It was one of those typically bright mornings in late Aprils which used to be a peculiar feature of mountainous scrub jungles in Jhelum and Chakwal districts. A team of 30 odd under-training forest officers (including three females) were on a hill training trail in beautiful scrub jungles of the Pael Forest Range in the then Jhelum Forest Division.
The group of young foresters had entered the Nila Wann jungles by taking the katcha track which leaves the Kallar-Pael Road some 20 miles from (the then sleepy town) Kallar Kahar. These jungles covered a labyrinth of ridges, gradually rising in an eastern direction to ultimately culminate around Sardi village (highest altitude in the vicinity and carrying dilapidated relics of a British-era rest house where deputy commissioners of Jhelum would spend the summer months). Like all foresters’ errands, these foresters had started their plant identification sojourn early in the morning and were by that time fully exhausted and drenched in sweat.
The particular jungle that I am referring to carried a mixed crop of Phulai trees inter-mixed with granda bushes. Being late spring, jungles were in full bloom, filling the air with a balmy fragrance, further sweetened by melodies from a multitude of flitting birds. The early excitement amongst young foresters had given way to a weary tardiness as the group followed a grey-haired forest guard towards a large water pond.
It was at that time that the agitated voice of one of the lady foresters brought the marching foresters to a sudden halt.
She was agitated by an ominous looking honey bee which had suddenly started hovering around her face. Almost in a flux, the lady forester made some violent movements with her hands and soon the hornet was killed.
The whole incident must have taken less than a minute and the group had just resumed their march when from nowhere a great buzzing sound started breaking the silence of the jungle. In a few minutes, the group of foresters was surrounded by what turned out to be an unusually determined swarm of honey bees. It was almost as if the swarm of honey bees had in some mysterious way become aware of the death of their fellow bee and was bent upon taking revenge. It could be this reason or just the chance disturbance caused to the battalion of honey bees but the crescendo that ensued was reported to be the worst of its kind.
The swarming cloud of honey bees was bent upon seeking revenge and the ruthless manner in which almost all members of foresters’ team were stung was never heard of.
The forest guard accompanying the wretched group (now retired) narrated the ferocity of the attack to me as I met him a few years after the attack.
The poor foresters were running in all directions followed by swarms of honey bees as the forest guard continually shouted to guide them to the big water pond in close proximity. By the time, the stampeding crowd reached the water pond and literally jumped in its 2-3 feet deep muddy waters, many of the group had been mercilessly stung. It was almost after 30 minutes that the attack subsided and the swarm of honeybees gradually left for their unknown destination.
One of the targets, Mr Shah was the worst stung and had to be carried to a local hospital in Sohawa (Motorway was not constructed by that time), where he spent several painful days, before fully recovering from the terrible incident resulting in over 30 stings to his face, neck and head.
Gory as the incident on 23rd of that April may appear, it nevertheless recounts the deadly chore by one of the most disciplined creations that jungles have been blessed with. Ending winters and onset of springs in some queer way arouses the honey-making instincts in honey bees in our hilly areas. As spring casts its heady spell of heavenly torpor in the shape of millions of flowers and juicy shrubs, the honey bee swarms enter these jungles in search of nectar from trees and wild shrubs.
In case of sub-mountainous hills of Punjab, the most coveted (and now unfortunately fast dwindling) are the intoxicatingly scented flowers of wild Phulai and Beri with scented foliage of thorny Granda thrown in for a good measure. Swarms of these honey bees are out in a mad rush to drink from the choicest flowers and carry the nectars to artistically made honeybee combs. With increasing heat, the honey bee combs become laden with deliriously scented fluids, waiting to be plucked by willing hands.
While these honeybee combs can be found in a wide and diverse range of wildernesses, the best ones are to be found in the shady crevices of hills and rocks in Jhelum and Chakwal. Once these are completed to the satisfaction of colonies of honeybees, one cannot but wonder at the precarious angles where these are hung and the amazing quantities of honey that can be squeezed from these. Old forest guards are somehow misers at dislocating the locations of such treasure troves for obvious reasons but tasting this heavenly fluid is a treat that a few are blessed with.
As I visited the site of attack by honeybees in company of the old forest guard, we were able to locate as many as eight honeybee combs in that beautiful forest. The forest guard also provided a queer explanation for unprovoked attack on that April morning which he attributed to high quantities of sweat flowing on the faces of tired foresters. He was of the view that honeybees in late spring madly look for water and actually consume the honey with approaching summers, if untapped by humans.
Strange explanation but then one has to live with many strange phenomena in jungles.
