Away from the spotlight on the Kartarpur Sahib peace corridor, hugging the India-Pakistan border on the outskirts of Lahore is another gurdwara associated with Guru Nanak. A thick foliage shades it from barbed wires and floodlights that run the length of the border. From behind the canopy of branches, a smattering of buildings and poles jut out into the sky, rising from the neighboring Indian village. One of these buildings happens to be another gurdwara, gleaming white in contrast to the rundown structure on this side.

The gurdwara is just outside Jhaman, once an important settlement on this historical route connecting many historical Sikh shrines. A little deeper into Pakistan is Bedian village, established by the descendants of Nanak. Nearby is Hair, where Prithi Chand set up his base to counter the influence of his younger brother, the rightly appointed Guru, Arjan Dev. A few kilometers away lies Gurdwara Dera Chahal, Nanak’s maternal home which he often visited.

On one such visit, Nanak is said to have rested on a mound outside Jhaman. An ancient ruin, he found shards of pottery on it, lending the shrine that would come up on the spot later its name, Gurdwara Rori Sahib. Rori means shards in Punjabi language.

From Jhaman, Nanak is believed to have traveled to Sultanpur Lodhi, now in Indian Punjab, where he attained his spiritual awakening.

Today the gurdwara is dilapidated. The floor where once Guru Granth Sahib was placed and recited has been dug up, probably in the hope of finding treasure. One wall is covered in calligraphic graffiti: “Subhan Allah”, “Ibadat Sirf Allah Ki Karein”, “Allahu Akbar”. Glory to Allah, Worship Allah Alone, Allah is Greater, it reads.

On the second floor, though, traces remain of the old grandeur. Under the dome are fragments of frescoes, depicting the Gurus and key moments from their lives. There are faded paintings of Gurus Nanak, Harkrishan, Ram Das, Arjan, and Gobind Singh engaging in battle. Other paintings show Guru Gobind Singh with his sons, Jujhar Singh and Fateh Singh.

Fragments of frescoes survive under the dome of Gurdwara Rori Sahib. Photo credit: Haroon Khalid

From most of these paintings, however, faces have been chiseled off. Clearly, depiction of humans at this Sikh shrine hurt the iconoclastic sensibilities of some evangelist, probably the same person who made graffiti on the ground floor.

Whitewashing heritage

The story of Gurdwara Rori Sahib is the story of numerous gurdwaras across Pakistan, abandoned at Partition, eventually to be taken over by someone or left to their own fate. But even in these crumbling structures the architectural splendor is hard to miss. While frescos, usually of floral and geometrical patterns, adorn almost all gurdwaras, some are covered with intricate drawings.

In a small town called Mandi Mangat, around 250 km from Lahore, the remains of Gurdwara Bhai Bannu are testimony to this artistic tradition. The gurdwara, now locked but occasionally used as his “dera” by a local grandee, is covered with elaborate frescoes, not just of flora and fauna and Sikh Gurus but even Hindu deities – Krishna playing his flute, surrounded by the damsels. Similar drawings adorn the tomb of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore.

Gurdwara Bhai Bannu in Mandi Mangat, Pakistan. Photo credit: Haroon Khalid

Today, depictions of Hindu gods would be unacceptable at many Sikh gurdwaras around the world. The paintings in Pakistan’s old gurdwaras hark back to when Sikhism was a more fluid religion, before it witnessed a hardening of religious identity during the colonial period, not unlike Islam and Hinduism.

While gurdwaras that are withering away are scattered all over Pakistan, there are some Sikh shrines the government has renovated over the past few years. They have been cleaned and painted. But what has happened in the name of renovation is that historical frescoes have been whitewashed. Floral patterns and paintings of the Gurus that had survived Partition and decades of neglect have vanished under the brush of renovation. This has been the case at Nankana Sahib, Eimanabad, Chuhrkhana and even Kartarpur Sahib.

Gurdwara Bhai Bannu has paintings depicting not only Sikh Gurus but even Hindu deities such as Krishna. Photo credit: Haroon Khalid

It is essential to maintain the sanctity of shrines, renovate them and hand them over to their respective religious communities. But it is equally vital that they are treated as historical structures and efforts are made to retain their architectural and artistic characters. At this point, this hardly appears to be the concern of any party involved.

Kartarpur Sahib was renovated a few year ago with donations from the expat Sikh community. But, as elsewhere, the aim was to make it sturdy and neat enough for pilgrims. As such, the gurdwara’s architecture was gradually changed and its walls whitewashed.

The situation is no different in Indian Punjab, where, while Sikh shrines are well kept and open to devotees all year around, many historical structures have been replaced. Pakistan’s “unrenovated” gurdwaras, in fact, are among the few Sikh shrines which still retain their old character.

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