Myriad faces of Sheikhupura

Sumaira Samad discovers the strands of majesty, enlightenment, tragedy and love that go into the story of Sheikhupura

Myriad faces of Sheikhupura
A friend declared “I am Nihang too” – moved by the warmth he received from the Sikhs stepping into Sheikhupura on their pilgrimage trail. His great-great-grandfather had converted to Islam and had moved from Ambala to Lyallpur in 1897, when it was created. He still has Sikh relatives in Ambala. His family were the fierce Nihang warrior Sikhs.

It is tempting to start writing about Sheikhupura from its Sikh history – the place and its surroundings resound with everything Sikh. However, wait: for the city itself lovingly bears the nickname of Emperor Jahangir, who founded it!

In the Fort - grandeur from times gone by

When I first learnt of Sheikhupura, it was as the centre of Punjab’s basmati rice belt with a reputation for being a favoured place for dacoits! Little did I know that the place was brimming with layer upon layer of history and culture-and when I started exploring this, I realised why its soil produced the most delicate, rare and fragrant long rice – it grows on a land seeped in poetry, music, legends, romance, love and devotion.

I recently took a fascinating tour of Sheikhupura district and its environs. I was able to look beyond and through the chaos of traffic, concrete buildings, noise and pollution into a world that waited to be ‘discovered’ by those – like me – naive enough like Columbus to think that it existed only because they saw it. However, in reality this is a world that has always been there – that has held forests and rivers, huge game reserves and pavilions for royalty, forts, shrines and temples. It is a land that gave birth to poets, authors, gurus, saints, sporting champions and warriors – and a region where kings and queens, lovers and religious devotees, tribal chiefs and freedom fighters, victors and vanquished passed over the centuries. Such were the people who shaped history and whose intertwined stories still resonate there.
Historically, the route between Sheikhupura and Shahdara used to be the first stage of a route leading up to Kabul and Kashmir, frequently used by the emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan

For the Mughals the place was a pleasure ground, for the Sikhs a revered and worshipped land, for the British a battleground and for the descendants of all a scene of riots and sorrowful passage in 1947 – which saw thousands leave to find a new home.

Sheikhupura lies in Rachna Doab which stretches from Chenab to Ravi. Within this the tract from Shahdara to Sheikhupura, at the outskirts of the imperial city of Lahore, with its forests and wildlife, there used to be the hunting and holidaying arena of the Mughals. Historically, the route between Sheikhupura and Shahdara used to be the first stage of a route leading up to Kabul and Kashmir, frequently used by the emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

A doorway in the Fort

The place is dotted with monuments that mark various periods and events in history. Hiran Minar is where Mansraj, Jahangir’s pet deer, lies buried. Not far from there, in Jandiala Sher Khan, is the resting place of Waris Shah, a poet of the people who immortalised the love story of Heer and Ranjha. Sheikhupura Fort is where Mai Nakkai, Ranjeet Singh’s queen, mother of the crown prince Kharak Singh, breathed her last.

Gurdwara Sacha Sauda is located in Farooqabad, a town in Sheikhupura district, earlier called Chuharkana. The Gurdwara’s name derives from a story about Guru Nanak. He had been sent with money by his father to buy goods and sell them on profit. Nanak, on his way, saw some hungry sadhus and he used the money to feed them. This angered his father. However, Nanak explained that feeding the hungry was the best use of money and hence the most profitable transaction – ‘sacha sauda’. The gurdwara was build by Ranjeet Singh on the spot where the sadhus were fed.

A view of the Hiran Minar - memorial to Emperor Jahangir's beloved deer

In Farooqabad, also, is the headquarters of the Punjab Constabulary. This establishment is spread over 1,500 kanals. It had earlier been a WAPDA colony set up to construct canals after the Indus Water Treaty. This place housed the European and local staff employed for the task and also the machinery and equipment needed for that enterprise. From a barren land sprung a fertile plain after the upper Gogera branch canal and Qadirabad-Balloki link canals came into being.

Here I enjoyed the hospitality of the Commandant of the Punjab Constabulary. The place is a self-contained haven in the heart of a bustling city. Sheltered from the outside world with huge old trees, it provides residence for the staff of the Punjab Constabulary and training for them and for the entire Punjab police from constable to inspector level. It has wheat and rice fields, vegetable gardens and orchards, fish, cattle and honey farms, a riding school and crafts workshops: all for internal use – a veritable commune!

The larger surroundings of Sheikhupura resonate with the tales of Sohni Mahiwal and Heer Ranjha. Small and large historical remains unfold the story of the Sikhs: with its genesis in Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, to its evolving paths the various gurus, movements, sects, misls and leaders. At its farthest end, in Shahdara, just before the ever-expanding grasp of Lahore, lie buried Noor Jehan and Jahangir, the most famous patrons of the area.

Slowly and imperceptibly the magic of the place started working on me and my ear became attuned to all the voices and moods of the past, its stories inextricably linked to its landscape – stories of love and longing, separation and union.

Sohni and Mahiwal drowning in the throes of the river Chenab symbolising as well their love; Mai Jindan, Ranjeet Singh’s queen dowager,exiled in Sheikhupura Fort by the British, pining for her separated son Duleep Singh; a king’s whimsical love for a beloved deer in a game reserve where deer were hunted; a great and ambitious queen’s lavish attention to her consort’s tomb while choosing a modest exit for herself and a desire to be left alone in death; Sikhs leaving in a painful exodus in 1947 to return after forty six years to pay homage to their holy sites; Chenab and Ravi, that since millennia mingled their waters, severed from each other with Chenab left alone here to spill its waters into Ravi’s dry basin in memory of their younger days.

In this land of criss-crossing paths, so much has happened and so much has changed, so much has found glory and then dwindled away. What remains is that which found a home in people’s hearts – on moonlit nights, hundreds gather at the tomb of a poet to sing the ballad of love that lives on.