harking back : ‘Laal Khoo’ and the fate of Chandu Shah

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, May 31, 2015

Every time I visit my friend Pervaiz Butt inside Mochi Gate it is a norm that his family forces me, against protestations, to have a light snack, which by any standard is a full meal and difficult to finish. After Kashmiri tea, he brings a plate of barfi from the nearby Fazal Sweets of Laal Khoo.

One day, Butt Sahib asked me to explain just why Sikh pilgrims come in such large numbers to bow before Laal Khoo. His question in a way saddened me, for the people of Laal Khoo (the Red Well) inside Mochi Gate no longer know the amazing story of the well and the ‘bairi tree’ because of which this area is known.

Earlier, we had intended to start an ‘Exploring Lahore’ series to entice our readers to explore the old city themselves, and the story of Laal Khoo was among them. But then that will have to wait as we go through why Sikhs visit this place and, additionally, why the barfi of this area is so famous.

We start our journey by standing in front of Laal Khoo and observing the building in which it is located. From one side a ‘bairi’ tree juts out. I asked a shopkeeper when the ‘khoo’ stopped operating, for I remember in my youth seeing people using it. He replied with a cynical smile: “The local mullahs jointly forced its closure in 1975 after they thought people taking water from here considering it some sort of sacred water was not Islamic.”

That is a strange reasoning as this was an ancient well, and legend has it that almost 1,000 years ago there is mention of such a well blessed by some Hindu deity on a small mound outside the walls of the city. But then Lahore was entirely Hindu with a sprinkling of Buddhists and Jains, and the walls were west of this well.

“What is un-Islamic about taking water from an ancient well?” I asked. “I have no idea sahib, but strangely since then the number of people using the mosques of those mullahs in the area has declined, at least that is the rumour,” he shyly added. I confirmed this rumour from Butt Sahib, who being a property agent knows the area better than most.

Back to the building which is known as Chandu de Haveli. Who was Chandu, or better still Chandu Shah? The name Laal Khoo is derived from the red rags that people still tie to the tree and the well, leaving small mud lamps burning as some sort of ‘mannat’ (sacred promise).

To explain this, very briefly, we must first narrate the story that brought this place such prominence, especially for Sikhs of the world. Chandu Shah was a wealthy banker and revenue official during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir. He once approached a Hindu priest to work out why his aging daughter was not finding an appropriate match for marriage. The priest consulted his ‘methods’ and proposed that the son of the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606), was most suitable. Chandu laughed off the proposal with the remark: “He is a beggar who lives off alms.” The remark was reported to the guru. Guru Arjan, when approached, politely refused the match.

Jahangir came to Lahore in April 1616 in pursuit of his son Khusrau who was claiming the throne on his grandfather’s wishes. Prince Khusrau met Guru Arjan, who blessed him as is customary for holy men to bless all those who call on them. But Chandu Shah reported this to Jahangir as a conspiracy, and the emperor imposed a fine of Rs200,000 with the order to delete from the holy Granth all references to Muslims and Hindus. This issue had been earlier taken up by Hindu pandits of Lahore with the emperor, who had promised action. Hazrat Mian Mir when asked about such references laughed off the matter as incorrect.

The guru responded by saying he had done no wrong and refused to pay the fine, or let others pay it. He also refused to delete any portion of the holy Granth. On this, Chandu was allowed to drag the guru to his house and imprison him in a small cell at the corner of his haveli inside Mochi Gate. Next to the cell was a well and a ‘bairi’ tree, the ones that still survive. The original haveli was pulled down by angry Sikhs in 1799 when Maharajah Ranjit Singh took over Lahore, only to be rebuilt in 1825. But the name of the haveli stuck, as it does to this day.

Chandu imprisoned Guru Arjan in this cell and proposed to starve him to death. Hazrat Mian Mir offered to pay the fine, which the guru disallowed. For six whole months no food was allowed to Guru Arjan. Every Thursday, Hazrat Mian Mir would come and pray for him. It is said he also prayed that the ‘bairi’ tree continue giving sweet ‘bairs’ throughout the year and that the water of the well remain sweet. He would purchase barfi from a poor shopkeeper at the corner of the opposite lane, wrap it in a cloth and throw it through the tiny cell window.

After six months, the then governor of Lahore, Murtaza Khan, asked Chandu Shah whether the guru had starved to death. When replied in negative, he flew into a rage. He ordered Guru Arjan be dragged through the streets of Mochi Gate and brought to the Lahore Fort.

One source (G Singh, Arjan’s Martyrdom Reinterpreted, Patiala, 1969) claims that Muslims of the area sang poems about Karbala when he was being taken in chains to the fort. At the fort, he was tortured by making him sit on heated iron sheets. Mughal court documents say he died after five days of torture (Tuzk-i-Jahangiri). Sikh sources say he was to be sewn in a buffalo skin and thrown in the Ravi flowing outside. But the guru wanted to have a bath, and dived in the river, never to return. The place he did this is seen today inside the ‘samadhi’ of Ranjit Singh outside the Lahore Fort. Sikhs believe he will return on the Day of Judgement to represent them.

The end of Chandu Shah is amazingly ironic. Jahangir turned against him and handed him over to Arjan’s son Guru Har Gobind, who had the Sikhs of Lahore drag him out of ‘Chandu de Haveli’ and along the same route to the river by the fort. On the way, every Sikh slapped and kicked him in rage. The final ignominy was that the man who poured hot sand on Guru Arjan was made to do the same to Chandu Shah.

Over the ages, Sikhs have paid homage to the well and the ‘bair tree’ that fed their guru for six long months. Some even purchased barfi from the small shop and gave it to the poor to eat. That tradition remains till this day. The people of old Lahore still remember the friendship of Hazrat Mian Mir and still place oil lamps there over any ‘manaat’ they make.

Over time, Laal Khoo has become more famous for its barfi, not the mullahs. Incidentally, a hadith (Sahih Bukhari 553) claims that on the Day of Judgement, God will not look at those who withheld water for the people.



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