Tribes of the Thal: The Muslim Aheer/Ahir of Punjab

In this post, I return the tribes that inhabit the Thal desert region, located in western Punjab, and look at the Aheer or sometimes written as Ahir. The Thal is a vast arid region which is located between the Jhelum and Sindh rivers near the Pothohar Plateau, with a total length from north to south 190 miles, and a maximum breadth of 70 miles (110 km) and minimum breadth 20 miles. The desert covers the districts of Bhakkar, Khushab, Mianwali, Layyah, Muzaffargarh as well as Jhang, from the left bank of the river Jhelum. It is the last remaining desert region in the Doabs of the Punjab, the others now have been arable through a vast networks of canals. As an arid region, the tribes that inhabit it are largely pastoral. I would ask the reader to look at my post on the Bhachars, which gives some background on the ethnology of the Thal region.

 

 

The Aheer, are found throughout the western districts of the Punjab, In the Thal region, they are found mainly in Khushab District, concentrated in the headquarters in Khushab. The Khushab Aheer, are often in the news in Pakistan, due mainly to their active participatiojn in politics, having produced Malik Nasim Aheer, a former interior Minister under General Zia. This article will not concentrate on that family, but will be a general description of the tribe. Urdu sources, which often dismissed by those who either have no knowledge of the language, or pretend they don’t, will be the main basis of this summary. My main source shall be Aqvam-i Panjab by SultÌan Shahbaz Anjum.

 

So who are the Aheer, and the answer is not that simple, in fact with regards to tribal origins, it never is. The name Ahir, which is actually pronounced as Aheer, is used for a large caste cluster found throughout North India, many of whom prefer to call themselves Yadavs. An obvious conclusion would be therefore to conclude the Aheer of the Thal, and others parts of western Punjab, are one and the same as the Ahir. According to the author of the Tehreek Aqwam e Punjab, the Aheers claim descent from Qutab Shah, the ancestor of the Awan and Khokhar tribes, and deny any connection with the Ahir of North India. Denzil Ibbetson, the colonial ethnographer, in his account of the 1881 Census of Punjab, argued that Aheer and Heer was one in the same tribe. There is a single exception, the famous Malik family of Khushab connects itself with the Roas of Rewari. Those who spoke dialects of Lahanda, such as Seraiki or Thalochi tended to refer to themselves as Aheer, while those found in central Punjab refered to themselves as Heer. The Heer, a large Jat clan found throughout central Punjab, stretching from Gujrat to Patiala, together with the Bhullar and Maan clans, claim to be the nucleus of the Jat ethnic group, all other tribes were said to be latter incorporated into the Jat. There is a further division as the Heer can be either Muslim or Sikh, while the Aheer are always Muslim. The 1917 District Gazetteer of Shahpur District, which then occupied most of the Thal, simply refers to the Aheer as ordinary Musalman tribe like their neighbours.

 

I will briefly here go over the origin myths of the Ahir in Punjab. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Ahir population in British Punjab were found chiefly in the south-east namely in the districts of Dehli, Gurgaon, and Rohtak and the PEPSU States bordering upon these districts. I would ask the reader to look at my post on the distribution of the Ahirs in Punjab at the turn of the 20th Century. These Ahirs were entirely Hindu, and included among them were the family of the Roas of Rewari, which I will come to latter in this article. However, separated from these were communities of Aheer found in the Sindh Sagar Doad, the land between the Indus and the Jhelum-Chenab, who were entirely Muslim. Both groups of Ahir were pastoral caste, with their name said to be derived from the Abhira, an ancient community mentioned in the Mahabharat. In Punjab, most of the Hindu Ahir belong to the Yadubans sub-divisions, which claims to be descended from Krishna.

 

The Aheer of Khushab

 

The landowning Ahirs of Khushab and Sahiwal in present day Sargodha district claim descent from the Raos of Rewari, a Ahir principality in present day Haryana. Until the arrival of the British in the mid 19th Century, the Aheer were practical rulers of the region around the town of Khushab. However, as the power of the Tiwanas rose, the Aheer were reduced to simple zamindars. Thisfamily connects themselves with the Rewari state, based in present day Haryana. The state of Rewari was established by an Ahir  chieftain, Rao Nandram, during the reign of Farrukhsiyar, the Mughal emperor of Delhi. The emperor pleased with military support he received from Nandram, gave him a jagir of 360 villages around Rewari and legitimized Nandram‟s supremacy over the region by conferring upon him the title of chaudhari. He belonged to the Yaduvamsi sub-caste of the Ahirs and to the Abhiriya clan. According to Khushab traditions, they decend from a nephew of Nandram. The jagir was expandedby Rao Gujarmal who got mansab of  5,000 zat and sanad from the emperor Muhammad Shah. Rao Gujarmal built many forts and issued his own coin, but later the kingdom came under the control of Marathas for a brief spell  The last Rao, Tula Ram played an important role in the 1857 mutiny against the British. He proclaimed independence and assumed the title of Raja, and supported the rebels at Delhi and on 16 November 1857 he fought a losing battle against the British at Narvane. After his defeat, he went to Iran and Afghanistan to raise an Army, but died in Kabul on 2 September 1863. The British confiscated the estate of Rao Tula Ram and this marked the end of Ahir Kingdom.

 

So I started off this article by asking the question, who are the Aheer, and the only fact that be confirmed is that they were once a large pastoral tribe, occupying the northern portion of the Thal, whose chiefs or Maliks in the 19th Century confirmed ownership of their lands, which helped to transform them into large landowners in what became Khushab.

 

 

Villages in Thal

In Khushab District, there villages include Aheerpur, Rakh Baghoor, Aheer Jagir, Rahdari and Girote near Khushab city. Staying within the Thal, but outside Khushab, important Aheer villages include Aheeranwala, Aba Khel, Ahheranwala, Jandanwala and Wandhi Aheeranwali near Pai-Khel, all in Mianwali District, while across the Jhelum, in Sargodha District, there are several Aheer villages near the town of Sahiwal, such as Ahir Fateh Shah and Ahir Surkhru, and Lakseem near Kot Momin.  In Mandi Bahauddin District, Chak Nizam near the town of Malakwal is an important village. Finally in Bhakkar District, they are found in Aheeranwala and Wadhaywala.

Outside the Thal,

 

The Aheer are found in Rawalpindi, Lodhran, Khanewal, Sahiwal and Faisalabad districts In the canal colonies of central Punjab, Aheers from the Thal, like many others have settled in chaks, or settlements, with important ones being Chak 142J.B (Khai Aheeran), Chak 235JB (Haiboana), Langrana and Mouza Lodhran in Chiniot District, Chak 452 JB (Aheeranwala) in Jhang District, Chak 7 (Aheeranwala) in Mandi Bahauddin District, Chak 77/12-L in Sahiwal District. In southern Punjab, the Aheer are found in scattered settlements in Khanewal District in villages near the towns of Kabirwala and Qadirpur Raan, and in Lodhran District, their most important villages being Basti Aheer and Jhok Aheer.

Isolated from other Aheer settlements are the villages of Ahir and Bher Ahir in the Gujar Khan Tehsil of Rawalpindi. These Aheer claim Rajput status, and have customs similar to other groups Rajput groups.

 

Distribution of Muslim Ahir in Punjab by District According to 1911 Census of India

 

District Population
Shahpur (Sargodha & Khushab districts) 1,017
Mianwali 843
Chenab Colony (Faisalabad) 345
Multan 234
Jhang 167
Other districts 195
Total Population 2,801

 

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Adrah, Gungal/ Gangal, Miyal/Mial and Ratial tribes

In this post, I will focus on four little known tribes found in the Pothohar region, namely the Adrah, Gangal, Miyal and Ratial. I will ask the region to look at my post on the Budhal and Kanyal tribes, which give some background to the tribal history of this region. An interesting thing about the various tribes in this region is that there name often ends in al, which is patronymic, for example, the sons of Kals, are the Kalyal and so on, very similar to the Arabic Bin or Slavic ovich or ov. The aals started off as clans of a larger tribe, such as Kanyal being an aal of the Chauhan tribe, which overtime grew in numbers, leading separation from the parent stock. Both tribes have very similar customs, being historically farmers and speaking the Pothwari language. Among the four, the Aura are always considerd as Jats, while the other have section among both Rajputs and Jats.

 

Adrah

The first tribe I will look at are Adrah, who are found mainly in Gujarkhan and neighbouring Mirpur District. Like other Pothahar clans, the Adrah are split between Jat and Rajput sections, this especially the case among the Mirpur Adrah, who consider themselves as Jats

According to tribal myths, the Adrah are a branch of the Chauhan Rajputs, and Adrah is simply the Pothohari way to pronounce Hara, which is a major branch of the Chauhans. The Chauhan is perhaps the most famous of the Rajput clans, for Prithvi Raj, the last Hindu ruler of North India, belonged to this clan. According to their bardic traditions, the Chauhan are one of the four Agnivanshi or ‘fire sprung’ tribes who were created by the gods in the Agni kund or ‘fountain of fire’ on Mount Abu to fight against the Asuras or demons. Chauhan is also one of the thirty-six ruling races of the Rajputs.

