In 2015, when I started work on my recent book on Punjab, I was not aware that we would soon be celebrating the 550th birth anniversary of the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak. Early enough in my journeys, I visited Sultanpur Lodhi where Guru Nanak had meditated for 14 years, nine months and 13 days. Then he disappeared in the Kali Bein rivulet for three days and nights. When he emerged, he uttered “Na koi Hindu, na Musalman (Neither is one Hindu, nor Muslim).” His emphasis was on our essential humanity beyond the identity markers we inherit at birth: religion, caste and even gender.
I chose Sultanpur Lodhi because I thought if I want to travel, I must pay obeisance to the greatest traveller I know. Post his meditation phase, Guru Nanak travelled around 25,000 kilometres on foot, in all four directions, with his trusted accomplice Mardana, the rubab player. On his long hikes, Guru Nanak met many people of various religious persuasions and had elaborate discussions with them on matters of faith and spirituality. After the journeys, Guru Nanak settled in Kartarpur, now in Pakistan, three kilometres from the Indian border town of Dera Baba Nanak. He farmed at Kartarpur Sahib for 17 years and composed hymns that are now part of the Guru Granth Sahib. His journeys had showed him the fallacy of idolatry and empty rituals. That is why his teachings propose the need for a fresh, formless—nirgun—approach to God and the universe.