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Bhera Gurdwara

Bhera is an incredible town; so too are its people. Bhera is a town that time forgot, bypassing it and burying its memories. It is a study of an ageing classy urban elegance clothed in the blues of time. Like the cities of Samarkand & Bokhara which declined due to the discovery of sea routes, Bhera too fell victim to a British Imperial order which brought a complete halt to the invaders from the west.

Cunningham identified old Bhera [on the right bank of river Jhelum] with the Palace of Sopeithes, where Alexander met his Greek forces. Later the great Chinese traveller, Fa Hien, mentions Bhera in his accounts and Babar in his memoirs. The Greek historian Arrian in his "Anabasis" narrates the palace of Sopeithes. Recent excavation were carried out by by Dr M. Salim of Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. The ancient Bhera mounds are known as Barrian. Antiquities of Iron Age, Achaemenian (553-330 BC), Greek (321-184 BC) and Mauryan periods have been discovered in an excavation from the city of Bhera. The pottery of 800-600 BC has gray ware, red ware and buff ware with red painted designs. A terracotta figure of an elephant has been collected. It is said that when Alexander entered Jhelum Valley, young maidens with shell bangles were filling their pitchers with water from wells and river Jhelum.

During the 1500s it lay on a trade route as well on the route of invaders from Greece, Central Asia and Afghanistan as they thundered down from the northwest following the natural contours of the land on their horses. Alexander crossed the river Jhelum [meaning cool water in Greek] near Bhera. Babar visited Bhera in his first foray in February 1519 and mentions it in his famous Tuz-ke Babari. Sher Shah Suri built its eight gates and its famous mosque. The name "Bhera" stems from the word ‘bahu-rah’ (multiple roads) because of many roads that led to the town. The other version is that Bhera stands for a safe, protected place from the Sanskrit "bhay-hara", meaning ‘that which dispels fear.’

Bhera lies at the end of the south branch of the old North Western Railway, now Pakistan Railways, off the main Gujrat/ Lahore to Peshawar line. From its old Sikh Gurudwara minaret built in quasi-Italian style architecture, one can see [better with binoculars] to its right, the Jhelum river or whatever is left of it after the building of the Mangla Dam in 1960s. Across the Jhelum river rises the great Potohar plateau and the Salt mines of Khewra, the second largest in the world [Kracow in Poland being the largest]. The salt mines stretch from Khewra to Kalabagh on the Indus river about 186 miles long. [An electric train takes you on a tour inside these mines, which have 17 levels and produce 360,000 tons annually]. A few miles north of these salt mines are the famous Katas Raj Temples and the famous Shiv Temple, now under repair. Katas Raj complex consists of two semi-ruined temples of the Hindu Shahi period (AD 650-950). Beautifully carved, it conforms to the best in temple architecture. Katas Raj is also held sacred by Hindus for another reason. Legend says that the five Pandava brothers, heroes of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, stayed here for four out of the 14 years that they spent in exile. Further north, about another 40 miles north, is Taxila the greatest Buddhist university city

Today, Bhera nestles in the vistas of the Jhelum river, the Khewra salt mines and the famous Kinow Mandarin and Orange Groves/Orchards of the Sargodha District. About 500 years ago this area was heavily wooded and full of wild game [deer, nilgai, urial] . Emperor Jahangir used to hunt here to the tune of 500 deer in a day.

About 10 miles away lies the village of Mong known as Nicae [victory] in Greek, where Alexander the "Great" is supposed to have defeated King Porus in 326 B.C. Porus was a Vaid Mohiyal and the Mohiyals claim that Alexander was on the receiving end of the battle. Alexander’s horse Bucephalus lies buried in the nearby town of Jalalpur across on the western side of Jhelum river. It was killed in action by the son of king Porus according to the District Gazetteer of Jhelum – 1904 [published by Sang-e-Meel , Lahore 2004 ].

Bhera was an important trading outpost on the road to Kabul, and a 'taksal' (mint) during the reign of Ranjit Singh [1780-1839]. Twenty miles to its north west lies Chillianwala. Here the last big battle was fought where the Sikhs on January 13,1849 beat the British Forces, but failed to drive home their advantage [ won the battle but lost the war]. One can still visit and see the British monument where the British dead are listed.

Tilla Jogian [founded 100 B.C.], or the Hill of the Yogis [about 1000 meters high] lies about 50 kilometers North of Bhera. This is where the Kanpatha Jogis [ Jogis who pierced their earlobes] founded by Guru Gorakhnath have left behind a monastery. Tilla Jogian is mentioned in the epic love poem "Heer Ranjha" of Waris Shah, when Ranjha spent his time on the rebound, sublimating his love & passion in the spiritual world. In the quiet seclusion of Tilla Jogian, Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, spent 40 days to complete the ‘chilla’, worshipping his lord. For the Burrah Sahibs or British rulers of Punjab, Tilla Jogian served as a summer resort. The deputy commissioner of Jhelum avoided the searing summers of the Punjab plains and took refuge at Tilla Jogian. In a great ironic twist of history, the area near Tilla Jogian has become the launch pad for Pakistan army missiles.

