Notes from Kartarpur
While Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life at Kartarpur, now in Pakistan, it is known that he settled down there only after spending almost 25 years on the road. He is believed to have travelled from his place of birth in Talwandi (Nankana Sahib), also in Pakistan now, up to Tibet, Sri Lanka and even Baghdad. Legends suggest that it was in Baghdad that the Guru’s steadfast companion, Bhai Mardana, a Muslim, passed away, which prompted the Guru to call it a day and settle down at Kartarpur.
He lived there with his wife and two children, tilled the land and settled his followers. The Gurudwara, Kartarpur Sahib, was built in 1522 and the Guru himself passed away in 1539 but only after he had anointed his successor. Kartarpur since then has been the second holiest shrine for Sikhs, now numbering 27 million and spread across the world, after Gurudwara Janam Asthan at Nankana Sahib, where Guru Nanak was born.
Kartarpur boasts of a ‘Samadhi’ as well as a grave. It is said that when Guru Nanak passed away, his Hindu followers wanted to cremate him while his Muslim followers wanted to bury his body. The issue was resolved by an old man — most believe he was the Guru himself — who appeared out of nowhere and advised the followers to cover the Guru’s body with a white sheet and wait for his instructions. When the cover was lifted after some time, followers were astounded to find only flowers there. They divided the flowers between themselves, burying a part of it and cremating the other part.
The present shrine at Kartarpur was rebuilt in 1925 after the original was destroyed by floods on two earlier occasions. Raja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, grandfather of the present Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, contributed Rs 1,35,000 for the reconstruction. Some devotees believe that books and other objects were removed during the reconstruction and kept elsewhere.
Charlotte Canning, British Viceroy Lord Canning’s wife, while describing her trip to “Khurtarpore” in February, 1860, provided some of the earliest sketches and details about the Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, that rested in the Gurudwara at Kartarpur. Lady Canning, by some accounts, enclosed her sketches in letters to Queen Victoria, which are stored at Harewood House, West Yorkshire, England.
Following Partition of the subcontinent, Kartarpur fell in Pakistan and became inaccessible to Indians. Sikh devotees however continued to use a bridge on the river Ravi to cross over the border and visit the shrine. But the bridge connecting Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Punjab, India, with the Kartarpur Gurudwara was destroyed during the 1965 Indo-Pak war and in 1986, the border was fenced, cutting pilgrims away from the shrine. It was in 1999 that a corridor was first proposed to allow devotees to cover the four-kilometer distance from the Indian border to the shrine. The two governments finally agreed on the modalities in 2018, especially in view of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, which falls on November 12, 2019.
Out of the original 100 acres that belonged to the Guru, a few acres have been repurchased and set up as organic farms with ‘desi kheti’. The farm provides for the langar (community meal) that is served at the Gurdwara. A library has been rebuilt and a corridor has been laid for the pilgrims to reach the shrine.
While the Guru did not distinguish between Hindus and Muslims, his appeal was never confined to Punjab or the Sikhs alone. Some of his earliest influences — Syed Hassan, Rai Bular and his Persian and Arabic teacher, Maulana Qutubuddin — were Muslim. Later, he came to celebrate Baba Fareed Ganjshakar and idealised him as a true Muslim. His closest friend and lifelong companion, Bhai Mardana, was also a Muslim.
Commentators have noted that when Nanak decided to undertake his journey, he put on an attire that deliberately diluted his religious identity — a loose choga similar to Muslim dervishes, but of reddish ochre preferred by Hindu ascetics, with a white belt-like piece of cloth around his waist, similar to fakirs, and a cap on his head like the Sufi qalandars.
In his compositions also, the Guru refers to God with multiple names, including Allah. When asked by devotees which religion they should follow to become his Sikhs, he replied that if one was a Muslim, then one should strive to be a good Muslim, and if one was a Hindu then one should try to be a good Hindu.
Even as pilgrims plan to converge at Kartarpur Sahib before and after November 12, the two governments have not quite covered themselves with glory. While the Pakistani Prime Minister upset many devotees by waiving the requirement of a visa for only Indian Sikhs, devotees were equally upset with the Indian government preparing to hoist the National Flag at the border, which would tower over both the ‘Nishan Sahib’ — the Sikh flag — and possibly the Pakistani national flag at the border. If Pakistan hoists its own flag higher, it runs the risk of offending the pilgrims, some have argued, whereas if they allow it to remain lower than the Indian flag, they allow hardliners in India to score a brownie point and beat their nationalist chest.
“Sikh Diaspora is concerned at reports that India is constructing an ‘airport-like’ terminal worth Rs 5 billion at Dera Baba Nanak. It includes a 300 feet [high] Indian monumental flag, which will neither represent the spiritual essence of the sacred space nor the heritage architecture from the Guru period or the Sikh architecture [of] post-Guru period,” lamented Gurmeet Kaur, who 'leads a world Sikh campaign for preserving 100-acre fields of Baba Nanak era at Kartarpur'.
The Indian move, she said, smacks of supremacy and ego and not of honour and “submission to the feet of the great Guru”, while frowning on the ‘Attari-Wagah’ like macho contest.
Many Sikhs have been voicing their misgiving over the two governments trying to make Kartarpur a ‘tourist hotspot’ like the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar. They also complain that many gurudwaras in India lack the simplicity that the Guru preached. The relatively untouched gurudwaras in Pakistan, they believe, have largely retained their original spiritual flavor.
“The serenity, the presence of Baba Nanak in the forests around the River Ravi, the trees, the farms, the quiet premises, the chirping of the birds and the organic langar served in the open yard, is what makes Kartarpur Sahib unique and it must stay that way,” maintain some of the Sikhs.