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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It took months of negotiating, Gurmeet continued, to reach an agreement between the Nihangs and the religious endowment that holds legal title to all Muslim property abandoned in 1947. Under its provisions, the Nihangs would continue to protect the building as their guru would have wished, but the structure would also remain a mosque—as the guru had also intended. After the signing, a band of blue-clad Nihangs sat respectfully by as the chief imam of the Jama Masjid mosque in Amritsar led a delegation of Muslim dignitaries through their evening prayers. After 55 years the Guru ki Maseet was once again a house of Muslim worship.

Baba Balwant gave his bag of spices one final squeeze, then poured the liquid into big steel tumblers and handed them out to his guests. It was white and almond-flavored, cold and delicious. We said so. "It is good," he said with a pleased grin, "but if I had put in the secret ingredient, then you could touch the sky!"

I asked Gurmeet how she could have spent so much time and effort working to preserve such a modest building in such a remote location when so many apparently more important structures needed to be preserved.

"It's not the building," she says. "It's the idea of the building, a shared sacred space."

Before leaving Punjab, Gurmeet took us back to the Pakistan border once more, just outside the village of Dera Baba Nanak, where, between two guard towers, a Sikh regiment of the Indian Border Security Force has constructed a brick platform from which the faithful can look across the border into Pakistan and see, shimmering on the horizon, the white domes of one of the most sacred of all Sikh gurdwaras, Sri Kartarpur Sahib. It marks the spot where Guru Nanak spent 15 years preaching to his first disciples, and where he died in 1539. As he lay dying, according to one tradition, Muslim and Hindu followers began to quarrel over what was to be done with his body. Muslims believed it must be buried. Hindus were equally sure it had to be cremated. Nanak told each faction to place flowers at his side and leave him for the night. If the Hindus' flowers were freshest in the morning, he said, his body should be burned; if the Muslims' flowers were brightest he would be buried. Then, he covered himself with a sheet. In the morning, both offerings were as fresh as when they'd first been cut. But when the sheet was removed Nanak's body had vanished. His followers cut the makeshift shroud in half. One piece was buried and the spot marked with a tomb; the other was burned and the site of the cremation indicated by a stone cenotaph.

As we started back down the flight of steps, a Sikh family was just starting up them, a young couple and their little boy, all three eager for even a distant glimpse of the place where their faith was founded and where its greatest teacher tried to demonstrate that in the struggle for salvation all Punjabis—and, by extension, all mankind—are one.

Geoffrey C. Ward is a historian who travels frequently to India. Magnum photographer Raghu Rai lives in Delhi.


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