Encounter in Bagheechi Nihalchand

October 25, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar recalls the times when “many healthy, strong bulls could be seen leisurely loitering around in the city”; making a special reference to “a jet-black majestic bull that was only a bit smaller than an elephant”

Image courtesy: Burhan Khan. 

When man entered the food growing age, the bull was the animal found to be most useful as a beast of burden and for ploughing the fields and ultimately for the food and milk obtained from its mate.

Bull had been domesticated long before the horse. It’s been a favourite subject for artists from the caves of Alta Mira, the Lascaux down to the steatite seals found in Indus Valley, the Ashokan pillars, the frescoes of Ajanta and the paintings of Shakir Ali.

Typically, the majestic bull of Harappan culture is strong-looking, with its long horns. It is confident and calm. It is still in the living memory when ox-driven carts with screeching wooden wheels loaded with the farm produce would arrive at the old vegetable and grain markets before daybreak. All this has been replaced with motorised machines, and the bull has become a thing of the past. Yet, many prized bulls arrive in the annual sacrificial animal markets that fetch phenomenal and unbelievable prices.

In the past, many healthy, strong bulls could be seen leisurely loitering around in the city. These were let loose by the municipality for husbandry. Each had their own territory to roam. They were also fed by the children of the locality with kitchen waste, while some shopkeepers would place large pieces of rock salt for the animals to lick. They drank water to their fill from the water-troughs originally meant for horses. No bull from another locality would dare intrude. In case of a violation, angry looks with lethal horns ready to charge would be an effective deterrent and the stranger would withdraw. The children, proud of their locality’s bull, would clap over the averted encounter.

These carefree animals would roam around and munch on rotten leaves and vegetables found in the garbage. They’d even attempt to steal from the green grocers’. They occasionally blocked the traffic by squatting in the middle of the roads. Daredevil children would pull at their tails and ears and poke them with sticks upon which the animal would suddenly get up and cause chaos. Terrified, the children would run away while the bicyclists struggled with their brakes and bells and yelled, trying not to enter into each other’s orbits so as to save the children.

In our locality there roamed a jet-black majestic bull that was only a tad smaller than an elephant. It was so arrogant that even the municipal garbage-collecting bullock-carts would avoid it. With its bloodshot eyes and large horns curved at the right places it could have gored any matador. Yet, in spite of its strong hind legs, muscular body and a large hump tilted on one side, it seemed benign. Its passivity suited its physique. It was a sight to behold.

The bull was friends with children. Its self-proclaimed territory was Nicholson Road and Qila Gujjar Singh bazaar and its narrow side lanes. Parallel to it was McLeod Road where another equally strong bull in white pelt held sway.

At the confluence of the two roads there was a large garden bequeathed by Nihalchand Sirki, hence named after him. It had a fountain in the middle surrounded by pillars and topped with a perforated dome in cast iron. Water from the municipal tubewell irrigated its plantations. There was also a water trough for the horses that the two bulls frequented stealthily, taking caution lest the other should appear.

There was a large tonga stand where a horse barber and horse ‘doctor’ plied their trades. The latter displayed his medicines in inverted army helmets left over as World War II surplus. He would even offer his medicines to human beings and claimed to cure the les incurables.

The Bagheechi Nihalchand, maintained by the municipality, was fenced by a barbed wire and contained the finest of tall trees from previous centuries. Noteworthy among these were several plants of gondani. Its fruit was a kind of orange-coloured bunches like small grapes, now almost extinct. One such plant, located in Bagh Ahmed Din, in Iqbal Town, was recently uprooted. (The Lahore Conservation Society’s local chapter plans to plant a replacement along with lasoora and beiri.)

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One fateful morning, the two bulls suspecting each other of having violated their domains, came face to face. Actually, the Bagheechi was presumed to be a ‘no-bulls-land’ — a buffer zone, for that matter. The white bull was supposed to remain on McLeod Road while the black one should’ve been content with his Nicholson Road jurisdiction. Both had crossed a line which neither recognised.

Taking a long, calculated backward jog, they charged towards each other in top gear, ploughing through the dainty flower-beds, barely missing one another, and took long U-turns. This time both were more determined to annihilate the other. Their lethal, long and curved horns way ahead of their red-shot eyes could have pierced through the armour of a crusading knight. However, they only managed to injure each other slightly. With the blood oozing through their wounds, they charged again.

I, aged four, was trying to catch a glimpse of the gladiators from the safe comfort of my balcony. My uncle Ashfaq held me over his shoulders to let me have a spectacular view. The traffic had stopped. I could see hundreds of onlookers in the trees and over the roofs; small children, young and the old. The people from the McLeod Road were expecting their white bull to win, while my bet was on the black one. None of the parties was afraid of the bulls. They were all confident that they would not be harmed in the mêlée.

It turned out to be an all-out war, the theatre of which had expanded to the entire garden. Now or never was the attitude of the contesting zoological heavyweights. “He who runs away, lives to fight another day” was never a consideration for the contestants. Having slipped over and tossed each other several times, they continued with great vigour.

The barbed wire which had injured them many times over was ripped and both the roads were open for longer U-turns. People still had faith in their respective bulls and did not come down the trees in which they had comfortably perched themselves. This was a spectacle they wouldn’t witness again. And it was for free.

After several hours, the white bull was fatally wounded. The black one had suffered a deep wound in its thigh. It died after limping around for many weeks.

Years later, the Bagheechi was converted into a roundabout after felling the ancient trees and an unknown journalist’s plaque in marble was placed there which to me was more commemorative of the two bulls.

Come the Orange Train fiasco, the roundabout too was usurped. Now even Google cannot pinpoint where the garden, bequeathed to the children of the locality, existed once upon a time.

(This dispatch is dedicated to the Spanish bull that never runs away.)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Encounter in Bagheechi Nihalchand