Lost Sikh heritage

The crumbling Gurdwara Bhai Bannu is a piece of heritage in need of urgent attention

Lost Sikh heritage


fter the Partition of the subcontinent in August 1947, both India and Pakistan adopted a ‘philosophical’ approach – one of the three Hegelian approaches (original, reflective and philosophical) – to record and present their histories. Thus, they picked out periods, regions, personalities, events, characters and incidents of choice to substantiate their narratives while leaving out others – mainly those that tended to challenge their objectives. Subsequently, they have disowned many talented, competent and capable sons and daughters of the soil, heroes, philanthropists and benign and humane souls and excluded them from the pages of official histories and academic writings.

Many shrines, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and other monuments have also been abandoned to their fate, mainly due to contesting ideological orientations for state-building and nation-building in both these countries. The story of Gurdwara Bhai Bannu is no different. It is situated in a small town, Mangat (now in Mandi Baha-ud Din district), around 250 kilometres from Lahore.

Bhai Bannu (April 1558 – January 1645) was a contemporary of the fifth and sixth Sikh gurus, Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind. It is believed that he was not a Sikh by birth but was converted to Sikhism. He was a celebrated disciple of Guru Arjan and rendered diligent service during the construction of Harmindar Sahib at Amritsar.

Guru Arjan compiled the Adi Granth (Banis of first five gurus, including himself, and their bhagats) – the first Bir (Volume), which later on came to be known as Kartarpuri Bir – in Amritsar. After the completion of Adi Granth (or the first Bir), the guru tasked Bhai Bannu to carry the manuscript to Lahore for binding (since quality binding was not available in Amritsar in those days). Before carrying Adi Granth to Lahore, Bhai Bannu proposed that it would be wise to make a copy of the Bir. He argued that a backup copy would lower the risk of losing the content for ever in case something untoward happened to the original volume. Agreeing to this proposal, Guru Arjun allowed Bhai Bannu to carry the first Bir to his native village, Mangat, to prepare a copy that came later to be known as Bhai Bannu Vali Bir.

Later, once the binding was done to his satisfaction, he took both volumes to Guru Arjun in Amritsar. The guru commanded him to take his copy, Bhai Bannu Vali Bir, to his native village and keep it there. Bhai Bannu complied with the command and installed this Bir in his house.

After the construction of a gurdwara in 1802 in Mangat, where Bhai Bannu had prepared a copy of the first Bir, Adi Granth was installed at the gurdwara. This Gurdwara came to be known as Bhai Bannu Gurdwara. Later on, mahants were given control of the gurdwara, and removed the Bir from the site. However, the Sikhs reinstalled this Bir at the gurdwara after regaining its control as a result of the Gurdwara Reform Movement in the 1920s. Bhai Bannu Vali Bir remained at the Bhai Bannu Gurdwara till the partition of the Punjab in August 1947. After the Partition, the heirs of Bhai Bannu carried it to Kanpur.

Lost Sikh heritage

The Bhai Bannu Gurdwara was built in 1802 by the royal command of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in memory of the celebrated disciple of Guru Arjun at the spot where he had compiled the Bannu Vali Bir. Maharaja Ranjit Singh visited the place in February 1838 while on his way from Mardan to Lahore and made an ardas of Rs 300.

Bricks of two sizes were used to construct this gurdwara. The use of slim bricks in the fortified wall and the sanctum sanctorum indicates that the periphery and the inner sections of the gudwara were constructed during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s era. The use of thicker bricks in the outer sections indicates that the expansion was undertaken at a later stage. The monument has many eye-catching patterns on the floor.

Tarunjit Singh Butalia, an associate professor of civil engineering at Ohio State University, USA, and associated with Jeevay Sanjha Punjab, while visiting this gurdwara, realised that the part or portion built during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time was similar to the gurdwara at Tarn Taran in East Punjab. Furthermore, he noticed the same Persian angels on the ceiling of the gurdwara as are seen on the walls of Shahi Hamam in Lahore and the samadh of Sardar Ganda Singh Butalia in Gujranwala.

The frescoes, usually of floral and geometrical patterns, inside the sanctum sanctorum (main worship space) are limited to the inscriptions of Gurbani from the Guru Granth Sahib. While the outer hallway around the lower level had fading Udasis painting. Though weathered and hard to comprehend, these images are mostly a representation of Hindu mythical characters.

Some pre-partition graffiti is also found on the walls of the gurdwara. Folks who had visited this gurdwara in the 1930s and 1940s had scribed their names and identified their villages. Today the building is crumbling but the graffiti has survived. The top floor has a large dome – which is intact with much of the original bricks and plaster in good shape.

Bhai Bannu Gurdwara in Mangat is a spectacular example of historical architecture. However, it stands in dire peril of collapse. It has been abandoned for decades. At some point, the villagers used it for a school, which was shifted when the building started falling apart. There is also evidence at lower level of cooking within the building. The water tank next to the gurdwara has been gathering dust.

Gurdwara Bhai Bannu has historical, architectural and religious importance, but the authorities concerned have failed to preserve and maintain it. Had it been preserved and maintained it could have attracted religious tourism both from India and the diaspora. The heritage building demands urgent attention of the authorities. The sooner this and the other heritage sites are preserved and maintained the better it will be.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University. He is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad. He can be reached at mazharabbasgondal87@gmail.com. He tweets at @MazharGondal87

Lost Sikh heritage