Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Monastery of Guru Goraknath

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Known as Tilla Jogian or simply Tilla, the hill, isolated from the rest of the Salt Range, rises sheer out of the broken, gullied land 25 kilometres southwest of the city of Jhelum. To one and all it is known as Tilla Jogian - The Hill of the Jogis after the ancient jogi monastery whose ruins mark the crest of the 1000 metre high peak. Known as Kunphutta, for their tradition of piercing their ears to adorn them with wooden rings, these jogis, once numerous all over the subcontinent, are the followers of Guru Goraknath.

According to Alexander Cunningham, the hill was anciently dedicated to the sun god Balnath, and after him, known as Tilla Balnath. Later it came to be known after Goraknath, which, Cunningham believed, was a transmutation of Shiva. This latter name, according to him, is very recent. Following him, Ibbetson, Maclagan and Rose, compilers of the Glossary of Tribes, Castes and Clans wrote that Goraknath lived in the 15th century.

The ancient ballad of Puran Bhagat, the first born of Salvahan, the Raja of Sialkot, relates the amputation of Puran’s limbs on account of the calumny of his licentiousness step mother, and the dumping of his supposedly lifeless body in a well outside the city of Sialkot . There he lay, according to the ballad, for twelve long years not yet dead, but hardly living. Then fate brought the celebrated and great Guru Goraknath, the founder and leader of the sect of Kunphutta jogis, to the well. Rescuing the hapless prince from his watery dungeon, the Guru had him relate his sorry tale. Overcome with compassion at the misfortune of the pious man who had rejected the amorous overtures of his step mother, the Guru passed his hands over the damaged body of Puran and miraculously restored his limbs. Thereafter the prince rather than going back to his father’s palace, joined the Guru’s train and went to live with him in his Tilla.

Another famous personage linked with Guru Goraknath was the crown prince Raja Bhartari of Ujjain. More inclined to spiritualism and philosophy than matters of kingship, he gave up the throne in favour of his younger brother Vikramaditya and took to the itinerant life of a jogi. After years of wandering, he eventually ended up as a disciple in the monastery of Guru Goraknath. Vikramaditya, known as the King Arthur of Indian legends, is celebrated for his heroic and victorious stand against the Scythians in 57 BC, an event that marks the beginning of the Vikrami Era. Salvahan, a contemporary of Vikramaditya, on the other hand, is credited with re-establishing and subsequently ruling over Sialkot. As for Guru Goraknath, he is even today venerated in the subcontinent as the founder of the school of Kunphutta jogis; and since a legend always grows around a core of historical fact, it can be said that he would have shared the same period of history as these two illustrious monarchs.

In 1549, having chased the inept Humayun out of India, Sher Shah Suri surveyed the area on the borders of Gakkhar country to build a strong frontier garrison in order to keep these turbulent and uncontrollable adversaries at bay. The site approved for the fort of Rohtas was ‘in the vicinity of Tilla Balnath’. Just three decades later, in the spring of 1581, Akbar the Great visited the ‘shrine of Balnath’. Abul Fazal, the chronicler, goes on to tell us that even then it was ‘so old that its beginning is not known’. Balnath, he tells us, having become an ascetic, chose this place ‘in order to mortify his passions,’ and that this site was visited by people from all over India who held it in high veneration. Clearly then, not only was ‘Tilla Balnath’ a well known feature in the country, but its antiquity was even then a mark of wonder. In April 1607 Emperor Jehangir too visited Tilla Jogian. It is indeed curious that this wonderfully observant writer of dairies only records a journey of ‘four kos and three-quarters ’ from Rohtas before camping at Tilla. For once the sense of wonder and inquiry is missing from the narrative and we hear nothing more about the place.

Closer to our time, we hear of Tilla Jogian in the southern Punjabi romance of Heer and Ranjha. Being from different clans, the lovers could not be united in matrimony and Heer was forcibly married off to another man, while the heart broken Ranjha left home to wander about the land. Travelling up the Chenab and then the Jhelum, perhaps by river boat, he reached Tilla Jogian where he gave himself up to the rigours of a jogi’s life. It was certainly by no accident that he arrived at this monastery. He would have been aware of its existence, as indeed he would have known that one need not be the adherent of any particular religion to become a jogi, for this school accepted followers from all religious persuasions. And then one day, learned in jogi tenets, dressed in those saffron robes, with his ears pierced and adorned with wooden rings, Ranjha journeyed back to that village by the Chenab to serenade his lost love.

