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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Gurupurab 2021: A quest to keep alive essence of Guru Nanak’s travels across 9 nations

From Mecca to Haridwar, from Sylhet to Mt Kailash, Guru Nanak visited hundreds of interfaith sites throughout his journeys (also called udaasis). At some sites, gurdwaras were constructed to commemorate his visit, and later his travels were documented in texts called ‘janamsakhis’.

Written by Divya Goyal | Ludhiana |
Updated: November 19, 2021 11:40:12 am
The poster of the docuseries. Allegory theme artwork by Datti Kaur. It depicts Guru Nanak’s life journey through people, culture, nature and multifaith sites. The artwork, while centred on Guru Nanak’s life, does not personify him.

To build the bridges of love, humanity and harmony through the medium of spiritual dialogues, the Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev visited more than 150 Islamic, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sites across Asia, travelling far and wide during 15th and 16th centuries.

From Mecca to Haridwar, from Sylhet to Mt Kailash, Guru Nanak visited hundreds of interfaith sites throughout his journeys (also called udaasis). At some sites, gurdwaras were constructed to commemorate his visit, and later his travels were documented in texts called ‘janamsakhis’.

Guru Nanak is believed to have traveled extensively across this region — now nine sovereign nations — to spread the message of humanity.

Three years ago in 2019, when the world observed the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, Amardeep Singh and his wife Vininder Kaur, a Sikh couple from Singapore, embarked on a mammoth mission to trace the footsteps of Guru Nanak across nine nations and preserve those narratives of his travels, which are becoming more relevant with each passing day.

Going by the earliest janamsakhi traditions, Guru Nanak is believed to have covered a large tapestry which, as per the current geographical divisions in the 21st century, is spread across nine nations — India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, China (Tibet), Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. And the couple traveled to them all.

Three years later, ‘Allegory: A Tapestry of Guru Nanak’s Travels’, a 24-episode docuseries, probably the most detailed work ever on Nanak’s journeys across Asia, is now streaming live on The six episodes released so far can be viewed online free of cost, and are nearly 40 minutes each. They take viewers on an impeccable tour of sites where Nanak once visited, which are now geographical boundaries and conflict zones, and inaccessible for Nanak followers.

Amardeep Singh at the Cold Desert in Baltistan (12,000 feet) in Pakistan

Amardeep Singh (52), born in Gorakhpur of Uttar Pradesh and currently settled in Singapore, is an independent photographer, filmmaker, writer and Sikh historian. He had started travelling in January 2019, when he already had two books to his credit — ‘Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy In Pakistan’, and ‘The Quest Continues’. Both were written after extensive research, and had photographs of rare Sikh religious sites across 126 cities and villages in Pakistan.

Singh says, “We were not in any hurry to rush the project in any way and release it in 2019 itself to mark Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. We had to cover more than 150 sites in nine countries. It has been an effort to preserve as much as we could. Our major challenge was that a major chunk of the areas traversed by Guru Nanak are presently inaccessible or in conflict zones. It wasn’t easy to get permission and shoot in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and China (Tibet). For Guru Nanak, it wasn’t about traveling nine ‘countries’, these divisions did not exist then, and for him it was a continuous journey to spread humanity. Today, when we look at the outcome and 24-episode docuseries feels like a real tribute to Nanak.”

The name of the docuseries says it all- ‘Allegory’ means ‘revelation of a hidden meaning’.

Amardeep Singh with Dr. Raghunath, the last Nanakpanthi resident of Kandahar (Afghanistan).

“It was a journey to find the essence of his travels, the deeper quest of his philosophy. His travels were beyond the realms of any religion. Younger generations these days do not read books. So we decided to document Guru Nanak’s travels in a visual form,” he added.

Guru Nanak was a revolutionary, preceptor, seeker and philosopher who fearlessly voiced his opinions, opposed oppression based on hierarchy, religious beliefs and gender. He was revered by people of all beliefs and cultures. His udaasis (journeys) stood different because he did not travel to battle and conquer nations, explore trade or fulfil any personal ambitions, but to spread the message of ‘Ik Onkar’ (God is one, there is only one creator).

“For time immemorial, individuals have been travelling to new lands to fulfil their personal motives. Alexander conquered nations. Marco Polo explored trade opportunities. Guru Nanak holds a distinction. He traversed vast geographies on an altruistic purpose, to create awareness of Oneness. After Guru Nanak left this world, many hagiographies known as ‘Janamsakhis’ were scribed. These texts are an essential source of narratives related to Guru Nanak’s life events to facilitate the outreach of his philosophy. Guru Nanak wrote nothing about his personal life, but he did leave a large repository of experiential wisdom, which inspire many to remain as learners at every stage of their lives. Between the 15th and16th centuries, Guru Nanak’s travels were rendered solely through oral narratives. In the 17th century, these were documented in the form of books called ‘Janamsakhis’ (biographies), written by men of faith,” said Amardeep. “Around 65 years after Guru Nanak’s life, the first hagiographic account about him was scribed by Bhai Gurdas.”

