Nankana Sahab and Gurudwara Janam Asthan

I was going to write a post on Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and his contributions to Hindustani Classical music and dance. But I’ve decided to take a detour for now. Perhaps I will return to Wajid Ali Shah later, or just incorporate him into my forthcoming survey of the history of Hindustani music.

I had the opportunity to take a day trip to Nankana Sahab yesterday (about 50 miles west of Lahore). My mother had some work in the District Hospital there.  Since my students had just written their assignments on Guru Nanak (along with Meerabai, Tulsidas and Surdas), my parents thought I might want to come along and see the city.  It was also a chance to see some of Pakistan outside the major metropolitan centers of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

Guru Nanak was born in Nankana Sahab in 1469 (the city was then known as Rai Bhoi di Talwandi). Since he was born in what is presently Pakistani territory, one can argue that he was a historical Pakistani. Of course, technically no one was Pakistani before August 1947- all four of my grandparents were born in British India, no matter which side of Wagah they happened to be on.  In any case, Guru Nanak is a major figure on both sides of Punjab and it is my opinion that Punjabi Muslims should be more comfortable claiming him as part of their heritage as well (they aren’t but that is a separate debate I’m not going into here).

Guru Nanak famously preached the oneness of God, whether called “Allah” “Ram” or “Waheguru”.  He was also firmly against the Hindu caste system (despite being born in the relatively high Khatri caste).  He believed that all human beings can have direct access to God without rituals or priests (Wikipedia).  One of his famous sayings was “There is no Hindu and there is no Muslim”.  His teachings can be divided into 3 main categories: “Naam Japna” (meditating on God’s name), “Kirat Karo” (earning or making a living honestly) and “Vand Chakko” (sharing with others and helping those who are in need).

Nankana Sahab is a fairly typical Pakistani small city (it only has one bazaar) except that it is the center of Sikh spiritual tourism.  The city has seven Gurudwaras.  Most Pakistani Sikhs also live there. According to Wikipedia, there are 50,000 Sikhs in Pakistan out of a population of 200 million.  As a side note, the Sikhs probably suffered the worst during Partition. Not only did they lose their homes and livelihoods (as did Hindus and Muslims on the “wrong” side of the Radcliffe Line) but they lost most of their holy places on the “wrong” side of the border—Nankana Sahab, where Guru Nanak was born, and Gurudwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur (120 kilometers from Lahore) where he is said to be buried.  Interestingly since Kartarpur is only 3 kilometers from the India-Pakistan border, in the year 2000, the Pakistani government agreed to allow Sikh pilgrims to visit the shrine visa-free by constructing a bridge from the border to the shrine.  In May 2017, an Indian parliamentary committee nixed this scheme, given the poor state of India-Pakistan relations. Instead the Indian government will install 4 binoculars for the viewing of the gurudwara (Wikipedia). A sad state of affairs all around.

I had the opportunity to visit Gurudwara Janam Ashtan in Nankana Sahab, which was a profoundly spiritual experience.  I even bought a Sikh kara as a souvenir.

Since I am a musician, it is important to note that shabads (the hymns contained in the Guru Granth Sahab) are all composed in specific Hindustani ragas.

I will conclude with some pictures of Gurudwara Janam Asthan (taken from my mobile phone, so please excuse the bad quality) and some links to my favorite shabads.  “Sadho Man Ka Maan Tyago” (in Raga Mian ki Malhar) and “Awal Allah Noor Upaya”.


Author: Kabir

I am Pakistani-American. I grew up in suburban Maryland, right outside Washington, DC. I hold a B.A. degree from George Washington University, where I majored in Dramatic Literature and minored in Western Classical Music. During my undergraduate education, I spent two years at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) where I studied Social Sciences, including Anthropology, Sociology and Political Philosophy. I have studied Hindustani Classical Vocal from a young age. I have won several awards at the Annual Indian Music and Dance Competition held in Baltimore, Maryland. I have also performed at the All Pakistan Music Conference in Lahore. Currently I am teaching an undergraduate course on the history of music in South Asia at LUMS. At BP, I intend to write on art, music and literature.

7 thoughts on “Nankana Sahab and Gurudwara Janam Asthan”

    1. Wonderful write up on Nankana Sahab.

      Sad to see that the Sikh pilgrims do not have visa-free access to their Holy Places.

      I would like Punjabi Hindu & Sikhs as well as Sindhi Hindus, our neighbours, as well Urdu-speakers from UP, our cousins so to speak, to have visa-free access to Pakistan.

      My wife’s family, being Sindhi, have a very strong relationship to Sikhism. It’s interesting to see how Guru Nanak has such a strong place in the Sindhi pantheon, almost equivalent to Jhulelal.

      Partition was a disaster for all three communities; impossible to divide the Punjab properly..

      1. The division of Punjab was definitely very problematic. Quaid-e-Azam wanted all of Punjab. That’s what he meant when he said he got a “moth-eaten” Pakistan.

        But I would say that the loss of West Punjab was worst for the Sikhs. Almost all their holy places are in Pakistan. It’s as if Muslims were told that we no longer could access Mecca and Medina because they were now located in an enemy country. No wonder the Sikhs were so angry in 1947.

        Separating Amritsar from Lahore was also a mess. People from Amritsar used to do their shopping in Lahore. It’s that close. (Tindr in Lahore shows you people in Amritsar) Literally the distance is 30 miles or something. But now it’s in an “enemy” country and you cannot go there.

        1. Hahaha loved the Tindr comment hahaha

          Also the Pakistani classical music; that is so Pak-nationalism, Omar would have a field day with that!

          1. Tindr doesn’t recognize that India and Pakistan hate each other. So in Lahore, I get shown lots of sardars and in Islamabad, I get shown lots of people from Srinagar. Open borders lol.

            On the Pakistani classical music, I made the point on the first day of class that that characterization only applies to post-1947.

  1. Zach,

    Since you referred to your wife’s Sindhi Hindu heritage and their close relationship with Guru Nanak, you would be interested in the following:

    “Nanakpanth is an open frontier that references strongly an early Sikh community, and which cannot be cordoned by the modern signifiers Sikhism and Hinduism. Today a majority of Sindhi Hindus consider themselves not simply as Sikhs, but more precisely as Nanakpanthi. Even in the 1881 and 1891 Indian censuses, the Sindhi Hindu community could not decide to collectively identify as Hindu or Sikh” (Reference: Wikipedia article on “Nanakpanthi”)

    Since your wife is Sindhi, I would consider her an honorary Pakistani. I don’t know how she would feel about that. But Hindus are a major part of Sindhi culture and their loss is deeply felt.

  2. Another review of Amardeep Singh’s book by Dr. Isthiaq Ahmed

    “To have undertaken a journey from one end of Pakistan to the other and in the process captured hundreds of paintings and architectural remnants of Sikhs on camera makes the new book a very worthy complementary contribution to his first book. Amardeep is a genius of a photographer. Nothing registers so easily and moves people so readily than pictures, still and moving.

    Perhaps a Punjabi Muslim whose family belonged to the other side of pre-partition Punjab should undertake a journey to East Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh and tell the story of the Muslim heritage left behind there. And, hopefully a Punjabi Hindu would one day come to Pakistan and record the Hindu heritage left behind. The trauma of partition hit Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs most and therefore they can through pictorial books can tell a fuller story of the Punjab: connecting the last 70 years to its historical past. Amardeep Singh has shown the way how one can do it and do it well.”

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