Seeing Lahore differently

November 3, 2019

A guided tour to the gurdawaras and Janam Asthan inside the Walled City turned out to be quite a revelation

Seeing Lahore differently

Lahore has always fascinated people from all over, be it the traveller-historian of yore, or the visitors of today. Everyone has a fascination with the way Lahoris say, "Lahore Lahore aie" (Lahore is Lahore), or "Nai reesan shehar Lahore diy’an" (Lahore has no equal). The gardens, the gates, the buildings, the winding lanes of androon shehar, and the buddha Ravi etc each has a story to tell. And the sprawling outer city, extending itself to accommodate the deluge of people and the business of modern life, has taken people, even those from the old city, away from their roots. Today, social media is their only point of interaction.

It was through social media that the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) recently announced a guided tour to the two main Sikh gurdawaras in Lahore. The event, named "Yatra -- A guided tour to Gurdawaras & Janam Asthan in Walled City Lahore," took place last Sunday.

For me, it was an opportunity not to be missed. So, I bought the tickets. I got wistful remembering the time when one didn’t have to take a ‘tour’ -- people could just walk into a non-Muslim place of worship. Visitors were welcome, and showed around the place also. No armed police and baton-wielding men would stand guard at the gates, nor did barricades half-obstructed the entrances.

Yātrā is a Sanskrit word, which means "journey" or "procession." In Hinduism and other Indian religions, it means a pilgrimage to holy places. Sardar Pawan Singh Arora, our tour guide, an information officer at Directorate General Public Relations (DGPR) Punjab, turned out to be a very pleasant and well-read person. (He also happens to be the first Sikh to be appointed as a PRO to Governor, Punjab.)

At the Fort Road Food Street we found a number of people mingling with the WCLA staff, as the latter was getting the show ready. As soon as the attendance was marked, the group of about 45 people was given a brief introduction to the day’s activities -- a trip to Gurdawara Janam Asthan, and the Samadhi of Ranjeet Singh. We sat in the Rangeela Rickshaws that were lined up, each accommodating six persons. Before we left, the staff announced that Sikhism forbade using any intoxicant, and requested us to deposit cigarettes, matches, lighters, snuff and any other similar items before heading out.

We started the tour eagerly looking forward to the first stop at Gurdawara Janam Asthan of Guru Ram Das in Choona Mandi, close to the now non-existent Masti Gate. On reaching the gurdawara, the guide asked all the participants to cover their heads and take off shoes and socks as that is the protocol for entering the Sikh temples. The temple staff brought handkerchiefs and scarves for those men and women who did not have head coverings. Shoes were placed in shoe racks on the left side of the entrance, and we climbed the dozen or so steps to the platform where the main temple is.

Pawan Singh Arora briefly traced the history of the place. This is where the fourth guru of Sikhism -- Guru Ram Das (nee Bhai Jetha) -- was born to a poor Hindu family. Orphaned at a young age, he was apprenticed to the third Sikh Guru Amar Das when he was 12. Guru Amar Das nominated him as the next guru. Eventually, he donned guruship in 1574, at age 50, till his death in 1581.

Guru Ram Das is credited with the major construction work of Harmandir Sahib, and the 1577 excavation of water tank that surrounds it, in Amritsar, India; also known as Darbar Sahib and the Golden Temple.

When Sardar Kharrak Singh was born to Raja Ranjeet Singh, the ruler of Punjab, in 1801, Maharani Datar Kaur asked Ranjeet Singh to build a monument for Guru Ram Das in Lahore. About 20 years after his death, Gurdawara Ram Das was constructed at the place where Guru Ram Das was born. To recognise his work in the construction of the Golden Temple, the gurdawara was made as a replica of Harmindar Sahib in design and art work.

After the visit around the gurdawra, two members of the community offered prasad -- post-worship sacred goodies distributed among devotees, in both Hinduism and Sikhism. After some hesitation, the participants ate it.

When our group entered the main hall, a number of Sikhs were chanting prayers with the granthi (reader of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book). We sat there for a while as the granthi told us about the prayers and rituals, after which we came out and sat in the Rangeela Rickshaws for the second stage of the yatra -- a visit to the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and others in the Gurdwara Dera Sahib compound, next to the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque.

As it was Sunday, people were out in droves. The sight of eight Rangeela Rickshaws loaded with people, in their Sunday’s best, was a happy one!

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was born in 1780 in Gujranwala, orphaned at 12. He ruled under the tutelage of his mother, Raj Kaur. Ranjit Singh entered Lahore as the head of his army on July 7, 1799, and on April 12, 1801, at 21 years of age, he declared himself the Maharaja of the Punjab.

Gurdawara Dera Sahib is the site where the fifth Guru Arjan Dev is supposed to have been killed. It was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to honour the fifth guru, and has a small shrine of Guru Granth Sahib. Presently, an expansion project is underway, and the area around it will be roofed to protect the pilgrims from sun and rain. Here, again, the same guidelines were recapped, and we covered our heads and took off our shoes and socks to enter the places.

After the visit around the gurdawra, two members of the community offered prasad -- post-worship sacred goodies distributed among devotees, in both Hinduism and Sikhism. After some hesitation, the participants ate it.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in Lahore on June 27, 1839, and was cremated on June 28. After a while, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, Kharrak Singh, started work on a shrine over the crematorium. After Kharrak Singh’s death in 1840, the construction was completed by Ranjeet Singh’s youngest son Duleep Singhin in 1848.

The Samadhi blends the best of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim architectural styles with its gilded, fluted domes and cupolas, and a railing around the top. The entrance to the top where the Samadhi is located has images of Ganesh, Devi, and Brahma Hindu deities -- chiseled in red sand stone. Stairs lead to a platform on which is the actual cremation site, made of white marble.

To the West of the Samadhi in an attached building are the Samadhis of Ranjit Singh’s son Kharrak Singh and grandson Prince Nau Nihal Singh. This brought the tour to an end.

Some interesting discussions were overheard by this scribe. One of the participants was telling his partner that though he was from Lahore, for him the city ended at the Mall Road, and he had never visited the old city.

On the whole it was a great experience, and it is hoped that the suggestions given to the tour staff will be considered, so that the future yatras are even more interesting and remarkable!

Seeing Lahore differently