Ratan Talao guruduwara: Between a mosque and a madrassah

Updated March 03, 2014


The deteriorating Ratan Talao guruduwara. -Photo by author.
The deteriorating Ratan Talao guruduwara. -Photo by author.
Photo courtesy of Sardar Ramesh Singh.
Photo courtesy of Sardar Ramesh Singh.
The author with Sardar Ramesh Singh.
The author with Sardar Ramesh Singh.

Akhtar Balouch, also known as the Kiranchi Wala, ventures out to bring back to Dawn.com’s readers the long forgotten heritage of Karachi. Stay tuned to this space for his weekly fascinating findings.

The above title must have piqued your interest. Many of you must wonder if it is even possible. I can assure you, it is, and with emphasis. You do not have to go very far to find out if this is in fact true, for no web search or any other such resource will provide any information on it.

There is, however, a mention of it in Zahid Choudhary’s book, a renowned researcher Zahid writes in Sindh Masala-e-Khud Mukhtiari Ka Aghaaz:

There were tragic incidents of violence at the Ratan Talao, Karachi’s guruduwara for the Sikhs, where 250 Sikh men, women and children had sought refuge, awaiting their departure to Bombay. The guruduwara was set ablaze, injuring at least 70 people.

I take pride in being well acquainted with the Ratan Talao area. However, I never knew the locality housed a guruduwara there. Although, I did know that a guruduwara was located somewhere on a road in Karachi called the Temple Road. Unfortunately, in post-partition Karachi, the streets and roads were renamed in such haste that finding Temple Road itself was no easy feat.

There is a Temple Road in Lahore, too – and quite known at that. Mubashir Hassan, who was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s close friend and a minister in his government, used to live on Temple Road. Another minister from those days, Ghulam Nabi, lived there as well. Whether there is or ever has been a guruduwara on that road is not known to me personally. However, this was brought to my notice by my benefactor, Mr Hussain Naqi sahib. We are speaking of Karachi, though. Of course, there is a temple on Temple Road as well, but that, I will save for another day.

Before I get back to the story of my search of the guruduwara situated somewhere between Temple Road and the Nabi Bagh mosque, let me share a little something about the Sikhs of the pre-partition Karachi, their residential areas and their guruduwaras. Mehmooda Rizwiya writes on page 34 of her book, Karachi: Malika-e-Mashriq:

Punjabi Sikhs started coming to Karachi in 1930 and progressed almost instantly. They were good blacksmiths, good electricians, and woodworkers. Sadly, though, Sikhs and Muslims could not coexist peacefully in Utar Pradesh and Punjab. Thus, in August 1947, the Sikhs had to resort to leaving Karachi once and for all.

About the residential areas of Sikhs living in Karachi before the partition, Muhammad Usman Damohi sahib writes in the second edition of his book, Karachi Taareekh Kay Aaeenay Main:

“They [Sikhs] lived in the Lee Market. The area name Nanak Warra was also given to the place by them. They had established a school for Sikhs, and many guruduwaras in Karachi. After the partition, they all moved to India.”

One fine Sunday, I went out to treat myself to some halwa puri. I went to the halwa puri shop adjacent to the temple on Temple Road. While I sat there, I could not help observing a building in plain sight, the Government College Nabi Bagh. Once done with breakfast, I moved towards the college. The gate was open so I entered. From experience, I almost instantly knew that the name of the college too had been changed.

There was a pathway by the outer building of the college which lead all the way to the back of the building. As I took the path and kept on it, I saw what could be called the remains of an old building. I noticed the silence in the college was nothing compared to the desolate state of this poor, worn out structure. The roof was all rubble, and the windows were well, not windows anymore. In summary, it was all either debris or soon-to-be debris. There was a man there who was feeding shrubs to his goat. He looked at me suspiciously. I inquired, “Sir, was this the old college building?” He shook his head in negation, replying, “Guruduwara!”

Then, he asked who I was. I told him I was a photographer by hobby, adding if I could take a couple of pictures of the place. He said, “As many as you want.” The man opened the door of the building-cum-rubble for me. Even though he had told me to take as many pictures as I could, I still made haste. It was only that my experience of taking pictures of things and places as such has not been very joyful.

The next day, a Monday, I visited the same college by 11 in the morning. I went to see the principal. I told him I was writing on old educational institutes and asked if I could get some details on the history of the college. The man had an expressionless face or perhaps, his level of disinterest was more than what I had expected. He told me to drop by a week later.

He was accompanied by another man in his office. After the introduction, he told me in an Urdu overcome by a natural Sindhi accent that he teaches Urdu literature at the college. He insisted that I write on the guruduwara behind the college. The principal gave his colleague a look and then stood up to shake my hand. It obviously meant that he wanted me to leave.

After coming out of the college, I searched my mobile phone for the number of a Sikh friend, Ramesh Singh. Unfortunately, I had lost the number. So, I got in touch with Michael Javed, four-time member of the provincial assembly on the minority quota, for Ramesh’s number.

Ramesh told me that he was in Daharki, a town in the north of Sindh, and that he would be back in Karachi in a week. He also told me that he had some pictures of the guruduwara, to which I replied that I had some of its pictures, too.

A week’s wait was difficult for me. Finally, when Ramesh Singh was back in Karachi, I accompanied Michael Javed to call on him. In the meeting, we decided that Ramesh and I would visit the guruduwara the coming Sunday.

Sunday finally arrived after another knotty wait, Ramesh and I visited the guruduwara in the evening. Inside the college, kids were engrossed in a game of cricket. We did not disturb them and entered the building silently. Slowly, we moved towards the guruduwara. There, Ramesh Singh told me that the gurudawara was known as the Ratan Talao guruduwara.

He told me he had been trying to restore the guruduwara for some time now. However, he added, the Office of the Commissioner did not have any record of there ever being a guruduwara here. With a sad smile on his face, he went on, “You must know why no records of it can be found.”

We were deep in conversation when a young man brought an imprint made of stone. It was the sacred symbol of Sikhs, Ramesh enlightened me. He also told me that the symbol was embossed on all four sides of the building, but it was pulled down. He went on to tell me that the college administration had even built a classroom in the building. As proof, I was shown a blackboard inside the guruduwara building. Ramesh and I removed some of the rubble from the floor, unearthing the marble tiles.

The ruins of the guruduwara are still there inside the Nabi Bagh College, but cannot be seen from the outside as the college building conceals it, while from the back, the place is hidden by a three-storey mosque. The mosque is known as the Ratan Talao Mosque. The guruduwara has completely lost its existence between a mosque and a madrassah.

According to Sardar Ramesh Singh, Sikhs are still living in Karachi. There are guruduwaras, too, where they go and perform their rites and rituals. One of the guruduwaras is the Guru Granth Sahib Sindh Sabha, which is in Narain Pura, Ranchor Line, while the other is the Guru Nanak Temple at Manora.

In 1993, Ramesh says, the voters’ lists showed that there were ten thousand Sikhs in Sindh, three thousand in Karachi alone. He is of the view that the population must have increased by now. Currently, the Sikhs are living in Ranchor Line, Light House (the previous Light House Cinema and the current Landa Bazaar), and the residential area adjacent to the Cantt Railway Station, Narain Pura and Gulshan Mamaar.

Translated by Ayaz Laghari

Read this blog in Urdu here.