Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Place of Penance, Gurdwara Rori Sahib, Eminabad

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It is a unique fantasy of arches, overlapping petals, Gurmukhi lettering, columns, minarets and domes. Fantasy, because it is made entirely of cut and moulded bricks. And unique as there is no other building in the Punjab that matches its flowing lines. This is the lofty gateway to Gurdwara Rori Sahib outside Eminabad town in District Gujranwala.

When the gateway was raised in the first decade of the 20th century, Antoni Gaudi, the Spanish architect was well-known and his inventive use of curvilinear art nouveau ornamentation was viewed with admiration throughout Europe. If the now forgotten architect of the Eminabad gateway was trained under the tutelage of Lockwood Kipling of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, it is possible he drew inspiration for this assignment from Gaudi’s work. On the other hand, if he was a traditional mistri – which seems more likely to be the case – he had an admirably original and innovative mind. Since this sort of work was not the norm, the originality was coupled with a boldness that came from a mastery of tradition architecture.

The beginning of the 20th century was a time of flux in the building tradition of the Raj. While architects such as Herbert Baker were derisively dismissive of the traditional mistri as being of no value to the builders of the Raj, others, including Kipling and George Birdwood, held a different view and considered the vernacular tradition of immense value to Raj buildings. The boldness of the architect appears to have received its impetus from this strain of thought.

In the words of Kamil Khan Mumtaz, noted architectural historian, the gateway is “an architectural fantasy, showing an amazing dexterity with which brickwork has been used to produce a plastic and almost sensuous quality. The production of these daring forms, which are based on traditional precedent, has extended the possibility of the use of bricks to a hitherto unknown limit.”

Sikh lore relates that sometime in the late 15th century, the great Guru Nanak paused here to spend a night of penance during the course of his wanderings. His chosen spot was a pile of debris and rubbish known as rori in Punjabi. It is not known when the site came to be revered but it would have occurred sometime in the 17th century, when Sikhism was firmly established as a major religion in the Punjab. Thereafter, Rori Sahib became the site for one of the largest Baisakhi festivals in Upper Punjab held to mark the wheat harvest.

The actual gurdwara, a small domed square cubicle, dates back to the 17th century, when it stood alone in a forest of acacia trees. To this destination did the followers of Guru Nanak repair periodically to light the lamp and recite the words of the guru from the Granth Sahib. With the decay of the Mughal Empire and successive eruptions initially by the Turks under Nadir Shah followed by Afghans under Ahmed Shah Abdali precluded embellishment and enlargement of the holy site.

After Ranjit Singh established himself and brought an end to Afghan depredations, a veranda was added to the gurdwara. But it took another 100 years and the peace of the Raj for wealthy Sikhs to finance the ornamentation of the site of Guru Nanak’s nocturnal penance with a building inspired by two different architectural traditions.

Note: This story first appeared in Stones of Empire - Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) book of days 2013.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 09:00,


At 2 March 2013 at 19:43, Blogger HQ said...


At 9 December 2013 at 03:59, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank u mr rashid :)

At 5 May 2014 at 18:20, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing.

At 8 May 2014 at 12:11, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Cheers, Amardeep!


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My Books

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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days