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This Village Near Lahore Serves as a Reminder of Sikhism’s Diverse Past

August 10, 2023

Dera Chahal, a settlement that takes its name from a mediaeval gurdwara that stands in the centre of the community, is encroaching on all sides.

The settlement was originally far from the busy Lahore metropolis and is now situated on the Bedian Road, which once connected Lahore with Amritsar.

However, as a result of the Defence Housing Authority’s expansion into the region, Dera Chahal and other adjacent villages, some of which have been inhabited for hundreds of years, have seen their agricultural grounds encroached upon by the city.

When Gulab Singh, a Pakistani Sikh working with the traffic police, filed a case against Asif Hashmi, chairman of the Evacuee Trust Property Board, accusing him of illegally selling gurdwara land to developers in 2011, the area’s subsequent development thrust this particular gurdwara into the spotlight.

The board, a government agency founded in the 1960s, is in charge of maintaining non-Muslim property that was left unattended after Partition. Hashmi was declared guilty by the Pakistani Supreme Court in January.

One of the most significant Sikh temples in Pakistan is this gurdwara. It is located where Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, used to live with his mother. His older sister Bebe Nanki is thought to have been born here. The gurdwara is also known as Gurdwara Bebe Nanki because of this.

The gurdwara’s white dome rises from the centre of the community and can be seen from a distance. It was left unoccupied in 1947 and, like several other buildings, deteriorated.

Meraj Khalid, the interim prime minister, ordered its renovation in the middle of the 1990s. The gurdwara was subsequently made accessible to Sikh pilgrims, many of whom travel from India to take part in various religious events.

The story of Meherban

According to one historical narrative, Guru Nanak was actually born at Dera Chahal rather than Talwindi (the location of today’s Nankana Sahib). This is stated in Meherban’s Janamsakhis, which are the birth narratives of Nanak.

Meherban was the eldest son and successor of Prithi Chand, the fourth Sikh guru and the son of Guru Ram Das. Traditional Sikh traditions refer to Prithi Chand and his supporters as “mina” or dishonest because he attempted to usurp the guru’s spiritual authority from his younger brother, whom Guru Ram Das had chosen as his successor.

Later on, this brother took the name Guru Arjan Dev.

The selection of Prithi Chand’s younger brother was disputed. He even attempted to murder Hargobind, the sixth guru and son of Guru Arjan Dev, according to several tales.

Some of these legends also attribute Guru Arjan Dev’s execution by Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1606 to Prithi Chand’s complicity.

While Guru Arjan Dev was alive and even after, the Minas posed a significant threat to the authority of the Sikh gurus. Prithi Chand relocated to Hair, a small town near Dera Chahal, after being deported from Ramdaspur (Amritsar).

He built a shrine there to challenge the authority of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple). Outside the settlement, which is also on the Bedian Road, are still visible remnants of the shrine.

Following Prithi Chand’s passing, his son Meherban took over as leader of the movement.

Meherban’s creation of the Janamsakhi of Guru Nanak, which tells the guru’s biography via stories of his miracles, is one of his most significant accomplishments. Both Prithi Chand and Meherban strove to appropriate the legacy of Guru Nanak, and the former Sikh gurus were to play a significant role in their endeavours.

Meherban, however, did not just write for the first Sikh guru. He also published a commentary on Hindu deities like Ram and a hagiography of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). These early writings from the Sikh culture as a whole reflect some of its syncretism.

The first sacred book of Sikh scriptures, the Adi Granth, is said to have been started by Guru Arjan Dev in response to Meherban’s writings because Meherban was attempting to claim the legacy of Guru Nanak for himself, according to traditional Sikh authorities.

According to a document from the 19th century, the Minas took control of Ramdaspur and maintained their power over the city even after Harji, the son of Meherban, passed away.

The tenth and final guru, Guru Gobind Singh, ordered the Mina movement to leave Ramdaspur at this point because it had lost its momentum. The Mina movement then broke up into other factions until its adherents were eventually assimilated into the larger Sikh community near the end of the 19th century.

Diverse Sikh religious movements

According to traditional Sikh literature, Prithi Chand and the followers of Guru Arjan Dev had a hostile relationship, yet there are several other sources that refute this assertion.

For instance, one of these stories describes how Guru Hargobind met Meherban to offer his condolences on the passing of Prithi Chand after the latter had been released from the Gwalior Prison, where he had been held by Emperor Jahangir. Afterwards, the two went inside the Harmandir Sahib together.

Another widely accepted theory holds that under the Minas’ rule over the Harmandir Sahib, leader Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh leader, was barred from entering. According to legend, the guru waited it out in the location of Gurdwara Thara Sahib, which is presently close to the Harmandir Sahib.

However, a different tradition refutes this claim. It claims that Guru Tegh Bahadur chose to sit at Thara Sahib of his own free will in order to be welcomed by Harji and his son rather than being barred from the shrine.

The Minas were one of the five rebellious groups that the Khalsa were forbidden to interact with when Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa in 1699; Sikh academics referred to them as Panj Mel. However, historical evidence suggests that activists were a significant political force under Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s (1780–1839) court.

Long into the 19th century, these different eclectic religious movements were still a part of the larger Sikh community.

Thus, despite the Khalsa’s formalisation of the Sikh community to some extent, a number of separate groupings remained a part of the larger Sikh fold.

For instance, Sindh is still home to thousands of Nanak-Panthi Hindus. The devotees of Sahib Singh Bedi, a Guru Nanak ancestor who applied a tilak to Ranjit Singh’s forehead during his coronation, are another illustration of these various cultures.

The village of Bedian, which is near to Dera Chahal, got its name from Bedi’s descendants who migrated there.

With the start of the Singh Sabha Movement, which was akin to the Hindu reform movement Arya Samaj and the Islamic revivalist movements of the early colonial period in Punjab, the Sikh community began to become more homogeneous. The Singh Sabha Movement advocated for Sikhism’s purification.

While certain Hindu traditions were abandoned, history was hijacked to portray a state of constant warfare between the Sikh gurus and Muslim monarchs.

There was a need to assert a unique identity during those times of strong communal identification supported by the colonial power.

Thus, in the years that followed, a unified Sikh identity was used to unify a number of disparate Sikh movements. The villages of Hair and Bedian, as well as Gurdwara Dera Chahal, act as a distant reminder of this rich history that is now all but gone.

Read More: India Warns Sikh Pilgrims Against Accepting Pakistani Hospitality

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