Just inside the Lahore Fort’s Alamgiri Gate – a massive structure named after Emperor Aurangzeb that faces the Badshahi Masjid – is a small structure capped by a dome. This is the temple of Lav, named after one of the twin sons of the Hindu deity Ram.
Next to the temple, the road begins to ascend, heading towards the highest point of the fort, which overlooks the entire walled city of Lahore. This vantage point affords the location a particular advantage and is the reason it was chosen as the site of the fort.
According to local legends, it was here that the sage Valmiki, who composed the Ramayana, set up his modest ashram and gave refuge to Ram’s wife Sita after she was banished from the kingdom of Ayodhya. Later, her son Lav would lay the foundation of the city of Lahore.
The river Ravi once used to flow next to this mound, cutting at its edges. Like the other rivers of the Punjab, the Ravi is whimsical. This is perhaps a freedom all rivers that flow through the plains enjoy. The Ravi would change its direction when it willed, and break open its banks when it desired, flooding the region. The mound therefore provided protection to the sage, while the river became the source of sustenance for the ashram.
Valmiki was not the only sage to find sanctuary on the banks of the Ravi. Skirting the walls of the Lahore Fort, facing the Minar-e-Pakistan monument, are the remains of the samadhis of Bava Jhengardh Shah and Baba Vasti Ram. The stories of both of these saints date back to a time when the distinctions between Hindus and Sikhs were not crystallised.
There are several competing narratives about the life of Bava Jhengardh Shah, also known as Suthra. One narrative states that he was a devotee of Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru. His devotees, an idiosyncratic group of mendicants came to be known as Suthra Shahi Fakir.
Not far from the samadhi of Bava Jhengardh Shah is that of Vasti Ram, son of Bulaka Ram, a disciple of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru. Legends state that once Vasti Ram was approached by the people of Lahore to find a permanent solution to the floods caused by the Ravi. Vasti Ram settled at one spot, where his samadhi now lies, and the river never flooded the city again as long as the saint lived.
Guru Nanak and the Ravi
There are other folk-religious narratives about the Ravi, which present a contrasting account of the frequent inundation of the river.
About 120 km north of Lahore is the final resting place of Guru Nanak. Here, flirting with the international border, the Ravi meanders between India and Pakistan before it finally commits to Pakistan. The shrine of Guru Nanak in the village of Kartarpur is believed to have been constructed at the location where the founder of Sikhism spent the last 17 years of his life tilling land during the day and preaching in the evenings. The Ravi had become Nanak’s permanent companion during the dusk of his life. He would turn to the river every day to bathe, while it would also provide him with water for his land.
When I once visited the shrine during the monsoon season, parts of the Ravi had yet again broken its banks and flooded the surrounding areas. In the room of the caretaker of the shrine, a local media news channel was reporting about the latest floods. During our conversation, the caretaker told me how the locals believe that the Ravi breaches its banks every 20 years in order to touch the boundary wall of the shrine. They believe that is the river’s way of paying homage to the saint.
It was also the Ravi that allowed Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh guru, to perform his final miracle. He had been tortured by Mughal authorities on the orders of Emperor Jahangir for five days. Even Mian Mir, the most prominent Muslim Sufi saint of the city, offered to intercede on his behalf, but the guru refused. Before his impending death, he was granted his wish of one final bath in the Ravi. The guru took a dip in the river and disappeared. He had decided to pass on to the next world on his own terms.
About 300 km from Lahore, just before the Ravi merges into the Chenab, stand the remains of three temples – the Sita Gund, Ram Chauntra and Laxman Chauntra. Legends suggest how when Lord Ram went for a dip in the Ravi, Sita waited for him at its banks. As Ram went deeper into the river, the Ravi, which curved, began to straighten out so that even from afar Ram could keep a watch over his wife. Centuries later, their devotees built these three temples to mark this miracle of the river.
On October 5, another merger took place with the Ravi. The granddaughter of Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar immersed his ashes in the river. With this, Nayar, who had been born in 1923 in Sialkot in present-day Pakistan, returned home, becoming one with Valmiki, Lav, Ram, Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan, Bava Jhengardh Shah, Vasti Ram and countless others for whom the story of the Ravi is more than the story of India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim, believer and infidel.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was, has been published by Penguin Random House.