Saving Punjab

A Sikh architect is helping to preserve cultural sites in the north Indian state still haunted by 1947’s heart-wrenching Partition

India's Golden Temple at Amritsar—destroyed and rebuilt over centuries of strife—is to Sikhs what Mecca is to Muslims. (Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos)
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The ceremony itself proved both impressive and ludicrous. As the spectators cheered and chanted "Long Live India" or "Long Live Pakistan," squads of uniformed Punjabis from both sides of the border, picked for their height and fierce good looks and wearing turbans with starched coxcombs that made them look still taller, quick-marched toward one another till they stood only a foot or two apart. Then, they stamped and whirled, puffed out their chests and flared their nostrils in perfect military unison, each apparently seeking to out-testosterone his opposite number before hauling down their flags. I asked the major in charge of the Indian contingent how seriously his men took their nightly confrontation with their neighbors. He laughed. "We've been doing this for more than 20 years," he said. "We know each other's names. It's all for the audience."

It was the muted reaction of that audience that fascinated me. The region around Wagah had witnessed some of the worst Partition bloodletting. Since then, India and Pakistan have gone to war three times. A few weeks before my visit, fanatics trained in Pakistan had butchered more than 160 people in Mumbai. The people who had turned out to watch the ceremony this evening had grown hoarse shouting patriotic slogans. And yet when the flags were finally folded away and the big gates clanged shut, spectators on both sides drifted as close to the dividing line as the respective armies would allow, peering silently across the no man's land into the faces of counterparts who looked so much like themselves.

Most of the monuments we'd seen testified to Punjab's bloody past: battlefield markers; crumbling village walls built to bar marauders; gurdwaras that honor Sikhs martyred in battle against the Moguls; and Jallianwalla Bagh, the Amritsar park now filled with flowers and shouting schoolchildren, where, in 1919, a British commander ordered his men to fire upon unarmed civilians—killing at least 379 and galvanizing the independence movement.

But there are also sites that still evoke the mutual respect that characterized life for many Punjabis before the tragedy of Partition. Gurmeet led us to one of the most unlikely of them, the Guru ki Maseet, or "Guru's Mosque," in the old walled town of Sri Hargobindpur, west of Amritsar. Here, on a bluff overlooking the Beas River, a member of the Nihang Sikh order, justly celebrated for the ferocity with which it defended the faith against its enemies in the old days, stands lonely guard over a Muslim house of worship. His name is Baba Balwant Singh and he has been on duty here for more than a quarter of a century. The shrine he protects is a modest three-domed brick structure, barely 20 feet deep, with arched entryways so low that anyone much over five feet tall must duck to enter. But it has a truly extraordinary history.

Sri Hargobindpur is named for Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru, who, according to tradition, ordered his followers to make a city of "unmatched beauty" so that "those who inhabit the town [should] be free of sorrow." Those who inhabited it included Hindus and Muslims as well as Sikhs, and so, to ensure tranquillity, the guru made sure that adherents of all three faiths had their own houses of worship. But sorrow eventually came to Sri Hargobindpur in any case: Partition forced every single resident of its Muslim quarter to flee to Pakistan. Hindu and Sikh refugees took over the homes they left behind. Elsewhere, abandoned mosques were transformed into shelters for people or livestock—or demolished altogether.

But this mosque's unique origin made such actions unthinkable. "Nobody can damage this maseet," the leader of the Tarna Dal band of Nihangs declared. "This maseet was established by our guru. If anyone tries to damage it, we will kill him." His followers reverently placed a copy of the Granth Sahib inside the building and set up a 50-foot flagpole bound in blue cloth and topped with a double-edged sword; it let the world know the mosque would henceforth be under their protection.

The man who still guards it, Baba Balwant Singh, is a formidable figure in the lofty dark blue turban and blue robes of his order but is reluctant to talk about himself. If he does, he says, his ego might get in the way of his relationship with God. He dragged two string beds into the sunshine for his guests to sit upon.

Gurmeet explained she had come upon him and his mosque almost by accident in 1997. She had happened to climb onto the roof of a nearby gurdwara to get an overview of the town when she spotted a trio of little domes. The mosque was in bad shape. The little compound that surrounded it was overgrown.

Gurmeet saw a rare opportunity to work with the local community to restore a place venerated by two often-warring faiths. With funds and volunteers from a United Nations-sponsored project called Culture of Peace, and additional funds from the U.S.-based Sikh Foundation, she and her colleagues set to work. They trained local laborers to make repairs, visited schools to make children understand what was happening to their town, invited townspeople to see the work for themselves. But no Muslims were involved —there were still none in Sri Hargobindpur—and activists began to charge that yet another Muslim shrine was being usurped by unbelievers. It looked as though religious politics might destroy even this community-based project.

As Gurmeet talked, crows bickered on the compound wall. Children called from neighboring roofs. A buffalo bawled. Baba Balwant began preparing for us a special drink made only by the members of his order. Using a big stone mortar and wielding a three-foot-long pestle hacked from a tree, he smashed almonds, cardamon seeds, peppercorns and other ingredients into a paste. He deliberately left one element out of the recipe: the narcotic bhang that Nihangs reserve only for themselves. He folded the paste into a bright orange cloth and began dunking it into a steel bowl filled with a mixture of well water and milk from the noisy buffalo, then wringing it out.


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