There is quiet struggle going on in the city of Nankana Sahib in Pakistan – the birthplace of Guru Nanak.
Facing Gurudwara Janam Asthan, built on the spot where the first Sikh guru’s home once was, is a large mosque with a tall minaret.
Over the last few years, on each visit I make to the city, I find that the length of the minaret has increased. Its construction seems never-ending – and perhaps it is. The minaret is a symbol, an assertion of an identity that believes it is under threat.
After Partition, no Sikh families were left behind in Nankana Sahib. Its holiest shrines, associated with Guru Nanak, were abandoned and came to be occupied by tall grass and drug addicts. Over time, with the situation worsening for the Sikh community in the tribal areas following the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, a few Pathan Sikh families moved to Nankana Sahib. The numbers increased exponentially with the emergence of the Taliban in the tribal areas and their demand for Jizya, a tax historically levy on non-Muslim subjects in a Muslim state.
As the community’s population in Nankana Sahib grew, there emerged a confidence and collective sense of identity that Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan’s Punjab had been robbed of at the time of Partition. This reflects in the ever-increasing scale of celebrations during Guru Nanak Jayanti, when a festival is held here in November to celebrate the guru’s birthday.
Empowered local Sikhs and foreign-currency wielding pilgrims meant better care of gurudwaras in the city. The government of Pakistan woke up to the potential of Sikh religious tourism and started renovating and protecting Sikh places of worship. Nankana Sahib once again emerged as a significant Sikh city in the eyes of Pakistanis and the rest of the world, even though there are only a few thousand Sikhs living here compared to hundreds of thousands of Muslims.
On the surface, they share a harmonious relationship, with local vendors benefiting from the surge of the tourists and local Sikhs merging into the economy of the city. However, a little bit of probing reveals the tensions. One example is that of religious purity. Many restaurants refuse to offer food to members of the Sikh community, fearing that their contact would yield their utensils impure.
In 2012, a young Sikh from the city, Dhavinder Singh, was killed, leading to tensions between the Sikh and Muslim communities. Further, there is property running into hundreds of acres linked to the gurudwaras of Nankana Sahib, most of which is now under the control of Muslim traders. As a result of this, tensions between the communities remain high. It is in this context that the tall minaret of the mosque facing Gurudwara Janamasthan should be seen. The minaret is an exertion of dominance, of asserting that one religion is superior to the other.
In this engagement between these two communities the Hindu heritage is ignored. It is conveniently forgotten that there was once a thriving Hindu community here as well, which has left behind an equally remarkable architectural heritage.
When I first spotted the turret of a temple from the roof of Gurudwara Tambu Sahib in Nankana Sahib, I was drawn to it like a magnet. It was a lone structure surrounded by houses, domes of the gurduwaras and minarets of mosques. It was the only one brave enough to fight for space in an already-contested land. Following the turret, I walked through the streets of Nankana Sahib, passing several Sikh pilgrims gathered around the gurudwaras.
Unlike other street, this was quiet. The quest for the turret led me to a wooden door with a chain on the top. I knocked the chain on the door, and in an instant, the door opened, as if someone was already waiting inside.
“Please come in,” said a middle aged man wearing a white shalwar kameez, not even asking me my name or the purpose of my visit. His name was Amjad and he was a professor at a local government college. He led me past a narrow staircase to the top floor of his house. The temple was on the roof, a tall turret with a small room underneath. Outside, at the entrance, there was an idol of Hanuman. Surprised, I turned towards Amjad.
“No one worships here, so I saw no point in destroying the idol,” he said. Islam is regarded as an iconoclast religion. Mahmud Ghaznvi’s invasion of Somnath temple in the religio-nationalist discourse is projected as a heroic action. It is the same tradition that the Taliban followed in Afghanistan when they destroyed thousands of years old Buddha statues at Bamiyan.
After Partition, most Hindu temples of Punjab were taken over by migrants who had come from India or property grabbers and were severely damaged. Their idols were removed and destroyed. Frescoes depicting Hindu deities were chiseled out.
Some of these temples were used as houses and were whitewashed to remove all trace of their Hindu past.
So this was a rare instance of residents making an effort to preserve the sanctity of the temple that gave way to their house. The main shrine was unoccupied but clean. Its frescoes – mostly floral patterns but also sacred scripts – were well-preserved.
“Hundreds of rioters gathered outside our home in 1992 after the destruction of the Babri Mosque,” he said. “They wanted to destroy the temple. But my father dissuaded them. He told them it is not a temple but our house.”
Remnants of the past
The story reminded me of another tale I heard hundreds of kilometers away, in the heart of Margalla Hills near Islamabad, where the mighty city of Taxila once thrived. The ruins of the ancient city are scattered along its vicinity. The Taxila museum next to the ruins contains hundreds of items unearthed from these ancient sites.
Almost exclusively Buddhist, the museum contains some of the most iconic depictions of the Buddha. I was on my way out of the museum when, in the middle of the contemporary city of Taxila, I saw the turrets of a Hindu temple. I knew I had to visit the shrine.
Driving through the crowded streets of the city I found myself at the gate of the temple, a black structure with three turrets. I was greeted at the gate by a young Pasthun boy named Muhammad Ali. “There are three families living in the complex of the temple but the main shrine which was upstairs is unoccupied and locked,” he told me. “One day when I was sleeping with my feet towards the temple, an old man with a white beard appeared in my dream who told me to respect the sanctity of the temple. He also told me that I should regularly clean it. Since that day, every morning I open the temple and clean it. I also pray here sometimes and know god is listening to me.”
On the outskirts of the historical city of Bhera in the Punjab province, a great learning centre when the Chinese traveler Fa Hien arrived here in the fourth century CE, is a lonely structure of a small Shiv temple, a little out of place in the midst of newly constructed brick houses. Sometime in the fourth century BCE, the city was razed to the ground by the forces of Alexander the Macedonian.
In the 16th century, it faced the wrath of the Mughal King Babur. It was then renovated by Afghan king Sher Shah Suri, in the 1940s. Sher Shah Suri had established the Sur dynasty after he deposed Babur’s son, Humayun, to become king. Just outside the walled city, there is a historical mosque believed to have been summoned by the Afghan king.
Standing on a vacant plot, the Shiv temple is a single-storey structure, with a shivling in the centre. There were blackened lamps around it, showing that they had been recently lit.
A teenage boy followed me into the temple and told me that it was an abandoned shrine till a few years ago, when some people from the city noticed an old man – a saint with long, white hair and a beard – sitting inside. He sat there into the night. “It was then that the people realised this place was sacred and started lighting lamps here.”
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities