“Vaheguru! Please allow us to openly visit and care for Nankana Sahib and other Gurdwaras that have been separated from the Panth.” Sikhs request this in their daily prayer (ardaas) to the God and the Guru and I have grown up reciting it hundreds of times and always wondering if it would happen in my life time. Since these Gurdwaras are situated in Pakistan, which have had relatively hostile relationship with India since the partition in 1947, I never got enough courage to plan a visit. Then one day, my son came from his college break and said he wished to go to Pakistan to visit the Gurdwaras, I immediately started planning for the entire family.
Since our family and relatives live in Punjab (India), we decided the combine the visit both to India and Pakistan. We decided to fly to Delhi, take fast train or cab to Amritsar and then cross the Wagah border the next day to reach Nankana Sahib. The Wagah border separates the eastern (India) and western (Pakistan) Punjab and is about 30km (20 miles) away from both from Amritsar and Lahore.
It took about two hours at the Wagah border while we had to clear immigration and customs both on India and Pakistan sides. We walked the border line to go to Pakistan and my host, Giani Balwant Singh (Head Granthi of Gurdwara Janam Asthan, Nankana Sahib) was waiting for me along with a cab. It took us about 2 hours via Lahore to reach Nankana Sahib, which is south of Lahore. Giani ji took us to his home for dinner and made arrangement for our stay at the Gurdwara complex. We had also looked at the option of staying at the hotels but the main hotels were in Lahore, which is 2 hours away. Also, it was much more serene to live in the Gurdwara, even though my daughter missed the comfort and convenience of a US home or hotel. “Nankana Sahib” is not an actual Gurdwara; it’s the name of a district and of a city, that was known as “Rai Bhoi di Tawandi” village at the time of Guru Nanak. The city is in the general area where Guru Nanak Dev Ji lived and holds several historical Gurdwaras from his early life. These include the gurdwaras Janam Asthaan, Bal Leela, Patti Sahib, Tambu Sahib, Maal ji, and the gurdwaras in memory of the 5th and 6th gurus.
The main Gurdwara is at the site of Guru Nanak’s birthplace is known as “Gurdwara Janam Asthaan.” It is massive: to gain a sense of scale, the entire complex is around three times as large as the Harimandar Sahib complex. The entrance to the main Gurdwara is a giant Deori (gate), which has two towers. There are many ancillary buildings around the Deori and a brilliant garden with fountains.
Once past the Deori, the actual Gurdwara space (where Guru Granth Sahib and sangat sit) is relatively small (still larger than Harimandir Sahib) but there’s a lot of marblework outside.
There are also a host of small residences and workplaces where sewadars of the Gurdwara (most of whom are Muslim) live and work. The tree under which the shaheeds were burnt alive during the 1921 effort to free Nankana Sahib from the control of the mahant is still preserved, as is the original well of Mehta Kalu’s family. The Gurdwara has 20,000 acres of land granted in its name—local Sikhs and Muslims view is that it was gifted to Guru Nanak by Rai Bulaar (the local king/ zamindar), while the more popular view is that it was granted by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
The local Sangat that comes here is amazing—kirtan starts at 4:30 AM until 6:30 AM, after which everyone eats langar breakfast (everyone brings cooked food from home and mix it for sharing) and goes on to start their day. There is another kirtan in the evening on daily basis. While Kirtan goes on, Gurmat class starts at 5 AM for the kids, who practice reading and reciting Gurbani from Granth Sahib.
In general, Pakistan society is poor—not like the urban poverty you find in heavily populated Indian cities like Mumbai and Delhi, but more like the rural poverty that was prevalent in Indian Punjab in the 1950s. People have enough to eat and have small and simple homes to live in, but not many luxury goods or comforts. The same applies to the Sikhs who live here, although many of them have very good reputations among the populace for their honest work (which is seen in how Muslims throughout our visit constantly respected us as “Sardar Ji”’s), and they are a tight-knit community. Many of the Sikhs in Nankana Sahib are emigrates from Peshawar. Peshawar is town close to Afghanistan border and this area remained peaceful during riots in 1947. As a result, most of the Sikh and Hindu families stayed there and did not migrate to India. However, the Taliban forced many Sikh families from Swat Valley to move to Peshawar, which in turn prompted many families from Peshawar to move to Nankana Sahib. Most of these Sikhs speak mainly Pushto and are still learning Punjabi.
