On December 27, 2013 at 2 PM, my friend Amit’s mobile phone rang in Amritsar. It was somebody wanting to deliver a carton that had just arrived from across the border in Pakistan. Amit already knew what it was, but his excitement peaked as he opened the consignment.
Bhai Vasti Ram (1708-1802) was the son of Bhai Bulaka Singh who is said to have accompanied Guru Gobind Singh to the South in 1707.He settled in Lahore after that journey. He lived through the long period of persecution that the Sikhs endured and their eventual rise to political power in the Punjab. He devoted himself to the study of medicine and became famous for his skill in the use of indigenous herbs. He was deeply humanistic and treated his patients free of charge. Stories of his healing power and of his piety spread everywhere.
Bhai Vasti Ram was also well versed in Sikh scriptures and enjoyed considerable influence in the Sikh community. He was often visited by common people and important Sikh chiefs who came to seek his guidance. Among his frequent visitors were Jassa Singh Ahluvalia, Lahina Singh, Gujar Singh, Ganda Singh and Jhanda Singh. Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself became an ardent devotee early in his career. He often used to say that it was due to Bhai Vasti Ram`s guidance that he came out successful in the battle of Bhasin (1800), which established his hold over Lahore. His status was higher than ministers and advisers in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He died in 1802 at the ripe age of 94.
To commemorate this great personality from Sikh history, a marble samadhi was raised outside the Lahore Fort, facing Minar-e-Pakistan, the place where he was cremated. Maharaja Ranjit Singh used to visit this place every year on his death anniversary.
This Samadhi, which is erected, flanking the older defense wall of the Lahore Fort, is a polished amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim motifs in Sikh architecture, and an authentication of the sophisticated taste of the Sikh milieu of that time.
If one approaches the Lahore Fort from the Kashimiri and the Sheranwala darwaza, this would be the subsequent Samadhi on the left side, in the green belt exterior of the Lahore Fort.
Despite its minuscule magnitude, the memorial captures one’s thoughts by its extraordinary exploit of white marble, multihued inlaid stones, floral and human motifs.
Amit Singh (Rajat) Gauri, the eighth direct descendant of Bhai Vasti Ram is a close friend of mine from Amritsar. He told me that his elders raised all their children while sensitizing them to their roots and family values. Amit’s grandfather was someone whom he idolized- Inder Singh, a bar-at-law who was the principal of Khalsa College, Amritsar. At night, he would tell Amit stories of his family legacy, which he remembered to date. The stories of Bhai Vasti Ram particularly fascinated him.
As a child, he used to get very excited and thrilled listening to those stories and he would recreate everything in his imagination. Amit’s father, Balwinder Singh Gauri, often used to teach him values stating that they should not indulge in certain things because they were the children of the saint and this they should always remember.
Thus began Amit’s lifelong quest to gather every bit of information on his ancestor. He placed a picture of Bhai Vasti Ram in his house and he would pay respect to him everyday.
Bhai Vasti Rams’s Samadhi is an impressive structure. In 1992, after the Babri mosque incident, it was badly damaged by a frenzied mob in Lahore. Amit told me about this building and I was keen to visit it. On December 15, 2013, on a trip to Lahore I went to the Samadhi. My heart bled to see the state of the historic monument. The structure lay in ruins and the interior was devastated. Pieces of marble that were once a part of the tomb were piled up outside. I, and my dear friend Faiza Javed, who is an expert photographer, took several pictures of the Samadhi from various angles. Then I picked up two carved slabs of marble. I knew for us these were just stones but for someone else these were a treasure – a vestige of Bhai Vasti Ram.
A few days later, on December 27, 2013, courtesy the efforts of my very dear friends Sohail Sajid and Doctor Asma Riaz, the slabs reached Amritsar. I had already informed Amit Rajat Gauri and his wife Neelu Malik Gauri of the ‘gift’ they were about to receive and it was eagerly awaited.
Amit and his wife Neelu are a wonderful couple, passing on humanistic values and traditions to their children Ragini and Saaz.
Inside the carton which Amit had received were two slabs of marble from the tomb of Bhai Vasti Ram. As he touched them, tears trailed on his face. It was as if out of his sheer imagination something suddenly assumed the form of reality. Whatever he had heard and imagined about the saint converged in those slabs – the linkage spanning over two hundred years had revived. It was a reunion of two generations two centuries apart.
The following day, the stones were placed in neatly carved wooden shelves in Amit’s drawing room. Amit was indebted and I was relieved, for stones, which were rotting, and lying under the open sky had reached where they belonged and were not just stones- these were priceless treasures that had reached someone who knew their true worth. Later, Amit told me that he felt the presence of the saint in his house; as if at the sub-conscious level, he was being guided by someone unseen, unheard.
Post Script: The Government of Punjab has announced an allocation of rupees 2.2 million for the renovation of the tomb of Bhai Vasti Ram. Let us hope that the building is restored in its original form and meanwhile visa regime is relaxed between the two neighboring countries. That would allow devotees, from across the border, easy access to the final resting place of the saint.