By Rajender Kaur
Rajender Kaur, Professor of English and Director of the Asian Studies Program at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, was a 2019 participant in the CAORC-AIPS Faculty Development Seminar to Pakistan. In this essay, she discusses the history and legacy of several abandoned Sikh temples (or gurudwara) she visited while in Lahore and Islamabad.
If you came this way, Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season, It would always be the same: you would have to put off Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid
--- T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in the Four Quartets
There is no sight more forlorn than an abandoned temple—especially one that has a special historical significance. A place of worship that was once the spiritual hub of a bustling religious community, now lies eerily quiet, stripped of its ritual accouterments and the congregation of the faithful that endowed it with meaning. The visit to the Sikh temple (or gurudwara) was just a small part of our field trip to Mozang that day on June 21, 2019, not the main object of the exercise, but standing in the courtyard, I could not help but think of T.S. Eliot’s lines from “Little Gidding.” For it is true, this is a place that continues to be powerfully spiritual because of generations of devotees who have prayed here.
Sikhism places great emphasis on the spiritual power embodied in a congregation of the devout (the sadh sangat), joined together in prayer in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. Sangat also refers to the community of Sikhs belonging to a particular locality who worship at a common gurudwara. (“Gurudwara” literally means a doorway to the Guru; it is a place where Sikhs assemble for worship.) On both counts, the Chevin Pathshahi gurudwara of Lahore’s Mozang neighborhood lay forlorn, the local Sikh community having long fled Mozang, displaced by the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Its only inhabitants the day our faculty group visited were a caretaker and his young family, appointed by the Aukaf and Religious Affairs Department of the government of Punjab. Such were my thoughts when we visited the Gurudwara Chevin Pathshahi, which is associated with Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the Sikh Gurus, as part of our field trip to Mozang, Lahore.
Guru Hargobind assumed the leadership of the Sikh community in June 1606 after the martyrdom of his father, Guru Arjan Devji. Not too far from Mozang, adjacent to the Lahore Fort and the Badshahi Masjid, is Gurudwara Dera Sahib which commemorates the spot where Guru Arjan Devji was martyred. It is a functioning gurudwara where religious service is still performed daily for the small congregation that remains; the Chevin Pathshahi Gurudwara, by contrast, comes alive only sporadically during the annual visit of Sikh pilgrims from India.
Located above street level atop a small flight of stairs, the Gurudwara built in British colonial style in 1926 is non-descript, in the midst of shops on a busy commercial street selling hardware, advertising air conditioners, and coaching classes. Mozang, one of the notable old neighborhoods of Lahore, has historically had troubled relations with the city administration dating back to the colonial era where the British administration saw it as an eyesore and the source of disease and dirt. It is a densely populated, lower middle-class locality, which is well off the tourist trail.
The neighborhood is a mix of old and new, and our faculty group was there to study forms of urban citizenship and activism. The tour was led by two local Pakistani professors, one a sociologist and the other an architect with a focus on urban design, as well as a local resident and guide. It was by far one of the most interesting visits we made, which until then had been to the more usually frequented tourist sites of Lahore—the historical monuments, gardens, museums, and educational institutions, including a fascinating walk through the winding streets of the old city. The whole field trip to Mozang was like visiting a living museum. Our guides pointed out the layered history of the neighborhood, evident in its diverse architectural styles, including some houses with extensive wood work that date back to the pre-partition era, and reflect the multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities that lived here—Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. If you observe carefully, some of the houses still sport Hindu and Sikh motifs, such as lotus flowers, elephants, or the Om symbol.
The Chevin Pathshahi Gurudwara itself is located on Temple Road, one of the main thoroughfares of Mozang, and so named because of this Sikh temple. Painted yellow with white accents, it is a two-story structure lacking the distinctive Indo-Islamic dome-shaped top that one usually associates with gurudwaras (see first image above). The flight of stairs leads to a locked door that encloses an open courtyard, with the main religious hall on one side facing the quarters where the caretaker employed by the Aukaf board lives with his family. On the day we visited the caretaker was not expecting visitors. We were allowed access to the building only because of the goodwill enjoyed by our local guide, and allowed into the main worship hall because I happened to be carrying my passport, which attested to my Sikh identity.
What is Sikhism?
