Living A Legacy
THE WEEK|November 10, 2019
Enterprising, warm, vibrant and generous, Sikhs have stayed true to the teachings of their gurus. As they celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, it is also a time of reflection for the community
Mandira Nayar

The black floor is dusted white. Bags of flour lie in a corner. The smell of fresh rotis fills the air. A mixer pummels flour into dough and splutters constantly in the background. Across the room, a conveyor belt plops out assembly-line rotis. Sitting next to it, in the sweltering heat, are women, punctuating each breath with a heartfelt Waheguru, adding shine to the hot-off-the-shelves rotis with dollops of ghee.

Faith moves mountains. In the langar [community kitchen] at the Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Darbar Sahib or the Golden Temple, it moves rotis. The langar was started by Guru Nanak Dev to break the caste barrier; it is open 24 hours and everyone is welcome. But mountains often require just a one-time Herculean effort, a grand gesture of devotion, but moving a chapati round the clock requires constant devotion. But it is simple, guided by, as Nanak said, sarbat da bhala (welfare of all) and seva (service).

These two planks lie at the heart of India’s youngest religion. And, in Punjab, they are always on display. Across the state, nothing is in small measures. Roadside dhabas serve parathas as large as dinner plates. Lassi glasses are always gigantic and brimming over. And, hospitality is more often over the top. If you do not want the machine-made rotis, there are hand-fluffed ones available—all you need to do is ask. Even rice, which is not on the menu of a langar, will appear, again in a bowl spilling over, should you ask.

Nanak’s teachings—vand chhakko (to share with others), naam japo (meditate on God’s name) and kirt karo (do work)—are reflected in the daily lives of the Sikhs. And, 550 years after his birth, his message has captured the world. His followers have grown exponentially to make Sikhism the fifth largest religion in the world. Gurdwaras now dot the world, from Punjab to Poland—there was a petition to start one in China, too. His birth anniversary this November 12 is being celebrated across continents. Nepal has brought out commemorative coins; in Pakistan, where he was born and died, a tent city is coming up in Nankana Sahib; in India, where the largest number of Sikhs live, it will be bigger than any Diwali ever. Also, there is the anniversary official app, which will have his bani (teachings).

Nanak was more than just a founder of a new religion. He was also a walker—he spent 24 years travelling the world, walking over 25,000km across countries. He left his family to spread his message, converse and expand his mind. “He crossed over Leh on foot,” says artist Arpana Caur, who has had the opportunity to go to many places that Nanak did. “It is such a narrow path. I went in the Army car with a doctor and an oxygen tank.” The journey is impossible to make even now. Ask Amardeep Singh, a historian who is retracing Nanak’s footsteps for a documentary. “Seventy per cent of the area he travelled to is now in a conflict zone,” says Amardeep, who has published two books on gurdwaras left behind in Pakistan. Accompanied by his companion Bhai Mardana and a rabab, Nanak always travelled with music.

It was in the Kali Bein river in Sultanpur Lodhi in Punjab when the stars were still bright—his favourite part of the day—where Nanak arrived at his message of oneness. “Na koi Hindu, na koi Musalman (There is no Hindu or Muslim),” were the first words he spoke when he emerged three days later from the river. It is this message of tolerance—one even more important today—that needs to be clung on to. “He was a man of peace,’’ says Jaswinder Singh Jassi, information officer, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). This philosophy lies at the heart of Punjabiat, a word that embodies the plurality of the Punjab. And, Nanak is the pioneer of this spirit. “It is famously said, Nanak Shah Fakir, Hindu aur Sikhon da Guru, Musalmanon da Pir [Nanak is the spiritual leader of Hindus and Sikhs and a saint of the Muslims]. He was a nation builder,” says Jassi.

What makes his message remarkable is the context in which he emerged. It was an age of divisiveness. “The [dark] age is like a knife. Kings are butchers. Righteousness has taken wings and flown. In the dark night of falsehood, I cannot see where the moon of truth is rising,’’ he writes. Today, in another age of darkness, his message is still revolutionary.

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