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Everyone’s Guru

A few visits to Gurdwaras that show how syncretic, simple and universal was the message of Guru Nanak, where there were no cultural, religious or caste barriers

Everyone’s Guru
Gurdwara Kartarpur.

A few days ago, I visited a number of Gurdwaras in Narowal, Sialkot and Peshawar. While the main aim was to simply visit them, the more I learnt about them the more questions cropped up in my mind.

Visiting these Gurdwaras, I first realised how little people in Pakistan (and elsewhere I suspect) are aware of the fact that almost all the important sites associated with the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, are located in Pakistani Punjab. Guru Nanak was born in what is now called Nankana Sahib and he died in Kartarpur, district Narowal.

While Nankana sahib is relatively well known and lots of Sikhs from Pakistan and abroad visit it every year, Kartarpur is comparatively little known. During my visit I realised that Kartarpur, at some level, was the more interesting of the two. Kartarpur — the abode of the Creator — was the first community of ‘Sikhs,’ the ‘students/disciples,’ established by Guru Nanak in 1522. Guru Nanak spent nearly seventeen years in the area, tilling the fields, preaching, and modelling his new monotheistic and non-violent community of learners.

When Guru Nanak died in the same town —Kartarpur — on September 22, 1539, a dispute arose about his burial among the local community. Hindus in the area wanted to cremate him, while the Muslims wanted to bury him — both communities claimed him as their own. But Guru Nanak and his spirituality was above all these considerations, and while these squabbles were continuing, his body miraculously disappeared and only the cloth placed over his body remained with some fresh flowers. In the end, both sides agreed to split the cloth and the Hindus cremated one half and the Muslims buried the other half. To date there are two shrines at Kartarpur — the Muslim shrine and a joint Hindu/Sikh shrine, side by side.

During my visit to both the Sikh/Hindu and Muslim shrines at Kartarpur, I was simply struck by the serenity and holiness of the place. I stayed in Kartarpur for a couple of hours and noticed a steady stream of local Muslims visiting the shrine and praying at the Muslim grave to ‘Baba Nanak’ as they called him. To the Muslims of the area he was simply a ‘Pir’ — a spiritual leader, who preached the oneness of God and godly living in the area, and so their claim was as much on Nanak as that of the Sikhs or Hindus.

It was also interesting to note that the Gurdwara was only about three to four kilometres from the Indian border and since the Sikh Gurdwara (rebuilt after floods in the 1920s by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala), was easily visible from the border the Sikhs beyond the Radcliffe line had built an elevated platform to view the holy place. The ‘Nishan Sahib’ the tall pole present in every Gurdwara, also had lights attached to it, so that it could be viewed even at night time, due to this consideration.

To the Muslims of the area he was simply a ‘Pir’, who preached the oneness of God in the area, and so their claim was as much on Nanak as that of the Sikhs or Hindus.

There I was also told that during the Musharraf era when the Gurdwara was renovated and opened for the Sikhs, a proposal was made by the government of Pakistan to allow Sikh pilgrims to come to worship at this site through a walkway, without the need of passports or visas. However, this positive move by Pakistan was spurned by India and still no progress has been made on the issue. The Radcliffe line still divides.

Another very interesting and significant Gurdwara I visited was Gurdwara Beri Sahib in Sialkot. This Gurdwara is built over the spot where Guru Nanak sat in one of his visits to Sialkot. It is said that once when Guru Nanak visited Sialkot the city was in the grip of anxiety and terror. Someone had broken his promise to a Sufi, Hazrat Hamza Ghaus, and the Sufi, in a fit of rage, had decided to fast and meditate for forty days in order to curse the city. The residents of Sialkot requested Guru Nanak to intercede on their behalf and Guru Nanak therefore sat under a Beri tree near the place where Hazrat Hamza Ghaus was meditating. The loud singing of Guru Nanak disturbed the Sufi and when he came to shut up Nanak, Guru Nanak reasoned with Hamza Ghaus and as a result the Sufi decided not to anathema the city.

When I visited the Gurdwara a few days ago it was only a shadow of its once glorious state. The frescos has all but disappeared, but the ones which had survived showed a beautiful and ornate structure which was built by the Sikh and Muslim devotees of the Guru who had saved their city from destruction. Here again was a Gurdwara which brought both Muslims and Sikhs together — again exemplifying that the reverence and spirituality of Guru Nanak transcended simply religious boundaries.

The third major Gurdwara I visited was that of Bhai Joga Singh in Peshawar. While this Gurdwara is not connected to Guru Nanak, and is named after a follower of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, what was interesting here was that it was a ‘living’ Gurdwara. While both the aforementioned Gurdwaras had been closed for decades and had only been recently restored and opened with a smattering of Sikhs, Gurdwara Joga Singh catered to the sizeable community of ‘Pakhtun Sikhs’ who had remained behind in Peshawar following the partition and the creation of Pakistan.

These Sikhs who spoke Pashto, and barely understood Punjabi, were so much a part of the Pakhtun cultural mosaic that leaving their ancestral land simply did not occur to them. Hence, in a way, their existence in Peshawar and the continuous operation of the Gurdwara showed that the message of Guru Nanak was not simply confined to the Punjabi speaking. Here was a community of Pashto speaking people, who might have once been of Punjabi stock, but now were part and parcel of the Pakhtun life and culture and an integral part of Pakhtunwali.

These visits to the Gurdwaras clearly showed to me how syncretic, simple and universal was the message of Guru Nanak, where there were no cultural, religious or caste barriers — he was as much a Sikh as he was a Hindu or a Muslim and all could claim him as their own. My visits also highlighted the fact that modern Sikhism, rather than celebrating and making central the message of Guru Nanak, has largely forgotten it and relegated it to the realm of religious books. Bizarrely, for me, all the major sites—the ‘Takhts’ in Sikhism now relate to the last few Gurus, and none of them relate to the first and founder. Perhaps Guru Nanak is too large a personality to be limited to one particular religion?

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

One comment

  • R S Chakravarti

    It is a pity that the message of Guru Nanak didn’t influence the Muslim League. The end result was the 1947 massacres in Punjab (east and west). In contrast, in the rest of (post-partition) India, things were generally peaceful and not many Muslims left.

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