119 years of Trust THE TRIBUNE

Sunday, May 2, 1999
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Crumbling grandeur
By Amar Chandel

A VISIT to Pothimala at Guru Harsahai leaves one with a strange feeling of awe mixed with disgust. Awe at the 500-odd breathtaking wall paintings which still exist there, and disgust at the way these — and many more - have been allowed to decay.

What should have been a well-preserved specimen of Punjab’s composite culture is crumbling so fast that it can collapse any time. The ground floor is already devoid of murals. The roofs of many rooms on the first floor have caved in, leaving the wall paintings there to the mercy of the elements. Big cracks have developed on the walls of the building and one climbs on to the roof with a pounding heart, lest it comes down. The majestic building, which was once spread over 90 kanals, has shrunk to barely eight, thanks to encroachments.

The dilapidated rear portion (Note the painting on one of the walls)The remnants of the murals themselves tell of the grandeur that this building must have once possessed. The walls are studded with paintings depicting themes not only from the Sikh religion but also from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Krishna Leela. Some paintings relate to the Heer Ranjha and Mirza Sahiban legends.

Pothimala is important not just for its murals. It is also a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of Hindus as well as Sikhs because it has been the residence of direct descendants of the fourth Guru, Guru Ram Das, and his eldest son, Bhai Pirthi Chand. In fact, it is called Pothimala because it housed a pothi (holy book) and a mala (a rosary) belonging to Guru Nanak. Then there is the priceless Padam Sahib and the Saligram, also belonging to the first Sikh Guru. The original book is said to have been stolen but another one is still in possession of Haresh Singh Sodhi, a descendant of Guru Ram Das.

The holy relics are put on public display on the first day of Bikrami Samvat every year. This year the function was held on March 18. Devotees came not only from various parts of India but also Pakistan and Afghanistan.

According to the Punjab District Gazetteer, 1983: "This place was a waste tract between the territories occupied by the Barars and Dogars, who were constantly quarrelling over its possession. Around 1745 A.D Guru Jiwan Mal came and pitched his tent upon this waste. He was a Sodhi, seventh in descent from the celebrated Guru Ram Das. He had been driven from his home at Mohammadpur, near Chunian, in Lahore district (now in Pakistan) by the Kardar who represented Ahmad Shah’s government.

No doubt he had made himself obnoxious by showing fanaticism towards the religion. The Dogar Chief Sultan gave him protection and encouragement to remain in the place, believing that his presence would in a measure stop the incursions of the Barars, and put an end to the disputes between the tribes. The Barars also favoured him, knowing him to be a priest of their own religion.

He was, therefore, permitted to establish a number of villages, in the plain, and he fixed his boundaries by marking down the tracks of his horses’ hooves as he made a long circuit one morning along the boundary of the land he fancied.

He named the illaqa Guru Harsahai after his eldest son, who eventually took his father’s place as head of the family. Jiwan Mal appears to have made friends later on with Ahmad Shah, because he was allowed to hold his land free of revenue, and the grant was renewed by Ranjit Singh when the Muhammadan authority disappeared from this part of the Punjab.

"The religious influence of the family was very great throughout the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and many of the Sodhis of Guru Harsahai were employed at the court of Lahore, and they accompanied the army on expeditions along the frontier, when it was necessary to keep up the enthusiasm of the men at a high pitch. In making these journeys, they seized the opportunity of bringing the followers under their own religious banner from among the scattered Hindu families of the western Punjab, and up to the historic partition of the country in 1947, continued to be revered by a large number of Sikhs, not only in their immediate neighbourhood but also in Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Kohat and the Derajat. On the death of Guru Gulab Singh in 1869, only two-thirds of the jagir was continued to his successor, Fateh Singh, on a life tenure. It was unfortunate that he became involved in quarrels with his own son, and in his time much of the old influence of the family melted away. He was moreover, on bad terms with Bishan Singh, his eldest son, and to despise him, made a gift of the property and Guruship to his younger son, Kabul Singh. A law-suit followed, and Guru Bishan Singh was successful, but the expenses of litigation seriously crippled the property. On the death of Fateh Singh, in 1879, the jagir was temporarily resumed, and it was re-granted to Guru Bishan Singh in 1885 under a sanad from the supreme government.

"Both Guru Gulab Singh and Guru Fateh Singh exercised magisterial powers within the limits of their jagirs but these privileges were not continued to Guru Bishan Singh, who in 1896 was declared, at his own request, unfit to manage his estates, which were placed under the court of wards.

The expenses incurred by the Guru in his case against his brother, Kabul Singh, amounted to about one lakh of rupees, and these and other debts were later cleared off and many improvements were affected, so that, in 1909, the income from the estate was over Rs 50,000 a year. The family then owned nearly 25,000 acres in nine villages in Muktsar tehsil. The Guru was a Provincial Darbari. He died in 1910 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Jaswant Singh. He had given away to his brother Autar Singh half of the property, except the abadi land, for his lifetime and the two brothers jointly gifted a village to Hira Singh, the son of their sister in perpetuity.

An exquisitely painted room on the first floor"As head of the family, Guru Jaswant Singh continued to be the guardian of the Sacred Book and the rosary which originally belonged to Guru Nanak Dev. These objects, which are said to have been lost recently, were held in high reverence by the people who travelled long distances for the privilege of seeing them."

After that, there has been a steady decline. Many paintings were damaged or destroyed during the court of wards. The worth of those was perhaps not fully understood by the owners, who even leased them out to the Food Corporation of India, which used the ornate structure to store grains!

Some rooms on the ground floor were whitewashed, destroying many of the murals. Even the bricks of the falling rooms were stolen when the family shifted to Ferozepore.

Haresh Singh Sodhi returned to the original seat of his family in 1980 and was made wiser about the worth of the paintings by a visiting American writer. Since he was not sure which government agency could help him in preserving the murals, he sent a letter to the then chairman of the Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, M.S. Randhawa, who in turn wrote to the Director of the National Museum. So impressed was Randhawa, a great connoisseur of art, that he remarked in his letter that "these paintings are worth acquiring in the same manner as those in the Rang Mahal at Chamba". In fact, the paintings bear a remarkable resemblance with those of Chamba, incorporating the composite art of the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.

The National Museum responded with alacrity, and rushed a chemical expert to Guru Harsahai. His report to his Director formed the basis of the latter’s note to the Archaeological Survey of India which said: "The building is in a tumble-down condition but the murals are in good condition and are of considerable interest technologically and stylistically. Although it is possible to strip the paintings and bring them to the museum, it would not be possible to display even a fraction of these because of shortage of space. The building site should be preserved."

It was felt that the building would finally get the recognition that it deserved. A superintending archaeologist of the ASI even wrote to H. S. Sodhi: "Senior officials are also taking a keen interest in the cultural heritage that your house contains." But 16 years have gone by without any tangible results. Perhaps one of the sticking points is the price at which the building should be acquired although H.S. Sodhi denies this. One or the other wall comes down during every rainy season. Tastefully decorated false ceilings are rotting following the seepage into the shahteer and kadi type of roofs.

Dignitaries like the then Punjab Governor, Aminuddin Khan and the then Director-General of Police, J.F. Ribeiro, visited the building and were highly impressed. The Governor even wrote a letter to the Director- General of the Archaeological Survey of India: "The precious murals may become worthless if prompt action is not taken to save them. It should be acquired and preserved as a national monument."

Leave alone being treated as a national monument, Pothimala is not even being highlighted as a local monument. The would-be National monument is fast deteriorating into a could-be rubble heap. Back

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