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Sacred Footsteps: Guru Nanak in Uttarakhand

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By Pradeep Singh

Come November or be it the traditional month of Kartika, the country reverberates with celebrations: Bhai Dooj, Deepawali, Chhat Puja, Govardhan Puja besides others. The month also sees celebrations of the formation of Uttarakhand as a state of the Union of India and yet another in the Prakash Divas of Guru Nanak Dev, who half a millenium ago came here.

There have been explorers and travellers down the ages who trod and trudged the face of the earth and sailed on the high seas. But none could be as remarkable and intrepid as the son of a humble Khatri couple residing in rural Punjab born towards the end of the fifteenth century. In village Rai Bhoen di Talwandi in Sheikhpura district of present day Pakistan lived Kalu Bedi and Tripta, who were blessed with a son, Nanak, born in the middle of the month of Baisakh which corresponds to 15th April in 1469, but for later-day developments the birth anniversary of celebrations of Nanak are observed in November. The village today is called Nanakana Sahib while Gurudwara Janamsthan marks the place of Nanak’s birth. In an age when adventurers looked for gold, precious metals and exotic spices and the more daring sought to conquer and establish empires, this precocious child of Punjab looked far and wide for an inner kingdom far richer than any on earth. His early teachers soon gave up on instructing him as they understood that the knowledge that Nanak sought was beyond their capacities to provide. They could only impart to the young Nanak knowledge of Punjabi, Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic which Pandit Brijlal and Maulvi Qutb-ud-Din did, respectively, but could not satisfy his quest for esoteric meaning of existence and human motivation.

Nanak’s search for the true message of God for mankind could not be successful within the confines of his village. His hunger for spiritual knowledge was enormous and the means for satisfying it would have to be similarly monumental. To the dismay of his simple parents, Nanak, who was by now married to Sulakshani and had two sons, decided to leave behind the comforts of home and family and launch forward on a series of travels in search for answers to soul-troubling questions.

Mindful of the hardships of the medieval Indian road journeys, Nanak needed a dependable and like-minded companion. And in this he found the lowly Muslim mirasi, Mardana, from a nearby village. Mardana was an accomplished rababi or rebec player who could tune the strings of his rebec to the hymns that Nanak was wont to sing often to express his inner feelings.

With short breaks taken by Nanak to return to his family, along with Mardana, he spent a total of twenty-three years travelling in all four directions far and wide. His spiritually charged journeys are now famously recalled as the Udasis, which took him to countless haunts of sages, mahatmas, sadhus, hermits, Sufi mystics, and any number of religious orders of the various Hindu sects. From the icy wastes of the Himalayas to the tropical Sri Lanka, from Assam in the east to Mecca and Baghdad in the Middle East, Nanak and his brother-in-arms, Mardana, faced nature’s furies and bounties in pursuit of spiritual essence, whatever the source.

One of the earliest places that Nanak visited when he started his first Udasi (journey) was the ancient and holy place of the Hindus, Haridwar, on the bank of the River Ganga. Located in present day Uttarakhand, Haridwar was an eternal city whose origins were lost in antiquity and had, ever since, been a pilgrim centre for Hindus and a strong-hold of orthodox Brahmins. Over the ages ritual and tradition had obscured the wisdom and ethical code of the founding sages of Hinduism and in its place rigid superstitions had emerged. Nanak’s first important act of becoming the herald of a new morality and a code for a meaningful life was witnessed on the ghats at Har Ki Pairi awash with the sacred waters of the river.

At the ghats, Nanak saw Brahmins facing east and offering water in the direction with devotion. On asking these Brahmins, Nanak was amazed to learn that they were doing so to offer life-giving water to their departed ancestors. To the consternation of all who were gathered there, Nanak started offering the water but only in the opposite direction, the west. Chided for disregarding the ritual well established, Nanak informed the jostling crowd that he was watering his fields in Punjab as the crops were wilting under the hot sun! In a simple act of deep significance, Nanak exposed the hypocrisy and hollowness of such obscurantism as the water offered reached neither the ancestors nor the fields far away. The crowd that now saw an enlightened Guru before them heard Nanak and his message that he sung in a hymn to reach each soul that stood on the banks of the Ganga. The place ever since has been regarded as a place sanctified by the Guru. In 1935, a gurudwara was built to commemorate Nanak’s visit to Haridwar. It is called Gurudwara Gyan Godhri Sahib, which sadly is locked in a bureaucratic and political impasse worthy of a separate narration.

Soon after, Nanak left Haridwar and headed further east towards a much celebrated centre of the Nath Yogis, who were the followers of the legendary Gorakhnath, the ninth century Shaivite saint. Gorakhnath had preached a code of simple rituals and yogic practices which, however, with passage of time were ignored by the Nath followers and their orders became arrogant and despite their outward garb of renunciation, their presence was feared by the common people. The place where these Nath Yogis lived was known as Gorakhmatta, about fifteen kilometres north- east of Khatima in present day Udham Singh Nagar.

Nanak met the Nath Yogis at Gorakhmatta and a much lively and animated debate and discussion ensued between Nanak and the followers of Gorakhnath. With logic and the eloquence of his hymns, Nanak showed the Yogis the futility of sham rituals and affected piety. The message of One God and the merit of meditation on his bounties won over many of the Yogis. The place was thereafter called Nanakmatta where now stands a magnificent Gurudwara in the Guru’s memory.

Bidding adieu to Nanakmatta, the Guru and his companion, Mardana, headed north for about forty kilometres in the direction of Champawat. To feed his hungry friend as nothing was at hand, Nanak offered “reethas” (soap-nut) to Mardana, who miraculously found the fruit to be sweet. A memorable edifice called Gurdwara Reetha Sahib does homage to the Guru and, ever since, reethas are taken as sacrament (prasad) by the devotees at the gurudwara. Local tradition holds that only one branch of the ancient Reetha tree bears sweet fruit. To provide the sought after reethas at the Gurudwara, not far away is Nanak Bagichi where reetha trees flourish and supply the fruit for prasad at Reetha Sahib.

The last place visited in Uttarakhand by Guru Nanak was Srinagar, where the wooden sandals of Nanak were kept as holy relics at a Gurudwara which was washed away when the Gohana reservoir breached its banks in 1894. Today, Guru Nanak Dev’s memory continues to nourish and enrich the spiritual soil of the Devbhoomi.

The rough roads and stony paths that Nanak trod in all four directions in his celebrated Udasis were decorated with his soul liberating hymns and long after he had left this world his message illuminates the path of troubled mankind by reminding it that there is only “Ek Omkar” which is the sole reality and sole Truth.

Pradeep Singh is an historian and author of The Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun (2011) and Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun (2017).