Footloose: Puran Bhagat —Salman Rashid
All of modern day Pakistan saw prolonged Greek influence beginning with Alexander in the 4th century BCE and ending (with a century-long Mauryan interlude) with the coming of the Sakas in 110 BCE. That was time enough for stories from one culture to take root in the other
Gulbahar, fancifully renamed about twenty-five years ago, is almost a suburb of Sialkot for it lies just a few kilometres from the cantonment on the highroad to Chaprar village. It is unremarkable in every way save for the well of Puran Bhagat. Women come here to bathe in its blessed water as a cure for infertility. Religion is no bar and they come from across the spectrum of religions in Pakistan. Years ago, the elderly attendant had told me they came from ‘as far away as Karachi and Quetta’.
Puran was the first-born son of Raja Salvahan of Sialkot and his queen Ichhran. Upon his birth, astrologers advised the king to sequester the infant prince away from the parents for the first twelve years of life, failing which great calamity was to befall the kingdom. And so, the prince was sent to live in a part of the palace where neither parent was to see him. There he grew up at the breast of wet nurses. There he was provided tutors when he came of age to learn everything a future king was meant to learn.
At the end of the twelve years, he was brought into the presence of his father who greeted him as joyfully as only a father would greet his first-born. And then Salvahan bade his son to go pay respect to his two mothers because in the interim, as Ichhran had failed to produce any more children, the king had wed Luna as well. Puran’s reunion with his mother went well, but Luna, seeing the strapping twelve year-old boy, was instantly besotted.
She took Puran by the hand and would have had him in her bed when he fled. That evening, as Raja Salvahan came to his bed-chamber, he found the corridors dark with nary a lamp lit and a dishevelled Luna sprawled out on her bed in a great show of distress. That stud of the prince that the king had sent to pay respects, she told Salvahan, had attempted to rape her. Truly ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’
Without even attempting to verify the facts, the gullible king ordered his son’s hands and feet amputated and his body dumped in a well outside the city walls. And so it came to pass. There in the well did Puran lie, not yet dead and hardly alive. For a full twelve years did he lie there until the great Guru Goraknath tarried by the well with his disciples. Now Guru Goraknath was the founder of the sect of Kunphatta jogis — jogis with pierced ears, whose monastery was located on the hill of Tilla Jogian near Jhelum.
Puran was discovered by one of the disciples and on the orders of the guru pulled out of the well. Hearing the hapless prince’s sorry tale, the guru was moved to run his healing hands over the mutilated body. Miraculously, Puran was restored to fullness again. The guru now ordered the prince to return to the palace of his father and tell him the real story of Luna’s calumny. But Puran refused. Instead, he joined the guru’s train, went to Tilla Jogian and eventually became a much accomplished jogi himself.
Thereafter he did return to Sialkot and ended up telling his father the truth. The repentant king wanted Puran to remain with him and take over the crown for in the interim years, neither of his wives had borne any more children. Puran refused, but he did tell his father that he was to have another son, from Luna this time, who would inherit the kingdom and make a name for himself. And not long afterwards Salvahan did indeed beget Rasalu, who straddles Punjabi myth and history as a great demon-slayer, hero and an able king.
Because the infertile Luna brought forth a son upon being blessed by Puran Bhagat, the well where he had spent twelve years struggling between life and death became sacred. Henceforth its waters were to cure infertility.
Now, we know that Raja Salvahan, a contemporary of the more famous Vikramaditya of Ujjain, ruled over Sialkot in the 1st century BCE. The story of Puran Bhagat therefore goes as far back. There is, however, every possibility that the story was extant even before with characters of different names. But it is now impossible to sift the chaff of mythology from the grain of historical fact and we cannot really know what must have transpired in reality. Puran may have been banished or, like his contemporary Raja Bhartari, the philosophic elder brother of Vikramaditya, may have voluntarily given up the crown to lead an ascetic’s life. All that is immaterial to the story, however. The fact is that this story has been current for close on two thousand years and that it has a parallel in Greek mythology.
Hippolytus, the son of Theseus the King of Attica, was similarly libelled against by his step-mother Phaedra. There too the king did not deign to verify the facts and banished his son. But not satisfied by expulsion alone, Theseus evoked Poseidon to kill what he thought his errant son. As Hippolytus of the philosophic bent of the mind rode his chariot along the coast one day, Poseidon reared up from the sea in the form of a hideous sea monster. Hippolytus’ horses panicked, throwing off the prince and dashing his head against the boulders.
Whether of Hippolytus or of Puran, it is a poignant and extraordinary story, but what is remarkable is that the two parallels exist so many miles apart from each other. We know that all of modern day Pakistan saw prolonged Greek influence beginning with Alexander in the 4th century BCE and ending (with a century-long Mauryan interlude) with the coming of the Sakas in 110 BCE. That was time enough for stories from one culture to take root in the other.
Alexander took Taxila without a fight because its king, Ambhi, had already made peace with the Macedonian even when he was still in Afghanistan. And when the invading army arrived in Taxila, there were friendly games between Punjabis and members of the Greek garrison. It is not difficult to picture the foreigners in repose around the campfires in the evenings being visited by the Punjabis they had met in the arena earlier in the day. Friendships were made and yarns swapped. Among them would have been the tale of the calumnious step-mother libelling an upright and philosophical prince.
What cannot be determined now is whether the story came with Alexander’s army and was adopted by the Punjabis or it was already prevalent here and it so moved the foreigners that they took it home to make it part of their mythology. Equally, if the Macedonians brought it with them, it greatly impressed the minds of the Sindhu Valley for the story is not restricted to Sialkot alone. We hear it told in Taxila and far away in the south near Hyderabad. On that, next week.
Salman Rashid is a travel writer and knows Pakistan like the back of his hand