Sikhism, a progressive monotheistic religion, was founded 500 years ago by Guru Nanak and believes in principles of equality, inclusiveness, service to humanity, and a life lived in remembrance of the divine. It is the fifth largest religion in the world with well over 25 million followers in India and the diaspora. In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last of the Sikh Gurus, institutionalized Sikh identity by founding the community (Khalsa) of the pure who would henceforth be known by their distinctive appearance and articles of clothing that embody the central values of Sikhism: equality, service, and justice. He also ended the tradition of the living guru by declaring the Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scriptures, as the embodiment of the Guru for Sikhs thereafter. Observant Sikhs are distinguished by their turbans and beards, Kesh (uncut hair) being one of the principle articles of faith endowed by Guru Gobind Singh.
Inside the main worship hall, the marble platform in the center of the room on which the Guru Granth Sahib would have been placed, lay bereft, though covered still by a rudimentary ceremonial cloth—a small attempt to maintain ceremony but which served only to magnify the abjectness of a gurudwara missing its sacred scriptures. This room once would have been where the Granth Sahib would have been recited aloud, and the congregation would have been soothed by shabd kirtan (“hymns”) sung by a group of singers accompanied by the harmonium and the Tabla, a pair of small drums used widely in folk and classical Indian music. Now, the room reverberated with hushed silence, inviting you to imagine the Ardas (a prayer of supplication performed at the end of the religious service, and usually before any significant task is undertaken) being recited, followed by the distribution of piping hot karha parshad (a halva made of equal parts clarified butter, sugar, and whole wheat flour). It felt strange to be standing in a gurudwara haunted by the absence of its sacred book and its believers. Adding to our discomfiture was the incident our guide narrated of grisly partition violence, a story that is not merely anecdotal but has also been well documented by historians. Reportedly, a group of 28 people who had locked themselves inside the gurudwara for safety were burnt to death by a mob who set it on fire. According to the guide, local residents are still ashamed of that gruesome incident.
The Chevin Pathshahi gurudwara was not the first derelict gurudwara or temple I visited in Pakistan. In Islamabad, the historic village of Saidpur we visited had both a temple and gurudwara built facing each other in the same complex. Both were non-functioning temples, devoid of scriptures or idols, though embellished exquisitely with extravagant floral designs. Somehow, however, the gurudwara in Mozang, with its sad history, its plain functional structure, touched me more. The Nishan Sahib (the triangular pennant, hoisted on a flagpole, signifying the values of the Sikh faith) in the courtyard was covered with remnants of old saffron cloth, and spoke of the sovereignty of a proud faith and people. The mango tree beside it was laden with green mangoes, and was a heartening sight that impressed once more the continuity of the cultural fabric of the Punjab. It drove home again the tragedy of the partition and division of a people who were once one.
Soon after my return home to Connecticut came news of the unveiling of a life-size statue of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh (1789–1839) in Lahore Fort, on June 28, 2019, to mark the 180th anniversary of his death. It marked a bold attempt by the state to promote religious tourism in Pakistan, and to jumpstart the stalled project of the Kartarpur corridor to encourage Sikh tourists from India and the wider Sikh diaspora from across the world. It was a rare gesture as well to embrace the rich, non-Islamic heritage of Pakistan that has hitherto been silenced. On November 9, 2019, the Kartarpur corridor was inaugurated jointly by Pakistan and India. A major peace initiative, it is a two-and-a-half-mile visa free zone for Sikh pilgrims, which connects two of the holiest shrines of the Sikh faith associated with Guru Nanak, its founder, which till now have been separated by the border. Both Kartarpur Sahib, which marks Guru Nanak’s final resting place and is the site where he spent the last eighteen years of his life, developing and disseminating the central teachings of Sikhism, and the Mozang gurudwara, like many other Hindu and Sikh temples, are examples of a complex palimpsestic history that has for too long been a victim of state politics. The new policy initiatives by the Pakistani government to promote religious tourism have opened a window of hope that many of these sites will come alive.
CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to Pakistan was organized with the American Institute of Pakistan Studies and supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Learn more about CAORC Faculty Development Seminars.
About the Author
Rajender Kaur is Professor of English, and Director of the Asian Studies Program at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. She was among 12 faculty participants in the seminar “Religion and Culture in the Postcolonial City,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held June 8-22, 2019, in Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan.