The Sikh Homeland


The Punjab 


The Punjab has a geographical unity distinct from the neighbouring countries and the rest of India. It is shaped like a scalene triangle balanced on its sharpest angle. The shortest side is in the north and is composed of the massive Himalayas, which separate it from the Tibetan Plateau. The western side is bounded by the River Indus from the point it enters the plains to another point 1650 miles downstream, where it meets the confluence of the Punjab’s rivers at a place appropriately named Panjnad, the five streams. Westwards of the Indus runs a chain of rugged mountains, the Hindu Kush and the Sulaiman, pierced by several passes like the Khyber and the Bolan which have served as inlets for the people of the countries which lie beyond Afghanistan and Baluchistan. The eastern boundary of the Punjab’s triangle is not clearly marked, but from a point near Karnal where the Jumna plunges south-eastwards a jagged line can be drawn up to Panjnad, which will demarcate the state from the rest of Hindustan and the Sindh desert.

The Punjab except for the salt range in its centre, is an extensive plain sloping gently down from the mountains in the north and the west towards the desert in the south. Across this monotonously flat land flow six large rivers: the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and the Sutlej. In the intra-fluvial tracts or doabs* between these rivers and the in the western half of the tract between the Sutlej and the Jumna live people who speak the Punjabi language and describe themselves as the people of the Punjab. The homeland of the vast majority of the Sikhs is in the doabs between the Chenab and the Jumna.

*The intra-fluvial tracts or mesopotamias are known in the Punjab as doabs—two waters. Except for the doabs between the Indus and the Jhelum and the Sutlej and the Jumna, they are known by a combination of the names of the two rivers between which they lie. These names were coined in the time of Emperor Akbar, presumably by his minister, Todar Mal.

a) The Sindh Sagar Doab, between the Indus and the Jhelum.
b) The Chaj Doab between the Chenab and the Jhelum. This doab was also known as Dhanni-Gheb, Chinhat-Chenab, and Behat (which is another name for the Jhelum).
c) The Rechna Doab between the Ravi and the Chenab. At one time this area was also known as Dharpi.
d) The Bari Doab between the Beas and the Ravi. The tract on either side of the Ravi south of Lahore was at one time called Nakki.
e) The Bist Doab or the Bist-Jullundur Doab between the Beas and the Sutlej. The area also known as Seeroval because of the many hill torrents (sirs) which intersect it.
f) The Cis-Sutlej Doab between the Sutlej and Jumna. Only the northwestern portion of this Doab is strictly in the Punjab.

Since the River Sutlej runs through the middle of the zone of the main concentration of Sikh population, historians refer to the region west of the river as Trans-Sutlej and that east of the river as the Cis-Sutlej. This division corresponds roughly to the traditional division of the Punjab into Majha and Malwa.

In addition to these divisions, the following Punjabi names for different regions have been (and in some cases still are) used.

a) Potohar or Dhanni Potohar for Rawalpindi district including a part of Jhelum district.
b) Majha or the middle, for the Bari Doab. The people living in Majha are known as Majhails. (Also spoken as Manjha and Manjhail).
c) Doab for the Bari Doab or Jullundur Doab. The inhabitants are known as Doabias.
d) Malwa for the Punjabi-speaking zone between the Sutlej and the Jumna. The people are known as Malwais. (The Malwa of the Punjab should not be confused with the Malwa of Central India, north of the River Narmada). Malwa is sometimes referred as Sirhind,
e) Kurukshetra, between the rivers Sarasvati and Drisadvati (probably the present day Ghaggar). In this region somewhere between Karnal and Jind was fought the famous battle between the Kurus and Pandavas mentioned in the Mahabharata which occasioned the sermon by Krishna and the theme of the Bhagavad Gita. Because of its association with Krishna, this land was reputed to be free of sorrow—nirduhkha. It was also the brahmavarta, the land of the holy singers where many of the great classics of Sanskrit literature were written. Manu refers to it as the land frequented by gods (ii 17). The Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang, who visited Punjab in the 7th century AD, refers to it as the sukhabhumi, the land of contentment.
f) Bhatiana, area in southwestern Punjab extending from Hissar to Bikaner, which was the home of Bhatti Rajputs; hence bhatiana, the land of the Bhattis.
g) Hariana, comprising Hissar, Rohtak and the southern parts of the old states of Jind and Patiala. This tract of desert was at one time irrigated by the Sarasvati and was very green; hence hariana, the green land.

