Memories of a town

Sirhind remains a place deserving of careful, close study. It is precisely this that Subhash Parihar has done in his densely researched recent work on the town, writes B. N. Goswamy

The tomb of Taj Bibi at Sirhind
The tomb of Taj Bibi at Sirhind

Some towns, especially old towns, carry about them a distinct aura. One may have never lived in them, and yet their mere mention brings swiftly to mind a host of images, associations, slivers of history. Consider Sirhind, the small town that lies in the plains of the Punjab, on the great medieval highway that connected Delhi to Lahore. Not many might give thought to the origins of its name—it comes probably, as seen through Muslim invaders’ eyes, from ‘sar-i hind’, meaning, roughly, the very ‘gateway to Hindustan’—but most Punjabis know it as the place where the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh were martyred.

The event, in all its moving details, is engraved upon countless hearts: the capture during flight of the two sahibzadas by the Mughal faujdar, Wazir Khan; the cruel choice given to them between embracing Islam and courting death; their valorous reply refusing to give their faith up; and consequently their being put to death. The revenge wreaked in 1710—five years later— by Banda Bahadur upon the Mughal faujdar, and his ransacking of the ‘accursed’ town of Sirhind, also lives vividly in memory. The wounds still bleed; the images do not fade.

For those inclined to go back in point of time, the imprint of Sirhind is also upon the name of the celebrated 16th century saint of the Naqshbandi order, Sheikh Ahmed, known in the annals of Islam as Mujaddid-i Alif-i Sani, the ‘Reviver of the Faith in the Second Millennium’—who is always spoken of as ‘Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi’ because of his having been born and having lived in that town.

The Sheikh, whose mausoleum in Sirhind, the Rauza Sharif, still attracts Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, was someone who had been seen early by his preceptor as "a light which will illuminate the world", and whose writings and utterances created a stir in the times in which he lived. The ‘white heat of revivalist fervour’ that he generated might not have found favour with the liberals, but no one denied that he was a most forceful and original thinker. And, in some ways, he continues even today to exercise a powerful influence on Islamic thought.

For more reasons than one, Sirhind was important. During most of the Sultanate period, and certainly under the great Mughals, the town prospered. It was a greatly favoured halting place on the way to Lahore; under Akbar, it had turned into the headquarters of the highest revenue yielding sarkar under the suba of Delhi; it was designated as a mint-town from which gold and copper coins continued being issued; great poets and calligraphers, even great surgeons, came to reside here; trade and manufactures flourished. But only till the beginning of the 18th century when the dastardly act of putting the sahibzadas to death was committed.

Following that, for virtually the whole of that century, it turned into a gory battleground. The disintegration of Mughal rule that was accompanied and partly scripted by the rise to power of the Sikhs saw the town decline rapidly. Time after time, it was attacked, ransacked, devastated, by enraged Sikh forces. When Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia raided and occupied the town in 1764, he ordered its monuments to be blown with gunpowder; the lanes of the place were ploughed down; to take a brick from the razed structures of the town and throw them in the Sutlej was seen as an act of merit.

Little wonder then that a 19th century French traveller, who passed through Sirhind, described the town as "the biggest ruin I have ever seen in India after Delhi`85 ruins which cover the ground for a space of more than 15 square kilometers".

Cities rise and decline. But everything, including ruins, needs to be documented and preserved. The town of Sirhind may no longer be the "envy of China", nor its environs be "like the locks of the cheek of graces", or its dust like "collyrium for the eyes of soul", as an old Persian poets put it. But it remains a place deserving of careful, close study. And it is precisely this that Subhash Parihar has done in his densely researched recent work on the History and Architectural Remains of Sirhind.

Time was when the town boasted of as many as 360 monuments, they say: mosques, cenotaphs, gardens, caravanserais, wells, and gardens. Very few of them have survived, but whatever have—apparently 37 in number—are documented here. The names of these are a study in themselves: the tombs of Taj Bibi, Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, Haji Muhammad, Subhan, Khwaja Muhammad Naqshband, Ustad and Shagird, Muhammad Isma’il, Shah Zaman, for instance; mosques like Sadna Qasai, Lal Masjid, inside the Rauza Sharif; gardens like Jahazi Mahal, Aam Khas; and so on.

The many gurudwaras are in the neighbourhood, at Fatehgarh Sahib. But of the medieval Islamic monuments of Sirhind, to which the book is devoted, there are more than mere names in it: for architectural drawings, descriptions of materials used, monumental inscriptions, photographs, are all here. The image of a town, which has lost its glory slowly, begins to rise from these pages.

But there are melancholy notes here, too. For what emerges from the study is the recurring theme of neglect and decay. Monuments at Sirhind have been turned into cattle-sheds; wheat-husk is being stored inside others; towers are being vandalised every day since old bricks can be used for private houses. And so many of those that have not crumbled to the ground have trees and vines and weeds growing though their cracks. "Ug rahaa hai dar-o deewaar pe sabzaa, Ghalib", as the poet said.