Saturday, February 24, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Tying bonds of unity at Guru ki Maseet
By Anna Bigelow

Guru ki Maseet in Sri Hargobindpur

AS the light in the gurdwara courtyard grew golden, an unusual meeting took place between Baba Kirtan Singh, head of the Nihang Taran Dal in Baba Bakala, and Dr Mohammad Rizwanul Haque, Secretary of the Central Wakf Council, Delhi. The two men sat facing each other on simple string charpoys to discuss their shared interests in a masjid built by a Sikh Guru.


It was like observing master weavers at work as they interlaced two of the many threads that make up the rich tapestry of India’s religious and cultural fabric. Dr Haque sat leaning forward, listening raptly in order to make out the wavering but urgent voice of the elderly Sikh.

Baba Kirtan Singh had come prepared, bringing with him several texts of Sikh history, some written in Gurmukhi and others in Persian script. He read from the records about the Sikh Guru’s conversion of the house of a dead Muslim into a masjid and the setting up of a langar for the poor. He also told of an encounter between Guru Nanak and some Muslims that ended with the declaration that "if Hindus are the left hand, then Muslims are the right, and we all believe in the one true God." In this way, Baba Kirtan Singh skillfully wove together the history of the Gurus and the present situation, the preservation and maintenance of a place — the Guru ki Maseet in Sri Hargobindpur— that is precious to both the communities

The maseet is picturesquely situated on a hill overlooking a curve in the mighty Beas river. After coming to the region in the early 17th century, Guru Hargobind built temples, gurdwaras, and a masjid to accommodate the spiritual needs of all the inhabitants. Since Partition there has been no Muslim population in the area. In the intervening years, the care of the site was taken up by Nihangs sent by Baba Kirtan Singh from his base in Baba Bakala, some 20 kilometres away. The present sevadar, Baba Balwant Singh, has been at the site since 1984, clearing weeds, sweeping dust, preparing langar, and fulfilling all the other obligations of his faith in service to the Guru, his Baba, and the Sikh tradition.

In 1997, a survey team with the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI) came to the town and saw the maseet. Recognizing the value of the building, the group began to undertake the restoration of the mosque as part of the UNESCO and UNDP-UNV’s "Culture of Peace" programme, and with additional financial support from the US-based Sikh Foundation.

However, some hurdles had to be cleared. The area around the maseet had been encroached upon, the hillside was eroding and needed shoring up, and the local residents seemed largely unaware of this unique treasure and were not entirely comfortable with the Nihang presence at the site. Furthermore, a bir of the Guru Granth Sahib had been placed within the mosque and a Nishan Sahib erected near it, making the building’s identity as a maseet questionable.

Baba Kirtan Singh and Dr Mohammad Rizwanul HaqueAs the restoration work began, the encroachment was cleared and the land cleaned up. A neighbour donated a piece of land and further property was purchased by CRCI with the assistance of UNESCO and the Sikh Foundation. Local residents contributed their time and energy to the site by organising a large seva with a langar that brought people from the entire region to the maseet — to see it, learn about it, and help it survive. People who had initially been skeptical or even afraid of the Nihangs began to learn about their beliefs and practices and now frequently and unhesitatingly visit the site to see the progress of the project.

Finally, a new space was built and the Guru Granth Sahib was moved out of the maseet. Various officials from the local Wakf Board, members of the SGPC, MLAs and Members of Parliament have visited the maseet and responded to queries from members of their communities who wished to know about the status of the site.  All of these events culminated in the meeting on February 8 between Dr Haque and Baba Kirtan Singh in order to determine the future of the Guru ki Maseet.

The white-bearded elderly man in the blue and white turban sitting on one charpoy with his pile of books lovingly wrapped in cloth contrasted sharply in appearance, age and religion with the much younger, clean-shaven man in western clothes perched across from him. Yet at this meeting their unity of purpose and the similarity of their thinking was equally apparent. 

