My earliest memory of Nankana Sahib is that of beautiful, flowering plants. Gurudwara Janam Asthan, the birth place of Guru Nanak, had the most picturesque landscape I have seen around a gurudwara. This was in 1930, when I was sent to school. (There is no space for landscaping at Harmandar Sahib, Amritsar, and the effort made at Anandpur Sahib is only recent.)
At Nankana Sahib you walked on a wide brick-lined path for about 200 yards before you entered the gurudwara. On both sides of this path were wide, tastefully laid out beds of flowering shrubs and plants, which were guarded by tall iron railings, themselves wearing a coat of green. Trim and smart-looking hedges branched off on either side to enclose grassy plots.
At the entrance was inscribed the following celebrated homage of Bhai Gurdas:
“Satguru Nanak pargatia;
Miti dhundh jag chanan hoya.”
(When Guru Nanak revealed himself the mist vanished and light pervaded the world.)
The shabad says further,
“It was like the rising of the sun when the stars disappear and darkness vanishes, when the lion roars and the flock of deer (of superstition and untruth) takes flight not having the courage to stand…”
Inside a fort-like structure of high walls all around, the surprise of surprises, the gurudwara building itself, was a small one. The sanctum sanctorum was just big enough for the Guru Granth Sahib to be displayed and there was no room inside for the perambulation of the devotees. Even obeisance and offerings had to be made from outside where there was a verandah-like structure facing the sanctum. It was open on three sides.
It was here that worshippers sat and kirtan was sung. This place was merely sufficient for the small number of worshippers who attended the services. Around it there was a large open space covered with marble.
Why was the number of daily worshippers small? The Janam Asthan area had only about 1,000 families living there. These belonged mostly, to the employees of the Gurudwara Committee and institutions run by it (like the school, the small hospital, the langar, etc).
The greater part of the population of Nankana Sahib was concentrated in the town, which was about a mile away. The railway station, the bazaars, the factories and the grain market were located there. And there were four or five gurudwaras also which were sacred to the memory of Guru Nanak. Full religious services were performed at these gurudwaras. So everybody did not have to come to the Janam Asthan shrine.
It was on the occasion of Gurupurab, the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, that a flood of humanity invaded Nankana Sahib. The pilgrims came on foot, in bullock carts and in special trains. The railway station had large, steel bar enclosures to regulate the flow of passengers. One had to sit in one of these till one’s turn came to board the train.
At Gurudwara Janam Asthan strong men, gifted with loud voices, controlled the torrents of devotees by erecting three or four human barriers, which opened and closed on directions received from the next barrier.
Sindhi Hindus brought trainloads of food, which they stored in the open, in the form of pyramids. Free langars were organized both during the day and night.
Along with the multitude, the special trains brought beggars from all over India. I had never before seen anything so nauseating as those beggars being pulled around in hand carts. Human bodies had been turned into instruments for arousing pity and horror. I could not believe that life could subsist in such forms. Mercifully, they left as soon as the fair ended.
At Nankana Sahib one saw every good thing then that a big fair offers today. There were magic shows, tattoo shops, circus enclosures, wild animal shows and political and religious conferences where one relaxed when one got tired of walking around. Japanese colour prints showing the birth of Guru Nanak (with gods and goddesses in attendance), like the depiction of other events from Sikh history, were sold for two paise each.
Hindu, Muslim and Sikh poets recited their verses in kavi darbars in praise of Guru Nanak. A sum of Rs 300 was given as the first prize. Anyone getting that sum was freed from the worry of making a living till the next mela. While most things cost one fortieth of what they do today, housing cost only one-eightieth. It was, therefore, better than the present national Sahitya Akademi award of Rs. 10,000. There were the second, third and consolation prizes also.
If there was one thing that the Gurudwara Committee had in abundance, it was money. The organization was richer than the Amritsar Committee because it had thousands of acres of canal-irrigated land. It had the best building for a high school anywhere. It employed the most talented ragis (the famous Bhai Samund Singh was among them). And it had the best horses although there was no pucca road from Nankana Sahib to any other place.
A special attraction of the mela was a ride in an aeroplane for five rupees. The aircraft took off and landed on plain ground without any facilities whatsoever. (You can have a ride today in San Francisco in the U.S.A., for instance, for $ 15, which is the same in terms of the real value of money.) New inventions were knocking at the door of Punjab but the economy could not afford them.
However, the knocking was rudely stopped. The war came and even a bus run on petrol became a rarity. (There were a few vehicles which were seen running on coal gas). The special trains to the Nankana Sahib fair were cancelled. No rail tickets could be issued for the sacred place and four or five stations on either side during the mela days.
In 1944 I went to Nankana Sahib on the strength of a permit issued by a Magistrate who said that he was satisfied that my presence was necessary there for the management of the mela (what mela?). I had to present that permit at the railway booking window along with the money for the ticket.
The fair was only the shadow of its former self. But one great thrill awaited us. The Electricity Department had promised to put Nankana Sahib on the power grid on the evening of the birth event. And it did so. For the first time the earthen lamps were done away with. Strings of bulbs of many colours hung on the massive front and the gurudwara came alive when it began to get dark. At night we sat in the brightly lit guurdwara and listened to speeches. The place was as crowded as that!
I got a permit again in 1945. An important visitor this time was Jawahar Lal Nehru who was campaigning in that part of the undivided country for the forthcoming elections. After his speech in the grain market he walked a full mile to the gurudwara. During those days when you saw a group of people running on the road to keep pace with somebody, you knew that it was Nehru walking!
The last time I visited Nankana Sahib was in January, 1948. I was then working as a Liaison Officer of our Government. In the town which had been emptied of Hindus and Sikh, the buses had dropped the suffix Sahib from their destination plates. A handful of Sikhs led by Master Nand Singh were keeping the flag flying. I asked them if they had any complaints against the local officials. They said they had none.
Several months later I was at Simla and I thought I would try and talk to Nankana Sahib on the telephone. Master Nand Singh’s voice came from Gurudwara Janam Asthan over the line. It was like talking to somebody on the moon. I treasure that experience as the source of a major thrill of my life.
The Tribune, Wednesday, November 27, 1985