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Sunday, June 24, 2001
Lead Article


SRI HARGOBINDPUR
THE GURU'S SECULAR CITY
 Anna Barry Bigelow

THE Beas in June is low and its waters flow slowly around many belas (islands formed by the receding waters). They will disappear again in the rains, consumed by the rising river. Nearly 400 years ago, Guru Hargobind arrived on this promontory overlooking the river, seeking a place to spend the rainy season in and built a settlement for his followers here.

Sri Hargobindpur --- Photos by CRCI, New Delhi

As his conflicts with the Mughals were intensifying, the Guru fortified the city well. In fact, these fortifications were so solid that the original city walls and many buildings within are still visible throughout Sri Hargobindpur. Tiny Nanakshahi red bricks blend into more recent larger cut brick structures. Similarly, the ancient history of the town blends into the present, as residents of all religious faiths perceive themselves as heirs to the sixth Guruís mission to found a secure and secular home on the banks of the Beas.

Best known for his miri-piri approach to authority, Guru Hargobind was equally comfortable with Muslim faqirs and Hindu sadhus. According to some Sikh histories, when asked by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir about the difference between Islam and Hinduism, the Guru responded with a hymn composed by his father, Guru Arjan Dev, which concludes: "You are the Bestower of kindness and mercy. Grant us devotion and worship of you, O Creator. Allah and Parbrahm are the same." The Guruís civic plan reflected this understanding of the concept of God having multiple names but being one entity as the town included gurdwaras, temples and a mosque. Even today, the people of Sri Hargobindpur visit all these places frequently and freely, regardless of their religious affiliations.

One of the best examples of this pluralism is that in the post-Partition period, in the absence of Muslims to oversee a Sufi saintís tomb, local Hindus, Sikhs and Christians are continuing the tradition of the saints. They demonstrate their concern for their shrines through weekly ceremonies, annual festivals, voluntary cleaning and maintenance, and especially through narration of stories about the pirs.

 

Shiv Mandir
Shiv Mandir 

Many of these stories concern the association of a saint with the neighborhood or region, linking the locality with famous saints, rulers, invaders, and miracles. Other stories are more intimate, detailing events in the community and their own houses, showing the depth of the connection between these saints and this place. In fact, many residents say that one of the most significant thing about Sri Hargobindpur are its five gates and the shrine at each gate belonging to a Muslim pir. In fact, the gates and the pirs are credited with safeguarding the community.

Although all five pirs at the five gates of Sri Hargobindpur can still be found, four of the five gates are now in ruins and live on only in the memories of the residents. One gate, however, still bears physical evidence of this source of Sri Hargobindpurís protection.

The Lahori Gate is an imposing two-storeyed and triple bay structure standing at the main entrance to the settlement. This little known monument is of enormous historic importance as it is the only existing example of a gate built by a Sikh Guru in all of Punjab. This gate is still an integral part of the town. As the primary route for going in and out of the settlement, its doors are now always open and nearly everyone must pass through them to enter the heart of the old city. However, the future of the Lahori Gate is in serious jeopardy in view of a local development plan and state policies that would sell the shops currently being rented out from the municipality to the shopkeepers. Without immediate action and updated legislation to allow for the provisional use of historical sites, either the gate or the shops (or both) will disappear forever.

Sat Kartarian
Sat Kartarian

At the Shamana Gate is the dargah of Baba Shamana. The gate itself disappeared long ago, but the tomb remains perched picturesquely on a cliff overlooking the Beas. The long-time caretaker of Baba Shamanaís tomb is a Hindu, but he and other residents still know many stories about this Baba, who is said to have come here hundreds of years ago.

According to local lore, the pir was here before the Guru came and when the walls were built, the Guru asked him whether he wanted to be inside or outside the gates, which would be closed every night at 10 and opened again at 4 in the morning. The pir, not wishing to have his movements restricted, chose to remain outside the walls. According to another account, Baba Shamana gave shelter to a gang of Muslim cattle thieves who had been operating the city. When the town people came to complain, the saint told them to take back the cattle if they could recognise themóthen he changed their shapes and colours. Afterwards, the cattle thieves repented and became the pirís sevadars .

This interweaving of religious traditions and local history is also evident at Damdama Sahib, a gurdwara just outside the city on the road towards Amritsar. Residents almost universally describe this place as the most important religious site in Sri Hargobindpur. According to the Gur Bilas, this gurdwara marks the place where the Guru killed the Mughal General Abdul Khan during the Battle of the Beas in 1630. At this spot he first breathed a sigh of relief after the fighting (hence the name damdama). Also, from this place he ordered the bodies of the 14,000 slain Sikhs and Muslims to be cast into the river, rather than burned, as this was the common practice for disposing of the bodies of saints in all religious traditions.

Although nothing remains of the original gurdwara, Damdama Sahib is an important centre of Sri Hargobindpurís religious life. The importance of the site is increased by the presence of a pirís shrine just across the large sarovar near the imposing new gurdwara currently under construction. This building is humbler, but ancient and beloved. It is dedicated to Jaane Shah, a Muslim faqir who heard of the Guru and sought him out here. According to the Gur Bilas, Jaane Shah came daily for darshan of the Guru. As a test of the extent of his faith, the Guru refused to see him and even had a wall built between them. This did not deter the persistent seeker, so the Guru tested him further, instructing him to jump into the river if he wanted to meet the Guru quickly. The faqir immediately went to obey the command, at which point Guru Hargobind was convinced of his sincerity and brought him back.

Guru ki Maseet
Guru ki Maseet 

It is a further example of the integration of religious traditions in this town that this pirís shrine does not house the saintís tomb, but rather the Guru Granth Sahib. On the walls are images of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, Lakhadata Pir and Namdev. Many people who come to Damdama Sahib from all over the region visit both places.

