Mosques and Merchants of Ranjha Village

Mosques and Merchants of Ranjha Village
Ranjha village is located about 48 south of Chakwal town and 20 km northwest of Balksar. Ranjha is one of the oldest villages in Dhan area in Chakwal district. Like many other villages in the Dhan area, Ranjha is also famous for its historic monuments. The village is believed to have been founded by a person named Ranjha who was a notable of the Jat caste.  Apart from Jats, the Minha Rajput, Qazi and Mistri castes also live in the village. Hindus also lived in the village but left for India after the partition of 1947.

Many people in the village still remember the names of eminent Hindu merchants of the village. Muhammad Shah, Safdar Jang, Muhammad Asghar Malik and Allah Jawaya are some of the names of the oral historians of the village. I had a conversation with them about the history and heritage of Ranjha village.

Closer view of a wooden arch

There are many mosques in Ranjha village. The most historic mosque sincludes Bani Wali Masjid and Khajoor Wali Masjid. The Bani Wali mosque was built about 80 years ago. The Khajoor Wali mosque is the oldest in the village, probably built in the first quarter of the 19th century. According to Allah Jawaya, the villagers financially contributed to the construction of the mosque. The Hindus also allocated some land for the Khajoor Wali mosque, as the main locality of Hindus was located behind this mosque. There were about 20 households of Hindus in that mohallah.

Closer view of floral and geometric designs on the wooden door
of a mosque in Ranjha village

The Khajoor Wali mosque is noted for woodwork. The mosque is built on a rectangular plan. Three wooden arched entrances open to the antechamber of the mosque. The wooden door of the mosque opens to the main prayer hall. Both arched entrances and door are ornately carved. One does not find such magnificent wooden carved arched entrances and doors in any other village in the Dhan area of Chakwal. This reflects how skilled and accomplished the artists and craftsmen of the Dhan area were. The arts and crafts of the Dhan area have their own beauty, elegance and identity. Floral and geometric designs on the doors, balconies and Jharokhas in the historic buildings in the Dhan area show mastery of Dhani craftsmen over the art of wood carvings. I have read many books and articles on wooden architecture in northern Pakistan but hardly find any article which deals with the wooden art of Pothohar.
Like the craftsmen of Swat, Chitral, Hunza, Indus Kohistan, Darel, Tangir and other valleys in northern Pakistan, the Pothohari craftsmen also excelled in the art of wood carvings

Like the craftsmen of Swat, Chitral, Hunza, Indus Kohistan, Darel, Tangir and other valleys in northern Pakistan, the Pothohari craftsmen also excelled in the art of wood carvings. When I first read the seminal work by Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani entitled  Islamic Architecture: the Wooden Style of Northern Pakistan  I believed that only northern Pakistan has such splendid wooden structures. I never thought that Pothohar and other regions of Pakistan are also home to several such wooden structures. The elites of Pothohar profusely used timber in their buildings. Timber was probably brought from other areas and even from other countries. Teak wood was mainly used in the havelis, Choubaras and Romti of Pothohari traders, aristocrats and landlords. Even affluent progeny of the pirs of Pothohar, while building the tombs of their ancestors, preferably used teak wood in doors and ceilings, which added their own aroma to the ambience of darbar culture in Pothohar. Wooden carved doors, Jharokhas and balconies all reflect the identity and opulence of affluent Pothohari traders, noblemen and landlords. It is a pity that we have not documented much about the wooden heritage of the Pothohar region – a treasure which is fast disappearing now.

Ornately carved door of Khajoor Wali Mosque in Ranjha

According to Muhammad Asghar Malik of Ranjha village, a wooden door of the Khajoor Wali mosque was engraved by Ghulam Yasin, who was the most creative woodcarver of the village and belonged to the Mistri caste. His son Akhmat was also remarkably good at the art of wood carvings. Apart from engraving the wooden door of the mosque, they also engraved several doors of the Choubaras of Hindus of Ranjha village.

Like the skilled craftsmen, the merchants of Ranjha village were also known for their business skills. They had business not only in Ranjha and other villages of Dhan area but also in other towns and cities of Punjab. Some merchants of Ranjha had extended their business networks as far as Delhi. One of the eminent Hindu merchants of Ranjha village, Nihal Shah, had business in Delhi. In the words of Safdar Jang, Nihal Shah was known as ‘King of the Dhan area’ due to his vast business networks. But unfortunately, nothing is available on the merchants of Pothohar. I have not read any publication on the merchants and traders of Pothohar. There may be some work which I missed reading. In any case, I believe that there should be a monograph on the pattern of Claude Markovits who wrote a book on Sindhi traders titled The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama. Historians, anthropologists and economists should write monographs on the merchant communities of Pothohar and their expansion and networks in Colonial Punjab and beyond to Central Asia, China, Iran and other countries where Pothohari traders went for business. Moreover, what is interesting to investigate is the role of social capital in the expansion of the business by Pothohari merchants in other cities and countries. From very small villages of Pothohar, many merchants rose to become global traders. Their names come forth when one discusses with the village intellectuals or oral historians who know the names of those who had established their business in other countries. From the discussions with village intellectuals and historians, I came to know many family names of Sikh and Hindus of the Dhan area who excelled at business. There are many prominent names of Hindu and Sikh merchants of the Dhan area, but I want to share a few family names whose business extended from the Dhan area of Chakwal to other countries. This includes the Kohlis of Munday, Bhasin of Neela village and many others There were also many prominent Hindu and Sikh merchants from other parts of Pothohar. I collected all this information from the oral historians. In the Dhan area, from the Kohli family of Munday village prominent name was Sardar Chet Singh Kohli. Likewise, from Neela village, Mota Singh Bhasin was another eminent trader who had business in Iran.  The list of the merchants of the Dhan area in particular and Pothohar in general is very long – which I will discuss in another article.

Wooden ceiling in the choubara of Nihal Shah in Ranjha village

Jivan Shah of Ranjha village had started his business from his village which he later expanded to other villages in the Dhan area. His son Nihal Shah, called Nihalay by the villagers, expanded it to other cities of Punjab and also to Delhi. The affluent Hindu traders built impressive Choubars in Ranjha village. Today a majority of the Choubaras have disappeared but the Choubara of Nihal Shah still dominates the village landscape and is noted for its impressive doors and ceilings. The wooden ceilings of Choubara of Nihal Shah are aesthetically painted. The main entrance door is also elaborately engraved. The Choubaras of Makhan Shah, Ratan Shah and Hardiyal were also located in the village. The shops of these Hindu merchants were located in the bazaar of Ranjha village.

Apart from mosques and Choubaras, there are also found wells and a tank in the village. The most prominent well was named after Dharam Das who was probably an Udasi saint. The Hindus of Ranjha used to hold an annual fair at the well of Dharm Das who probably once halted at the place where the well is located today. The tank (bani) is located in the village and is believed to have been built by the notables of the Qazi family of Ranjha village.

The author is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at Excerpts have been taken from the author’s forthcoming book “Memories, Mystics and Monuments of Pothohar”. All photos are by the author

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar