For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.


-Illustration by Mahjabeen Mankani/
-Illustration by Mahjabeen Mankani/

Safdarabad, before the 80s, was referred to as Mandi Dhaban Singh. It then met the fate of “all things historical”. Like many old cities, history suffered at the cost of political mileage. Much like the Grand Road, where Ashok drew a line, Sher Shah constructed Inns alongside and the British gave it a name. But today it is dotted with hoardings from democratic and non-democratic military rulers, all the way. About Dhaban Singh, who would care for an old forgotten jaat who founded a market? Nobody had the time to dig historical facts so the city was conveniently baptized. Named after a local politician for his services towards democracy, it reminds me of social hypocrisy, Manto’s favorite.

Next is Sangla, a city famous for a hill. Once upon a time, there stood in the centre of the city, a hill, imposing enough to give the place, its name. Special trains took crushed stone from this hill to all over India for construction. The strange phenomenon was the lone existence of this feature as there were no mountain ranges in the adjoining areas of Sandal Bar. The unwritten history of Sangla records the visit of Alexander and his year-long stay on top of this hill. With the expansion of population, the hill shrank and was eventually reduced to a mere monument of its own glory. The local conservationists raised their voices. The crushing was discontinued and a park now guards the hill, nobody visits the park though.

Hameed Nizami is the second point of reference for Sangla Hill. A self-made man who relentlessly struggled from the student federation to the Orient news agency. He started a monthly journal which graduated to fortnightly, weekly and then subsequently became a daily, now known as Nawa-i-Waqt. Like every self-made person, Nizami too lived the life of an idealist. When the first Martial Law hit the country, he was devastated and felt the betrayal. It did not take him long to depart from the material world.

Somewhere close by is the town of Marh Balochan. Once famous for its Baloch connection, the population has long isolated itself from the history.

The bustling towns of Khanqah Dogran and Kishan Garh lie north of the track. Moving astride the canal, green fields call out for the farmers buried deep down in every Punjabi. Happiness appears distributed equally amongst the fields marked by “watt” (the make shift boundary). The two canals of Rakh Branch and Gogera Branch nourish the life by the waters they bring to this area. Drawn during the colonisation era, these canals not only instilled prosperity but also brought amazing people from all over India to this place. Villages, dependent on these canals, were named after the acronym of a branch and a number. To the British revenue records, these were just numbers but for the residents of these villages, every household was one million stories. Mana’nwala, Kot Dayal Das, Chandar Kot, Kot Bhaga Singh and Imampur Naikodar were a few amongst many small towns, with fewer still but heart rendering stories. The two villages of Bhagwan Pura and Anand Pura also have their namesake on the other side of the border, but Bhagwan and Anand, however, are long gone from either side.

Warburton is a prologue to a spiritual phenomenon. During his campaign at Jaisalmir, Alaudin Khilji fought a decisive battle against the Rajputs. After the victory, a prince was also brought to him amongst the prisoners of war. He was so impressed with the chivalry of this last surviving prince that he released him and brought him to Punjab. On the conditions of never raising the army against Delhi, he granted him the most fertile of his estate. The place gained fame as Raipur and was degenerated to Rai Bhoey Dee Talwandi. In the 15th century, the city was ruled by Rai Bular, who first recognised the spiritual being of Baba Nanak. The name was changed soon after and it was called Nankana, with reference to Baba Nanak.

Nankana, in other words, is a walk through Nanak’s life, organised in nine Gurudwaras. From Kiara Saheb to Baal Lilaah and Nihang Saheb to Patti Saheb; every Gurudwara has a story to tell. May it be schooling or trade, playing or shade, every place now attracts large numbers of devotees, a reminder of the Sufi tradition Punjab once boasted.

Baba Nanak’s father, Kaloo Mehta, was an employee of the court. When Rai Bulaar realised the spirituality of young Baba Nanak, he advised Kaloo Mehta against scolding his son. Rai also granted 250 squares of fertile land in the vicinity of Gurudwara. The fifth centenary celebrations of Baba Nanak saw a contingent led by Rai Hussain Bhatti, who, then headed Rai Bulaar’s family and was given a medal for his interfaith services during the Coronation Durbar of 1887. At the time of Partition, the Bhattis also arranged the safe transit of the migrating Sikhs. This tradition of Muslim-Sikh unity continues till today. Salim Bhatti, a 19th generation Bhatti, lives to this tradition, on the lines of duty, to date.

Initially, the administration of Gurudwaras was the domain of Udasi Mehants, who also looked after the revenue generated by the attached estates. As the yields swelled, the Augur’s interest in religious matters decreased and that in money matter increased. A rise in the incidents of debauchery pointed on the credibility of Narayan Das, Mahant of Gurudwara Janam Asthan. When a group of female devotees from Jaranwala were raped in the premises of the Gurudwara, Master Sunder Singh of Lyallpur finally stood up against Mahant. He explained to Panth, the misdeeds of Mahant, who decided that the next session will be inside the Gurudwara in March. This was the 24th day of January and the year 1921.

On foreseeing the prosecution, Mahant came up clean. He condemned the incident and demanded that the culprits be taken to task. On the other hand, he had started recruiting mercenaries for killing prominent Akalis. There are indications that Mahant derived strength from the age old trinity of the Augur, the landlord and the king. British authorities and a few landlords were said to be partners in crime. The duo had an idea that if control of the Gurudwara drifted to the hands of commons, ruling Punjab with an iron fist would become difficult. Mahant kept on feeding his arsenal while the Shrominee committee waited for the promise of dialogue. On the night between 19th and 20th February, the Sikhs reached the Gurudwara in the form of Jathas. When they were in the premises, the goons of Mahant recklessly fired at them. The leader of the Jathas, Lachman Singh, was tied with the tree in the aangan and was burnt alive. Bullets pierced through the walls of the Gurudwara, bodies of protesters and folds of Garanth Saheb. When things got out of control, Mr. King, the commissioner of Lahore, arrested Mahant and his accomplices and handed over the keys of Nankana to Shrominee. Many estimates put the death toll at 150. The incident is commemorated every 21st February when Ardaas are offered and the wounded Garanth is taken out for the public audience. The traces of the bullets and the name of the Shaheedi Jatha are marked in the walls of Gurudwara.

Going to Nankana was a fantastic childhood experience. Dada ji Siddique, the eldest family member, would walk us around and show us the Sarovars and Gurudwaras. Once back, he would sit us all in the aangan and help us translate the kalma in Punjabi. After having translated it, word by word, he would tell us the Punjabi translation

Avikta Avikta ... Muhammad Autar (He is one, He is one and Muhammad is the prophet)

Years later someone told me that these were the words of Baba Nanak.

Every year, yatrees visit Nankana from all over the world. Barring 1988, the city has an air of tolerance. Next to the Gurudwara, the Madni Mosque and a madressah call the faithful, five times a day. Regardless of his domicile of Vancouver or Bhatinda, every yatree is a guest in Nankana. I asked Manpreet Sahota, an English teacher from Canada, about her feelings on being at the Gurudwara. She said:

“Every morning, in our Ardaas, we pray that Guru call us at his place in Nankana”. She was interrupted when the speakers of mosque coughed to life and the voice of a young child echoed,

Meray maula bula ley Madeenay mujhay …”


Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (25)

