In February 2018, I was in West Punjab, Pakistan, in the land of my ancestors for the very first time. I feel lucky to have visited my motherland even before I turned 50. It is the very land that my forefathers died longing to visit since their separation from it, after the fateful days of the Partition when all of them left their homes empty-handed in a caravan.
It took courage on my part to overcome the hatred they had witnessed, the carnage they had faced, the loss of lives and properties they had endured.
I was the first in my family, from both my parents’ side, to visit. My son would be the second. I had resolved never to visit Pakistan; the pain would be too much to bear. But the internet and social media has dispelled some myths and lessened the hatred the governments have been successful in perpetuating for long. Two men led me there: my Punjabi-language teacher and mentor Amarjit Chandan, an eternal dreamer of Undivided Punjab, and the Shahmukhi editor of my book, writer, poet and Punjabi-language lover Mahmood Awan.
The opening of the Kartarpur corridor will facilitate Sikhs to visit their holy place. An American Sikh writer fears what might happen to it if proper planning is not urgently undertaken
As if walking in a dream, I found myself at the Lahore airport and then later at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) for the first-ever Punjabi literary conference. I was invited to launch my book — an illustrated and bilingual folktale collection for children in both the scripts of the Punjabi language (Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi). I attended quite a few book launch events and book readings in various schools. Then I headed to fulfil a life-long desire to visit Nankana Sahib, followed by Kartarpur Sahib.
I remember the day I got my visa for Pakistan. I was crying, jumping up and down like a little girl, anxious, nervous and ecstatic all at the same time. Ever since that day, I couldn’t think of anything but Nankana Sahib. How would I stand there, witness to that sacred landmark? How would I behold the sight of the birthplace of Baba Nanak? But when I got there, my dreams and expectations came crashing down.
Surrounded by an overbuilt and congested township, littered streets, a high wall for security, the Janam Asthan was barely visible from the town. It was no Vatican for the Sikhs I had hoped it to be. When the car stopped at the security checkpoint, I couldn’t believe that we had arrived. From outside the walled premises, there were no indications that I was about to witness the site of supreme importance to 23 million Sikhs worldwide; the one they pray twice a day to be able to see in their lifetime. Inside the premises, even though the space was open, I was not happy with the whitewash and tacky Khanda paintings on the traditional yellow brick building that I had envisioned. The bara dari built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh stood in a quiet corner, unattended, as if waiting to be demolished.
But the one thing that utterly disappointed me was that there was not a moment of solitude there. From the moment we checked into the lodge, the caretakers escorted us inside and through the security outside. We couldn’t explain to them that we were not there to feel welcome at a museum or be treated like VIPs, but to feel the spirit of Baba Nanak. I almost felt guilty and small that I allowed my experience to be ruined by such things. I came back to Lahore with a heavy heart but didn’t give up my plan to visit Kartarpur Sahib even though the flight was due that night.
Thankfully, my experience of Kartarpur Sahib was the other end of the spectrum.
The moment we landed, everyone walked off in different directions and lost themselves in the premises without being followed or guided or even talking to each other. We sought one-on-one time with our Baba and the environment was so conducive to it. The trees, the birds, the freshness of the air, the smell of the soil, it all soaked into us — we had travelled back in time.
The moment I set my foot on that soil, I was overwhelmed. The narrow road to the premises and unpaved courtyards allow one to feel and touch the very soil that Baba Nanak farmed with his own hands. The moment I touched my forehead to it, my eyes welled up — the longing had been fulfiled — the sight, the smell, the quiet, all imparted to the soulful experience. For the next few hours we spent there, we were drenched in the love of Baba Nanak.
Out of the hundred acres of land that belonged to Baba Nanak and then the Gurdwara pre-Partition, a few acres has now been repurchased by the trust and set up as organic farms with ‘Desi Kheti’. The farm provides for the langar (community meal) that is served at the Gurdwara. Walking through the farms one can sense the presence of Baba Nanak and his thriving message of labour of love (Kirrt), sharing (Vand Chhakna) and being immersed in the divine presence (Naam) in all that you do.
A Christian langri baked the tandoori parshadey (rotis), and Muslim and Sikh visitors ate together in the pangat in an open yard leading to the Darbar Sahib. The vegetables, lentils and wheat came from Baba Nanak’s own fields. I had never tasted anything so divine. After we partook in the langar, we walked in his fields, savouring the ripe sugarcanes; the drops of their heavenly nectar sweeter and finer than anything that had ever touched my tongue.
