Forbidden Fruit – My visit to Lehenda Punjab: Part One by Sonia Dhami

The opening of Kartarpur Corridor this past November was like a dream come true for many Indian-origin Sikhs residing in the US. Initiated by governments from both India and Pakistan, the peace corridor leads to  Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan, the birthplace of Guru Nankana Sahib.

Sonia Dhami

Sonia Dhami, executive director at The Sikh Foundation International, recently led a team from the US to Pakistan to experience and seek blessing of Nankana Sahib in Katarpur, and on her  way she experienced the rich blend of history, art, culture and people that she believes has not just deepened the relationship between India and Pakistan but exudes the feeling of no difference between the two countries.

 Indica will be sharing her visits to Pakistan in three parts, in her own voice, in coming weeks starting January 2020 every Friday.

By Sonia Dhami

Pakistan is not your usual tourist destination.

For me, it was unthinkable to ever visit Pakistan. Growing up in India, the daughter of a soldier and married to one, I thought of Pakistan as always the “dushman”(enemy). The narrative which scores like me grew up on invariably “othered” the people across the border.

I am American now. It is fascinating how this technicality has changed the way I perceive Pakistan and how Pakistan perceives me.

This year marks the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak. This milestone has caused a flurry of activity on many levels, including the Pakistan government welcoming the Sikh diaspora and the much-awaited opening of the “Kartarpur Corridor” to enable Sikhs from India to visit Baba Nanak’s shrine.

British colonial rule of India ended in 1947. Their parting gift of freedom was the brutal division of Punjab – Charda, or East Punjab, in India and Lehanda, or West Punjab, in Pakistan. Enmity between the two new nations restricted cross-border access to its citizens, leaving us bleeding for generations.

For Sikhs, it meant losing access to some of the holiest shrines and historical sites, including the places of birth and death of our first Guru, Baba Nanak, and the martyrdom site of the 5th Guru, Arjan Dev, as well as sites associated with the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

My meeting with filmmaker and author Amardeep Singh, who has travelled extensively in Pakistan documenting Sikh heritage, led to an introduction to Jahandad Khan, founder of the Indus Heritage Club – a pioneer in heritage tourism in Pakistan. Soon we signed up a group of nineteen eager brave hearts to travel to Pakistan for a Sikh heritage tour.

I say “ brave hearts” because at this time, India and Pakistan were again in the grip of hyper-nationalism, as happens from time to time. Amid fears of war breaking out between the two nuclear neighbors, it took a bit of courage and a lot of passion to commit to travel to Pakistan, a country making news for mostly the wrong reasons.

Baradari at Sherawala Bagh gujranwala. Photo by Amrinder Singh


We landed in Lahore filled with trepidation, unsure of how the next two weeks would pan out. Breezing through security, and seeing our tour host Jahandad Khan at the airport, put us at relative ease. The sights and sounds around us too started to feel familiar to me, having lived in India for most of my life.

Arriving at the hotel in the early hours of the morning, we were further comforted by the familiarity of the faces, language and food. Already a comforting feeling of home was starting to grow.

We soon headed out to dinner at the famed Food Street near the Lahore Fort. Seated on the rooftop of a restaurant, we witnessed the spectacular view of the illuminated Badshahi Mosque, and adjacent to it the samadh (mausoleum) of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was spellbinding.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh Samadh. Photo by Amrinder Singh

For me, there could have been no better introduction to the legendary city of Lahore. This powerful visual, a memorial to the first indigenous ruler of Punjab since medieval times, evoked a pride in the tangible memory of our ancestors and a sense of gratitude to its custodians.

The Shahi Qilla (Lahore Fort) was the imperial seat for rulers of Punjab. It has been witness to many royal births and deaths, murder and deceit, loyalty and deception. Significant additions to the architecture of the Qilla were made by succeeding ruling dynasties.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, during his reign added the impressive marble baradari in the Hazuri Bagh outside the fort for receiving guests. He also built a small gurudwara inside the fort as well as the Athdwara where he presided over his court.

The walls of the Sheesh Mahal were elaborately decorated with colorful frescoes including Ras Leela and other vibrant scenes from Hindu mythology, all pointing to the syncretic community of the past. The compound also houses the hamam (bath house) of Kunwar Nau Nihal Singh, the grandson of Ranjit Singh. His successor Kharak Singh’s haveli was added subsequently.

Anjum Dhara, curator of the Lahore Fort museum, was kind enough to personally show me around the fort. The famed Bamba Collection of paintings and the Sikh Armory are housed in the Mai Jindan’s haveli, the residence of the feisty queen of Ranjit Singh, built during her regency in 1843-1846.

Baradari of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Photo by Sonia Dhami

The magnificent 1850s paintings by Hungarian artist August Schoefft bring to life the most prominent personalities of the Sikh raj. Princess Bamba, the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last sovereign of the Lahore Darbar, brought the paintings to Lahore from England.

Maharaja Sher Singh oil on canvas by August Schoefft Photo by Sonia Dhami

While this collection has the potential to be a crowd puller, the poor condition of the paintings was alarming. The uncontrolled environment with its heat, humidity and light has greatly damaged the artwork. The paint is chipping and cracking in many places, and, to my horror, has fallen off in places. Some paintings, still in original wood and gilt frames, have layers of dust and grime on them. If something is not done immediately, these national treasures will be lost forever.

