A search for Guru Nanak in Pakistan

Amid Hindu-Muslim antagonism that existed even then, Nanak wanted to show that there is a direct path to God, one that doesn’t travel through temples and shrines. 

M.R. Narayan Swamy May 20, 2022
Walking with Nanak; Author: Haroon Khalid; Publishers: Tranquebar/Westland

Lahore-based academic and freelance journalist Haroon Khalid wished to discover Guru Nanak in Pakistan and ended up uncovering a lot more. Centuries after he revolted against Islam and Hinduism (into which he was born) to found Sikhism, Haroon found that the saintly Nanak was still alive in his now Islamic land. He also saw persisting traces of Hindu-Muslim-Sikh syncretism. And despite the ascendency of radical Islam, Pakistan’s ancient and low-key Sufi shrines continue to attract the faithful. 

Haroon had always been fascinated with Guru Nanak, thanks mainly to his mentor, Iqbal Qaiser. The Pakistan state’s backing for the Khalistan project and a section of the Sikh Diaspora’s love for Islamabad may be one reason why some of the Sikh gurdwaras built a long time have found a new lease of life. It was Qaiser’s path-breaking book, Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan, which forced rich Sikhs living in the West to persuade Pakistani authorities to bring them back to life. Qaiser fed Haroon’s interest in Sikhism, a religion born in the undivided Punjab and whose key shrines are now divided between India and Pakistan. 

Haroon wasn’t interested in Nanak the saint but in Nanak the man, Nanak the father, Nanak the philosopher, Nanak the poet and Nanak the wanderer. And what a wanderer he was! Accompanied by Mardana, a Muslim, Nanak first went all the way to Bengal, then down south up to Sri Lanka, returned to north India and toured Kashmir, Nepal and Tibet. Eventually, Nanak made his way to Mecca before returning via Baghdad to Kartarpur to settle down after an epic journey on foot that lasted an incredible 24 years. 

Post partition 

The 1947 partition played havoc with the gurdwaras built in present day Pakistan. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the sovereign of Punjab, he spent large amounts of money on renovating and expanding many gurdwaras. He also attached vast tracks of land to them so that their revenue could facilitate the shrines. As long as the Sikhs were present in large numbers, the gurdwaras functioned as expected. Once the British created India and Pakistan as separate entities, these buildings were abandoned and their properties were snatched away. Refugees who poured in from India took over many gurdwaras and, over time, their historicity ended. The refugees destroyed the original structures. In some cases, they were vandalized for hidden treasure. Ponds that were once holy turned into pools of stagnant and dirty water. In one case, the Pakistan Rangers simply took over an uncared for gurdwara.  

While seeking directions for a Sikh shrine not far from the Indian border, Haroon was surprised when a local man asked him: “You mean Gurdwara Sahib?” It was the first time the author had heard a Muslim in Pakistan use this word of honour for an abandoned gurdwara.  

If Haroon was surprised to find that Gurdwara Sacha Sauda was a splendid structure and recently renovated, with a protective wall covered with barbed wire on top, the gurdwara at nearby Sachkand was in a sorry state. Facing it was the grave of a Muslim saint whose shrine this abandoned gurdwara was now on the way to becoming.  

Mosque-gurdwara row 

One of the most interesting stories relates to Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj. There was once a mosque at the spot where criminals were punished. This was also where a Muslim chieftain, Moin-ul-Malik, had hundreds of Sikhs slaughtered. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh became the king, the Sikhs simply converted the mosque into a gurdwara. Much later, when the matter reached the court and the Muslims wanted it back, the judge called for anyone alive to testify he had seen it once as a mosque. There was none. So the gurdwara remained. 

Later, when the Sikhs razed the building to construct a new gurdwara, there were Sikh-Muslim riots. After partition, the matter again went to court. Most people thought it would now be declared a mosque. But the Lahore High Court again ruled in favour of a gurdwara. The row was taken to the court in the late 1980s yet again. For a second time, the judge wanted someone alive to say it was once a mosque; when no one could be found, it was again deemed a gurdwara! Finally, in the next decade, after the Kar Sewa Committee of England intervened, the gurdwara was reconstructed. Once devotees began flocking from the West, the local economy boomed, pleasing the local Muslims. 

Tambu Sahib 

Haroon also visited a small gurdwara, a yellow single-storied structure, where Nanak spent some time in the sanctuary of some waan trees that still exist and are considered sacred by Sikh devotees. There are two large hostels used by Sikh pilgrims who gather during Guru Nanak’s birthday every November. The entire complex is known as Gurdwara Tambu Sahib. 

Then there is Gurdwara Rori Sahib, which stands where Nanak was detained by Mughal emperor Babar’s soldiers. It was once dilapidated but has been fully restored and receives scores of pilgrims each year. And the place where Nanak was jailed is called Gurdwara Chakki Sahib. Village Tibba Haji Deen is home to Gurdwara Guru Nanak, which was built by devotees after the saint’s visit to the area. The gurdwara was renovated on the orders of the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2008. 

This is not just a travelogue. It is a gentle eye-opener on Sikh religious history. Haroon says that while Nanak founded Sikhism, it was Guru Gobind who codified his teachings and founded the Khalsa. Amid Hindu-Muslim antagonism that existed even then, Nanak wanted to show that there is a direct path to God, one that doesn’t travel through temples and shrines. While all this may not be widely known in Pakistan today, Nanak is still regarded as a holy figure by Muslims who belong to areas which Nanak visited. No wonder, the gurdwara which came up where Nanak breathed his last now gets monetary support from rich Muslim families while wood to cook langar is provided by Pakistan Rangers. 

This is a fascinating and eye-opener of a book that every Indian must-read, in part to know that an innate feeling of oneness remains despite growing religious intolerance. 

(Title: Walking with Nanak; Author: Haroon Khalid; Publishers: Tranquebar/Westland; Pages: 292; Price: Rs 699). 

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