It has been referred to as the most dangerous border in the world. Heavily militarised on both sides, the India-Pakistan border is completely fenced, with high-powered floodlights. On the late flight from Lahore to Karachi, when the weather is clear, one can see these lights run deep into the night. Every day, hundreds of visitors gather at the Wagah border for the flag-lowering ceremony, which sees Indian and Pakistan soldiers put on an elaborate and aggressive show, with pumping chests and flying boots. Further north, on the Line of Control and the working boundary, both armies frequently engage in firing, with unarmed civilians caught in the middle. Here, and also in other parts of the border, these villagers are looked at with suspicion amid a perennial fear of cross-border infiltration. Occasionally, an uninformed visitor mistakenly crosses the border and finds himself languishing in jail on the other side for years.
But sometimes, the same border can be a site of reconciliation, of peace. Standing about 4 km from the India-Pakistan border, the Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, in the past few days, has managed to do just that. With the construction of the planned peace corridor, the gurdwara would become a remarkable anomaly in the otherwise hostile context of the India-Pakistan border. The peace corridor will connect this shrine in Pakistan’s Punjab province that is said to be the final resting place of Guru Nanak to Dera Baba Nanak in the Indian state of Punjab.
While the peace corridor itself is a much needed step, it should serve as the starting point for several other such initiatives. There are at least five other gurdwaras in Punjab, Pakistan, all historically significant and associated with either Guru Nanak or the other Sikh gurus, situated right on the border that in the days to come could also be incorporated into the peace corridor discussions.
Commemorating Nanak, Bhai Mardana
About 25 km from Lahore is the historical village of Jhaman, which came into existence in the 13th century, according to British land survey reports. Just a little outside the village lies Gurdwara Rori Sahib, a lone structure atop a small mound. A sacred pool that was once constructed next to this shrine has become a dirty pool of water. It is believed that Guru Nanak often came to Jhaman, which was not far from his maternal village of Dera Chahal, with his Muslim companion Bhai Mardana. The two would often sit, singing songs, on the mound, where later the gurdwara was built to commemorate them. The “Rori” in the shrine’s name comes from shards of pottery that were found in abundance on this archaeological mound.
I first visited the gurdwara in 2008, a few days after the Mumbai terror attacks. India-Pakistan relations were at their lowest then and there was a real fear that war might break out. As I stood inside the gurdwara, observing the remains of the frescoes depicting the 10 Sikh gurus inside the dome of the shrine, I heard a couple of fighter jets in the sky. We later found out these were Indian war planes that had entered Pakistani airspace for a short while. The border is only a few kilometres from here. Standing on the roof of the gurdwara, I could see the tops of buildings on the Indian side.
A short distance from here, along the border, is Ghavindi, another historical village believed to have been frequented by Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana on their journeys from Dera Chahal to Sultanpur Lodhi, where Guru Nanak first found employment. Outside the village, the first Sikh guru is said to have found refuge under a grove of Lahura (desert teak) trees. The gurdwara that came up at this site is a modest structure, with a single room and a small dome, hidden in the trees. There are two platforms for sitting – the higher one representing Guru Nanak and the other, slightly lower, representing Bhai Mardana. Straw and salt had been placed on the platforms, perhaps by villagers, to whom the shrine still held some sort of spiritual significance. The most dangerous border in the world is just a kilometre from here.
Once splendid, now forgotten
South of Jhaman and Ghavindi, in Kasur district, lie the remains of two historical gurdwaras associated with the third Sikh guru, Amar Das. These are the only gurdwaras associated with Guru Amar Das in Pakistan. The first of the abandoned gurdwaras is located in Tergay village, a few kilometres from the border. A long structure with a white dome, it stands on an empty ground. It is believed that the guru was on his way to Kasur when he was welcomed by the people of this village, who requested him to stay with them. Tying his horse to a tree, the guru is believed to have accompanied the villagers. The gurdwara was later built at the place where the guru reportedly tied his horse.
A short distance from this gurdwara, in the village of Qadiwind, are the remains of Gurdwara Bhai Bahlol, named after a devotee of Guru Amar Das who is said to have built a water tank here to commemorate the guru’s visit.
Traveling further north along the border, one will come across the historical village of Padhana, where the first settlers can be traced to the 11th century, according to the British land survey reports. Here, right at the entrance of the village, lie the remains of what once was a splendid gurdwara. A spacious structure with a vast vacant ground around it, there was a giant lock at the entrance to the complex the day I visited the village. This is one of several gurdwaras in Pakistani Punjab associated with the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind. The guru is believed to have arrived in Padhana, a prominent village, on the exhortation of its residents. Later, his devotees constructed a gurdwara in his name. Barely a kilometre from the border, this shrine is now a pitiful sight compared to the freshly painted gurdwara that stands on the other side of the divide.
The fate of these gurdwaras would have been drastically different had Cyril Radcliffe, the architect of the India-Pakistan boundary, changed the lines on his page by a centimetre or two. Instead of being part of a thriving pilgrimage, as they were meant to be, they are today a sad reminder of the division of history that Partition ensured. With the Kartarpur Sahib corridor, however, there is some hope that perhaps one day, these gurdwaras too can have similar corridors, allowing thousands of devotees to connect, once again, with the heritage of the gurus.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak