photo essay: sirhind, the lost atlantis of punjab

There was once a city called Atlantis, a Utopia which was both highly advanced and its people beautiful and wise. But then these very people became corrupted with their own might. Angered by this, the gods made the city disappear forever, never again to reappear.

Much like Plato’s fabled Atlantis, there was once a paradisaical Utopia nestled in the fertile Punjab plains in northern India. Strategically located halfway between Delhi and Lahore, it was wealthy and beautiful, decorated with some 360 mosques, gardens, tombs, caravansarais, and wells. It minted its own gold and copper coins, trade and industry flourished, and Sufi saints, artists and surgeons converged in its lanes, calling the city their home.

And like Atlantis, its wonders and fortunes disappeared overnight.

The story of Sirhind is the story of humankind. What could have been. And what ended up being. A story of a flourishing Mughal city lovingly nurtured by the emperors themselves, a sadist governor who believed religion justified all crimes amidst the Mughal-Sikh conflicts, the cries of two children buried alive for they refused to give up their faith, the blood-bathed revenge by Sikh warriors in retaliation, and the eventual demise of the city wherein its very bricks were used as ballast in a railway line.

The city, in retrospective, seems to have been meant to shape history. Aptly named Sirhind, for it means the ‘head’ [Sir] of ‘Hindustan’ [Hind], it served as an entry point into the northern Indian sub-continent. Crucial, destiny-changing battles were fought here. Decisions were made, whose aftermath reverberated for years to come.

Come along with me on a visual journey of Sirhind. Of its pinnacles of success, deep wounds, endless crumbling monuments and a people sans any hatred. For it learnt the hard way that Utopias are fragile, and there is peace in both, acknowledgement and forgiveness.

STORIES OF SADISM, SACRIFICE, AND SPIRITUALITY

One man’s cruelty not only murdered two children; it destroyed a city. Another man’s courage ensured revenge for both the father and the city’s people. Through all this, though, the once Utopian Sirhind died a harsh death. But its human spirit? Aah, that only became stronger.


Sirhind’s soul lies in its magnificent, yet poignant, Gurdwara Fatehgarh Sahib. It beats here. It cries here. And it also heals here. The 1843 edifice is dedicated to Sikhism’s last and 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh’s two sons who got caught in the middle of Mughal-Sikh conflicts in December 1704. Zorawar aged nine and Fateh aged seven were buried alive at the nearby Thanda Burj for their refusal to denounce their faith by Wazir Khan, Sirhind’s Mughal Governor.


What ensued was revenge. Blood-bathed revenge. Cheated and angry, the Sikhs gathered under the leadership of Sikh warrior Banda Singh Bahadur who took over Sirhind, destroyed it, and murdered Wazir Khan in 1710 in the battle of Chappar Chiri.

Every night, the Guru Granth Sahib [Sikhism’s holy book] in the Gurdwara is shifted to a nearby shrine amidst much pageantry and prayers. A beautiful ritual in which people of all religions partake to heal the wounds of the past.


These seemingly insignificant ruins were 300 years ago a palace, with fountains and gardens, called Jahaz Haveli. It belonged to the uber-wealthy merchant Diwan Todar Mal Ji, a minister in the court of Wazir Khan, Governor of Sirhind.

As if executing Guru Gobind Singh’s two sons was not enough, Wazir Khan set a condition that he would only release their bodies for cremation if the land required for the rituals be covered with gold coins placed vertically. No one dared go against the governor except for one man—Todar Mal, his very own Diwan—though Todar Mal well knew it would be the beginning of his own end.

He covered the ground with gold coins, had the bodies cremated as per Sikh rites, and then was forced to abandon Sirhind, bankrupt, into oblivion. These ruins are the only reminders of this incredible man’s wealth, generosity, and faith.


The sugarcane juice sellers. Father and son of another era, another journey, but same bond, same town. 28th August, 2022.



In tandem with Sirhind’s homage to its role in Sikh history, is its reverence for its Sufi heritage, albeit an orthodox one. Rauza Sharif, an architectural gem, houses the tombs of the 17th Century Naqshbandi Sufi saint Hazrat Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi and his descendants.


Hazrat Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi was not your usual secular Sufi saint. He was determined to realign Sufism to orthodox Islamic doctrine. Even if it meant going against the Mughal Emperor, in this case Akbar’s proposed syncretic religion Din-I-Ilahi, and later convincing his son Jahangir to retract Akbar’s ‘un-Islamic’ laws.

He lies with his two sons in a mausoleum commissioned by himself in 1616. He passed away in 1624.


