Fatehgarh Sahib’s Shaheedi Jor Mela: Turbulent past and sorry present

One needs to go back to the history of Sirhind and the melas to understand how religious fervour gave way to chaos over six decades.

ByLt Gen H S Panag
Fatehgarh Sahib’s Shaheedi Jor Mela: Turbulent past and sorry present
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Shaheedi Jor Mela held annually at Fatehgarh Sahib was in the news due to a number of stalls selling radical literature eulogising Khalistani and Kashmiri terrorists.

Much was made of the news and “exclusive breaks” were claimed. Jor Melas or Jor Mels (community get together), as they were originally called, have primarily been used for commemorating benchmark events in Sikh history and propagating religious causes in Punjab over the last 250 years.

What began as religious congregations transformed from Jor Mels to Jor Melas (fairs) approximately 100 years ago as commerce sought to exploit the large gatherings. The British laid down mela rules and regulations to manage the large crowds and maintain hygiene and sanitation to prevent epidemics.

While the size of the gatherings have increased manifold, the area for them has shrunk and mela rules have been given short shrift both by the autonomous organisers and the government.

I have seen the Shaheedi Jor Mela at Fatehgarh Sahib over the last six decades and witnessed its growth, religious fervour, chaos and the sorry pass to which it has been reduced to. But before that, let us look at the historical significance of the event.

My farmhouse is located on the ruins of Sirhind exactly 1 km east of the high ground where once stood its impregnable fort originally built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq in 1360 (as per some historians it was constructed by Ghiyasu-ud-din-Balban, a 100 years earlier) and the ruins tell a tale of vendetta that was heaped not only on the rulers but on the “town” itself.

The history of Sirhind goes back to pre-BC times but its heydey was from 1000 AD to 1764 AD when it was finally razed to the ground. During Mughal times, the Sirhind Sarkar controlled 28 Parganas covering the entire territory of the Yamuna-Sutlej Doab, 350 km by 250 km. It was a centre of education, trade and commerce and the town had a diameter of 3 kos, i.e. approximately 10 km.

Sirhind became an accursed city due to the brutal killing of the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh, Zorawar Singh aged nine years and Fateh Singh aged seven years, by Nawab Wazir Khan on December 27, 1705 (Poh 13, 1762). This cruel action of Wazir Khan and his involvement in the murderous attack on Guru Gobind Singh by his men in 1708 which led to his death, eventually led to the destruction of Sirhind.

The angry Sikhs vowed to wreck vengeance on Sirhind by razing the accursed city to the ground. There is a prophesy attributed to Guru Gobind Singh which said that donkeys will plough the land where Sirhind stands and its soil/ruins will be scattered over the entire land between the Yamuna and the Sutlej.

Sirhind was razed to the ground and donkeys were used symbolically to plough the ground in 1764 but it took four hard fought battles in 1710, 1758, 1762 and 1764. The scattering of the soil eventually took place symbolically another 100 years later.

Guru Gobind Singh before his death ordained Banda Singh Bahadur aka Madho Das, once a bairagi allegedly with mystical powers, but who had embraced Sikhism at the guru’s behest, to go to Punjab and wreck retribution on Wazir Khan.

He gave Banda a hukamnama (decree) for the Sikhs of Punjab, 25 Sikhs from his loyal followers and five arrows from his quiver. In the next two years, Banda Singh Bahadur created a peasant army and systematically captured Mughal principalities of present day Haryana, keeping 150 km clear of Delhi.

In early May 1710, after capturing the Fort of Sadhaura, 20 km east of Ambala, Banda Singh headed towards Sirhind.

Wazir Khan marched from Sirhind and joined the battle on May 10, 1710, at Chapar Chiri where today the Fateh Burj commemorates the battle. A fierce battle ensued.

Wazir Khan was killed by the combined effort of two brave Sikhs, Baz Singh and Fateh Singh, who dealt the death blow vertically cutting down Wazir Khan from the shoulder to the waist. The army of Sirhind took to heel and the Khalsa army captured Sirhind on May 12, 1710. The city was thoroughly sacked and retribution wreaked on Wazir Khan’s army, officials and anyone even remotely connected with the execution of the younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh. The planned razing of Sirhind could not be carried out as the Khalsa army had to switch over to guerrilla warfare once the Imperial Army came.

