The gurdwara before us was in a dismal state – only its pillars and outer structure still stood. The facing pool reflected this depressing sight.

Soaked in sweat, a labourer digging up mud from near the pool – to widen it, perhaps – dropped his shovel and walked up to us. “This is the gurdwara of Guru Nanak,” he said.

“Who was he?” I asked, to ascertain what, if anything, Guru Nanak meant to him.

“He was a Sikh Guru.” That’s all he knew.

My companion, Iqbal Qaiser, my mentor and the one who introduced me to Sikhism, offered some more insight: “This gurdwara was burned at the time of Partition. The priests here were refusing to leave, so the mob burned it down.”

The plot on which the gurdwara stands was allotted to it by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire. We walked around this enclosed space, which now contains a fish farm under the Pakistani Fisheries Department. The land abutting the gurudwara is occupied by a school. The Multan Road Highway passes through the gurdwara’s gate, while the Pakistani town of Manga is across the road.

Back to the beginning

“Manga is about 1,000 years old,” Qaiser told me. It did looked ancient, but more because of how run-down it was. There was filth, junkies and stray dogs on the streets.

This is a small town, the last of Lahore district as one heads south towards Multan. The river Ravi once used to flow across the western boundary of Manga.

“Guru Nanak crossed the Ravi and stayed at Manga for a little while,” Qaiser told me. “Here, he preached his message and then came to this spot, where the Gurdwara was later constructed.”

“Did anything special happen here?” I asked.

“No,” Qaiser said. “Nanak, along with his companions, Mardana and Bhai Bala, sat here under the shade of a tree and then moved on. Come to think of it, some people are remembered for the buildings they have constructed – Shah Jahan, for example, would always be remembered for summoning the Taj Mahal – and then there are those in whose memory a place, even in a jungle like this, becomes sacred.”

I wondered if Nanak, or his devotees, knew then what an important role he would play in the cultural and religious history of Punjab. Walking around, wearing a saffron chola – a long, loose shirt – he must have looked like an ordinary mendicant.

It is believed that Guru Nanak was incarcerated by the invading forces of Babur after he defied the king’s orders and refused to pray for his success. Babur could not have foreseen that Nanak, in the centuries to come, would become one of the most revered mystic poets of India and hailed as the first guru of Sikhism.

“Isn’t it ironic, Iqbal Sahib, that Nanak spoke vehemently against institutionalised religion and today, Sikhism is an institutionalised religion with its own rites and rituals?” Qaiser asked.

A few years ago, when I was working with the Sikh community in the city of Nankana Sahib, an incident with a boy has been imprinted on my mind. I was sitting with my back towards the Gurudwara Janam Asthan there – considered the birth place of Guru Nanak. “Don’t sit with your back towards the shrine,” the young Sikh boy warned me. I politely heeded to his demand, but I found it ironic that I had been asked to do so, given Guru Nanak’s own beliefs.

The story goes that Guru Nanak went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage and slept with his feet towards the Ka’aba – a structure in the Grand Mosque that is considered the most sacred Muslim site in the world. When someone complained, he changed the direction of his feet, but the Ka’aba, too, moved. “Tell me, where should I direct my feet?” Nanak is said to have asked. “In which direction does God not reside?”

The story may be apocryphal story but its essence – of questioning the rituals and traditions we uphold in the name of religion – still stands.

Moving ahead

We drove a few kilometres from Manga to the small village of Beherwal. Here, we were greeted by another empty building. “This gurdwara is associated with Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru,” Qaiser said.

The building's walls, however, were intact and made of thick brick, which indicated that it was constructed during British rule.

It was here that Guru Arjan is said to have performed a miracle by turning brackish water from a well sweet. The well still exists inside the premises of this building, which was locked. “This is a government institute now,” a man from the village told us. “It is shut on Sundays. If you want to see it from the inside, you should return tomorrow.”

Sikhs believe that the nine gurus that followed Guru Nanak all spread his message and that the tenets of Sikhism that were formalised by the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, in the form of Khalsa – a body of initiated Sikhs – were based on Guru Nanak’s teachings. In other words, it is believed that all gurus had the essence of Guru Nanak in them.

I, on the other hand, think that as is the case with many other religious movements, the form that Sikhism took after Guru Nanak’s time is something he may not have associated with.

Time and transitions

For example, Nanak, instead of appointing his son as his spiritual descendant, chose his most talented student, Angad Dev. Following this tradition, Guru Angad appointed his student instead of his son as the next guru – Amar Das.

However, after this it became a family fiefdom. Guru Amar Das appointed his son-in-law Ram Das as the next Guru, who then appointed his son, Arjan.

The subsequent gurus were from the same family, clearly a departure from Nanak’s heritage.

“Iqbal sahib, isn’t it true that Guru Nanak believed in non-violence?” I asked as we headed back to Lahore.

“Yes,” Qaiser said.

“On the other hand, Guru Gobind Singh was a warrior and he told his warriors that it is right to fight a just war through force. Do you think Guru Nanak would have agreed with this philosophy?” I asked.

We still debate this. There is no black or white answer. The political realities facing the tenth guru were different from those of the first guru.

However, there is also no doubt that, increasingly, after Guru Nanak, Sikh masters were engaged in politics, taking the side of certain dissenting princes. For example, Guru Arjan allegedly gave his blessings to Jahangir’s son Khusrau when he rebelled against his father. Guru Har Rai, the seventh Sikh Guru, sympathised with Dara Shikoh, the brother of the tyrannical Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb.

Every year, on the occasion of Guru Nanak’s festival at Nankana Sahib, a banner is put up with all the Sikh gurus – with Guru Nanak on one end and Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth spiritual master, on the other.

Nanak is depicted as a mystic dressed in a saffron chola, while Guru Gobind is shown wearing a tiara adorned with pearls, a silk garment and pearl necklaces. The pictures of the eight gurus in the middle trace the transition of gurudom.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.