Gurdwara Bal Leela is only at a couple of minutes walking distance from Janam Asthan where Guru Nanak played with neighborhood friends as a child. It has a massive Sarovar from Ranjit Singh’s time, unfortunately the original Gurdwara has been completely demolished by our modern Kar Sewadars in leadership of a Baba (from Indian Punjab) who are in the process of building a new shiny marble building.
Gurdwara Patti Sahib is at the place where Guru Nanak’s attended his first school and took lessons from the teacher, Gopal. Patti literally means a wooden slate that was used to practice writing alphabet and numerals. Guru Nanak mastered the basic education quickly and his teachers recommended his father to have him advanced lessons in Sanskrit and Hindi from Pundit Brijnath (Padha) in nearby town. Later, Guru Nanak learned Persian and Arabic from a maulvi (Muslim priest), making him well versed in Punjabi, Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic in early age.
Gurdwara Maal ji is also in Nankana Sahib, about 4-5 miles from the main Gurdwara at the site where a cobra is said to have provided shade to sleeping Nanak in his early teens. This Gurdwara was very nice because unlike many of the others, it’s pretty much been preserved as it originally was when constructed by Ranjit Singh, as many of the Gurdwaras found in this region were. The Sikhs during that time built Gurdwaras next to the sacred site and preserved the sites (e.g. the place where cobra provided shade) as such. Unfortunately, the modern Gurdwaras are built on the actual sacred sites, which results in demolishing or altering the original places.
Gurdwara Tambu Sahib—after the events of the Sacha Sauda, this is the place where Guru Nanak rested in order to avoid facing his angry father. “Tambu” literally means tent, and Guru Sahib’s tent was a large tree underneath which he rested.
The tree is still there, with lot of knots tied on its branches—a practice often found in mosques, and a sign of the reverence many local Muslims still have for “Nanak Shah Fakir.”
Another set of joint Gurdwaras is where Guru Arjun Dev and Guru Hargobind Sahib each stayed while visiting Nankana Sahib. There aare more relatively minor Gurdwaras interspersed through the city which has a sizable Sikh population (about 500 families).
Outside of Nankana Sahib city, one can find more Gurdwaras that mark important events in Guru Nanak’s life. These include:
Gurdwara Sacha Sauda is where Guru Nanak Dev Ji did “true business” with the money (his father gave him 20 gold coins, approx. $10,000 in today’s currency) his father allotted to him to do a true business in the city. Guru Nanak was on his way to Sheikhupura, a rich town known for business since the Indus civilization. While going, he passed through a slum village, Choorkhana (now Farooqabad), that was interspersed in wooded area.
The local Giani there told us some interesting historical points. One, that the people Guru Ji fed were not just Sadhus, but were in fact societal outcastes (disabled people and low-caste) living in there, with a few Sadhus interspersed among them. Two, that contrary to many’s reading of the Sakhi as a one-time event, Guru Nanak actually helped serve and cook the food himself for a period of 4-5 months. This is where the tradition of “Langar” officially started. The gurdwara has original Beri and Van trees from the time of guru Nanak and the Beri tree is unique as it gives fruits throughput the year (it usually provides fruits inly in one season).
Gurdwara Rori Sahib is where Guru Nanak met Bhai Lalo and witnessed the destruction by Mughal invader Babur. Rori literally means a mile of gravels/stones and the place where Guru Nanak camped was just outside the major city of Eminabad. Bhai Lalo and Bhago lived in the city and Guru Nanak visited Bhai Lalo at his home and ate with his family. Also, the city has an old jail where Guru Nanak was detained and kept by Babur’s forces.
There are also small Gurdwaras in those place but they are opened only during couple of times in a year when large number of pilgrims come to visit.
Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib: This is where Guru Nanak Dev Ji created an establishment and lived his final years after his 40 years of travels (udasis). The well and some of the agricultural mechanisms from his time are well preserved.