What followed for the next 100 years is a fascinating period in the history of Punjab where Sikhs, Marathas, Persians, Afghans and the remnants of Mughals vied to control territory and consolidate power. Alliances changed by the month.

The Mughal empire disappeared; the Marathas fought pitched battles and first lost to the Afghans at Panipat and then to the British army in central India; the Afghans relied on mobility, focussed on loot and did not have the numbers or the acumen to rule; only the Sikhs relying upon guerrilla warfare swarmed all over Punjab, uniting when required to deal the coup de grace on the Mughals and the Afghans to finally become the rulers of Punjab.

After Ahmed Shah Durani’s fourth invasion, on March 21, 1758, the Marathas, Mughal governor of Bist Doab (area between Beas and Sutlej rivers) Adina Beg, and the Khalsa army joined hands to capture Sirhind from the Afghans. The city was sacked and looted but could not be held as the victors rushed to capture Lahore.

Ahmed Shah Durani again returned in 1759 to establish his writ up to Delhi by defeating the Marathas at Panipat on January 14, 1761. On Ahmed Shah’s return to Lahore the Khalsa army once again captured Sirhind from the Afghans under Zain Khan on April 10, 1762. However, due to the threat of Ahmed Shah it was vacated for a bounty of rupees 50,000.

As the Afghan power waned, Sirhind was finally captured by the Khalsa army in January 1764 under Jassa Sigh Ahluwalia. The entire city was divided and allotted to various Sikh Misls (a confederacy of the Sikh Commonwealth) for systematic destruction. A city spread over 10 km diametre was reduced to rubble.

Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and other head of the Misls symbolically ploughed the area using yoked donkeys. It took another 100 years for the soil/ruins of Sirhind to be spread over the Yamuna – Satlej Doab. The bricks from the ruins of Sirhind were used for ballasting and the “surkhi” created from the bricks along with lime was used to make mortar for laying of the Ambala-Ludhiana railway which opened on November 1, 1869.

All Sikhs considered Sirhind to be an accursed city. So much so, that in 1764 there were no takers for governing the city. The hapless citizens requested Bhai Buddha Sigh, a religious leader, to take charge of the city. This was agreed to by the chiefs of the misls. However, six months later he handed over the city to Ala Singh, chief of the Phulkian misl based in Patiala. The city itself went into decay for the next 100 years and its resurrection began only when the Ambala-Ludhiana-Lahore railway line was constructed in 1869.

Probably makeshift gurdwaras were constructed in 1764 at the site where the sahibzadas were beheaded and cremated. However, Maharaja Karam Singh of Patiala (1813-1845) is credited with the construction of three gurdwaras during his reign.

Gurudwara Fatehgarh Sahib at the site of the beheading in the demolished fort, Gurudwara Mata Gujri, named after the mother of Guru Gobind Singh, at the site of the Thanda Burj (cool tower) where the sahibzadas and their grandmother were imprisoned and Gurudwara Jyoti Sarup, where all three were cremated.

Approximately 1,000 acres was allotted for their upkeep. These were relatively small gurdwaras when I first saw them in early 1954. These were reconstructed in the late 1950s and 1960s into their present impressive form. Since then, a number of gurdwaras have mushroomed around these gurdwaras with real or imagined historical links.

Notable among these are Gurdwara Biban Garh, under the management of Nihangs, where the Bibans (biers) were prepared, Gurdwara Moti Mehra in memory of the water carrier who supplied water to the sahibzadas, and Gurdwara Shaheed Gunj at the cremation site of 6,000 Sikhs who died during the battle of Sirhind under Banda Bahadur in 1710.

There is no historical record as to when the Jor Mela began to be held. Probably it began as a small commemorative gathering around 1800 AD once the last of the Afghan and Mughal influence disappeared from Punjab. Thereafter, with increase in population and better communications it gradually increased in size. Initially the focus was on religious activities but gradually both commerce and politics became an integral part of the annual event.

In the 1950s, approximately two to three lakh visitors used to come for the Jor Mela held over three days from December 25 to 27. Most people came on foot or in bullock carts. Langars were established by the gurdwaras and adjoining villages to feed the visitors. The management of the religious places had 500 acres of vacant land. A large number of traders from all over India would set up makeshift shops to sell a variety of goods. Entertainment was not far behind, and the mela grounds always had a big circus, giant wheels, motorcycle acrobats and mobile zoos.

All political parties set up their pandals for their propaganda. The most distinguishing feature of the mela was the cacophony of noise from hundreds of loudspeakers. All this notwithstanding, the principle focus was still on religion. A visit to all the gurdwaras was a must. There were still enough ruins around. Each visitor carried away a brick to dump it into a river to fulfil the prophesy of Guru Gobind Singh that the soil of Sirhind will be scattered all over Punjab.

The Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and the administration strictly followed the mela rules and regulations. Hygiene and sanitation were strictly maintained. Over 1,000 makeshift deep trench toilets along with water tanks were set up around the mela and kept clean. The sarovars (water tanks) for ritual bathing were kept clean. Water was sprinkled by bhishtis (water carriers with water buffalo hide sacks) to keep down the dust.

Over the next 60 years I saw dramatic changes in the Jor Mela. Due to construction and sale of land by the SGPC, the mela grounds shrunk to the extent that today it is virtually held on the roads. The number of visitors has increased to one million. Apart from the hundreds of langars set up by villages from all over Punjab in the mela area, villages up to 50-60 km around also set up langars along the highways/roads. Mela rules and regulations are not followed. Hardly any toilets are set up. There is garbage and human excreta all over the place. So much so that the normally meticulously clean gurdwaras also remain in a mess for a week.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the appearance of radicals who seized the political space at the Jor Mela. There was resurgence of faith and the mela became notable for yellow turbans and dupattas. One heard the fiery speeches of Bhai Amrik Singh, the nephew of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and president of All India Sikh Students Federation. He cited the martyrdom of the young sahibzadas to motivate the youth.

He said: “Look at the sacrifice of the young sons of the gurus for the quam. What have you all done?” The youth responded with frenzied slogans for Khalistan. Most became baptised or Amritdhari Sikhs. The politics of Punjab got hijacked by the radicals. The pandals of mainstream political parties had no takers. One even had a chance to see Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who at that time focussed on resurrection of the faith to eventually radicalise it. The history is too well known to elaborate further. It should suffice to say that the Jor Mela at Fatehgarh Sahib and other similar Jor Melas made a significant contribution towards the radicalisation of the youth of Punjab.

Keeping the above in view, the media has focussed on the sale of radical literature at the Jor Mela in 2017 linking it to the turbulent past. But their conclusions are off the mark. While land holdings have further shrunk to below 5 acres from 10 acres and unemployment has increased manifold, religion no longer motivates the youth.

More than 60 per cent of the youth do not follow even one fundamental of Sikh identity. Unemployed and semi-educated they are, but they are no longer carried away by religion. They are high on aspirations and low on substance. Most come to the Jor Mela for an outing rather than religious reasons. There are equally long queues at the liquor vends around the mela as at the gurdwaras. The truth is that while the elders remain devout, the religion has no pull for the youth.

So how will these unemployed and aspiring youth seeped in pop music, drugs and alcohol impact the society? In my view, with religion in retreat there is no chance of religion-driven radicalisation to take over. It is more likely to be general lawlessness of the unemployed. The mushrooming of criminal gangs and their popularity over the last decade is a pointer. This general lawlessness is going to be widespread in the countryside and the fringes of cities. Politicians are hobnobbing with the lawless youth and the police are ill-prepared to deal with the impending anarchy.

The only silver lining after witnessing an extremely unhygienic Jor Mela with rudderless youth at the liquor vends and langars is that the crops around the mela area are going to be good due to the million “excreta mines” left behind. All one is hoping for is rain to evenly spread it around!


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