There is a flurry of construction activity in the narrow alleys of Pakistan’s Hanjarwal village, 14 km from Lahore, with barely a trace of any old architecture that might give a hint of its age. The Ravi river, which once used to flow at the base of the mound near this village, has gradually meandered away. On the road connecting Lahore with Multan in the South, the only traces of this village’s age is a shrine – Pir Hanjar – and a few bricks that are the remnants of what was once a sarai or resting place for travellers. But Hanjarwal village was established centuries ago. According to British settlement reports, it came up in the early 17th century, during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.

A few kilometers away is the town of Niaz Baig, which finds a mention in the official records of Emperor Akbar’s reign. Unlike Hanjarwal village, this town was protected by a boundary wall. While these walls have disappeared, perhaps razed in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, when the walls of Lahore city were also destroyed by the British possibly to avoid a similar rebellion, there are still remains of a couple of gateways that once allowed entry into the town.

In the 18th century, hearing the news of an impending raid by the Afghan King, Ahmad Shah Abdali, it is likely that several occupants of this Muslim-majority village and numerous other vulnerable villages descended upon Niaz Baig for safety. They are likely to have had ties with its residents because of the town’s proximity to their settlements.

Abdali had attempted to capture Lahore, but its gates were shut and its protective walls had successfully kept his forces at bay so far (he eventually captured the city). His soldiers were getting impatient, and to keep them busy, the king started raiding hamlets, towns and villages in the vicinity.

Travelling via the Ravi, and disembarking at the base of the mound of Hanjarwal, the Afghan soldiers relieved their boredom by raiding the village. With the walls of Lahore holding firm against the Afghan king’s assault, perhaps Abdali did not want to be rebuffed by the better-protected Niaz Baig. His next target was another unprotected village, 17 km further South. That was the unfortunate village of Maraka. It is believed that the Afghan forces did not spare a single soul here and later even burned down the entire village.

The village of Sikhs

But why was this severe treatment reserved for Maraka?

This was also the time when Mughal authority in Punjab was fading away and local independent warlords were filling the vacuum. Among these warlords were warriors who came to be known as the Sikh Misl, who used to regularly harass Abdali’s forces as they returned to Afghanistan after their regular raids into Punjab and other parts of North India. The Afghan king was informed that these “dacoits” lived in this Sikh-majority village. This is believed to have led to the brutal raid.

At the site of the old village now stands a graveyard. Located on the top of a little mound, it is dotted by several Banyan trees. Scattered all over the graveyard are shards of pottery and remains of blackened bricks, some in clusters, deformed by the blaze that was said to have been lit to burn the village down. This is the graveyard for new Maraka village, which was established a little distance away from the burned down village by a few residents who were away when the Afghan forces struck.

In local folklore, Bodh Singh and his son Jasa Singh helped populate new Maraka, becoming legends in the process. A small structure was constructed in the middle of the new village to honour everyone who had died at the hands of the Afghan king. It was called shaheedan da smadh or the smadh of the martyrs.

Shrine still exists

A few years ago when I visited new Maraka, I met an old Christian woman, who was a pre-Partition resident of the village. Several low-caste Sikhs who stayed back in Pakistan in 1947 converted to Christianity at the time, a religion they retain. It is likely that her family had Sikh roots, which was possibly why she was aware of the legend of Bodh Singh and Jasa Singh.

Through her, I found out that the structure raised to commemorate the martyrs of Maraka still existed. But now it was in the form of Muslim graves, as opposed to a smadh. Till a few years ago, I was told, there used to be an annual urs or festival at the shrine, as is the custom at all Sufi shrines. While the story of Abdali’s raid and the subsequent construction of this monument were not popularly known, the memorial had acquired a new meaning.

I was led to a house inside of which the two symbolic graves of the shaheedan da mazaar lay. While the significance of the shrine had been forgotten in the past few years, the space was still neatly maintained. The owner of the house had taken it upon himself to protect the sanctity of this sacred place, which stands testimony of the havoc caused by the Afghan King in Lahore and its outskirts.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.