In the early eleventh century, the Chauhans later asserted their independence from the Pratiharas, with the Sakhambari king Ajaya-Rajafounded the city of Ajayameru (Ajmer) in the southern part of their kingdom, and in the mid twelfth century, his successor Vigraharaja enlarged the state, captured Dhilika (the ancient name of Delhi) from the Tomaras and annexed some of their territory along the Yamuna River, including Haryana and Delhi. In 12th century the Chauhans dominated Delhi, Ajmer and Ranthambhor. They were also prominent atGodwar in the southwest of Rajputana, and at Hadoti (Bundi and Kota) in the east. Chauhans adopted a political policy that saw them indulge largely in campaigns against the Chalukyas and the invading Muslim hordes.

 

 

The Chauhan kingdom became the leading state and a powerful kingdom in Northern India under King Prithviraj III (1165-1192), also known as Prithvi Raj Chauhan or Rai Pithora. Prithviraj III has become famous in folk tales and historical literature as the Chauhan king of Delhiwho resisted and repelled the invasion by Mohammed of Ghor at the first Battle of Tarain in 1191. Armies from other Rajput kingdoms, including Mewar, assisted him. The Chauhan kingdom collapsed after Prithviraj faced defeat in the war.[1][2] the battle ground against Mohammed of Ghor in 1192 at the Second Battle of Tarain. Prithviraj’s defeat and capture at Tarain ushered in Muslim rule in North India by the Delhi Sultanate. The Chauhans of Ajmer remained in exile due to Muhammad of Ghor and his successors, the Sultans of Delhi, and thus swelled the ranks of the armed forces of the Maharana of Mewar, until 1365, when Ajmer was captured by the Sisodias rulers of Mewar, and Ajmer was then returned to the Chauhans.

 

 

A branch of the Chauhans, led by Govinda, the grandson of Pritviraj III, established themselves as rulers of Ranthambore from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, until Ranthambore was captured by Rana Kumbha of Mewar. The Haras dynasty of the Chauhans, moved into the Hadoti region in the twelfth century, capturing Bundi in 1241 and ruled there until the twentieth century. One sept of these Hada Rajputs won Kota.

I now come specifically to the Adrah. According to their traditions, their ancestor Hadi Rai arrived from Hadoti in Rajasthan, and settled in Gujarkhan, where he became a Muslim. They are now found mainly in Rawalpindi and Gujarkhan tehsils. A smaller number are also found in Mirpur region of Azad Kashmir. The village of Usman Zada Adra is named after an decendent of Hadi Rai, and is the centre of the tribe.

In Rawalpindi District, the main Chauhan settlements are at Usman Zada Adra where the village is owned by the Hadi Rai Chohans in Gujar Khan Tehsil. Starting with Rawalpindi Tehsil, there is a settlement in Sadar Rawalpindi at Adra, while others are smaller settlements at Panjgran, Sihala and Sahib Dhamial, the last of which they share with the Dhamial Rajputs. While in Tehsil Gujar Khan, the villages of Jhanda, Dhoke Chauhan, Mankiala, Mandra and Adra Usmanzadah have large concentrations of Chauhans while in Tehsil Rawalpindi they are present in significant numbers in Darkali, Kotlah, and Jhatta Hathial.

Gangal

The Gungal, sometimes spelt Gangal, found throughout this region. As mentioned in my introduction, the tribes in the region have names ending in al, meaning son of or descendent of a named individual. In the case of the Gungal, that would be mean that they are descendent of Gang, or possible Ganga, a common first name among Hindus of all castes. Like most Punjab tribes, there are a number of different traditions as to the origin of this tribe. The Gangal of Gujar Khan, Chakwal and Jhelum claim that they are a section of the Bhatti Rajputs, therefore Gang or Ganga belonged to the Bhatti tribe, a well-known tribe of Rajputs found throughout Punjab. In this region, being Rajput is a matter of status, which can be both gained or lost. If an ancestor took up cultivation, then his descendants would be classified as Jat, or vice versa, if they rose in prominence, they would acquire the status of Rajput. In the latter case, they would restrict marriage with other tribes of Rajput status. Often, a branch of the tribe would call itself Rajput in one village, and in a neighbouring villages, they would be simple cultivators, and be known as Jat. With regards to the Gungal, most of those found in Rawalpindi District call themselves Rajputs, while in Jhelum are Jat, and intermarry with tribes of Jat status.

