In Afghanistan, holding an AK47, the “iron lady” Khalida shows the remains of the gurdwara shelled by the Taliban during the civil war (1996-2001). Later, she opens her home for a vegetarian lunch and shares memories of growing up with the Nanakpanthis of Khost, all of whom have now left the country. In Kandahar, against all odds, Dr Raghunath, a Nanakpanthi Hindu, hasn’t left the war-torn country, as it had provided him the education to become a doctor.
In Colombo, Sri Lanka, it isn’t only Sikhs, Hindus and Sindhis, but also the local Sinhalese Christians who delve into the teachings of Baba Nanak through a syncretic form of worship. On the banks of the river Indus in Pakistan, a young man plays a Pashto song on the rabab, the string instrument carried by Bhai Mardana on his lifelong journey with Guru Nanak. Till date in Pakistan, the descendants of Mardana — Muslim by faith — sing hymns of Nanak from the Guru Granth Sahib.
These are just a few of the incredible stories collected by Singapore-based researcher, author and documentary filmmaker, Amardeep Singh, 52, and his team over the last several months, as they followed the trail of Guru Nanak’s travels in the 15th and 16th century.
Until 1849, the Sikh Empire was a mighty force. In fact, Lahore Durbar was the last to be conquered by the East India Company. However, over time, and particularly following the ethnic violence and geographic divisions that ensued during Partition, 80 per cent of that land now falls in Pakistan, rendering it inaccessible to many and turning the followers of the faith into a religious minority. In 2014, after having worked in the corporate world for 25 years, Singh travelled to Pakistan for the first time. Having lost both his parents to age, he craved to see the homeland they had left in 1947 — his mother from Abbottabad, and father from Muzaffarabad. Coupled with familial longing was the desire to delve deeper into the history of the Sikh community.
“Much of this legacy remains unremembered. After the exodus of ’47, centuries of historic and material remnants, archaeological and architectural feats, interfaith aspects and traditions were forgotten virtually overnight. There were no texts, no documentation on what had been left behind. Why had my community been silent? How had there been no efforts to preserve this legacy for posterity?” he asks.
So, armed with a 30-day visa, he visited 36 cities and villages, from Muzzafarabad to Multan, from Jamrud to Lahore, which led to his debut book, Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan (2016). In 2017, he returned to trace the remnants of the 27 forts built along the river Indus during the Sikh Empire, many of which are controlled by the Pakistani army today. This second trip, spanning 55 days and 90 additional cities, culminated in a second book, The Quest Continues: Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan (2018).
As Singh explored the nuances and diversity of Pakistan, he happened to notice the syncretic nature of people living along the Indus, who, regardless of religion, considered themselves Nanakpanthis — followers of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. From Pashto Sikhs who wore turbans, to the turban-less Sehajdhari Sikhs, Udasis, Jogis, Sindhis and even Hindus, these Nanakpanthis have multifarious identities, yet their beliefs and practices cannot be cordoned off by the modern signifiers of Sikhism or Hinduism.
Thus, he conceived of the idea to trace the footsteps of Baba Nanak, not merely in India or Pakistan, but across the many countries, Guru Nanak travelled with Bhai Mardana, preaching the message of Monism — where everything is one, where we are all one. Illuminating this idea further, Singh recites Kabir’s words, which resonates time and again in the Granth Sahib, “Khaalik khalak khalak mein khaalik (the Creation is in the Creator, and the Creator is in the Creation.)” Which is why the upcoming inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor later this month, that will connect Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in India’s Punjab and Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan, fills him with hope.
Allegory — as his ambitious project is titled — signifying the revelation of a hidden meaning — will be the first multi-episode documentary to chronicle the vast expanse of sites that were visited by the saint. “In the borderless world of the 15th century, where people travelled distances to trade and rulers invaded to expand territory, Guru Nanak glided across the geographies advocating the message of peace,” says Singh.
During his travels, he covered a landscape comprising nine modern nations — Sri Lanka, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet (China), Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, India — visiting numerous Islamic, Sufi, Buddhist and Hindu sites. Between the 15th and16th century, the universal narratives of Guru Nanak’s travels were rendered solely through oral narratives. In the 17th century, these were documented in the form of books called Janamsakhis, written by men of faith. It gave rise to a diverse canvas of storytelling, travelogue and hagiography. But today, even these are forgotten, and, alongside the deeply entrenched division of land and nationality, many of the sites have been rendered inaccessible.
On January 11 this year, Singh and his team’s journey officially began in Sri Lanka. They then traversed across Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, from where they will conclude the filming in India. As the world celebrates the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak on November 12, the team persists with their effort of travelling to over 150 interfaith sites visited by Nanak across the world; Allegory will release only in 2021.
As Singh describes the Herculean task that his team has set out to complete, there is a sense of purpose in his voice. The need to undertake this journey extends far beyond any personal ambition and is led by the idea of preserving an ideology that perceives no borderlands or divisions. With the aid of the oldest set of Janamsakhis, written half a century after Nanak’s death in 1539, along with drawing from history, archaeology, the team has followed the trails of sites of various faiths visited by the saint.
They have 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 on foot. They have gone 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 Para Chinar, which stands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Approximately 70 per cent of this landscape today falls in conflict zones and unreachable geographies. In a world where visa constraints, nationalist mandates and geographic divisions are often successful in restricting scholarship, Singh has remained not just fortuitous in his access to the remotest sites, but pleasantly borderless in his efforts as well as company. In many ways, his journey, embarked upon five centuries after Nanak, emulates the essence of diversity preached by the saint — “Tohi mohi, mohi tohi, antar kaisa? (You are me, I am you, what is the difference?)” Apart from himself and his wife Nicky, both Sikh, Singh’s team has Muslim colleagues from Lahore, Hindus and Sikhs from India, as well as local translators and well-wishers.
Singh doesn’t need to think when asked what the largest takeaway has been from the project. “Every step we took has resulted in the dissipation of our own conditioning. We shed, we unlearn, and we relearn. Guru Nanak saw no nationality, caste, religion or language; he knew only humanity. There is a need for the younger generation — those growing up in the shadow of all forms of tangible and intangible conflict and othering — to understand why Nanak spent nearly three decades of his life spreading the message of universal brotherhood,” he says.
He tells me that he, a turbaned Sikh, has never had to compromise his identity for the work, and yet each day, he is somehow renewed by encounters with the people he meets and the spaces he travels to. “In the making of Allegory across eight countries till date, I have been renamed twice. From ‘Amardeep Singh’, I became ‘Amiruddin’ in Afganistan and ‘Haji Omardip Sing’ in Iraq! Each and every day, the relevance of Nanak’s five-century-old journey becomes more and more pronounced as we find ourselves within a complex, collective history that has not been expunged by lifetimes or borders,” he says.
Aanchal Malhotra is an oral historian and author of Remnants of A Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, shortlisted most recently for the British Academy’s 2019 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Seeker’s Path’