A Walled City of Mohallas, Mosques, Temples and a Gurudwara

It was a Sunday morning when Waseem called on Facebook messenger. We had been in touch with regard to some of my recent posts on the footprint of old Grand Trunk route, the Uttarpatha. I told him that I was composing my trip to the ancient city of Bhera that I had visited back in 2014. Waseem shared with me an interesting story. In ancient times Bhera was a flourishing kingdom encompassing he vale of Kashmir and Punjab highland. For the caravans travelling from Central Asia, Afghanistan to this prosperous land, Jhelum river beside Bhera was a suitable transit to recuperate and resume their journey. Now Bhera was a junction facing a multitude of routes leading to a number of destinations reaching to and originating from this prosperous kingdom. One prominent route led to he vale of Kashmir, whereas a central route headed through Indian plains to Paltiputra in the direction of south east. Another route headed down south to the flourishing kingdom of Mooltan. To our simple traveler of the yore with limited navigational aids this was a cunning maze with caravans losing their way more often than not. Hence, this place, that we don’t know by what name(s) went by then, came to be known as be – rah (Urdu term meaning ‘lost en-route’). This be – rah later transitioned to Bhera overtime.

Some quick notes from the pages of history

Now Alexander Cunningham would differ with us in telling that the original name of Bhera is reported as Bhadravati Nagari and is related to Raja Bhadra Sena. Waseem’s narration might have been pure imagination or a folklore version but it did spark some interest on ancient trade routes in India that we do know had existed and matured over time. Caravans traveled on East-West route that originated from eastern borders and traversed Punjab and present day Afghanistan to reach Bukhara to subsequently tread on the ancient Silk Road. Among north-south routes there was one passing through Bhera that was taken by caravans heading to Multan where they joined grand caravans en-route to Middle East through Sind and Makran. This guided me to Moti Chandra’s celebrated ‘Trade and trade routes in ancient India’. The book has an interesting account of these routes from earlier times and their evolution over ages. We come across a chapter dedicated to the sub-continent trading with Roman Empire and another one on naval routes and merchant fleets travelling Indian Ocean, but that would fall beyond the scope of this article. Coming back to trade routes, following is reproduced as a graphical representation of these routes within the sub-continent straight from Moti Chandra’s book.

Trade and trade routes in ancient India’ by Moti Chandra

From the account of these capitals in the Mauryan period it is apparent that the Grand Route took the same direction as in the time of the Buddha. On the Grand Route passing to the north of Kurukshetra was situated Hastinapura, Ahichhatra, Kunala, Setavja, Sravasti, Mithila, Champa and TSmralipti; on the southern Grand Route in the Gangetic valley appear Mathura, Kampilla, Soreyya, Saketa, Kosambi and Varanasi. The names of other capital cities intimate the routes of Malwa, Rajasthan, the Panjab and Saurashtra.

Trade and trade routes in ancient India' by Moti Chandra

In Moti Chandra’s book, Bhera appears only once and that too while describing the prominent capitals during Mauryan period. Bhera was likely the capital of the province of Sindhu-Suvaira and carried the name Vitibhaya Patna. Dear reader, this is not the earliest reference to Bhera on the pages of history, in fact that comes to us from Greek historians while writing about Alexander’s campaign on the banks of river Jhelum in 326 BCE.

Greek historian Arrian while writing on Alexander’s campaigns in India in Anabasis, mentions “Palace of Sopeithes” on the banks of Hydaspes (Jhelum) river which is believed to be the kingdom of Bhera. The book ‘Alexander’s Campaign in Southern Punjab’ by Eggermonts deliberates on Kingdom of Sopeithes. As per the authors it comprised greater part of Jhelum – Chenab (Jech) Doab as well as the district of Salt Range towards the west of Jhelum River. The oldest mention of name ‘Bhera’ is in the shape of Bheda, and this comes to us from the chinese traveler Fa Hian and that was year 400 CE. We don’t hear much about Bhera from Fa Hian other than the mention of the prosperity of Buddhism in the country. Tareekh e Ferishta of Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah mentions Bhera as an ancient city, where one Raja Keid stayed after capturing Punjab. As per Ferishta this was the time after the death of Rustam, 7th century CE. Alexander Cunnigham tells us that this Keid Raja of Ferishta was a prominent Gakkhar Chief and that as per Gakkhar chronology existed around 4th century CE. In both situations, Bhera’s ancient status gets furhter verified.

Bhera pops up from the pages of history again during the Battle of Bhatia, an early 11th century expedition by Mahmud of Ghazni. Mahmud defeated Biji Rai, the ruler of Bhera and ransacked the town. Next time Bhera faced another intruder was in 13th century CE and this time it was the Mongol onslaught on India. It’s said that Genghis Khan after the battle of Indus in Attock district near a village that goes by the name Sojhanda, had dispatched two detachments in pursuit of fleeing Jalaluddin of Khwarzum. One of these detachments under General Turtai attacked and destroyed Bhera before taking this rampage onto Multan.

Bhera, in fact, was a conspicuous pint d’appui in the north-western Punjab and the spot from which military operations could be most advantageously conducted. It was the thoroughfare of every invading army – a key-position, or strategic pivot the importance of which is demonstrated by historical facts which it will not do to ignore.

Studies in Indo-Muslim History by S.H.Hodivala

We fast forward to the year 1519, and it was 17th of February when Mughal Emperor Babar crossed Indus eyeing the fertile and rich lands of Bhera. Babar took the city and stayed here for little less than a month. We move ahead by a count of a few years and it’s now 1540. Sher Shah Suri having defeated Mughal army of Humayun at Kanauj was on hot pursuit and is said to have halted at Khushab near Bhera. From here he dispatched a force to Pharwala Fort seeking allegiance of Gakkhar cheiftains Adam Khan and Sarang. Ghakkars were Mughal allies from the times of Babar and our beloved travel writer Salman Rashid tells us that Sarang Khan dispatched two lion cubs with all the sarcasm hinting at Sher Shah to pet these cubs hence learn the true chivalry. Now our Suri King took pleasure in adorning himself with the title Sher Shah (the Lion King), whereas, Gakkhars regarded him as a traitor to have revolted against the Mughal throne of Babar of which Sher Shah had been an obedient subject. History tells us that as Pharwala campaign resulted in a humiliation, Sher Shah Suri decided to stay in Khushab to deliberate upon safeguarding against Gakkhar ingress across Jhelum into Punjab heartland. It was here that the plan and selection of site to build Rohtas Fort was finalized. The work on construction at Rohtas started in 1541 when Sher Shah had already left for Bengal, but during his stay here the king had commissioned a grand mosque, the Sher Shahi Masjid at Bhera.

Present day Bhera

Bhera Service Area is a pit-stop for almost all intercity road liners on Motorway M2. A signage nearby announces a Sher Shahi Mosque in Bhera, few kms off the motorway. That signboard does not tell what you will miss other than the mosque by not vising this historic town. Bhera has everything for someone in love with history and architecture. City gates, intricate wood-worked doors, jharokas, temples, a gurudwara and scores of mosques, and a history spanning centuries. Present day Bhera lies on Malakwal road on the eastern bank of river Jhelum. Opposite the present town, across River Jhelum lie an ancient mound that is believed to be Old Bhera. Babar in his Tuzuk when mentions Bhera, he refers to its location as on west bank of Jhelum river with clarity and on more than one occasions. In this context, the present day settlement at Bhera is most likely the reconstruction that took flight during Sher Shah Suri’s halt at Khushab in pursuit of Humayun. We exactly don’t know what calamity befell the old town on the western bank of river Jhelum. What we do know is that present day Bhera was established as the fortified town with a wall and city gates. Not all the gates survive and a few have been rebuilt. A circular roads run circumventing the town where there used to be the city wall. The city still boasts old architecture, a Sher Shahi Masjid, countless ancient and modern mosques studding the townscape, a Sikh gurudwara and a handful of Hindu temples. It’s a delightful potpourri of old structures neighboring the new construction, ancient colors transitioning to a modern day palette. People of Bhera call it 

