Pilgrimage through time

February 4, 2024

Gurdwara Bhai Bannu’s rich tapestry calls for urgent attention

Pilgrimage through time

Gurdwaras are sacred places for the Sikh community. Besides being places of worship, they function as educational spaces, meeting points and resting places for travellers. In addition to housing the Granth Sahib, many gurdwaras in Pakistan play a crucial role in imparting religious teachings.

Pakistan is home to numerous gurdwaras, most of those in the Punjab. Maintaining these revered sites is a collaborative effort between the Evacuee Trust Property Board and the Pakistan Gurudwaras Parbandhak Committee.

Mandi Bahauddin in central Punjab derives its name from historical roots. The district boasts many attractions for tourists including the gurudwara named after Bhai Bannuji, assigned by Guru Arjun Sahib to propagate Sikhism in Mozang, Lahore.

Situated 12 kilometres from Mandi Bahauddin railway station, Gurudwara Bhai Bannu stands near Mandi Bahauddin-Gujarat road in Mangat town, in Phalia tehsil. Constructed under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, it is one of the holiest places for Sikhs.

Mangat is a small town nearly 250 kilometre from Lahore. Bhai Bannu (April 1558 – January 1645) was a contemporary of the fifth and sixth Sikh gurus, Guru Arjun and Guru Hargobind. It is believed that he was not born a Sikh but later converted to Sikhism, Bhai Bannu became a renowned disciple of Guru Arjun and contributed diligently during the construction of Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar. Guru Arjun Sahib Ji, known for his celestial knowledge and spiritual excellence, played a vital role in societal welfare, steadfastly adhering to his principles, sacrificing his life, and achieving a unique and unparalleled martyrdom in human history.

In Amritsar, Guru Arjun compiled the Adi Granth, encompassing the teachings of the first five Gurus, including himself and their Bhagats. Initially known as the Kartarpuri Bir, this compilation represented the foundational scriptures. After completing the Adi Granth (or First Bir), Guru Arjun entrusted Bhai Bannu with transporting the manuscript to Lahore for binding, as quality binding facilities were unavailable in Amritsar during that period. Before sending the Adi Granth to Lahore, Bhai Bannu proposed making a copy of the ber, emphasising the importance of having a backup to mitigate the risk of permanent loss in case of some unforeseen events. Agreeing with this suggestion, Guru Arjun permitted Bhai Bannu to take the first bir to his native Mangat to produce a replica, later known as Bhai Bannu Wali Bir.

After the binding was completed to his satisfaction, Bhai Bannu took both the volumes to Guru Arjun in Amritsar. The Guru instructed him to take the replica, the Bhai Bannuwali Bir, to his native village and keep it there. Bhai Bannu complied and installed this bir at his house.

The three-storied building of Gurdwara Sahib was constructed during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Two exquisite water tanks were built on its left, one of those designated for women. The complex includes a spacious inn for Sangat’s accommodation, comprising around 100 houses. Unfortunately, some unrelated persons now control most of the building. The recitation room (prakash asthan) is controlled by a policeman. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had also set apart an agricultural estate with considerable revenue for tis upkeep. Yearly fairs were traditionally held on Vasakhi, Chettar and Bhadon.

Pilgrimage through time

Some of the people who visited this Gurudwara in the 1930s and 1940s wrote their names on its walls and identified their villages.

After the construction of the gurdwara in Mangat in 1802, the Aadi Granth was installed in the gurdwara. This gurdwara then came to be known as Gurdwara Bhai Bannu. Later, control over the gurdwara was handed over to the mahants and the fence around it was removed. The fence was re-installed after Sikhs regained control of the building in the 1920s through the Gurdwara Reform Movement. Bhai Bannu Wali Bir remained at the gurdwara until August 1947 when it was taken to Kanpur.

The grudwara was built in 1802. Maharaja Ranjit Singh visited the site on his way from Mardan to Lahore in February 1838 and made an offering of Rs 300. Two kinds of bricks were used in the construction of this gurudwara. The fortified wall and the use of thin bricks in the sanctum sanctorum indicate that the sides and the interior of the gurdwara were built during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The use of thick bricks on the exterior suggests that the expansion was undertaken later. There are many eye-catching frescos on the floor of the monument.

The part built during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign is similar to the gurdwara at Tarn Taran in East Punjab. There are the same Persian angels motifs on the roof of the gurdwara as are seen on the walls of the Shahi Hammam in Lahore and Sardar Ganda Singh Batalia’s samadhi in Gujranwala. Frescoes, usually depicting floral and geometric patterns, are confined to the Gurbani inscription of the Guru Granth Sahib inside the Harem (main place of worship). In the outer hallway around the lower level, the paintings of the Udas are fading. Although some of these images are difficult to understand, they primarily represent Hindu mythological characters.

Some of the people visiting this Gurudwara in the 1930s and 1940s wrote their names on its walls and identified their villages. Today, the building is crumbling even as the graffiti survives. The upper floor has a large dome, most of it intact. The original brick and plaster appears to be in good condition.

Gurdwara Bhai Bannu at Mangat, Tah, Phalia
Gurdwara Bhai Bannu at Mangat, Tah, Phalia

Sadly, a significant portion of the consecrated land later fell into the hands of the clergy. However, the superb court still exists. Next to the gurdwara, a bustling vegetable market has sprung up, obscuring its tranquil surroundings. The walls of the gurdwara are adorned with exquisite floral frescoes, adding to its beauty and grandeur. However, it is in serious danger of collapse. At one point, a part of the building was used for a school.

Gurdwara Bhai Bannu holds immense historical, architectural and religious significance, yet the authorities have failed to protect and maintain it in a satisfactory manner. With proper preservation and maintenance, this site can attract religious tourism from both India and the Sikh diaspora. The heritage building urgently requires attention from the relevant authorities. Steps must be taken promptly to preserve and safeguard not only Gurdwara Bhai Bannu but also other historical sites.

The writer is a Gujranwala-based freelance journalist and researcher. He can be reached at waseemshabbir78@gmail.com

Pilgrimage through time