Hari Singh Nalwa’s Haripur: Microcosm of Sikh Multi-Faith Life
Dr Bhai Harbans Lal
Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal nostalgically recalls the peaceful times of composite culture of Punjab when Hindus earnestly valued the Sikh institutions and Muslims too shared common cultural ties with their neighbours in Western Punjab society. It was also common practice for all, irrespective of their faith, to offer prayers with deep conviction at the Gurdwaras for their progeny, welfare and progress. Birthi kade na hovai jan ki ardas. SGGS 819. – Editor
Maharaja Ranjit Singh wanted a town to be named after his beloved General, Hari Singh Nalwa. Since then Haripur played a unique part in the Sikh annals. It is for this reason that I wish to pen down my memories of it.
I was born and grew up in the enchanting town of Haripur, situated in the lap of the Himalayan Mountains. For a variety of factors my fond memories of this town are very vivid. Its beautiful location comprised proximity to Sri Panja Sahib at Hasan Abdal. These memories are also embedded in its loving and friendly people, besides its interspersion with the culturally rich expanse of the Sikh history in this region. Then, there is galore of stories, anecdotes and myths that make Haripur extremely fascinating.
The town of Haripur is located 65 kilometer North of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and only 20 km from the historic and venerated Sikh shrine, Gurdwara Sri Punja Sahib in the town of Hassan Abdal. Panja Sahib is one of the holiest Sikh shrines built in the memory of the founder of Sikh religion Baba Guru Nanak’s visit to this area and on the site where he sojourned.
One of Haripur’s fascinations is its location at 1650 feet above the sea level. It is also famous because of its proximity to the highest peak, Malika-Parbat that is 17356 feet tall. Its location in the foothills makes this town and its surroundings pleasantly verdant and delightfully green. My memories are so deep and fresh in my heart that even after half a century of leaving Haripur and despite living many years in USA, I still long to visit this birth place of mine. However soon after my retirement, I managed to visit it twice in recent years.
The town is 35 km far from Abbottabad on the road that eventually leads to Kashmir in the North. Besides, there are other important and famous nearby towns. Those that I remember were Mansehra, Swabi, Srikot, Talokar, Khalabat, Mardan, Attock, Tarbela, Khanpur, Buner, Cambellpur, Texila, and Kot Najeeb Ullah. Most of these townships were dotted with our family friends and acquaintances from all main religions including close Muslim friends. The Sikhs, in these towns, owned shops and land and were also distinct by their places of worship called, Gurdwaras. I will write more in the next chapter.
Haripur Hazara is a district of NWFP (North Western Frontier Province); a name given by the British rulers. I have read that recently its name has been changed to Pakhutnakhawa Khyber. This area is known as the hub of Gandhara civilization. The old name of Haripur was Pakhli Sarkar (1472 A.D.). The contemporary Haripur was founded in 1822 by Hari Singh Nalwa, a general of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army and the then Governor of Kashmir.
Maharaja honored his favourite general by renaming Pakhli Sarkar as Haripur. It was the only town Maharaja had ever ordered to be renamed. The town spread around the Fort of Hari Singh and was irrigated through well-planned water storage and distribution system nicknamed as Rangila. Rangila was in fact the name of a civil engineer who established this unique water supply system for the town. The reservoir collected the water from a perennial river called Dor and then supplied it for irrigation and drinking. As many as nine supply lines originated from Rangila and spread through the entire town. There were roads and shops along the water streams. The water fed fruit orchards and grain fields included those owned by my family. Originally a Tehsil, Haripur became a district in 1992 after its separation from Abbottabad district.
Nalwa was a good practising Sikh who loved every one and administered justice to all as an administrator. He respected all faiths and as such there was no restriction on building mosque, Mandir (Hindu temple), and Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in the town. More than that, he asked that all of them be built by his administration.
Islam was and is still the predominant religion in the area, although there was significant presence of Sikhs and Hindus. Additionally, there was a non-Muslim tribe known as Kalasha, believed to be descendants of the ancient armies of Alexander the Great (see MS Kohli, One more step, Penguin, 2005). Urdu is major language that is both written and spoken. The other languages mostly spoken there were dialects of Hindko, Punjabi, Pashto, and Pahari.
My Family: A Unique Experience with Muslim Neighbors
My father, Dr. Beli Ram, was a doctor in Haripur. There were both big and small landowners in and around Haripur most of whom used to visit my father’s clinic in case of sickness. He attended on his patients with kindness and was quite popular. It is because of both his kindness and medical expertise that our family was accorded great esteem and liking.
Only a few miles from Haripar began the “no-Man’s land” with inhabitants known then as Kabailies (tribal) who, historically, did not accept any Government’s writ. They were generally known as lawless, yet we found them very loving. They would occasionally invite us on weekends and we were served with marvelous tribal dishes.
Many of my father’s Kabaili patients though were very poor, yet they would pay the medical treatment fee to him with gratitude. However in most deserving cases, my father treated them free of charge. However, they would in return bring for us such gifts as home grown fruits, vegetables, corn and pulses. Some time they would bring ghee (made from the milk of cow or buffalo ) and butter, quite popular and sought-after commodities in the Potohar food culture. After my father passed away, they continued to take care of us by bringing those gifts and by providing security in the absence of an adult man in our family. No one could dare touch us after it became open knowledge that we were friends with those tribal Pathans and Afridis.
