Malik Sahib of Bheat village, my forester friend who had seen more outlaws and poisonous snakes than humans in his life while serving in Tilla Jogian, seemed clueless about my seemingly innocent questions. All I had asked was which one of the several paths up the 3200 feet high Tilla Jogian hill could have been used by the heart-broken and love-consumed Ranjha in Tilla Jogian, having lost his beloved Heer.
Politely expressing his ignorance over matters of heart, the very practical forester suggested I should see both the Tilla Jogian paths myself — to have a better idea of the three-centuries-old lover’s trail in the hilly wilderness.
This is how I came to explore the famous and historical hill resort of Tilla Jogian, the jewel of Jhelum valley, on a freezing December day.
I had read several accounts of the secluded historical site by my writing Guru, Salman Rashid, which explained in detail the Hindu and Sikh heritage value associated with the place. However, I had little knowledge about the famous visit by Ranjha to this place that was immortalised in the love epic, Heer Ranjha, by Waris Shah. I had always dreamt about the day I would also throw myself in the wilderness of Tilla Jogian and find the path used by my hero, Ranjha. And what could make better guides than a group of veteran foresters, led by Malik.
After a tedious eighteen kilometres or so long drive on a stone-strewn jungle track ending with every bone and joint in our bodies crying in pain, the driver literally hurled us to the top of the hill — in the compound of the centuries-old forest rest house. My guides were a little surprised as I declined their generous offer to show me around the Hindu, Sikh and colonial era relics scattered atop Tilla Jogian that visitors normally loved to explore.
My insistence to turn this visit (which they had earlier figured as a typical adventure tour by a city-dweller) to a full-scale love safari led to a quick council of war. It was decided that Malik Warasat, an octogenarian residing in the nearby Bheat village, should be summoned for his services. Warasat in his early teens had been a close friend of Samandnath, the last head priest of the Hindu temple complex of Tilla Jogian before partition, and knew all the lore associated with Tilla like the back of his hand.
A series of frantic mobile calls from a group of foresters ensued and I was informed that Warasat would be with us shortly after a mixed journey on camel and foot. Another period of uneasy waiting followed as we consumed gallons of steaming tea in the compound of the forest rest house, watching a group of a few dozen Chukor. Their chattering pierced the solitude of Tilla which otherwise appeared eerily silent. The only sound we could hear was that of the wind passing through towering trees.
To cheer up my somewhat crest-fallen colleagues, I inquired about the ages of two giant trees in the vicinity – a grandiose pine near the forest rest house and a towering banyan close to the masonry water pond built during Ranjit Singh’s times.
This brought them in their element. Picking up small broken sticks, they rushed towards both trees for measurements which only veteran foresters are blessed to take. In some twenty minutes they were back, proudly announcing that the pine tree was between 140-150 years old while the banyan props announced it to be around two centuries and a quarter old.
Obviously, the pine (Chir) was planted around 1880s as, by that time, Tilla Jogian had become the preferred summer resort for the deputy commissioner of the area who would also hold court there (I was later shown some prisoner cells). Banyan trees, according to my forester friends, must have sprouted during the latter period of reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, having also seen the zenith of Sikh rule in Punjab.
But these fascinating historical connections could not take me away from my original purpose. Soon we heard the typical gurgling sounds of camels negotiating the stiff climbs and hairpin bends. A row of three camels soon appeared on the horizon from the side of Asthan Baba Guru Nanak Nirankari Ji, with the veteran Warasat mounted like old-time warriors in white clothes, donning a white turban. He must have been a grand specimen of masculinity in his youth but, even at this advanced age, he was all fit to set records for the quickest ascent to Tilla Jogian top.
He listened patiently as all foresters started speaking simultaneously, beseeching him to locate the strange guest among them carrying the Ranjha connection. He turned towards me, announcing he would take me to the two possible routes plus the little-known exact spot where Ranjha is said to have had his earlobes pierced to be allowed to join the Hindu Jogi fraternity.
My heart danced with joy as I cast a victorious look at the group of foresters.
