Lohri in Delhi has bonfires, popcorn, peanuts, pine nuts, gur or jaggery and til and sundry sesame sweets. Around the bonfire, people gather to sing a popular Punjabi folk song, Sundar munderiye, about a certain Dullah Bhatti who helped to rescue poor Punjabi women from the rather cruel zamindar, landlord.

In the big city, cut off from folk legends, most of the people who sing that song are unaware of who Dullah Bhatti was. Bhatti, though, is a historical figure, a contemporary of Mughal emperor Akbar who lived in Pind Bhattian, a town about 50 kilometres west of Lahore.

Rai Abdullah Khan Bhatti – to use Dullah’s full name and title – lived in tumultuous times. Akbar was just beginning to consolidate the Mughal state, setting in process a new order that would ensure that his dynasty would rule Delhi for the next three centuries to come. The Mughal state proceeded to implement a system of land revenue devised by Akbar’s brilliant Rajput finance minister, Todar Mal, called the Zabt system. The Zabt revenue system made Mughal officers responsible for both the assessment and collection of revenue.

Punjab in chaos

What was victory from Delhi, though, often meant chaos and destruction on the ground, as old ways of life were overturned. The Zabt system underpinned the Mughal state but proved to be the end of the road for local power centres in the Punjab, as all authority was concentrated in the Mughal administration. One of those local power centres was Dullah Bhatti’s family, a Rajput landowning clan made powerless by the financial scheme of Mughal finance minister, Todar Mal. As a result, the Bhattis rebelled against Akabr – and lost. Both Dullah’s father and grandfather were executed – at the time, Dullah’s mother was pregnant with him.

Legend now has it that Akbar’s son Jahangir and Dullah were born on the same day. To make Jahangir brave, Akbar was advised to have his son breastfed by a Rajput wet nurse who – in an incredibly filmy twist – happened to be Dullah Bhatti’s mother, in one version of the legend. A more prosaic explanation for this myth is that the Mughals initiated a policy of reconciliation with the Bhattis. By providing Dullah and his mother with royal patronage, the Mughal state hoped to assuage their hurt, win them over and – most importantly – prevent future rebellions.

Things, however, didn’t go according to plan. Bhatti grew up to swear revenge on the Chughtais, Mughals who had executed his father and grandfather. So fierce was this local resistance that, says historian Ishwar Dayal Gaur, Akbar had to shift his capital to Lahore from Delhi for two decades to try and get things under control. Gaur also adds that Akbar exempted the Bari Doab or Majha (the region between the rivers Beas and Ravi) from taxes and also made peace with the Sikh guru, Arjan Dev by visiting him in Goindwal – Bhatti’s revolt was so effective that the Mughals couldn’t afford to make any new enemies.

Dullah Bhatti becomes legend

Ultimately, though, Akbar prevailed, the Mughals capturing and beheading Dullah publicly in the main bazar area of Lahore. Till the last, though, Bhatti remained defiant and his final words as recorded by sufi poet Shah Hussain were, “No honourable son of Punjab will ever sell the soil of Punjab”. His grave still exists in Lahore, although interestingly, there is no official recognition of the spot. Pakistan – a country which is dominated by Punjabis – still takes much of its national mythos from the Mughal state, making its recognition of Dullah Bhatti’s revolt against Akbar a rather delicate matter.

Nevertheless, Dullah’s revolt passed into popular Punjabi legend and his feats as a Robin Hood are still celebrated today in the popular song Sundar munderiye, which talks of how he protected Punjabi girls from being abducted by the Mughal zamindar. The custom of giving money and sweets to children, who go from door to door singing the song, is said to honour Bhatti’s acts of generosity, of looting the tributes and taxes sent to the emperor and redistributing them among the poor.

In 2015, Bhatti’s tale was even made into a Punjabi pop number, although the video of the song, interestingly, portrayed him as a Sikh battling the Mughals, rather than the Muslim Rajput Bhatti historically was. Given that our histories rarely talk of the complex nature of Mughal India, and reduce most situations to a mirror of the communal conflicts of the modern age, this, perhaps, is an expected error.