Harking back: The ‘magical baolis’ of Arjan and Dina Nath

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Feb 01, 2015

Description: In this representative photo, an Indian youth jumps into the water at the Gandak ki Baoli, 'a well with steps' which was constructed during the rule of Emperor Iltutmish, in New Delhi. — AFP/File

Within the last 75 years the one feature of old Lahore that has completely disappeared has been its ‘baoli’ culture. This life-sustaining feature gave rise to a lot of myths, the most enduring being that ‘baolis’ on the northern side parallel to the Ravi were magical. Imagine.

Most Lahoris today would not even know what a ‘baoli’ is. But that is understandable given that they are no longer used. A ‘baoli’ is a well that produces clean drinking water. Last Sunday during a visit to the ‘haveli’ of Mubarak Begum it was a delight to see one within the house, which is what a lot of houses had in days of old.

My late father often mentioned their ‘baoli’ in Kucha Chabakswaran. So this triggered off an effort to research the myth of Lahore’s ‘magical baolis’.

The use of the ‘baoli’ took its first hit when the British built the first water reservoir (Paniwala Talab) at Choona Mandi on Lungi Mandi Bazaar, leading to the portion in front of the reservoir being renamed Paniwala Talab Bazaar. The water for the reservoir was pumped from a huge water pumping station where today is the Wasa office on the north-eastern front of the Lahore Fort.

Even today the remains of the original 1880 steam-powered water pumps, massive that they are, lie decaying. They are rare pumps which only two museums in England have, for they were made in Yorkshire.

We had pleaded that the University of Engineering should restore them and convert the place into a small museum. Nothing moved and we are not surprised.

If you enter the once walled city of Lahore from Delhi Gate, you go along the main bazaar till you reach the exquisite mosque of Wazir Khan. On the northern side of the courtyard outside the mosque is the dilapidated ‘baoli’ of Dina Nath. Diwan Dina nath was a Kashmiri pandit who rose to become the finance minister of the Lahore Darbar. He died in 1857 and was cremated in a garden he built at Kot Khawaja Saeed which is even today called Rajahwalla Bagh just to the west of the Samadhi of Maharajah Sher Singh.

This ‘baoli’ built near his ‘haveli’ on the eastern side of the Wazir Khan Mosque was known for its sweet water, and the hakeems of Lahore used this water to mix in their medicines. Which is why many thought it had some magical quality. But the most famous of the ‘magical’ baolis of Lahore was the Baoli of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth of the 11 Sikh gurus and the first Sikh martyr. This ‘baoli’ was dug in 1599 by the guru himself. The story about this ‘baoli’ is interesting.

Guru Arjan whenever in Lahore liked to stay at a ‘haveli’ located just south of Dabbi Bazaar and north of Kasaira Bazaar where the tip of Kashmiri Bazaar splits into two at the western edge.

It is best approached from the western side opposite Suha Bazaar. The story was that a friend of the guru, Bhai Chujju Bhagat, a money lender, came to the guru and told him that a Pathan had deposited a large sum of money and he had not written it in his ledger. When the Pathan asked for his money he refused to pay as he did not remember and it was not written in his books. They went to court and the court ruled against the Pathan, who left in anger saying “I leave it to the court of the Almighty”.

After some time when he was cleaning his office he found the bag of money and suddenly remembered his folly. He went to the Pathan to return the money with appropriate interest. The Pathan refused to take the money as the court had ruled against him. So they both came to the guru to reach an appropriate solution.

The Pathan told the guru that it was up to him to use it in the name of the Almighty. So that money was used by Guru Arjan Dev, who dug the ‘baoli’ himself and blessed it with alleged magical powers to heal the poor.

Many years later when Maharajah Ranjit Singh was very ill, a ‘hakeem’ got water from this ‘baoli’ and asked him to drink it and bathe in it. As if by magic, so a lot of accounts tell us, the next day the maharajah was cured and felt strong. He ordered that the ‘baoli’ be restored and made appropriate arrangements for its upkeep.

In the disturbances of 1947 it was damaged and the ‘baoli’ is now a mere small opening in an open space. A few ‘hakeems’ still manage to draw water from a small hole to one side, even though the water level now, thanks to years of underground water pumping and the river shifting westwards, had dropped a few hundred feet.

Why we do not respect this gift in the name of the Almighty made by a Muslim to a Sikh guru is beyond me. But then nothing surprises these days.

But this is not the end of story. Guru Arjan Dev was an immensely respected religious figure and people from all religions flocked to him. The Moghal emperor Jahangir kept a strict eye on the growing gathering of people wherever the guru went.

On the instigation of a Hindu courtier Chandu Lal, or Chandu Shah, whose offer of marriage of his daughter to the guru’s son was turned down, did this entire episode happen. Before refusal Arjan consulted his friend Hazrat Mian Mir, who after an ‘istakhara’ agreed with the guru. But no matter what the real reason, the emperor ordered that Guru Arjan be tortured every day till he dies.

The legend is that one day after his daily torture the prisoners were taken to bathe on the river side which flowed outside the fort gate. Guru Arjan dived in the river never to emerge. Many Sikhs believe he will rise on the Day of Judgment.

At that very place today exists the ‘baoli’ of Guru Arjan, whom the Sikh call ‘Panjveen Sarkar de Baoli’, the ‘well of the fifth guru’. Some even claim that the water level at this place never recedes.

So just to check last Sunday I went to this ‘baoli’ too and was surprised to see that the water level in the well and truly at the same level I had seen many years ago. I checked with a retired Wapda water expert who after a lengthy technical lecture concluded that the level nearby is over 200-plus feet lower and the river does not feed underground aquifers, so this was not possible.

We must not get involved in non-scientific fact creation, but the ‘magical baolis’ of Guru Arjan Dev certainly does exist. Will we ever restore the ‘baolis’ of Dina Nath and Guru Arjan? My guess is that one day when the new generation is in power and sees the folly of our rulers, they will give our past the respect it deserves.

Maybe even the LWCA might take these simple projects at hand. Just pray I get rich and you might well get to drink the magical water from the ‘baoli’ of the guru.



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