Though all of Rauza Sharif is exquisitely crafted, one small mausoleum, and that too of a highly unlikely occupant, is its most stunning. It belongs to Shah Zaman, an exiled 19th Century Afghan king who lies buried in it with his wife. Blinded and ousted by his own brother, he took refuge under Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1810. When he passed away in 1845, it was his deep wish to be buried at Rauza Sharif.

FLASHBACK: PUNJAB’S SECOND SHINING STAR

After Lahore, Sirhind shone brightest in Punjab. It was a favourite with the Delhi Sultanate, Sher Shah Sur, and the Mughals who heaped effort and investment into its growth. Mosques, gardens, and sarais filled its streets in the company of a populace who were wise, talented, and smart.


One of Sirhind’s earliest mentions is in Hiuen Tsang, a 7th Century Chinese traveller’s writings. Its first tangible historical record, however, traces itself back to Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq [1351 – 88] who saw the potential of the site’s location. A prolific builder, the Sultan was quick to build a fort here [of which nothing remains] and a water channel from the Sutlej River [which still cuts through the town]. He knew that if there was water, good things would follow …


And good things did follow.

Sher Shah Sur [1540 – 45], the Afghan ruler who deposed Humayun, is best remembered for giving India the Rupaiya and first postal service. But one of his greatest contributions was the expansion of the Grand Trunk Road and lining it with sarais. In these rest-houses, weary travellers could stay the night for free, partake in congregational prayer, and have a meal. The combination, of a transport corridor and accommodation, ensured a thriving and lasting material and cultural exchange.

One of the finest of these sarais, Shambhu Sarai [named after the local village], with over 100 rooms set around a charbagh garden, stands fully intact 40 kilometres south-east of Sirhind.


No surprises then that Punjab’s largest surviving historical mosque [on the Indian side of Punjab] was built in Sirhind. But it is also one steeped most in mystery. Some historians assert Sadhna Qasai Mosque was built by Mughal Emperor Humayun to celebrate his reclamation of his empire in 1555 by clinching the final battle fought in Sirhind. Others believe it was built in honour of a 12th Century Sufi saint and poet called Sadhna Qasai who had made Sirhind his home.

Perhaps both are true. Perhaps neither.


There was no looking back for Sirhind for the next hundred years under Mughal Emperors Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan’s rules [from 1556 to 1658]. The city flourished and became one of the wealthiest in Punjab under their patronage partly because of its strategic location, right in the middle between Delhi and Lahore. The royal entourages needed a mid-point to rest, and Sirhind was the perfect fit.

Each one of them, through their governors in Sirhind, contributed, in particular, to the building of the Aam Khas Bagh, which was in essence a royal highway inn.

Originally named Bagh-i Hafiz Rakhna [after its architect], palaces were built, Mughal gardens laid, and an oasis created within its walls. Structures included: Jahangir’s Sard Khana, Hammam, and water tank and Shah Jahan’s Daulat Khana-i Khas, Sheesh Mahal, Naughara, and Mehtabi Chabutra. Fountains and a water-well completed the still surviving ensemble.


Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s Sard Khana in Aam Khas Bagh was an air-conditioning extravaganza. It was embellished with water features to keep the palace cool through covered water channels crisscrossing the rooms and opening into pools.

But all this grandeur could not survive the sadism of Sirhind’s Governor Wazir Khan, who brought the city’s fortunes down in a flash. After 1710, like the rest of Sirhind, Aam Khas Bagh was vandalized by the retaliating Sikhs and left to crumble to dust.



But what did survive, unscathed, was … food.

One of Punjab’s most famed dishes, the Amritsari Kulcha, has its origins in Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s kitchen in Delhi and was the invention of his royal chef. It soon spread throughout Punjab and Sirhind’s dhabas [small eateries] still dish out lip-smacking versions of the stuffed flatbread. Top: Kitchen in one such dhaba. Above: The Amritsari Kulcha with condiments and a glass of lassi [a cold drink made with yoghurt or buttermilk].

CIRCA 2022: GREEN CHADARS AND GREEN FIELDS

Sirhind’s lush green fields are today dotted with the ruins of crumbling tombs. Inside them lie graves covered in green chadars; faithfully laid out as a mark of respect by the local Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. In these sacred ruins, it is not ‘me’ versus ‘you’. But ‘us’ and ‘those that have left’.


Powder-blue tombs set against powder-blue skies in the tomb complex of Hazrat Masoom Naqshbandi Sirhindi. Roshanara, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s younger daughter was a disciple of the Sufi saint and commissioned the main tomb and mosque in 1668.


