Saturday, 11 September 2010

Grabbing the guru's legacy

For thousand of years the Jewish people were unable to live in the area now called Israel, which they have always considered to be their spiritual home. This devotion existed because of the historical roots that connected this communitywith their Hebrew Prophets, their birthplaces, their spaces of miraculous events and their graves. Physical separation brought these believers into closer proximity with their sacred land. A similar parallel could be drawn by comparing
these sentiments with those of the Shias for Iraq.

Sikhs can be described as feeling in the same way towards that part of the Punjab which is situated in Pakistan. The seeds of this young religion were sown in the Punjab, and today Sikhism remains inseparably bonded with this area. Decades of political antagonism and malign propaganda from both sides of the border have failed to separate the Sikhs from Pakistan.

The founder of the Sikh religion was Baba Guru Nanak, who was born in Nankana Sahib, which is situated in present day Pakistan. A large portion of his life was spent here, and all across the country there are various testimonies to this. His birthday celebrations bring his devotees in large numbers to Pakistan from all over the world every year. On other religious occasions as well, Sikhs continue to travel to Pakistan, braving difficulties, so as to feel close to
their Gurus who are part of this land.

A few years ago when I visited a festival at Nankana Sahib, I was greatly moved to meet Sardar Gulab Singh, an elderly Sikh devotee from Jullunder, who never wears shoes in Pakistan as a mark of respect to the holy land of his Gurus.

On many fronts Pakistan has been able to live up to this sacred heritage, though in several instances it has failed to do so. The entire city of Nankana Sahib is a fine tribute to the Sikhs, as are the well-maintained Gurdwaras at Punja Sahib, Dera Sahib and Dera Chaal. However there are some sanctuaries where improvements are required, and Gurdwara Lal Khoi is a case in point.

The remains of this Gurdwara, situated near Mochi Gate in Lahore, mark a turning point in Sikh history, transforming a peaceful religious group into a militant outfit. The shrine holds a similar context for Sikhs as does the assassination of Imam Hussain for Muslims. During the reign of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in the 17th century, the fifth Sikh Guru Arjun Dev was living in Lahore. His son Hargobind, who succeeded him, was a very handsome man, and this is the reason why a local Hindu minister, Diwan Chandu Shah wanted him to marry his daughter.

He approached the Saint with the proposal, for which Guru Arjun Dev asked for some time to deliberate on the matter. When he discussed the matter with his companions, all of them expressed their opinion against the union, stating that it would not be wise for a faqir like Arjun Dev to associate himself with a politician like Chandu Shah.

Guru Arjun Dev heeded their advice and expressed his regrets with regard to the proposal. Chandu Shah perceived this to be an affront, and wanted to seek revenge. He began writing letters to the darbar in Delhi, alleging that Guru Arjun Dev was misleading Hindus and Muslims and turning them away from their respective religions. He also alleged that the Guru would soon challenge the Emperor's suzerainty.

Gurdwara Dera Sahib

Parallel to these developments, Prince Khusrau, Jahangir's eldest son, rebelled against his father. During this period the prince, along with his army, visited the saint's langar (communal free kitchen), and ate there. When he was departing Guru Arjun Dev placed a tilak (an auspicious mark) on the prince's forehead and gave him his blessings for his mission. Eventually the rebellion was crushed, and all the accomplices were brutally punished. The Guru's action gave Jahangir sufficient pretext to get rid of him, and he gave orders for his execution. The Guru drowned in the River Ravi, and the splendidly maintained Gurdwara Dera Sahib, built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, marks the spot where he immersed himself in the river before actually being executed. It is said that he never emerged from the water at all, after requesting to be allowed to bathe there prior to his execution, and Sikhs believe this event to be a miracle.

However, before the Guru was to be executed, he was handed over to a minister, Murtaza Khan, who then delivered him to Chandu Shah, allegedly at the latter's request. Chandu Shah took the Guru to his huge haveli (private mansion) near Mochi Gate, where he was cruelly tortured for several days. The haveli contained a well, and flanking it was a small cell where the Guru was held prisoner. The area is now called Lal Khoi (red well), and a Gurdwara was originally built
there by the Sikh Sangat. It is ironic that several years later, when Jahangir's relations with the Sikh Guru Hargobind had greatly improved due to political reasons, Chandu Shah was handed over to a band of Sikhs and was killed by them at the very spot where Guru Arjun Dev had been tortured.

In the beginning the Gurdwara was a modest place, but later the Sangat purchased adjacent buildings, and the entire complex came under the control of the Waqf Department at the time of Partition, and is now under the Evacuee Trust Board for non-Muslim buildings.

Today there is no sign of the well or the Gurdwara. However, there is a small building on the spot with the words 'Haq Char Yaar' painted on one of the walls. At one time a malang ( a holy beggar ) sat inside this. The locals of the area consider it to be a sacred place, even if not in its original context. The considerable property around the complex has been taken over by the land mafia, and a flourishing market now operates in the precincts of the original structure. When the Evacuee Trust Board was contacted regarding this situation, the concerned Additional Secretary was not aware of the matter and stated that he would 'look into it.'

On the other side of the walled city, inside Kashmiri Gate, there is a historic market called Chuna Mandi, and in it there is a small Gurdwara associated with Guru Arjun Dev and his father Guru Ram Das. The building is not visible from the outside, but the small entrance leading into it bears a small plate inscribed in Gurmukhi. This is known as the Gurdwara Diwan Khana, and is the birthplace of Guru Ram Das.

At the moment the property is under the control of the Auqaf Department, and recently the Sikh International Community, the Kher Sewa Committee UK, appealed to the Evacuee Trust Board to renovate the sanctuary, and permission has been given for this. The renovation is being carried out under the supervision of the Auqaf Department and a beautiful Gurdwara is taking shape. Most of the material being used has come from India, as well as many of the workers who are giving finishing touches to the construction. Inside, the place where Guru Ram Das was first bathed after his birth has been preserved, and the ceiling of the building
is decorated with gold inlay work.

Originally there was a large complex here, but today only a small portion of this stands, where the Gurdwara is built. The rest has been taken over by the land mafia, and a market is being constructed on it. This has been challenged in the High Court and the case is still pending. The construction of the market has been halted.

The fate of these two buildings is not unique. Many non-Muslim shrines in Pakistan have been taken over illegally; some have totally disappeared, while others have been gradually destroyed. This lack of concern can be traced back to the bloody partition of India. Religious bigotry promoted through false interpretations of history has now become a norm here, which is the crux of the problem. Recently the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government announced that it would
purge ethnic hatred from its school curriculum. This is a big step towards promoting an unbiased history and spreading tolerance. The remaining provinces of Pakistan need to follow suit and develop an unbiased attitude towards our history, not within the confines of an Islamic tradition but within a broader horizon, comprising of various cultural, religious and national entities.

Sep 06, 2010 (MENA News from Al-Bawaba via COMTEX) -- Pakistan, Sept. 5


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