On the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY retrace Guru Nanak’s udasis or epic journeys across the Indian subcontinent
The Bamchu, a tributary of the Yargyap Chu (Siyom river) gushed past an overhang of creepers, just below the cave where Guru Nanak had meditated half a millennia ago. Nearly 200 km northwest of Along deep in the upper folds of Arunachal Pradesh just 20 km short of the Indo-Tibet border, it was surprising to find a cave dedicated to the Sikh Guru, nearly 2000 km from Punjab! It was even harder to conceive that locals considered him as one of their Guru Rinpoches and worshipped him as Nanak Lama.
We were at Pemoshubu, 15 km from Mechuka where the first Sikh Guru had meditated en route to Tibet. As per legend, a ferocious bear attacked him but the huge boulder under which he was meditating, miraculously lifted him up and ensconced him. The indentations in the rock are regarded as his turban’s imprints. To reach the river flowing below, we clambered down a rickety moss-laden ladder lined with prayer flags shivering in the wind. We squeezed through a narrow cleft in the rock. People believe that the rock cleaved to give passage to the Guru for his bath in the river. It is said that only people with a pure heart can pass through the narrow crevice, no matter how thin or fat they may be.
The small cavity in the rock where the Guru used to have his daily bath was full of black and white pebbles. An army jawan who accompanied us, instructed us to close our eyes, make a wish and pick a pebble. A white pebble signaled that the wish would come true! If the pebble was black, it remained unfulfilled. A pebble speckled black and white indicated partial fulfillment of the wish. Interestingly, the color of the picked pebble is often the same thereafter, no matter how many times you try!
The Bamchu stream originates near Gutso in Tibet and joins the Men-chu, 17 km downstream. Its Tibetan name Bum-chu refers to a religious ceremony for divining prospects of the coming year with water in a pot or well (chu is the Tibetan word for water). Every year in the last week of March – the period when Guru Nanak visited the place – a fair is held to commemorate his visit. His idol is also worshipped in the old gompa at Dorjeling near Mechuka. However this was just one small thread in the rich tapestry of Guru Nanak’s travels…
Between 1500 and 1524, Guru Nanak travelled more than 28,000 km in four major tours of the world. During these Udasis (journeys), he visited holy places, met people of various faiths, professed his newfound path, challenged orthodox rituals and impressed all with his wisdom and saintly demeanor. Accompanied by Bhai Mardana, a Muslim minstrel who played the rabab, all these journeys were undertaken on foot. During his first journey to East India, he traveled from his birthplace Talwandi to Sultanpur, Haridwar, Reetha Sahib, Banaras, Gaya, Kamrup, Assam and Puri.
It was at Haridwar that Guru Nanak met Brahmins and challenged the ritual of offering water facing east to deceased ancestors. He faced west and offered water to his fields in Punjab to show the futility of his ritual. Guru Nanak visited Banaras in 1506 and collected the writings of Kabir, Ravidas and other saints, some of which form part of the holy book Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak held discussions with pundits in Banaras and explained his teachings. Gurubag Gurdwara marks the place where Guru Nanak stayed during his Kashi visit.
On the second Udasi in 1512-1513 to South India & Ceylon, Guru Nanak traveled through Nanded and Nasik in Maharashtra, Vijaywada and Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, Bidar in Karnataka, Tiruchirapally, Tiruvannamalai and Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and Jaffna in Sri Lanka. Wherever he went, Guru Nanak left a profound impact. When he came to Bidar, the place was gripped by a devastating famine. Legend has it that when he began to sing kirtan, the entire place started to blossom with beauty.
Guru Nanak was told that Bidar had brackish water and people had to dig very deep or go far to fetch potable water. He uttered, ‘sat kartar’, shifted a stone with his wooden sandal and crystal clear sweet water sprang forth from a laterite trap in the hill. The place became known as Guru Nanak Jheera after this miraculous mountain spring and houses the largest gurdwara in Karnataka. Incidentally, one of the Panj Pyare (Five Beloved) in Sikhism, Bhai Sahib Singh was from Bidar.
On his third Udasi between 1514-18, Guru Nanak traveled across the Himalayas – from Kullu and Manikaran in Himachal through Garhwal, Nepal, Arunachal, Sikkim, Tibet and Yarkhand. While returning to Punjab via Kargil and Srinagar, he stopped near Leh. Folkfore recounts how a wicked demon in the area terrorized the people who prayed for divine help. Guru Nanak came to their aid and settled on the riverbank below the hill where the demon lived.
As the Guru sat in meditation, the demon pushed down a large pathar (boulder) down the hillside, which softened like warm wax and came to a halt against Guru Nanak’s back. The Guru was unhurt, lost in meditation. In a fit of anger, the demon pushed the boulder with his right foot, but his foot got embedded in the waxy stone and left a deep impression in it. The imprint of Guru Nanak’s body and the footprint of the demon can still be seen at Gurudwara Pathar Sahib near Leh.
On his fourth Udasi, Guru Nanak traveled westward to faraway Islamic lands – Multan, Karachi, Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Tehran, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad. At Mecca another famous event took place. When a qazi admonished Guru Nanak for pointing his feet towards Kaaba, he calmly replied that the qazi should turn his feet in a direction where God doesn’t dwell. In whichever direction he placed the guru’s feet the qazi saw the presence of God and realized his folly. Every place Guru Nanak visited carries a tale and his anecdotes live on as janamsakhis or moral stories on the oneness of god and equality for all.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 29 November 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.