Steeped in history

Published : Jun 30, 2006 00:00 IST

Punjab's border villages abound in historical monuments which cry out forconservation.

KALANAUR is a village close to the Pakistan border in Punjab's Gurdaspur district. It was here that 12-year-old Akbar was crowned emperor on February 14, 1556. In those days, Kalanaur was a flourishing city. But today it is only a sad reflection of its former glory.

Presenting a sorry picture is the Takht-e-Akbari, the throne built hastily for the coronation upon the sudden death of Akbar's father, Humayun. It now stands behind a rusting tin fence. A mosque built to commemorate Akbar's tajposhi (coronation) now has a timber stall, with cows tethered near by. Its rotting doors and crumbling masonry predict that it will collapse soon. The decline of the 450-year-old mosque with its four minarets and three domes began just 50 years ago. A picture in contrast is the well-maintained and renovated Siva temple near by, also built to celebrate Akbar's coronation.

Some of Kalanaur's old havelis are like nearby Lahore's. It also had stately gardens and palaces. Today even their ruins are non-existent. The Anarkali Bazaar here was a popular destination and business was so good in those days that traders visiting Amritsar and Lahore had to visit Kalanaur too.

Punjab's nearly 300-kilometre-long border with Pakistan extends from Pathankot to Fazilka. Most of it is along two rivers flowing east to west - the Ravi in the north and the Satluj in the south. For about 70 km, from Lopoke to Atari to Khem Karan, there is no river gracing the land; hence both countries have dug canals to meet their water requirements.

Despite the hostilities, the armies and paramilitary forces on either side, the intense patrolling, and the lights and the fencing, people do get across. There are gaps in the fencing wherever the rivers become the border, and at some places where the fencing is broken.

On the Indian side one finds that fields are cultivated up to approximately a kilometre beyond the border fencing. Pakistani and Indian farmers tend their fields side by side, speaking the same language, sometimes slyly exchanging more than just gossip - like where the next consignment of heroin or currency is to be buried. The electrified and well-lit fence with concertina wires in between does not pose an obstacle for people determined to do smuggling. Indian liquor, amongst other goods, moves to the other side, despite the Border Security Force (BSF) manning the gates. Seizures of heroin have increased, suggesting that vast quantities are coming from the other side.

The people who live here have experienced upheavals and have adjusted admirably. Before Partition, many big landowners of East Punjab had their lands in West Punjab, which was better irrigated. The real Punjab - the land of the five rivers - is now in Pakistan. Several canal systems built after Partition made India's Punjab the fertile place it is now.

Dera Baba Nanak, the massive and glossy white gurdwara where Guru Nanak spent 12 years, is further down the Ravi river. Its development has been slow as people were reluctant to spend money on its renovation because of the threat of war. The narrow alleys that lead to it are hemmed in by the walls of houses that are surprisingly spacious. Each house has a narrow entrance, since they were designed as fortifications. The houses have intricate woodwork on their trellises and ornate balconies.

The bus services to Narowal in Pakistan have broken the psychological block to investing in Amritsar. This town looks much the same as it was before Partition when there was a railway bridge across the Ravi connecting it to its twin town Narowal. The bridge was dismantled owing to the mutual fear and suspicion existing between the neighbouring countries. Today to reach Narowal, the devout have to travel 300 km instead of 15 km when the bridge was there.

In December and January, the border is shrouded in mist from evening to the next morning and sometimes for days on end. But even in January's perpetual fog, there is colour - from the yellow of the oranges and kinoos that are abundant from Jalalabad to Fazilka to the bright green of the young wheat stalks. Early March is the loveliest time when there is colour in the fields and in the orchards. The yellow of the mustard fields is interspersed with the pink and white of the peach and pear trees. In April, the burning red of gulmohars, the purple of jacarandas and the flashing yellow of laburnums herald the beginning of the harsh summer. Two very hot and sterile months follow. With the monsoon setting in June, farmers prepare to transplant paddy. By August, Punjab is all green. By the end of September, when harvesting starts, it is golden. In many parts, water levels get so high that it becomes a problem. And while the Satluj waters Pakistan, the barrages at Ropar, Harike and Hussainiwala keep Punjab a State with water surplus.

Border towns like Ajnala, Gurdaspur, Khalra, Jalalabad and Fazilka are crowded with crumbling old havelis and alleys that still retain the pre-Partition mix of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim architectural styles. Some of these are crumbling but determinedly inhabited. Outside each border town the BSF and the Army have their housing complexes. In Ferozepur cantonment, the Indian Army has preserved many colonial buildings.

At Pul Kunjrian near Dhanoi Kalan village, close to the Atari-Wagah border, is a square pond near the site of a weekly market that used to be held before 1947. Two platforms were built to its north and south about 200 years ago. While one platform was a stage for girls to dance on, the other was for the privileged to watch from. To the east is a domed room with latticed windows where the women sat. This room has fading frescoes from that time depicting amorous scenes from Krishna's life. Kunjri means prostitute. According to legend, a dancing girl was crossing the drain here when her slipper fell into it. She asked a courtier of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to build a culvert, which he did and which is still there.

