What would you do if you were an all-powerful ruler and your favorite dancer was upset that she lost one of her silver slippers while fording a canal? You would build a bridge of course! The ruler was the Lion of Punjab – Ranjit Singh, the dancer was called Moran and the place where the bridge was built is Pul Kanjari, a village about 35 km on the outskirts of Amritsar.
On a recent trip to Amritsar, we had an hour or so to kill before heading to the Wagah border for the famed ceremony. Our enterprising driver Satnam Singh said, “Chalo Saab, mein aapko aur ek jagah dikhaunga” (I will show you one more place). We had stopped for lunch at a dhaba on the famed Grand Trunk Road. Our driver took the Pul Kanjri road that heads North and then East to our destination.
We drove through fields of green interspersed with patches of yellow – flowers of the mustard plant. The mustard greens, of course, are the chief ingredient of the famed curry from Punjab – “Sarson da saag”! We wound our way past tractors and auto rickshaws and dodged the occasional bus. We pulled up near a Border Security Force guard post and parked by the side of the road. A few buffaloes rested contentedly by the side of a road.
A plaque provided a brief description of the place. We crossed over to a fenced complex built entirely of the distinct Nanakshahi bricks. These bricks are made of clay and are thinner than the bricks seen in other places. The complex was almost empty. A pre-wedding shoot was in progress. The soon-to-be bride and groom were accompanied by a crew equipped with drones and cameras. The complex itself comprises of a pool (Sarovar) with a separate covered bathing area for women. A temple stands at the other end. The pool was dry. At one time, it was fed with water from a canal that ran alongside the pool. The temple doors were locked and I peered through the latticework of the window but could not see anything in the darkness.
As I stood contemplating on the legend surrounding the structure, the groom walked along the edge of the temple and then turned, no doubt to make a dramatic entrance. I guess the shot was not up to the mark and he retraced his steps for a couple of takes.
There is so much history here and yet it is hidden to my eyes. Ranjit Singh, the fierce and much beloved Sikh ruler of Punjab, used this as a rest area on his travels to Amritsar from Lahore. Moran, the dancer, was a Muslim who lived nearby. The legend says she was on horseback crossing the canal to perform for Ranjit Singh, when her silver slipper, a gift from him, fell into the canal and was washed away. She was so upset about losing her slipper that she refused to perform at the court, leading to the construction of the bridge. The canal that she was crossing, was built by Shah Jahan to water the famed Shalimar gardens in Lahore. The canal itself was fed from the Ravi, one of the great five rivers that give Punjab its name (The Land of Five Rivers). Shah Jahan, of course, is better known as the builder of the Taj Mahal.
Love takes many forms. The Taj is a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s favorite queen – Mumtaz. Legends claim that Ranjit Singh loved Moran and married her in spite of opposition from the Sikh religious authorities, who were not too enthused by the idea since she was a Muslim. In that regard, Moran’s fate differed from that of Anarkali – the exquisite court dancer and lover of Jahangir (Shah Jahan’s father). Anarkali was entombed alive on the orders of Emperor Akbar – Jahangir’s father.
As I looked over the fence, I saw an idyllic setting. The complex is surrounded by lush green fields and on this cool afternoon, it was bathed in golden sunlight. However, appearances are deceptive. This was a thriving town that was caught in the throes of the bloody partition of 1947 as India and Pakistan gained their independence. As a village, a shadow of its former self, it was captured by the Pakistani army in the 1971 war before being retaken heroically by the Indian forces. Having grown up in Bangalore, I have no concept of the dangers faced by my countrymen at our borders.
There are many such historical places all over India. They are off the beaten track and are seldom visited by the average tourist. I grew up in India, surrounded by so much history that I took these places for granted. Besides a single plaque, there is hardly any other information displayed at the sight. The monument also sits adjacent a BSF post and perhaps that contributes to the low key profile of the site. We did not have time to visit the bridge or look for the ruins of Ranjit Singh’s baradari (palace). The term Kanjar has a derogatory connotation referring to a dancer of questionable morals. Moran, in contrast, was considered to be educated, cultured and independent. The village has now been renamed to Pul Moran but is still referred to by its old name.
We can plan trips extensively, but sometimes the unexpected detours give us the most pleasure. There are imposing monuments to love, but I think this is one of the more practical ones. It allowed a dancer to cross a canal without the fear of losing her silver slippers!