The sharp spear pierced through the thick fold of skin on Bhai Mani Singh’s back. There was hardly any blood. There wasn’t much to draw. Bhai Mani could barely manage to keep his eyes open. His arms tied in front, his long untrimmed hair in a bun on the top of his head, he dragged his heavy feet. His slouching shoulders carried the burden of his age.

Had he been royalty of any sort, worldly or spiritual, the date of his birth would have been meticulously recorded. His birthday would have been celebrated every year; offerings would have been presented to him, some of which he would have distributed to the needy. Hundreds would have gathered to seek the blessing of his holy presence. But none of that happened. His birthday came and went every year, unnoticed and unacknowledged. He had been told by his father that he was born the same year that Guru Har Rai became the Guru and because that had been an important year, Bhai Mani, if he wished to, could use that year to count back his age.

(His death in 1738, however, would be a different matter. That year would become a marker for history, a reference for other, less important, events.)

Bhai Mani was of an age when making any calculations about age seemed futile. An age when his body was more dead than alive. It was an age that weighed on his eyes, keeping them shut, locked, because in his lifetime they had seen far more than they should have. They had bid farewell to Guru Tegh Bahadur when he left for Delhi where he was executed. Before the Guru departed, they had beheld the Guru who had instructed Bhai Mani to look after his son Gobind Rai, the future Guru in his absence. They had protected the new Guru’s wife, Mata Sundri, witnessed the death of the Guru’s sons, the killing of the Guru himself and then the killing of his most devoted follower, Banda Singh Bahadur. His eyes had witnessed the death of five of his own sons, sacrificed in the service of the Guru. They were firmly shut now for they did not want to see the death of his remaining sons, who were marching alongside him, firmly shut until he felt the prick of the spear on his back.

Through partially open eyes, he discerned a hazy sight of red sandstone, a subdued, tamed red amidst the dull green and sandy brown. He managed to open his eyes slightly and was able to make out one of the minarets of the Badshahi Masjid in front of him. Behind the minaret, the white bulbous dome of the mosque burnt his eyes and he shut them once again. When he managed to open his eyes a second time, he could see the red stone melting in the heat of the Punjabi summer. It appeared, to Bhai Mani, like blood dripping down the structure. Closing his eyes once again, he began shaking his head and crying loudly.

“It must have been here, somewhere here that Guru Arjun was tortured,” cried Bhai Mani. “Oh, my Guru! Oh, my Guru!”

“Be quiet and march ahead,” said the guard behind him, impassively, giving his prisoner a slight nudge with his hand.

“Burning oil was poured over your head and you didn’t even flinch. Oh, my Guru! Oh, my Guru!”

“You came back to the city of your ancestors. To the Lahore of Guru Ram Das, your father, where he was born, where he had played as a child. And this is how the city repaid you.”

The guard behind him, noticing that Bhai Mani would fall if he continued, walked up to him and held him by the hand to steady his frail body. He was indifferent to Bhai Mani’s laments and allowed him to continue crying, his voice muffled by the thump of the marching feet of a hundred-odd soldiers, and a handful of prisoners, in this procession.

“Oh, look at these mighty structures they have constructed with our blood. How many more sacrifices will they demand?” bemoaned Bhai Mani. The procession was marching next to the wall of the Lahore fort, a massive wall decorated with the most elaborate frescoes depicting the royal splendour of kings and queens, mounted on their elephants, hunting exotic animals. Standing on the top of this wall, his shadow lurking behind the latticed window, was Zakariya Khan, the governor of Lahore.

It was on his orders that Bhai Mani Singh, along with his surviving sons, was being marched into the city. He had been planning this execution for a long time. Bhai Mani Singh had established himself at Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar, since some time. Once he had been a warrior, standing shoulder to shoulder with Guru Gobind Singh; now he devoted his life to scholarly and religious pursuits. In Amritsar, Bhai Mani’s days were spent engaging with Sikh devotees, explaining the Granth Sahib to them, preaching the message of the Guru.

Since the death of Banda Singh Bahadur, several smaller Sikh political misls had sprung up and all of them sought Bhai Mani’s endorsement since he was the most prominent Sikh figure alive. However, he had resisted. He understood that the Sikhs would never be able to face the might of the Mughal army if they remained divided. He wanted a united front, much like it was under Guru Gobind Singh and Banda Singh Bahadur. That is what he said to all the competing Sikh warlords who came to him for support. Given Bhai Mani’s stature in the community, as the living disciple of Guru Gobind Singh and the three Gurus before him, Zakariya Khan was not wrong in assuming that he might be able to bring these different political groups together. Keeping him alive any longer might prove costly.

Excerpted with permission from From Waris to Heer, Haroon Khalid, Penguin India.