Amritsar was born in Lahore. It was born inside the walled city, in a small house in its narrow and winding streets. It was the month of Assu, corresponding to the months of September and October in the Gregorian calendar. It was a month when the monsoon rains, having unleashed their fury, had finally taken mercy and receded. The demons of the summer had been defeated, while the tyrant winter was still imprisoned. It was that time of the year when there was perfect harmony, when nights were balanced by day, heat by cold. It was the time of the year so uncharacteristic of the extremities of Punjab that it seemed out of sync, an anomaly, to its vagaries.
Amritsar was born in the family of Sodhi Khatri, a family of ancient kings, a family that was destined to rule not just the kingdom of this world, but also the higher realm, miri and piri, as articulated by the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind. These kings were not destined to be ordinary rulers, but true rulers, Sacha Padshah, whose reign would overshadow the reign of the mighty Mughal Empire. This new kingdom that was their destiny was born, along with Amritsar, in Lahore in the year 1534.
Amritsar lived in Lahore till it was seven years old, till the time its parents, Hari Das and Mata Daya, were alive. They died in the same year, leaving their child orphaned. The child, initially named Jetha, was raised by his grandmother in a small village, where the child first interacted with Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru, and became his lifelong devotee. Bhai Jetha eventually became a part of the Guru’s family, marrying his daughter Bibi Bhani. Such was his devotion to the Guru that he was chosen as his successor. Bhai Jetha became Guru Ram Das, the founder of Ramdaspur, the name by which Amritsar was once known.
Inside the walled city of Lahore, in an area known as Chuna Mandi, close to Kashmiri Gate, there is a gurdwara that marks the spot where Guru Ram Das was born. It was lying in a shambles till a few years ago, much like several other gurdwaras across the country, before it was renovated, along with a number of gurdwaras, by the Pakistani state and opened for Sikh pilgrims.
Lahore was born in Amristar. Actually, about 11 kilometres west of the city. It was one of a pair of twins, its fate permanently sealed with the city of Kasur that was born with it. It is not possible to pinpoint the exact day, the season or even the year of Lahore’s birth. It first came to existence at a time when time did not exist. There was no history or chronology, only the circular trajectory of mythology. This wasn’t the time of people, but rather of characters, caricatures and archetypes. This was the time of the perfect man, the just king, his perfectly devoted wife, and his perfectly loyal brother. This was the time of the greatest villain, a character so powerful that it was as strong as the power of ten. This was a time when gods and demons lived as men and women, a time when there was either good or evil, nothing in the middle.
It was at that time, when history was yet to be conceived, that Lahore was born in the ashram of Bhagwan Valmiki. The greatest sage of his time, for that was a time when nothing existed in ordinariness, Bhagwan Valmiki was composing the greatest book ever, when the cries of Lahore and Kasur first resonated in the ashram. It was the story of their father, of Lord Ram, that Bhagwan Valmiki, the Adi Kavi, the first poet, was composing when he heard these cries. Sita, their mother, had found refuge in this ashram after she had been banished from Ayodhya, following her return from Ravana’s Lanka. It was her story, of her marriage with Ram, of her exile from Ayodhya, of her capture by Ravana, of her rescue by Ram and her trial in Ayodhya that the Adi Kavi had decided to write about. In the process, he composed the first verses of poetry humans had ever realised. Lahore was born with Ramayana.
Her twin sons were named Lava and Kusha. Lava founded the city of Lavapur, which came to be known as Lahore, while Kusha founded Kasur. Today, about 11-odd kilometres from Amritsar, Bhagwan Valmiki Tirath Sthal marks the spot where the ashram was located and Lava and Kusha were born. The three cities at their birth were tied together in a triangle, a relation that is now testified by their cartography. In contemporary Lahore, at that highest point of the city, next to the river, where the first signs of civilisation developed, where lie the earliest traces of Lavapur, there is a small temple dedicated to the founder of the city. Inside the Lahore Fort, next to the Alamgiri Gate, are the remains of the temple of Lava.
A Lost Past
How is one to imagine the cities of Lahore and Amritsar, whose origins are so deeply intertwined, separated today by boundaries that doesn’t just divide geographies and people, but also mythologies, legends, religions, cultures, heroes and villains? It is a border that lies in the middle of these two cities, fabling stories about itself, about its previous incarnations in different forms, telling tales about its inevitability, its naturalness. Chanting mysterious mantras, the border blows in the direction of these cities, transforming their appearances through its prayers.
Lahore today is the ultimate symbol of Pakistani nationalism – a Muslim majority city, the site of Lahore Resolution, where the Muslim League first demanded a separate homeland for Muslims, home to Minar-e-Pakistan and host to proud Mughal architecture, the Lahore Fort, Badshahi Masjid, a tradition that marks the zenith of Muslim civilisation in an undivided subcontinent. Besides a few, inconvenient remnants of traditions scattered around the city, all those traces of a pre-Pakistan Lahore have been suffocated and left to die. It is easy, in fact encouraged, to forget about that lost city, that lost geography which connected Lahore with Amritsar and Delhi, a Lahore that emerged as an important economic, political and cultural hub because of its strategic location on that ancient route that flowed from Bengal to Kabul, a river dammed up by the border.