Unfortunately, very few locations are left where natural honeybee combs can still be found. The best in terms of taste and fragrance are to be found in secluded scrub jungles of Samarkand (district Chakwal) and Lehri and Pabbi (Jhelum district). Both these locations still boast some of the finest combs made by what are generally called chota makho (small honeybees). The other category of natural honeybee combs can be found in irrigated forest plantations of Changa Manga and Chichawatni where large variety of honeybees make gigantic combs — literally impregnated with honey and waxes.
Now-a-days, it is not uncommon to come across endless spectacle of wooden boxes, purportedly containing pure honey along many roads in upper Punjab and KPK. I cannot help frowning at these so-called commercial honey-keepers for artificially introducing varieties of longish bees which regularly predate upon precarious populations of small bees — indigenous denizens of our hilly scrub forests. Anyone privileged to have tasted the heavenly diet of natural honey from a jungle-covered rock would hardly barter the so-called honey produced by these vendors.
Kiswani, a stole away boy from Shikarpur, Sindh, to become the Diamond King of Canary Island, Sir Masood Khan, a Gujranwala boy who travelled to Denmark on a ration card and scores of other such un-sung heroes with blazing trail of glory.
In order to complete our documentaries on Sayeeda Warsi, Lord Nazir, Sir Pervez and boxer Aamir Khan, we set out to the Potohar plateau, the land of their ancestors where the trucks seemed to have replaced the camel caravans while dhabbas (roadside restaurants) serving delicious nashta (breakfast) have replaced the traditional caravan sarais. The newly built, dual carriage Grand Trunk Road is in good condition, except for the Gujranwala bypass, which truly is a driver’s nightmare.
A cousin of Sayeeda Warsi’s father, Mirza Munawar Hussain, accompanied us to the native village of Baroness Warsi. We drove east of Gujjar Khan, approximately 17 kilometers to Bewal, a pre-partition Hindu dominated small town set in the rolling hills of Potohar. The road to her village Pacca Khoo zigzagged through barren, brown, uneven land. Our first stop was Swera Skill Centre, a project of Baroness Warsi’s Swera Foundation which runs five skill centres for training orphaned girls and handicapped children.
A few crops grown in this area, on small holdings and dependent upon seasonal rainfall, did not provide sufficient means to survive and as such there was an exodus of population to United Kingdom. It seems that their venture to the foreign lands, a few decades ago, has paid off.
It is interesting to see the entire landscape, littered with double-storey cake-like bungalows, their gates closed, waiting in vain for years for the owners to return. No one, except a chawkidar or a watch dog, lives in these massive houses. They are built to exhibit the wealth and power of the owner. We were told by our guide that owners of these houses make occasional trips, either to celebrate marriages or to bury the dead. However, he said, in ten years or so these trips will cease, when the new generation will be married and settled in the UK and all the elders who desire to be buried in their native land are dead.
Fortunately, Baroness Warsi’s family home is humble and she prefers to spend the money on skill centres to help the needy.
Before entering politics, Baroness Warsi worked at the British High Commission in Islamabad as an immigration officer. Based on her advice, many local families were able to migrate legally to the UK.
We asked our guide, why the baroness was called Warsi instead of Mirza. “…because of her spiritual attachment to a sufi saint Syed Waris Ali Shah of Bewa Sharif, District Bara Banki,(UP) Uttar Pardesh, India, whose disciple is buried here at Astana Warsia, Chappar Sharif in village Changa Bangial,” said our guide.
We were later taken to the shrine which the baroness visits to pay homage whenever she comes to this area.
We were told that Baroness Warsi is a Hafiz–e–Quran (knows holy Quran by heart) and is a practicing Muslim.
Potohar plateau has been at the crossroad of history since the dawn of time. It was here that the man left hunting, became a farmer and discovered fire (light). It was here that the brave King Porus fought Alexander the Great and uttered the immortal line, “As one king treats another”. Sultan Mahmood of Ghazni conquered Nandna Fort from Hindu Rajah Jaipal, the ruler of Potohar. The famous Muslim scholar Ahmed Al Beruni, who came with Sultan Mahmood, established an astronomical laboratory, declared earth’s rotation on its axis and accurately calculated the latitude and longitude of earth at the Nandna fort.
Rajputs, Moghuls, Gakkhars and Gujjars are the main ethnic groups settled in Potohar. The Moghuls, locally known as Mirzas, migrated to this region from Kashmir, over a century ago.
We are now at the post-production stage in our studios and would soon be ready with documentaries on nine glorious Pakistanis. We only hope that Pakistan Television or any other national channel will come forward, live up to its national obligation and show these documentaries on their channel to inspire our youth to push the boundaries and achieve their true potential.