The little-known religious history of Balakot

Today, the city of Balakot espouses uniquely South Asian religious traditions.

Updated Feb 10, 2020 07:36pm

In the middle of the historical city of Balakot, which has lately been in the news for all the wrong reasons, is the shrine of Bala Pir. It overlooks the spring of Bala Pir, whose water is believed to cure diseases, particularly leprosy.

It is a Muslim shrine which is also claimed by Sikhs, who associate it with Bhai Bala, one of the two trusted companions of Guru Nanak, the other being Bhai Mardana.

The story goes that Nanak, Mardana and Bala arrived at this place to spread their message. While Nanak and Mardana moved on, Bala stayed back for a time to continue preaching.

In later years, Nanak’s devotees built a shrine to commemorate the guru’s visit to what came to be known as Bhai Bala Ka Baithak. There was a small plinth here once, meant to symbolise Bala’s seat.

An important figure in Sikh iconography, Bala appears frequently in the depictions of Nanak. Like Mardana, he is said to have been with Nanak since they were children. While Mardana came from a Muslim family, Bala was born Hindu.

Related: The legacy of Guru Nanak lives on in four historic gurdwaras in Punjab

In one of the most iconic stories associated with Nanak, Bala is a central character. In this story, Bala and Mardana ask Nanak what religion they should adopt to be his true followers.

He replies that if one is Hindu one should be a good Hindu; if one is Muslim then one should be a good Muslim. That is how they would be able to follow his teachings.

In Sikh lore, Bala accompanies Nanak on his extensive travels and records what he witnesses in Bhai Bala’s Janamsakhis.

A key source of Nanak’s life story, the Janamsakhis are said to have been written on the advice of Guru Angad, Nanak’s spiritual successor. But recent scholarship challenges this telling.

Also read: This village near Lahore serves as a reminder of Sikhism’s diverse past

For one, unlike Mardana, who is mentioned in early Sikh literature, Bala’s name appears nowhere except in his own Janamsakhis. Moreover, a linguistic analysis of the text seems to show the language could not have been used during Nanak’s time; it developed much later. It thus appears that Bala is a fictional character.

In any case, in the true spirit of Nanak’s message, Bala’s Baithak emerged as a spiritual centre that not only attracted Sikhs but Muslims and Hindus as well.

The annual festival at the shrine drew thousands of devotees of all faiths. This syncretic tradition received a blow from Partition, when Sikhs and Hindus from the region migrated to India.

For local Muslims, though, the shrine has remained embedded in their religious tradition, though with some changes. To adapt the shrine to the post-Partition environment, the local Muslims cultivated the legend of Bala Pir, a Muslim saint.

Inspiring a different tradition

Across the River Kunar from the shrine is a grave whose story is similarly rooted in Balakot’s history.

It is the resting place of Syed Ahmad Barelvi, a 19th century religious preacher who arrived from what’s now Uttar Pradesh to wage war against the Sikh Empire in Punjab and reestablish Muslim rule.

Tombstone of Syed Ahmad Barelvi.—Wikimapia
Tombstone of Syed Ahmad Barelvi.—Wikimapia

Inspired by the reformist philosophy of Shah Walliullah, Barelvi criticised the veneration of Sufi shrines. He saw it as a corruption of Islamic values, and urged his followers to return to the “original message” of Islam found in the Quran and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

He would have been critical of a shrine like Bhai Bala ki Baithak that brought together Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

Explore: The transformation of Punjabi identity over the centuries

Many historians regard Barelvi’s campaign as the forerunner of the more puritanical Wahhabi and Ahl-i-Hadith movements in South Asia. Moving away from the “shrine culture”, he made mosques the centre of Muslim mobilisation.

It may be tempting to see Barelvi’s movement within the framework of a conflict between puritanical and Sufi interpretations of Islam, it is not necessarily so.

He was imbued with the Sufi Islamic culture and drew many of his religious tenets from that tradition. His movement, in fact, is evidence of how diverse and open to varied interpretation “Sufi Islam” is.