Despite affinity and closeness with Muslim families and friends, I would, somehow, still be fearful and paranoid, whenever I would pass by a mosque traversing between my home and my primary school. There were such rumors that some non-Muslim youth were often waylaid near the Mosque, taken in and sexually abused; while others were forcibly converted to Islam. The conversion would entail compulsive reading of the Holy Quran and painful circumcision. I must admit that I was never harassed by my friends, classmates or acquaintances. In the hindsight, my reaction would seem to be completely irrational though real in experience, and I know of others who harbored similar fear.
Perhaps the fear originated from the belief that in Islam it was considered a religious duty to convert others even by using lethal means and weapons. There were such rumor-mongering that Muslims would kidnap non-Muslims particularly young boys and girls for conversion to Islam. Looking back I am now convinced that such rumors were based on mere heresy and nothing of that sort ever happened till 1946-47.
Among Memorable Events
I was a regular visitor toGurdwara Guru Nanak Satsang Sabha. The daily program at this Gurdwara began at 4 a.m. before dawn and would end with the sunrise so that everyone could go to their work and children would not be late to school.
I recall an ugly event when the city atmosphere was greatly disturbed. Though ugly, I learnt a lot from it as it provided an opportunity to inculcate the importance of unity among its inhabitants from all religions and social backgrounds with a memorable outcome.
It all started with the Gurdwara caretaker informing the congregation about a grave sacrilege he had witnessed that day. The caretaker was a volunteer Sehajdhari Sikh who would go to the Gurdwara every day at 3 a.m. Sehajdhari Sikhs are those who are not baptized and as such may not wear some Sikh symbols. This volunteer opened the door to the sanctuary hall for cleaning and other preparations as usual.
On that particular bleak day he was shocked to see that someone had slipped in a cigarette-but under the door. He cleaned up the place and reported the matter to the management as soon as the daily congregation began. There was a pin drop silence and everyone went into a deep shock. This was an outright blasphemous act that no one expected in that peaceful town. It was never known who had committed such a dirty act.
At the end of the service a delegation of Sikh elders went straight to the city administration to file a complaint. On hearing their complaint, the city officials including the police chief immediately stood up from their chairs with folded hands. They expressed their profound shock and declared a curfew in the entire city. Furthermore, they made announcement in the city urging the population to close their businesses and join their Sikh brethren to pray to God for repentance and forgiveness. Mind you, the city administration was totally Muslim except for my father who was member of the City Council and later was appointed as the Mayor.
A large tent was erected in the school playground for continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib which normally takes 48 hours. This was how solidarity and support was demonstrated by the administration and the residents alike with the Sikh faithful and to assuage their hurt feelings.
At the end, a prayer meeting was held where civic leaders and city officials spoke to express their anguish over the unfortunate incident in their otherwise peaceful town. The people embraced each others as a token of peace and love that is customary in the Pathan and Sikh cultures. In accordance with the Sikh tradition, the attendees, almost the entire town population, were served Guru-Ka-Langer, a complementary community feast to all those present.
Amazingly, the Muslim community leaders took the incident with the same spirit as if the blasphemy had been committed with regard to the holy Quran or the mosque. They were genuinely grieved to find that the blasphemy took place against the Sikh Scripture.
This was a commendable show of reverence for Sikhs and their religion by the Muslim community. There is no gainsaying that the Sikhs would have reciprocated with the same spirit, if the Muslims had been subjected to similar sacrilege.
Thus there was an immensely cordial relationship between Muslims and the non-Muslims. Both communities would interact frequently every day in markets, bazaars, schools, public places and at cultural fairs. They would also visit each others’ houses as gesture of goodwill, to see a patient, or greet a guest or simply to chat. Both went to the morning walks in the same nearby fields and forests. There was a small rivulet known as ‘soaka’ meaning mostly dry stream except during the rain spells. Every one greeted each other with the Islamic salutation, “Islam-ulakam” or Sikh welcome ‘Sat Sri Akal’ as the case may be. Most were seen together busy in their morning ablutions. Sikhs were reciting their Guru’s hymns in silence while the Muslims were doing the same from the Holy Quran.
During my recent visit to Pakistan, I also traveled to Haripur. My hosts took me to the banks of historic Indus (Sindh) River. I was astonished to observe the traditions in vogues for several decades were still intact. Like past, the people were walking on the banks of river, engaged in their morning ablution; some strolling and others sitting in a quiet corner, though it was a freezing winter when I visited.
Politics and Violence
Haripur was plunged into a blood bath between the Muslims and believers of the minority religions as India got closer to gaining independence from the British. Muslims were divided between Muslim League and secular parties supported by Dr. Khan Sahib and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan known as Sarhadi Gandhi. Sikh population was overwhelmingly loyal to the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Baba Kharak Singh. Exception was the school students who were supporting Panthic Party under the leadership of Master Tara Singh.
