The Day I Auctioned Myself

It’s the pen of Threeke Wala that goes on to write and it’s the voice of Kuldip Manak that sings…

جٹّـی خاطـر آیا جوگ لیـن نوں ٹِلّـے توں
پا دے مُندراں کنّیـں چُھـری پھیـر اک واری

It is for the lady (Heer of Ranjha), that I have come to embrace the cult of Jogis of Tilla (Hill)
Just go through the rituals (wooden rings pierced in earlobes), sever my bonds with the worldly desires, (do that) in a snip!

Tilla Jogiyan, the Hill of Jogis has always been an inspiration, the folk dimension of which just got introduced in the preceding lines. Having been in military, I was aware of Tilla for years. I had known that it is there without even the slightest clue what Tilla actually is about! As an artillery observer I have played the ‘Cannon and Ball’ quite frequently in the vast ranges that neighbor the hill and spent many evenings peeping out from the outer fly of 180 pounder tent to that magnificent silhouette under the setting sun. Things that stand out of proportion with regard to surrounding appear mysterious and Tilla Jogiyan back then in my wildest of imaginations was nothing but a queer outpost. It stayed that way as I never got to venture out scaling the distance upto the place and it had stayed that way until recently as I planned to explore Tilla Jogiyan on one of the Sundays. To put the things in geographical perspective, dear reader, Tilla Jogiyan is one dominating hill with a height of over 900 meters above sea level that borders the eastern fringe of Salt Range. Situated to the west of Jhelum City it’s quite visible from Jhelum, even from the far areas surrounding Jhelum.

Our epic tale from the Punjab Folklore, Heer Ranjha tells us that Dheedo alias Ranjha, heartbroken of the forced marriage elsewhere of his beloved Heer came to Tilla in an endeavor to shed away the worldly temptations and embraced the Kanphata Jogis of Guru Gorakhnath. The name Gorakhnath, dear readers, is the key in deciphering the riddle of Tilla Jogiyan. A well contemplated research by my (self proclaimed so far) guru, Salman Rashid tells us that the origin of the settlements on Tilla Jogiyan dates back to the first century BCE when the followers of Guru Gorakhnath (claimed to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva) established a monastery here. Tilla Jogiyan is also associated with the Sun God Balnath and it is believed that it housed the temples for worshipping the Sun. An ancient place of worship, a monastery, the Jogi tribe and the folklore were enough troubles for my wanderer heart to get pulled to the place. To facilitate the said trail on a Sunday I had arrived the preceding night at the Jhelum Cantonment and dumped myself in the luxury of an Army Guest Room wishing to initiate the journey by early morning. Little did I know by then, dear reader, that the morning had enough surprises for me and the day was about to put me through some testing times and a clan of people who were to prove just out of this world…

‘Sir! this car will sure not go to the place’ was the verdict handed over to me by that Military Police Havildar as I was to exit the Jhelum Cantt Check Post to take on the Sanghoi Road. ‘Sir, are you sure you want to go to the place!’ was another statement as the soldier in a smart yet indifferent attire swapped his gaze over a hand drawn route map in my hand and stared into my eyes. There was this tinge of amusement in the air and my readers here would contemplate that uncertainty upon meeting sarcasm recoils and it recoils to transform into some audacity that keeps pushing the heart. It was that inherent sarcasm that got me going on a trip for which the crux of the plan was to reach some village at the foothill of Tilla Jogiyan, knock some door, seek the tour guidance, park the car, get some supplies and eventually embark upon the climbing endeavour. Dear reader, luck always favors the initiative and it was the only commodity I carried in my backpack that day. It was sheer luck that I had stopped short of Sanghoi on a gas station to refuel my car. As the owner got curious of the presence on his station of someone not of the local origins (partly the number plate on my car and partly my Indiana Jones looks errr…. my explorer attire), and it is perfectly routine for people getting curious to the presence of outsiders in these areas. It was this curiosity coupled with the scrutiny of that hand drawn map of the route to Tilla Jogiyan that paved the way for a primitive conversation between us. A cup of tea in his office, a confirmatory affirmation of my intention (I’ll say determination) to scale Tilla Jogiyan spurred a sequence of phone calls by Mirza Shafqat (the owner of the gas station). Mirza sahib, having judged my raw, rather inept knowledge of the hinterland took it upon himself to make the entire arrangement of me reaching the Tilla Hill that day. He made a distress call putting Choudhary Abdullah from Chak Mehmanda on his toes, tasking him to make available the tour guides, the ride and supplies. A young lad from the gas station with a motorbike was assigned to guide my drive till Chak Mehmanda where I was supposed to be handed over in the safe keeping of Ch Abdullah. Leaving Mirza Sb with a thank you hug, being guided in the safekeeping of a scout as I headed towards the destination, little did I know the enormity of the trip that was in fact yet to start, and the start line, dear reader, was not at Chak Mehmanda but a few kilometres farther ahead…