Holding my hand, Warasat took me through a labyrinth of stairs and soon we reached a clump of towering pines, ending in a precipitous cliff overlooking vast green slopes. From that commanding position, he pointed to the first of the possible tracks that reached Tilla Jogian through Chummiara Mor. From what we could see, this route entailed a Herculean climb with very few hairpin bends to ease the gradient.
I immediately dismissed this one as a possible route for a man as wretched and devastated as Ranjha — he must be reluctant to take on such a demanding itinerary.
Before leaving this point, Warasat showed me a strange place covered with rocks called Chappan Chor. Several tales are associated with this scary-looking cave including its unending length (some say it opens into the Rohtas Fort) while others claim that Heer and Ranjha played hide-and-seek here. “Just how could Heer have been transported from the distant Jhang to this place?” grumbled Warasat.
All of us happily agreed with his presumption and resumed the walk for the second possible route.
Descending a few dozen metres, soon we stood on a sharp bend, a little short of Tilla Jogian hilltop. We could see a stone-pitched path ending in a platform of flat rock surface, around five feet square. A prominent and old stone-paved path — called Porhiwaala Rah — wounded down to a bushy ravine Ratti Banni. As we heard a detailed description of this path, I was soon convinced this must have been the route used by Ranjha centuries ago.
Leaving Jhang and reaching Pind Dadan Khan, Ranjha must have arrived in Rohtas, then a thriving town with a salt market. Passing through Rohtas Fort, he would have traversed villages of Moagli and Dangri to reach Ratti Banni from where the Porhiwaala Rah would have taken him to Tilla Jogian top.
Still trying to absorb this revelation, I saw Warasat standing at a small rocky platform, announcing what very few people in our times know. “On this platform, Ranjha sat and got his earlobes pierced to join the clan of Hindu Jogis… Some people in my youth claimed to have even seen congealed blood clots on this spot, purported to have dropped from the cut earlobes of Ranjha”.
Warasat hastened to add that such claims were never challenged by him as advised by Samandnath for many strange things had happened on this sacred spot over centuries.
We were only too willing to comply as we saw the colours on Warasat’s face change at the mention of Samandnath Jogi. As if in a reverie, Warasat went on to narrate the last days when Samandnath headed this once-thriving jogi temple, which he had himself seen as a teenager in the last days of British India.
“Samandnath and Kalanath were two brothers who held sway over Tilla Jogian temple complex in its last days of glory before 1947. It used to be a bustling place with hundreds of Hindu Jogis with saffron-painted foreheads roaming everywhere, meditating at many temples. In the mornings, breakfast of Halwa Puri would be served while mid-day meals included a wide variety of vegetables and pulses. Milk and milk products were also served liberally to all, irrespective of creed and cast especially during the big Mela (festival) which would always be held on the first of Chait month (early spring)”.
Warasat continued, “In 1947, Samandnath called my father (Zaildar of the area) and assigned him the responsibility of the vast Tilla Jogian temple complex with the understanding that if he did not return from India (Kangra), Zaildar will approach the deputy commissioner for the auction of all belongings of Tilla complex. When rioting started, Zaildar arranged two tongas with police escort from Domeli and Dina Police Posts. Thus the convoy of Samandnath took the perilous journey to catch the train back to India. He reached safely but did not return in six months. Zaildar Sahib approached the deputy commissioner and an auction was duly held, disposing all removable material from Tilla Jogian Complex.”
Thus ended the glorious saga of Tilla Jogian — since 1947, the place has seen degeneration due to official neglect as well as greedy actions of bounty-seekers who believe treasures are hidden in these temples. I myself am witness to this greed in the shape of removal of old tiles from the priceless bathing pond dating to Ranjit Singh times at the Tilla top.
Warasat’s story turned the moods a little depressed. But the sudden ringing of bells in camel necks announced the arrival of a badly-needed good news — traditional food from Warasat’s village. To our jubilation, it comprised food that Heer must have brought for Ranjha centuries ago — Makhan, Saag and Makai ki Roti with lots of Gur and Desi Ghee.
Sitting on the rocky platform where Ranjha had his earlobes pierced and enjoying big chunks of choori (bread loafs dipped in coarse sugar and desi ghee), we felt truly fortunate to relive the long-lost tradition of love and hospitality, preserved through centuries by the locals.