What Kartarpur means to the Sikhs

Imagine an idyllic setting of a settlement in which the mornings and evenings of residents are devoted to spiritual pursuits even as during the day the residents engage in the hard labour necessary for worldly success. They follow the teachings of Guru Nanak, who lives among them, practising what he preaches, giving a definite shape to his vision.

Imagine losing it all to the vicissitudes of time, ignorance and insensitivity of the person whose cartographic pen divided a nation, and machinations of the politicians, who did not redress the issue. You could just gaze at Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur from across the border, so tantalisingly near and yet so far.

The birthplace and the final resting place of Guru Nanak are both in Pakistan. Such is the pull of these sacred spots, and indeed, this heritage, that the “unrestrained access” is part of the daily prayers of the Sikhs worldwide. Of all historical gurdwaras in Pakistan, Kartarpur is the nearest to the India-Pakistan border. While access to Nankana Sahib, where the birthplace of Guru Nanak is commemorated with Gurdwara Janam Asthan, requires visas and is given in carefully supervised groups, the Kartarpur corridor begins with the hope of direct access.

Historical significance

The import of the shrine is in that it is here that Guru Nanak lived with his family for the last 18 or so years of his life. It is here that he gave material shape to his teachings by gathering a community of his followers. Here everyone lived together, breaking caste taboos. They pursued their worldly duties, were farmers, artisans, etc. and were expected to be moral in their dealings with each other. They recited the Japji and Asa di Vaar in the morning and So Dar and Aarti in the evening. The institution of langar, where everyone ate together in pangats and performed sewa was a revolutionary push towards egalitarianism.

We can let our minds wander a bit into that age and think of how a growing community of people lived a life that attracted many to them. How those who travelled far and wide to seek the truth settled down here, like Bhai Lehna, did. He settled down in the growing community. Such was his devotion and dedication that six years or so later, Guru Nanak would choose him instead of one of his sons as his successor.

Neglect and restoration

Like many other non-Muslim shrines in Pakistan, Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur, too, was ignored. It was only in 1995 that following repeated requests by the Sikh diaspora that the government in Pakistan started restoring the gurdwara.

Guru Nanak acquired the land for the village and established a place of congregational worship at Kartarpur which came to be called Darbar Sahib. The Ravi river had encroached on much of the land and landmarks of the original community over the years, including the platform that marked the final resting place of Guru Nanak.

The Mahima Parkash Vartak, an 18th century source, reports that his son Sri Chand, who had the urn that contained the Guru’s ashes, moved to the left bank of the river and buried where the Dera Baba Nanak Gurdwara in Gurdaspur stands. The double-storey domed sanctum we see now is enclosed in a square pavilion, which is flanked by a tower each on the corners on the rear (river) side. There is a verandah in the basement.

The present building of Darbar Sahib and residential quarters were constructed in 1911-12 by a Hindu devotee, Lala Shyam Das, according to Historical Sikh Shrines by Major Gurmukh Singh.

It has a symbolic platform raised in memory of Guru Nanak’s final resting place. The gurdwara survived the floods of the 1920s because of fortifications built with funds provided by Capt Amarinder Singh’s grandfather, Maharaja Bhupindar Singh of Patiala. As it gets more attention, the infrastructure is bound to improve and there will certainly be no shortage of funds for such an endeavour. The Sikh diaspora is expected to contribute handsomely towards the upkeep of the historic gurdwara.

Corridor of faith

Seven decades of deprivation, of watching the gurdwara at Kartarpur from across the Ravi, past the physical border that seemed insurmountable gave way to hope with the announcement and subsequent ceremonies inaugurating the Kartarpur corridor. The Pakistani announcement and Indian response have given hope to many in Punjab that they would be able to pay obedience at the gurdwara. The announcements represent a significant leap of faith by the two prime ministers, but there is always a chance of the naysayers winning because of geopolitical machinations.

If the corridor were to come to fruition, it could well signal a new beginning in what has been a long, corrosive and destructive relationship between two countries that share history and heritage which their leaders have for too long chosen to ignore. Not everything is likely to go as planned, there are bound to be hitches, but it is a leap of faith which could well build a bridge of goodwill and mark a new beginning.

This article by Roopinder Singh was printed in The Tribune on December 2, 2018. Photos courtesy Kulvinder Singh who was there for the inauguration of the corridor in Pakistan.


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