Bhera: Town & People

Bhera is also home to an equally unique collection/ set of ethnic groups/people callled Kukhran (also spelt Kukhrain) Khatris who are a regional subcaste of Punjabi Khatris The Kukhran Khatris are a group of nine clans (family names) who all originate from Bhera. Kukhrans were traditionally warrior people who bore the brunt of Muslim invasions from the northwest during the 12-16th centuries. Some converted to Sikhism during the 18th and 19th centuries. Common Kukhran names are Anand, Bhasin, Chadha, Chandok, Kohli, Sabbarwal, Sahni and Suri many of whom had migrated from present Pakistan to India during partition. It is also home to Pirachas and Elahis and the Hayats. Perhaps the name Pirachas is a variation of the word Bherochis which was the name given to the residents of Bhera. The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh is a Kukhran of the Kohli subcaste. He went to school at Gah a small village in Chakwal across the Jhelum river about 40 miles from Bhera.

Balraj Sahni ,perhaps one of the greatest Bollywood film actors was also from Bhera . His niece Ms.Kalapana Sahni [a professor of Russian Literature at JNU, Delhi] wrote a nostalgic travelogue in of 30 October 2000, called "The Persistence of Memory."

In her account of her trip to Bhera, she locates the Sahnian da Mohalla near the Railway Station. On the right side was the Municipality office, the Grain market was on the left of the Station. Sahnian da Mohalla was next to this area. Sheikh Hayat Akhter [now a retired Pakistan Customs officer in his 90s and living in Model Town extension ,Lahore ] corroborated this information. He is a friend of Baldev Raj Sahni and used to call him by the nickname Bally. He recalls that the Sahnis were one of the prominent families who had about 20 Marabas [1 Moraba = 25 acres] near the Railway Station and that the Sahnian da Mohalla had about 100 rooms and 10 bathrooms.

Punjabi Khatris originated in the Pothwar plateau (Rawalpindi division) and surrounding regions of Punjab, Pakistan. When Pakistan and India gained independence, most of the Khatris in what became Pakistan migrated to India. Today Khatris live in all regions of India, but are concentrated in Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Prominent historical figures among the Khatris are all the Sikh Gurus (belonging to the Bedi, Trehan, Bhalla and Sodhi subcastes); Raja Todar Mal (a Tandon Khatri), who as Akbar's Revenue minister codified the revenue collection system; Hari Singh Nalwa (an Uppal Khatri), the prominent general under Maharaja Ranjit Singh [ Hari Singh Nalwa was so feared among the Pathans , that his name would be taken by mothers when scaring children into submission; the Diwans Sawan Mal & Mul Raj Chopra - governors of Multan under Ranjit Singh who instituted vast improvement in agriculture.

During the Rajput Period (AD 647 to 1021) the Khatris lost political power to the emerging order of Rajputs. Unemployment caused them to switch their skills to commerce and trade. At the end of Rajput control, Khatris again reemerged as dominant. In the Muslim Period (AD 1021-1752) foreign Muslims from Central Asia, Iran or Arabia were employed in higher positions of bureaucracy and military. However, local administration and revenue collection remained in the hands of local Hindus or Muslims. Though members of other castes were also employed, most of these offices were held by Khatris. One of the offices held by Khatris was called "Qanungo", means "an expounder of law". This designation was used for hereditary registrar of landed property in a district. The founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak, a Khatri of Bedi section, started his career in one of these offices. Khatris continue to be the most educated group in modern Punjab.

The Khatris were adversely impacted by the partition [1947] of India. It resulted in the loss of the traditional home regions of the Khatris.

Although a large majority of Khatris are Hindus, some converted to Islam. The conversion started in 12th century and continued till 1947. In western districts of the Punjab (Sargodha, Mianwali, Multan, Jhang, Chakwal, Rawalpindi and Faislabad) converted Khatri traders called themselves "Khoja". Some time they are called "Khoja Sheikh".

In other districts of the Punjab Khatris use "Sheikh" as title and it is generally assumed that they belong to Muslim trading families. The Khoja Sheikhs of Chiniot, a town of district Jhang, known as Chiniotis, are one of the leading industralists of Pakistan. A group of Muslim Khatris is known as "Qanungo Sheikhs", considered a higher caste. Many Muslim Khatris still use their pre Islamic Hindu gotras (sections). Most numereous gotras are Sahgal, Chadha, Wohra, Magun, Kapur, Duggal, Ror, Gorawala, Mehendru, Puri, Topra, Churra, Talwar.