the kind-hearted hosts of Chak Mehmanda

Chak Mehmanda is a small village around 28 kms from Jhelum Cantonment and is encountered after taking a detour from Jhelum-Pind Dadan Khan road a few kms ahead of Sanghoi. There are two routes that lead to the foothill of the Tilla Hill: one leads from Rohtas Fort and is a shingled track suited for 4×4 transmission. The other one is the metalled Jhelum Pind Dadan Khan Road with only tricky part being the zig zag style fording on the (apparently) shallow yet (dodgingly) deep waters of River Kahan. Chak Mahmanda was where the drive on the car came to a halt and a group of local elders greeted me and we sat around immaculately laid out seating as the boy from the restaurant crowded the center table with tea and biscuits of all kind and sorts that could be discovered in the local general store of the village. It was amidst the tea and biscuits and the conversation over these that I threw a cursory look towards the hill I was to scale and it was there in the bright morning of Chak Mehmanda that the true enormity of the mountain in the far distance dawned at me. Perhaps my companions had read my mind or they saw something in my eyes that someone said and said it with this unsuccessfully disguised glee, “Tilla jaan aastey till da zor lana penda ae taan ja ke gal bandi ey, tadey te aenu kenday ne Till Laa” (reaching out to Tilla is an arduous task hence the trope “Till Laa” a Punjabi word meaning put in the best you have). I was in the midst of deciphering the riddle as two young and smart folks joined us. Obaidullah and Ghulam Rasul were introduced to me as my buddies on the trip to Tilla Jogiyan and the young lads came equipped with their Cash Deposit 70s, water and other supplies. The riddle puzzling my mind just got coupled with the discovery that we were to travel to the hilltop on bikes, an uphill drive that was to take around 2-3 hours one way and the trip was very likely to cross that notorious day-night border lest we were fortunate enough to avoid any unforeseen. Of all the hesitating moments I have encountered on my trips, this was by far a big one and so was the decision to give it a go. Having traveled that distance, my heart had already leaped out wandering somewhere at Tilla, and to top it all there were Obaidullah and Ghulam Rasool who had already kicked start their bikes and were waiting for me. Such was the setting as I embarked upon a journey that was to unfold itself as pure adventure in the succeeding hours as we left Chak Mehmanda.


Tilla Hill in the distance

There are metalled roads with smooth surface suitable for all types of weather and traffic, then there are shingled or kacha tracks suitable for fair weather drives and occasionally asking for a 4×4 transmission. We, dear reader, came across a third kind. To describe that as a road or track will be a harsh overstatement. It was a surface, a mountainous surface that got levelled through fitting the ground with huge, large and small, all sorts of stone slabs to pave the way. The icing on the cake was that it was rising to some winding and steep slopes to reach the hilltop. The book maps had described it as a 4×4 jeepable track, but I, dear reader, in all sanity will beg to differ. This was a path not to take any traffic less the foot one or if one was inclined to make it an extremely tricky venture, then the wheels we were riding upon. Bike rides are exciting and are more fun on the back seat away from the controls, but this ride was way different. Ghulam Rasul was driving on the front with the supplies bagged and stacked on the back seat, whereas, I was the ‘pichli sawari’ on Obaidullah’s bike. Driving uphill both the driver and the ‘sawari’ had to continuously use their feet to keep the motorbike in balance and keep going frontal not drifting sideways. Every other instance the ‘sawari’ had to dismount from the bike in motion, anticipating in advance the potentially incapacitating climbs over some rough stones. We did not drive the whole way, in fact Obidullah did, whereas, for me it was fifty-fifty, riding and walking as dictated by the terrain situation. While writing these lines as I recall the feeling, dear reader, let me say that the bike ride adventure was nothing short of rodeo sport, bull riding to be more specific, for what the “most dangerous” part lasted way way beyond those famous “8 seconds”. This uphill ride lasted for eternity; now here my wrist watch (my beloved and must have accessory on adventure trips) would politely interfere and correct us that it was little over an hour and a half. So, dear reader, in about an hour and a half we were at Tilla Hilltop where a bold inscription “WELCOME” on a slanting rooftop of something like a ‘sarkari’ rest house greeted us. Never in my life had I experienced a welcoming comfort that got presented by those bold words that afternoon on Tilla Top. I dismounted the bike to discover that all significant body parts to include, back, bottom, legs, shoulders etc etc. all were engulfed in nothing but agonizing pain. It was after a quick settling down break and a refreshing drink that I jumped up to explore Tilla and it was then that my above enumerated attachments protested in unison, but reaching the top was just the beginning and time with us was short, very short in fact.