The Name of Punjab
When the Aryans came to India there were seven rivers in the Punjab, so they named it Sapta Sindhva, the land of the seven seas. The Persians took the name from the Aryans and called it Haft Hindva. Sometime later, after the seventh river, the Sarasvati, had dried up, people began to exclude the Indus from the count (since it marked only the western boundary of the province) and renamed it after the remaining five rivers as Pentopotamia or the Panj-ab, the land of the five waters. *

*Two other names by which parts of the Punjab were known in ancient times were:
• Madra Desha, the land of the madras. So, named after Madri, the mother of the Pandavas. Madra Desha extended from the Beas to the Chenab or the Jhelum. Its capital was at Sakala, probably present day Sangla. In the Bicitra Natak, Guru Gobind Singh also speaks of the Punjab as the Madra Desha. (J. Dawson, Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion p.183).
• Uttarapath, or the northern country. The name appears in Buddhist literature.

Climate and Landscape
The climate of the Punjab ranges from bracing cold in the winter to scorching heat in the summer. Extremes of temperature and the two monsoons produce a variety of seasons and a constantly changing landscape.

The spring is traditionally ushered in on Basant Pancami, which falls early in the month of February. It is the Punjab’s blossom time, when, in the words of Guru Nanak, “all is seemly; the woodlands are in flower and loud with the humming of bumble bees” * The countryside is an expanse of mustard yellow, broken by sold squares of green sugarcane with its fluffy pampas plumes. If the winter monsoon has been good, a crop of wheat, barley, gram, oilseeds and tobacco will cover the land with lush abundance. Peasants supplement the rain by canal water, or where there are no canals, by Persian wheels turned by bullocks or camels. Around the wells grow vegetables: carrots, radishes, cabbages and cauliflower. Branches of Jujube trees sag under the weight of their berries. In spring time, the sounds that pervade the countryside are the creaking of Persian wheels, the call of partridges, and the monotonous kooh, kooh, of flour mills

The sugar cane is cut, its juice squeezed out, boiled in large cauldrons, and solidified into dark brown cakes. The canary yellow of the mustard is replaced by newly sown cotton and the golden-brown of ripening wheat—and we know that spring has given way to summer.

Trees shed their leaves and after a short period of barrenness come into blossom. While the Marisa is still strewing the earth with its brittle ochre leaves, the silk cotton, the coral and the flame of the forest burst into flowers of bright crimson, red, and orange. Even the thorny acacia, the commonest tree of the Punjab, is covered with tiny pale pom-poms. Persian wheels and the partridges are silent: instead there is the screaming of the koils in the mango groves and the crying of barbets.

The wheat is cut and winnowed in the warm breeze. In the words of Guru Nanak: “The sun scorches . . . the earth burns like an oven. The waters give up their vapours, yet it burns and scorches relentlessly.” The temperature rises to a fever heat. The parched earth becomes an unending stretch of khaki with dust devils spiralling across the wastes. Even the stolid pipal and the tamarisk are shorn of their leaves and the only green that meets the eye are bushes of camel-thorn, prickly cactus and the ak—calotropis. The succession of hot days and shimmering mirages is occasionally broken by fierce storms which spread layers of dust and sand over everything. All through the torpid afternoons comes the call of the brainfever bird* in a rising crescendo, peeooh peeooh. On moonlit nights one can see the wavering arrowhead formations of geese honking their way northwards to the snowy Himalayas.

