( Portrait possibly of Nawab Sir Muhammad Ahmad Ali Khan Bahadur of Maler Kotla, c.1925 Hand-painted gelatin silver print)
Walking through the streets of Malerkotla, one finds many monuments bearing silent testimony to the fascinating history of this 500-year-old Muslim principality. In spite of the large number of Muslims, the place remained virtually unscathed by violence during Partition, the militancy of the last decade, and even after the Ayodhya episode. How has it been possible for Malerkotla to rise above issues that often divide and devastate the entire nation.
(Nawab of Malerkotla)
ASK almost anyone in Malerkotla what they think is most important thing about this town and they will say it is the spirit of ikatth, unity, between different religious communities. As Ali Mohammad, an 85-year-old retired chaiwallah, puts it: “Everyone comes and goes in unity. There is no difference between people — Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims — they come and go, sit, eat and drink together.” Talking to locals, one learns how much they value living together in a secular and secure society. Walking through the streets of Malerkotla, one finds many monuments bearing silent testimony to the fascinating history of this 500-year-old Muslim principality. Although Malerkotla is not the only place in Punjab that is home to such sites and sentiments, it is the only Muslim-dominated region in the state. In spite of the large number of Muslims, the place remained virtually unscathed by violence during Partition, the militancy of the last decade, and even after the Ayodhya episode. How has it been possible for Malerkotla to rise above issues that often divide and devastate the nation? Certainly, the history of this former princely state is as full of wars and conflict as that of the rest of Punjab. Here 76 Namdhari Sikhs were blown with cannons in 1872. The city was also nearly destroyed by Sahib Singh Bedi in several attacks at the end of the 18th century. Yet most locals choose to emphasise their past history of communal harmony and try to keep this tradition alive by visiting each other’s sacred sites, sharing businesses, and living in diverse neighbourhoods.
Three explanations are often given for Malerkotla’s peaceful nature. First, and most common, is the famous account of Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan’s protest to Aurangzeb when Guru Gobind Singh’s sons were condemned to death. After being captured while escaping from the siege of Anandpur in 1702, the governor of Sirhind ordered them to be walled up alive. Sher Mohammad Khan declared in no uncertain terms that execution of children was a heinous act and against Islam. Although he failed to save the boys, news of his objection reached the Guru who blessed the Nawab and the state. Many believe that due to this blessing, in subsequent wars with the Sikhs, during Partition, and during the period of militancy, this Muslim region was often spared the devastation that occurred elsewhere.
Most Punjabis know of the Nawab’s appeal, yet today, the grave of this famous and secular ruler lies in disrepair, unvisited by the pilgrims who flock to nearby Sirhind and Fatehgarh Sahib to memorialise this significant event in Sikh history. Just behind Sirhindi Gate in Malerkotla is the maqbara, or graveyard, of the Nawabs. The mother of Nawab Sikander Ali Khan (d. 1871) gave a land grant for the maintenance of these exquisite structures to 25 families. After more than a century, the land holdings are much reduced and the families have grown, leaving very little for the upkeep of the site. Nonetheless, the maqbara is strikingly beautiful. Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan’s grave is one of the simplest ones, lying open to the sky, according to his wish. Indeed, all efforts to place a roof over the grave fail, perhaps out of respect for the Nawab’s intentions. Nearby are more elaborate tombs of other nawabs and members of the royal family, bearing beautiful calligraphy, decorative paint work, and relief carving on the walls, delicate domes and minarets. One tomb is even formed like the Taj Mahal, with a decorative zarih above and the actual graves beneath.
Another reason commonly given for the harmony in Malerkotla is the secularism of the former princely state’s nawabs. At several critical moments these rulers pursued policies of tolerance and equity, fostering an atmosphere of mutual understanding and cooperation. For example, when founding the fortified city of Kotla, Nawab Bayzid Khan (d. 1659) summoned a Chishti Sufi saint, Shah Fazl, and a Bairagi Hindu saint, Mahatma Sham Damodar, who together blessed the site in a public enactment of pluralism. Today the tomb complex, or dargah, of Shah Fazl is a popular local mosque and shrine. However, as often happens in such places, the buildings are regularly painted, tiled and whitewashed, concealing – perhaps forever – the delicate decorative paint work in the interior of the tomb. Says Gurmeet Rai, conservation architect and director of the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI), “In their effort to maintain their built cultural heritage and in the absence of an understanding of ancient architecture, communities use inappropriate materials and techniques of construction, which over the years are detrimental for the structural stability of the building and to its inherent character.” Ironically, its very importance to the local community threatens its value as a historic site.
