Lohri 2023: There is an agrarian backstory to the legend of Dulla Bhatti

Ishwar Dayal Gaur's 2008 book notes that the Mughal state, with an elaborate network of centralisation, endeavoured to control agrarian society at the grass-root level leading to Dulla Bhatti’s rebellion

By Ishwar Dayal Gaur
Published: Friday 13 January 2023
A Lohri bonfire during the COVID-19 pandemic years. Photo: iStock

Dulla Bhatti is not a folk construct. He is a historical figure who played an important role in the history of Punjab’s culture. His village was Pindi, situated 12 kos from Lahore on the highway to Kabul. He was the contemporary of Akbar, Guru Arjan Dev and Shah Husain. He inherited the legacy of non-conformism, resistance and martyrdom from his father Farid Bhatti and grandfather Bijli or (Sandal) Bhatti. The elder Bhattis, Farid and Bijli, refused to accommodate Akbar’s oppressive policy of land revenue. Eventually, they were arrested and taken to Lahore; they were beheaded. Their heads were hung on the main gate of the town, and their corpses were stuffed with chaff.

We need to know a series of measures introduced by Akbar on assuming the emperorship to restructure the agrarian economy of north India, if we intend to appreciate the resistance and rebellion of Dulla and his ancestors in a proper historical context. With the accession of Akbar a number of parganas were constituted into a revenue circle, a standard assessment for each crop was determined and the state share from each cultivator was expressed in cash. The new system, officially termed as zabt, permitted the revenue assessment to be made for the entire village. Local zamindars were held responsible for the actual payment of land revenue. As a complimentary measure, the Mughal administration posted well-equipped faujdars in all territorial subdivisions. They were assigned manifold duties. They had to secure the faithful collaboration of zamindars, collect information from qanungos regarding the strength and attitude of zamindars, ensure the regular payment of land revenue by zamindars and prop up the rivals of the rebellious zamindars. They had to keep his troops in a battle worthy condition and practice the use of various weapons, cut jungles and guard roads leading to the countryside, recover the arrears of land revenue out of the spoils collected during a raid on the rebel village and prevent the blacksmiths from manufacturing matchlocks.

Thus a state with such an elaborate network of centralization endeavoured to control the agrarian society at the grass-root level. This kind of state domination tended to deliver an effective blow to the political economy and hegemony of the local elements. The latter ‘were not only forced to accept a reduced share in the agricultural surplus, but were also threatened with outright elimination. Thus the stage was set for protracted confrontation between the Mughal state and the hereditary rural magnates’. Dulla’s grandfather and father belonged to this class of magnates.

When Farid Bhatti, the father of Dulla, was executed, his wife Ladhi, was in the family way. After four months a baby was born. The baby was christened Dulla. Ladhi was happy as she was blessed with the birth of a handsome son. But she also feared lest Dulla should toe the rebellious path of his elders and, hence, avenge the executions of his father and grandfather. The day Dulla Bhatti was born, Emperor Akbar was also blessed with a son, Shaikhu, the future Jahangir. The soothsayers told Akbar that the prince would be brave and victorious in future if he was fed by a Rajput mother who had given birth to a boy on the same day that the prince was born. Ladhi was identified. Akbar was happy. With all arrangements Shaikhu was sent to her village. A special palace was constructed where the prince was to be brought up by Ladhi. Thus both Shaikhu and Dulla were brought up by the wife of the rebel Farid who had been executed by Akbar.

Najm Hosain Syed decodes the story. Akbar could conceive of the revival of rebellion and retaliation with the birth of Dulla. He sent Prince Shaikhu to Ladhi and hence spread a network of royalty to blunt the sharp edge of the revolt simmering in the persons of Ladhi, her son Dulla and the collective consciousness of the peasants. The emperor designed a clever network to win over the widow and her son. By facilitating them with royal honour and comforts, he had planned to incorporate them in his complex network of hegemony. Dulla was sent to school to become ‘humanistic’, ‘civilized’ and ‘elite’. The young rebel could not struggle against the ideology of the school nor could he reform it. Nevertheless, he refused to be a part of the education system which throve on discipline and punishment and produced instrumental and dominant classes. He came into conflict with the qazi, the schoolmaster who thrashed him physically and he left the school forever. Dulla was least interested in the education imparted by the qazi. He defied the qazi and his school, the symbols of establishement and traditions of hegemony.

After leaving the school for good, Dulla got a catapult (gulail) made by the carpenter of his village. With his ‘first weapon’, Dulla along with his band of fellow youngsters started shooting at the pitchers of the womenfolk who drew water from the village well. Eventually, fed up with the mischief, one of the village women taunted Dulla saying: ‘If you are so brave, take revenge of your grandfather and father who were beheaded by the Chugtais (Mughals), the heads and the corpses of your elders are still hung on the royal entrance, and it does not behove you to shoot [at] the women carrying pitchers’.

