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Shiekhupura and Shakespeare

February 11, 2013

For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.


Other than the Minar, the city owns a fort and a Baowli (a large well, dug deep and broad enough to allow mass usage). Baowli is engulfed in the buildings and the fort is decaying; day by day and brick by brick. Even the oldest in the town know little about the Baowli; history is fast losing its meaning and importance. Constructed by the Moghuls to last till eternity, the fort now stands irrelevant to the busy road that passes in front of it. The subsequent rulers also added residential quarters but there is nothing more unfaithful than time. Shah Jehan stayed here for a while and so did Dara Shikoh and then followed the history of loot and plunder. During the Sikh rule, many royal ladies took up residences here and many warriors tried to besiege the fort. Ranjit Singh ordered the first renovation and gifted the renovated fort to Mai Nakkian, the mother of Kharak Singh, the crown prince. Mai brought a lot of finesse and religion to the fort and maintained it with great taste. Fewer paintings remain on the wall and a lot has washed away with time. When the English defeated the Sikhs, Maharani Jindan was confined in this fort. Her privileges, promised under the Bherowal Treaty, were gradually withdrawn. Jindan wrote a letter to Lawrence from one of these chambers, reminding him of God and demanding the possession of her son. The British treatment was humiliating enough to incite the Amir of Afghanistan, who then wrote to London and reminded them that Jindan was after all a Reagent. But power seldom has any morality and even if it has one, it is extremely relative.

The markets inside the city are named after Moghul kings. Away from the main road, an old city lives on the lines of Shahdara and life in those narrow alleys is equally interwoven. The majority of the population was agrarian in nature so markets sold agro-based and agro-related products but all that has changed. The proximity of Lahore has caused a mushroom growth of industries on roads leading in and out of Shiekhupura. On both sides of the city, two traditions live on.

First of the two, is Sharaqpur, also known as Sharaqpur Shareef. It is a story of Baar, the area which is now famous as Shiekhupura, Gujranwala and Faisalabad. The thick vegetation provided an ideal hiding ground for thieves and robbers. The Urdu word for stealing is sarqa and this evolved Saraqpur which deteriorated to Sharaqpur. The hooqah smoking, old men tell of another reason. Sharaqpur was located on a crossroad with roads leading to Khudpur, Lahore, Behni and Shiekhupura. Deriving from sadak, the Urdu word for road, Sadakpur was evolved which ultimately became Sharaqpur. A godly man moved in and settled here. After a while, his devotees prefixed Sharaqpur with Shareef, a title of honor, (in case it is not part of the name).

On hearing about this mystic, Dr Muhammad Iqbal (poet laureate) decided to meet him and requested one of the devotees to accompany him to Sharaqpur. The man took Iqbal to Sufi`s place but later had a change of mind. He thought that Iqbal was anti-clergy, and his secular outlook with a poetic background might not sit well with the saint. Iqbal was asked to sit outside the room, while the devotee went in. After some time, Iqbal wrote a chit and slipped it in; the chit said “It is good to hate the sin but it is better not to hate the sinner”. The keeper of the shrine now lists Iqbal among the top devotees.

Gulab Jaman, a sweet made from clarified milk and served in small earthen pots, is another Sharaqpur specialty. During his rule, Shahjehan sent five drums to the city with royal inscriptions and the royal seal. Only one drum remains in the city which is used during Ramazan; the royal seal is still visible.

If a child could not sleep at night, the Daadi (paternal grandmother) would read Kalam. During the day, idioms from Kalam enchanted routine dialogues. The main source of this Kalam and the catch phrases was a book. Though she could never name the personalities, Daadi clearly remembered that someone had taken oath on this book in a British court, across the seven seas. After years, I learnt that it was Udham Sigh, who murdered Micheal O'Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab for supporting Brigadier Dyer`s action at the Jallianwala Bagh. The prosecution proceeded as

Question: What is your full name? Answer:  Ram Muhammad Singh Azad Question: Which holy scripture would you prefer for oath? Answer: I will swear by Heer of Waris Shah, the most widely read and acknowledged book of Punjab.

This was probably the only time someone took an oath on Heer. Heer by Waris Shah is the second tradition of love and on other side of Sheikhupura, this Shakespeare of Punjabi, sleeps in his funerary at Jandiala Sher Khan.

Heer has been told by different poets in different schemes. It was written by Damodar, Maqbal and Ahmed Gujjar but the most popular version was penned by Waris Shah. Heer is the philosophy of life, a love story which has left footprints on so many hearts for so long. This narrative of Punjab minutely chronicles the details of the days and nights of rural life, depicting illustrations of the sunrise and sunset and all that prevails in between, recording seasonal produce, defining human nature and documenting ideologies of life and the realities of death. The tale itself has a background. On arriving at Qasoor from Jandiala, Waris Shah fell in love with Bhaag Bhari, a local lady. This love moved the poet to create his Magnum Opus.

The love of Ranjha in fact, stems from Waris Shah`s heart and the beauty of Heer in reality is a tribute to Bhaag Bhari.

When Daadi awoke, the child was still not asleep. She asked why aren’t you sleeping. I said, “I want to grow old.” She replied, “It`s too late now why don’t we put it off till morning” and started reading Waris Shah to me …

Waris Shah mian ganna choop saara .. Mazay wakh nay porian porian day O Waris Shah, experience life till its end For, like sugarcane, it tastes different in every digit

Shiekhupura is old but newer people have settled in. Before the partition a large number of Khandpuri families resided here. In August 1947, the city bled so much, it made headlines: “Shiekhupura … no more”.

Strangely, no one remembers this now. The memories might still stir emotions with those who bled. Around the Khandpuri mohallah and some houses near Jinnah Park are the few reminders of “the others”. Shiekhupura has a culture of its own but unfortunately it is shadowed by Lahore. Despite its distinct identity, Shiekhupura is always introduced as “around 30 miles away from Lahore …”


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Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.