I still remember a visit of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru to Haripur. They stayed at the house of Bhagat Duni Chand. As the family of Bhagat Duni Chand was high class, the street where they lived was named as Bhagatan da mohalla. I went to see Gandhi one morning at Bhagat Duni’s home. I sat down next to him in the living room. He made a short speech as well as answered many questions. Essentially he urged people to maintain unity and fight for freedom non-violently.
In 1945 the political tempo began to boil to a very dangerous level that impinged upon the amicable relationship between various religious communities of Haripur.
For the first time in Haripur’s history, a procession in honor of Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday was attacked by some Muslim hooligans from the surrounding villages. It was winter of 1944-45 and the procession was an annual event poignant with lot of enthusiasm and festivities in the town. Muslim mob from outside villages also entered the town. It certainly was not supported by the local Muslims population. However, everyone was frightened and taken by surprise and no one could dare face the attackers.
As usual, the procession was led by Five Piaras, the five beloved of the Khalsa and they were carrying three feet long naked swords. When they saw that the mob was coming toward the palanquin in which the Guru Granth Sahib was carried, they could not restrain and counter attacked the mob of hooligans. The mob fled. There was no reported injury on either side but the incident created bitter memories.
The following winter the same procession was again taken out to celebrate Guru Gobind Singh birthday. There was no inkling of any trouble as the local Muslims expressed traditional fraternal spirit and assured full protection in case of an unruly situation.
However, the Muslim fanatics of the surrounding villages had not forgotten the humiliation of the previous year. This time they hired much larger number of supporters from the neighboring villages. They seemed to be sufficiently prepared for a major attack on the Sikh religious congregation.
A sea of the hooligans with machetes, knives, axes and stones surprised the town and attacked it from several directions. However, the local Muslim population kept itself away from the intruders. They were merely spectators and played a role of informing the non-Muslim population regarding the advancing mob. They also advised the Sikhs where to hide and how to protect themselves from the oncoming onslaught.
The mob after entering Haripur went into frenzied spree of looting and burning the non-Muslim property as they advanced. From our roof tops and shelters, we were watching the forays of the assailants along with loud sloganeering from the mob. They were advancing to attack the procession in the town center.
I also saw smoke billowing out of a burned Gurdwara located in the vicinity. There were altogether four Gurdwaras in the town. I will write in details about these Gurdwaras in the next chapter. The torched Gurdwara was located in an area that was not well-protected. The caretaker was the lonely Sikh family living in there. The Gurdwara was burnt to ashes.
The mob then marched toward the procession which had reached the central area of the town and in front of the major Gurdwara known as Gurdwara Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha. The Sikhs marching with procession were in too small a number to respond to a far larger and very hostile mob. The Sikh leaders gauged the impossible situation and terminated the procession. They apologized to the procession participants with their helplessness and asked them to disperse to safe places. However, despite these precautions, there were small skirmishes during the dispersal resulting in a few casualties in the bystanders.
When the riotous mob reached the second Gurdwara, where the procession had already reached, the ritual of Akhand Paath or the continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib was in progress. This is Sikh religious tradition to celebrate the birthday of the founders of Sikh religion, this time of the Tenth Guru. The mob began to pelt the Gurdwara with stones. They also sent a few mobsters into the Gurdwara. The intruders were well armed and prepared to cause damage.
The Head Granthi of the Gurdwara, Bhai Tara Singh, was seated behind the Holy Scripture and engaged in the continuous reading of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs as matter of religious obligation do not take break or pause in the continuous reading of the Sikh Scripture for any reason, whatsoever. This tradition was well known to everyone in the area. The callous rowdy assailants attacked and clubbed to death the unarmed saintly Granthi (Sikh priest) still reciting the Holy Scripture.
The victim, Bhai Tara Singh, was focused on the continuous reading of the Guru Granth and, as such, refused to interrupt the sacred recitation in order to run to his safety. His bleeding head fell on the volume of the Guru Granth. The murderers ran out and disappeared in the crowd.
A woman Granthi, named Mai Dhanwanti had earlier come from a neighboring Gurdwara allocated exclusively for women to the Guru Nanak Satsang Gurdwara to serve during the Akhand Paath. She went into hiding when intruders entered the Gurdwara hall. From her hiding place, she witnessed the attack on Bhai Tara Singh, later known as Bhai Tara Singh Shaheed, meaning martyr.
She saw how the turban and the bloody head of Tara Singh fell. She could not resist the situation anymore and would not let the Akhand Paath interrupted. On the spur of the moment, she decided to enter the arena. Immediately she came out and took over the reading of the Guru Granth from the fatally injured Bhai Tara Singh. With supreme courage she averted the Paath’s interruption. Upon seeing a woman taking over the sacred duty, the attackers took to their heels leaving the fatally injured Granthi behind.
Amar Singh, elder of the two sons of Bhai Tara Singh heard about the attack on the Gurdwara and his father’s martyrdom. He could not tolerate this cruel action and decided to confront the mob single handedly. He emerged from his home behind the Gurdwara with a drawn sword to challenge the mob.
