A cherished hope?

Chaman Lal Chaman recalls a journey to Pakistan to honour the founder of Sikhism, and considers the continuing relevance of Guru Nanak’s teachings

The often petty nature of party politics and its powerful links with religion were brought home to me again recently as I read about the ongoing controversy surrounding Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu.

In October, Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patralaid into Sidhu – a former professional cricketer and one-time member of the BJP himself, who quit the party in 2016 and joined Congress the following year – suggesting that the minister should get himself a seat in Imran Khan’s Cabinet, so frequently does he express his love for Pakistan.

Patra’s criticism came in the wake of Sidhu’s observation at a festival in Kasauli that he relates to Pakistan more than to South India.But many Punjabis have close emotional links with Pakistan, given the region’s history. With this in mind, is Navjot Sidhu’s behaviour really so offensive to Indians? True, some might not like that, in August this year, he attended the oath-taking ceremony of Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister and fellow ex-cricketer, Imran Khan – believed by many to have been ‘selected’ by the country’s powerful military. For the same reason, Sidhu’s decision to embrace Qamar Javed Bajwa, the military’s Chief of Army Staff, might have raised a few hackles in India.

Yet those actions were likely motivated by honourable reasons. Sidhu claims that Bajwa assured him Pakistan would open the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur ‘Corridor’ – a passage allowing Sikh pilgrims visa-free entry to Pakistan from India to visit the Kartarpur Sahib shrine – before the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhismand the first of the ten Sikh Gurus, in 2019. It is a step that would be welcomed by Sikhs not only in India but across the world – though whether it will actually happen is another matter.

Reading all this took me back 14 years to a time when I, along with a group of fellow Sikhs, travelled to Pakistan to celebrate the birthday anniversary of Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469 in Talwandi – known today as Nankana Saheb – about 50 miles west of Lahore. The Guru’s birth iscelebrated worldwide as Guru Nanak Gurpurab on Kartik Pooranmashi, the full moon day in the month of Katak (October – November).

It is believed that Guru Nanak’s grandson, Baba Dharam Chand, built the first Sikh temple at this site in the 16th century. It was then rebuilt by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the19th century. Many people may be surprised to hear that even today,there are around 365 gurdwaras in Pakistan, although currently only around 20 of them are properly preserved.

During our two-week trip, every day we visited a number of historical places, including 14 famous gurdwaras. One of these was Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, a temple less than 20 miles from the border post of Shakar Gargh, and visible from the Indian side. This is the place where Guru Nanak settled as a householder after his travels, between 1500 and 1524, to places including Mecca, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Jordan, and numerous other faraway lands covering all four directions of the globe.

Darbar Sahib Kartarpur is situated by the River Ravi, a beautiful spot surrounded by fertile land, about 80 miles from Lahore in Narowal district. It was from here that the Guru began preaching his divine message of love and peace. It is said that Duni Chand, the region’s governor at that time, donated 100 acres of land to Guru Nanak, who was then joined by his parents, wife and sons. Soon the Guru’s sermons and the melodies of his poetic hymns attracted many more people, drawn to his messages of equality and fraternal love.

Mr Jameel Chishti, an eighth-generation descendant of the Sufi saint, Khwaja Moiudeen Chishti of Ajmer, told me that the present temple building was built by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala and repairs were carried out by the government of Pakistan in 1995.

At the temple we were offered langar by three Muslim children whose grandmother, Nasiban Bibi, had cooked the food. While Nasiban Bibi brought freshly baked chappatis, her two granddaughters served freshly cooked vegetables grown around this holy place.They tasted so sweet it was as if they had been cultivated by the Guru himself. Even the water was drawn from the very well that once watered Guru Nanak’s fields.

Guru Nanak preached messages of equality and fraternal love
Guru Nanak preached messages of equality and fraternal love

Near where we sat to eat stood a samadh (marble tomb) covered with a green velvet canopy with ornamental border. Sikhs will be familiar with the story of this particular samadh, which represents Guru Nanak’s love for both his Hindu and Muslim followers, and indeed for all humanity. This love is reflected in the words he once said to show that there is no intrinsic difference between Hindus and Muslims: ‘Make kindness thy mosque, sincerity thy prayer mat… and right conduct thy Kaaba, truth thy spiritual guide.’

It is a message that, many centuries on, resonates more than ever.
Guru Nanak spent his entire life preaching truth and the secrets of life, shredding webs of age-old superstition and convincing his followers with logic –for example, he refuted the ritual of throwing water eastwards from the River Ganges to the dead in the next world, instead throwing it westwards to irrigate his crops. I travelled to a temple in Odisha to experience the energy that prompted Guru Nanak to sing ‘Arti in Raag Dhanashri’, a song of praise: ‘Bounties of nature are offered in prayer, the sun and moon are thy lamps, the galaxy of stars are as pearls.’

It is said the great man was at first refused entry to this temple as he was perceived to be a Muslim. This brings me back full circle to the contemporary story of Navjot Singh Sidhu and what I believe is his honest desire to see an end to inter-faith enmity within and between India and Pakistan, and between the two countries themselves, which could be aided by more flexibility in travel.A softer India-Pakistan border is a long-cherished ideal, encouraged by India’s former PM, the late Atal Bihal Vajpayee, and symbolised by his historic 1999 bus ride to Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.

These are laudable wishes. But we should also be aware that politicians of all hues and in both nations are not above using people’s deep-seated faith to play on their emotions and achieve their own practical agendas that have little to do with spiritual matters. They could all learn a thing or two from Guru Nanak.

Chaman Lal Chaman is a London-based Panjabi poet, lyricist and radio broadcaster who wrote the popular Panjabi song Saun da mahina, sung by Jagjit Singh in 1979. He also writes in Urdu and Hindi

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