People’s history of the Punjab: When parrots and peacocks perched on the Peelu

Dr Manzur Ejaz  writes in The Friday Times about the ecology of the province, before and after the canal colonization of the British Raj

Invaders and colonizers can entirely change the landscape and ecological system of an area. Several studies have shown how the European colonizers changed the ecology and natural habitat of the New England area of the US where they landed first. Unfortunately, any such concerted study about the Punjab has not been found, if it exists at all. Nonetheless, for such an important aspect of human development and sustainability collective efforts should be made to gather and consolidate information. Every plant, shrub or tree has a history of nature and human interaction with it.Invaders

To start with my own experience with the landscape of Punjab of 1950-60s, after about 35 years of colonization, there were still patches of land amidst the cultivated area which showed the remnants of the native landscape. Furthermore, the baselines – a no-man’s patch of land to separate the boundaries of villages – had also some of the shrubs and trees of the pre-colonial era. As I would go to our farm land or travel to my school, passing through several villages, I would come across the indigenous plantation contrasting with the alien plantation of colonizers.

As I went round the corner of our street an Aak tree would greet me about which there were many superstitious stories. In the open space between the village and cultivated area – in colonized villages the British had reserved chunks of land for future development which has been encroached upon – native plants like Karri (Kreer), Kikkar and Jand would dot the landscape. The Aak and Kreer would sprout in tiny but beautiful flowers. There were other little shrubs and plants all around. Amongst the other old trees one saw, there was Vann, Peelu, Bohr (Banyan) and Pippal.

On the farmland there grew entirely different species of plants. Tahli, Toot, Shahtoot, Nim, Dhrek and other trees would line watercourses. In the barn area of my home that doubled as a cattle-shed, there were two huge Shreenh trees along with Pippal, Lasoorha and Kkkar: this small dera, as it was called, was a dense shade like an umbrella. My father had grown rose and other flowers on the water pond, and then there was a small garden which had mango, lemon, jaman, and mitha and katha trees. All of the trees on our farmland except Kikkar and Ber were alien to the land. They came with the colonizers and their canal water.

These new plants could only survive with a regular supply of water unlike the indigenous plants which could withstand long droughts and extreme weather. I fear that if there is a drought or the river water supply is cut off there will be a famine and the area will become desert again. We know from history, and especially that of the Indus Valley, that when rivers changed courses, whole green and cultivated areas became deserts. As for antiquity, we know that urban centers of the Indus civilization were well developed and elaborate. They must have been sustained by a well organized agriculture that produced grain, cotton and other crops. This would imply that either some irrigation system was in place or the rains were plentiful due to thick forests. The Greek invader Alexander also mentioned cotton being grown in the Punjab where his campaign to conquer the world ended.

According to the Rigveda, the river Sarasvati ran between Sutlej and Yamuna. Experts have been trying to detect its water bed in the Thar desert of Pakistan and Rajasthan. One of the large water springs discovered in the middle of the dry Thar by an NGO, Thardeep, is thought to have come from the Sarasvati’s old bed which had dried up in this desert. On my visit to the spring location, the chief organizer of Thardeep told me that the indigenous people had a strong belief in such a reservoir of water. Perhaps memory of the lost river became part of the collective memory of the people who lived around it.

Fast forwarding to the beginning of the Muslim era in the Punjab, which we are dealing with in this series, there does not seem to be much verifiable information on the ecology of the area. Therefore, we have to depend on indirect sources like literature, chronicles, memories and available economic data.

In his poetry Baba Farid Ganj-e-Shakr, poet of 12th century Pakpattan, talks of the Vann tree more than once along with Gandlaan (stems of the mustard crop), Hing (Ferula assafoetida), Kthoori, Shakkar, Khand (sugar), Gur, Maakhi, Majha Dudh (buffalo milk), Dadh (rough grass like thorns), Kanda, Dakh (grapes), Kikkar, Unn (wool), and Patt (silk). In one verse he says that the rulers of the realm consume sugar, honey and buffalo milk.

Khawaja Nizamuddin Aulia in his memoirs states that at Baba Farid’s dargah most of the time Dailas (wild berries) would be boiled to feed the family, students, darvaishes and other guests. Dailas were in abundance in the semi-arid thorny jungles of the Bar, as this place between rivers is known in the local lingo. It is clear from Khawaja Nizamuddin’s description that a famous town like Ajodhan (Pakpattan) was surrounded by such trees and shrubs and was easily accessible to everyone. It further indicates that the jungles were not yet appropriated by the invading warlords and the indigenous people could survive on the fruits of nature even in the worst of circumstances.