Cunningham’s contention that the hill was dedicated to Balnath, the sun god, makes little sense for sun temples necessarily face the rising sun; while the two shrines at Tilla both face west. Although Goraknath does not feature in Mughal chronicles as an early personage connected with this monastery, there is ample evidence to suggest that the ballad of Puran Bhagat and his much revered guru was sung even then, making the guru much anterior to the 15th century as implied by Ibbetson and his colleagues. As for Balnath, he could possibly have been a follower of the illustrious Goraknath and no less a guru himself, who taught at this celebrated monastery and gave it his name.

The beginning of the 18th century saw the waning of Mughal power in the subcontinent. The vacuum was filled by the depredatory raids of Nadir Shah Durrani and his follower Ahmed Shah Abdali. In 1748, Abdali descended upon Tilla Jogian like the scourge of God. The monastery was sacked and looted, many monks were killed, others forced to go into hiding in the forested slopes. Though survivors would have returned as soon as the raiders vacated Tilla and set about rebuilding the ancient cloister, they would nevertheless have remained in constant dread of a similar visit again. Only after the coming to power of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799) and the return of peace to Punjab, did Tilla Jogian regain its past glory.

The annexation of Punjab by the British left Tilla Jogian largely unaffected. In the 1880s, the district administration of Jhelum finding the summer heat of the town unbearable, built a charming brick building with high roofs and verandahs to house the Deputy Commissioner’s office. Then, every year after the Bisakhi festival (April) was over and the wheat was being harvested, the Deputy Commissioner and his entire office would move up to the clean, cool air of Tilla. There the court was held until September. Meanwhile, the jogis of Tilla carried on with their dispensations unaffected.

Then came time for Independence and one of the greatest transmigrations in the history of mankind. For fear of persecution the jogis migrated across the new border in the east. Tilla Jogian was deserted. And deserted it remains today - except for the occasional tourist or shepherds and wood-cutters from villages at its base. The once renowned jogis were forgotten in Pakistan. Only a steadily decreasing number of elderly people who remember life in pre-partition India, talk of the grandeur of the annual Bisakhi festival at Tilla and the arrival of pilgrims from all over the country. Only do these people remember the jogis, wearers of saffron robes and wooden earrings, and the austerities they followed to achieve their personal nirvanas.

The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 26 May 2014 at 05:09, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Nath order of Guru Gorakhnath (founded by Guru Matsyendranath) had a large footprint in the sub-continent, spanning from Nepal (Gurkhas take their name from Saint Gorakh) to Punjab. In the time of Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs, the Nath order was so well accepted faith that Nanak went to meet the Nath's and had a dialogue on their recluse life style. This dialogue finds a permanent place in "Guru Granth Sahib", the sacred scripture of the Sikhs. On pages 938-946 are the questions by the Nath Yogis to Nanak and his response. A brief english translation of this dialogue can be read at link below.

At 26 May 2014 at 14:26, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

Visited Tilla number of time, but details learnt after going through this article. Sir thanks

At 26 May 2014 at 14:31, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On Till ranges, once our CO got annoyed and he sent all of us to hike to the top. I was glad that he 'punished' us. This reminds me of the day gone by. Thanks.

When did you visit Till? I hear that there is not much space left for tactical manures and heavy weapon firing?

At 26 May 2014 at 14:49, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Ranjha ever come to Till or is that just a tale?

At 26 May 2014 at 17:33, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

If we believe Damodar and Waris Shah, Ranjha did indeed spend time at Tilla. There is also a pedestal a little below the peak where he is believed to have meditated. But this is unreliable.

At 27 May 2014 at 15:34, Anonymous Nadeem Akram said...

Excellent narration!

At 29 May 2014 at 20:11, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

This is a line from a PunjabI ballad, "Ranjha jogi ho gaya
Kani mundran pa key" and what this article says about jogis n their tradition of wearing ear rings,this might b an evidence. Just an idea.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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