An important citizen of Bhera (bom 25 Dec. 1850) , Bakshi Ram Dass Chibber, was a classic and a majestic Mohyal patriarch. Popularly known as Munshi Ram Dass. he was a tutor of Urdu and Persian to the ruling British. Amongst his pupils were such formidable personalities as Lord and Lady Minto. Lord and Lady Hardinge, Lady Curzon, Lady Lansdowne and Field Marshal Roberts, the Commander in-Chief of India. He used his influence to get the Mohyals listed as agriculturists. On the request of Bakshi R.D. Chibber, Russell Stracey wrote the History of the Mohyals in 1911, which till now is considered to be the most reliable account of the venerable community. Bakshi Ram Dass was a philanthropist who gave Rs. 30,000 to DA V College Lahore and Rs. 20,000 to the General Mohyal Sabha in pre-1947. The Ram Dass Block was built with his contribution in the Mohyal Ashram of Lahore. [source ].

The Mohyal clan consists of the family names BALIS, BHIMWALS, CHIBBERS, DATTS, LAUS, MOHANS and VAIDS’s. Cerain titles were bestowed on them by the Moghul and Sikh rulers for their outstanding work. These include: Bakshi, Bhai, Chaudhri, Dewan, Malik, Mehta, Rai and Raizada . Six castes which embraced Islam due to the pressures of time were : Hussaini Brahmin, Gakhar, Khakhe, Bombe, Lange and Lohana. The last two are believed to have descended from the Laus. Gakhars, the fierce fighters of Pothar, were a sect of the Hussaini Brahmins.

Some of the Mohyal clans still have the amber colored eyes and blond hair that give away their central Asian origins. Dera Bakhshian in the Rawalpindi district produced leaders for the Mohyal clan such as Bakshi Jawahar Mal Vaid, a governor in the Sikh period [ 1790-1850] , Risaldar Major Bakshi Prem Singh Vaid (1822-1892), Sardar Bahadur OBI, O.M.who in an army career of 36 years, was awarded 22 squares of land at Sangla Hill, Skeikhupura. He played a prominent part in the siege of Delhi in 1857. His son, Risaldar Major Hony. Captain Tirath Ram Vaid, 1857-1924, O.B.I., O.B:E, Sardar Bahadur presided over the Mohyal Conference held in Rawalpindi in 1919 and was the recipient of 9 squares of land which was consolidated at Sangla Hill [ next to Nankana Sahib ] and renamed Prem Kot, after his illustrious father.

Bollywood actors Sunil Dutt and his son Sanjay Dutt are also Mohyals, and so is the film director J.P. Dutta. A chieftain named Datt apparently accompanied Alexander the Great on his return journey to Macedonia, as an envoy of Raja Porus. When Alexander fell ill and died at Babylon, Datt along with his followers drifted to Arabia and settled at Harya Bunder. They apparently assisted the holy prophet Mohammed in his travails and there emerged a viable community of Datts in Arabia.

Bhera – Town architecture, crafts, products.

Intricately carved wooden doors in the streets of Bhera

Some of the carved wooden doors in Bhera are now in the Lahore Museum. The carving is both floral and geometric. The wooden balconies or "Jharokas" too are a sight to behold. The design proportion of the houses, the symmetry of the design is obvious in these photographs. The Sikh Gurudwara is a beautiful, quasi-Italian structure. From its magnificent column, one can see the hills of the Salt Range and the surrounding country side with its mustard fields and orange and kinnow mandarin orchards.

The eight gates are still there. The names are Lahori, Lal Gate , Multani Gate, Piranwala Gate , Chinioti Gate and were probably rebuilt around 1865 by the British . The Sher Shah Suri "Jamia Bugvia" Mosque [1540] still functions with its beautiful floral roof frescoes. A crumbling police station built in 1870 still stands as a mute witness to the ravages this town has suffered . Its famous coloured handloom cotton "Khes" [ heavy bed covers] are now defunct. Its henna is till famous and is sold to all parts of Pakistan. Also famous are its "Warian" [ dried & spiced Lentil balls ] . So too is the sweet made from "Channas/Basin" [grams] called "Patisa". Still in production are the wooden tops or Lattoos . So too are its lac coloured wooden bed posts. Its inlaid work is also famous - used in walking stick handles. Also famous are its Loquat trees which grew in abundance in Pind Dadan Khan across the Jhelum river. In the old days there was a "Kanjirian da Mela" [Festival of the Courtesans] there. The Railway Station had a circular turn around for its engines. We shall try to see if it is still there. In a future article "Bhera -Part 2 " a detailed map of Bhera will be presented with the walled and Gated town marked by its well known Mohallas and buildings mentioned here.