This remark was enough to ignite the inner rebellious spirit of Dulla. He immediately rushed to his house and thundered at his mother demanding to know the whole secret, otherwise she would not be spared. Seeing her son in a furious mood, Ladhi revealed the truth. As the secret was being revealed, the ‘identity of the enemy’ was getting more and more crystallized. Dulla discerned his ‘real self’ during the narration of the ‘face and features’ of the enemy. Now the road leading to his journey was clearly visible to him. Awareness descended upon him. His sight was aimed at the real target. Dulla was not simply concerned with the execution of his elders. It was not a vendetta. The execution was not of the father and grandfather, but of his elder rebels against the state of Akbar. Dulla was bound to take up this peasant class war. It was to be a war, a struggle of three generations of rebels — Bijli, Farid and Dulla, the grandfather, father and grandson — against the Mughal state. Ladhi, (the daughter-in-law, wife and mother of the rebels, Bijli, Farid and Dulla respectively) opened the store treasuring the ancestral stock of weapons. Dulla distributed the arms among his fellows and embarked on a career of banditry.

Dulla waged a war. It is said that ‘so fierce was the resistance that Akbar had to shift the imperial capital to Lahore for more than twenty years’. Let me add here that Akbar’s visit to Guru Arjan Dev at Goindwal and the royal exemption of land revenue of the area of Bari Doab may also be read in the context of Dulla’s insurgency. The emperor must have thought that exemption of land revenue would be an expedient strategy to pacify the peasants of the Bari Doab and win over the confidence of the guru who had his strong social base among the peasantry. The emperor was politically wise not to simultaneously open two fronts of confrontation, one represented by Dulla and the other by the guru.

Dulla was arrested and the emperor immediately ordered his execution. It was to be spectacularly carried out in the Nakhas area, Lahore (now Landa Bazar) because the emperor wanted the public to see the pain and fear of death on the face of Dulla standing on the gibbet. The emperor ardently desired to see the pride and bravery of the anti-establishment rebel broken down. The executioner Malik Ali, a kotwal was ordered to report the mood, state of mind and the last words uttered by Dulla. But what the emperor desired did not happen. The way Dulla had lived; he died in the same spirit. The complexion of his rebelling spirit remained intact to the last moment. For Dulla, the gibbet was not his fate but a war front. It was Dulla’s political stance, a position of war.

Dulla’s rebellion was not a strict class war. It was an archaic form of revolt, more of the social bandit character. A social bandit, Hobsbawm characterizes, is a man ‘who took from the rich to give to the poor’. There are also other ways of helping the poor. A Punjabi folk tale narrates that there was once a poor Brahman, who had two beautiful daughters, Sundri and Mundri. Both the sisters were betrothed. But the landlord of the area desired to marry them. Knowing his desire, the poor Brahman requested the in-laws of the betrothed girls to immediately get the girls married and take them to their house. But the in-laws, scared of the landlord, refused to do so. Now Dulla Bhatti was approached. He helped the Brahman by getting his daughters married to the boys to whom they were betrothed. Dulla Bhatti is known as the godfather of the girls in the folk tale. A folk song, Sundri-Mundri is sung by the Punjabi folk on the occasion of the festival of Lohri. This song is in fact a tribute to Dulla Bhatti. Dulla Bhatti still survives.

What I wish to suggest is that a social bandit like Dulla is obliged to do such altruistic deeds; otherwise, he would ‘forfeit his most powerful asset. Public aid and sympathy’.

On the day of the execution of Dulla Bhatti, Shah Husain, a Sufi qalandar, is said to have been present among the crowd that had gathered there. Malik Ali, a kotwal arrested Shah Husain for his non-conformist living. Shah Husain was much annoyed with the kotwal when the latter flung abuses at him and threatened him with a disgraceful death. Shah Husain told the kotwal that what he intended to do with him would be done to him. And it so happened that after the hanging of Dulla Bhatti, Malik Ali also lost the favour of the king and was hanged in the way Shah Husain had predicted. Whether Shah Husain had any association with Dulla Bhatti or not, his presence at the site of the execution indicates the existence of a historic united front of the non-conformist like a Muslim Rajput, Dulla Bhatti, the son of the local zamindar and a Muslim Sufi, Shah Husain.

In his play Takhat Lahore, Najm Hosain Syed has projected the Sufi, Shah Husain as the closest confidante of Dulla Bhatti. The non-conformist image of Shah Husain has been further re-inforced by Najm in his analytical essays — ‘Dulla di Kahani’ and ‘Bhajar Takhat Lahore’ — where Shah Husain is regarded as a counterpart of Dulla Bhatti, attacking the Mughal imperialism from within. When Dulla was being hanged, the presence of Shah Husain in the crowd made Malik Ali forget Dulla for a moment. He knew that the Sufi had obliterated the difference between what he said and what he practiced.

Excerpt published from Martyr as Bridegroom: A Folk Representation of Bhagat Singh by Ishwar Dayal Gaur with permission from Aakar Books

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