Memories of a town known as Sirhind

The Sunday Tribune, April 15 2007

Sirhind remains a place deserving of careful, close study. It is precisely this that Subhash Parihar has done in his densely researched recent work on the town, writes B. N. Goswamy

History and Architectural Remains of Sirhind: The Greatest Mughal City on Delhi-Lahore Highway by Subhash Parihar. Aryan Books International, New Delhi. 2006. Pp xxxii+260. Size A4. Rs 2500.


Tomb of Shagird, Sirhind.

Some towns, especially old towns, carry about them a distinct aura. One may have never lived in them, and yet their mere mention brings swiftly to mind a host of images, associations, slivers of history. Consider Sirhind, the small town that lies in the plains of the Punjab, on the great medieval highway that connected Delhi to Lahore. Not many might give thought to the origins of its name—it comes probably, as seen through Muslim invaders’ eyes, from ‘sar-i hind’, meaning, roughly, the very ‘gateway to Hindustan’—but most Punjabis know it as the place where the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh were martyred.

The event, in all its moving details, is engraved upon countless hearts: the capture during flight of the two sahibzadas by the Mughal faujdar, Wazir Khan; the cruel choice given to them between embracing Islam and courting death; their valorous reply refusing to give their faith up; and consequently their being put to death. The revenge wreaked in 1710—five years later— by Banda Bahadur upon the Mughal faujdar, and his ransacking of the ‘accursed’ town of Sirhind, also lives vividly in memory. The wounds still bleed; the images do not fade.

For those inclined to go back in point of time, the imprint of Sirhind is also upon the name of the celebrated 16th century saint of the Naqshbandi order, Sheikh Ahmed, known in the annals of Islam as Mujaddid-i Alif-i Sani, the ‘Reviver of the Faith in the Second Millennium’—who is always spoken of as ‘Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi’ because of his having been born and having lived in that town.

The Sheikh, whose mausoleum in Sirhind, the Rauza Sharif, still attracts Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, was someone who had been seen early by his preceptor as "a light which will illuminate the world", and whose writings and utterances created a stir in the times in which he lived. The ‘white heat of revivalist fervour’ that he generated might not have found favour with the liberals, but no one denied that he was a most forceful and original thinker. And, in some ways, he continues even today to exercise a powerful influence on Islamic thought.

Diwan Khana-i Khas, Aam Khas Bagh Sirhind. PHOTOS: Subhash Parihar

For more reasons than one, Sirhind was important. During most of the Sultanate period, and certainly under the great Mughals, the town prospered. It was a greatly favoured halting place on the way to Lahore; under Akbar, it had turned into the headquarters of the highest revenue yielding sarkar under the suba of Delhi; it was designated as a mint-town from which gold and copper coins continued being issued; great poets and calligraphers, even great surgeons, came to reside here; trade and manufactures flourished. But only till the beginning of the 18th century when the dastardly act of putting the sahibzadas to death was committed.

Following that, for virtually the whole of that century, it turned into a gory battleground. The disintegration of Mughal rule that was accompanied and partly scripted by the rise to power of the Sikhs saw the town decline rapidly. Time after time, it was attacked, ransacked, devastated, by enraged Sikh forces. When Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia raided and occupied the town in 1764, he ordered its monuments to be blown with gunpowder; the lanes of the place were ploughed down; to take a brick from the razed structures of the town and throw them in the Sutlej was seen as an act of merit.

Little wonder then that a 19th century French traveller, who passed through Sirhind, described the town as "the biggest ruin I have ever seen in India after Delhi`85 ruins which cover the ground for a space of more than 15 square kilometers".

Cities rise and decline. But everything, including ruins, needs to be documented and preserved. The town of Sirhind may no longer be the "envy of China", nor its environs be "like the locks of the cheek of graces", or its dust like "collyrium for the eyes of soul", as an old Persian poets put it. But it remains a place deserving of careful, close study. And it is precisely this that Subhash Parihar has done in his densely researched recent work on the History and Architectural Remains of Sirhind.

Time was when the town boasted of as many as 360 monuments, they say: mosques, cenotaphs, gardens, caravanserais, wells, and gardens. Very few of them have survived, but whatever have—apparently 37 in number—are documented here. The names of these are a study in themselves: the tombs of Taj Bibi, Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, Haji Muhammad, Subhan, Khwaja Muhammad Naqshband, Ustad and Shagird, Muhammad Isma’il, Shah Zaman, for instance; mosques like Sadna Qasai, Lal Masjid, inside the Rauza Sharif; gardens like Jahazi Mahal, Aam Khas; and so on.

The many gurudwaras are in the neighbourhood, at Fatehgarh Sahib. But of the medieval Islamic monuments of Sirhind, to which the book is devoted, there are more than mere names in it: for architectural drawings, descriptions of materials used, monumental inscriptions, photographs, are all here. The image of a town, which has lost its glory slowly, begins to rise from these pages.

But there are melancholy notes here, too. For what emerges from the study is the recurring theme of neglect and decay. Monuments at Sirhind have been turned into cattle-sheds; wheat-husk is being stored inside others; towers are being vandalised every day since old bricks can be used for private houses. And so many of those that have not crumbled to the ground have trees and vines and weeds growing though their cracks. "Ug rahaa hai dar-o-deewaar pe sabzaa, Ghalib", as the poet said.


Subhash Parihar was (born 12 August 1953), at Kot Kapura, East Punjab where he still lives. He is M.A. (History of Art), M.A. (History), M.Phil., Ph.D. As an art historian, he has done pioneering work on the Indo-Islamic architecture of the North-Western India. He is author of Mughal Monuments in the Punjab and Haryana (Delhi, 1985) (Honoured with Dr. W.G. Archer Award by the Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi); Muslim Inscriptions in the Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh (Delhi, 1985). Some Aspects of Indo-Islamic Architecture (Delhi, 1999) and more than three dozens of research papers published in international journals like Oriental Art (London); Iran (London); East and West (Rome); Muqarnas (Leiden); Journal of Pakistan Historical Society (Karachi); Islamic Studies (Islamabad); Marg (Mumbai); etc. He was awarded Homi Bhabha Fellowship (1994-96). He undertook a Photographic Survey of Architectural Heritage of Haryana under Senior Fellowship from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India (2001-03). Also contributed to the Dictionary of Art (34 Vols.) published by Macmillan (London) and Encyclopaedia of Persian Language, Literature and Culture in the Sub-Continent (to be published in Iran). He has just completed his fifth book – Land Transport in Mughal India: Agra-Lahore Mughal Highway and its Architectural Remains – Partially financed by The Barakat Trust. Parihar is active in the fields of painting, sculpture and photography also. As an artist he has been actively participating in art exhibitions since 1977. He has had two one-man shows of his works in Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh (1979) and Triveni Gallery, New Delhi (1982). He was awarded by Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi in 1979 for the best collage. He has also participated in Artists’ Camps in 1979 and 1980, and in 1997. In the field of photography too, he has bagged about two dozen prizes including the Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi Award (1997). At present he is doing a book (under University Grants Commission) on the Architectural Heritage of the erstwhile Sikh State of Faridkot.


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