A skirmish took place and Amar Singh was hit on the head. His turban fell off exposing his thick hair bun from long uncut hair that the baptized Sikhs treasure. The hair-bun protected him from that attack. Then Amar Singh took over the mob with his lightening naked sword causing some lethal injuries. The mob fled away and the city police arrived on the scene.
By the evening the Sikhs from the surrounding villages had arrived well prepared to fight for their sacred places and their unprotected kith and kin of Haripur. I remember watching them enter the city center, shouting Sikh slogans and exhibiting naked swords. By then city officials had called the army units from nearby Abbottabad to maintain peace.
The very next day, local populations took over the situation. The Muslim friends joined their non-Muslim neighbors in repentance and prayers for forgiveness. They brought food and supply for those who suffered injuries or other losses.
Matriculation Examination in Unheard of Circumstances
Since the Hindu-Muslim civil commotion in early 1946, the Haripur inhabitants had to live in extremely tense situation. There was always news about frequent riots, assaults, stabbing, looting or murder in the Hazara area. It was no longer safe to live in our ancestral town of Haripur. The Situation in the surrounding villages was even worse. Hindu and Sikh families were moving to Haripur for shelter with their relatives and friends.
The situation concerning students was also precarious. Hindu and Sikh students could not walk to school for fear of being killed. Further, they could not leave the town lest they risk their high school degrees to be awarded only upon completion of the year Even then, many students decided to leave the school and accompany their parents across the border to safety. When the time for the final High School examination arrived, most of them had already decided to move out of Haripur. A few who were left would not go to the school to take the final examination.
I was afraid that without taking the final examination there would not be any record available of my attending full term in the school. In that case, I would have to spend at least one more year in the school, once peace prevailed.
That would mean missing at least a year in starting my college, a probability that I could not afford to accept. Thus along with Manmohan Singh Kohli, I decided to stay on in our home until the examination day. We started studying at home and risked our lives to walk to the examination hall. We were relieved somewhat when armies offered us escort to and fro our home and examination hall. We accepted the offer and proceeded to the school. Upon reaching the hall, to our utter amazement, we found it deserted. The seats were only scantly filled. All the non-Muslim students had not shown up.
As soon as the question papers were distributed, we heard a commotion in the hall. A student took out a revolver and the other a dagger and placed them on the table. They brought some books and notes which they spread in front of them. They also asked their friends to help them in answering the questions. Understandably, the supervisors turned their backs. Later we heard that two of our friends were stabbed in the morning while going to the same examination hall.
With prayers on my lips, I finished the examination. When the results were announced I was very delighted to see my excellent position. The result was conveyed to me several months later in India. My high grades enabled me to enter the college for my pre-medical education.
Microcosm of Sikh Multi-faith Life
Deep commitment of the Sikh inhabitants of Haripur Hazara to the Sikh way of life had been known far and wide since the time of Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sikh clergy, Sikh cantors, and Sikh politicians from all over the Sikh world were frequent visitors to the Sikh congregations of Haripur considered important components of the potohari Sikh chapter of the Sikh Panth.
Potohar Sikhs, in general, were held in high esteem among the Sikh nation for their deep commitment to the Sikh ethos and flair. The town of Haripur and its surroundings were part and parcel of the Potohar region of the North West Frontier Province within the Indian sub-continent. Rawalpindi was the nearest larger city than Haripur. As such the Sikhs of Haripur and its surroundings were closely knit and connected to the Sikhs of Rawalpindi.
Rawalpindi dates back to 1493 A.D., when it was given its name by Jhanda Khan, a chief of the Ghakkhars. The Ghakkhars were defeated by the Sikhs in 1765 – a significant event that attracted many Sikh traders to the area. They brought with them prosperity and the atmosphere of kinship, peace and neighborly love among all inhabitants irrespective of their religious or ethnic background. In 1849, the British took Rawalpindi away from the Sikh rulers but the Sikh population continued to excel in trade and prosperity.
The Sikhs of Potohar region had made big strides in all walks of life. They exhibited highest literacy rate and higher education levels. Similarly their employment ratio was higher than their neighbors. Partition of India scattered this cultural and business group of Sikhs, forgotten as a distinct group. It is precisely for this overriding reason that I wish to record my memories about this distinctive lot of Sikhs in my biography.
Potohar Sikhs shared many cultural characteristics and features with the Muslims of Potohar. Resemblance of physical features is understandably apparent because they had lived together for centuries. Some of them continued to live together until recent past.
One of the striking resemblances was the Potohari dialect of Punjabi language both written and spoken. The Potohari language is enriched with many Farsi (Persian) and old Sanskrit derivatives. Besides, the native traditional Potohar dress makes the Potoharis strikingly distinct, in appearance from others ethnic communities in the subcontinent.
A large number of the Potoharis are Pashtoons. There seems to be a common identity of features and likeness between them and the Sikhs. Pride, warmth, courage, hospitality, openness, boldness, simplicity, and above all personal honesty were some of the traits that one could find common between these two communities.