There were a few unsightly things that bothered me even at Kartarpur Sahib. The newly constructed high security wall around the premises and the barbed wire over it in the name of security was an eyesore. So were the flax-boards with tacky paintings of Baba Nanak, and the cheap plastic flowers and colourful lights used to decorate the interior of the otherwise gorgeous Darbar Sahib. But all of this was correctable and I felt thankful when departing.
The news of opening of the Kartarpur corridor was welcomed by Sikhs, whether they lived in India or abroad. However, after a celebration and gratitude for both the governments, concern grew. I first raised the concern in my comment in a Punjabi-language newspaper. To my surprise, within minutes, I found the opinion of hundreds of Sikhs resonating with me.
The serenity, the presence of Baba Nanak in the forests around the River Ravi, the trees, the farms, the quiet premises, the chirping of the birds and the organic langar served in the open yard, is what makes Kartarpur Sahib unique and that must stay.
As soon as Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke of the facilities, my antenna went up. In the following days, I heard about the five-star hotel and my excitement of the corridor opening dimmed. I am now having nightmares of losing Kartarpur’s serenity and fear it becoming the same as Nankana Sahib.
We Sikhs have lost most of our heritage sites due to a lack of planning in architectural preservation, a lack of farsightedness and enlightened leadership. Kar Sewa groups have marbleised all Gurdwaras in East Punjab and any heritage and artefacts from the Guru period have been destroyed. Thankfully, Pakistan heritage sites, due to little access to these self demolition units, have remained largely intact. (There are a few places that these have set foot even in Pakistan and, if not stopped, they will wreak havoc.)
Sikhs at large do not want Kartarpur Sahib to turn into a tourist hotspot like Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. The serenity, the presence of Baba Nanak in the forests around the River Ravi, the trees, the farms, the quiet premises, the chirping of the birds and the organic langar served in the open yard, is what makes Kartarpur Sahib unique and that must stay.
So, how does the Pakistani government balance the two? It is not hard. With a bit of planning, a big disaster can be avoided.
Eco-tourism is the way to go. I would like to see the commission incorporate a few things:
Leave the farmland owned by the trust/Gurdwara intact as the farms continue to practice Desi Kheti (organic farming). All hundred acres should be dedicated to nature, leaving more than half to the forest area to keep the air clean and encourage the flora and fauna as it existed in the Guru period.
Ensure that the architecture of the current building and premises remains untouched. Exploration work should be done to rebuild more heritage sites associated with Baba Nanak in Kartarpur and connect the sites via a walking trail surrounded by trees.
The new facilities for religious tourists should be simple and eco-friendly, their architecture aligned to the Guru period and in no way made to look like modern luxury high-rises. They should be located outside and at a distance from the current premises so as not to affect the current ecosystem or aesthetics.
The number of visitors per day should be regulated, and foot traffic encouraged. Electric trams should transport disabled and elderly visitors. No personal transport should be allowed in the corridor.
A similar plan for Dera Baba Nanak on the Indian side should be prepared as they will work in conjunction with each other, receiving the visitors from India and regulating their flow to Kartarpur Sahib.
The School of Planning and Architecture, for example, from Guru Nanak University in Amritsar, could be involved in the preparation of the two plans. And to prevent Kartarpur Sahib from becoming a garbage dump in the wake of visitors — the use of plastic bags, bottles, styrofoam and packaged foods and snacks should be declared illegal in the area. The only bazaars allowed should be of traditional artefacts and foods, prepared by local artisans and vendors. Musicians, rabab players and folklorists paying tribute to Baba Nanak should be encouraged. Last but not the least, the corridor should open up for all people irrespective of their religious backgrounds. After all, Baba Nanak belonged to the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and the atheists alike.
Please let Kartarpur live up to its name — the abode of the Divine.
Gurmeet Kaur is the author of bilingual book series for children, Fascinating Folktales of Punjab, an educator and an activist who resides in Atlanta, GA. She travels to communities to inspire the love of Ma-Boli Punjabi through storytelling and workshops for parents on how to engage children towards Punjabi literacy.
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 16th, 2018