Also of note is that he passed away at this place. According to the Sakhi, the Hindu and Muslim followers argued over how to properly do his last rites, and when they lifted the sheet over his body, they only found flowers. There is a tomb outside the Gurdwara where the Muslims are said to have buried half of the flowers, and inside the Gurdwara is a samadh where the ashes of the flowers were kept after cremation. Even today, there are Muslims who pay their respects to the tomb of their Nanak Shah Fakir on a regular basis. While Hindus and Muslims continue to claim Guru Nanak as a saint of their own faith, this is what Guru says himself:
“Na Hum Hindu na Musalmaan
Alah Ram ke pind paran ||
(Neither am I a Hindu, nor Muslim
My body and breadth belong to Allah and Ram – the God of both”
All these Gurdwaras were in relatively close proximity to each other (i.e., within 2-3 hours driving range). The next phase of the trip involved visiting Gurdwaras outside this range, in Lahore and in Hassan Abdul. Hassan Abdul is where Gurdwara Panja Sahib is located. It’s in the Kallar Kahar district, a mountainous and cold region 500km from the flatlands of Punjab and nearing Peshawar. This was the site of the episode where Guru Nanak Dev founded a local spring. Wali Qandhari, a local Sufi saint, got jealous and hurled a stone at Nanak, which the latter stopped with his hand (panja). Some scholars doubt the accuracy of the Sakhi but nonetheless, the site was made into a Gurdwara by the famous general of Ranjit Singh, Hari Singh Nalwa.
Even today, the spring-water runs, and one can see the hill from which Wali threw the boulder (his tomb is found on that hill as well). The water is cool, refreshing, and quite pure. Unfortunately, we were not happy with the upkeep of the Gurdwara by our own Sikhs. When Hari Singh constructed a Gurdwara, he constructed it adjacent to the spring which flowed and had the boulder with the handprint, both of which were left untouched (this Gurdwara is still there and is used when more sangat arrives). However, in 1930’s, the Sikhs and Maharaj Patiala decided to construct a new shiny marble Gurdwara (modelled after Harimidar Sahib) on top of the spring, despoiling the natural feel of the place.
In addition, the rock with the handprint couldn’t be accommodated within the structure, so our blessed kar sewadaris destroyed the original rock, used it in construction, and only preserved the portion with the handprint. Nonetheless, being able to see the site, the spring water, the panja, and the hill (we didn’t go up because it was a three hour hike) was quite satisfying.
Gurdwaras in Lahore. Even though there isn’t any major gurdwara in Lahore in memory of Guru Nanak, there are several gurdwaras in memory of other Gurus and Sikhs. The most prominent are:
Gurdwara Bebe Nanaki Dera Chahal. Guru Nanak’s is mother was from Dera chahal, which was located just outside Lahore at that time and it is a nice sub-urban area now.
As per the tradition, the first child was born at mother’s ancestral home, so Guru Nanak’s elder sister, Nanaki, was born here and the gurdwara is constructed at the ancestral house in her memory.
Guru Ram Das Janam Asthan. This gurdwara is in one of the main and old market of the city, Chuna Bazar. This is at the site of 4th guru Ram Das’s ancestral home. Guru was born here and spent his early childhood. However, both his parents dies at the young age and his grand mother then moved to Goindwal (established by Guru Amar Das) along with him.
An original bath tub from the house was preserved well until recently when the new kar seva people cut it down to 4th of its size to keep it inside the Gurdwara.
Guru Arjan Dev Gurdwara Dehra Sahib. This is one of the most well known incident in Sikh history when the 5th Guru, Arjan Dev was tortured to death by Lahore’s minister Chandu Lal, on orders from the Mughal emperor Jahangir.
This is in the heart of the old Lahore city, just outside the old Qila (fort) on the banks of Ravi river. The gurdwara was constructed later during Maharaja Ranjit Singh period, along with several others.
Gurdwara in memory of Ranjit Singh. This gurdwara, popularly known as the Smadhi (Tomb) of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, is right next to the Gurdwara Dehra Sahib.
The Badshahi Masjit (the largest mosque in the world at that time), built by emperor Babar, is right next to it and can often be seen in backdrop.
Gurdwara Singha Singhanian. This gurdwara is at the site old prison where Lahore Governor, Mir Mannu, imprisoned hundreds of innocent Sikh women and children and eventually tortured and killed many of them.
Bhai Taru Singh was also kept a prisoner here before he was tortured to death.
The five days we spent in Pakistan, visiting historical Gurdwaras, would be in our memory forever. We sometimes cried in joy that we followed guru’s footsteps in some of the places and cried in agony at other times when we realized how we are not preserving our history and culture. We took the last picture with our main host, Giani Balwant Singh, at the Wagah border, before crossing to India.
The Ardaas has a deeper meaning for me now and I will pray to the Guru to help us understand and preserve our precious history!