Hazara Sikh Culture
Among potohari Sikhs of Hazara, most were Sehajdhari Sikhs. This faction of Sikhs unlike the Kesadhari Sikhs did not distinguish themselves with uncut hair. The uncut hair is a distinctive feature of the kesadhari Sikhs. To learn more about the Sehajdhari Sikhs you may read my previous paper.
The Hazara Potohari were inspired to be Sikhs by local and visiting Sikh cantors and exegesis. Some of the Sehajdhari Sikhs accepted khande-di-pahul to become Khalsa Sikhs during the period of 1910-1945 through the efforts of Sant Baba Jiwan Singh and later Baba Prem Singh Niroliwale, Sant Attar Singh and their generation of Sikh exponents. Baba Prem Singh died in December of 1946.
Both Sehajdhari Sikhs and Keshadhari Sikhs wore mashedi silk turbans commonly known as pagri, also worn by the Pathans and Afghans. Sehajdhari Sikhs wore their turban around a supportive KULA or a round shaped hat. The kula used by non-Muslims was usually embroidered with silk. The tail of the turban worn by Sehajdhari Sikhs would hang loosely down the back of the neck. Sikh men wore the Kandhari vest, apparel consisting of long loose shirt and salwar, and the gold-threaded Jutii or Khusa (Pothohari shoe). A long shirt was worn outside the trousers that hung down almost up to the knees.
The dresses and the language were the typical signature of the Potohar people of yester years that made them conspicuous among other South Asians. Some older folks from ‘Hazara-Pindi-Peshawar’ region still wear such Potohari dress that we see occasionally in parts of Punjab and Delhi. When I migrated to USA, I specifically brought with me a set of Potohari dress including a kula-pagri combination to be worn on special occasions.
In Haripur, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lived quite amicably. There was not the slightest semblance of any animosity until the time of partition of India. The places of worship or those related to the respective religions were venerated. The people usually participated in major festivals of these three main religions that inter-alias included Guru Nanak’s Birthday, Diwali and Eid. This demonstration of cordiality and homogeneity formed part of the Potohari culture that blended well with the perceptions and practices of the Sikhs.
Before the partition, the Indian National Congress Party remained in majority for several years in the State legislature. Dr. Khan Sahib a prominent member of INC was the Chief Minister. Dr. Khan was s strong proponent and preacher of communal harmony and was therefore, liked by the Muslims and the non-Muslims alike. His followers and party activists were known as “Khudai Khidmatgars” meaning, “The Servants of God.”
Prominent non-Sikhs of Hazara
Haripur Hazara had its own share of prominent people. The most outstanding from among Muslims was General Ayub Khan who rose to the exalted positions of the President of Pakistan, the Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan and subsequently the Field Marshall. His son Gohar Ayub Khan was also celebrity who had served as the Speaker of Pakistan’s National Assembly and also as the Foreign Minister of Pakistan.
It is perhaps the influence of the Khalsa school and his Sikh schoolmates that Ayub Khan had a soft corner for the Sikhs in his heart during his presidency and even later. A paragraph from his 1967 book, “Friends Not Masters”, is worth quoting. He wrote,
“The school was run by Sikhs and the teachers were very kindly and considerate, except for master Sujhan Singh who was a Tartar....Sikhs were large-hearted people. I found their rituals and their songs in Punjabi absorbing. I still remember a line which fascinated me at that time.
”Sau rang tamashe takai, akhian nahin rajian”
Ayub translated this line as
“Life is a great spectacle of colors; one sees so much of it and yet one has an insatiable desire for more”
Bhai Meharban Singh, a famous personality of Singapore told his friends about his visit to General Ayub Khan in 1970’s. Ayub Khan invited him for dinner at his home. Meharban Singh saw a framed painting of the opening verse of Sri Guru Granth Sahib on the wall. It was written both in Urdu and in Punjabi. On further inquiry, Ayub Khan is said to have told his guest that he had a great regard for Baba Nanak and his hymns.
My family had close and intimate family relations with Ayub Khan’s family. Although I visited Ayub’s home several times and had lot of fun in his company as a youth, I do not recall much except that my mother often used to visit Ayub’s mother. Ayub Khan’s mother and my mother were close friends. My family and Ayub’s family used to exchange gifts on their respective festivals. They continued these contacts even after Partition of the country.
Mind you, Ayub’s going to a Sikh school for education was not unique; it was a common practice that prominent Muslim families used to elect the Sikh educational institutions for their children’s education. In that conversation, let me mention another illustrious example. He was also a friend of the Sikhs and who was similarly educated at the Sikh institution.
Muhammad Rafiq Tarar was the ninth President of Pakistan and before that a judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and Chief Justice of Lahore High Court. He was proud of his college education at Guru Nanak Khalsa College, Gujranwala. He mentioned it to me when I visited him during my visit to Pakistan a decade ago. He was presiding over a function we held at the Sikh Gurdwara at Sri Nanakana Sahib in Pakistan. He took pleasure in telling me that he passed his FSc. in 1947, when a renowned Sikh scholar Bawa Harkrishan Singh was serving as the Principal of his college. He continued his education in the same college until the Bachelor Degree except that the college was renamed as Islamia College after the birth of Pakistan.