بھیرہ : پُھلّاں دا سہرا

Bhera, a Walled City

Bhera was a bustling hub of communities that were both socially as well as physically intermingled, through narrow arteries of streets and their offshoots for the latter, and everyday interactions across densely populated mohallas for the former. In line with the practices of its times, Bhera was structured as a wall city with eight city gates. The wall is now gone and so are most of the gates. Circular road runs on the perimeter of Bhera walled city which still is a dense hub of around 90% of present day inhabitants of Bhera. A few gates exist now, a few as a modern day reconstruction and others as dilapidated crumbling structures from past years. During our visit that day we came across the Chinioti Gate that is a modern reconstruction and leads to Bhera’s main bazar. On the eastern fringe is yet another modern day reconstruction of Lahori Gate. Near to that, Kashmiri gate stands as a fading and crumbling silhouette in pale yellow and grey contrast of colors.

I met Bhera around late morning having scouted the circular road in search of surviving city gates, I eventually parked my car under the watchful eyes and safekeeping of a shop owner on the periphery of Bhera, and this dear readers comes with a delightful ease. The moment people know that you are a visitor to their city, you become an unannounced guest to them. I had to park my car as the trip inside the densely populated city streets wouldn’t be possible on a ride and the hotel walay bhai from where I was sipping my blissful tea offered me free parking and free of charge surveillance of my car in my absence to which I gratefully obliged. And I was about to come across even more wonderful people and the selfless and ever friendly Muhammad Tahir Abbas who would voluntarily take up a duty to show me around and bring me face to face with some fascinating stories in a not less than 4 hours non-stop tour guided joy ride.

Armed with a lot of curiosity and my phone camera I took on the city and headed to the city center where an ancient Gurudwara was reported. Upon reaching the site I discovered that it was now a functional Imambargah. Having taken the flight of stairs I was welcomed by Tahir Abbas, Tanveer Naqvi and the pesh imam Maulana Asad Abbas Asadi. Having known my intention of looking up the old Sikh architecture of the building they initiated a conversation thus getting to know of my broader intent of being at Bhera. It was over tea and snacks in the Imambargah that the plan was chalked out.

My Hosts at Bhera, Tahir Abbas, Tanveer Naqvi and Maulana Asad Abbas Asadi

A Gurudwara with a European Architecture

The tour began with a detailed visit to the Gurudwara converted Imambargah. Though the layout of the building is changed commensurate with the change in religious orientation, there are old elements of architecture still preserved on both interior and exterior of the building. The architecture has a European touch with a hint of Italian tradition. The construction is in thick fired bricks where the old footprint survives. There are three defining elements on the exterior to include a minaret, an old styled jahroka and two terraced arches with intricate iron work. The minaret is partly renovated but on the top still bears the original kalas in late Mughal / Sikh style. The jharoka juts out from the center of the first floor. The streets being narrow there was very limited angle available to take a photograph and I could manage a slant view both from ground and the terraces on first floor. The iron work on the terraces is ornate and showcases master craftsmanship as it’s twined together without a single touch of any welding work. One of the windows on the exterior has this Gurumukhi inscription in nicely cut brick-work. On the interior I was shown around some original tile and glass work that glistened with their ancient colors in full bloom. From the top of the minaret we afforded some majestic view of Bhera city and surroundings.

We unfortunately don’t know the exact date of construction for the gurudwara. Some hints do come to us form the ethnic history of people at Bhera. The inhabitants of the town claim themselves to be of the Khukrain clan, a sub-caste of Khatris. Predominantly from Hindu religion, some converted to Sikhism during 18th / 19th centuries. Now we do know Bhera kept it’s prominence during the reign of Ranjit Singh and it was during those times that a taksal (mint) was established here. It was probably around same time that the Gurudwara at Bhera might have been built.

Mosques at Bhera, a ‘rundown’ across the city

It was Maulana Asadi who deputed Tahir to accompany me to a detailed visit of Bhera old city, but Tahir had already volunteered himself for the task. A thorough gentleman who was well aware of town history took me along and the first thing he told me was that Bhera is the city of mosques and he was right. You negotiate your way through the entangled maze of tiny streets of Bhera and on every corner you shall come across a mosque. Historic in original colours, renovated as well as newly constructed, these mosques ornate Bhera with amazing architecture, intricate motifs and a bouquet of colors. We started our tour from the Khilji Mosque in Sheikhanwala Muhallah, that is reported to be the oldest mosque in Bhera from Khilji era, around 14th century CE. We don’t have any supporting evidence to that claim and the the plaque on the mosque bears a year of construction 1266 AH equivalent to 1850 CE, and it’s believed that it might be the year of renovation / rebuildig of the mosque during Mughal era. The mosque has elegant domes and turrets the architecture of which resembles Mughal tradition.

