There’s an unmarked grave in the historic Miani Sahib graveyard in Lahore, Pakistan, that could be the resting place of one of Punjab’s bravest local heroes. The grave doesn’t attract many people and, occasionally, a visitor brings flowers or places a new chadar on it.
Inscribed on a marble slab at the grave are at least four names, among them ‘Dulla Bhatti’, a flesh-and-blood hero who challenged Mughal authority through mass peasant revolts. A Muslim himself, Dulla fought on behalf of local zamindars, and his campaigns against the Mughals are well known. His efforts to save young girls from exploitation were so legendary that he became a folk hero.
During the popular festival of Lohri, which marks the end of the winter solstice and is celebrated in Punjab on both sides of India’s international border with Pakistan, songs are sung in praise of this brave soul, who is said to have saved the honour of a young Hindu woman on this day.
Who Were The Bhatti Chiefs?
Dulla’s story begins in the 16th century CE, in the town of Pindi Bhattian, 128 km northwest of Lahore in present-day Pakistan. Although little more than a village back then, the town was strategically located on the route that connected Lahore to the North-West Frontier and onwards till Kabul.
The region was controlled by local Muslim Bhatti chiefs, who were autonomous zamindars or landlords during the Lodi Dynasty. In time, these zamindars pooled their military resources and established a local power centre, which freed them from the yolk of Lodi rule.
Things began to change in the 16th century CE, when Babur founded the Mughal Empire in the subcontinent, in 1526 CE. After Babur, his son Humayun expanded the Empire although Punjab was under the control of his half-brother Kamran. However, in 1540 CE, the brothers were forced into exile by Afghan General Sher Shah Suri, who defeated Humayun to take charge as Emperor.
During Suri’s reign, the authority of the Muslim Bhatti chiefs had gone unchecked and the return of Mughal rule spelt bad news for them. After Humayun returned from exile in 1555-56 CE, he launched a campaign to exert his imperial influence in Western Punjab, although some historians say it was Humayun’s son, Emperor Akbar, who decided to stamp his authority in the region.
Not everyone complied. The Muslim Rajput Bhatti chief of Pindi Bhattian, Bijli Khan, refused to submit to Mughal authority, and he along with his son Farid fought a furious battle against the Mughals. They were defeated and sent to the gallows.
But their legacy would live on; for Farid left behind several children, among them was one son who just like him would take on the might of the Mughals and, in the process, become a legend. He was Dulla Bhatti.
How Dulla Discovered His Destiny
Dulla is believed to have been born in Badar village on the banks of the Chenab River in 1547 CE. It is said that he discovered ‘who he really was’ while still a boy playing with his catapult. Dulla hadn’t been told of the assassination of his father and grandfather, something he discovered quite by chance.
One day, when he accidentally broke the pitcher of a village woman with his catapult, she mocked him, saying that instead of pretending to be brave by targeting “defenceless pitchers”, he should avenge the deaths of his grandfather and father. When he asked his mother what the woman meant, she told her son the whole story, upon which Dulla swore revenge.
This was a time when Akbar was consolidating the Mughal Empire and, to succeed, he had to break the authority of the local chieftains and zamindars. In 1580 CE, Akbar introduced the zabti system of taxation across his Empire, including Punjab. It was a system that greatly curbed the authority of the zamindars.
In addition, a faujdar or Mughal administrator was appointed. The faujdar, who was to coordinate with the zamindars to collect taxes, was also allowed to raise a small force and undertake development projects.
The new system seriously compromised the economic and political independence of the zamindars, so Dulla Bhatti rallied the peasants to rise against the imperial authority. He vowed to bar Mughal caravans from passing through the region, which included the route that connected Mughal India to Central Asia.
Then, in 1584 CE, Akbar moved the imperial capital from Fatehpur Sikri to Lahore, far from the disturbances from Kabul and in Punjab. He apparently wanted to put as much distance as possible between rebellious local leaders like Dulla Bhatti and his seat of power.
Traditional sources call Dulla a ‘social bandit’, a Punjabi Robin Hood of sorts, who terrorised imperial officials and looted their treasure, only to distribute the booty among his people, seldom keeping anything for him.
The peasants were miserable and burdened with taxes, so when Dulla asked them to rally around him, they followed his lead. Looting government caravans was just one of the many means they used to heckle and challenge their oppressors.
Dulla thus brought deliverance and hope to the peasants of Punjab. He was a born leader and his charisma only added to his persona. It wasn’t long before he became a folk hero. According to one legend, Dulla Bhatti once ‘humbled’ Akbar and Prince Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir) when they were captured by his soldiers. Prince Salim had accidentally crossed over into Dulla Bhatti’s territory during a hunt but was released by Dulla, who said his conflict was with the Emperor, not his son.
On another occasion, the legend goes, Akbar, separated from his guards, was caught by Dulla’s soldiers. When presented before the chieftain, Akbar had to pretend to be a jester in the Mughal court to secure his release!
The Lohri Connection
In Punjabi folk tradition, Dulla Bhatti is remembered for his role in rescuing young girls from being exploited. To save one such girl called Mundri from an elderly zamindar, Dulla became the girl’s ‘godfather’ and is said to have got her married to a suitable groom on the festival of Lohri, which is why he remembered on this day.
This tale of a Muslim Dulla Bhatti saving the honour of a Hindu girl became a symbol of the composite culture of Punjab and Lohri. On this occasion, here’s one of the songs that Punjabis sing around a bonfire:
“Sunder mundriye ho
Tera kaun vicharaa ho
Dulla Bhatti walla ho
Dullhe di dhee vyayae ho…”
(Oh beautiful Mundri
Who will save you, the poor one
Dulla Bhatti is here for you
The Dulla married off his daughter)
After leading a successful rebellion, Dulla Bhatti was finally captured and taken to Lahore, where he met the same fate as that of his father and grandfather, on 26th March 1599 CE.
It is said that Punjabi Muslim Sufi poet Shah Hussain was present outside the Delhi Darwaza of the Lahore Fort on the day Dulla Bhatti was hanged on the orders of Emperor Akbar. The poet, an admirer of Dulla Bhatti’s armed struggle, penned the following line in Dulla’s honour:
“Kahay Hussain Faqeer Sain Da Takht Na Milday Mungay”
(Says this lowly faqir, thrones are not gained by merely asking)
On the festival of Lohri today, Punjabis celebrate a beloved hero, a son of the soil who fought for his people till his last breath.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.