11 Nov 2019
For a few days every November, the Pakistani
city of Nankana Sahib is transformed as thousands of Sikhs and other devotees
of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, descend upon it to celebrate Guru Nanak
Gurpurab, the anniversary of his birth.
from within Pakistan, from the Middle East, Europe, the United States and
Canada, but the majority arrive from neighbouring India. This year - on his
550th birthday - the numbers are likely to be even greater. On Saturday, as
part of the celebration, Pakistan opened a corridor that will allow Indian
pilgrims to travel without visas between the Indian town of Dera Baba Nanak and
the Sri Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara, Guru Nanak's final resting place, about 6km
(4 miles) away in Pakistan.
colourful turbans and dangling Kirpan (a knife or sword) and women in saris -
once a regular sight in the cities and towns of what came to be known as West
Punjab - will become so again. The sound of Sanskritised Punjabi and the drone
of Kirtan (devotional songs) from the loudspeakers of the city's Gurdwaras will
mingle with the azan, the Muslim call to prayer.
about 75km from Lahore, Nankana Sahib was once known as Rai Bhoi Di Talwandi,
but was renamed in honour of Guru Nanak, who was born there in the 15th
Janam Asthan, a vast and imposing complex with large manned gates located at
one end of the main artery that runs through the city, marks the spot where
Guru Nanak was born.
city's eastern side is Gurdwara Balila, where he played as a child.
Gurdwara Janam Asthan remains the main focus for pilgrims, over the past few
years, several smaller gurdwaras that had been in ruins for decades have been
Gurdwaras tell a story of a state reimagining its relationship with its Sikh
heritage and actively trying to preserve it.
Gurdwara Janam Asthan is located on the spot that was once the house of the
family of Guru Nanak. He is believed to have been born here. Every year in
November thousands of pilgrims visit the gurdwara. [Faisal Saeed/Al Jazeera]
and the Sikhs of Punjab
of colonial India during independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan was
intended as a home for the Muslims of South Asia, in contrast to
Hindu-dominated India. But in this battle between Hindus and Muslims, the Sikhs
of Pakistan found themselves in a precarious position.
partition led to the largest mass migration in human history and the deaths of
at least a million people.
of Punjab, the only province other than Bengal that was divided between India
and Pakistan, were not left unscathed. Riots broke out between Sikhs and
Muslims, with each community committing acts of brutality against the other.
fled Pakistan for India, and overnight some of the most sacred religious sites
associated with Sikhism, including Nankana Sahib, were abandoned. They quickly
fell into disrepair or were taken over by refugees fleeing the violence.
partition, which had been imagined as a solution to the communal issues of
India, did not bring an end to the animosity. With Kashmir becoming a
particular point of contention, the neighbours remained at odds. They have fought
three wars and countless skirmishes since.
charged political environment, Sikh heritage fell victim to neglect and,
sometimes, hostility. So, too, did some Sikhs and Hindus living in the areas of
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as North West Frontier Province, the most
westerly province of Pakistan which borders Afghanistan. The riots during partition
did not reach there. But during the wars with India in 1965 and 1971, many were
forced from their villages. Some headed for Nankana Sahib, about 500km (310
part of my research for my books A White Trail and Walking with Nanak, I spoke
to some of the first Sikh families from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to have moved to
Nankana Sahib, they told me how, upon their arrival, they found Gurdwara Janam
Asthan in a state of disrepair; its sacred pond empty and its gardens
overgrown. Other, smaller, gurdwaras were in a far worse state.
refuge in the abandoned Gurdwaras of Nankana Sahib, these Sikh families began
some of the earliest renovation work - at their own expense. As, over the
years, more Sikh families moved from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Nankana Sahib, a
small Sikh community began to emerge.
increased exponentially after 9/11 as the Taliban sought sanctuary in parts of
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and began targeting religious minorities. Some reported
being asked to pay jizya (a tax levied on non-Muslims living in a Muslim state)
and forced from their homes if they did not. In 2010, a young Sikh man named
Jasper Singh was beheaded when his family could not pay. There were other
high-profile killings of Sikhs in the region.
From a handful
of families, the number swelled to several hundred. For the first time since
partition, a sizeable Sikh community had found a home at Nankana Sahib.
Separatism And Politics At The Gurdwaras
But it was
not just the local community that inspired the renovation of these structures.
The 1980s witnessed a separatist movement by Sikhs in India. Pakistan, which
was still reeling from its defeat to India in the 1971 war, was keen to avenge
its "humiliation". It threw its weight behind the Sikh separatist
movement, forming connections with expat supporters in Canada, the US and the
United Kingdom. Many of these Sikh leaders travelled to Pakistan, where they
began addressing Indian Sikh pilgrims, who would, in small numbers, gather for
Guru Nanak's Gurpurab at Nankana Sahib. Thus, the city's gurdwaras became
places where the neighbouring states played out their politics.