*The hawk-cuckoo (hierococcyx varius). Its cry is rendered as “brainfever, brainfever” in English; in Punjabi and Hindustani as peeooh or pikahanwhere is my beloved?”

The blazing inferno lasts from the end of April to the end of June. Then come in rains. The monsoon makes a spectacular entry. It is heralded by the monsoon bird* which fills the dusty plains with its plaintive cries. The colourless grey sky suddenly fills with dense masses black clouds. There are flashes of lightning and the earth shakes with the rumble of thunder. The first big drops of rain are swallowed by the dust and a heavenly fragrance rises from the earth. Then it comes in torrents, sheet upon sheet, and continues for several hours. Thereafter the skies are frequently overcast; clouds and sunshine contend for dominion; rainbows span the rain-washed landscape; and the setting sun fires the bulbous clouds in hues of red and purple. The two months of incessant downpour turn the land into a vast swamp. Rivers fill up and become a mass of swirling muddy waters. Punjabis who have to live through many months of intense heat every year, love the monsoon. It is the time for lovers’ trysts and the reunion of families. Guru Nanak went into raptures over it: “The season of the rains has come, and my heart is full of joy . . . river and land are one expanse of water . . . The nights are dark. Frogs croak in contentment. Peacocks cry with joy. The papiha calls peeooh, peeooh. The fangs of serpents and the stings of mosquitoes are full of venom. The seas have burst their bounds in the ecstasy of fulfillment.” Life begins afresh. There are new leaves on many trees and grass covers the barren ground, Mangoes ripen. The clamour of the koils and the brainfever bird is drowned in the song and laughter of girls on swings in the mango groves.

*The pied-crested cuckoo (clamator jacobinus) takes advantage of the monsoon winds and flies from the East African Coast ahead of the clouds. It usually reaches the coast of India a day or two before the monsoon breaks; hence the name monsoon bird.

By the time the monsoon is over, it is cool again. The dust has settled, and the countryside is green once more. If the summer monsoon has been good—neither too sparse to create a drought nor too heavy to cause floods—all is well. A new crop of rice, millet, maize, indigo and pulses of many kinds is sown. The peasants wind brightly coloured and starched turbans round their heads, put on waist coats covered with mother-of-pearl buttons, tie bells round their ankles and dance the Bhangra to the beat of the drum. From October to the festival of the lamps (Divali) in November there is a succession of fairs and festivals,

There is little rest for the peasant. Cotton is to be picked and the land ploughed again for sowing wheat and gram. Persian wheels begin to turn. The kooh, kooh of the flour mills is heard in every village. Partridges call in the wheat fields. And at night one hears the honking of geese on their way back to the Punjab.

Once more it is winter time. The starlit nights are cold and frosty, the days full of blue skies and sparkling sunshine. The mustard is in flower, the woodlands are loud with the humming of the bumble bees, and all is seemly once again.

The Punjab is essentially a rural state made up of innumerable mud and brick villages built on the ruins of older villages. At one time most of them were fortified. Even today one comes across remains of baronial castles and ancient battlements that rise out of the rubble or the village dung heap. Until the 15th century the Punjab had only two important cities, Lahore, which was the seat of most governments, and Multan in the south, which had a busy market dealing with commerce coming up the rivers from Sindh and caravans from Baluchistan and Persia. There were also several towns like Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Wazirabad, Gujarat, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Saidpur now called Eminabad, Pak Pathan, Kasur, Sialkot, Ludhiana and Sirhind, whose fortunes rose and fell with those of their feudal overlords (or, as in the case of Pak Pathan, with the popularity of the religious order of which it was the centre).