Perhaps very few people would know that, the famous and celebrated Indian movie star Prithvi Raj Kapur was born in Haripur. Prithviraj was a pioneer of Indian theatre and of the Hindi and Hindustani film industry. The Government of India honored him with the Padma Bhushan in 1969 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1971 for his contributions towards Indian cinema.
Prominent Sikhs of Haripur Hazara
Among the Sikhs, most of the Sikh population was Sehajdhari Sikhs (to learn more on Sehajdhari Sikhs, read Lal, (Bhai) Harbans. Sehjdhari Sikhs: Their Origin and Current Status in the Panth,
In the book SIKH IDENTITY: Continuity and Change, Eds. Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier, Manohar Publications, New Delhi,. pp. 109-126, 1999). They practised Sikhism but as yet may not be observing one or more of five external Sikh symbols. They also did not use Singh as their last name.
Most of the Sikh population was convert from Hinduism. They were so inspired by Potohari Sikh religious leaders like Sant Baba Jiwan Singh, Baba Prem Singh Hoti or Niroliwale. Baba Prem Singh continued to attract populations toward Sikhism until he breathed his last in December of 1946. Sikhee spread in Hazara part of Potohar mostly in 1910-1946.
Bhai Diwan Chand was a leading merchant. He was often the President of the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Satsang Sabha. Both of his sons were raised a kesadhari Sikhs. The younger son, Harbans Singh was a close friend of mine. We walked to school together and often did home work together.
I worked with Bhai Seva Ram; a local merchant and importer of dry fruit from Afghanistan. Seva Ram had been the president of the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha for many years. He was responsible for including me in his Katha group. My role in that position was to recite a line from the Suraj Parkash which he then translated. Occasionally, when he was unable to attend the gurdwara, I substituted and did katha. It is through this practice that I benefited to have learnt the detailed biographies of all gurus in my early age.
Bhai Seva Ram encouraged me to open and maintain Guru Nanak Library supported by the Gurdwara. He appointed me as joint secretary of the Gurdwara in charge of the library. I was only a high school student. This was the time that Dr. Gopal Singh Dardi founded the English Sikh Weekly, the Liberator, from Rawlpindi. It was the first Sikh Weekly ever published in English. The library in Haripur was the first to get it regularly for the benefit of Haripur Sikh congregations.
I may mention here that Dr. Dardi was responsible for encouraging me to pick up writings in English. He continually encouraged me to write local news and small columns for his journal. He then edited them before publishing and provided me the opportunity to learn from his editing.
Bhai Moti Ram Raagi was a cloth merchant who was head of a Sehajdhari Sikh raagi (cantors) Jatha. He performed daily kirtan in the Gurdwara of Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha. He also performed kirtan in his home and when invited by others in their homes. With his kirtan he combined explanation of Gurubani hymns as he was also a good exegesis. Later he joined Nirankari Sikh sect but continued to be Sikh canter in the Haripur Gurdwara. He is the one who introduced me to the founders of the Nirankari Sikh leadership in Rawalpindi.
Bhai Hukam Chand Saraf and Bhai Gokal Chand Batra, both belonged to Haripur, and both were substitute kathakars or exegesis to recite Katha of Suraj Parkash in the Gurdwara.
Bhai Fakir Chand Batra was a son of Bhai Amir Chand who lived in the small neighboring town of Darband. Darband was part of Amb State 30 miles from the center of Haripur. Both were sehajdhari Sikhs who often did Katha of Suraj Parkash, a set of several volumes on the biographies of the Sikh Gurus that were rewritten in contemporary Punjabi by Bhai Vir Singh. Bhai Amir Chand died before partition. Bhai Fakir Chand continued his Katha after partition at the Gurdwara Darband Hazara, near Lahori gate in Patiala. Bhai Fakir Chand was president of the Gurdwara in Patiala for many years before he died in early eighties. This was the same gurdwara that was patronized by famous Sikh scholar Bhai Harbans Singh who translated Sri Guru Granth Sahib in 14 volumes.
A large number of Sehajdharee Sikhs had settled in Patiala after partition. They migrated to Patiala from Pakistani areas such as, Ilaqa-E-Ghair, District Hazara, Campbellpur and Mardan. There were other Sehajdharee Sikhs from the same area who settled in Bombay, Koliwara while many others settled at Rishikesh and Dehradun after partition. Unfortunately, those who settled in UP converted to Hinduism under the repressive influence of BJP and VHP.
Bhai Mool Chand of Hazara was elected as the Municipal commissioner of the City of Patiala on Akali Dal ticket, which is invariably given to Sikh candidates. After his success in the election, he served as the Chairman of the Municipal Committee in Patiala.
Gokal Chand’s son, Bhai Babu Lal Batra from Haripur had been the secretary of a Gurdwara in Patiala for more than three decades. He used to do Kirtan and Katha and arranged Ragis for Gurpurbs.
Bhai Mehar Chand of Hazara was known in Patiala for his philanthropy and tactful arbitration in contesting parties in the Sikh community. Besides, he has been president of Shere Punjab Market for many years. After the partition, most of the merchants who settled in Patiala were from NWFP and Pothohar.