Barelvi’s religio-political movement needs to be located in its time. In the 19th century, Muslim political power was on the wane as Punjab had fallen to the Sikhs, while the British were slowly spreading through India.

Seeing the demise of Muslim power as a result of their lack of religiosity, Barelvi wanted to reassert this political power, which is what brought him to the western boundary of Punjab.

Here, in a predominantly Muslim region, he wanted to lead an uprising against local Sikh overlords and eventually make his way into Punjab.

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A few historians have pointed out that after the Sikhs in Punjab, he wanted to challenge the British. However, he had grossly misread the situation.

The local tribal communities “betrayed him” to the Sikh ruler. He eventually lost his life in the Battle of Balakot in 1831, hundreds of kilometres away from his home, and his movement was brutally crushed by the Sikhs. His philosophy and jihad, though, continued to inspire those who sought the purity of religion.

Today, the city of Balakot espouses both these uniquely South Asian religious traditions.

While Barelvi continues to inspire the Muslim elite, the shrine of Bala Pir remains popular with the local people.


The article was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.

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Haroon Khalid has an academic background in anthropology from Lums. He has been travelling extensively around Pakistan, documenting historical and cultural heritage. He is the author of four books — Imagining Lahore, Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

Waleed Tahir
Mar 06, 2019 05:34pm
Very nice article. Took me on a 7 min historical journey. Looking forward to more!
Recommend 0
Neptune Srimal
Mar 06, 2019 07:32pm
Your columns are always enriching and enlightening!
Recommend 0
Jaspreet
Mar 06, 2019 08:23pm
beautiful and very informative. thank you.
Recommend 0
HA
Mar 06, 2019 08:58pm
liked your writing style.. very candid!
Recommend 0
Tariq Amir
Mar 06, 2019 10:34pm
Good research. Interesting and informative.
Recommend 0
Rp
Mar 06, 2019 11:12pm
Mr. Khalid, I always enjoy your articles - they are always well researched, unbiased and make a wonderful historical narrative.
Recommend 0
Brij Sharma
Mar 07, 2019 12:34am
Excellent historical facts explained professionally. Thanks a lot.
Recommend 0
Ramesh
Mar 07, 2019 04:38am
Superb article. Always a delight to read your articles. Thank you.
Recommend 0
Thirumalaisamy
Mar 07, 2019 04:44am
Hindus, Muslims and Sikh are people with different tags. Religion was created by man. There is no need to fight based on religions! Peace and love, Truth and compassion are the core teaching in any religion. Let all Pakistanis, Indians live in harmony and peace!
Recommend 0
A Punjabi from AHLU near Lahore
Mar 07, 2019 06:18am
Guru Nanak " replies that if one is Hindu one should be a good Hindu; if one is Muslim then one should be a good Muslim. That is how they would be able to follow his teachings" In today's uncertain times this will work if we all follow it truly wouldn't it?
Recommend 0
helping hands
Mar 07, 2019 09:45am
Spot on Haroon! Exactly what we as Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus needed to know.
Recommend 0
A Salman
Mar 07, 2019 10:49am
There is shrine/resting place of Shah Ismail Shaheed in Balakot also.
Recommend 0
Shah
Mar 07, 2019 11:40am
The pains of 1947 has not been addressed and on top of it by the pains of Kashmir and East-Pakistan. What happened in East-Punjab is extremely shameful and painful. There are videos on Youtube of survivors for those who want to understand history. 70 years forward and I see a bhai-chara, a brotherhood, among Muslims and Sikhs. It is only after we lost each other we realized the common Punjabiness. Thank you very much for this article.
Recommend 0
Ashok Sharma
Mar 07, 2019 01:38pm
Very nice, detailed explanation , Mr. Khalid you write always best articles. Thank you for posting...............
Recommend 0
BAU
Mar 07, 2019 04:23pm
Very informative. Thank you
Recommend 0
bhushan Parimoo
Mar 07, 2019 07:29pm
thanks informative
Recommend 0
Ayub
Mar 08, 2019 06:05am
Very informative article.
Recommend 0
I p Narang
Mar 09, 2019 01:46pm
Very touching. Love will trimph over hatred.
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