Seeing Guru Nanak’s spiritual life in Pakistan’s gurdwaras

Haroon Khalid in Lahore

Looking back, it seems like a strange coincidence how I met Iqbal Qaiser, my mentor. A slight variation in circumstances and the story would have turned out to be completely different. I was in the last year of college and was being increasingly drawn towards exploring signs of history and heritage across the country.

History, as a subject, is not taught in Pakistan. What is taught instead is an ideological course, designed to churn out students who parrot the narrative of the state. What that means is that, one after another, there have been generations of students in the country who have had no exposure to non-Muslim history or non-Muslim narrative of history. This, however, is not the only problem. Even the subject that is taught is completely divorced from the history of the geographical realities of the students, from their cities, villages and towns. History is taught from a macro level, recalling tales of rulers and their exploits with no mention about how localities reacted to these political realities.

Thus, as the years of my formal education were coming to a close, I increasingly felt a void in my understanding of history. Around this time, I was also being increasingly drawn towards politics of non-violence, reading Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

The day Iqbal Qaiser was invited for a talk at my college, I was reading a biography of Guru Nanak. While the spiritual aspect of the message was there, I was also fascinated by his non-violent political struggle. I interpreted his confrontation and discourse with the Mughal Emperor Babur at Eimanabad through this framework of non-violent politics. Could Nanak too be seen as an adherent of non-violent political struggle? If yes, then how is one to interpret his message in the context of the histories of the latter Gurus, particularly Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh, both of who found it completely legitimate to use violence in defence from an oppressive force.

It is with these questions that I approached Iqbal Qaiser, a Punjabi poet, and author of several books, including Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan, and most recently Ujre Daraan de Darshan, a compilation of his visit to several historical Jain shrines around the country. Here was a historian who not only could answer my questions about Guru Nanak, but also help me explore traces of history around the country, in the form of gurdwaras, temples and other old structures.

We travelled over thousands of kilometres, spending hours together, engaged in conversations about history, politics, religion, and culture. It was the beginning of my informal education, the most constructive phase of my learning. In Iqbal Qaiser, I had found my teacher, my murshid, my guru.

On one of these journeys, I found myself at Nankana Sahib, the home of Guru Nanak, on the occasion of gurpurab. While the city is hardly an hour from Lahore, my hometown, it felt like a different world. There were thousands of Sikh pilgrims everywhere. The entire city had been lit up in celebration of Guru Nanak. Visiting one was a far cry, I had never seen a gurdwara (besides Gurdwara Dera Sahib facing Lahore Fort, which no Muslim is allowed to enter), and here was an entire city of gurdwaras. Every important moment of Nanak’s spiritual life had been captured in a structure.

At Gurdwara Janamasthan, the grandest gurdwara in the city, I could imagine Bibi Nanki fetching water from the village well, which had been preserved. At Gurdwara Bal Lila, a short walk from Nankana Sahib, I imagined children, one of them Nanak, playing with other children. Next to Gurdwara Bal Lila was Patti Sahib, where Nanak first learned to write. It is here that a poet was born, a poet who through the magic of his words was to sway the world in the years to come. As a handful of Sikh devotees performed religious rituals inside the gurdwara, I could imagine a young Nanak writing on his Patti.

Not far from here is Gurdwara Tambu Sahib, the site of the historical jungle where a young Nanak hid, afraid of the wrath of his father after his Sacha Sauda. Walking under the canopy-like structure of these trees, which had been preserved within the precincts of the gurdwara, I could imagine an adolescent boy sitting under them, as the day sank into a cold evening.

I had my first experience of langar at this gurdwara, a communal experience that was first instituted by Nanak. Here, I sat as a Pakistani Muslim along with hundreds of others, some Sikhs, others Hindus, sharing a hot meal. With every bite of the meal, all distinctions, decades of antagonism and the sins of Partition melted away. Here there was no Hindu, no Muslim, as Nanak proclaimed.

It was my most intimate experience with history, a pilgrimage of sorts, that brought deeper insights of not just Nanak’s message and his philosophy but also my own culture and history. I began realising that these artificial divisions between Hindu, Muslim and Sikh histories that had been raised by a colonial regime for its own political agenda were as artificial as distinctions between exclusive identities that Nanak vehemently spoke against. Nanak, I realised, was not just part of Sikh heritage, but my history and culture.

But not all the gurdwaras I visited were as grand. There were many which had been abandoned, taken over by squanderers. Right on the border of India-Pakistan, I visited Gurdwara Rori Sahib in the village of Jhaman. Here, just outside the village in an open field, a few steps from the international border was this dilapidated gurdwara, commemorating a spot where Nanak once visited along with Bhai Mardana. While the structure was in a bad shape, on the top floor, inside the dome, there were still remains of the old frescoes, pictures of gurus. In most of these pictures, the faces had been spoiled, perhaps as an expression of people’s understanding of Islam’s opposition to iconoclasm. While it is likely that before Partition some Muslims of the village also visited the gurdwara, finding parallels between Nanak’s insistence on monotheism and their own religious beliefs, after Partition, it seemed the building had slowly been ‘otherised’ remnant of a past the community would rather forget.

On the other hand, however, there were also places where some traces of these syncretic traditions, aligned with Nanak’s message, had survived. In Chuhrkhana, while Gurdwara Sacha Sauda is a well-maintained massive gurdwara, Gurdwara Sacha Khand is a comparatively lesser-known structure, a single storey simple building standing behind Gurdwara Sacha Sauda. While the Gurdwara Sacha Sauda had been preserved and renovated, somehow this building had been bypassed. Here I met devotees of a Sufi pir who had established himself in the precincts of this abandoned gurdwara and was now buried in front of it. As Iqbal Qaiser and I sat with his devotees, one of them narrated to us stories of Guru Nanak’s miracles that he had heard from his ancestors, who had heard them from the Sikhs when they used to live here. “Guru Nanak was a true devotee of God,” he said as he finished the story.

Lying in the middle of these two extremes is the story of Gurdwara Beri Sahib in Sialkot, where Nanak is believed to have encountered the arrogant Sufi Hamza Ghous, and also Maula Karar. Here just next to the partially renovated structure was an old berry tree, lending this gurdwara its name. Sometime after Partition, a grave had appeared under the tree converting this space into a Muslim shrine. There were dozens of devotees of the shrine sitting around the gurdwara engaged in different activities. This was an example of cultural appropriation where a sacred space of one religion had been appropriated by a different culture as a sacred space, as the social and political realities changed.

However, while I was visiting Nanak the Guru through a pilgrimage to his shrines, I was also exploring Nanak the poet. As I delved deeper into his philosophy, it became harder for me to reconcile these two distinct personalities. Nanak the poet spoke against superstitions and associating stories of magic with saints, while the entire hagiography of Nanak is filled with stories of his miracles. Nanak the poet wrote against institutional religion, criticising dogmatic rituals, while the religion he founded eventually became one of the most prominent institutionalised religions of the world. While undertaking pilgrimages to different religious shrines, he spoke about their futility; his gurdwaras today have become major pilgrimages. It seemed the more I learned about Nanak, the more questions I ended up with. Where do these two stories merge and from where begins the story of the latter Gurus? 

The writer is author of Walking With Nanak