The village of Dera Chahal, named after a historical gurdwara located in the middle of the village, is being encroached upon from all sides. Located in Pakistan’s Lahore district, on the Bedian Road that once connected Lahore with Amritsar, the village was far removed from bustling Lahore city not that long ago. But the extension of the Defence Housing Authority into the area has seen the city expand onto the agricultural lands of Dera Chahal and other nearby villages, some of which have been in existence for hundreds of years.

The subsequent development of the area brought this particular gurdwara into the limelight in 2011, when Gulab Singh, a Pakistani Sikh working with the traffic police, filed a case against Asif Hashmi, chairman of the Evacuee Trust Property Board, accusing him of illegally selling gurdwara land to property developers. Created in the 1960s, the board is a Pakistan government organisation responsible for the maintenance of non-Muslim property that had been abandoned during Partition. In January, the Supreme Court of Pakistan found Hashmi guilty.

This gurdwara is one of the most important Sikh shrines in Pakistan. It stands on the spot where the maternal house of the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak, once stood. It is believed that Bebe Nanki, his older sister, was born here. This is why the gurdwara is also referred to as Gurdwara Bebe Nanki.

Rising from the middle of the village, the gurdwara’s white dome is visible from afar. Abandoned in 1947, like several other structures, it fell into disrepair. It was renovated on the orders of interim Prime Minister Meraj Khalid in the mid 1990s. Subsequently, the gurdwara was opened up for Sikh pilgrims, many of whom come from India to participate in various religious festivals.

The story of Meherban

There is one particular historical tradition that asserts that Guru Nanak was not born at Talwindi (present day Nankana Sahib) but at Dera Chahal. This is asserted in the Janamsakhis (literally, birth stories) of Nanak, written by Meherban.

Meherban was the son and successor of Prithi Chand, the eldest son of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru. Traditional Sikh sources refer to Prithi Chand and his followers as “mina” or deceitful for he tried to hijack the spiritual authority of the guru from his younger brother, whom Guru Ram Das had appointed as his successor. That brother was later known as Guru Arjan Dev.

Prithi Chand challenged the appointment of his younger brother. Several anecdotes recall how he even tried killing Guru Arjan Dev’s son, Hargobind, who became the sixth guru. Some of these anecdotes also lay the blame of Guru Arjan Dev’s execution in 1606 at the hands of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, on the connivance of Prithi Chand.

The Minas presented a formidable challenge to the authority of the Sikh gurus during the lifetime of Guru Arjan Dev and even after. After having been exiled from Ramdaspur (Amritsar), Prithi Chand settled in a village called Hair, a few kilometers from Dera Chahal. There, he constructed a shrine to rival the authority of Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple). Remains of the shrine are still visible outside the village, which also lies on the Bedian Road. After Prithi Chand died, his son Meherban became the head of the movement.

One of Meherban’s most important achievements was his writing of the Janamsakhi of Guru Nanak – the guru’s biography as narrated through tales of his miracles. The former Sikh gurus were to play an important role for both Prithi Chand and Meherban, who attempted to appropriate the legacy of Guru Nanak. However Meherban’s writings were not confined to the first Sikh guru. He also wrote a hagiography of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and a commentary on Hindu deities including Ram. Some of these early writings, part of the broader Sikh culture, reflects its syncretism.

Traditional Sikh authorities assert that Guru Arjan Dev began the compilation of the Adi Granth – the first holy book of Sikh scriptures – as a reaction to Meherban’s writings, as he did not want Meherban to claim Guru Nanak’s legacy for himself.

A 19th century text suggests that the Minas got hold of Ramdaspur and continued exerting influence on the city till after the death of Harji, the son of Meherban. This is when the Mina movement lost its vitality and was evicted from Ramdaspur by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last guru. The Mina movement subsequently split into several groups until its followers were incorporated into the broader Sikh community towards the close of the 19th century.

Diverse Sikh religious movements

While orthodox Sikh literature asserts that the relationship between the followers of Guru Arjan Dev and Prithi Chand was antagonistic, a few other sources challenge this belief. For instance, one of these sources records how Guru Hargobind met Meherban after his release from the Gwalior jail – where he had been imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir – to convey his condolences on the death of Prithi Chand. The two later entered the Harmandir Sahib together.

There is another conventionally-held belief that Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, was locked out of the Harmandir Sahib at the time the Minas controlled it. The guru is said to have waited it out at a spot near the Harmandir Sahib, where Gurdwara Thara Sahib now stands. But another tradition challenges this narrative. It asserts that instead of being locked out of the shrine, Guru Tegh Bahadur sat at Thara Sahib out of his own will so that he could be greeted by Harji and his son.

After the formation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, the Minas were referred to by Sikh scholars as Panj Mel – one of the five dissenting groups with whom the Khalsa were forbidden to engage. But there is historical evidence to suggest that members of the movement continued to play an important political role in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839).

These various eclectic religious movements remained part of the broader Sikh community well into the 19th century. Thus even when the formation of the Khalsa formalised the Sikh community to a certain degree, several distinct groups continued to be a part of the broader Sikh fold. For example, thousands of Nanak-Panthi Hindus can still be found in Sindh. Another example of these distinct communities are the followers of Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendent of Guru Nanak, who during the coronation of Ranjit Singh, put a tilak on his forehead. Bedi’s descendants settled in the village of Bedian – close to Dera Chahal – giving the village and the road its name.

A greater uniformity seeped into the Sikh community towards the end of the 19th century, with the beginning of the Singh Sabha Movement, which was similar to Hindu reform movement Arya Samaj, and the Islamic revivalist movements of the early colonial period in Punjab. The Singh Sabha Movement preached the purification of Sikhism. History was appropriated to present a state of perpetual conflict between the Sikh gurus and Muslim kings, while several Hindu practices were jettisoned. In those times of heightened communal identity perpetuated by the colonial state there was a need to exert a distinct identity. Thus in the following years, several distinct Sikh movements were brought under the umbrella of a uniform Sikh identity. Gurdwara Dera Chahal, the villages of Hair and Bedian today serve as a distant reminder of this diverse past, now almost lost.

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