Most Pakistanis know Hasan Abdal as the town that houses the Cadet College, the first to be built in Pakistan, in the early 1950s. Or, they know it as the town they drive through while traveling to Peshawar or Abbottabad and beyond. Other than that, it is a nondescript, dusty little town, 25 miles North-West of Islamabad, situated along the National Highway, almost encroaching upon it.
Haphazardly built, like most rural towns in Pakistan, with petrol pumps, tire shops, and shabby little restaurants adding to the ugly clutter along the roadside, Hasan Abdal hardly arouses much interest among Pakistanis, unless, one happens to be a Sikh. And there are not many Sikhs in Pakistan.
For Sikhs, Hasan Abdal has a special significance and a place in their hearts. It houses the shrine of Panja Sahib, so named because the imprint of the right hand (panja) believed to be that of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, is preserved here on a rock. It is one of the three holiest shrines of Sikh religion, the other two being Nankana Sahib in Sheikhupura, Pakistan and the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.
Every year, in April, thousands of Sikh pilgrims from all over the world converge at Panja Sahib to celebrate the birth of Khalsa, meaning pure, a new identity given to the Sikh nation by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last of temporal gurus of the Sikh religion, in April 1699. While announcing the birth of Khalsa, or the Sikh Nation, at the annual Vesaakhi (spring) festival at Anandpur, in the Indian Panjab, Guru Gobind Singh also gave new guidelines to the Sikh nation that included, among other things, a dress and appearance code, known as the 5 k’s: kes, kangha, kach, kara, kirpan.
I had driven through Hasan Abdal countless times over the years, and was also vaguely aware of the story of Panja Sahib, but never stopped to explore the town or enquire about the legend of Panja Sahib - until last week.
The year 2007 officially being declared as “Visit Pakistan Year”, I thought the least I could do was to visit places of interest in my neighborhood. So, I drove not through but to Hasan Abdal along with Mumtaz Ali Shah, my brother-in-law, to learn something firsthand about Panja Sahib.
The caretaker or the granthi let us in the gurdwara. He was a large man, probably in his mid-40s, soft-spoken and wearing an orange turban and black beard. He answered our questions with patience and humility and told us his version of the story of Panja Sahib.
Like all legends and folklore, the story of Panja Sahib is a mixture of belief, facts, and fiction. Fiction to the non-believer, that is. There are different versions of the story that one hears or reads about, but a distinct common thread runs through all of them. Other than the granthi we also talked to several locals of Hasan Abdal about the story of Panja Sahib. They all gave a similar, if not exactly the same, account, and they all seemed to believe it to be true.
A couple of explanations would be in order before we proceed further with the story: First, the word Panja is derived from the Panjabi word panj, meaning five, and refers to the five fingers of the hand or the hand itself. Second, Sikhs use the honorific ‘Sahib’ for the names of sacred personalities, places or books, just as Muslims use the word sharif such as Mecca Sharif, Ka’ba Sharif, Quran Sharif, etc.
Here is the story in its essential details:
Sometime between the year 1510 and 1520, just before the Mughal rule began in India, Guru Nanak is said to have traveled to the Arab lands visiting, among other places, Mecca and Baghdad. He was in his 40s then. Some say he even performed the hajj, but there is no conclusive evidence to support that claim. On the way back from his sojourn in the Arab lands, Guru Nanak passed through Kabul and Peshawar and halted at a small hamlet, the present-day Hasan Abdal, at the foot of a steep hill.
Attracted by his simple lifestyle and engaging conversation, many people from the village, both Hindus and Muslims, started flocking to Guru Nanak. As the word about him spread, the number of devotees increased.
It so happened that there also lived a Muslim saint, Baba Wali Kandhari, at the summit of the hill above the hamlet. His last name suggests his origins in Kandhar, Afghanistan. Other than having a vantage point from where he could see all that was happening in the village below, Baba Kandhari also had the benefit of having a freshwater spring at the summit, which also flowed down the hill to the village.
From the hilltop, Baba Kandhari could see the people flocking to Guru Nanak. He felt a pang of jealousy, which soon turned into outright resentment against the new saint on the block. If he couldn’t stem the flow of Guru Nanak’s devotees, Baba Kandhari thought, he could perhaps drive the Guru away from the area by stopping the flow of water to the village down below. And stop the water he did.
Guru Nanak took this development calmly, but the villagers were greatly upset over the cutting off of their water supply. They sent a delegation to Baba Kandhari beseeching him to let the water flow, but the Baba was not moved. He sent the delegation back taunting them to ask their guru to divine water for them. The villagers turned to Guru Nanak, who asked his lifelong disciple and companion, Bhai Mardana, a Muslim, to go to Baba Kandhari and plead with him the case of the villagers. But the Baba did not relent. Guru Nanak sent Bhai Mardana again, and yet again, to beg the Baba for water, but to no effect.
Not knowing what to do, the desperate villagers approached Guru Nanak once again for advice. As the story goes, Guru Nanak told them not to despair. Pointing to a rock embedded in the ground, he asked them to dislodge it. When they pushed the rock aside, freshwater gushed forth from the ground, enough for the needs of the little village, and some more.
Baba Kandhari was dismayed at this development. But his dismay turned into red hot anger when he discovered that his own spring had meanwhile dried, the water having been sucked by the spring below. Enough was enough, he told himself and decided to get rid of the Guru.
One day, when Guru Nanak was sitting, as usual, surrounded by his devotees, Baba Kandhari pushed a huge boulder down the hill in the direction of the Guru. The boulder rolled down, gaining speed and kicking up dust. When the devotees sitting around the Guru heard the rumble and saw the boulder hurtling down in their direction, they fled in panic. But Guru Nanak continued sitting calmly where he was. When the boulder came close, and it seemed it would surely crush him, Guru Nanak raised his right hand as if ordering the rock to stop. The boulder pushed against Guru Nanak’s hand — and stopped! The Guru’s palm sank into the boulder as if into soft wax, leaving a deep imprint on it.
Upon seeing the miracle, not only the faith of the villagers was reinforced in their saint, but it also convinced Baba Kandhari of the spiritual reach of Guru Nanak. According to one version of the story, Baba Kandhari came down from the hilltop, touched Guru Nanak’s feet, and also joined the Guru’s devotees. Another version says both saints became friends and lived happily thereafter, tending independently to their respective flocks.
Today, the rock with a clearly visible hand imprint is embedded in the concrete structure of the building complex of Panja Sahib. Clear fresh water gushing out from somewhere in the ground cascades down the face of the rock, washing the hand imprint, into a very large pool. Next to the pool, on an elevated platform, stands a beautiful gurdwara, built in the Mughal style by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh (1780-1839). The gurdwara houses the Granth Sahib – the holy book of Sikhs.
A large two-storied hostel for the yatrees or pilgrims surrounds the courtyard. Numerous marble plaques, embedded in the walls and the floor, announce the names of the various donors who contributed to the construction of the building. Other signs in Gurmukhi, English, and Urdu give the necessary information and directions to visitors. From the courtyard of Panja Sahib, one can easily see the hilltop where, according to the story, Baba Wali Kandhari had lived and died. The place is a shrine now dedicated to Baba Kandhari. Red, black and green flags marking the grave of Kandhari, typical of the Muslim shrines, flutter at the hilltop. Incongruously, a modern communication tower sprouts from the hilltop along with the colored flags.
Muslim devotees from the surrounding area regularly visit the hilltop. Even some Sikh pilgrims to Panja Sahib — those who can — trek up the hill, about a one-mile steep climb, to visit Baba Kandhari’s shrine.
When taking leave of the granthi at Panja Sahib, I asked him his name. “Saddam Singh”, he answered softly. I was not sure if I heard him correctly. I asked him again, and he repeated “Saddam Singh” sheepishly this time. I don’t know if the granthi’s parents while naming him had Saddam Hussein the defiant dictator of Iraq in mind, but at this point, when Saddam Hussein is in the news all over the world, not for the right reasons, the granthi’s name did arouse enough interest for me to ask his name twice.
Note: The story was originally written and published on All Things Pakistan on 27 January 2007.
The pictures of the Gurdwara and the hand imprint on the rock are taken from the Internet.
The two Illustrations are by Atiya Nadeem, a Canadian-based artist.