It appears that prior to invasions from the North by various ethnic warriors and from the South by Rajputs and others, the native people in western semi-arid Punjab lived on natural products and hunting. Agriculture was the main source of livelihood in the Eastern part where the soil was alluvial, ground water not too far below surface and rainfall was sufficient. Ziauddin Barani, in his 14th century Tarikh-e-Ferozshahi, has given the prices of grain, sugar, sesame oil and salt sold in the Lahore and Agra markets. He has also given the price of slaves: for the price of a first grade horse one could buy about 20 women for domestic work, five concubines or handsome young boys, ten skilled slave artisans and 12 ordinary male slaves.

It is certain that invaders from within India and from the North gradually enslaved the indigenous or aboriginals of Dravidian descent and established some kind of ownership or domain over the tracts of jungles and chunks of arid land. These new masters who can be broadly categorized as Jatkas – as Waris Shah has put it – consisted of Jats, Rajputs, some Arains, Syeds and Qureshis in the main. The new occupants depended on animal breeding in some areas and agriculture in others. For example, in Waris Shah’s epic story, “Heer Ranjha”, Ranjha comes from a farming community while Heer belongs to an animal breeding tribe.

The indigenous peoples either became slaves or gypsies of various kinds. Some of them adopted entertainment professions like bazi gari (gymnastics), toy making, theatrical performances, music, genealogists, history tellers, poets for the warlords etc. A few tribes called tapir-was (gypsies) just wandered around for centuries living by begging and stealing. Some of them contended with eating dead meat which may have resulted from Hindu Jats’ prohibition on hunting or killing of animals. The institution of animal stealing may have originated from the displacement of aboriginals and the occupation of their native lands by foreigners. Organized and artful stealing is considered a virtue in some communities; it must have stemmed from the violent occupation of native lands and covert resistance by the natives. It is another story that the thieving gangs had to seek protection from powerful warlords called rassa geers. Last year a famous animal thief of the Bar, Pinah Rajooka, gave a fascinating interview to wichaar.com in which he was asked how people look upon his profession (thievery). His response was that “For our people stealing is good, but for ‘others’ it is evil.”

It is amazing that the descendants of aborigines have dominated the artistic and intellectual field despite being considered the lowest on the social ladder in the feudal era. Most of Pakistan’s famous singers and artists have come from this ethnic group and particularly, the rural folk theater and all other forms of entertainment are completely the domain of Dravidian descendants. It needs extensive research to find out the etiology of unique intellectual and artistic skills of this indigenous ethnic community as compared to the warrior and agriculturist segments of Punjabi society.

The grabbing of land and subjugation of native populations must have changed the socio-ecological system. However, the landscape of western Punjab, called Bar, did not change drastically till the British colonization. People could survive even in droughts and other calamities because the trees and shrubs produced enough for survival. Furthermore, the Bar areas were full of hunting birds and animals along with predators. Waris Shah has referred to Heer and her friends’ group as a startled deer herd. By Mian Muhammad Bakhsh’s time in the 19th century, the deer population of the Punjab was endangered and therefore he wrote “The hunter is behind the grazing deer.” Similarly, another great poet Peelo, creator of the epic Mirza Sahiban has mentioned the peacocks and parrots of the Bar in the following lines: “Totay bolan bar dey te vanin jhangharan moor” (Parrots of the Bar are singing and peacocks from the Vann trees are crying aloud). It will take reams to list all the birds, animals and beasts of the Bar which have disappeared in the last two hundred years.

Many decades ago, a British physician, J. L. Stewart, Conservator of Forests, Punjab, wrote a 270 page book titled “Trees, Shrubs and Herbs of Economic Value, Growing within the Province”. He has added a glossary in Punjabi which is 57 pages long and contains thousands of plants that he has seen himself in Punjab. He may have left out thousands because he was preparing a catalogued of plants of economic value.

The ecological system of the Punjab has begun deteriorating long before the British but colonisation altered it so drastically that Baba Farid or Khawaja Nizamuddin would not be able to recognize an inch of it today. Tragically, the last four decades’ so-called unplanned economic growth has changed the Punjab into a chaotic concrete jungle where environmental degradation has rendered the land unrecognizable.

Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia

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3 responses to “People’s history of the Punjab: When parrots and peacocks perched on the Peelu

  1. Pingback: Topics about Animals » Archive » People’s history of the Punjab: When parrots and peacocks perched …

  2. Very informative.
    I had been wondering what punjab really was like before the British planted all those trees which provide the shade in areas like the cantonment in Lahore.
    In other places I saw only shrubbery…was it native or not i dont know.

    And then Lahore is now being overtaken by Ashok trees which some others like Shoaib Hashmi call a Kulfi tree…why even call it a tree i don’t understand!

  3. Yes, with times changing, with more & more chemical pollution and increase in the population, living styles of the people have changed which has affected old cities and also Punjab.

    But still Punjab area – both of India & Pak, are greener than other areas.

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