The small town of Nankana Sahib is located 65km from Lahore in Nankana Sahib district, Punjab. An exit on a well-maintained highway leading to Sheikhupura takes one to this dusty town whose name can be traced to the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev.
Formerly known as ‘Rai Bhoi di Talwindi’, the area was bestowed with the name Nankana Sahib to honour the birthplace of Guru Nanak. Nine gurdwaras fall within the limits of Nankana Sahib, each commemorating a different stage or miracle of Nanak’s early life before he left the area on his ideological odyssey. The most well-known, best-kept, and most visited gurdwara in Nankana is Gurdwara Janam Asthan.
Gurdwara Janam Asthan lies at the centre of Nankana Sahib, and represents the home of Mehta Kalyan Dass and Mata Tripta, Nanak’s parents. It is said to have been first established by Guru Nanak’s grandson, Baba Dharam Chand, during the 16th century. The construction of the present walled compound is attributed to Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
A narrow road lined by shops selling miscellaneous items leads one to the gurdwara complex. Visitors are allowed inside after paying a small entrance fee, and undergoing a perfunctory security check. The clean walkway and manicured lawns that greet the visitor are a sharp contrast to the dusty road beyond the gate.
A row of rooms on the right accompanies the visitor to the main gurdwara. As is the protocol in most places of worship, shoes are to be removed at the entrance. A small water threshold has to be stepped through before one can step into the inner courtyard.
The covering of hair, for men and women both, has a particular significance in Sikhism and thus a take-a-scarf box is placed at the entryway for those who might not have brought a scarf along.
The gurdwara complex is a quiet place on a weekday afternoon. There are few tourists, some of them Sikhs visiting Punjab, and some Muslims. A peace pervades the environment as the visitors walk around the central courtyard to respectfully gaze upon the Guru Granth Sahib, the religious scripture of Sikhism that contains the Gurus’ moral codes for spiritual salvation.
Nanak’s birth in 1469 was considered a miracle by his Hindu parents who belonged to the Kshatriya (warrior) caste. As Nanak grew up, he began to question the differentiation between humans on the basis of social castes upheld in the name of religious conformity. His journeys to discover a syncretistic belief system founded upon the universal values of tolerance, compassion, and kindness brought him into close contact with Islamic philosophy.
Nanak was particularly impressed by the poetry of the Muslim saint Fariduddin Ganjshakar, whose words seemed to echo the philosophy of life that Nanak was searching for. The sufi kalam of Khawaja Ghulam Farid forms an important part of the Guru Granth Sahib. It is also considered as the eternal living Guru of the Sikhs, and is accorded utmost respect by the Sikhs.
This reverence is visible in the manner in which the Granth Sahib is placed in a special room at the heart of the gurdwara complex. A Granthi fans the religious book placed on a raised dais in a brightly lit and air-conditioned room. This is the resting place of the Granth Sahib, and visitors are informed by the Sikh custodian’s stern expression to refrain from frivolous conversation while viewing the holy book from a suitable distance.
Rectangular pavilions surround the domed structure in the middle. An ancient tree next to a well is visible as soon as one steps out of the shade of the carpeted pavilion. A painted mural and plaque relate the story of the ‘Day of Martyrdom’ when countless Sikh pilgrims were murdered in the compound under the orders of Mahant Narain Das. Some of the pilgrims, it is said, were hung and burnt alive from that very tree, and its presence serves as a reminder of the sacrifices of Sikhs for their faith.
At the back of the marbled tiled courtyard are the recently constructed hostels for Sikh pilgrims. Further ahead, at one end of the vast compound is the gurdwara’s kitchen and langar hall.
There is not a single piece of trash to be seen as one walks to the kitchen area. A group of bearded middle-aged Sikh men in crisp white shalwar kameezes and colourful turbans sit outside on a cloth mat, peeling and chopping vegetables for the salad that will accompany the routine lentil curry and chapati as ‘guru ka langar’. They, like the young boy who serves the langar, are all volunteers from the local Sikh community.
Back in the inner compound, visitors are pointed towards the sarovar — a dammed pond whose water is said to have sacred healing properties. Opposite the arched entrance of the sarovar is the garage for the special donation bus. Royal blue in colour, the bus has been outfitted with colourful scarves and a raised dais for the Granth Sahib solely as a moving donation box which is driven around the compound on special occasions to collect money from pilgrims to the gurdwara.
The Pakistani government is aware of the strong pull of the gurdwaras at Nankana Sahib for Sikh pilgrims from around the world. Keeping the potential of religious tourism to spur development in the area, Nankana Sahib was declared a district in 2005, and the town was removed from the expanse of Sheikhupura district. Some ambitious projects, such as a world-class university, hospital, malls, and housing schemes were proposed to attract investment by Sikhs who would like to see the birth town of Guru Nanak flourish.
While all of that may not have materialised, the road-link to the Lahore-Faisalabad highway is almost complete.
A new tourist attraction is the privately-built Nankana Resort. Mostly frequented by families looking for a picnic place, the resort has two different tickets: one for access to the main grounds, and a higher rate for access to horse riding facilities. Gazebos lead one to the main picnic area where barbeque pits and a sitting area have been constructed around an artificially created mini-lake. A lone boatman rows children around the lake in a rickety wooden boat while a live band tries to keep up with its audience’s requests.
The salesman at the small tuck shop recommends a walk to the flower garden. The flowerbeds are adjacent to a number of cottages available for rent. The gardener does double duty as the property’s PR person, pointing out that each cottage has a cordoned-off miniature garden. With its private cottages, dirt track for bikes, and riding facilities, Nankana Resort is an upscale and more exclusive version of other such resorts located within a 100 kilometres of Lahore.
The modern aesthetic sensibility of Nankana Resort is unexpectedly in tune with the changing requirements of visitors to Gurdwara Janam Asthan. Its proximity to the gurdwara compound is beneficial for the resort and gurdwara both, as visitors to one invariably visit the other place as well.
The resort’s establishment, intentionally or unintentionally, shows once again how commerce is never far from religious sites in the modern world.