On June 16, about 3,000 Sikh pilgrims will congregate at the Gurudwara Dera Sahib in Lahore to mark the death anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru. This is a modest gathering, compared to the numbers that will come together across the border in India’s Punjab.

This is a far cry from the situation in pre-partition India, when the largest gathering on this occasion used to be at this gurudwara.

Facing the Lahore Fort, this small gurudwara with a golden dome marks the spot where Guru Arjan took a dip in River Ravi and is believed to have died.

For days before this, he was tortured on the orders of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Hot sand was poured on him as he sat in a burning cauldron. Inside Lahore’s historical walled city, the Rung Mahal Gurudwara Lal Khoi (literally, well of blood) marks the spot where the guru patiently bore the torture. The gurudwara no longer exists and has been replaced by a Sufi shrine, but the place is still known by its earlier name.

Asked for his last wish before his impending capital punishment, the Guru asked for one bath in the waters of Ravi. He never returned – the guru had decided to pass on to the next world on his own terms.

Gurudwara Lal Khoi. Photo: Haroon Khalid
Gurudwara Lal Khoi. Photo: Haroon Khalid

City central

Lahore holds a particular significance for Guru Arjan. Not far from the Lahore Fort is the Kashmiri Darwaza, one of the 13 gates that led into the city. Deep inside this crowded space, in the Chuna Mandi market, is Gurudwara Diwan Khana, built at the spot where Arjan Dev’s father Guru Ram Das was born.

Lahore also played a key role in events that confirmed Guru Arjan’s ascension as the next religious head of the growing Sikh community after his father, bypassing two of his older brothers.

In the outskirts of Lahore, in a small village called Hair a dilapidated pavilion stands in the middle of a vast plot. There was once a large pool here. While Guru Arjan was busy completing the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar (the town founded by his father) paving the way for the city to emerge as a centre of Sikhism, his eldest brother, Prithi Chand was building a vast complex here to counter his brother’s authority.

The location at Hair was strategic as it was en-route to Amritsar from Lahore, so Prithi Chand could catch people on their way to and convince them to support him before they could reach Amritsar.

Game of thrones

Hair was also the only option available to him after he had been disowned by his father for conniving to become the spiritual successor. The conflict arose when Guru Arjan traveled to Lahore on his father’s orders to attend a wedding. After the celebrations, he wrote several letters to his father, seeking permission to return. However all of these letters were intercepted and hidden by Prithi Chand, purportedly so that he could get Arjan out of the way and clear his path to becoming the next Guru.

By this time, the Sikh Guru was not just a spiritual authority but also a powerful feudal authority, unlike the situation in the time of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. The fifth guru would have vast tracts of land under his control, awarded to him by Emperor Akbar. The number of devotees had also increased manifold since Guru Nanak’s time and it was no longer possible for the guru to interact personally with all of his devotees. As a solution, Guru Ram Das had initiated the Masand system, wherein an official would be appointed by the Guru to represent him in different regions. The Masands were also responsible for collecting offerings on behalf of the Guru from his devotee. Thus in addition to the vast property the Guru also had at his disposal the offerings of his devotees.

So the stakes were high and Prithi Chand was determined, but when Guru Ram Das found out about his eldest son’s machinations, he disowned him for his insolence. Banished by his father, Ram Das reached Hair, where his in-laws stayed, and Guru Arjan was summoned back from Lahore and appointed the next Guru. But the conflict between the brothers was only beginning.

From Hair, Prithi Chand reached out to several Masands, powerful in their own right, and began lobbying for himself as the rightful successor. He had several devotees believe that Guru Arjan had usurped the seat unlawfully. In effect, he began operating a parallel sect from Hair, giving Guru Arjan tough competition.

As the offerings of more and more devotees made their way Hair, Guru Arjan faced immense financial constraints. The biggest blow to Arjan was the loss of his two rubabis, Satta and Balwand, to Prithi Chand, who lured them with the promise of financial rewards.

As Guru Nanak had his companion Bhai Mardana, all Sikh Gurus had chosen to appoint Muslim singers as their rubabi who sing the verses of the gurus. At a Sikh gurudwara, the rubabis played an important role in spreading their message through music. Due to their proximity to the guru and their in-depth knowledge of the sacred text, the rubabis were held in high esteem by Sikh devotees. Deserted by his rubabis, Guru Arjan began singing the holy verses himself. Satta and Balwand eventually reconciled with Guru Arjan after Bhai Luddha, a prominent Sikh devotee from Lahore, intervened.

While there are several contesting theories about why Guru Arjan was tortured by Emperor Jahangir, according to one of them, Prithi Chand colluded with corrupt Mughal officials in Lahore to plan his younger brother’s assassination.

Whereas contesting claims to Guruhood remained a feature of all successions to the title, starting from Guru Nanak’s successor – his son refused to acknowledge the appointment of Guru Angad Dev, Nanak’s devotee, as the next Sikh Guru – the challenge given by Prithi Chand’s movement was among the most formidable. After his death, a parallel lineage of Guruhood began, with his son Meherban calling himself the real Guru. Following Meherban it was Harji. Harji remained a formidable force and continued challenging the authority of the mainstream Sikh Gurus till the time of Guru Tegh Bahadur. It was after Harji’s death that the movement slowly faded away and eventually disappeared.

After his death, Prithi Chand’s smadh was constructed at his shrine in Hair. Today, this smadh is one of the last traces of the parallel Guru movement that he had founded.

The smadh of Prithi Chand. Photo: Haroon Khalid
The smadh of Prithi Chand. Photo: Haroon Khalid

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books: Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail