The wooden door was ajar. I didn’t mean to pry, but I couldn’t help looking inside. There was an old banyan tree in the middle of the courtyard with a plaque that read ‘Guru Nanak and Balmiki’s Temple’. There were single-storey buildings on both sides of the courtyard. I walked in cautiously. A short dark man, who later told me his name, Jeeta Singh, wearing nothing but a turban, lungi and vest emerged from one of the rooms. “I have come from Lahore,” I told him. “I am following Nanak’s travels all over the country. Can I see this gurdwara?”
“Sure,” he said and took me to one of the rooms. Dedicated solely to Nanak, there were pictures of different gurdwaras around the country on the wall, including iconographic depictions of some of the most well-known incidents from his life. “Nanak never came here,” he told me. “He was from Punjab. He spent all his life in Punjab.” This was, of course, not true. Nanak, along with his Muslim companion Mardana, is believed to have travelled from Tibet to Sri Lanka and from Bengal to Mecca. During one of his journeys, he is also believed to have travelled to the coastal village of Kolachi, which eventually became Karachi. From here, he is believed to have taken a boat and travelled to a nearby island where there was an ancient temple dedicated to a sea god.
This is exactly what I had done. Having travelled to Karachi, I had taken a boat ride of about 10 minutes to get to the island of Manora. Facing the sea, standing on the golden sand of this thinly populated island is a Hindu temple, now abandoned. Perhaps this was the island that Nanak visited.
PURIFICATION OF NANAK’S LEGACY
For Jeeta Singh, Nanak was a reflection of himself. He was born on this island. He had spent his entire life travelling only between Karachi and Manora. This is the case with everyone. For me, Nanak was an extension of myself. I saw him as a traveller and poet, not a religious figure, more attuned with me being a travel writer. For the subsequent Sikh Gurus, Nanak was what they deemed Nanak to be. In the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book which contains the poetry of Nanak and other Sikh Gurus, all subsequent Sikh Gurus are also called Nanak.
I see Nanak’s movement as a rebellion against institutional religion. Through his encounters he derides religious rituals and also criticises distinct religious identities, which he believed divided humanity. However, for Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru, Nanak was the symbolic founder of the Khalsa, a distinct religious identity for the followers of the Guru.
Near the Manora temple was a Sikh gurdwara, with an orange Khalsa flag hoisted on top of the building, swaying gently in the cool sea breeze. Here I met Rajesh, the guardian of the gurdwara who told me that his family was Nanak-Panthi Hindu. They were members of the Hindu community who regard Nanak as their Guru, while also worshipping Hindu deities. There are thousands of Nanak-Panthi Hindus all over the country who place a portrait of Nanak in their temples, along with other deities. In 1699, when Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa at Anandpur Sahib, many followers of Nanak, further away from the influence of the Guru, refused to join the fold. The Nanak-Panthi Hindus were among them.
This particular gurdwara, however, had a Guru Granth Sahib and posters of Guru Gobind Singh on the walls. It showed signs of being incorporated into the fold of the Khalsa. Perhaps this phenomenon can be understood in the context of the city–Karachi. A deeply divided city, there are several communities here pushing for control–Muhajir, Sindhi, Pakhtun, Sunni, Shia. Distinct communal identities are part of the social fabric. In such an environ a religious figure, more attuned with me being a travel writer. For the subsequent Sikh Gurus, Nanak was what they deemed Nanak to be. In the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book which contains the poetry of Nanak and other Sikh Gurus, all subsequent Sikh Gurus are also called Nanak.
In the heart of Karachi’s Clifton, one of the high-end areas of the city, there is an ancient Hindu temple which Nanak is believed to have visited. As I made my way to the temple on a Friday afternoon, navigating through devotees who had gathered to offer their Jummah prayers at a neighbouring mosque, I was told that as a Muslim I couldn’t enter this temple. The priest further stated that Nanak never visited the temple. Nearly 500 years after Nanak, all his traces had been obliterated from this temple in Karachi.
SYMBOL OF A NEW RELATIONSHIP
More than 1,200 kilometres away, the city of Nankana Sahib is now increasingly seen as a Sikh city. There are only a few hundred Pakistani Sikh houses here, but every year thousands converge from all parts of the world to celebrate Nanak Gurpurab. There are several gurdwaras scattered around the city, all of which commemorate an incident from Nanak’s life. Once left in ruins and taken over by junkies, their responsibility was taken over by the Pakistani government in the 1980s as relationship between the Sikhs and the Indian State aggravated. Over the past 30 years, these well-guarded and well-maintained gurdwaras have become a symbol of the Pakistani government’s warming up to the Sikh expats critical of the Indian government. This year, on the occasion of Nanak Gurpurab, the government officially opened another gurdwara, which had earlier been abandoned. Along with the gurdwaras at Nankana Sahib, a few other prominent ones associated with Nanak, which were in shambles following the Partition, have been renovated by the government and opened for pilgrims. These include the gurdwaras at Eimanabad, Chuhrkhana and Hassan Abdal.
NANAK’S ABANDONED HERITAGE
While the renovated structures make headlines, the hundreds of abandoned gurdwaras still in shambles aren’t talked about. Situated on the border of Punjab and Sindh–where both of these cultures have merged for generations, much like Islam and Hinduism inspiring Sikhism–is the Muslim holy city of Uch Sharif. The city is host to some of the oldest Sufi shrines in the country. Here, located next to the boundary wall of the shrine of Pir Jalaludin Bokhari, are the remains of a well, believed to be part of a gurdwara that was constructed in the memory of Nanak. Now covered by thick trees, the well is in the middle of a field, hidden away from devotees’ eyes. Like hundreds of other gurdwaras associated with Nanak, this structure too will slowly fade away.
But as the legacy of Nanak represented through this building is passing away, his other memory is alive and thriving at the shrine. While on one hand, Sufism represents religious syncretism and tolerance, on the other hand it is also representative of the feudal culture of the country. A majority of Sufi shrines have vast tracts of land linked with them which make the descendants of these Sufis extremely wealthy. In the name of religious devotion, money is extracted from pilgrims. Throughout his journey, Nanak talked about exploitation by religious clergy, which is still practised at the shrine of Pir Jalaludin Bokhari.
After around three decades of world-tottering, Nanak decided to settle down at a place, which later came to be known as Kartarpur Sahib. Here, he spent the last 17 years of his life. There is a small gurdwara here, right on the border of India and Pakistan, marking the spot where Nanak was interred. It is perhaps at this gurdwara that his memory is most alive.
Like a few others, this one too was renovated by the government.
But even before that happened, Muslim devotees of Nanak from neighbouring villages used to visit this place to pay homage to a man they regarded as their saint. These Muslim devotees have continued their visits even after the site came under state control. The authorities had no other option but to accommodate them. This is in contrast to other renovated Sikh gurdwaras where Muslims have been barred as a security precaution. In a time when Nanak’s legacy has became hostage to various competing ideologies, it is this religious fluidity represented by his devotees at Kartarpur Sahib that I believe captures the true essence of Nanak’s philosophy.
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently of Walking with Nanak, published by Westland Ltd.
This article is from our Story Bank. It was first published in 2017.