As I stepped out of the gallery, elated to have seen these spectacular paintings but worried for their future, I heard a loud “wah”(wow). Looking around I saw a group of elderly men admiring a recent sculpture of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Indeed, this Qilla is not stuck in time as additions continue to be made.

Kunwar Nau Nihal Singh Haveli Lahore. Photo by Sonia Dhami

Lahore is also home to numerous havelis (traditional mansions) from the Sikh period. Most notable is the haveli of Nau Nihal Singh, the grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.  Today this lavishly decorated haveli, with its rich frescoes and woodwork, houses a school. I hope these young students are aware of the historical significance of this building and will grow up with a “junoon” to protect and cherish their heritage.

A brief meeting with the governor of Punjab, Mohamad Sarwar, was an opportunity to present him my book “Sikh Art from the Kapany Collection,” which documents the wide range of Sikh artistic expressions, through the famed Kapany collection of Sikh art. I also got to see the Governor House, an impressive colonial mansion that had hosted the British royal couple in 1911.

Fakirkhana Museum in old Lahore is a veritable institution proudly run by Fakir Saifuddin, whose ancestors “the Fakir brothers” served as ministers of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Fakir Saifuddin graciously hosted our group for an afternoon, sharing with us anecdotes of the Maharaja and showing us his collection of miniature paintings and personal items of the Maharaja including his robe and jade crockery.

Bhai Ram Singh, the renowned architect of the Khalsa College Amritsar, Durbar Hall in Osborne House (summer palace of Queen Victoria), Governor House in Simla and many others, also designed the famous Lahore Museum building in 1894.

Numerous Sikh artifacts of the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, including coins, paintings, lithographs, manuscripts, textiles, furniture, arms and armaments, are displayed prominently in the museum.

Pakistan has been home to multiple religious traditions including the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist. This is the land where the Rig Ved, one of the sacred texts of Hindus, was composed in 1500-1100 BC.

The communal mix of society in Pakistan has changed drastically over the past century. In 1947, minorities made up 23 percent of the population, which is down to 3 percent today. Those who fled the land left behind an important part of their material heritage – their monuments and buildings.

Hari Singh Nalwa Haveli:Photo by Amrinder Singh

A spectacular drive through the Salt Range mountains led us to the sacred Hindu site of Katas Raj, which houses a complex of Shiv temples and the haveli of the legendary Sikh general Hari Singh Nalwa. Here again, we are brought face to face with the deeply entwined strands of culture – here of Hindus and Sikhs.

North of Islamabad is the Dharamrajika Stupa in Taxila, which is today a silent witness to the Buddhist culture that flourished in the region until the 7th century.

The Taxila museum houses magnificent Gandhara sculptures and artifacts including some from the Greco-Roman period of Alexander of Macedonia in 327 BC. Later during the reign of Emperor Ashok (268-232 BC), Buddha’s relics were also brought here and can be seen in the museum.

Katas Raj Temple Complex: Photo by Amrinder Singh

The Grand Trunk Road, formerly known as Uttarapath, Sadak-e-Azam, Badshahi Sadak, is one of Asia’s oldest and longest major roads. For at least 2,500 years, it has linked the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia. It runs roughly 1,500 miles from Chittagong, Bangladesh, to Kabul, Afghanistan.

A small stretch of the centuries old pathway is preserved near Islamabad. Paved with stones and boulders, it is our direct connection to the feet that walked this path, bringing peace or war.

We drove through Punjab’s major towns and cities. including Rawalpindi and Gujranwala, spotting buildings along the roadside still displaying the Sikh Khanda symbol or the Hindu Om, a reminder of its owners at a different time in history, not so long ago.

While most abandoned urban, domestic or commercial properties of the minority communities urban, have been appropriated either by migrants from India or locals, many of the heritage sites are still under the care of the Evacuee Trust Property Board, a government body created to care for properties left behind by minority communities that fled during the partition. The gurudwaras in particular are today under the care of the Pakistan Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee, created in 1999.

Buddha sculture at Taxila Museum. Photo by Sonia Dhami

So far many of Pakistan’s heritage sites have survived mainly because of benign neglect. Now, as these sites start getting the world’s attention, they are in danger of being overrun and mismanaged. Heritage needs careful restoration and loving conservation, not fast-paced renovations and modernization.

Organizations like the Aga Khan Cultural Foundation and the Walled City of Lahore Authority have demonstrated the expertise and understanding of heritage conservation. The restoration of the picture wall of the Lahore Fort and the Wazir Khan mosque are good examples

Our heritage monuments and buildings are a testimony to our shared culture and give us a glimpse into our history. Preserving heritage is the best way to make history truly come alive. The mistakes made in Charda Punjab, hopefully will not be repeated here.

Old Grand Trunk Road near Islamabad. Photo by AK Sandhu




To be continued in Part Two

The spectacular photographs and videos taken by Amrinder Singh and A.K. Sandhu enhance this reflection.


[Photo courtesy:Title group photo at Wazir Khan Mosque by Jahandad Khan]