd, higher the status. Buffalo is also traditionally a part of bride’s dowry. We first hear of buffalo in the Skanda Purana. Diti after having her sons destroyed by the gods, asked her daughter to practise asceticism to have a son who would avenge the killing of her brothers. She took the form of a buffalo. The sage Suparshva was moved by her asceticism and said to her, “Fair-hipped one, I am satisfied. You will have a son with the head of a buffalo and the body of a man, and your son’s name will be Mahish (Buffalo)”. (Punjabi word ‘Mahin’ for buffalo appears to be variant of ‘Mahish’).

Remember the story of Heer Ranjha? Damodar, the first to compose the story, talks of “thousands of buffalos” owned by Heer’s father. Ranjha spends years looking after these buffalos in pursuit of his love. Buffalos have such tender feelings for him that when he is fired from his job after the exposure of his amorous affair with Heer, they prove impossible to be milked without his presence.

Another legendary lover, Izzat Baig, the noble Turk of ‘Sohni Mahinwal tale’ is called ‘Mahinwal’ which literary means herder of buffalos. The job provides him with a camouflage as was the case with Ranjha.

To avenge the killing of Mirza, according to the story of Mirza Sahiban, the chief of his tribe organises an expedition comprising fighters mounted on the male buffalos making it a do or die thing. The animal being sluggish makes the fleeing from the battleground impossible, forcing the combatants to kill or get killed, to win or lose. The poet Hafiz Barkhurdar makes the buffalo mounted fighter a metaphor for apocalyptic rage which reminds us of ‘Mahish’ mentioned earlier.

And now the camel! Camel has been considered to be the toughest animal in terms of long-distance travel, postal service and load bearing. One could not imagine a trade caravan or transportation of goods without camel till recent times. It is loved for its stamina and low-cost maintenance and feared for its viciousness if hurt. The Thal area of Punjab breeds the finest camels and hosts the biggest camel festival in Pakistan every year. Camel plays a vital role in the tale of Sassi Punnu. In a binge stage managed by Punnu’s brothers, they put him on one of their fastest camels when he is dead drunk and rush towards Kech, their hometown in Balochistan.

Poets describe this act as the most deceitful dramatic abduction with fatal consequences for the lovers. The very same animal that brings Punnu to Sassi’s, takes him away from her. Thus the camel is simultaneously a metaphor for union and separation.

In our self-centred world of today, we love ourselves more but tend to love less what we are product of; the nature. To love animals is to love the nature in its diversity. If we wish to exist developing as living beings, we have to develop an interactive partnership with the other creatures in a natural world that does not discriminate between humans and animals. Nature treats living beings the same way. When we respect life in all its manifestations, we in fact respect ourselves.

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