In Gujranwala of Pakistan’s Punjab province, known for its pehelwans (wrestlers) and kebabs, lying tucked under decades of ignorance and neglect are the heritage treasures related to the roots of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Hari Singh Nalwa, the commander-in-chief of Sikh Khalsa Fauj–the warrior king’s army.
While Lahore, where he lived and has his samadh (tomb) went on to become synonymous to Sher-e-Punjab (Lion of Punjab), as he is known, it is Gujranwala where lies Ranjit Singh’s roots – his ancestral haveli (also his birthplace), his father Maha Singh’s tomb, Sherewalan Bagh Baradari and the ancestral haveli of Nalwa.
After decades of unwillingness to protect the Sikh heritage, the Gujranwala district administration has planned restoration and preservation of Maha Singh’s tomb, located in the premises of Sherenwala Bagh but is now a crumbling structure with encroachments.
Sohail Ashraf, deputy commissioner, Gujranwala has written to the Chief Secretary, Punjab asking for funds for site’s restoration and opening it for tourism.
Maha Singh (alias Mahan Singh), the ruler of Sukherchakia misl in Punjab, was too a mighty Sikh warrior and credited for conquering the sprawling Rohtas Fort.
Speaking to The Indian Express over phone, Haider Khan, assistant commissioner of Nowshera Virkan said, “We recently got all encroachments removed from the tomb of Maha Singh. Now a proposal has been sent for site’s restoration and conservation. The tomb was illegally occupied and some people had converted it into a godown for storing paint drums, chemicals etc which have been removed now.”
“Along with Maha Singh’s tomb, there is a beautiful Baradari (a structure having twelve gates) also from Ranjit Singh’s period and it was all a part of Sherenwalla Bagh. The Baradari still has beautiful intricate peacocks etc carved in its interiors. A madrasa functions from the ancestral haveli of Nalwa,” added Haider Khan, who traces his lineage to royal family of Bahadurgarh, now in Jhajjar of Haryana.
A preliminary observation note prepared by DC Gujranwala and assistant commissioner Nowshera Vikran, reads: “The Sheranwala Bagh has a ‘Barra Darri’ (12 sides open structure) in the middle of the garden. The garden was linked to the Samadhi of Maha Singh, which has been illegally encroached upon by land grabbing mafia. A government school has also been built on the land of already deteriorating samadhi thus posing threat to the structure and to the pupils of the school. To add insult to the injury, some land grabbers have been using this place as a godown for stocking oil barrels and chemicals related to paints. Inside of samadhi there are beautiful paintings engraved on the walls. Due to misuse by the land grabbers, those have been damaged and now require restoration. The Deputy Commissioner Gujranwala stressed that all these sites have an immense potential for Religious Tourism / Sikh Religious/ Cultural Tourism and can yield a lot of revenue for government. Forgoing in view, it has been decided that all these structures may be taken up for immediate restoration / rehabilitation by Lahore Walled City Authority (LWCA) and a committee comprising member of LWCA, Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETBP), district administration may be notified for the said purpose and funds and expertise may also be requested from government of Punjab”.
After the field visits of six heritage sites in Gujranwala, a fresh “Note for Information and Approval for Chief Secretary Punjab” was also written by the DC on December 21, 2019. “Smadhi Maha Singh Ji (father of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh Ji) – This structure was in deplorable condition. This beautiful massive structure has been encroached upon by a government girls’ school and many residential buildings. There was water well also situated next to the Smadhi, which was built by Maharaja, the well was used for watering the garden. Now the school administration has closed the well. The passage to Smadhi from Sheran Walla Bagh has been closed after the building of the school. Now the passage to Smadhi is from the main bazaar. The condition of the Smadhi was not good. The floor was filled with the paint chemicals, used oil boxes, empty cartons and oil drums etc. Paint was splashed on the walls. The roof is covered with trees, bush and shrubs etc and the roots of these have made their way into the ceiling and walls. The load of trees have caused the roof to bend downwards, it is feared that the roof of the varanda may cave in, if restoration work is not initiated in time. Upon seeing this situation, I have ordered immediate removal of all encroachers and materials from the premises of Smadhi Maha Singh,” a portion of the note reads.
About the Baradari and Sheranwala Bagh, the note further adds, “The Sheran Walla Bagh was constructed and developed by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. In the garden, there is a 12-darri (12-sided open structure) with painted walls of Sikh era and presence of peacock painting is on every wall. Unfortunately, the garden has shrunk to a few Kanals as illegal encroachments have been done by various quarters of the society. Over the years this place has become hub of drug addicts and gamblers. The “Akharas” i.e. wrestling arenas have disappeared due to encroachments”.
The note concludes by urging the chief secretary to grant funds for restoration works of heritage sites. “If a small amount of budget is allocated for the preservation and rehabilitation of the historical structures, we can not only save our heritage but can also earn a lot of foreign exchange from Sikh community living abroad,” it reads.
“We have got all encroachments removed from Maha Singh’s samadhi. Now, once chief secretary gives his approval and funds are allocated, restoration work will start,” said Haider Khan.
The five other heritage sites in Gujranwala proposed for restoration include: Jain Mandir, Mandir Atma Ram ji (Samadhi Charat Singh), Sheran Wala Bagh, Haveli and birthplace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Mandir Bahampr-e-walla.
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