One Sardar Mohan Singh Rahees was a Sikh VIP of the area. He is recorded in the annals of Sikh history as a Chairman of the Reception Committee of the Sikh Educational Conference held in Rawalpindi 1929. He also presided over the same conference.
Sardar Jagjit Singh with his family, and Sardar Sujan Singh and his two sons were kesadhari Sikhs who took prominent part in the Sikh leadership of Haripur. After partition, Sardar Jagjit Singh moved to Muzzafernagar and Sardar Sujan Singh to Delhi. Capt Manmohan Singh, son of Sardar Sujan Singh, rose to a high rank in the Indian Navy where he was the first Indian to reach world famous Mount Everest and was the recipient of Padama Bhushan Award by the President of India.
My maternal grandparents come from Haripur. Babu Diwan Chand was a postmaster. They raised their family in a religious atmosphere. There was a recitation of full length of Sukhmani Sahib daily in their home. My maternal grandmother was a cousin of Dr. Gopal Singh Dardi who was the first to translate the Guru Granth in English and edited the first Sikh Weekly, The Liberator.
My maternal uncle, Joginder Parkash Nanda used to sing hymns from the Guru Granth in the local gurdwaras in Haripur. After partition, the family moved to UP and he retired from the post of Chief Engineer of a sugar mill in Behar. Joginder Parkash Nanda presently living in Dehra Dun has resigned to devoting his total life to the community service and as a singer of hymns from Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Besides, he treats the sick, free of charge, with indigenous herbal medicine combined with prayers and meditation.
Haripur Gurdwaras and Sikh Society
There were five Gurdwaras in Haripur town. One must not forget that every village or small town in the vicinity and surrounding areas of Haripur also had a neighborhood Gurdwara: the Sikhs’ place of worship.
Gurdwara Guru Nanak Satsang Sabha was the oldest one. I went mostly to this Gurdwara every day, as it was nearest to my home. My daily routine, and routine of many others, was first to go to Gurdwara for congregation and thereafter to school.
Besides local cantors and Khatha-Kars (interpreters, exegesis) the visiting cantors would also come to Haripur, stay for a couple of weeks or so for sharing and disseminating their thoughts and elements of faith in congregations of Haripur. I recall listening to famous raagis, Bhai Santa Singh, Bhai Avtar Singh, Bhai Sarab Singh, Bedi jathas and a host of other cantors who came to Haripur from time to time. I vividly recall that once I was immensely moved and enthralled by the highly melodious and riveting Kirtan of one such cantor named Bhai Sarab Singh. I was then only 6-7 years old and did not possess any cash.
Nevertheless, I pledged in silence to myself that when I grew up and have enough of my own money, I would donate some to him. It so happened that when I was in college after the partition and had to visit Patiala for some conference, I found Bhai Sarab Singh running his dental practice. Tears came to my eyes. I told him of my pledge several years back and offered a small amount of money as I was still a student, living within a limited small budget. He showed his affection to me but did not accept the money. He invited me to his Kirtan in a Patiala Gurdwara where I was invited to speak that I did.
Gurdwara Singh Sabha was located at a long distance from our home. As such we would go there once in a while. This Gurdwara was considerably active. It was built in the center of residential area and therefore, was well protected unlike Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha. When Haripur was attacked from the surrounding villages in communal riots, the Satsang Sabha was pelted with stones and set on fire because of its location on the main road where it was fully exposed to such attacks. The Singh Sabha on the other hand was saved due to the limited access to it.
Then there was a small neighborhood gurdwara without any specific name. Along with some other youth I used to visit there for a weekly class of the Sikh music. It is also there that I learnt Gurmukhi and to read the Guru Granth Sahib. I will tell more about this in another chapter.
Haripur also had a Gurdwara exclusively for women. Although many women also attended other gurdwaras, yet some of them would go only to this Gurdwara.. The underlying reason for going to the females’’ Gurdwara was the Pothohar cultural barrier that discouraged the exposure of women to male strangers.
This Gurdwara had a singular privilege of having two women clergy, Bhai Narain Ji and Bhai Dhanwanti. Until the time of partition of India, this Gurdwara, located in the North West Frontier Province, a few miles from Islamabad and Gurudwara Sri Panja Sahib, was a vibrant place of Sikh services, and above all managed only by Sikh woman granthis (caretakers).
Isatari Sat Sang Sabha, as the Gurdwara in Haripur was named, was where my mother, Ramkali Devi, paid daily visits to learn and practise Gurmat or Sikhee. When all efforts at conceiving failed, my mother turned in desperation to Bhen (Sister) Narain Ji and Bhen Dhanwanti Ji, the granthis at the Gurdwara. The woman granthis told my parents that, as an alternate to seeking their own child, they could seek to borrow a child from the family of Guru Nanak as a gift assigned to them for care and associated enjoyment. It was like an adoption proposal. The granthis told my parents that Guru Nanak had large family at his discretion to employ in his mission by gifting them to others but in fact to serve his purpose and mission on this earth.
On the surface the advice may sound a fairy tale but then it was quite a commonly held belief. My parents accepted the proposal which thrilled them with renewed hope. They decided to immediately proceed to follow the guidance of the granthis. This is how I came to be born in the historic town of Haripur in 1931.