This tour of ours finished at oldest mosque of Bhera, and the most ornate one as well. The Sher Shah Suri mosque that is believed to have been built around 1540/1541 during the Suri King’s stay at neighboring Khushab. This mosque underwent major renovation during British era in 1860 and again in 1960 under the supervision of Bugvi family. The mosque has those signature three domes, but is different in layout and design from other Mughal / Lodhi era mosques found in caravanserais along the old Grand Trunk Raod. We do see the highlights of Afghan architecture in the geometrical designs in three arched entrances and imposing domes of the mosque. The mosque also hosts a library and research center with some rare manuscripts.

In between the Khilji and Sher Shahi Mosques, I and Tahir were literally on a run to visit scores of other mosques on winding and interspersed streets of Bhera. It was a fantasy ride through Hakimwali mosque, Haafizani mosque, Gondianwali mosque, Jamia Masjid Qazianwali, Jamia Masjid Muhajireen, Jamia Masjid Farooqia and many more mosques and old shrines in the city.

City Temples: Hindushahi remnants

In the midst of our exploring spree inside the city, we took a break as suggested by Tahir and came out of the city taking the exit near the shrine of Pir Azam Shah. From here a kacha track leads to Jhelum River and at near distance stood tall in ancient grace the shikara and kalas of a Hindu temple. This dear reader is Baoliwala temple that survives in its original colors but vandalized from inside. The building has a main chamber for worship, basement cells and a gallery around the worshiping chamber. The structure with its foundation is in good shape but there’s damage to the prayer chamber, basement cells and the gateway arches. No one from the other faith prays here and the temple’s profile resembles a secluded haunting place on the banks of Jhelum river, left to rot away from the confines of Bhera.

Back to Bhera we headed to nearby Sheikhanwala Mohalla where there’s another temple now located inside the walls of a private residence. The square profile with an elegant shikara was visible and photographed. We could not secure our entry into the house to take a closer look.

Nagianwala Mohalla in Bhera has this ancient structure that is octagonal in shape with a circular dome on the top. The building has a small covered hallway or verandah. It’s when we examine the style of hindushahi arches closely and the murals on them we discover the building is a temple. It’s a Shiva temple dedicated to the sect and practices of Nath Jogis, the worshiping clan of Guru Gorakhnath or Balnath. The clan of Nath Jogis is associated with the tale of mythical Tilla Jogiyan and there in Bhera they left an everlasting footprint in the shape of Shiva temple, that is decaying to cruel element of neglect that we the people of Pakistan have in abundance.

The People and Old Mohallas

On the pages of history Bhera has been the ancient home of people belonging to the ethnic group Khukrain who trace their origin in the area of Salt Range. Khukrain are the specific clans, the count of which is usually placed to be eight, of Khatri caste. It is also said that Porus who fought the army of Alexander as Purushottama, the king of Kekaya land of the Puru tribe was also a Khukrain. These clans inhabited the area between Sind Sagar Doab (the land between rivers Sind and Jhelum) and Jach Doab (the land between rivers Jhelum and Chenab). Khukrains included Kohli, Sahini, Sabharwal, Suri, Sethi, Bhasin, Anand and Chadha clans which later expanded to include more. These were the warrior people who are said to have faced the brunt of attackers onto Bhera and Salt Range and there were many as we discovered in the beginning of this post. In the subsequent decades these clans saw conversions to both Muslim and Sikh faiths but kept their clans as part of their names. In Bhera up until partition Khukrains from all faiths lived peacefully as a community and that is evident from it’s ancient intertwined mohallas. The people called themselves Bherochis, the proud residents of Bhera.