Lahore today is still an important city, perhaps more important than it has ever been, but it is not the Lahore of the past. Its contemporary geography and location are an awkward testimony to its changed status. A city that once looked in both directions, has today its back towards the east, and looks desperately towards the west, towards Islamabad, Kabul and beyond in search of a new identity, in search of a new incarnation.
The story of Amritsar is not much different. It was wedded to Lahore at its birth, tied a knot with the city that spanned over several centuries. It was a marriage that was sanctified by Valmiki, as Ramayana his witness, by the shabd of the Gurus and the blessings of Sufi saints like Mian Mir. It was a marriage of interdependence, of convenience and even complimentary traits. It was a marriage in which Lahore took on certain roles and Amritsar others. Thus, in 1799, when a young Ranjit Singh took over Lahore, he effectively became the ruler of Punjab, with Lahore the political symbol in his control. But, without the blessings of Amritsar, the spiritual symbol, he could not yet call himself Maharaja. The capture of one was incomplete without control over the other. Lahore held the past, while Amritsar was the future. Lahore was regal, while Amritsar sacred. If Lahore was miri, then Amritsar was piri. The two were not distinct entities, but one. They were an extension of each other, incomplete without the other. Like an archetypical marriage, they were two bodies and one soul.
The divorce was sudden, ending the gradual dependence that had developed over (almost) 400 years of marriage. It was an immediate severing of relationship, a violent rupture of all connections. Memories of Lahore, however, continue to haunt Amritsar. It is a relationship the city today searches for, sometimes with Delhi and at other times with Chandigarh. It is that primary relationship that impacts its subsequent relationships. The memory of the divorce lurks within its subconscious, hampering it from fully realising itself, from fully expressing itself.
Road To Nowhere
The road leads nowhere, meandering non-committally. It’s not meant to be travelled on, to be explored. It is not meant to connect one part with another. It is meant to provide a semblance of connectivity, meant to fill up empty tracts of land. It is aimless, pointless, stranded like a branch of a family tree that has no progeny, that has no purpose.
One after another villages and hamlets emerge on both sides of the road. They are the children of distantly related family members with no children of their own. They are no longer part of the immediate family, no longer invited to its events. They are confined within their circles, isolated from the economic structures of the core. Their names represent their marginalized positions – Dera Chahal, Jhaman, Hair and Bedian, terms that have no resonance in contemporary Lahore, the Lahore of Islampura, Rehman Park, Model Town and Defence, a Lahore of postcolonial sensibilities, tinged with the flavour of Islamic nationalism.
I am travelling on Bedian Road, a road named after the village Bedian, which in turn was named after the Bedi descendants of Guru Nanak, who were allotted land in this village. It’s only the name that survives, a name that once resonated with significance, a name that today represents nothing but outskirts of Lahore, of vast agricultural fields, downtrodden villages, a dilapidated road and a few luxury farmhouses. Beyond these is the border, casting its spell, chanting its mantra. The road collides with the wizard and dies unceremoniously. It is a battle that it is destined to lose.
The road once connected Lahore with Amritsar, one of the many that linked them. Here the peripheries of the two centres interacted, creating villages and hamlets through this intercourse, these villages and hamlets bearing children of that relationship. Standing on a vacant ground, facing the historical village of Hair, now reduced to poverty and insignificance, is the remains of this unwanted child, the remains of a shrine that was constructed here by Prithi Chand, the eldest son of Guru Ram Das, a shrine that was intended to rival Harminder Sahib at Ramdaspur. It is a worn-down structure, stripped of all its ornaments, the paint, the frescoes. Its sacred pool, created as an alternative to the pool of Amritsar, is now lost, completely covered, its broken bricks scattered all over this ground.
The condition of the structure, however, is misleading. For a brief period, the shrine, named Dukh Nivaran, was important. For a brief period, it attracted Sikh pilgrims who believed Prithi Chand’s lies that he was the rightful spiritual successor of his father, that he was the fifth Sikh Guru and not his younger brother. In this endeavour, he was supported by many – Mughal officials and corrupt Masand, Sikh deputies appointed by Guru Ram Das as his representatives in different parts of Punjab. The strategic location of Hair made it easier for Prithi Chand and his followers to intercept Sikh devotees on their way to meet the Guru and to expand their network. With the Sikh pilgrims came their offerings. Prithi Chand’s coffers swelled, while that of Guru Arjan, who was in Ramdaspur at that time, dwindled. For that brief moment, it was Hair and this shrine that began to overshadow Harminder Sahib.
