Tribes of the Thal Desert: Bandial, Bhachar, and Ghanjera

I am interested in the history of Pakistan, and in particular its people. Trawling through the net, I find that there is little or no information on the history of this great nation. By history, I don’t mean descriptions of major events or incidents, but rather the history of its local traditions and customs. This is my first attempt at blog writing, so please bear that in mind when reading the rest of this article.

I thought that I should start off by looking at a region in western Punjab, known as the Thal, and in particular some of the tribes that inhabit it. The Thal is a large desert situated between the Jhelum and Sindh rivers, just south of the Pothohar Plateau. Its total length from north to south is a 190 miles, and its widest is 70 miles (110 km) and narrowest is 20 miles. The Thal is all that remains of the semi-arid uplands that existed between rivers of western Punjab prior to the 19th Century constructions of canals by the British colonial authorities, which led to the creation of what is now a largely irrigated region. This process also involved settlement of peasant colonists from what is now Indian Punjab.

Map of the Thal Desert

This region is home to a number of tribes that can be loosely grouped under the name Jat. In the Thal, the term refers to any tribal grouping that practiced pastoral nomadism. Each tribe historically occupied distinct areas where they enjoyed prerogatives to grazing, and often claimed descent from a common ancestor. Settlement in the desert were called rakhs, which were located near a well. These well were strongly defended by the tribe, and were often causes of fights. Among the larger tribes of the region that come under the rubric Jat include the Aheer, Aulakh, Baghoor, Bhachar,Bhidwal, Chhina, Gahi, Ghallu, Jhammat, Johiya, Kanyal, Khokhar, Majoka, Mammak, Naich, Parhar, Panwar, Rahdari, Saigra, Sandhila, Sial, Talokar, Tiwana, Uttra and Wahla. In addition, this desert region is also home to some Baloch tribes such as the Kulachi, Lashari, and Waghra Magsi. All these tribes spoke the Thalochi dialect of Punjabi, which is very close to Seraiki. .Dialects Of Punjabi.jpg

Dialects of Punjabi: Source Wikipedia

I shall in this blog look at three such tribes, the Bandial, Bhachar, and Ghanjera individually. I would also ask the reader to look at my article on the Tiwana, which gives some further background on the history of the Thal. Hopefully, time permitting; I shall expand this by looking at some of the others mentioned in the list. The teritory of the Thal that I will look at it in this post was occupied by Khushab Tehsil of then Shahpur District, and Bhakkar Tehsil of the then Mianwali District. Both these tehsils are now districts in their own right. Below is a list of tribes that were categorised as Jat by 1911 Census of India for what was then the Khushab Tehsil, which occupied a significant area of the Thal desert.

Tribe Population
Gondal 5,224
Joiya /Johiya 1,960
Mekan 822
Dhudhi 774
Jora 718
Aheer 656
Thaheem 650
Khichi 609
Bains 482
Sujal 445
Langah 440
Bhatti 264
Chhina 245
Chadhar 211
Ranjha 209
Dhal 188
Burana 147
Kharal 141
Kalyar 133
Warraich 119
Dhako 118
Bhutta 101
Virk 100
Hatiar 92
Sipra 72
Sandrana 71
Lak 71
Noon 61
Jarola 33
Kalera 29
Haral 16
Parhar 13
Rehan 13
Lali 11
Talokar 5

In 1911, the Gondal were the largest Jat tribe in the tehsil, although as their villages were found along Jhelum river, with very few were located in the Thal, they differed much from other Thalochi tribes. The Joiyas on the other hand had several rakhs located in the middle of the Thal. Other important tribes of the Khushab Thal were the Aheer, whose territory was located below the Salt Range, and the Mekan and Dhudhi, both tribes of Panwar Rajput ancestry, whose territory lay on along the Khushab and Mianwali boundary. In the Khushab Bhakkar boundaries, we find the Chhina and Chadhar, who were found in larger numbers Bhakkar.

In the Bhakkar Tehsil of the then Mianwali District, the following were labelled as Jats by 1911 Census of India:


Tribe Population
Chhina 2,716
Sial 1,905
Johiya / Joiya 1,612
Bhatti 1,517
Ghallu 1,458
Jakhar 1,415
Dhal 1,250
Bhidwal 1,236
Chadhar 1,048
Dhudhi 1,019
Sandi 892
Khar 850
Aulakh 819
Unu 667
Hansi 661
Assar 640
Bhinder 588
Ghorhawal 587
Asran 584
Soomra 575
Chhajra 575
Pumma 570
Sangra 568
Aulara 526
Kanera 526
Sahi 499
Mallana 494
Auler Khel 492
Kanyal 458
Brakha 456
Kharal 378
Bhawan 375
Kallu 281
Jhammat 237
Khohawer 173
Dahral 163
Kundi 149
Bains / Waince 133
Janjua 130
Targar 129
Aheer 124
Kalhar 120
Jora 104
Bhamb 101
Makkal 86
Samtia 77
Bhutta 75
Saand/ Saund 24
Chahura 21
Turkhel 19

Most of these tribes are no longer pastoral, having all settled down to a sedentary agricultural based lifestyle. Furthermore, as the Thal was the site of large scale settlement of refugees from eastern Punjab by the Pakistan government, cases of compact territory are rare, and restricted to those areas of the Thal which have not seen canal colonisation, for example Rahdari still occupy a compact territory near the village of the same name. Despite differences, the tribes share a common language, Thalochi, and other customs and traditions. They also all share a common traditions of migration, with an ancestor leaving territory in India and migrating to the Thal, and converting to Islam at the hands of the Sufi saint during the course of this migration. In addition, almost all the tribes claim to belonging to larger tribal grouping, such as the Panwar of central India, or claims to be sub-groups of larger categories such as Khokhar or Bhatti. For exambly, the Baghoor and Bhachar both are clans of the Khokhar tribe, while the Tiwana claim to Panwar ancestry.