However, the forgotten sites of Malerkotla are in equal danger. Nawab Bayzid Khan also built an imposing Nanakshahi brick fort, which is now government property and is essentially used as a cattle pasture. Although striking in its appearance and bearing evidence of lovely relief work on its façade and with traces of paint on the interior, the site is not maintained at all, and is rarely visited, even by residents of the town. The same is true of the two palaces of the town, the Mubarak Mahal and the Sheesh Mahal. Both buildings are partially inhabited by begums of the last Nawab, Iftikhar Ali Khan, who died childless. The Mubarak Mahal houses more birds than people and lies at the end of a road so littered and unused that even some rickshawallahs do not know the way. But at the end of this lane, the building is a beautiful example of the 19th-century European architecture. The Sheesh Mahal is in somewhat better shape, especially as Sajjida Begum, a Congress party activist and former MLA, lives there and uses a part of the building for a school she founded. Nonetheless, the Hall of Mirrors and the imposing Diwankhana are both in a state of extreme disrepair. Built by Nawab Sikander Ali Khan (d. 1871), the former glory of the princely state is still visible in the exquisite mirrorwork and arched windows. However, they are in dire need of professional restoration, and Rai points out the importance of training local masons in the use of traditional materials and construction systems so that they can continue to maintain the sites.
The third reason often given for the communal harmony is that the place is blessed. Just as some believe that the tenth Guru’s blessings protected Malerkotla during periods of upheaval, others attribute this to the power of the many saints whose shrines are found throughout the town. The most famous of these is the dargah of the state’s founder, Sadruddin Sadri Jahan (d. 1508), popularly known as Haider Sheikh. This complex of historical buildings consists of an unusual stone wall around the tomb, a drum house, or naubat khana, and a mosque built by Nawab Mehboob Ali Khan (d. 1857). The saint’s descendants maintain this site, and its popularity extends far beyond Punjab, bringing many thousands of pilgrims of all religions together at festival times. Down the road is Dera Baba Atma Ram, a Hindu saint’s samadhi, consisting of a complex of small shrines, in some of which are visible painted scenes from Hindu scriptures. Facing the temple to the south is an extremely unusual well, square in shape with four arched gateways leading to steep steps down to the now dry basin. Nawab Sikander Ali Khan donated the land for its maintenance — another example of the secular spirit of the rulers. On Dasehra, nearly the entire town comes to see a lively Ramlila staged here.
Inter-religious exchange is visible at festivals, in shared business ventures, mixed neighbourhoods, and in the attitudes of the locals. “People believe in religion more here, they are more tolerant here,” says Abdul Hamid, a local doctor. “This is a peaceful city, people live in perfect harmony, there is no type of tension here, no clashes here, even during the period of militancy, the city was absolutely peaceful, absolutely calm, no fights, by God’s grace. We think it is because of Allah.” This type of thinking prevails throughout Malerkotla. Whether the people attribute the communal unity to Allah’s grace, the Guru’s blessing, the protective power of a saint, or to the secular policies of the nawabs, they greatly value this legacy of peace and are justifiably proud of it.
Yet the task remains to preserve the many outstanding monuments as tangible evidence of this history, so that future generations can learn about their heritage and continue along the path of their forbears. The challenge is to cultivate awareness of the importance of these places and to energise people to learn about their past. “It is important to know about your own city,” says Salima Parveen, the Vice-President of the Municipal Committee of Malerkotla, but she stresses, “the first thing is education.” In order for people to know their history, they must be able to read and write. Literate people may have some awareness of Malerkotla’s past, but for those without such basic skills, it is not surprising that their knowledge and interest would be limited. Expressing enthusiasm for conservation work, she says, “If we could maintain these sites, people could be employed and the visitors who come to our city would be favourably impressed.” Municipal Committee President Azmat Ali Khan further emphasises the need for government support, stating, “There is no one left in the Nawab’s family to look after these sites, and the government or the Archaeology Department have so far not done anything to protect them.” Therefore, he believes, it is necessary to build community interest, support educational programmes, encourage donors, and request the government to intervene whenever possible.
Some progress in this direction is beginning. Recently a local schoolteacher, Muhammad Khalid Zubairy, published a book about Malerkotla in Hindi, making the history of the region more accessible. Furthermore, Simranjit Singh Mann has expressed his intentions to put whatever resources are at his disposal as a Member of Parliament from Sangrur district for the upkeep of the historical sites and towards the restoration of the tomb of Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan. To that end the CRCI has committed to do the restoration work on the maqbara as soon as the funds are allocated through the UNESCO programme, ‘Preservation of Cultural Heritage and Promotion of Understanding in Punjab.” According to Gurmeet Rai, conservation of historical buildings, especially in places like Malerkotla where the community is closely connected to its heritage, needs to be done through initiating active participation of the local community. Through this people-oriented process, it is possible to ensure long-term maintenance of the sites after the conservation work is over.
Although the project here is just beginning, with increased attention and awareness of its importance to the secular heritage of Punjab, there is hope that the message and monuments of Malerkotla’s unique history of tolerance and pluralism will survive.