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Harking Back: Of the Jatakas, Lord Buddha, pigeons and crows.

The ancient Jataka Stories constitute literature native to the entire Indian sub-continent which focuses on Gautama Buddha, both as a human as well as an animal in reincarnation - that could be as king, a fakir or even an elephant or a monkey. Each story has a moral ending.

Among the stories are some concerning the rule of Ashoka and they represent a fairly accurate depiction of the life and times of that great ruler. The Jataka Stories have been translated into a number of languages, and these come in the shape of poems and stories. What is of interest to us in this column is to hang on to a few details about life in Lahore and the River Ravi. Among the most famous stories is that of 'The Monkey and the crocodile' which are also in the Sanskrit 'Niti-Shastra', and which young children all over the world read, and probably always will.

All over the northern sub-continent are stupas with a tale or two of the Buddha. These follow the trail Buddha took on his journeys. As we go through these stories three matters concern me the most. First is the visit to the walled city of Lahore by Buddha, second is the river route taken to reach faraway places with Lahore being a major river port, and, lastly, is the stay of the Buddha in Lahore itself.

The question of just why did the Buddha want to visit the small mud-walled city of Lahore? Buddha lived in the reign of King Bimbisara (558BC-491BC) and died in the first few years of his successor Ajatasatru. We know from the Jatakas Vol. 2 pp248 that '... shipbuilding was known in the Punjab in the pre-Mauryan period'. The Greek historian Arrian writes that the tribes living along the rivers of the Punjab had large dockyards and supplied galleys and transport to the invading Greeks. The historian Strabo (XV,1,46) states that the State had a monopoly on shipbuilding as stated in the 'Arthasastra' while they hired ships to merchants. Among the many ports along the five rivers of the Punjab, one of the largest was at Lahore.

It is clear that large sea-faring ships were being built along the river. At Lahore the port of call was Khizri Darwaza, now called Sheranwala Darwaza, where shipbuilders lived. If you ever have the chance of walking through this gateway you will be surprised at the lanes and 'mohallahs' named after river and sea equipment manufacturing skills. If we follow the 'Arthasastra' we see that from the north by river came blankets, skins and horses, and from the southern coast up the river came to Lahore, among other ports, conch shells, diamonds, pearls and gold. The conch shells were called 'damris'.

But a more substantive work on the subject is by the Cambridge scholar E.H. Warmington, titled 'Commerce between the Roman Empire and India' which talks specifically about the ships from Lahore and other ports bringing in hand-spun cotton cloth (surely our 'khaddar'), spices of every variety, cinnamon and exotic products. It tells us of imports to the sub-continent of European horses, fine linen and glass products. It makes sense for without road transport over long distances, the only mode of trade was either camel caravans which took months to cover distances or the much faster river and sea transport.

All these are mentioned in the Jataka Stories, and now we turn our attention to the Buddha himself. We know that the Buddha came to Taxila and that the stupa at Gujjar Khan is a place which he stayed at. Along the way he stopped at several places, all of which are mentioned in the Buddhist holy book 'Tripitaka', also known as the Pali Canon. It states: 'Then the Buddha reached a small port town on the Parushani (Ravi's original name in Sanskrit) with its huge markets, large river port and friendly people with roads leading inland. Here he stayed for three moons and then moved on'.

We have other sources which tell us of his stay in Lahore. Research points to Mohallah Maullian inside the Lohari Gate as being the likely place where he stayed. A small Buddhist temple, or traces of what is left of it, still exist. We know that Lahore in the days gone by was a Jain city, as also a Buddhist city, a Hindu city and after the terrible Afghan invasions a mixed Jain-Buddhist-Hindu-Muslim-Sikh city. It was this amazing mix of beliefs that bestowed on Lahore its tolerant dispensation, traces of which the older inhabitants still possess.

But then the Jatakas also mention some amazing tricks the ship pilots of old used when going to faraway ports. I mention this because inside Sheranwala Gate is a place known as 'kabootar-ghar', which many might think as a simple place to house pigeons. The Jataka Stories tell us of pigeons and crows from all over the world being housed there. When trading ships left the port in days of old they would take with them pigeons and crows brought back from the port they intended to visit. If they got lost they first released a crow, who would immediately fly towards land. Then that route was followed.

Once land was sighted the appropriate pigeon was released and they followed that route. It seems, at least Prof. Warmington so states, never once have the pigeons flown in the wrong direction. Where did they learn these tricks? The Jatakas in one poem mentions it as 'learnt from a people where there are a lot of rivers and a lot of land'. Could that be the Indus Valley? Maybe it could even have been the Babylonians who traded a lot with Indian traders. But then it shows a people who knew more about the world than is commonly assumed.

So we have a Buddha in our city, probably staying at Mohallah Maullian, we have the Great Sage coming from Khizri Darwaza via the river port, we have the shipbuilders of Lahore, as surely also other places along the rivers of the Punjab, going to faraway places to trade using simple natural tricks like crows and pigeons to find their way. Lahore in the times of Buddha must have been a very interesting place.

The problem today is that we have stopped reading about such great wise persons, just as the tales of old, like the Jataka Stories, are not known any longer. Seems our lack of knowledge about our past, and of ideas past, has silently led us into a narrow communal lane from which no escape is visible. Makes you wonder where it will all end.
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Publication:Dawn (Karachi, Pakistan)
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Aug 25, 2019
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