Sadhus Dont have a Religion

GKMLehar Sethi Zaidi travels through the sacred spaces of shared traditions of the Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus in Punjab

It is midnight when we reach Sri Hargobindpur, nestled in the heart of western Punjab. We have come to Guru ki Maseed, the que of the guru, built by sixth Sikh guru Sri Hargobind for his Muslim disciples. The que is looked after by Nihang Sikhs, has the Guru Granth Sahib and a sacred space to offer namaz (there are no Muslims in the area since partition). Plus, the magical gurbani of Bhai Baldeep Singh. The Beas flows below, bringing greenery, wealth, floods and food to this ancient town.

The maseed was handed to the Wakf board by the Nihangs. The board, in a remarkable gesture, requested them to continue as official caretakers. There are 20 dargahs here, looked after by the locals—confirming that the syncretic traditions are part of the soil. Every Thursday, the villagers light chirags (flames) to the Khwaja Khizr (green sufi saint), supposed to be Elijah—common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam—protector of travellers and rivers.

Who can forget this sanjhi virasat? Dara Shikoh and Shahjahan’s closeness to Guru Har Rai, who saved Dara’s life as a child. He was given shelter by the guru during his flight from Aurangzeb’s army—one reason why the emperor hated the guru. There was Pir Kangeh Shah who sacrificed himself, his sons and 700 disciples and fought for Guru Gobind Singh in the battle against Aurangzeb. The guru offered his highest honour here, his kangi, revered as Dargah Kange Shah. The gurus’ strong ties with Muslim sufis are testified by the fact that the earliest bani in the Adi granth is that of Baba Farid, the great Chisti saint.

Sri Hargobindpur was built along the five gates—Panj darwazas—representing the Panj Pirs (five pirs), close friends of Guru Hargobind. They protect the town. Gurudwara Damdama Sahib, built by the guru, is unique; it has the mazaar of Sufi Jane Shah! The guru said that prayers at the gurudwara will be incomplete without offering homage at the mazaar.

We walk to the outskirts of the Shah Mana Dargah Gate—overlooking lush fields and a flowing Beas. A Brahmin takes care of it, that’s the family tradition. Its story is woven into the relationship between Guru Hargobind and Baba Shah Mana. The guru asked him to stay here, to bless and protect the town. He still does it.

We had tea with Shantiji—a wonderful Khatri lady in her eighties—who has helped preserve the dargah. Every Thursday she carries kheer singing folks strains to the saint. She repeats an old sayings: “Sadhu da mazhab nahin hota. Siyasat da hi dharam hota hai (Sadhus don’t have a religion. Only politics has a religion).

We cycle through the fields to Baba Lakhan da Data (blesser of lakhs) Dargah. Smiling Sikhs serve halwa, welcoming us with typical Punjabi warmth. The dargah is freshly painted with the Muslim holy number ‘786’ on the walls. Are there any Muslims here? No, just the sevadar. Is he a Sikh? Yes.

We on our way to the Masania Dargah with its exquisite fusion of central Asian and Sikh architecture. Evening falls and the dhols gets louder. It is Thursday—devotees throng to Baba Badr Shah, the guru of Ranjit Singh, who helped him get defeat the Mughals. The Shias took care of it before partition. Says Christian sevadar Yunus Massey, “The Sikh pray here, the peer told them to…” Others dance the bhangra. It’s packed with Sikhs from all over Punjab. And a whirling Sikh dervish, wearing the sufi green.

They tell us the story. The Shia khadims left in 1947 after handing over the dargah’s to their Sikh and Christian neighbours. They had dreamt of the Pir telling them, “Your time to serve is over…” Their chirags lost their flame before they left. As the fires of Partition spread everywhere.

The writer is a scholar in sufi studies

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