Very few of our readers would be aware of one of the most fateful ‘walks’ inside the old walled city of Lahore that changed the very history of our land. It is the route that Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru, took in 1606 from Lal Khoo inside Mochi Gate to the Lahore Fort to meet his end.
Every time I pass by the famous ‘Lal Khoo’ shrine with its famous tree and its now blocked water well, it makes me very sad that though the original name of this place was ‘Gurdwara Lal Khohi’, now a ‘pious’ name plate says ‘Haq Chaar Yaar’. To try to hide true history, let alone that of the walled city of Lahore, is to deny our heritage, and a glorious one at that. It is also to deny the immense contribution of the great Hazrat Mian Mir to the cause of a truly tolerant religion, one that the walled city of Lahore was once well known for. Ever since the city’s inhabitants acquired an Afghan majority, extremist ways seem to have set. But no matter what the bigots conjure up, it will always remain a major pilgrimage point for the Sikh faith.
This place is connected to another very important place called Gurdwara Dera Sahib, which is within the ‘samadhi’ complex of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. To my way of thinking Dera Sahib is the most important point in that complex, for it is the exact spot where Guru Arjan Dev became the first Sikh martyr after he disappeared, forever, in the waves of the River Ravi. So we have two wells. One is where Guru Arjan Dev started his walk to death inside Mochi Gate at the Lal Khoo site, to his ultimate end where the ‘Guru Arjan Dev Gee da Khoo’ stands where he disappeared forever.
Amazingly, the ‘khoo’ (well) was constructed at the exact place where the guru disappeared. The year was 1606. The ‘samadhi’ of Ranjit Singh was built after 1839 when he died, and it was his wish that his ‘samadhi’ be made at the feet of the great fifth guru. By then the river had moved westwards. The ‘khoo’ amazingly still remains full, while all others around have dried up as the water table has fallen.
So the road from Gurdwara Lal Khoohi to Gurdwara Dera Sahib is a sacred pilgrimage walk of a tortured guru in the year 1606. It remains a walk that relives the unbending will of a holy person to stick to his faith and not change his belief no matter the torture inflicted. That is why Guru Arjan is so important to the city of Lahore, as well as to Amritsar, which his Lahore-born father Guru Ram Das founded. While Ram Das founded Amritsar it was his son Guru Arjan who completed it in the shape of the Darbar Sahib. Guru Arjan also completed the ‘Adi Granth’, the first holy scripture of the Sikh faith and installed it at Harminder Sahib. That was much later expanded into the Guru Granth Sahib. So Lahore and Arjan have an abiding relationship.
These days the Kartarpur project is a top priority of the new Imran Khan government, for it will open up pilgrimages for the Sikhs of India. Mind you it was Guru Arjan Dev who built that structure at Kartarpur where the Guru Nanak spent his last years. On his death there was a dispute between his Hindu and Muslim followers over who would take possession of the body of the founder of the Sikh movement. The next morning when the covering cloth was removed all that could be seen were flowers. The Muslims buried half of them and the Hindus cremated the remaining half. Both shrines exist still at Kartarpur.
The problems for Guru Arjan Dev started when Mughal emperor Jahangir ordered the arrest and torture of the guru. He was told that mercy was possible only if Arjan Dev converted to Islam. Here many versions exist. Many contend that the growing power of the Sikhs in Punjab’s countryside led the emperor to arrest Arjan and ordered him to become a Muslim. Another was that a courtier named Chandu Shah wanted to marry his daughter to the guru’s son, which offer was turned down by the guru after an ‘istikhara’ was carried out by Hazrat Mian Mir. So it was that in a corner of Chandu Shah’s house in Mochi Gate at Lal Khoo the guru was imprisoned and the door bricked up.
This is where the legend of Lal Khoo comes into play. Every day Hazrat Mian Mir would come outside the house where his friend was imprisoned. He would send in some water through the only ventilating window near the roof. From the shop opposite, now the famous old Rafique ‘barfi’ shop, he would buy some ‘barfi and pass it over. The ‘bers’ from the tree by the well just kept on producing its fruit. So when after three months the bricked up wall was opened on the orders of the emperor, they discovered a healthy Guru Arjan.
So it was that the great guru was walked in chains to the Lahore Fort, where for six days he was tortured by making him lie on iron sheets with a fire under them. The details of other forms of torture is difficult to pinpoint because of a lack of sources. On the sixth day Hazrat Mian Mir requested the emperor to allow the guru to have a bath in the river. As the emperor respected the Muslim sage, he allowed it. Arjan Dev dived in and never returned back up. Some Sikh extremists, as there are in all religions, believe he will emerge at this spot again on the day of judgement.
So here we have from one well at Lal Khoo to the Well of Arjan outside the Lahore Fort, now enclosed in the Samadhi of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, is a walk of a man who believed in the Oneness of the Almighty, whom a great Muslim sage and scholar tried his best to save. But the guru kept telling him: “My time to meet my Maker is near. Do not plead my case before those who love power and wealth instead of the Almighty”.
As we walk past that famous Lal Khoo with its ‘beri’ tree opposite a ‘barfi’ shop, it is sad that present-day extremists have started disallowing people from attaching small symbolic red rags to show the respect people of all faiths have in the way Guru Arjan Dev conducted himself. Even sadder is that Sikh pilgrims coming to pay their respects have been stopped. To try to impose restriction of one religion on another is to lose the argument, one that Hazrat Mian Mir stood for, just as it is what his friend Arjan died for. To each his own.
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2019