Bhai Lakhami Das Khalsa High School
Government High School, Sanatan Dharam High School and Bhai Lakhami Das Khalsa High School were the three seats of youth education in Haripur.The Government High School was also known as Islamia High School and it was exclusively patronized by the Muslim population. Khalsa School was considered to be the best. Because of its high standard, Ayub Khan got himself transferred to this school.
The founding Headmaster Sardar Mohan Singh was a baptized Sikh scion from a Sehajdhari Sikh family. It was customary for Sehajdhari Sikhs and some Hindu families to dedicate their eldest son to the Guru as their homage. Thus the elder son was raised as the Khalsa Sikh in contrast to Sehajdhari Sikhs. The Sikh community had been feeling the pressing need for a Sikh High School for several years. However due to lack of funds they could not build one, till such time as the Sehajdhari Sikh businessman came along. Bhai Lakhmi Chand or Lakhmi Dass, I do not recall clearly, was a prominent businessman of the Hazara District. He lived in Abbottabad and was well known for his philanthropy.
When the Sikh school of Haripur was still a dream, Bhai Lakhmi Das won a contract to build railway tracks in the district. This construction project not only brought huge profit to Bhai Lakhmi Das but provided sizeable stockpiles of the left over material for the school building. Bhai started entertaining the plans for building the school when the dire need for such a Khalsa school in Haripur was brought to his attention. The proposal was followed by the Sikh prayers and continuous reading of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib to seek God’s blessing for the school project.
Bhai Lakshmi Dass not only built the school but also furnished it. He also partially funded its running. When time came to name the school the managing board proposed to call it Lakhmi Dass High School. As a devoted one Bhai Lakhmi Das vetoed the proposal and requested to name it as Khalsa High School. Finally the Board came up with a compromise. The school was named Lakhmi Das Khalsa High School which was a combination of both community and the builder of the school. This name was engraved on the Foundation Stone permanently erected on the School gate. It can still be seen with the date of the school inauguration. The stone will be a century old in the year 2013.The high school as I remember stood on the main road as a silhouetted and prominent building perhaps the most awesome building in the city at that time.
A large room was designated as Gurdwara. Half an hour before the classes started, everyone was required to come to school for a prayer. Sikh students including Sehajdhari Sikh students attended the Gurdwara. Occasionally, the Hindu students also came to the Gurdwara. The school Headmaster and other Sikh teachers would be also present. As such the students seldom missed the Gurdwara prayers or come late. Often I sang Hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib and one of the teacher said Ardas, the prayer.
Very few Hindu students said their prayer in the drawing room designated for this purpose. Since they had no statue; instead they just repeated verses from Geeta Scripture. Muslim students who were in majority lined up in front of the stairs entering the school veranda to sing an Urdu prayer praising God’s greatness. They perhaps would sing a poem of Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, the Muslims’ national poet. A couple of times I joined Hindu students in their prayer and a few times I was with my Muslim friends during their prayer period.
A few years ago when I visited the School in Haripur, I found the Gurdwara room converted into a Geography room, rest of the school structure was the same as I had left it in 1946.
A delegation of Sikh students comprising Manmohan Singh Kohli, Gurbachan Singh and myself went to Amritsar to attend the Annual Session of the All India Sikh Students Federation. There we made friends with the Akali leaders. This friendship was abiding in the sense that once Sikh leaders Giani Kartar Singh with Sardar Amar Singh Ambalvi came to visit us in Haripur.
Giani Kartar Singh was one time the President of the Akali Dal and another time President of the Shromani Gurdawra Parbadhak Committee, two paramount Sikh institutions. Amar Singh Ambalvi who was a founder member of the All India Sikh Students Federation later rose to the rank of its President. At that time he was the Advisor to the Sikh political Party— Akali Dal. The visit of these eminent Sikh leaders to Haripur ws a monumental token of recognition of the commendable and vital role of Haripur Sikhs in the Sikh national affairs.
Our Headmaster, Sardar Mohan Singh profusely decorated the school and waited to welcome the Panthic leaders. It so happened that by the time they arrived, the school had already closed for the day. However, MS Kohli and I waited and met the Sikh leaders in person. They were on their way to Abbottabad for an important meeting with the Sikh leaders.
The news that the Akali leaders were coming to Haripur spread quickly. Whosoever from Haripur met the guest Sikh leaders diligently discussed various issues that confronted the Sikh community both at the local and national level. There were indeed divergent and diverse shades of opinions and perceptions. But on the whole the debates and discussions were extremely stimulating and productive.
As the frontline interlocutors and hosts of the high profile Sikh leaders, MS Kohli and I became both subject of controversies and enthusiasm about enhanced participation in the politics at national level. Thereafter the Akali leadership seemed to be greatly focused on Haripur as an important hub of Sikh affairs and politics. Haripur gained so much prominence on the national level among the Sikhs that the Chief Minister and members of the cabinet as well as the Sikh minister in the cabinet, Sardar Ajit Singh Sarhadi visited this town to seek votes and solicit support.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2011, All