"Road" to Tilla

The hilltop was flat, firm and paved with stone-ways, stairways on the slopes and studded with old, beautiful and shady trees, of which there were wild olive, banyan and peepal. The monastery lies on the north eastern fringe of the top and it is a complex of temples of which the main one bears the names of various contributors for the “sewa karai” (charity that gets deposited in the name of the place of worship). There was a partly demolished arched gateway and a compound of dome topped settlements. Black, grey with a tinge of green was the color these structures bore on them as imprints from time, water and neglect. The place gave an abandoned look, the wind blowing and rustling through leaves evenly complementing the haunted outlook. On the western spur was this secluded dome topped outpost that is attributed to Guru Nanak’s penance here at Tilla Jogiyan. From there the flat top embraces a sheer fall that is enough to put one’s head in a spiral if looked down upon. On all sides the view across was breathtaking, and being on the top of the dominating structure felt good and refreshing. Almost towards the center of the hilltop is this Mughal or Sikh era water tank. Lined with stairs on all four sides it has these half mast minarets at the entrance. Towards one side there was a walled compartment with arched gateway with a staircase access to the bottom, presumably a bathing compartment for women. There were demolished walls and structures scattered on the hilltop that presented the monastery as a large settlement capable of accommodating a sizeable number of students and followers. Just beside the final turn on the route leading to the hilltop was this podium made of stalked stones. My companions indicated the podium to me as the place where reportedly Ranjha (of Heer) went through the ritual of piercing his earlobes to wear the wooded ear-rings, the symbolic attire of Kanphata Jogis of Tilla. To take the folklore to the next level of entertainment there was another attraction. A brief tunnel across the western ridge carries the name “Chappanr Chatti” and it his here that our beloved lead cast of Heer and Ranjha is reported to have enjoyed hide and seek. We (myself and Ghulam Rasul) did crawl across the other side to enjoy a stunning view and made our way back to the home side. In case you are wondering, dear reader, it was not reliving the hide and seek of Heer Ranjha, No! not even close to that …

The Monastery at Tilla Jogiyan
The domed cells at the monastery
The arch and the dome; the monastery
A temple at Tilla Jogiyan
Ruins of the arched gateway beside the temple
The domed outpost on the western fringe, marking the place of Guru Nanak's penance at Tilla Jogiyan
The Water Tank, presumably built in the times of Ranjit Singh
The minarets on the entrance to water tank
Bathing Compartment, The Water Tank
Bathing compartment at the water tank
The place where reportedly Ranjha got his earlobes pierced. 'Heeray ni Ranjha jogi hogaya!
Chappanr Chattti, a mini tunnel where the folk tale lovers Heer Ranjha are reported to have been playing Hide and Seek

Having explored the Tilla Settlements, we had lunch, rather supper, to put the time in right perspective, nicely cooked and finger licking good, courtesy Obaidullah and the caretaker of the rest house, as me and Ghulam Rasul were busy exploring. Tummies filled and their contents adequately garnished with a subtle dose of tea, we packed up for the ride downhill. It carried all inconveniences of the climb plus the dread of rolling down as if in a free fall. It was the onset of dusk when the party returned to Chak Mehmanda where the group had reassembled to welcome us. We exchanged greetings over a cup of tea and there came the difficult part, seeking my leave amidst all the insistence for the dinner and the night stay with these wonderful people. It was nothing short of a hostage situation, where I had to negotiate my release with the promise to return one day. Since that day, these people have kept their contact with me alive, calling to ask my well being with the reminder of the pending visit I had promised. Back from Tilla the same day, there is a part of me alive in Chak Mehmanda exactly as a part of me that wanders atop that solitary hill of Tilla Jogiyan. During evening walks I still feel that subtle breeze from the monastery on my face and a mere blink of an eye takes my heart to that delightful flight through the breathtaking views I captured from the top. The calls from Mirza Shafqat, Ch Abdullah, Ghulam Rasul remind me that I know some very fine people on this earth, a feeling that makes me feel richer everyday…


Ghulam Rasool and Obaidullah

Ladies and Gentlemen, that day at Chak Mehmanda I had willingly auctioned myself and some very nice people paid me back, full and way beyond what I am actually worth…

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  1. Even though I wasn’t there, it transported me to the place of the action, as a silent observer. I enjoyed reading this as much as hearing the tale the first time round. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

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