Published May 9, 2021
Composite Illustration by Samiah Bilal
Composite Illustration by Samiah Bilal

Amritsar was born in Lahore. It was born inside the walled city, in a small house, in its narrow winding streets. It was the month of Assu, a month that corresponds with the months of September and October. It was a month when the monsoon rains, having unleashed their fury, had finally taken mercy and receded. The demons of the summer had been defeated, while the tyrant winter was still imprisoned. It was the time of the year of perfect harmony, when nights were balanced by the day, the heat by the cold. It was the time of the year so uncharacteristic of the extremities of Punjab that it seemed out of sync, an anomaly, to its vagaries.

Amritsar was born in the family of Sodhi Khatri, a family of ancient kings, a family that was destined to rule, not just the kingdom of this world, but also the higher realm, miri and piri, as it is articulated by the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind. They were not destined to be ordinary rulers, but true rulers, Sacha Padshah. This new kingdom that was their destiny was born along with Amritsar, in Lahore, in the year 1534.

Amritsar lived in Lahore, till it was seven years old, till the time that its parents were alive. They died in the same year, leaving their child orphaned. The child, initially named Jetha, was raised by his grandmother, in a small village near present-day Amritsar. It was where he first interacted with Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru, and became his lifelong devotee.

Bhai Jetha, eventually became part of the Guru’s family, marrying his daughter, Bibi Bhani. Such was his devotion to the Guru that he was chosen his successor. Bhai Jetha became Guru Ram Das, the founder of Ramdaspur, the name by which Amritsar was once known.

Inside the walled city of Lahore, in an area known as Chuna Mandi, close to the Kashmiri Gate, there is a gurdwara that marks the spot where Guru Ram Das was born. It was lying in shambles till a few years ago, much like several other gurdwaras across the country, before it was renovated and opened for Sikh pilgrims.

What ties together the cities of Lahore and Amritsar? Although divided by geographical and political boundaries today, the two cities on either side of the India-Pakistan border share mythologies, legends and cultures that hark back to an inseparable story of origin

Lahore was born in Amritsar. Actually, about 11 kilometres west of the city. It was born as a twin child, its fate permanently sealed with the city of Kasur that was born along with it. It is, however, not possible to pinpoint the exact day, the season or even the year of Lahore’s birth. It first came to existence at a time, when time did not exist.

There was no history or chronology, but the circular trajectory of mythology. This wasn’t a time of people, but rather of characters, caricatures and archetypes. This was the time of the perfect man, the just king, his perfectly devoted wife, and his perfectly loyal brother. This was the time of the greatest villain, a character so powerful that it was as strong as ten others. This was a time when gods and demons lived as men and women, a time when there was either good or evil, nothing in the middle.

It was at that time, when history was yet to be conceived, that Lahore was born in the ashram of Valmiki. The greatest sage of his time, for that was a time when nothing existed in ordinariness, Valmiki was composing the greatest book ever, when the cries of Lahore and Kasur first resonated in the ashram.

It was the story of their father Ram Valmiki that Adi Kavi, the first poet, was composing when he heard these cries. Sita, their mother, had found refuge in this ashram when she had been banished from Ayodhya, after her return from Ravana’s Lanka. It was her story, of her marriage with Ram, of her exile from Ayodhya, of her capture by Ravana, of her rescue by Ram and her trial in Ayodhya that the Adi Kavi had decided to write about — in the process composing the first verses of poetry that humans had ever realised. Lahore was born along with the Ramayana.

Sita’s twin sons were named Lava and Kusha. Lava founded the city of Lavapur, the city of Lahore as it came to be known, while Kusha founded Kasur. Today, about 11-odd kilometres from Amritsar, Valmiki Tirath Sthal, marks the spot where the ashram was located and Lava and Kusha were born. The three cities, at their birth, were tied together in a triangle, a relation that is now testified by their cartography.

In contemporary Lahore, at the highest point of the city, next to the river, where the first signs of civilisation developed, where lie the earliest traces of Lavapur, there is a small temple dedicated to the founder of the city. Inside the Lahore Fort, next to the Alamgiri Gate, are the remains of the temple of Lava.

