Guru Nanak was a 15th-century iconoclast, egalitarian, mystic-poet from Punjab (in modern-day Pakistan). His birthday is celebrated on the full moon in the month of Kartik. This year, that fell on November 29.
In 1514 Guru Nanak embarked on trek from Punjab across the Himalayas to Tibet. It was the third of his five ‘Udasis’ – multiyear journeys on foot to engage with other holy men, commoners and kings alike to spread his message.
Legend has it that upon reaching the Kathmandu valley he came upon a pristine river and spent some time meditating under a peepul tree on a hill overlooking the bank.
This past May, I found myself in Kathmandu and decided to find the very spot this happened. There was not much information to go on, and everyone I asked did not know what I was talking about. I was, however, able to piece together some information from sources online to point me in the right direction.The ‘ancient’ streets of Kathmandu
From the tourist hub in the Thamel district I headed northwest through the city’s undulating streets in the direction of the Bishnumati River, the river in question.
The walk was made easier and less polluted by a ‘bandh’ or protest. Nepalis were expressing their angst regarding their politicians’ efforts at sorting out an acceptable form of federalism for the young republic. The only vehicles on the streets belonged to the police, army and the International Red Cross.
I reached what was surely in the past a beautiful river set to a backdrop of green forest and gentle foothills. The smell of raw sewage and reams of garbage along the banks made me question whether Guru Nanak would stop here if he made his journey today.
I headed east along the river towards what my map indicated was a park – a place where it seemed plausible for Nanak to have rested almost 500 years ago.
Along a narrow side street next to the river, a blue sign marked the destination.Near the top of the steps
Through a narrow gate, sprawling concrete steps rose towards what seemed like a dead end.
A turn right revealed a simple-looking house with an unremarkable metal gate. I saw that the gate was unlocked, but hesitated at the snarling dog behind it. Through a crack I saw she was chained-up and mustered the courage to enter. I’d come too far to turn back!
Putting as much distance between myself and the dog, praying that the tensile strength of her chain would withstand her desire to kill me, I made my way to a carved wooden-framed entrance that led to a small courtyard.Sevadars – servants of the Guru
“Sing the songs of joy to the Lord, serve the Name of the Lord, and become the servant of His servants.” -Guru Nanak
A beautifully carved wooden window frame, in the Nepali style, marked where the Guru Granth Sahib, holy book of the Sikhs and repository of Nanak’s wisdom, lay adorned in ornate cloths, ready to receive those seeking the Guru’s hukam (command/wisdom).
“Blessed is that Gurdwara, the Guru’s Door, where Truth is glorified.” –SGGS, 153
The resident Gyani, or priest, led me up through a trap door to a dimly lit room. He offered me tea and I sat trying to calm my pounding heart, still adrenaline-spiked from the encounter with the dog.
He was an unusual Gyani – he couldn’t speak Punjabi, and his turban and style was unlike any other Gyani I’d met. But he was kind, and sat there with me as I took in my surroundings. The world outside melted away.
The Guru Granth Sahib at the Guru Nanak Muth
The Gyani was of the Udasi sect – an offshoot of Sikhism whose path diverged after Guru Nanak passed on the Guru-ship to Guru Angad Dev. Udasis were followers of Nanak’s son, Siri Chand.
In the 18th Century, India’s Mughal Empire brutally persecuted and repressed Sikhs. Udasis did not look like typical Sikhs, whose turbans and unshorn hair made them distinct, and escaped much of the violence. They acquired an important role in taking care of Sikh places of worship and preserving the teachings of the Sikh Gurus.
I felt as though this Gyani came straight out of that history, preserving this semi-lost historical site, welcoming those who stumble upon it.
The Gyani summoned Rojin, a local university student who spoke English, to be my guide.
Guru Nanak’s likeness in the courtyard
Guru Nanak was against the dogmatic and blind religious practice of the day and planted the seeds for a new syncretic belief system based on equality, hard work and, above all, opening one’s heart to the Divine through meditation on Naam (the eternal, universal vibration). In a region of ingrained hierarchy, blind-faith and unreason his message was profoundly subversive. His poetry continues to inspire millions.
“As fragrance abides in the flower, As reflection within the mirror, So does your Lord abide within you, Why search for him without?” –Guru Nanak
“From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend; through woman, the future generations come. When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born. From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.” -Guru Nanak
A small wooden door on the southeast side of the courtyard led to magnificent garden – a green oasis within an encroaching city; a preserve of what might have existed before.
The garden surrounded what was supposedly the tree under which Guru Nanak meditated all those years ago. The exact spot, facing away from the river, was marked by a stone slab with carved footprints covered with red flowers.
The tree indeed looked very old. It was healthy, but scraggly and covered in vines. A red flag pole next to it gave the impression of an old man leaning on a tall walking stick.
“How can we attain Truth and rend the veil of falsehood? By acting in accordance with the Divine Will (hukam) ingrained and dwelling in each of our hearts.” –Guru Nanak
The thick vines veiled deep fissures of seemingly endless, mysterious depth.
Beyond the peepul tree was a simple, pagoda-like monument to Guru Nanak and his two traveling companions – Bhai Mardana and Bhai Bala.
Mardana, a Muslim, and Bala, a Hindu, were Guru Nanak’s childhood friends and accompanied him on all his travels. Bhai Mardana, a minstrel and renowned poet in his own right, played the rebab as Nanak composed his hymns.
They were unusual companions for an unusual man in a time when Hindus and Muslims often fought each other. Nanak was the emblematic bridge between the two communities, and yet was of neither.
“Nanak is the confluence of the two rivers, of Hinduism and Islam. He harvested the essence from both. Therefore the Sikh is neither Hindu nor Mohammedan; they must be both or none since their religion arises out of their junction.” -Osho
Nepali Langar prepared by Rojin’s mom
One manifestation of Guru Nanak’s notion of equality and service is the langar or community kitchen. All who came to see the Guru were invited to eat together with others – nobles with untouchables, women with men – and all did so humbly sitting on the floor. It’s easy now to take for granted how revolutionary this was for the time.
The Gyani seeing me off
“The Provider Lord listened to the cries, Guru Nanak descended into this world. Washing His feet and praising God, he got his Sikhs to drink the ambrosial nectar. In this Dark Age, he showed all gods to be just one. The four feet of Dharma, the four castes, were converted into one. Equality of the King and beggar, he spread the custom of being humble. Reversed is the game of the Beloved; the egotist high heads bowed to the feet. Baba Nanak rescued this Dark Age; read ‘satnam’ and recited the mantra. Guru Nanak came to redeem this Dark Age of Kaliyug.” Bhai Gurdas (1551-1636)
Young Nepalis enjoying the isolation of the steps
All images copyright 2012