The Atari-Wagah border is the scene of Beating the Retreat. It was originally meant to indicate a cessation of hostilities between the two nations. However, tension runs high as the ceremonial lowering of flags takes place at dusk, watched by emotional crowds on either side. It is a daily spectacle of crude jingoism sponsored and incited by the BSF, who give the spectators flags to wave.

Two monuments here commemorating Partition are mocked daily by a few youth, driven by communal propaganda. One is a black marble tripod-like structure erected by the peace-promoting members of the Folklore Research Academy of Amritsar and the other is a white marble tablet bearing moving quotes from Amrita Pritam's "Waris Shah" on one side and from Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the other.

About a kilometre away is the once-again busy Atari railway station, which connects India with Pakistan. Pir Heere Shah Ka Dargah, a shrine here, has a pandit and a maulvi in attendance.

About 15 km from the railway station is the village of Rajatal established by Raja Todar Mall of Akbar's court, where a domed structure of that period is struggling to resist the onslaught of age and abuse. Near by and close to the BSF post is another shrine for communal harmony, called Lakhdatar Shahanshah, which is revered by all communities. There are many such spots on both sides of the border.

Rancour towards Pakistan is not noticeable amongst those living close to the border. Hate is flaunted more by those who did not suffer Partition.

About 20 km down the road and running parallel to the border at Chhabal, beyond Atari, is Serai Amanat Khan, built during the Mughal period. (Serai, meaning an inn, has vast squares enclosing hundreds of rooms.) Only its huge arched gates and a mosque, which was restored recently, remain. The gates, with the mosaic falling off rapidly, are in ruins but the inside is a surprise. There is a 150-year-old bustling Punjabi village, with twine manjhis (cots) put outside most homes for people to rest on. Near the ancient well is a haveli with coloured glass windows. Above its arched and embellished entrance are late 19th century paintings recording different stages of the British presence in the subcontinent. One shows a clock tower, another depicts an Englishman in a top hat, and another a steam locomotive. The sets of the movie Pinjar were based on this house. This Mughal serai, one of the four such remaining in Punjab, is the last before Lahore.

It was Sher Shah Suri (1472 - 1545) who first linked Painam near Dhaka, now in Bangladesh, with Peshawar, which was in Afghanistan until Maharajah Ranjit Singh annexed it, by stitching together several existing roads. The entire road was finished during Akbar's reign; kos (1 kos is roughly 3 km) minars were built to show the way and after every 20 kos or so, a serai was built. These austere fort-like structures had the same pattern. Two elegant and mammoth gates - the one pointing north was called Lahori Darwaza and the one facing south was called Delhi Darwaza - enclosed within fort-like walls a large square of about 10 acres (4 hectares). The compound inside was divided into four equal quadrangles. A part of one of these had a small, plain but handsome mosque and a well. Cubicles with verandahs for travellers to stay in were built along the walls. Even in these utilitarian serais the Mughal rulers could not resist adding vast mosaic flourishes to the gates. Similar serais are in Jehangir Pind in Kapurthala district and Noormahal in Nakodar, whose impressively decorated gates were designed by Noor Jahan.

From Chhabal, a road goes south to Asal Uttar, the scene of Havaldar Abdul Hameed's valiant last stand against a brace of Pakistani Patton tanks and then Khem Karan, which was for a while in 1965 occupied by Pakistan. Apart from Hameed's tastefully made memorial within a well-kept garden, there are a couple of others to the Madras Regiment along the way. The many memorial tablets here make it impossible to forget that this peaceful vista of endless irrigated green was a killing field once. Soldiers from the Madras Regiment faced the first attack in October 1965. Khem Karan is a small old town with narrow alleys and a modern railway station.

Over the Harike barrage, which holds in check the waters of the Beas and the Satluj, is Ferozepur. On the other side of the Satluj is Hussainiwala, on the border. Across the river is the elegant memorial to Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, who were cremated quietly at this spot after they were hanged on March 23, 1931. In the right-hand corner of the memorial park is an arched tunnel-gate with shell and bullet holes dating back to the 1965 conflict . The railway line to Pakistan passed through this gate until 1965 but now, the line stops short of the left bank of the Satluj barrage. The only sign that a railway ever passed through here is the massive platforms striding across the Satluj that once supported a bridge.

At Hussainiwala, people watch a relatively simple Beating the Retreat ceremony, which is a class apart from the tension and vulgar shouting at the Wagah border. Even the soldiers are informal with each other. People of this region, known as Malwa, are demanding that this route be reopened for trade. Lahore via Kasur is 90 km from here.

Sadki near Fazilka is another place where Beating the Retreat is held. Unlike the crowds from all over India at Wagah, the few spectators here come from the towns and villages on either side of the border. Only a flimsy split bamboo fence `defends' the border.

For the few aged persons in the crowds, this border is still unreal. There were no anti-tank ditches or so many fertile fields when they were young. The road that now stops at the Sadki border had once gone on to Sahniwal and Multan. Harappa of the Indus civilisation fame is just about 100 km from here. All the places on either side of the border were one for them, and no matter how realistic they are, they cannot forget those times.

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