KARACHI: The dagger or kirpan is sacred for Sikhs — a powerful legacy of their sage and a most potent message at Guru Nanak Devji’s 547th birth anniversary celebrations this week.
Majesty is another hallmark of Sikhism — their customs, conducted with exemplary pomp and pageantry scrape the sheen off Mughal resplendence. This, however, is far from apparent as we enter the Narainpur compound in Karachi’s old quarters of Ranchhore Lines. A mosque glistens a few yards away from its gate; a narrow, clean lane speckled with earthen lamps, kitschy, small temples and strands of fairy lights, with some 2,000 homes, promises a long walk to the Gurdwara Sri Granth Sahib, built in 1910.
The shrine stands at the dead end, opposite an old Pentecostal Church — the confluence from the entrance to the destination is as electric as the anticyclone-like high in the air, eyes and on faces. Spread over 260 square metres, it bears no symbol of its past — marble courtyard, pastel ceramic tiles with domes coated in white.
“It was renovated in 1992 after the Babri Mosque backlash; however, since then we have never experienced any security issues,” explains Anand Singh, a young resident of the compound. “Over 200 Sikhs live here in nearly 50 homes. We are from Punjab and ours is a pre-Partition settlement.”
Rituals are now under way; the golden Palki Sahib with a large steel dome is placed on a steel cart to be groomed like a bride in roses, jasmine, marigold, oil lamps, saffron organza and lights — a gilt-edged feast for the senses. Its perfume and incense inflate the air.
The Granth Sahib’s inner sanctum, 12m by 7m, is the centrepiece awash with light and marigolds; the holy palanquin presides in the centre as a saivak waves a saffron wand to ward off negative energy. Bedecked devotees take a phera, prostrate before it and walk backwards to the doorway.
Soup kitchens whirl with energy, aromas of saffron-infused vegetable rice and dessert — the karah prasad of wheat flour, gur and ghee, which is blessed and served after the Granth Sahib is brought back to its seat.
Guru Nanak’s Paanch Pyare (Five Beloveds) are being dressed in a small quarter beneath the Granth room — little girls in dark blue coats, white churidar pants with saffron turbans will carry the orange flag as the Palki makes its way to the end of the compound. Once in full regalia, the girls kneel in a line in front of the Granth Sahib’s pedestal, making for an overwhelming sight.
The festivities explode; drums roll to resounding bhajans and kirtans, crowds swell in numbers and with devotion.
In walks the head of the shrine’s organising committee, Sardar Bhola Singh, an imposing, living monument to Sikhism. “We have no complaints, except that our children get two holidays for our faith — Baisakhi and Guru Purab. There are nearly 6,000 Sikhs in Karachi, from Manora to Gulshan-i-Maymar to Clifton and we have only known and extended brotherhood,” says Bhola Singh.
“The oldest gurdwara is in Ratan Talao in Karachi, where 250 Sikhs were killed during the war in 1971. Guru Nanak, we believe, came to us 10 times and his last avatar was Guru Gobind Singh who left us with five prime symbols: kara(bracelet), kangha (comb), kirpan (dagger), and kesh (hair) and kuccha (undergarment). We get Sardar Krishan Singh to teach our scriptures in this shrine so our grandchildren are not ignorant,” he smiles.
The sardar has left a significant message: “There is no difference in our men and women. Singh is sher and Kaur is sherni. Neither is inferior.”
Sardar Ramesh Singh, patron of the Pakistan Sikh Council, is also all praise for the status of his community in Pakistan: “We have only brotherhood with the people and support from the media and activists. The real issues are caused by our minority representatives and a dormant minority department. Our representatives do not respond, in fact it is the Muslim policymakers who do. We need a Sikh Marriage Act separate from the Hindu Marriage Act, and please abort reserved seats so we elect our community leaders,” he says.
The Granth Sahib is now on the Palki amid a vortex of fervour. The procession will return for the communal feast, and the holy book will rest in an ornate anteroom or Sukh Singhasan till 4am, the time of takht or seating.
It is incredible that the Granth’s daily life comes full circle before darkness gives way.
Perhaps, quiet hours speak of Sikhism’s ideal of peace.
The writer is a journalist and author.
Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2015