Nothing remains of the extensive forests which once covered large parts of the Punjab. Up to the 16th century there were jungles in the north where rhinoceros (and probably elephants) were found. In Central Punjab there was the notorious lakhi (the forest of a thousand trees), which gave Sikh outlaws refuge from their oppressors. There were equally dense forests in the Jullundur Doab and one long belt of woodland stretching from Ludhiana to Karnal. Up to the middle of the 19 th century these forests teemed with wildlife: lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, bears, wolves, hyenas, wild boars, nilgai and many varieties of deer. The flora and fauna survived the incursions of foreign armies but succumbed to the indiscriminate felling of trees and slaughter of game in the 19th and the present century. The desert with its camels and goats—the only animals which can thrive on cacti and thorny scrub—are a phenomenon of recent times.

Indologists are not agreed on the age of Indian civilization except that it is among the oldest in the world and that its cradle was in the Punjab. Near Rawalpindi, spears and hatchets made of quartzite have been found which date human habitation in the region to between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. Agricultural implements made of copper and bronze have been found in mounds on both sides of the river Indus which prove the existence of fairly organized rural communities between 25,000 to 20,000 BC. Nothing more is known about these communities, nor would it be right to describe to describe them as civilizations. We are, however, on surer ground when we come to the archaeological remains of Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh and Harappa in southern Punjab, both of which were unearthed in the 1920s. From the sculpture, pottery, jewellery, fabrics and other relics (particularly seals bearing extremely beautiful figures of bulls, rhinoceros, and other animals) found among the ruins of baked-brick buildings in these cities (and subsequently in many other places) it can be presumed that the people of the Indus Valley had attained a high degree of civilization. They lived in multi-storied houses with marble baths, their craftsmen made goods which were sold as far away as Mesopotamia; and they had evolved some form of religion around the worship of a mother goddess and her male consort. Neither the hieroglyphics nor the relics found in these cities have yet revealed all their secrets; archaeologists and historians are still disputing the identity of the people who made them. The generally accepted view is that these cities flourished between 2500 BC and 1500 BC and that they were destroyed by a people known as the Aryans who began to infiltrate into Sindh and the Punjab about fifteen centuries before the birth of Christ.

The Aryans who were tall and fair, drove out the darker-skinned inhabitants and occupied most of northern Hindustan. The newcomers were a pastoral people with a religion and language of their own. Both were further developed in the land of their domicile. It was in the Punjab that Vedic Hinduism was evolved, and many of the great works of Sanskrit literature written.

The Aryans were followed by other races. The Persians under Darius (521-485 BC) conquered northern Punjab, and for a hundred years his successors ruled over Peshawar, Taxila and Rawalpindi. In 326 BC, Greek armies under Alexander the Great crossed the Indus and swept as far as the Beas. Although the Greeks left behind by Alexander were deprived of power by the Indian Mauryas, a few years after his death, they left a permanent impress on the face of the Punjab. In Peshawar, Taxila and perhaps in some other towns as well, Greek artists produced some of the greatest works of sculpture found anywhere in the world.

Maurya power was extinguished by Bactrian invaders. Menander is believed to have gone across central Punjab and beyond the Beas. The Bactrians were followed by many Scythian tribes. When the dust raised by the invading armies had settled, the Indian Guptas spread their benevolent rule over the country. For some centuries they were able to block the gaps in the mountains and keep out other invaders. By AD 500, the pressure from Central Asia became too great and once more the sluice gates were forced open to let in the Mongoloid Huns. The Huns were subdued and expelled by Vardhana. His son Harsha was the last great India ruler of the Punjab. After Harsha’s death in AD 647, Vardhana’s empire disintegrated and races living across the Sulaiman and Hindu Kush mountains began to pour into Hindustan. The new conquerors who came, belonged to diverse tribes but had one faith: they were Muslims.

In AD 1001 came Mahmoud of Ghazni. Thereafter the Afghans came like the waves of an incoming tide, each column advancing further inland into Hindustan. The Ghaznis were followed by other Afghan tribes: the Ghoris, Tughlaks, Surs and Lodhis.