In 1985, at
the peak of the separatist movement, Indian diplomats were attacked by a mob of
Sikh pilgrims seeking to avenge the killing of thousands of Sikhs in the
aftermath of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh
bodyguards the year before.
against this backdrop that Pakistan began paying attention to - and money for -
the restoration of historically significant gurdwaras. Funding also arrived
from the Sikh diaspora, as well as from Pakistani Sikhs who continued their
efforts to restore their sacred sites.
Sikh separatist movement in Punjab subsided, the relationship between the
Pakistani state and Sikh heritage survived. Under the military dictatorship of
Pervez Musharraf, who was eager to project his rule as "enlightened
moderation", protection of religious minorities and their festivals
acquired a particular significance. Greater numbers of pilgrims from India were
given visas, while the state began improving facilities at the Gurdwaras.
subsequent governments have followed; understanding not just the economic
benefits of Sikh religious tourism but what it means for the country's image.
It is this
historical background that provides the context for the renovation of Gurdwara
Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur, which began in the early 2000s through funds
collected by Canadian and American Sikhs, and the opening of the Kartarpur
be one of the holiest Sikh sites in Pakistan, Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, once a
modest building in the middle of fields with no proper road leading to it but
now a well-served and expansive structure, at Kartarpur Sahib - about 180km
(112 miles) from Nankana Sahib - holds the grave and the samadhi (memorial - a
small marking constructed over the buried ashes of a deceased after cremation)
of Guru Nanak.
dogma across religions, Guru Nanak attracted Muslims and Hindus as his
followers. His philosophical movement argued for an inclusive religiosity that
allowed people from different sects, castes and religions to come together and
worship one God. After his death, upon the request of his followers, both a
grave and a samadhi were constructed for his Muslim and Hindu followers.
time I visited Kartarpur in 2013 I witnessed a local Muslim family paying
homage to Guru Nanak at his grave. I was told that several local Muslims
continued to revere him and were the only devotees who regularly visited the
gurdwara after partition, even when the property was taken over by drug addicts
and smugglers who, because of its proximity to the Indian border, often stopped
something similar at other Gurdwaras associated with Guru Nanak. I visited
Gurdwara Sacha Khand - a small single-room, domed building - in Farooqabad, a
town about 40km (25 miles) north of Nankana Sahib, a few years ago. The
abandoned Gurdwara was being used by devotees of a Sufi saint who was buried
opposite. While a small shrine had been constructed in its vicinity, the
sanctity of the Gurdwara had been maintained. The locals were aware of the
legends of Guru Nanak and talked about him as they would of any Sufi saint.
abandoned Gurdwara I visited close to the India-Pakistan border, in a village
called Ghavindi, packets of salt and incense sticks, often used in Sufi
rituals, had been placed inside, while the floor of the shrine had been
tradition was much more obvious when I visited Gurdwara Beri Sahib in Sialkot,
a city about 75km (47 miles) northwest of Kartarpur, a few years ago. This
year, the gurdwara was reclaimed by the state, renovated and opened for Sikh
pilgrims. But before that, it had been looked after by local Muslims, who
believed a small grave under a tree in the grounds to be that of a saint.
appropriation of Gurdwaras can be understood as a way of maintaining a site's
sanctity in a way that is religiously acceptable and meaningful to the local community.
sometimes this religious syncretism is even more direct. The village of Ram
Thamman in Kasur district, in Punjab, derives its name from a Gurdwara at the
centre of the village named after Guru Nanak's older cousin, a Hindu saint.
Starting in the 16th century, it was the site of a festival, Baisakhi, attended
by Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. After partition, the numbers declined
significantly, but each April, hundreds of Muslims still gather at the Gurdwara
to pay homage to Ram Thamman. It is one of the few surviving examples of the
kind of religious syncretism that was preached by Guru Nanak and once common
across South Asia.
there are many examples of Gurdwaras that are still in ruins - according to a
study by Iqbal Qaiser, there are about 70 historical Gurdwaras across Pakistan
that commemorate some aspect of Guru Nanak's life, out of which 13 or 14 have
been renovated and opened for pilgrims. Some have been desecrated, others
gradually incorporated into Sufi shrines, turned into homes or had all physical
trace erased. A few have been maintained by local Muslim communities who have
inherited through oral tradition some stories from the life of the founder of
extensive renovation of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur and the opening of
the visa-free corridor reflects the changing attitudes of Pakistan and the
enduring legacy of Guru Nanak and his philosophy. It could address some of the
wounds of partition, paving the way for reconciliation between different
religious communities, and there is no figure who better personifies that than
Guru Nanak, who spent his life trying to bring communities together.
Khalid is an anthropologist and the author of several books including Walking
with Nanak and Imagining Lahore.
Headline: Guru Nanak and the promise of an inclusive Pakistan
Source: The Al-Jazeera