Seeking common ground, Dr Haque had traveled a long and bumpy road from Delhi to Punjab to find Baba Kirtan Singh at his gurdwara. Baba Kirtan Singh had also made a long journey -- into the annals of Sikh history to discover precedents from the past that would strengthen the bonds of the two communities. The two men made great efforts to understand each other, to hear and be heard as they discussed the ways in which both communities could simultaneously live up to their interest and obligations to preserve and maintain the Guru’s maseet. They were helped in speaking to each other across languages and traditions by the translations of Punjab Wakf Board CEO Ikhlaq Ahmad Khan and CRCI Director Gurmeet Rai. As the conversation proceeded in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, the matter was clarified and an understanding reached. The Guru had built a masjid.

As Baba Kirtan Singh put it, "This maseet was established by our Guru. It is a maseet, but it is as important to us as a gurdwara." Dr Haque echoed this sentiment, declaring, "Your Guru built a maseet and it was his intention that Muslims come and perform namaz there. There are no Muslims now, but you (the Nihangs) have been preserving it very well and we all want it to stay in its original form." Later Baba Kirtan Singh stated that just as Muslims testify to the oneness of God, Sikhs say Sat Sri Akal. He again assured Dr Haque and the other representatives from the Wakf Board that they should not worry at all, the building would be kept as a maseet, as the Guru had wanted.

If the Guru built a mosque, it should be understood as more than a conciliatory gesture towards the other community. It was an act of community-building by a leader whose Miri-Piri sensibilities were steeped in the devotional traditions of Nanak, Baba Farid, Kabir and Namdev. The masjid is not simply a place sacred in various ways to these separate religions. It is an important symbol of the integrated past and present of India’s cultural heritage. 

The maseet as a Muslim space also represents the deeply held principles of equality in Islam. This value is visible in the structure of the mosque itself. The horizontal orientation maximizes the proximity of the faithful to Mecca. It is further evident in the accessibility of the space to all people. Everyone is welcome here in a space that is designed to reflect the oneness of God and the importance of community. There is no rule in Islam against the participation of non-Muslims in the care of a Muslim shrine. On the contrary, there are countless precedents for the collective custody of such places. The only rules pertaining to who may or may not enter a masjid, or for that matter a gurdwara, are rules of adab, or right conduct, by which one shows respect to God, the place, and the assembled people, and oneself by entering in a state of bodily cleanliness with a covered head, bare feet, and a reverent attitude.

The crucial lesson to learn from this encounter is that these two leaders made deliberate and sincere efforts to meet each other, and to forge, rather than sever, the bonds between their two communities. Instead of seeking precedents and principles that would establish priority of their own claims and interests in the property, both strove to find the events and ideas of the past that would support their sharing of the maseet’s maintenance. In this way they established that sharing the responsibilities that both groups want to assume in the future care of the mosque is a fulfillment of the principles of their faiths. They further demonstrated that this joint project was simply one more example of India’s proud heritage of pluralism.

With the leadership of people like Dr Haque and Baba Kirtan Singh and the support of the Muslim and Nihang communities, neighbours, visitors, and benefactors, the Guru ki Maseet has every hope of surviving and providing future generations with yet another historic precedent for their efforts to live together in an increasingly plural and diverse society.

With the sound of the evening rehras permeating the air, providing a soothing sonic background, an agreement to this end was reached — the Guru ki Maseet is a mosque and should remain such, as per the wish of Guru Hargobind. The Nihangs who have cared for and respected the site for so long would continue to oversee its upkeep. The Guru Granth Sahib is in a newly built room at some distance from the maseet.

The locals of Sri Hargobindpur, who take increasing pride in their unique monument, will continue to support the place, doing seva there and executing plans for a community centre with a garden and library. Muslims who come are free to perform namaz. And visitors from all over the world will have the opportunity to see the Guru ki Maseet as a living example of the depth of India’s integration, past and present.