The Syncretic Lore of Guru Nanak’s Legacy

While skirmishes continue to line the borders of India, Sameer Arshad Khatlani, author of The Other Side of the Divide, explores the deeply embedded syncretic elements in the heritage left behind by the founder of Sikhism. Part of his legacy still lives on in Pakistan.

‘Beating of Retreat’ Ceremony at International Border at Wagha. Photo Courtesy: Wiki

Poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s ‘tremendous work’, wrote German writer Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), belonged to the world of Islam apart from two other domains of the worlds of India, and of Western thought. In his book Incarnations, academic Sunil Khilnani echoes Hesse and notes that Iqbal (1877-1938) was “deeply engaged with the histories, themes, and conflicts embedded in Islamic thought and in literary traditions that fired his imagination.” 

Islam was certainly an important theme of Iqbal’s poetry. But he also wrote about important figures of other religions glowingly in the spirit of his famous couplet: “Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mei bair rakhna, Hindi hai ham vatan hai Hindustan hamara (religion does not teach us animosity, we are Indians and India is our country).” “Hai Ram ke vajud pe Hindustan ko naaz, ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain is ko imam-e-hind (while India is proud of Ram, priests also teach us about Allah),’’ wrote Iqbal, highlighting the reverence that a vast majority of Indians felt for Lord Ram.

Of all the non-Islamic religious icons, Iqbal perhaps wrote most admiringly about Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, whom he hailed as “mard-e kaamil (perfect man)”. His poem titled Nanak starts with a lament that “our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]”; did not recognise the worth of that “jewel of supreme wisdom”. It then refers to Nanak and says the perfect man “awakened India from a deep slumber”. In another poem, Iqbal pairs Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti, who was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. “The land (India) in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.” 

Iqbal was born, raised, and died in pre-partition Punjab, the land of Nanak, which was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947. The division triggered violence, left tens of thousands of dead, and led to a virtual exchange of populations between the two parts of Punjab. It tore apart the region’s centuries-old milieu of co-existence imbibed in Nanak’s philosophy.

Nanak remains a unifier even as the vivisection continues to take a heavy toll on the subcontinent. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where conflict remains a legacy of the Partition. The two countries were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when India carried out a retaliatory airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in J&K.

Relations between India-Pakistan worsened in August 2019 following the stripping of J&K’s special status that prompted Islamabad to take steps like the downgrading of diplomatic ties. The upheavals had no impact on the Kartarpur Corridor that provides visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at Nanak’s last resting place in Pakistan. The corridor was completed and opened within a year on November 9, 2019, three days before Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.

Gurdwara Darbar Sahib remains an enduring symbol of Nanak’s legacy, which is more relevant today when divisive political leaders rule the roost and all pillars of democracy appear to be succumbing to majoritarianism. It is built at a place where a group of Hindus and Muslims are believed to have found flowers underneath a white sheet when they performed Nanak’s last rites. The two sides agreed to divide the sheet and flowers among themselves. Muslims buried their share and built a mazaar or mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. The Hindus put their piece of the sheet and flowers in an urn and buried it.

Nanak and Sikhism’s association with Muslims has been far deeper than what is generally known. His Muslim teacher was the first to point out how blessed Nanak was as a child. He called Nanak gifted and understood before anyone else could that the Guru’s vastly superior intelligence was because of the blessing. Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, prevailed on Nanak’s father, Mehta Kalu, to be patient with his son’s otherworldly pursuits. Kalu was worried as Nanak wandered with holy men. Kalu wanted Nanak to study. Bular convinced Kalu to let Nanak be and reported miracles associated with the Guru which convinced him of Nanak’s holiness. 

Bular is known as Nanak’s first devotee outside his family. Janam-sakhis, or Nanak’s life stories, and the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib have several references to Bular. Bular is believed to have reported a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun when he lay asleep under the open sky as another sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular is also the one who is said to have noticed that a tree’s shade remained on a sleeping Nanak even as the sun’s position changed. He is reported to have rushed to tell Kalu that his son was an exalted being upon observing this.  Bular convinced Kalu that Nanak was ‘a gem, a man of God‘ and dedicated large tracts of land to the Guru. Much of the modern-day Nankana Sahib, including Gurdwara Janam Asthan, built at the place of Nanak’s birth, is located on the land Bular bequeathed to the Guru.

Bular’s descendants lead annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s birthday in Nankana Sahib.  Rai Hadayat, Bular’s 17th generation descendant, had the honour of leading Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s descendants have been the custodians of Nanak’s estate.  Rai Mohammad Saleem Akram, Bular’s descendant, now manages the estate. The revenue generated from the estate is spent on the welfare of the local Sikh community and the upkeep of gurdwaras in Nankana Sahib. 

Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Empire founder who came from the same Bhatti Rajput heritage as Bular, recognised his contribution to Sikhism. He bestowed the title of Rai Bhadur on his descendant, Rai Issa Khan, and made him a revenue collector.  More recently, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak (management) Committee (SGPC) acknowledged Bular’s “immense contribution” to Sikh history in May 2018 by putting up his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum. 

