BOOK EXCERPT

A walk in the footsteps of Guru Nanak, before he was born

A new book mixes history and folklore, fact and fiction, to recreate the Sikh guru’s life.

So about six years after their wedding, the couple was blessed with a beautiful daughter. When it came to naming the child, it was suggested by Tripta’s mother that since the child was born in her maternal house, Nanaka in Punjabi, she should be called Nanaki. Thus, Tripta’s and Mehta Kalu’s first child came to be called Nanaki.


A gentle breeze blew against the plain, auguring a howling silence. The city was far from here, silent in the distance. Here on the mound, sitting under an acacia tree was an old man lost in his thoughts. On the other side of the mound there were construction cranes slowly digging into the ancient mound, not to unearth its archaeological secrets but to flatten the mound to make way for a new suburban locality.

“That is why the mound has diminished in size,” said Iqbal Qaiser. “I came here a few years ago. The mound was spread over this entire region,” he said, indicating with his arm the network of roads that had been laid for this new township, called Rehman Gardenia Society.

We climbed the final portion of the mound; a set of staircases, the only one there, to get to the top of the mound, where the shrine was located. Here, a man who must have been in his late sixties, sat on a mat laid out on the floor, showing a group of pilgrims who stood before him the sacred rocks. We waited for our turn.

He removed the green cloth covering the rocks and pointed out hurriedly with a stick – a niche within the rock, and told us that this is where Naulakha’s pets, a lion and a lamb, drank water. “He was sitting alone on top of this mound,” he said. “When he felt thirsty, he prayed to Allah and miraculously, water appeared in this bowl.” Ten rupee notes were placed within it.

Next to it he pointed to other marks on the rocks which he claimed were the footprints of the lamb and the lion. Then, without letting us dwell on the sight any longer, he covered the rock with the green cloth and pointed towards another set of rocks placed next to them, which he claimed read “Allah” and “Muhammad”. There was a tear-shaped mark on one rock which he said was the lamp of the saint and next to it was the forest that existed there, sketched in the shape of coniferous trees on a small rock which was around two feet by two feet in size.

“Give your offerings to the rock,” he told me and I was forced to place a ten rupee note on the rock. He then picked up a rose petal and placed it in my mouth. “Eat it,” he said. He then smeared oil on his finger from a lamp nearby and put it on my hair. My ritualistic offering at the shrine was complete. There was another pilgrim waiting behind me.

Next to the shrine was a small room made of rocks. “There were structures like these all over the mound,’ Iqbal Qaiser told me. It was a small room where only one person could sit. “They must have been for ascetics who wanted to meditate.”

In the book called The First Sikh Spiritual Master by Harish Dhillon, it is stated that Mata Triptaji, the mother of Guru Nanak, did not have a child for a long time after her marriage and she would regularly visit an ancient Hindu temple situated on top of a mound not very far from Rai Bhoi di Talwindi to pray for a child. The name of Rai Bhoi di Talwindi has been changed to Nankana Sahib in honour of the first Sikh Guru who was born there. This mound, the only one in this area, is next to a city called Shahkot, which is only a few kilometres from the holy city of Nankana Sahib.

“Could that temple on top of a mound be the mound next to the shrine of Baba Naulakha Hazari?” I asked Iqbal Qaiser as we walked down. Prior to our visit to the mound, we had visited the main shrine where the saint is said to have been buried. Here the officials of the Auqaf (Wakf in India) Department, a government organisation responsible for managing the affairs of this Muslim shrine, had handed us a booklet describing the history of this Muslim saint. In that booklet, the period of existence of the saint is recorded to be a few years before the birth of Guru Nanak and it was also stated that Guru Nanak was born after Baba Naulakha Hazari prayed for his mother.

“This is not authentic history though,” warned the officer-in-charge, an old man, surrounded by a group of younger officials, none of whom had any work. “All the information we have about this saint is through folk stories.”

In our modern understanding of history, we give little importance to oral versions of history, which are not authenticated by the written word. We have inherited this academic attitude from the British, who are a product of the written word. Historically, in South Asia, oral transmission of history has been much more important than the written version. We have been recording versions of history in our folk tales, legends, myths, songs, names and other such sources, which an academic historian who tends to favour the written word might reject as apocryphal. Records of ancient mounds can be found in folk tales long before they are discovered by professional archaeologists.

For example, at the shrine of Shahjamal in Lahore it is said that the saint buried an entire city under his foot in wrath long before it was discovered that the location of his shrine could be the site of a mound with archaeological importance. Similarly, in Taxila much before the British discovered the ancient Gandhara cities: there were local myths and stories about a mound of dead kings.

The folk story of Baba Naulakha might not give us an accurate account of the events in this case, but that is not what I am searching for. It is enough for me to know that there is a reference to Guru Nanak in the life of this saint. The fact that a Sikh author, Harish Dhillon, claims that Mata Triptaji used to visit a Hindu temple on the mound outside of Talwindi also reinforces my perception that Mata probably visited this mound where there must have been a temple and where now lie the sacred rocks of the saint.

Haroon Khalid. Image credit: Danish Ali Latif
Haroon Khalid. Image credit: Danish Ali Latif

On our way back from Shahkot, Iqbal Qaiser and I discussed if this could have been a Hindu temple prior to becoming a Muslim shrine. We concluded that this must have been a shrine dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Durga. This is because in the folk story of Baba Naulakha Hazari it was stated that he used to ride a lion, like Durga does in Hindu iconography. We assumed the footprint we saw on top of the mound must have been shown to Hindu devotees as the footprint of the goddess herself or that of her lion.

Given that the shrine was located on top of an archaeological mound it was perhaps then an ancient temple. It must have been a sacred space not only for Hindus but also for Muslims of the neighbouring regions. Most of these Muslims were Hindu converts anyway, and for a lot of them this temple must have remained important even after their conversion.

In my travels around Pakistan I have seen this phenomenon more than once. A Hindu shrine at Ram Thamman at Kasur remained sacred for Muslims even after Partition. The shrine of Hardo Sahari in Kasur district also has a similar story.

In Bhera, I visited a Hindu temple where Muslims still lit lamps believing that now a Muslim saint occupied that temple. In Lahore, I found that Muslims and Christians, whose ancestors were once Hindus, continue to visit a Hindu temple their ancestors visited. Perhaps the most popular example is that of the shrine of Sehwan Sharif, one of the most important Muslim shrines in Sindh, which was once a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Similarly, it is likely that the shrine of Naulakha Hazari could have been a Hindu temple once, which must have been sacred to Muslims as well. After Partition, as the religious divide between these two groups became sharper, the temple was converted into a Muslim shrine to adjust to the changing religious landscape of the country.

In this context, it is safe to assume that Baba Naulakha Hazari must have been one of the many Muslim ascetics who regularly visited this temple. He must have been a Malamati Sufi, who refuse to follow any religious order and do not distinguish between different religious traditions. After his death he must have been buried at a little distance from the temple and over the years a shrine must have come up around it. After Partition, the Hindu temple vanished and this shrine became the sole source of the religious identity of the mound.

Excerpted with permission from Walking with Nanak: Travels in his Footsteps, Haroon Khalid, Tranquebar Press.

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