surrinder gill USA
March 5, 2013 12:40 am
Miraj Sahib, Ik vaar fir aap nu salam ate tuhadi kalam nu vi. I have visited nankana sahib two times from USA. The love affection and respect shown by Muslim Punjabi veers is beyond words. I felt at home and among my own brothers. Shame to those who divided the brothers.
March 4, 2013 5:54 pm
Brilliant as ever. Keep 'em coming.
Sumit Pratap Singh
March 5, 2013 7:33 pm
partition of india and pak was the most insane idea ever..historically we are the same even though there is hatred but the thread of our history is intangible. and it is this thread that connects us and binds us.hindus and muslims in indian subcontinent share a lot and are incomplete without each other.
March 5, 2013 7:15 pm
Miss Diya, althought I appreciate your work, its sad for me to hear that iHinduism and Hindu community is so completely wiped out from sindh, that an anthropologist has to research it. I am a Hindu from India, we here loved and preserved your Islam and made India one of the safest and best places for Muslims, But what have you done to our religion, in its birth place!!
Gulbaz Mushtaq
March 4, 2013 6:02 pm
"The Train" is now heading towards places that I have not visited but by reading about them is equal to seeing them. Like always, what a magical wrtining. Jeetay Raho Sir G.
Aslam Khan
March 4, 2013 4:55 pm
You write so well... You've given life to so many places and individuals. Great job.Y
March 5, 2013 1:42 pm
Reading this 'history" of Punjab , be it in Pakistan or India, the word Rai keeps cropping up.My search on the internet is about mixed. Nothing seems to gel.Maybe Muhammad sahib can throw some light on these Rais. This is because I am also a Rai but have no one to ask as they have all passed away in mu family. Only I and my son remain in this country [Malaysia] as far as I know.
Bulleh Shah da neighbour
March 5, 2013 2:00 pm
I enjoy reading your articles. You are a true son of Ranjit Singh's Punjab when Punjabis were Punjabis and not Indians or Pakistanis.
March 5, 2013 6:32 pm
When will these people stop dwelling in the past-who cares-we love our Pakistan and to move into the future.
March 5, 2013 4:14 pm
Thank You, Surinder Saheb
March 5, 2013 6:03 pm
Diya Rehman
March 5, 2013 5:54 am
I am an anthropologist and is doing research on the Hindu community pre-partitioned buildings in Sindh . Can I have Mr. Miraj's email address?
March 5, 2013 6:45 am
Miraj sahib , Thanks for your wonderful narration . I visited Lahore in 2004 & 2006 , I had tried to visit Nankana but since I had visa only for Lahore , I could not get any assurance from any Taxi wallah that he will take me without Visa . Now I suppose things are not that rosy which they were in 2004 , so the wait to visit Nankana gets longer .
Arshad Jamil
March 5, 2013 5:34 pm
Great son of an upright family.
Baber Khan
March 5, 2013 7:35 am
Nostalgia let loose!
B. Ally
March 5, 2013 8:48 am
The bygone days are a pleasant reminder that harmony of life rests in humanity. We are first humans then any one else.
Zulfiqar Haider
March 5, 2013 9:07 am
March 5, 2013 11:52 pm
March 6, 2013 3:03 am
Mr Rehman - I'd love to read your research, and I wish there is a way to share. Perhaps Mr. Miraj and inform us via his article. My parents are from Sindh.
March 6, 2013 3:03 am
No value from this comment..why would you say this?
March 6, 2013 3:38 am
I have met scores of Pakistanis abroad. Honestly, the love, affection and pure compassion that you guys show (especially Punjabis) is second to none. There will always be issues that divide us. It is unfortunate but a sad reality. But even the hardest fundamentalist will melt away after interacting with the comman man across our borders. The class and "tameez" that Pakistanis show is simply exemplary. My in-laws are from Pakistani punjab (before partition). They have visited Nankana Sahib. Now it is unimaginable. May Allah bless the writer for bringing fond memories. A heartfelt greeting to all Pakistani brothers and sisters.
March 6, 2013 3:42 am
People like you deserve to be in a mental asylum. Really the article. If it doesnt melt your heart, you are not fit to be a human being...forget being a Hindu or a Muslim or an Indian or a Pakistani. May God cure you.
March 6, 2013 7:42 am
Your information is not true, even now the Hindus are in majority in two districts of Sind, namely Tharparkar and Sanghar.
March 6, 2013 7:47 am
Why are you changing the religion of Mr. Miraj without asking him!
March 6, 2013 9:09 am
Please take Pakistani Punjab so that the rest of the Pakistani live in peace
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