The Khokhars

Wilson, author of the Shahpur (present day Sargodha and Khushab districts) Gazetteer wrote the following:

Almost every tribe is again subdivided into clans called muhi or smaller groups of agnates, distinctly recognised as descended through males only from a somewhat remote common ancestor, and usually bearing a common name

The tribes that I am looking at this post all claim to be clans of the Khokhar tribe. Wilson writing about Khokhars observed the following:

On both side of the Jhelum from about Bhera down to the Jhang border and on into Jhang itself, there are many villages owned by clans calling themselves Khokhar, or as a secondary tribal name in addition to their local clan name.

The Khokhars tribes looked at in this post occupy the norther portions of the Thal and the river valleys of Jhelum. They are fairly compact, the Bandial founder further east around the village of Bandial in Khushab, the Ghanjera further to the west, between the Bandial and Bhachar, and the Bhachar based in Mianwali.


The Bandial are Khokhars, and their name ending with the suffix ial suggest a possible origin in the Pothohar region. So who exactly are the Bandial. According to their traditions, their ancestor was a Allah Banda Khan, who arrived from Jaura (near the banks of the Jhelum), about four centuries ago, expelled the Awans, and established his rule over the region where the Salt Range meets the Thal desert. His descendants are the Bandial, literally the sons of Banda, and established the town of Bandial. Like most minor chieftanship, their independence was ended by the Ranjeet Singh, the Sikh ruler in the early 19th Century.


Another interesting tribe found mainly in the periphery of the Thal are the Bhachars, who are found mainly in the town of Wan Bhachran, and villages nearby such as Dera Atta Mohammadwala at the northern edge of the Thal desert. The Bhachars are a clan of the historic and large Khokhar tribe. They state that their original home was in the Gujrat District, from where they migrated, first to Buggi Bhooki near Girot in Khushab District, and later to their present site, which was chosen on account of the “wan” or large well said to be built by the Emperor Sher Shah Suri. These wells were placed at intervals of about a day’s march apart on the road from Gujrat to Bannu in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The name “Bhachar” seems to have been a form of endearment applied to them by some forgotten Pir, from the word bhachra meaning a calf.  According to the 19th Century gazetteer of Bannu District, the Bhachars are really a branch of the Bandial tribe, also Khokhars.  The lands surrounding Wan Bhachran were acquired by a Bandial chief named Malik Surkhru Khan, who established a fort from where he ruled the adjoining region till the rise of the Sikhs in the 19th Century. The Maliks of Wan Bachran are descended from him. Whether they are branch of the Bandial are not, what is clear that they are closely connected with the Khokhar clans of the Sindh Sagar Doab, such as the Bandial, Ghanjera and Ganjial

Like the neighbouring Pathan tribes such as the Niazis, the Bhachars are subdivided into clans that go by the name khels. Among larger Bhachar clans are the Dadukhel, Mohammad khel, Arori khel, Wadoo khel, Tahir khel, Pehlwan khel, Bego khel, Basharat khel, Jany khel, Kory khel, Mamo khel, Ali khel, Mian Ahmad khel, Mian sher khel, Shaho khel, Sui and Dharoi.

Interestingly, there is still village called Bhachar near the town of Mandi Bahauddin, although the population of the village is largely Gondal, with no Bhachar families. However, the Wara Chamian near Malakwal in Mandi Bahauddin districts is still home some Bhachar families. In neighbouring Khushab District, there are several Bhachar families in the village of Mohibpur along the banks of the Jhelum. The presence of these Bhachar settlement does suggest that there was some sort of migration from the east, and valley of Jhelum where the districts of Jhelum and Khushab meet is also home to several other Khokhar clans such as the Bandial, Gunjial and Jalap. Other then Mohibpur, Bhachar are also found in the villages of Dera Atta Muhammadwala, Jhajha, Mehro and Shahwala Shumali near the Khushab Mianwali border, not far from Wan Bhachran. Outside this core area, Bhachar are also found in Talokar village. From what I know, there is no link left between the Mandi Bahauddin Bhachars and those of Wan Bachran.


Moving on to the Ghanjera, who are said to be the earliest settlers in the region located between Wan Bachran and Bandial. Like the Bhachars and Bandial, the Ghanjera are Khokhars. Also like the Bhachar and Bandial, they are said to have arrived from the Chaj (Chenab Jhelum) Doab, in their case from the town of Shahpur in Sargodha District. Incidently, there is a large Ghanjera village near Shahpur called Tankiwala. They originally settled in Wan Bhachran, but when the town was occupied by the Bhachars, and the Ghanjera re-located to the village of Pakka Ghanjera. They are now found in nine villages, such Shikhali, Muzzafarpur, Pakka Ghanjera and Watto, which surround the town of Wan Bhachran. In neighbouring Khushab District, there most important village is Thathi Ghanjera.  The tribe has also produced the famous Sufi saint Khawaj Noor Muhammad Ghanjera.

Perhaps Ghanjera are really known for the legend of Aali Ghanjera, which is perhaps to the Thal what the legend of Heer Ranjha is to Bar. Aali was a cowherd from the village of Vijhara, along the banks of the Jhelum. Salman Rashid’s blog  gives a really good account of the legend. It also harks back to the time when the population was entirely pastoral in Thal Desert.