The story of Amritsar is not much different. It was wedded to Lahore at its birth, tied in a knot with the hem of the city that spanned over several centuries. It was a marriage that was sanctified by Valmiki as the Ramayana his witness, by the words of the Gurus, and the blessings of Sufi saints, like Mian Mir. It was a marriage in which Lahore took on certain roles, and Amritsar others.

How is one to imagine the cities of Lahore and Amritsar, whose origins are so deeply intertwined with each other, separated today, by boundaries that don’t just divide geographies and people, but also mythologies, legends, religions, cultures, heroes and villains? It is a border that lies in the middle of these two cities, fabling stories about itself, about its previous incarnations in different forms, telling tales about its inevitability, its naturalness.

Lahore today is the ultimate symbol of Pakistani nationalism — a Muslim majority city, the site of the Lahore Resolution, where the All India Muslim League first demanded a separate homeland for the Muslims, home to the Minar-e-Pakistan and host to the proud Mughal architecture.

Besides a few inconvenient remnants of traditions, scattered sparsely around the city, all those traces of a pre-Pakistan Lahore have been suffocated and left to die. It is easy, in fact encouraged, to forget about that lost city, that lost geography which connected Lahore with Amritsar and Delhi, a Lahore that emerged as an important economic, political and cultural hub, because of its strategic location on that ancient route that flowed from Bengal to Kabul.

Lahore today is still an important city, perhaps even more important than it has ever been, but it is not the Lahore of the past. Its contemporary geography and location is an awkward testimony to its changed status. A city that once looked in both directions, has today, its back towards the east, and looks desperately towards the West, towards Islamabad, Kabul and beyond, in search of a new identity, in search of a new incarnation.

The story of Amritsar is not much different. It was wedded to Lahore at its birth, tied in a knot with the hem of the city that spanned over several centuries. It was a marriage that was sanctified by Valmiki as the Ramayana his witness, by the words of the Gurus, and the blessings of Sufi saints, like Mian Mir.

It was a marriage of interdependence, of convenience and even complementary traits. It was a marriage in which Lahore took on certain roles, and Amritsar others. Thus, in 1799, when a young Ranjit Singh took over Lahore, he effectively became the ruler of Punjab, with Lahore the political symbol in his control. But, without the blessings of Amritsar, the spiritual symbol, he could not yet call himself Maharaja, the capture of one incomplete without control over the other.

Lahore held the past, while Amritsar was the future. Lahore was regal, while Amritsar, sacred. If Lahore was miri then Amritsar was piri. The two were not two distinct entities, but one. They were an extension of each other, incomplete without the other. Like an archetypical marriage, they were two bodies and one soul.

The divorce was sudden, as abrupt as the gradual dependence that had developed over (almost) four hundred years of marriage. It was an immediate severing of all relationships, a violent rupture of all connections.

Before construction began for Harminder Sahib, a message and a delegation travelled from Ramdaspur for Lahore, sent by Guru Arjan, to bring his friend Mian Mir to the city, to lay the first brick of the foundation. Mian Mir, travelled in a palanquin sent by the Guru and laid the foundation of Harminder Sahib,

The road leads nowhere. It’s not meant to be travelled on. It is not meant to connect one part with another. It is meant to fill up a vast space of empty tracts of land. It is aimless, pointless, stranded, like a branch of a family tree that has no progeny, no purpose.

One after another, villages and hamlets, emerge on both sides of the road. They are confined within their own circles, isolated in their periphery from the economic structures of the core. Their names represent their marginalised positions — Dera Chahal, Jhaman, Hair and Bedian, terms that have no resonance in the contemporary Lahore of Islampura, Rehman Park, Model Town and Defence, a Lahore of postcolonial sensibilities, tinged with the flavour of Islamic nationalism.

I am travelling on Bedian Road, a road named after the village Bedian, which in turn was named after the Bedi descendants of Guru Nanak who were allotted land in this village. It’s only the name that survives, a name that once resonated with significance, a name that today represents nothing but the outskirts of Lahore, of vast agricultural fields, the downtrodden villages, a dilapidated road, and a few luxury farmhouses. Beyond these is the border.

The road once connected Lahore with Amritsar, one of the many that connected these two cities. Here the peripheries of the two centres interacted, creating villages and hamlets through this intercourse, these villages and hamlets bearing children of that relationship.