Between the succession of Afghan invasions came the terrible visitation in 1398 of the Mongol, Taimur, an invasion from which northern India did not recover for many decades. A hundred years later Babar, who was one of Taimur’s descendants, started dreaming of an empire in India. His opportunity came with the decline of the Lodhi dynasty. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he finally defeated and slew the reigning Afghan Ibrahim Lodhi on the field of Panipat in 1526, and set up the most powerful and long-lived dynasty in the history of India,

People of the Punjab
The ethnic pattern of the Punjab has changed with every new conquest. At the time of the birth of Nanak (AD 1469) it was somewhat as follows:

In the northwest stretching along both sides of the Indus were the Pathans and Baluchis—the former on the upper and the latter on the lower reaches of the river. These people, like their neighbours (Gakkhars, Awans, Janjuas, and others who settled between the Indus and the Jhelum) were divided into innumerable warring tribes, jealously preserving their traditions and way of life but united in their fierce loyalty to the Islamic faith. On the northern fringe of the country in a narrow belt running along the foothills of the Himalayas were the domains of Hindu princes who had fled the plains in front of the Muslim onslaughts. In this sub-montane region intersected by mountain streams and deep ravines, made impassable by entangled bushes of lantana, vasicka and ipomea*they built chains of forts which defended them from further inroads of Muslim invaders. Here they burnt incense to their gods and preserved their inegalitarian society in which the Brahmin and Kshatriya exploited the lesser castes. In the rest of the Punjab, consisting of the vast champaign stretching to the Jumna and beyond, the countryside was inhabited by Jats and Rajput agricultural tribes, the cities by the trading Banias, Mahajans, Suds, and Auroras.

*These three flowering shrubs are found all over India. The adhatoda vasicka is used to make medicinal syrup; the ipomea is grown to reinforce canal banks. Since it blossoms most times of the year it is known in Punjab as sada suhagan (ever-in-marital-bliss).

In all cities towns and villa ages there were the dark and somewhat negroid descendants of the aboriginals who were considered beyond pale of the caste system, forced to do the dirtiest work and then condemned as untouchables. In addition to all these were nomadic tribes of gypsies wandering across the plains in their donkey caravans, with their hunting dogs and herds of sheep and goats,

Birth of Punjabi Nationalism
The Punjab being the main gateway to India, was fated to be the perpetual field of battle and the first home of all the conquerors. Few invaders, if any, brought wives with them, and most of those who settled in their conquered domains acquired local women. Thus, the blood of many conquering races came to mingle, and many alien languages—Arabic, Persian, Pushto and Turkish—came to be spoken in the land. Thus, too, was the animism of the aboriginal subjected to the Vedantic, Jain and Buddhist religion of the Aryans, and to the Islamic faith of the Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Persians and Afghans. Out of this mixture of blood and speech were born the Punjabi people and their language. There also grew a sense of expectancy that out of the many faiths of their ancestors would be born a new faith for the people of the Punjab.

By the end of the 15th century, the different races who had come together in the Punjab had lost the nostalgic memories of the lands of their birth and begun to develop an attachment to the land of their adoption. The chief factor in the growth of Punjabi consciousness was the evolution of one common tongue from a Babel of languages. Although the Punjabis were sharply divided into Muslims and Hindus, attempts had been made to bring about a rapprochement between the two faiths and a certain desire to live and let live had grown among the people. It was left to Guru Nanak and his nine successors to harness the spirit of tolerance and give it a positive content in the shape of Punjabi nationalism.

