A large banyan or peepal tree next to a pond of clear water was once the crown of a village in the Potohar region. There are no permanent sources of water, such as rivers or canals, in this region, and ponds instead often served as the only source of drinking water for rural residents.
In most Potohari villages, there would be more than one pond in a single village.
These ponds, known as bunh, were a village’s busiest spots. Village men would venture to the ponds for an early morning swim, and local women would fetch water to carry home in pitchers they balanced on their heads. Sat beneath the large banyan or peepal trees, locals would recite verses penned by Waris Shah and Mian Mohammad Bakhsh, and farmers would bring cattle for water.
“In village folklore, these ponds and the trees around them were supposed to be haunted by supernatural creatures, such as fairies and witches. They were resorts of love as well,” explained Professor Sada Hussain, the head of the English department at the Government Postgraduate College Chakwal.
“The ponds were built by the joint efforts of villagers, including Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. I still remember announcements made from the mosque asking villagers to clean the ponds, and cleaning drives were held every year,” recalled the head of the Postgraduate College Chakwal’s Urdu department, Professor Naeem Shahid.
Along every pond was a vast tract of ground, and the pond was always at the lower end. The downward ground, or rorh, allowed rainwater to flow into the pond, as it was distilled by the soil. This downward ground was also used as a playground, and for threshing crops.
In their first settlement – known locally as bandobast, the British colonists declared banhs and rorhs Shamlat Mufeed-i-Aam, or common land, along with graveyards, paths, water channels and pastures. According to the law, any common land could only be used for the purpose for which it was designed.
But land grabbing and inaction on the part of the government have led to rorhs in most villages being occupied by influential locals, who have either turned the land into fields or constructed buildings upon it.
The loss of rorhs has caused rainwater, which used to flow into the adjacent ponds, to change its course, rendering most ponds dry.
A large number of ponds in the Potohar region’s villages have dried up, and many have been taken over by reeds and other weeds. Water boring in homes and the provision of water have also caused these ponds to lose their significance. A few of the ponds, however, have retained their beauty.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2016