Within the gates of Bhera is a dwindling maze of interconnected mohallas and abadis. Much of the old structures are lost to modern day construction and many communities lost their traces as the time progressed. If one takes a stroll as I and Tahir Abbas did that day, we comes across edifices with a glimpse of old architecture, intricate woodwork on jharokas and doors and fading colors from the bygone days. This is the true heritage of Bhera, as by the mere sight of a building the local residents readily associate that structure with one of the old mohallas. It happened that afternoon, and dear reader, it happened many a times that Tahir Abbas and other good people of Bhera while conducting me through old residences kept updating me to their association to Mohalla Khawajgan or Sheikhanwala Mohalla, or Sahinianwala Mohalla, Mohalla Kolianwala, Mohalla Sethianwala and many others. It was a trip down the lanes of past in a distinct time and space dimension where time just froze.

The map of gates and mohallas at Bhera, that my readers came across earlier in this post is a reproduction from a source that I came across at Bugvia Library at the Sher Shahi Mosque. That library is an excellent resource on the history of Bhera and a potential heaven for research candidates. I was not a research candidate but a wanderer relying upon street wisdom, roaming around the place, meeting the ageing and young inhabitants, and listening to their stories. We came across a few that day from the local elders of Bhera. Little did I know that I will come across a few more from across the border.

The Bhera that dwells on the other side of ‘Border’

At the time of Partition in 1947, Hindu and Sikh Bherochis had to leave their beloved city of Bhera and migrate to new lands across the freshly drawn border. Those who once had to bid farewell to this fair place, still hold memories close to their hearts and a few out of nostalgia have taken a pilgrimage back to these childhood streets. One famous account that pops up on internet searches is a very nice piece by Kalpana Sahini of her visit to Bhera that appeared in Outlook India. Her visit was inspired by her father Bhisham Sahini’s memories and historical novel, Mayyadas ki Madi, set in Bhera. Ms Sahini did visit the Mohalla Sahini, or Shinianwala Mohalla and penned some nice interactions with the local ladies.

Then there was this moving account of bygone days at Bhera by Gian Sarup, a Bherochi Hindu who migrated from Bhera as a 13 years old teen. Gian tells us that a large number of Bhera refugees settled in Delhi and there established Bhera Enclave. He remembers there were other localities to include Gujranwala Town, Multan Colony and Miyanwali Nagar. In the office of the Enclave’s Community Center, the lead plaque tells the visitors, “The residents of Bhera Enclave fondly remember BHERA – the city of their ancestors.”

One day we brothers sat down and prepared a schematic map of our DhoanaN wala Mohalla (named after the Hindu caste of Dhawans) as it existed in the pre-Partition days. We numbered all the houses inside the mohalla and in the alley leading to it from 1 to 30, and prepared a companion list of the names of the families that lived in these houses until 1947. Unlike most Hindu neighborhoods like SahniyaN da Mohalla, our mohalla and a few others were gated neighborhoods with their circumscribed boundaries.

Memoirs of Gian Saroup from their blogpost on Bhera

Gian in his memoirs remembers his lost home with a heartache in the sorrowful lines from a poem by Abdul Hameed Adam

ایک سارسوں کا قافلہ
شوقِ وطن دل میں لیے
آزاد سب افکارسے
اٹکھیلیاں کرتا ہوا
واپس تھا گھرکوجارہا

ek saarson ka qafila,
shauq-e-watan dil mein liye
aazad sab afkaar se
athkelian karta hua
wapis tha ghar ko jaa raha

Bhera of present day, dear reader is a picture not very different from the lines above. A town that flourished on the crossroads of history gradually lost it’s importance. It’s a fading abode with crumbling structures and lost streets. On the horizon of time Bhera is embracing the oblivion. As the local folk verse from Bhera goes

بھیرہ پُھلّاں دا سہرا
پُھل گئے مرجھا
بھیرہ رکھ لیا خدا

Bhera phullan da sehra
Phull gaey murjhaa
Bhera rakh leya Khuda
Bhera, the land of (lost) dreams

Books and Authors

Trade and trade routes in ancient India, Moti Chandra
Abhinav Publications, 1977
Archaeological Survey Of India: Reports (1862-1884), Alexander Cunningham, Rahul Publishing House, 1994
Gazetteer of the Shahpur District, J. Wilson, I.C.S., Deputy Commissioner and Settlement Collector, Revised Edition, 1897
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