Time-travelling, on the corridor to Kartarpur shrine

As they sat down to the ‘Guru ka Langar’ or community meal at the Kartarpur shrine after attending the ground-breaking ceremony for the Kartarpur corridor, conducted by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Indian Ministers earlier this week, Sikh pilgrims from India were served more than just a hot meal.

The concept of the organised langar, which became a precept of the Sikh faith, was started very near where they sat on the banks of the Ravi, believed to have been instituted by the founder of the Sikh faith Guru Nanak himself. Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life at Kartarpur before his demise in 1539.

The present gurdwara was rebuilt in 1925 at a slight distance from the original after it was damaged by floods on two occasions. And it was Raja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, grandfather of Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who paid the ₹1,35,000 for the reconstruction.

“Every step here reminds us of the Guru’s life,” said Kashmira Kaur, part of a group of Sikh pilgrims from Gonda in Uttar Pradesh. “The agreement between the two governments to build the corridor is nothing short of a miracle,” she added.

Historians say that while the Kartarpur shrine is now in the limelight for presenting an opportunity for engagement between India and Pakistan at a time when there is no dialogue process between them, the corridor to link the shrine to the Indian border just four kilometres away will also focus a much needed spotlight on the history of the shrine itself.

“Kartarpur has not been on the radar as much for Sikh pilgrims,” explains Lahore-based Pakistani Art historian and author Fakir Syed Aijazuddin. “It will be good if the corridor brings back that focus, and an understanding of the history the shrine represents.” In particular, says Mr. Aijazuddin, the shrine is the repository of one of the last copies of the original Guru Granth Sahib, which was first described in detail in 1860, three centuries after Guru Nanak died.

“Five years from now, I hope there will be a shrine developed with the historic context, and maybe a copy of the Granth will be put on display. There are no other artefacts here, as the family took those away when the building was repaired. So a tangible focus for the pilgrims and the faithful to worship at will be important, and the Granth will be that,” said Mr. Aijazuddin, who has written more than 18 books on history and art of the region.

In his latest book just published, Sketches from a Howdah: Lady Canning’s Tours 1858-1861, he includes extracts from the journal of the first British Viceroy Lord Canning’s wife ,Charlotte, who travelled to Kartarpur in 1860, before the reconstruction.

At the time, the British Governors General (later Viceroy) were all expected to honour the Sikh Guru’s descendants. The writings complement a series of sketches by Lady Canning herself, including one entitled the “Palace of the Sikh Gooroo at Khurtarpore [Kartarpur], Feb 2nd, 1860.”

Lady Canning visited the Kartarpur complex where, according to legend, Guru Nanak’s body has a “samadhi” and a grave, in deference to the traditions of his originally Hindu and Muslim followers, who had converted to Sikhism because of his teachings..

“The old Gooroo we saw is a grandson and representative of [Guru] Gobind and I think he put down Nanak’s precepts into writing,” Lady Canning wrote, expressing some delight at having finally glimpsed the “Grunt” (Granth Sahib), which was presented before the British couple with some ceremony.

“The book lay on a cushion on a carpet on the floor of a small room with shawls…It was a thick quarto sized book written in a peculiar character and language [Gurumukhi] which few people can read,” she added in her journal. Excerpts from the journal were part of letters she sent to Queen Victoria, along with the sketches she made. All the papers are kept at Harewood House in England’s West Yorkshire, and were made available by her descendants to the author.

Many of these nuggets of history are expected to be brought back into focus once the corridor is completed, with the first phase of construction due to be completed by November 2019. The delays due to troubled ties between the neighbours were compounded by the fact that while most major Sikh shrines, except the Harmandar Sahib Gurdwara in Amritsar, were apportioned into Pakistani territory after Partition, most adherents to the faith moved to India.

“Every step here reminds us of the Guru’s life,” said Kashmira Kaur, part of a group of Sikh pilgrims from Gonda in Uttar Pradesh. “The agreement between the two governments to build the corridor is nothing short of a miracle,” she added.

“Anybody with the slightest understanding of our local history, regional history would have understood the significance of the place of Guru Nanak’s death, especially when the birthplace was so far inside Pakistan that it could not have been given to India. [The British] did all this in less than six weeks, and so much suffering has been caused to the community since then,” says Mr. Aijazuddin.

Among those who suffered is 90-year old Gurdiyal Singh now living on the Indian side. Despite his age, Mr. Singh still walks upright, beams toothlessly and laughs in anticipation as he thinks of the journey he will make next year. He says he was told overnight in 1947 to flee his village and leave the shrine he prayed at everyday, and he never thought that it would take him 72 years to return there to pray. Sometimes he walks up to the border and looks through the binoculars placed there for pilgrims to see Kartarpur Sahib, but his failing eyesight make it more difficult now.

At the ground-breaking ceremony on the Indian side at Dera Baba Nanak last Monday, Gurdiyal Singh said he was following developments in the India-Pakistan relationship closely, and plans to sign up to go as soon as the governments on both sides open the corridor.

When asked who he will take with him for company, he says most of his family are no more, including some who died in the violence during Partition. But his trusty Baisakhi (stick) will be his “best friend” on the short journey home, as he visits the shrine that has been so close all this time, yet so far away.

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