By Haroun-Al-Rashid 

Passing through the patchy green land with sandy surrounding a huge flock of bulls popped up all of a sudden from the dust cloud. Quite surprisingly, a dog and a middle-aged shepherd carrying a stick and a flute were managing the whole herd.

Ratan with a grin told PakVoices:

“His father trained him as a herder, and the flute is his all-weather friend in a deserted Cholistan. Almost all shepherds carry it as they don’t have much to do in whole day ramble.”

Local counts suggest, Cholistani community of over 200,000 also include a chunk of 50,000 lower-caste Hindus, while in 1998 census, they were reported slightly over 18,000.

 Like many Cholistanis, lower-caste Hindus are largely associated with poorly-paid occupations including herd grazing, peasantry on contracts and home cleaning.

 

Cholistan: A famous folk singer Mohan Baghat playing his instrument. Photo Credit: By the writer

Peasantry and herd grazing are considered as their ancestral occupations as relics and artifacts engraved with tools of farming and ibex images also confirm the fact. Abdul Rub, Executive Director of a local NGO Jaag, a platform for marginalized communities told me, “Recent excavations by Punjab University confirm over 4,000 years old affiliation of Cholistanis with herding in the desert.”

It rains, but quite infrequently with drought as dominant climate – the Cholistan, largely a piece of infertile and abandoned land bordering India in the east. Though lower-caste Hindus are poorly paid in the society, however, culturally they are rich.

It goes back to Indus Valley Civilization when Mohan Bhagat would vibrate Yaktara string and croons Marvari folk lyrics – Khari Neem Kay Neechy – a girl standing underneath a tree waiting her loved one while it rains in the desert.

 Mohan -a proud heir of legend Cholistani singer late Faqeera Bhagat, claimed if their community is eminent in music, the credit goes to their association with Sufis and their message of peace and love.

Cholistani culture is not complete without its mystic music as everyone feels at home here while playing with instruments even without expertise, however, synchronization with jingle and a sound pitch is the other way round.

Yaktara – a small sized guitar manufactured as half hollow pumpkin with one side covered with stretched leather making a sealed compartment further attached with a stick holding a single fortified string, stretched like on guitar.
 
”The single string of Yaktara when vibrates, it establishes a connection with god”, Mohan said.

Holding Yaktara in his right hand, Mohan was also carrying two rectangle wooden plates attached with tinkle bells and was completely lost in his performance while sitting crossed legs on the floor.

 Slow paced, but relatively loud pitched composition was creating a magical effect in the quiet and serene ambiance, while birds’ tune was also contributing to the orchestra.

Cholistan: Many low-caste Hindus live in make-shift houses. Photo Credit: By the writer

The dwellers have a strong affiliation with folk music, which has its own variety and depth.
 
Preetam Das a member of lower-caste Hindu community told me: “Not a single occasion such as whether prayers, festivals or even funerals are complete without Satrang.”

Young boys and girls dressed up graciously dance on strong beats to assemble gathering so the Pundits may get a chance to spread their word regarding any special happening. “

The earliest owners of Cholistan, however, are lacking majority since Islam dominated the region after 712 AD.

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Dr. Shahid Hussain Rizvi, renowned writer noted in the book ‘Rohi Kay Khadokhal [the Geography of Rohi]’ that all these lower-caste Hindus changed religion to Islam, and mostly Shudras got inspired from Islamic teachings introduced by Banu Umayyah General Muhammad bin Qasim. 

Increasing Muslim authority and influence also altered the basic make-up of ancient Cholistan.

Standing alone on the wide-spread dusty dune near Pattan Minara is a white-colored mosque – several decades ago used to be ancient Hindu Temple of Penis, a place of reverence for infertile women holding a belief of getting pregnant.

A temple of penis converted to a mosque after South Punjab’s drift towards extremism. Photo Credit: By the writer

“In old times, married, but infertile women used to worship and sit on the penis, so to carry a child in their wombs. The temple existed here instead of a mosque during my grandfather’s time,” argued elderly Aarti Mai pointing at the mosque.

She further contended there had been many other temples across the Cholistan before the partition and they could freely worship, however, now they are confined to worship mostly in their homes.

 She complained that the religious intolerance has crept into the Cholistan and now Muslims do not mingle with Hindus a lot, despite the fact that their forefathers attended our funerals, weddings and worked together in old times.

Also expanding cities have resulted in fizzling out the colors of Cholistan. Amangarh – a small town in outskirts of Rahim Yar Khan offered a close look at the modern version of Cholistani lower-caste Hindus, living in semi-constructed abodes with shared mess and veranda-cum-corridors where the doors of all huts would end up.

Still busy with their chores; some women were dealing with cattle and others in a kitchen. Among others, two middle-aged females sitting on the floor, veiling their faces were hand-sewing a glittery yellow quilt for their young girl supposed to marry soon.

 “Our traditions do not allow us that daughters depart from parents’ home with empty hands”, Bashan Mai told PakVoices while stitching the quilt.

Cholistan: Women wearing traditional Choli going to fetch water from the well. Photo Credit: By the writer

Suturing small cloth pieces together making a thin quilt gives a splendid look upon completion -Rilli is the traditional handicraft, very common among Cholistanis.
 
”Cholistani girl loves to wear bright, shocking, blazing and showy colors, especially in winters”, said Rupa Wati, adding that in summers light colors are preferred because of scorching heat in the desert.

A Cholistani woman starts her day with the most hectic job. The scarcity of water forces her to sneak through the sand dunes in search of water. Besides toughness of the job, it gives millions dollars’ look when they walk barefooted in a row, wearing colorful Cholis and Ghaghras, and carrying water pitchers on their heads. They travel miles in early mornings to fetch drinking water from ponds.

However, they are surrounded by a ruthless danger. Neighboring Thar Desert hosts a radical mindset actively involved in committing a vicious crime of kidnapping Hindu girls and forcibly converting them into Muslims.

“Many such cases have been reported in recent years”, claimed Abdul Rab.

”Now the curse is making inroads into the Cholistan too, and our daughters like temples are no longer safe”, Aarti Mai said. We have already been confined to our homes for worship, but cannot stop giving births to girls, she added.

About Author: Haroun-Al-Rashid is a multimedia journalist, media trainer and a researcher based in Islamabad.

Editor’s Note: This piece is a series of articles on the culture of Cholistan, Rashid is writing and exploring on PakVoices.

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