However, the Gangal of Rawalpindi Tehsil, have a completely different origin myth. Gang according to them was not a Bhatti, but an Awan, therefore according to the Rawalpindi Gangals, they are clan of the Awan tribe. The Rawalpindi Gangal trace their descent from Qutab Shah’s son Muzamal Ali, nicknamed Kalgan. Briefly, according to Awan tribal traditions, their ancestor was a Qutb Shah, who is said to have accompanied and assisted Mahmud of Ghazna in his early eleventh century conquests of what today forms parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India. It is claimed that in recognition of their services and valour, Mahmud bestowed upon Qutb Shah and his sons (who, according to tribal traditions, settled primarily in the Salt Range) the title of Awan, meaning “helper”. Coming back to the Gangal, a descendent of Muzamal Ali named Gohar Shah was their ancestor. This Gohar Shah was nicknamed Ganga, and the Ganga are the aal or descendants of this Ganga. It is interesting to note the Gangal villages in Rawalpindi tehsil are surrounded by the Awan villages, therefore it is possible that they have affiliated themselves with the dominant group, while in Gujarkhan, they maintain links with the Rajput clans, which in turn dominate that region.

With regards to their distribution, in Rawalpindi District, their villages include Gungal, Mujahid Gungal in Rawalpindi Tehsil, Sood Gungal located within the Islamabad Capital Territory. In Gujar Khan tehsil, they are found in number of villages such as Faryal, Gungal, Narali Jabbar and Sui Cheemian. Other Gungal villages in Rawalpindi District include Chakyal near Hardogher, Dhamnoha and Samote in Kallar Syedan Tehsil, and Bimma Gungal in Kahuta Tehsil. In neighbouring Jhelum District, their main village is Gungal, while in Chakwal District their villages include Dhok Vazira, Mak and Mohra Gungal near Kallar Syden. In Attock District, they are found in the village of Gangal in Fateh Jang Tehsil.

Miyal

Miyal, or sometimes written as Mial, are tribe found mainly in Rawalpindi and Chakwal districts. They are descendants of a Mian, which in there case may not refer to a single common ancestor, but is a term which is often used to describe any holyman or Sufi saint. These is also shown by the fact that different Mial groups have different origin myths. According to 1911 Census of India, about 807 Mial declared themselves as Rajput, while 25 declared themselves as Jats. Some Mial groups also say that they are Qureshi Arabs, while others claim to be Mughals.There main villages include Malluwala in Pindigheb Teshsil and Mial in the Fateh Jang Tehsil of Attock District, the village of Mial in Rawalpindi District, and the villages of Budhial, Mureed, Mial and Warwal in Chakwal District. In addition, Mial settlements are also found in the Gujar Khan Tehsil, such as Sapiali Khinger.

Ratial

The Ratial are Rajput tribe, found mainly in Rawalpindi District. There customs are similar to neighbouring tribes such as the Bangial and Kanyal. Like other tribes in the region, they have several traditions as to their origin. According to one such tradition, the tribe are descended from Khattar Khan, the ancestor of the Khattar tribe. Khattar Khan had six sons, Jand Khan,Isa Khan, Sarwar Khan, Firoz Khan, Sehra Khan and Pehru Khan. About three generations after his death, the tribe lost Nilab but they took possession of the open country between Rawalpindi and the Indus which became known by the name of Khattar. The descendants of Jand Khan took possession of the district called after them Jandal between Khushhalghar and Nara. From Feroz Khan the Drek family has descended. His great- grandson was Ratnah from whom have descended the clan known as Ratial. The Khattar tribe, like the Awans claim descent from Qutub Shah, which would make the Ratial Alvi Arabs.

However, another tradition makes Ratnah out to be a Manhas Rajput, who left Kangra in the 15th Century and settled in Potohar region, and converted to Islam. His descendants are known the Ratial. A few generations from Ratnah were two brothers Jairo Khan and Bhairo Khan. Jairo is said to have founded the village Jairo Ratial, and his brother Bhairo founded the neighbouring village Bhair Ratial. Almost all the other Ratial’s trace there descent from these two villages. Claims to Minhas ancestry are more widely accepted, certainly by the Ratial’s of Gujarkhan.

The Ratial Minhas rose to some significance as rulers of the large part of the present Rawalpindi District known as Ratala, centred around the village of Ratala in Gujar Khan Tehsil. They were displaced from Ratala by a Janjua chief named Raja Abdullah Khan in the 18th Century, who had himself been displaced by the upheaval of the Sikh conquest of Garjaak and Darapur in Jhelum, and as a result took his remaining army and conquered the region of Ratyal from a Ratial chief who was loyal to the Sikh empire. He defeated the Ratial Chief and although the region remained known Ratala. With this, the Ratial ceased to play any important political role in the region. The Ratial thereafter sunk to the status of farmers, and according to 1911 Census of Punjab, they numbered 549.
Their principle villages are Ratial (near Dina) and Darapur in Jhelum District, and Ratial, Bher Ratial, Jairo Ratial and Puraney Ratial, in the Gujar Khan Tehsil of Rawalpindi District. They also found in Banoti Niar and Chak Beli Khan villages south of Rawalpindi. There are also number of Ratial villages in Attock District.