Standing on a vacant ground, facing the historical village of Hair, are the remains of a shrine that was constructed here by Prithi Chand, the eldest son of Guru Ram Das, a shrine that was intended to rival Harminder Sahib at Ramdaspur. It is a worn-down structure, stripped off all its ornaments, the paints, the frescoes. Its sacred pool, created as an alternative to the pool of Amritsar, is now lost, completely covered, its broken bricks scattered all over this ground.

The present condition of the structure, however, is misleading. For a brief period, the shrine, named Dukh Nivaran, was important. For a brief period, it attracted several Sikh pilgrims, who believed Prithi Chand’s lies; that he was the rightful spiritual successor of his father; that he was the fifth Sikh Guru and not his younger brother.

In this endeavour, he was supported by many — Mughal officials and corrupt Masand (Sikh deputies appointed by Guru Ram Das as his representatives, in different parts of Punjab). The strategic location of the village of Hair made it easier for Prithi Chand and his followers to intercept Sikh devotees on their way to meet the Guru, and to expand their network. With the Sikh pilgrims also came their offerings. The exchequer of Prithi Chand swelled while that of Guru Arjan dwindled (he was at that time in Ramdaspur). For that brief moment, it was Hair and this shrine that began to overshadow Harminder Sahib.

After Prithi Chand’s death, his samadh was constructed at Hair, while his movement was continued by his son, Meherban. This movement in Sikh history is referred to as Minas, the scoundrels. It was one of the most potent challenges to all the subsequent Gurus after Guru Arjan. After the formation of the Khalsa, they were referred to as Panj Mel — one of the five dissenting groups with whom the Khalsa were forbidden to engage.

The Minas finally lost this battle for legitimacy — the struggle for spiritual inheritance of the Gurus in the 19th century — when they split into several parts and got incorporated into the formal Sikh community. With the disintegration of the community, the village of Hair too lost its political importance, as the memory of Prithi Chand, of the Minas and Dukh Nivaran began to disintegrate and crumble.

Before there was Partition, before there were riots and mass exodus; before there was religious nationalism, and the division of Punjab into multiple airtight traditions; before there were contemporary incarnations of Mughal armies and the Guru’s forces, fighting a perennial battle, correcting historical injustices; before Lahore became a Muslim city, the city of Sufi saints and Amritsar, the city of Gurus — there was Mian Mir and Guru Arjan.

Their friendship first began at the same house in Chuna Mandi where Guru Ram Das was born. Here, a young Mian Mir, years away from becoming a Sufi saint, would attend the religio-philosophical discourse of Guru Ram Das. This was a time before the communalisation of identities, the partitioning of religious traditions; a time when it was the norm, and not an exception, to have Hindu, Sikh and Muslim devotees of the Guru. It was at these gatherings that a young Mian Mir met the young future Guru. They formed a connection that was to become a representative of the symbiotic relationship between Sikhism and Islam.

Upon becoming the Guru, despite the opposition of his elder brother, Guru Arjan continued the construction work at Ramdaspur, whose foundation had been laid by his father. He began the construction of Harminder Sahib, the future Golden Temple.

However, before construction began for Harminder Sahib, a message and a delegation travelled from Ramdaspur for Lahore, sent by Guru Arjan, to bring his friend Mian Mir to the city, to lay the first brick of the foundation. Mian Mir, travelled in a palanquin sent by the Guru and laid the foundation of Harminder Sahib, tying together the cities of Lahore and Amritsar in a lifelong relation.

Years later, when, on the orders of Emperor Jahangir, Guru Arjan was being tortured in Lahore, on the banks of the Ravi, before his execution, Mian Mir reached out to him and asked for his permission to destroy the city of Lahore to stop this torture. He was willing to sacrifice his home, to sacrifice the entire city, for his love of the Guru but the Guru restrained him from doing so.

After Guru Arjan’s execution, Mian Mir maintained a cordial relationship with his son, the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind. It is a relationship that continues to be remembered and celebrated by certain groups and communities.

The writer is the author of several books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak. A version of this article appeared earlier in Nishaan Nagaara

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 9th, 2021



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