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Jalal-ud-Din Mohammad Akbar was the grandson of Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, whose dynasty lasted for over three centuries in the Indian subcontinent. Out of all the descendants of Babar,  Akbar is considered to be the most successful emperor. There are many stories and legends about Akbar’s sense of justice which kept the multicultural Mughal Empire united during his reign which lasted for fifty long years (1556-1605). With the passage of time these stories must have changed and branched in several versions, this blog is just about one version of a story.

One day a group of Hindus came to the palace of Akbar with a complaint against a few Muslims.   They demanded justice as the Muslims had beaten up one of their masons. Akbar summoned the Muslim group and soon the Muslims and the Hindus stood in front of him in two separate groups.

Akbar ordered to begin the hearing. First to speak was a man from the Muslim group, he accused the Hindus of taking the bricks from his masjid to build their mandir. To this, a Hindu responded “My King, those were the leftover bricks of their newly built masjid, they were thrown aside so we took them with the permission of the mullah”.  Another man from the Muslim group interrupted, “My King, we cannot allow the bricks of our masjid to go in the building of a mandir”.  A third man from the Muslim group, who looked composed, stepped forward and asked him, “My brother, what difference does it make, they too were using the bricks for building the house of their God.” The first Muslim who had opened the dialogue could not bear all this and addressed the King, “My King, there is difference, we offer Namaz, they worship idols”. On this the Hindu responded, “My King, the masjid and the mandir both house God, we call him Rama, they call him Raheem”.

Akbar had been listening patiently to both the groups and finely gave his verdict. Looking at the Hindu man he began, “Young man, I will not betray your trust in my justice. I am proud you did not take law in your hands and those who do so deserve to be punished”.  He then turned towards the Muslim group and continued, “On the pretext of bricks I will not allow violence. In the name of religion I will not allow the fire of hatred to spread in my kingdom. The culprits will be duly punished”. Akbar concluded by repeating Babar’s advice to his descendants, “Love the masjids and respect the mandirs.”

In his later years Akbar allowed the Jesuit priests to build their churches in his empire. Today some of the mullahs refer to him as a non-believer and a heretic while history records him as Akbar the Great.

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Last week, at the Ohio State University, Columbus, during a presentation on Moen jo Daro I was asked a question which I have always asked myself, what was the status of women in the Indus Civilization? I have already given part of the answer in my book on Moen jo Daro, but still there is a lot that we need to know about the role of women in those ancient times.

Archaeological evidence gives us a limited answer. The discovery of the well-known bronze female statuette, the Nautch Girl of Sir John Marshall, has led to the belief that dancing girls existed in Moen jo Daro; There are also hundreds of terracotta female figurines unearthed from the site and some of these are considered to be the images of mother goddesses; female images are also carved on a few seals. Most prominent of these is a narrative seal carved with a ritual scene wherein a female deity stands exalted in front of her seven women worshipers. We have to bear in mind that there is no textual evidence available to confirm the authenticity of the labels assigned to them. Our common sense also says that between the dancing girls and mother goddesses there must be women ranging from potters and dyers to brick makers and builders and even scribes who engraved the tiny steatite seals with strange symbols and signs. In the absence of any tangible evidence of such women I suggest to consider a secondary source, the folklore.

Luckily, some of the sufi poets of the Indus region, especially of Sindh and Punjab have not marginalized women in their poetry. In fact, Shah Abdul Latif, Sindh’s most revered Sufi saint and poet, had retrieved seven women characters from the past and presented them in his poetry as great heroes. Though most of them were born in ordinary homes but out of love they are called the seven queens. Sohini, was a potter’s daughter; Sassui, a washer man’s daughter; Noori a fisher-woman and Marvi a desert girl. Their stories are of unrequited love and they ended up as victims of fate, but there was something extraordinary in their beauty and their craft which attracted princes.

Shah Latif’s poems also reveals a few places associated with these women; Bhanbhore where one of them (Sassui) lived, Umarkot where another (Marvi) was imprisoned and in a strange structure in the middle of the lake Noori is buried, these landmarks in the stories of Sindhi queens are worth exploring. If Moen jo Daro, is a window to the pre-historic past these three shed light on the historic periods.

Bhanbhore is located about thirty miles east of Karachi, in the province of Sindh. According to Latif: “Dark was Bhanbhore; Punhoon arrived and brightened it” Punhoon was a prince of Ketch Makran, who bought with his caravan many exotic items. Archaeologists, on the other hand, identify Bhanbhore with Debal, the first city of the sub-continent conquered by the Arab Muslims in the early eighth century. Excavations have revealed Bhanbhore’s origins to the first century BCE and it had been home to the Buddhists, Hindus, Sassanids, Parthians and Scythians before the Arab occupation. Further excavations might reveal older cultural levels bringing it even closer to the Indus period. Even the name Bhanbhore, which has come to the posterity through the poetry of Latif, is much older than the recorded name Debal.

Umarkot, located in the Thar Desert, is said to be a twelfth century fort of Umar the Soomra prince where he imprisoned Marvi an abducted desert girl. A deeper research in the history of Umarkot reveals that the fort is much older and belongs to a pre-Islamic era as suggested by its original name Amarkot after the Rajput Rana Amar Singh.

The third structure built in the middle of Keenjhar or Kalri lake looks strange due to the circular shape bordered with a short wall whose roof seems to be blown off. It is considered to be the grave of Noori but it also reminds me of the circular wall of the stupa that crowned the site of Moen jo Daro. Could it be the shell of another Buddhist stupa? If these structures are older than what is traditionally thought it brings them closer to the Indus period and they might be holding some links which can be connected to the ancient past.

So a part of the answer about the position of women in Indus civilization can come from reexamining the folklore. It is true that Latif’s poetry belongs to the mid seventeenth century, but poets, as I always say, can be avatars of ancient storytellers, hence, it is very likely that the versions of Latif’s queens may have very well lived and died in the ancient Indus cities. The connection is elusive, but ironically, for a clearer picture of the past we have to probe the murky realms of folklore. This approach of understanding the ancient Indus society will require collaboration between the mainstream Indus archaeologists and the scholars of indigenous languages and culture. For now, those who would like to hear some samples of folk stories and songs please check the links below.

Sohini Mahival’s story by Ashiq Jatt (Punjabi)
Sassui song by Muhammad Ibrahim (Sindhi)
Umar Marvi song and the fort of Umarkot (Sindhi)
Noori’s grave

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