Imam Reza shrine in Iran

“All of Guru Nanak’s philosophies and teachings were scribed in 37 musical ragas and were incorporated by the fifth Guru, Angad Dev Ji in the Adi Granth (the first sacred scripture of Sikhism). Of significance is the fact that throughout Guru Nanak’s travels, he was accompanied by Bhai Mardana, a Muslim companion who had very good knowledge of music and played the rabāb (fiddle) when Guru Nanak sung the shabad (hymns),” he added.

“We have filmed the entire narrative of Guru Nanak’s travels and are releasing one episode a week. The herculean task is led by the idea of preserving an ideology that perceives no divisions. With the aid of the oldest set of Janamsakhis, written half a century after Guru Nanak’s passing away in 1539, along with drawing from history, archaeology, the team followed the trails of sites of various faiths visited by the messenger of Oneness,” says the filmmaker.

Traveling across nine nations wasn’t an easy task in “a world where visa constraints and geographic divisions are often successful in restricting access.”

Filming Guru Nanak’s narrative in Sri Lanka

“We travelled from Mecca to Mount Kailash, filming under the shelling of gunfire in Afghanistan and the scalding summer heat in Iraq, across the waters of river Sindh on boat, and the desert expanse of Medina to Baghdad. We explored as much as we could, from the mausoleum of Bahauddin Zakariya in Multan to the Hinglaj Nani Mandir Caves in Balochistan, from Baba Farid’s grave at Pakpattan, Pakistan, where during his visit, Guru Nanak collected the verses of Baba Farid, later enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib, to the congruent region of ParaChinar, which stands between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” says Amardeep, detailing his enriching experience.

This docuseries has been jointly produced by ‘Lost Heritage Productions’ and ‘SikhLens Productions’.

Along the banks of a river in Baltistan (Pakistan)

“Ours is just a very humble attempt to understand Nanak. With each passing day, the relevance of Guru Nanak’s five-century-old journey becomes more and more profound,” he said.

In today’s times, when polarisation and religious demarcations across faiths run deep, Guru Nanak’s teaching ‘Ik Onkar’ (God is One, there is only One essence, One reality) has gained relevance across the world. Seeking and imparting spiritual wisdom through his travels, he reinforced the message of monism. His first words after his enlightenment, it is believed, were, ‘Na koi Hindu, na Musalman.’ (There is no Hindu, no Muslim).

And an amazing finding of this filmmaker’s travels across Pakistan and Afghanistan were the strands of ‘Nanakpanthi culture’ that still exist. “There are syncretic groups of people in this region who are still followers of Guru Nanak, irrespective of them being Sikhs or Hindus. The syncretic faith of the ‘Nanakpanthi’ communities continues to be practiced in the Indus belt, which their forefathers’ followed before Partition in 1947. They do not have a defining line drawn between cultures and faiths. People might identify them as Hindus or Sikhs, but Guru Nanak is the essential fabric of their existence. Temples and Gurudwaras across these regions, provide space to Sri Guru Granth Sahib and Gita both, which is visible in the remnants of the frescoes from the past. Those were the times when it was all very fluid, unlike today when hardened religious boundaries surpass humanity,” says Amardeep.

It is believed that during those times, when early modes of transport were limited and were mostly restricted to boats, animals etc, Guru Nanak Dev along with his companion Bhai Mardana, undertook most part of his journeys on foot.

During lunch with Sikh community in Afghanistan

In the simplest terms, any person who believes in Guru Nanak and follows his teachings in life, irrespective of being a Hindu, Sikh etc, is a Nanak Naam Lewa or a Guru Nanak follower. During his four udaasis (travels), Guru Nanak had spread the message of oneness and people from different faiths had become his followers. So, the generations of these Nanak Naam Lewa sangat or Nanakpanthis till today consider Nanak as their Guru, irrespective of them being Hindus, Sikhs etc. Bhai Gurdas, the most revered interpreter of Gurbani, has called Guru Nanak ‘Jagat Guru’ (The Enlightener of the Whole World)’.

The core values of Nanak’s philosophy are not based on any one religion, and he wrote, ‘Sabhna jiya ka ik daata’ (There is only One giver of life, One God).

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