Tor Aman and his son Mehr Gul were White Huns. The Latinised versions of their accursed names are Toramana and Mihirakula. They came from Central Asia in the 5th century CE, fully a century-and-a-half before the advent of Islam. They laid waste the country that we now call Afghanistan, where they raped, plundered and killed wantonly.
Then they entered what is now Pakistan. The great and wonderful cities of Peshawar, Swat, Pushkalavati (Charsadda) and Taxila suffered their inhumanity as few of us can imagine. In the year 516, Tor Aman died and the sceptre passed on to his son. When the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Sung Yun, visited Punjab five years later, he found the country in the hands of a ‘cruel and vindictive’ king who visited upon the people the ‘most barbarous atrocities’.
Sung Yun does not favour us with the name of this fiend, but we know this can be none other than Mehr Gul. A hundred years later, in the 630s CE, the pious Xuanzang, another Chinese Buddhist teacher, was in our country. He left behind a rather more detailed account of the brutality of Mehr Gul. But it was the Kashmiri Pundit, Kalhana, who gave us full measure of the accursed Hun.
His Rajatrangini — or Chronicle of Kings [of Kashmir] — written circa 1160, is a most interesting, at times hyperbolic, account of 400 years of Kashmiri rule over northern Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and parts of Afghanistan. On the subject of Mehr Gul in Punjab, the pundit tells us that this killer of ‘three crores’ knew no pity either for women or children or the elderly. He killed by fire, by the sword and by drowning in the rivers. So wanton was his brutality that a dark cloud of vultures and crows followed his army in order to feed on the corpses the Huns left behind.
No one stood up to him. Not until a confederacy of Rajput princes led by Yasodharman met him in battle outside Kehror Pucca (Lodhran district). It was early in 528 that the battle took place, where the warriors of the desert met with unfamiliar Hun tactics. But they fought better and routed Mehr Gul and his savages.
Many years ago, I went to Kehror to get a feel of that far off time. In the bazaar, pausing to tell a shopkeeper why I was there, I narrated the story. His first question was if Yasodharman was a Hindu. I said he was indeed one. And Mehr Gul was a Muslim? Since we have so many Mehr and Gul Khans he must, of course, have been a Pakhtun to boot.
This ill-conceived notion is reinforced by the fact that we in the subcontinent believe all western invaders to be Pakhtuns. Mehr Gul, Mahmud Ghaznavi, Temur, Chengez Khan (he’s Khan, isn’t he?) et al are all Pakhtuns in common understanding.
I told him who Mehr Gul was and that he predated Islam by more than a century. The man was incredulous. How could this ‘Muslim name’ have been taken by a kafir, he asked indignantly. Mehr Gul means either Sun Rose or Sunflower and it comes from the Persian which was spoken long before Islam came into existence. I tried very hard to convince him that names do not have religions.
There are Arabic names from pre-Islamic history that were not discarded with the dawn of Islam. These are still in use in the Muslim world. Arabic names were all right, said the ignorant storekeeper. But Mehr Gul was a good Islamic name and a kafir could not be called by it.
In the end, he ran out of arguments to posthumously turn Mehr Gul into a Muslim Pakhtun. But he clearly thought I was a charlatan who had got the better of him because of superior oratory. His pride that this Pakhtun with an ‘Islamic name’ had been discomfited by Hindus was, however, deeply hurt.
As I was leaving, I told him to be proud that an alien savage was defeated by one who may well have been our common ancestor. This one really got the man’s goat. He drew his breath in and hissed that he, an Urdu-speaking mohajir, was a Syed by caste!
That is the favourite fiction of Muslims in the subcontinent.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2011.