fort derawar
Fort Derawar, one of the defining landmarks of Cholistan region (Source: Wikipedia)

Originally published on PakVoices Bahawalpur website, translated by Salman Latif

Cholistan is a semi-desert region in South Punjab and Sindh (where it becomes the Thar desert) which has a unique culture of its own. In Punjab, it encompasses the Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan regions. Cholistan is known for remains of grand historical forts, ruins of ancient civilizations and an aesthetic tradition that is unusually colorful in its manifestations. Today, however, the region stands neglected as the government refuses to take meaningful steps to revive and celebrate the rich culture, history and traditions of Cholistan.

Also called Rohi in a more fond vein, Cholistan’s cultural traditions have been preserved by its poets, singers and artists over the centuries. The most notable among these is the Sufi mystic and multilingual poet of Indo-Pak fame, Khwaja Ghulam Farid. Farid wrote in Saraiki, one of the predominant languages in the Cholistan area. He depicted scenes from Rohi, from the harsh heat of the desert to the cool nights and views of rains in the vast hinterland, all from a mystic standpoint which expresses his great love for Rohi.

A poster shows Faqira Bhagat in front of Fort Derawar
A poster shows Faqira Bhagat in front of Fort Derawar (Source: PakVoices)

More recently, folk singers like Faqira Bhagat attempted to bring the Cholistani culture to the limelight. Bhagat officially started his career as a folk singer at Radio Pakistan in January 26, 1986. In no time, he had carved a name for him not only nationally but also internationally. He performed in London, India and Germany and won ‘Folk Award’ from the British government. Bhagat adapted the sufi poetry of the likes of Ghulam Farid, Sachal Sarmast and Bulleh Shah and revived them in the hearts of the masses.

Tragically, he contracted Hepatitis C and despite his prominent status as a gifted singer, he received no help from the government. Due to a lack of resources, he was unable to seek appropriate medical help and died on May 11, 1999.

12 years after his death, government of Pakistan decided to admit his contribution to the national arts and awarded him with Presidential Award. According to the notable Seraiki poet and nationalist, Ashiq Buzdar, Bhagat was the last genuine folk singer from the Cholistan.

Faqira Bhagat’s son Mohan Bhagat is also a folk singer. He bemoans the government’s lack of interest in attending to the cultural heritage of South Punjab. According to him, the development dreams of the government are limited to upper Punjab, primarily Lahore, while the common people lack even the basic necessities in the Cholistan region. He further says that the lack of any funds allocated for culture, art and history of the region will ultimately lead to the erosion of these facets of Cholistan.

The culture of Cholistan has a history of thousands of years. It was a fertile land once, irrigated by the benevolent Hakra river. Great cities prospered by its banks, trade centers were established and the residents of these regions created intricate handicrafts depicting their prosperity. Clay pots and iron vessels were created with great diligence and then exported to different parts of the world.

A view of Khawaja Ghulam Farids shrine
A view of Khawaja Ghulam Farid’s shrine (Source: Wikimedia)

Over the centuries, the river changed its course and Cholistan became barren, developing into a semi-desert terrain. Legend has it that the river became angry when an injustice was meted out to a local woman. Once the river dried up, the fertile land turned into heaps of sand and dust and sustenance became a problem.

As a result, vast swathes of population emigrated to other regions. However, there were some who stayed back and despite the lack of water and food and other facilities, and for the love of their land, kept their culture alive over thousands of years. Today, the government of Pakistan has sufficient resources to turn Cholistan, once again, into a fertile land. But the will to do so is lacking.

A number of authorities have been set up to facilitate development in the region, but none of this has benefited the common man so far. There are frequent headlines about death by starvation of countless children in the Cholistan region. That is, but the tip of the iceberg. Urgent steps are required to provide basic facilities to the people in the region, and even more urgent is the need to preserve the culture of Cholistan which has survived for this long but is at the brink of extinction today.