The legend of Guru Nanak’s smadh and grave is one of the most popular stories about him in Pakistan. At Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, his grave lies outside the main shrine that contains the smadh of the founder of Sikhism. He is possibly one of the only people in history to have a Hindu smadh and a Muslim grave. Legend has it that when Nanak died in 1539, an argument ensued among his Muslim and Hindu followers if he should be buried or cremated.

Nanak was born into a Hindu family but his philosophy had a strong tinge of Islamic monotheism. Some of his earliest influences, Syed Hassan, Rai Bular, Maulana Qutab-ud-din, were Muslims. Later he came to celebrate Baba Fareed Ganj Shakar and held him up as a symbol of a true Muslim. His closest friend, his lifelong companion, Bhai Mardana, was a Muslim.

It is believed that to resolve the disagreement between his Muslim and Hindu followers, Nanak appeared before them as an old man and suggested that they resolve the matter the next day. When they returned the following morning, they discovered a pile of flowers at the spot his body had been. Equally distributed among both sets of devotees, half of the flowers were buried and the other half cremated, thus giving Nanak both a smadh and a grave.

A painting depicting Guru Nanak with Bhai Mardana playing the rubab.

Cutting across religious divide

Kartarpur is a small village an hour’s journey from the city of Narowal in Pakistan. The first and only time I visited Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, in 2013, there was a Muslim family that had entered the shrine with me. While the police officials at the entrance asked for my reasons of visiting this “non-Muslim” shrine, the family was allowed to enter unquestioned. Inside I saw them, one by one, bringing their offerings to the grave of Nanak, just like devotees do at the shrine of Sufi saints. Local caretakers told me how several Muslims from the neighbouring villages still visit the gurdwara. In fact even when the gurdwara was abandoned at the time of Partition, it was these Muslim devotees of Nanak who continued visiting the shrine. It seemed as if Nanak’s legacy of drawing followers from across the religious divide was still alive.

In his book on Guru Nanak, Harish Dhillon writes about how when Nanak decided to undertake his spiritual journey he deliberately picked a garb that made it difficult for people to ascertain his religious identity. He wore a loose choga of the kind Muslim dervishes favoured, but it was reddish ochre, a colour preferred by Hindu ascetics. The white cloth belt around his waist was similar to that worn by fakirs, and his cap was like the ones Sufi Qalandars donned. In his poetry he refers to God with multiple names, including Allah. When asked by his Hindu and Muslim devotees what religion they should follow to become his disciples, he replied that if one is a Muslim then one should strive to be a good Muslim, and if one is a Hindu then one should try to be a good Hindu.

Spending almost 25 years on the road, Guru Nanak became one of the most widely traveled people of his era. If not known for his spiritual and poetical philosophy, Nanak would have been known for the extraordinary length and breadth of his travels. From Talwindi (Nankana Sahib), he is believed to have gone as far East as Bengal, to Sri Lanka in the South, to Tibet in the North and then Arabia in the East, before finally settling down in Kartarpur where he spent the last 17 years of his life as a farmer. His travels took him to some of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Wherever he went, he provoked the followers of these religions by challenging their dogmas and rituals.

He is believed to have engaged in critical discourse with Pandits and Sufis, educating them on their own respective religions. When asked what his message was, he used to retort, “There is no Hindu, no Muslim.” This was not meant to be a negation of these religions but an argument that when these religions are practiced in their essence they all become one, similar to his concept of divinity, which is all encapsulating, the entire cosmos a part of it. What Nanak was criticising was dogmatic religious beliefs, superstitions and propped up distinct identities between communities, which became a source of friction instead of bringing people together. Unity of the cosmos and everything that was a part of it was his philosophical underpinning.

A Sikh devotee offers prayers while looking through binoculars at the Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, which is situated in Pakistan, from Dera Baba Nanak on the outskirts of Amritsar on November 25, 2018. (Photo credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP).

Nanak’s Muslim devotees

It is therefore apt that Guru Nanak and his final resting place have today emerged as a symbol of some sort of normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan, who share one of the most dangerous borders in the world. A visa-free corridor, where people are not classified as Indian or Pakistani but as devotees of Nanak, would be the ultimate tribute to the first Sikh guru by both countries. What is even more remarkable is that the site chosen is Kartarpur, where physical traces of this syncretism in the form of a grave and a smadh are still present.

However while the corridor might become functional it is possible that Nanak’s local Muslim devotees might be barred from entering it. This is what happened at other Sikh gurdwaras in Pakistan that were renovated and are now administered by the federal government. One can hope that the fate of this gurdwara does not follow that of some of Pakistan’s other functional gurdwaras, which are now restricted to only Sikh and Hindu pilgrims in the name of security.

Though I am delighted that thousands of Nanak’s devotees who have been paying their respects to the shrine from afar – such as just across the border in India – will finally be able to visit it, my thoughts also go to Nanak’s local Muslim devotees who had upheld the sanctity of the shrine when it was abandoned and in ruins. This shrine belongs to them as much as it does to any other religious community. This is what Nanak envisaged.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.

Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan.