Just outside the city of Pakpattan, home to the shrine of Sufi saint Baba Farid Shakarganj, is a small village called Tibba Nanaksar. This Pakistani village lives up to its name: it is located on a small mound (tibba in Punjabi) with a gurudwara dedicated to Guru Nanak at its summit.

When I visited the shrine a few years ago, the gurudwara, a lone structure enclosed within a small space, had been freshly renovated and painted in pink. There were a few rooms around the gurudwara that, before Partition, used to serve as rooms for pilgrims. In fact, before Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, the complex of the gurudwara used to extend all the way to the base of the mound and included a sacred pond along with several rooms. But in the years following Partition, these structures were taken over, while the main shrine was reduced to a dilapidated state and was given a face-lift only recently as part of the State’s plan to revamp Sikh gurudwaras across the country.

It is believed that during one of his several journeys around India and beyond, Guru Nanak, accompanied by his Muslim friend Bhai Mardana, ended up in Pakpattan (today in Pakistan’s Punjab province). Here, he met the spiritual descendant of Baba Farid, Sheikh Ibrahim, who also served as the guardian of the shrine. Through his conversations with Sheikh Ibrahim, Nanak was introduced to the works of Baba Farid, who was believed to be the first classical poet in the Punjabi language. In keeping with tradition, Sheikh Ibrahim presented Baba Farid’s writings to Guru Nanak at the top of this mound.

The Sufi saint’s poetry had a huge influence over Guru Nanak, who used several symbols similar to those espoused by Baba Farid. In the Punjabi literary tradition, Guru Nanak is believed to be the second classical poet. It is through Guru Nanak that the poetry of Baba Farid found its way into the Guru Granth Sahib, considered the eternal, living Sikh Guru. Today the Sikh holy book is the only written source of Baba Farid’s poetry.

Perhaps much like other vernacular traditions, the poetry of Baba Farid did not need the vehicle of written word to survive – it would have been transferred from one generation in the form of oral history. But after travelling down, say, seven generations, the poetry may have started to fade from memory, some of its words forgotten and new ones added. But through Guru Nanak and some subsequent Sikh leaders, Guru Arjan and Guru Gobind Sindh, Baba Farid found a permanent place in the world of the written word.

Divine writings

But Guru Granth Sahib is much more than just literature. Each word of the Granth is considered divine. While compiling the Guru Granth Sahib, Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, said that the Shabd (the word) would be his successor. The letters in the book would no longer form secular words to be instilled with meaning through human interpretation, but would be divine themselves. Their mere utterance would provide meaning to human existence. The words of Baba Farid, when entered in the Granth Sahib, ceased to be poetry and became one with divinity. This was the highest status anyone could have been bestowed in the Sikh tradition, and this prestige was given to a Muslim saint.

In fact, Baba Farid is not the only Muslim to be elevated to this position. Nanak’s lifelong companion, Bhai Mardana, who played the rubab, a stringed instrument, while Nanak sang his songs, also finds place in the Guru Granth Sahib, in defiance of all conventions. The Mirasi caste, to which Bhai Mardana was born, is looked down upon in traditional Punjab society even today and the word is often used as a slur. Literally translating into “keepers of tradition” Mirasis historically recorded and recited the heroic deeds of aristocrats and landlords. Because of their expertise in music they also came to be associated with the Kanjar caste, the professional prostitutes. The Mirasi played music while the Kanjar danced. For this reason, these castes were looked down upon.

It was controversial enough when Nanak, a Bedi by caste – descendant of those who studied and recited the Vedas – chose to associate with a Mirasi, give him the title of Bhai, a mark of immense respect , and have him as a lifelong companion. However the greatest honour reserved for Bhai Mardana came after his death, when his poetry was preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib, making his words divine. In fact besides the Sikh Gurus, he is the only other person in the Guru Granth Sahib who refers to himself as Nanak in his poetry. In this way, a Mirasi was elevated to the highest levels of respect in the Sikh tradition.

Lasting links

Following the tradition of Bhai Mardana are two other Muslim rubabis, Satta and Balwand. In fact right up to Partition, as per convention, only Muslim Mirasis served as rubabis at Sikh gurudwaras, singing the sacred verses of the Guru Granth Sahib. This tradition faced an abrupt end after 1947. Some traditions suggest that Satta and Balwand were engaged by Guru Nanak after Bhai Mardana’s death, while others suggest they became the official rubabis of the later Gurus. Besides Guru Nanak, they are believed to have served under Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan. Their poetry too became eternal and sacred, after it was immortalised in the Guru Granth Sahib.

Two other figures whose words were immortalised in the holy book are a subject of much debate. While some claim sources suggest they were Muslims, others argue that they were Hindus. But perhaps both claims are unfounded. Bhagat Bhikhan and Bhagat Kabir were spiritual poets who exhorted their devotees to move beyond the narrow definitions of religion and search for a common spirituality. In fact, it is this philosophical aspect of their poetry that merited their inclusion in the Guru Granth Sahib, for it aligned with the message of Nanak and the rest of the Sikh Gurus. Therefore, to indulge in this debate would be to enforce religious that they rejected years ago.

The ghosts of 1947 continue to haunt India, Pakistan and Bangladesh even today. The religious and historical divisions that culminated in Partition continue to shape our identities. During the riots that engulfed Punjab at the time of Partition, it is the uglier aspects of the history and interaction between Muslims and Sikhs that were brought to the forefront. The Mughal-Sikh conflicts of the 17th and 18th century became an important symbol. Stories of the battles between the Sikh gurus and the Mughal empire or the supposed oppression of Sikh gurus at the hands of Mughal kings were emphasised even as the tales of Baba Farid, Bhai Mardana, Satta, Balwand, Bhagat Bhikhan and Bhagat Kabir were forgotten.

But it is these tales that reflect the true interaction between Muslims and Sikhs in Punjab instead of the antagonism of the Mughal imperial authorities and Sikh Gurus. It is the stories of common people that need to be remembered and celebrated, instead of stories of kings and their whims.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books: Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.