After Prithi Chand’s death, his smadh was constructed at Hair, while his movement was continued by his son, Meherban. This movement in Sikh history is referred to as Minas, the scoundrels. It was one of the most potent challenge to all the Gurus after Guru Arjan. After the formation of the Khalsa, they were referred to as Panj Mel – one of the five dissenting groups with whom the Khalsa were forbidden to engage. The Minas finally lost the battle for legitimacy, the struggle for spiritual inheritance of the Gurus in the 19th century, when they split into several parts and got incorporated into the formal Sikh community. With the disintegration of the community, the village of Hair too lost its political importance, as the memory of Prithi Chand, of the Minas and Dukh Nivaran began to disintegrate and crumble.
Before there was Partition, before there were riots and mass exodus. Before there was religious nationalism, the division of Punjabis into multiple airtight traditions. Before there were contemporary incarnations of Mughal armies and the Guru’s forces, fighting a perennial battle, correcting historical injustices. Before Lahore became a Muslim city, the city of Sufi saints, and Amritsar, the city of Gurus, there was Mian Mir and Guru Arjan.
Their friendship began at the house in Chuna Mandi where Guru Ram Das was born. It was here that a young Mian Mir, years away from becoming a Sufi saint, would attend the religio-philosophical discourse of Guru Ram Das, when the Guru came to Lahore from Ramdaspur. This was a time before the communalisation of identities, the partitioning of religious traditions, a time when it was the norm, and not an exception, to have Hindu, Sikh and Muslim devotees of the Guru. It was at these gatherings that a young Mian Mir met the young future Guru. They formed a connection that was to become a representative of the symbiotic relationship between Sikhism and Islam.
Upon becoming the Guru, despite the opposition of his elder brother, Guru Arjan continued the construction work at Ramdaspur, whose foundation had been laid by his father. He began the construction of Harmandir Sahib, the future Golden Temple, which was in time to become the most important Sikh gurdwara in the world. Before construction began for Harmandir Sahib, however, a message and a delegation were sent by Guru Arjan from Ramdaspur to Lahore (according to oral narratives of the descendants of Mian Mir residing in Lahore) to bring his friend Mian Mir to the city, to lay the first brick of the foundation of what was to become the identity of the city. Mian Mir travelled in a palanquin sent by the Guru and laid the foundation of Harmandir Sahib, tying together the cities of Lahore and Amritsar in a lifelong relation.
Years later, when on the orders of Emperor Jahangir, Guru Arjan was being tortured in Lahore before his execution, Mian Mir reached out to him and asked for his permission to destroy the city of Lahore to stop this torture. He was willing to sacrifice his home, to sacrifice the entire city, for his love of the Guru, but the Guru refrained him from doing so. After Guru Arjan’s execution, Mian Mir maintained a cordial relationship with his son, the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind. It is a relationship that continues to be remembered and celebrated by certain groups and communities.
I met Bhai Ghulam Muhammad at his home in Lahore in February 2014. He passed away in April. His home was close to Data Darbar, the shrine of the patron saint of the city. The shrine is a thousand years old, as old as the known history of Lahore. Its existence and continued significance represent a continuation of a cultural and spiritual life of the city.
Residents of Lahore take pride in the city’s historicity, its recent and ancient past. But is Lahore, in its contemporary incarnation, the same city that it was, that it has been for a thousand years? Lahore was never Bhai Ghulam Hussain’s city. His home was Amritsar. But the city changed in 1947. Just like Ghulam Muhammad’s family, the city too migrated to Lahore, leaving in its shadow a distant memory of what the city once had been. The city where Ghulam Muhammad was travelling to was also not Lahore anymore, the glorious pride of Punjab, the multicultural jewel of the crown, of undivided British India. This was a new Lahore, a new city which only shared its name with that glorious past.
Bhai Ghulam Muhammad came from the family of Bhai Sadha and Madha, the Muslim rubabis appointed by Guru Tegh Bahadur to perform kirtan at the Harmandir Sahib. The performance of kirtan at Sikh gurdwaras by Muslim rubabis was a tradition that started with Bhai Mardana and Guru Nanak. It was maintained by subsequent Sikh Gurus. His was one of the most respected families of the city of Amritsar, the family that formed a connection between the Guru’s shabd and thousands of their devotees. His family was one example out of several that highlighted the complex relationship between different religious communities and hybrid identities. “We knew the Granth by heart…nothing about being Muslim,” he told me.
Once guardians of the Gurus’ words, they were reduced to odd jobs in Lahore. Only recently, with a growing interest in Sikh heritage in Pakistan, the family began performing kirtan again. However, this rediscovery of the profession is a far cry from what the situation had been prior to Partition. The odd jobs continued. In 2008, Bhai Ghulam Muhammad was barred from performing kirtan at Harmandir Sahib, for he was not an Amritdhari Sikh. His family had performed kirtan for generations at the Harmandir Sahib, without ever being Amritdhari, but that was a different city, a different Amritsar.
In the story of Ghulam Muhammad is the story of Lahore and Amritsar. It is the story of what the cities were, the story of their relationship, the story of their intermarriage. It is the story of what the cities are, of their antagonism towards fluid identities, of their newly discovered loyalties. The death of Ghulam Muhammad is the death of these two cities, of what they had been, of what they could have been.
The article was first published in Nishaan Nagaara.
Haroon Khalid is the author of several books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.