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

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