Sirhind’s agricultural fields are scattered with tombs of saints, nobles, and princesses. As well as horses and elephants who died in the battlefield, or so local beliefs would say. The two Unknown Tombs in Talanian village, facing each other across a path, have no historical records whatsoever. Yet, inside the red Sirhindi brick structures are graves, one 6-feet-high [the purported elephant], and others covered in green chadars.


The Tomb of Bibi Taj is an enigma typical of ruins. Architecturally, it is 15th Century Lodi-era in style. Legends claim a 7th Century lady, Bibi Taj, the Caliph Ali’s niece is interred here. What is a surety is that it is made of local bricks and contains multiple gravestones, both inside and outside the tomb.


In contrast, much is known about the Tomb of Bibi Subhan, thanks to an inscription on its eastern facade. And what is not known, an interesting story fills in with. The year was 1451. Sultan Bahlol Lodi, founder of the Lodi dynasty, was marching towards Delhi to annex it. On the way, he met a Sufi saint called Mir Miran who blessed him with victory in the upcoming battle. Upon successfully capturing Delhi, the Sultan, overwhelmed with gratitude, married off his daughter to the saint and gave Sirhind as part of their wedding gift.

The village where the tomb stands is named after the saint; it’s called Dera Mir Miran, and the tomb contains the Sultan’s daughter, Bibi Subhan, who passed away in 1495.


One of Sirhind’s most evocative monuments is a 17th Century tomb said to belong to Khwaja Khan. It is poetically called the Tomb of the Shagird [Disciple]. Now who exactly was Khwaja Khan no one knows, but he must have been important enough to warrant such a majestic tomb. Locals profess he was the Shagird or student of the Ustad [master] interred nearby.


Ever been inside a double-dome? Yes, the large cavern, lined with bricks, can be accessed and was often used in the past like an attic of sorts. This is what the Tomb of the Shagird’s double-dome looks like from the inside.



Detailed frescoes and cupolas on each corner of the roof in the Tomb of the Shagird echo of past grandeur. The roof also makes for a perfect viewpoint of the Ustad’s tomb, which is never out of sight.


Where there is a student there will be a teacher. 🙂 The Tomb of the Ustad dates back a hundred years before his Shagird’s and belongs to Syed Khan Pathan, Governor of Punjab during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s rule, in the 16th Century.


Believed to be the second double-dome structure ever built in India, the Ustad’s tomb soars high above a pedestal. 9-metre high ivans on all four sides lead into a square chamber in which four graves rest in peace. Two of these belong to Pathan and his son.


At one time surrounded by charbagh Mughal gardens, both Syed Khan Pathan’s tomb, along with his disciple’s, now stand deep inside Talanian village, accessed only by paths cutting through lush agricultural fields.

– – –

Epilogue: Sirhind. It is not just a place. But an emotion. A universal truth. Where present day farms and reconciliation, and yesterday’s monuments and wounds stand side by side. Punjab’s very own Atlantis.

– – –

Acknowledgements:

I explored Sirhind on an overnight trip from Delhi with Sair E Hind led by Syed Yusuf Shahab, Mohsin Akhtar, and Ishtiyaque Ahmad. They specialize in heritage walks and tours to off-the-beaten-path historical sites in India.

My deep-felt gratitude to Syed Yusuf Shahab for sharing, so very generously, his deep love and understanding of Sirhind with us on the tour. And a special shout-out to Mohsin Akhtar for giving me a hand as I clambered through ruins and agricultural-trenches, and deep into the Tomb of Shagird’s double-dome. I could never have done it without you!

References:

A Monumental Example of Oblivion: Sirhind by Syed Yusuf Shahab.

8 thoughts on “photo essay: sirhind, the lost atlantis of punjab

  1. Very Interesting blog. I have never heard of Sir Hind. To be honest, we don’t read or hear much about the built heritage of Punjab and Haryana. Haryana has a lot but sadly, all are in disrepair and bad shape. Thanks for sharing this here, Rama

    Liked by 1 person

    • Am glad you enjoyed the read, Arvind. Sad, but true, both Punjab and Haryana’s rich built heritage has been sidelined by time. Sirhind, especially, deserves so much better. I am so glad I got to experience this little gem surrounded by green fields first-hand. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed, you are lucky. Let’s hope this region gets the attention it deserves. We need to look beyond what is already a thriving tourist attraction. Most of my walking tours work on the same concept. While everyone visits the palaces and forts, it is the people who were key in the evolution of the city. The by lanes of Jaipur are full of stories that even the local residents have forgotten. The current owners have no clue about influential people who once owned the mansion. I try to bring forth what is not part of the formal history. There is a lot that needs to be done when it cmes to the heritage in our country.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.