Aali of the tribe Ghanjera was a shepherd from village Vijhara under the southern shadow of the Sakesar peak in the Salt Range. One day, he came across a pair of horse dealers with a very spirited filly. Knowing a good horse when he saw it, Aali purchased the animal to feed and train and make it the best in the Lahnda — the country where the sun sets.
And so, within the year, fed on the choicest fodder, almonds and butter, the animal grew into a handsome mare fit for a king. Even more, the mare could out-pace the best horses in the area and soon its fame spread far. Buyers came to Aali’s door, but the man was not selling for the mare was as a part of his own body and soul.
Over time, word of this priceless animal reached the court at Delhi and the ear of Emperor Akbar the Great. A posse was sent out to procure the mare at whatever price the owner demanded. And if he was not willing to sell, it was to be taken away by force. And so it was. Aali refused to be parted from his beloved mare and the emperor’s men simply deprived him, a mere shepherd, of it.
Weeks went by and when he could no longer bear the loss of an animal he had raised as his very own child, Aali betook himself off to Delhi. As he neared the capital, word had it that the emperor was seeking the best animal doctor in the kingdom for a mare that was unwell. Aali knew at once that this was no other animal but his own. And so, he came to the court in the guise of a doctor.
The condition he laid before the emperor was that no one may watch him during his procedures on the animal. Granted, Aali went to the royal stables where a pining mare, a bag of skin and bones, greeted his eyes. But no sooner than the animal sensed her owner, she perked up. There began a procedure of nursing the horse back to health with food that she had thus far refused. When it was fit, Aali began to take her out for a morning canter so that she regained her strength.
Then, one day, when he was sure the mare was her old self, Aali prepared her for the exercise. Outside the city walls, he turned her face into the west wind and spurred her away. Across the great plains that stretch upon the heart of India, Aali raced his mare and even before his escape was suspected, he had crossed the languid waters of the Beas. The Ravi was made by nightfall, so the story goes.
But there was no pause in the headlong flight homeward. Across the bandit-infested peelu forests of the Rachna Doab, the belt between the Ravi and the Chenab, Aali’s mare flew faster than the dust storms of Harr. And before the sun of the second day had westered, Aali was across the blue-green waters of the Jhelum within sight of the reassuring loom of Sakesar. He was almost home and so he drew rein at an inn.
The women at the tandur were talking. One of them asked the others if they had heard that Aali had fled the royal stables with his mare. Aali was dumbfounded. No one had overtaken him, so how did word of his escape precede him? He remounted and once again the mare flew. It flew until it fell down dead.
The moral of the tale that the men of the Lahnda relate is that men of sense must never lend ear to women’s gossip. But that is not the true essence that hides behind the tale.
This is a tale of Punjabi resistance to the all-powerful Mughals. Here in the Lahnda, the rich and powerful Bandials and Tiwanas were the masters; the Ghanjeras were a tribe of lesser influence. And here was a Ghanjera who was courageous enough to make off with his stolen property from right under the nose of the most powerful emperor the Mughals were ever to produce. And if a poor Ghanjera shepherd could be so, consider what the more powerful tribes could wreak upon the Mughals.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2012.
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