I’m curious about how certain historic and political incidents can change the course of life in places. With that in mind, I went on a road trip on the Karakoram Highway and my first stopover was in Mansehra, 160 kilometres north of Islamabad.
My friend Faheem Awan, a professor at Hazara University, was my host in Mansehra. I intended to explore the archaeological sites of Ashoka from the third century BC in the city. However, Faheem convinced me instead to see one of the most prominent Sikh heritage sites in the city.
Mansehra city is at the junction of two highways, N-35 (The Karakoram Highway) and N-15; both roads are gateways to Gilgit-Baltistan in the northern part of the country. A Sikh garrison town in early 19th century, Manshera’s demographics changed rapidly after Partition in 1947 when thousands of Sikh families migrated to India. They left behind historical buildings and heritage sites in the hands of Muslims who took over the places, including markets, houses, lands and places of worship.
A gurdwara-turned-public library is a place of refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city and an important historical site
It was a cold but sunny day when Fahim drove me through the narrow and crowded streets choked with chaotic traffic. Our stop: a building which was built in 1937 as a gurdwara, and has now been converted into a public library known as Mansehra Municipal Library.
On main Kashmir Road stands the three-storey building in the middle of small shops in Kashmir market.
On the front of the building, the top floor is decorated with balconies covered with mini trigonal arches. The first floor is covered with three wooden windows, while the ground floor is covered with marbled-nets with four Khandas — the Sikh-faith symbol that consists of three weapons and a circle. In the centre is the entrance, a wooden door, and on top of it is written “Gurdwara Siri Guru Singh Sabha” in English, Urdu and in Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script.
The entrance leads into a big hallway, with black-and-white floral tiles on the ground. The inside of the building is decorated with fresco floral patterns, and different tales of the Sikh tradition are painted on the ceiling. There are bookshelves on all three sides, newspaper reading tables are in the corners and reading tables are located on the west side of the building.
Locals from the town are reading newspapers while some students are studying in one corner. The deep silence inside is a sharp contrast to the hustle-bustle of the market and traffic outside.
Fahim introduces me to the assistant librarian, Nisar Ahmed, a man in his late 40s, with a long beard, wearing a green shalwar kameez and prayer cap. According to Ahmed, the library has a collection of over 10,000 books of different genres, from philosophy to fiction and literature, and subscribes to 14 different daily newspapers. The library is open from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm, six days a week and is closed on Fridays. The monthly membership fee is 20 rupees for the general public and 10 rupees for students.
After taking photographs and documenting the library, I step outside into the chaotic city life, leaving behind a sanctuary of solitude in the middle of noisy, busy Manshera.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 5th, 2017