Pilgrimage is a common and important practice for adherents of many of the world’s major religions. By the hundreds and thousands, the Sikhs visit Pakistan each year to pay homage to the founder of their ancient religious order. Many devotees of Sikhism choose to come during April’s Baisakhi – an ancient harvest and important religious festival – or to commemorate the death of the first Maharaja of the Sikh empire, Ranjit Singh, in June. The birthday of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, is also a popular time for Sikhs travelling to Pakistan and is celebrated on the full moon each November. On all three occasions, the government of Pakistan allows Sikh Jathas to visit holy sites and ancient religious shrines.
Sikh history starts 80 kilometres southwest of the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore in the village of Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev in the year 1469. Originally called Rai Bhoi di Talvandi, the village was later renamed Nankana in honour of the Guru. Nankana contains several well-preserved shrines connected with the early youth and lasting memory of Guru Nanak, who died in 1538.
The Beginnings of Sikhism
During his life, the Guru made several important journeys, travels that took him throughout India and into parts of Arabia and Persia. Wherever he went, Guru Nanak spoke out against empty religious rituals and customs, including the sacrifice of widows, and strongly protested the rigid caste system of ancient Indian society. Humanitarian and egalitarian principles are fundamental to the Sikh creed and Sikhs typically reject the caste system to this day. The Sikh philosophy is a combination of both Hinduism and Islam, and upholds the concept of one God as truth.
Followers of Sikhism developed into a strong military brotherhood and later, under the regime of the early 19th-century Maharaja Rangit Singh, they reached the height of power. During this period, Sikhs controlled the entire Punjab region, with Lahore serving as their political capital and Amritsar, now in India, functioning as their religious centre. With the partition of lands that followed the dissolution of the British Indian Empire in 1947, the Sikhs migrated to modern-day India. The Sikh shrines in present-day Pakistan are well maintained by the government and are visited by the Sikh pilgrims during their annual festivals.
The Great Gurdwaras
A Gurdwara, meaning ‘Gateway to the Guru’, is a popular place of worship for followers of Sikhism.
Important ones include Gurdwara Janam Asthan, Gurdwara Bal Lila, Gurdwara Patti Sahib and Gurdwara Sacha Sauda and Gurdwara Panaja Sahib in Hassan Abdal.
Gurdwara Janam Asthan
Located in Nankana Sahib, this prominent Gurdwara was built in honour of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism. The present-day building was constructed during the 19th century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and is said to represent the home of Mehta Kalyan Dass and Mata Tripta, the Guru’s father and mother respectively. Inside is a shrine that dates from the 16th century.
Gurdwara Bal Lila
About 300 metres from Janam Asthan, the Gurdwara Bal Lila was originally built by Rai Bular, an ancient ruler of the village. It is significant as the village playground, where young Nanak assembled his friends not only for physical games but to lead them as holy man sitting in meditation.
Gurdwara Patti Sahib
The Gurdwara Patti Sahib is located at the site of the village school where the Guru studied as a young boy. He learned Punjabi and Sanskrit, and then mastered Persian by the age of 13. It is in this school that the Guru surprised his teacher by composing and reciting an eloquent acrostic known as a patti: “He who created all existence is the sole lord of all./Those who serve Him are his devotees, Fruitful is their coming into the world.”
Gurdwara Sacha Sauda
This holy site reminds pilgrims of the Guru’s mercy and kindness. When the Guru’s father, a famous accountant, gave him some money with which to start a business, the Guru walked to town with the intention of turning a profit. On his way to the commercial centre, however, he came upon a group of sadhus, or holy men, who were naked and hungry. The Guru thought for a while and then bought them a good meal and clothing with the investment money his father had given him. The Gurdwara Sacha Sauda stands on the site where the sadhus were fed, surrounded by a fortress built by the Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Gurdwara Panja Sahib
Situated in the small town of Hassan Abdal, approximately 45 kilometres from the capital city of Islamabad, Gurudwara Panja Sahib is one of the holiest places in the world for Sikh devotees. Legend tells that the Guru and his followers arrived here during the summer season and found little water to quench their thirst. Fortunately, there was a spring close by owned by a Sufi saint named Wali Qandhari to whom the Guru sent a follower to request some water to drink. Seeking to punish the ‘non-believers’ who gathered to hear the Guru Nanak instead of coming to see him, the Wali refused the travellers’ requests. After three refusals by the Wali, the Guru asked his companion to remove a stone from near the spring. As soon as this stone was removed the water of Wali Kandhari ran completely dry.
Upon witnessing the event, the Wali flew into a blind rage and hurled an enormous rock down toward the Guru. Extending his right arm without moving an inch, the Guru stopped the boulder, his open palm leaving an imprint as if the rock were made of wax. Impressed by the miracle, Wali Kandhari bowed before the Guru to seek his forgiveness and blessing. Today, a small spring flows underneath the handprint at Gurdwara Panja Sahib.