Another Muslim, Nawab Rai Kahla, made it to the Sikh hall of fame in July 2017. The SGPC unveiled his portrait at the museum in recognition of the courage he showed in sheltering Guru Gobind Singh, one of Nanak’s nine spiritual successors, in 1705. Kahla, a vassal of Aurangzeb who ruled a small principality in present-day Indian Punjab, offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of a Mughal decree to hunt down the 10th Sikh master, who was at war with the Mughal Emperor.

Kahla’s descendants are the custodians of Guru Gobind’s holy pitcher called ganga sagar which he was given as a token of gratitude along with a sword for sheltering the guru. Ganga sagar is believed to hold water despite its asymmetrical holes. Former Pakistani lawmaker Rai Azizullah Khan is the relic’s current custodian. He inherited it in 1975 from his family, which managed to carry the prized relic with them when they fled to Pakistan at the time of the Partition.

In 1705, the goodwill generated by the Malerkotla ruler, Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, for speaking up against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, has held his successors and principality in good stead since. The small kingdom in India was an island of calm; a Muslim sanctuary in East Punjab when the neighbouring areas were emptied of Muslims in 1947. Malerkotla continues to be East Punjab’s only Muslim pocket.

Folk history attributes Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla’s unique history. He is said to have blessed the nawab when he learnt about his letter to Aurangzeb protesting the un-Islamic execution of Zorawar and Fateh. By the time the nawab stirred the Mughal consciousness over the injustice, it was too late. But his gesture was not lost on Guru Gobind. He is said to have declared “his roots shall forever remain green”. 

The rubabi tradition of performing devotional songs, kirtans, at gurdwaras is associated with the descendants of Nanak’s Muslim companion, Bhai Mardana. Guru Nanak sang his poetry to the tunes of a lute-like musical instrument, rubab, that Mardana played. Mardana’s descendants came to be known as the rubabis. The rubabis had performed kirtans at the Golden Temple for seven generations since Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, roped in Mardana’s descendants, Bhai Sadha and Madha, for the job until the Partition ended the tradition. Only baptized Sikhs can now perform kirtans

The Partition weakened the syncretic links, but the ties are inseverable. They are enshrined in Sikhism. Guru Granth Sahib is the anthology of sacred writing of Sikh gurus and saints, including Muslims such as Baba Farid.  It is revered as a collection of revealed words—Gurbani (literally from the Guru’s mouth). Guru Arjan compiled the first edition of the scripture then known as Adi Granth. He had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, which he declared Ath Sath Tirath (shrine of sixty-eight pilgrimages). Guru Arjan is widely believed to have invited a Muslim saint from Lahore, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation of the most exalted Sikh shrine. Muslim saints such as Mian Mir and Farid are highly revered figures in Sikhism. Farid’s picture at the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan underlines his importance in Sikhism.

Muslim saints like Baba Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah also contributed to unifying literature that bound people together. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha, which remains popular on both sides. He followed in the tradition of Baba Farid, the pioneer of Punjabi literature. The syncretic message cut across the religious divide and bound Punjabis together. 

Things began to change in the 19th century when, according to writer Ian Talbot, revivalists began to peddle “the myth of a golden age when their faith was pristine and unsullied by syncretic traditions”. The myth weakened the shared cultural values of the rural population and replaced blurry community identities and replaced them with defined boundaries. Even Punjabi became a language of contention. The Muslim and Hindu revivalists increasingly began identifying Urdu and Hindi as their mother tongues. The Sikh-Mughal conflict was used to exacerbate religious fault lines. Emperor Aurangzeb’s high-handedness in dealing with the Sikhs was highlighted. The spiritual Muslim leader Bulleh Shah’s (1680) moral stand was conveniently forgotten. Shah, a Syed and the Prophet Muhammad’s direct descendant, hailed his friend, the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was put to death. He earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims “for the cruelty that the emperor Aurangzeb had inflicted upon his (Sikh) people”. 


Sameer Arshad Khatlani has been a Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times, India’s second-biggest English newspaper with a circulation of 10 million daily, since July 2018. He has worked in a similar capacity with both The Indian Express and the Times of India. Khatlani has reported from Iraq and Pakistan and covered elections and national disasters. He has a book, with Penguin, On the other Side of the Divide, published in February 2020. Read one of the reviews here.

First published in Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s blog.




In Quest for Peace: The Other Side of the Divide

Book Review by Debraj Mookerjee

Title: The Other Side of the Divide – A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Author: Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2020

Journalist Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s maiden book, The Other Side of the Divide – A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan, published end February 2020, seemed to, at the outset, suffer the fate that the India- Pakistan relationship has continually suffered – whatever could go wrong, did! COVID19 almost did the distribution of the book in. But like the legendary resilience of the people of the subcontinent, and because of the inherent quality of what his intrepid journey into Pakistan was able to produce, the book made it through alternative channels, and is sure to be talked about for many years to come.

