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The Study of Frescoes on the Walls of the Pothimala Gurudwara

By Srishti Pandey Sharma

This essay will explore the Sufi imagery which adorns the walls of the Pothimala Gurudwara and which are a representation of the shared religious traditions of the Punjab.

The Gurudwara of Pothimala is situated in the village of Guru Harsahai, District Firozpur in Punjab. The village is named after the elder son of Guru Jiwan Mal Sodhi who was the fourth direct descendent of the fourth Sikh guru, Guru Ram Das (1534-1581). The Gurudwara derives its name from the fact that Guru Nanak’s personal Pothi (Small book) and Mala (rosary) are housed in this religious place/Gurudwara. The uniqueness of this Gurudwara lies in the fact that this place of worship blurs religious boundaries and there is a coming together of people from the three distinct identities of Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam. The religious texts and beliefs have been represented through the frescos which adorn the walls of this Gurudwara.

Photo 1: Pothimala Building at Guru Harsahai.

Photo 1: Pothimala Building at Guru Harsahai

The Gurudwara is managed by a sub-sect of Sikhism, which considers the elder brother of the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjun Dev (1563-1606) their religious leader. This group is different from the mainstream Sikh theology because it follows a line of Guruship different from the mainstream Sikhs belief. This Gurudwara is the official residence of the elder son of the Sodhi family (the descendants of Guru Prithi Chand). The elder son inherits the entire property of Pothimala and he is the ‘Gaddi Nashin’ and he holds the title of Guru.

The site of Pothimala is a representation of the shared cultures and beliefs and people ensure a positive religious interaction. The frescos at Pothimala point towards an interdependence of religious scriptures and paintings. There are a few paintings which are the result of the artists’ imagination, and some depict the cultures of the native lands of these Pahari artists. The paintings are also in line with the Mughal miniatures but one point of difference is that, unlike the Mughal miniatures, these are unsigned by the painter. The frescoes are wide-ranging in their subjects, from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, to the Sikh warrior saint, Guru Gobind Singh, to the Sufi imagery which has been painted in the backdrop of the Qissa tradition of Heer-Ranjha and Soni-Mahiwal, among others.

Sufism in the Punjab

The sacred space at Pothimala depicts the Sufi thought and belief through the Qissa tradition, which has been prevalent in the Punjab. The Sufi groups in the Punjab hail from the major orders of Chistis, Qadiriya, Soharwardi, which share a history of deep veneration for popular saints with the Punjabi Sikhs. Punjab has been the home to some of the prominent Sufis/Sufi saints in India. Some significant names are Baba Farid, Mian Mir, Sakhi Sarvar, amongst others.

Sufi paintings in Pothimala

The Qissa tradition provides the backdrop to the frescos at Pothimala, which are a visual representation of Sufi thought, widespread and prevalent in the lands of the Punjab. The Qissas are part factual and part fictional and these originated in the Sindh, which is now a part of Pakistan.

The first painting (Photo 2) is that of Heer-Ranjha, the most prominent among the four tragic Qissa/love stories and romances from the Sindh.

Photo 2: Fresco of Heer and Ranjha at Pothimala

Photo 2: Fresco of Heer and Ranjha at Pothimala

This painting is found on the right hand side when a devotee enters the Kilah Sahib or the house of these holy relics and these frescos. The presence of the cows and the man playing a flute indicate this as the story of Heer-Ranjha, a text composed in the fifteenth century by Warris Shah.

Photo 3: Fresco showing Ranjha grazing cows

Photo 3: Fresco showing Ranjha grazing cows

This painting (Photo 3) is divided into two sections. At the top is Lord Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, whose depiction matches the descriptions in the Mahabharata and the Bhagwat Purana and in all Hindu paintings. Krishna is depicted as blue in colour, with his cows, and with a mor-pankh (Peacock feather) on his head. The lower section of the painting depicts a man, who appears relatively poorer to Krishna. He wears no jewellery, leading the viewer to question his identity. This painting (Photo 3) demonstrates how scholars have drawn a strong parallel between Lord Krishna and Ranjha. Popular texts such as that by the nineteenth century poet, Niaz, on the qissa of Heer-Ranjha mention how Ranjha was from an affluent family and how he lost his house and grazed cows for twelve years.

Photo 4: Fresco depicting Sohni Mahiwal

Photo 4: Fresco depicting Sohni Mahiwal

The third painting (Photo 4) is of Sohni and Mahiwal. This story, set on the banks of Punjab’s River Chenab, is about Sohni (in Punjabi the word means, pretty), the daughter of a famous potter Tulla. One day a rich man from Uzbekistan, by the name of Izzat Baig, came to Tulla’s house to buy some pottery. Bewitched by Sohni’s beauty, he stayed on in the city. However, he was impoverished by twists of fate and was hired by Sohni as a buffalo herder, when he was rechristened as Mahiwal. They fell in love but the couple was doomed because Sohni’s marriage had already been fixed with a potter, who lived nearby.

Photo 5: Fresco depicting Sassi Punnu

Photo 5: Fresco depicting Sassi Punnu

This painting (Photo 5) is a representation of the love story of Sassi and Punnu. Sassi is seen as desperately running to catch up with Punnu who is taken away on a camel in a drunken state. Sassi Punnu (or Sassi Panhu) is one of the four popular tragic romances of the Sindh. The other three are Heer Ranjha, Momal Rano, and Sohni Mahiwal. Sassi Punnu was written by the Sindhi and Sufi poet, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689-1752). Sassi was the daughter of the King of Bhambour (it is Sindh whose ruins can be seen today). Punnu/Panhu Khan is the son of King Ali Hooth (Hooth is a famous Baluchi tribe in Makran, Baluchistan).

Sassi once visited the place to offer her tributes and admire the rich art; she instantly fell in love with a painting, which was a masterpiece of heavenly creation. She soon discovered this was the portrait of Prince Punnu, son of King Ali Hooth, the ruler of Kicham. She became desperate to meet Punnu. He came to see Sassi in the garb of a perfume trader. The moment Sassi saw him she couldn’t help saying, “Praise to be God!”

Sufism is a school for the actualization of divine ethics. It involves an enlightened inner being, not intellectual proof; revelation and witnessing, not logic. By divine ethics, we are referring to ethics that transcend mere social convention, a way of being that is the actualization of the attributes of God.

Conclusion

These frescoes reflect the plurality present in the culture of Punjab. The portrayal of Ranjha, the tragic protagonist of the Sufi poet Waris Shah’s story, and the associations indicated between him and Krishna, a Hindu god, in a Gurudwara, where the Sikh turban also finds a representation, is an indication of this plurality.

Incidentally, revolutionaries like Udham Singh had taken an oath on these texts. During his trial in Britain in 1940, the revolutionary nationalist, Udham Singh, who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab presiding over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, had asked to take oath not on any religious text but on Hir Waris, the Hir-Ranjha poem, penned by Waris Shah in the eighteenth century.

Pothimala has kept these paintings alive in the form of the frescos and the worshipers have kept these traditions alive.

Bio:
Srishti Pandey Sharma holds a first class M. Phil. degree in comparative religions from Jamia Millia Islamia. She obtained her M. A. in World History & Comparative Religions at Jamia Millia Islamia. She has presented at International and National Conferences in her areas of specialization. She organized a lecture by the internationally acclaimed Swiss artist, Raphael Perret, on ‘Conservation of ecology and religion through the study of the Shree Yantra.’

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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