Across the border

On Lohri, remembering Dulla Bhatti, the landlord who stood up to the mighty Akbar

Legend goes that the rebel chieftain saved two Brahmin girls from the emperor and married them off on the day of the winter festival.

Surrounded by thousands of others, there is nothing remarkable about the grave of Dulla Bhatti, on a raised platform, plastered with cement under the shade of an old tree. There is no mark on the grave but a board next to it identifies its occupant. Occasionally, an odd visitor brings flowers or places a new chadar on it.

The grave is situated in the historical graveyard of Miani Sahib in Lahore, the city to which Akbar moved his capital from Fatehpur Sikri during the peak of Dulla Bhatti’s rebellion against him. Some assert that Akbar made the shift to counter the insurgency of this zamindar from Pindi Bhattian, a town about 140 km from here. It was under Akbar that Lahore transformed from a provincial town to a metropolis city, attracting traders, artisans, musicians, dancers, jogis and Sufis from across the Mughal Empire. One such Sufi was Shah Hussain, the mystic who spent his days dancing and singing on the city’s streets, holding a flask of wine in his hand.

Some narratives say that Shah Hussain was present outside the Delhi Darwaza the day Dulla Bhatti was assassinated by the kotwal (police chief) on the orders of the Mughal emperor. It is suggested that he was an admirer of Dulla Bhatti’s armed struggle against the Mughal authority. In fact, it is in honour of Dulla Bhatti that Shah Hussain is believed to have uttered the line:

“Kahay Hussain Faqeer Sain Da Takht Na Milday Mungay.”
(Says this lowly faqir, thrones are not gained by merely asking)

Witness to the torture and execution of the rebel, Shah Hussain is believed to have cursed the kotwal, Ali Malik – who later that day was executed on Akbar’s orders for recalling Dulla Bhatti’s last words in the emperor’s presence. The words were abuses against Akbar.

Dulla Bhatti's grave at the Miani Sahib Qabristan in Lahore. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Dulla Bhatti's grave at the Miani Sahib Qabristan in Lahore. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Dulla Bhatti’s rebellion

As the stature of Dulla Bhatti grew after his death, so did the legends about him. Some claimed he was born on the same day as Prince Salim, the oldest son of Akbar. The story goes that soothsayers told the emperor that Salim would grow to be a brave and strong man, worthy of his father’s throne, if he were fed by a Rajput woman who had given birth to a child on the same day the prince was born. Ladhi, Dulla Bhatti’s mother, was identified as that woman and she raised Dulla Bhatti and Salim in the same household.

For many who accept this apocryphal tale as true, this was also a political manoeuvre by the emperor to win over the rebellious chieftain family of Pindi Bhattian. For years, Dulla Bhatti’s grandfather Sandal Bhatti and father Farid Bhatti had fought the mighty Mughal Empire, opposing the taxation system introduced by Akbar and crafted by the emperor’s finance minister, Todar Mal. Under the new system, an estimation of the yearly crop value was determined for the past few years and the zamindar had to pay a fixed amount. Earlier, the tax was collected from the zamindar as a tribute.

Further weakening the authority of these local chieftains, a faujdar or Mughal administrator, whose job was to coordinate with the zamindars and collect taxes, was appointed. The faujdar was allowed to raise a small force and undertake development projects. The new system seriously compromised the economic and political independence of the zamindars and resulted in a rebellion that saw the death of three generations of the Bhatti clan.

A few months before Dulla Bhatti was born, his grandfather and father were captured and executed. Fearful for her son’s fate, Ladhi did not tell Dulla Bhatti about the rebellion of his ancestors and locked away their weapons in a room. Dulla Bhatti finally confronted his mother when he was mocked by a village woman whose pitcher he had broken with his catapult. The woman told him that instead of exhibiting his bravery on these defenseless pitchers, he should avenge the deaths of his grandfather and father.

The lock to the secret room was opened after this incident and Dulla Bhatti distributed the weapons among his friends and followers. Thus began the legendary rebellion of Dulla Bhatti against Akbar, the mightiest Mughal emperor, songs of which were to be sung by bards for centuries to come. There are legends about how, on two occasions, Dulla Bhatti humbled the emperor and the prince when they were captured by his soldiers. In one incident, Prince Salim crossed over into Dulla Bhatti’s territory during a hunt. Releasing him, the chieftain argued that his conflict was with the emperor, not his son. On another occasion, it is stated that Akbar, separated from his guards, was caught by Dulla Bhatti’s soldiers. When presented before Dulla Bhatti, Akbar pretended to be the jester of the Mughal court and secured his release.

In Punjabi folk tradition, Dulla Bhatti’s role in rescuing innocent girls from lecherous men is enshrined in folk poetry that is sung during the winter festival of Lohri. (Credit: Ajay Verma / Reuters)
In Punjabi folk tradition, Dulla Bhatti’s role in rescuing innocent girls from lecherous men is enshrined in folk poetry that is sung during the winter festival of Lohri. (Credit: Ajay Verma / Reuters)

Lohri legacy

In Punjabi folk tradition, Dulla Bhatti’s role in rescuing innocent girls from the clutches of lecherous men is enshrined in folk poetry that is sung during the winter festival of Lohri – which will be celebrated on Saturday. The chieftain is believed to have rescued two Brahmin girls, Sundri and Mundri, from Akbar, who wanted them in his harem. Dulla Bhatti became their godfather and is believed to have married them off on Lohri with much pomp and festivity, directly challenging the authority of the emperor. A popular song sung on Lohri goes:

Sundri Mundriye hoe
Who will save you poor one
Dulla Bhatti is here for you
The Dulla married off his daughter.”

In pre-Partition Punjab, Dulla Bhatti emerged as the ultimate symbol of the composite Punjabi culture – a Muslim landlord who fought for the honour of Brahmin girls, saving them from the Mughal emperor. Songs of his bravery were sung by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims alike on Lohri, an indigenous festival that celebrates the end of the peak winter season. Much like other indigenous festivals of Punjab, Lohri slowly faded away from West Punjab. With the gradual death of the festival, the legend of Dulla Bhatti also faded away. Only occasionally are these stories and songs recalled by wayward travelers who happen to stumble upon his grave in the heart of Lahore, the glorious capital of the mighty Mughal Empire.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.