Khatlani, a Kashmiri, is a Delhi based journalist. More than his bio, it is the dedication that caught my eye, “For my son, Orhan Ahmed Khatlani, and kids of his generation. May they grow up to live in a peaceful and prosperous South Asia free of bigotry and conflict.” Wonderful words! Also written with sincerity. As you read deeper into the book you understand one thing about the author: That he is a young journalist cut in the traditional mould, the type that is fast disappearing in an increasingly polarised world. The intrepidity of perusal and perusal, the cultivation of people across political and cultural divides, the search for objectivity and truth, the erasure of one’s own biases, and the courage and resilience of conviction that forces one to take positions when push comes to shove marks out an honest journalist. Khatlani ticks all these boxes. 

To be frank, the book suffers from many editorial glitches and unnecessary typos, like this line by way of example: “Not surprisingly, the country (Pakistan) comes across as a hopelessly dark land because to its (sic) portrayal in the news media …”. The word ‘due’ has been carelessly substituted by the word ‘because’, rendering the sentence nonsensical. Enough to put me off and set a wrong note to the reading experience. But as I entered the heart of the book, even as Khatlani dived deeper into the other side of the divide, I realised nothing, but nothing could take away from the richness of the information it was unearthing, the depth of its historical exploration, the breadth of the issues and the personalities it was reaching out to, and most importantly, the chord of personal reflection and poignancy it was touching. 

The last point is important. Pre-Partition, the author’s grandfather, of limited means, had fled the oppressive feudal rule of the Dogra king to seek a better life in Lahore. Ultimately, due to pressing circumstances the patriarch returned to Kashmir before 1947. Lahore always had a strong Kashmiri presence. These were people who abandoned the oppressive taxes and strong biases of the existing rulers in Kashmir to seek a better life elsewhere. This was a world when the Hindu rules of Kashmir were oppressing its Muslim citizens. Many ‘Punjabis’ settled in and around Lahore were of Kashmiri origin, though they now primarily spoke Punjabi or Urdu and had little of the Kashmiri left in them.

In fact, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s iconic politician traces his roots to Kashmir, though his family settled in Amritsar a long time back, and from there moved to West Punjab. The interlocking of the writer’s personal narrative with that of a general observation about a rather little known socio-cultural reality, and the search for those lanes where his grandfather might have roamed especially in the now drastically altered Anarkali  Bazaar, present a storyline that is extremely catchy. 

The conversational style (after all he is a journalist) comes off easily, as does the South Asian predilection for digressions when names and places are evoked. One name dropped becomes the point of departure to connect events and places from far away. One set of friends introduces him to another. Then the second set introduces new facets to his story, which essentially is to write deep pieces for the Times of India, datelined Lahore, as part of the ‘Aaman ki Aasha’ (the ‘hope for peace’ drive between India and Pakistan, during the last Congress Government) initiative. The excuse for the journey is to cover a Punjabi cultural event. Though to be honest there is enough mention of the Punjabi language and cultural predilections to justify the excuse!

As you read further into the book this particular aspect of the style quite catches you. What earlier might have appeared unnecessarily digressive, grows into you and you begin to realise this story could have been told no other way. The frenetic swamping of emotions, the bitter regret of missed opportunities, the cornucopia of details that mark the stories of both separation and oneness are as fervent as they are insistent – they can only be told breathlessly if they are to be shorn of artfulness. The writer must at times bow before the sentiments of the storyteller. The story is often so powerful that it almost takes over the storytelling. This is said by way of praise. When you have the book in your hands you’ll understand exactly what is meant herein. 

Khatlani’s book is modelled around his discovery of Lahore and its people. Each discovery follows the hub and spokes theory. Every discovery is the hub. And the stories that emanate from these hubs are the spokes. In this he touches all the right chords. There is the Bollywood connection, the history of the army and its ubiquity in Pakistani life, the cricket connection, the stories of shared miseries and standout acts of personal friendship, there is the story of alcohol and conservatism, the liberals of Pakistan and their sentimental pro-India politics, and the special story of minorities, especially the Sikhs.

These stories slip in and out of the ten chapters, and in no particular order. In each of these particulars, Khatlani shapes his narrative with great background stories, provides rich historical accounts, and at times manages searching insights into the intricate sentiments that guide the existing reality between the two nations.  

The Other Side of the Divide is an important intervention at a difficult time. The dateline is 2013 when things were better. Better despite the numerous setbacks, not in the least the attack on Mumbai in 2008 November, or the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers outside the Gaddafi Stadium in 2009.

In 2020 another world has overtaken us. We inhabit a world that is shriller than ever before, a world in which India is fast giving up its secular and liberal credentials, and instead turning sharply right. As some have observed, new Pakistan looks more like old India, and unfortunately, new India like old Pakistan. Bearing the cross of a fractured history we continue to inherit each other’s loss. Amidst this, Khatlani’s book is an invaluable source of solace and possibilities.


Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.