It is significant that the spirit of Punjabi nationalism first manifested itself in Mahja, the heart of the Punjab, and among a people who were deeply rooted in the soil. Although the founders and many of the leaders of the movement were not agriculturists, its backbone was the Jat peasantry of the central plains. There are as many conjectures about the etymology of the word Jat ** as there are of the origin of the race. It is now generally accepted that the Jats who made the northern plains of India their home was of Aryan stock. They brought with them certain institutions, the most important being the panchayat, an elected body of five elders, to which they pledged their allegiance.*

*Panc men Parmesvar. There is God in the five (elected men)

**Cunningham followed Tod and other European scholars in believing that Jats were of Scythian stock. The origin of the Jats has been exhaustively dealt with by K.R. Qanungo, who states emphatically that the Jats are of Aryan stock who migrated from Rajasthan into the Punjab. He estimated the number of Jats to be 9 million in 1925, of whom one-third were Muslims, one-fifth Sikhs and the remaining Hindus, Qanungo’s figures include Jats of Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
According to the Hindu caste system, the Jats, being Vaisyas (workers) are of lower caste status than the Brahmin and Kshatriya.

There are many sub tribes of Sikh Jats, of whom the following are the most prominent:

Sidhu (including Sidhu Brar); Sandhu; Gill; Garewal; Sekhon; Dhillon; Man; Her; Virk; Bhutta; Bal; Punnun; Aulak; Dhaliwal; Sara; Mangat; Chahl; Randhawa; Kang; Shoal; Bains

There are other Sikh agricultural tribes like the Labana; Kamboh; Sansi and Mahtam who are not Jats by race.

Prominent among the “untouchable” village communities converted to Sikhism and living in Jat villages are the Mazhabi, Ranghreta and Ramdasia.

In present day speech, the Sikh Jat is called jat (to rhyme with gut while the Hindu, particularly of Hariana (Gurgaon, Hissar, Rohtak) and Bharatpur remains a jai (to rhyme with the British pronunciation of ‘start’).

According to Ibbetson, the Jats and Rajputs form 28% of the population of the Punjab. In the 1883 census, the Jats numbered 4432750 and the Rajputs 1677569. In the last detailed census of the Punjab prior to partition (census 1931), the figures were: Jats 4855426, Rajputs 1874325.

Every Jat village was a small republic made up of people of kindred blood who were as conscious of absolute equality between themselves as they were of their superiority over men of other castes who earned their livelihood as weavers, potters, cobblers, or scavengers. The relationship of a Jat village with the state was that of a semi autonomous unit paying a fixed sum of revenue. Few governments tried to assert more authority, and those which did, soon discovered that sending out armed militia against fortified villages was not very profitable. The Jat’s spirit of freedom and equality refused to submit to. Brahmanical Hinduism and in its turn drew the censure of the privileged Brahmins of the Gangetic plains who pronounced that “no Aryan should stay in the Punjab for even two days” because the Punjabis refused to obey the priests.* The upper caste Hindu’s denigration of the Jat did not in the least lower the Jat in his own eyes nor elevate the Brahmin or the Kshatriyas in the Jat’s estimation.

*Mahabharata, VIII, verses 2063-8 (Karna Parva)

On the contrary, he assumed a somewhat condescending attitude towards the Brahmin, whom he considered a little better than a soothsayer or a beggar, or the Kshatriyas, who disdained earning an honest living and was proud of being a mercenary. The Jat was born the worker and the warrior. He tilled his land with his sword girded round his waist. He fought more battles for the defence of his homestead than the Kshatriya, for unlike the martial Kshatriya the Jat seldom fled from his village when the invaders came. And if the Jat was maltreated or if his women were molested by the conqueror on his way to Hindustan, he settled his score by looting the invaders’ caravans on their return journey and freeing the women he was taking back. The Punjabi Jat developed an attitude of indifference to worldly possessions and an instinct for gambling with his life against odds. At the same time, he became conscious of his role in the defence of Hindustan. His brand of patriotism was at once hostile towards the foreigner and benign, even contemptuous towards his own countrymen whose fate depended so much on his courage and fortitude.

Courtesy of : A History of the Sikhs Volume 1 (2nd Edition) (1469-1839) by Khushwant Singh, Oxford University Press 2004


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