After establishing Damdama Sahib at the site of his military victory, the Guru returned to his civic planning. He said to his Sikhs, "Create a town of unmatched beauty, with five gates, that puts the enemy to shame the moment it sets its eyes on it. And let those who inhabit the town be free of sorrow." (Gur Bilas) Then the Guru invoked the aid of God Visvakarma, who at the Guruís command "constructed mandirs and bazaars of different kinds and in their midst a beautiful maseet which the Muslims would love. In this placeóa treasure of happinessó he placed his diwan and reflected." (Gur Bilas). Setting to work, God Visvakarma took only six days to establish the 20-feet-high, 2.5-feet- thick walls and the grid-iron pattern of the interior.

The genius of this centuries old urban planning is confirmed by the fact that it is still impossible to get lost or remain isolated in Sri Hargobindpur. Small alleyways join the two main roads, previously both bazaars. Today, along the main road from Lahori Gate is a vibrant market.

This plan connected all neighbourhoods, integrating the settlement and allowing women in purdah to pass easily between homes and markets. Also, on nearly every street is a temple, gurdwara or pirís dargah. From Baba Shahmana to the Raghunath Temple, Manji Sahib Gurdwara to Baba Falai Wala, Krishna Mandir to Sat Kartarian Gurdwara, and so on, Sri Hargobindpur (a town with only 15,000 residents) is densely populated with sacred sites. These places provide not only spiritual centres for the residents, but social centres as well, bringing Sikhs, Hindus and Christians together to pay respects and make offerings.

Gurdwara Sat Kartarian, for example, is both a gurdwara and a mandir. This place is managed by a Hindu family related to Baba Sangat Das, a descendent of Guru Nanakís famous follower Bhai Phero. The gurdwara is on the ground floor and on the two floors above is a small chamber containing the 300-year-old wooden seat, or gaddi, of Baba Sangat Das. Exquisite paintings of the gurus and other saints cover the walls of this room.

Perhaps the fullest expression of the secular spirit of Guru Hargobind and the citizens of Sri Hargobindpur is found in the ongoing work to preserve and maintain the mosque the Guru builtóthe Guru ki Maseet. Of all the religious shrines in Sri Hargobindpur, the Maseet enjoys one of the most stunning views of the Beas. The Gur Bilas states that "the Guruji decided to construct a Maseet which would be endearing to the Muslims." As if nature herself approved of this idea, "at this moment the cool monsoon winds blew strong. The sky was overcast with clouds and was beautiful. Clouds came from all directions and it began to rain heavily. The Beas river was full with happiness. The river turned, twisted, gurgled and whirled with joy." The Guru ki Maseet also enjoys pride of place for the residents who, especially since the restoration of the site began almost a year ago, have come to appreciate even more the open-minded and open-hearted intentions of the Guru in building it.

The Maseet is small, but lovelyóbuilt in the typical three- domed, three-bayed style of Shah Jahan period mosques. As the work progresses, from beneath layers of limewash and old concrete, calligraphy, decorative paintwork, and the small red Nanakshahi bricks are emerging. The Guru ki Maseet is being repaired and restored by the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI), as a part of the UNESCO-UNDP Culture of Peace programme. The work is also supported by the US- based Sikh Foundation and by the donations of land, time, and labour from the community.

This project has helped restore the connection between the non-Muslim residents of the town and the Guruís mosque. Sangeeta Singh Bais, an architect and UN volunteer, says that when she first came the site was overgrown and unvisited. But, "now people can tell you all about it. Now they come to see the site and see how the work is going, and say what good work we are doing." As CRCIís director, Gurmeet Rai, points out, "All too often the physical condition of a building does not reflect the depth of the bond between a site and the community surrounding it." Therefore, in conjunction with the work on the mosque, the CRCI is working to re-establish these links between the site, the event it represents, and the citizens of the town. Bais adds, "We are here to raise awareness about why historical places are important and culture is important. The people here should be able to take care of the sites after we are gone, and they need to know how rich their culture is." Working under the guidance of Dr Savyasaachi, a social scientist based at Jamia Milia University in Delhi, the CRCI ran projects in the local schools to educate the residents about their history.

According to Meena Manhas, the volunteer who implemented the school programme, "Previously, students were surprised to see me at their schools, but when they saw that I was telling them stories about their own city and the gurus, then they became very interested and began to ask lots of questions and participated eagerly in seva and in competitions."

The work has also encouraged local efforts to foster economic growth without destroying historical places. For example, many residents are opposed to the initiative to sell the shops within the Lahori Gate. They are afraid that the sale will result in even further disintegration of the structure. As the main entrance to the settlement it is a key point for local commerce, but as the only gate built in the entire state by a Guru, it is also a unique historical treasure in Punjab.

Currently the Punjab Secretary of Culture and the Municipal Committee are considering ways to allow the Gateís continued use without further harming the structure, thereby allowing the buildings of the past to give shelter and support to the present needs of the community.

After all, as one local puts it, "Sri Hargobindpur is a place where everyone helps each other." Furthermore, it is a place to which those who leave feel drawn to return. Master Ohri, a local Hindu businessman and retired schoolteacher ,spent years away, working. But in these other places dil nahin lagiya (his heart did not feel connected). So he came back and has become a great supporter of the work on Guru ki Maseet, donating land to the project and initiating a plan to start a foundation to preserve Sri Hargobindpurís heritage. His community spiritóa Hindu man helping in the preservation of a Sikh Guruís Muslim siteó is echoed by many others who feel fortunate to live in a place that is protected by the Guruís walls, the five saints at the gates, and perhaps most of all by the continuing efforts of the residents to preserve this unique place and its rich heritage for their descendants.

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