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Gurdwara in Baghadad, Iraq

Gurdwara Baba Nanak

New Light on Guru Nanak’s Visit to Baghdad
Prof. Kulraj Singh

The earliest documentary evidence, now available, of Guru Nanak having visited Baghdad, the authenticity of which has been accepted by all, dates back to the last quarter of the sixteenth century A.D. The visit itself took place, according to the latest historical research, either in 1505 or 1515 A.D.

The evidence comprises a story, in verse, of Guru Nanak’s Baghdad visit and the main incidents that took place during that visit, by Bhai Gurdas in his 1st Var (epic). Bhai Gurdas was born in 1546 A.D., seven years after Guru Nanak’s death and, in 1603-4 A.D., he transcribed the first compilation of the writings of the first five Sikh Gurus and sixteen Muslim and Hindu saints, which later became the Adi Granth, dictated to him by the fifth Guru, Arjun. Prior to this, Bhai Gurdas had written excellent poetry, for, when the compilation of the Adi Granth was in progress, Guru Arjun declared that this writings would be the key to the understanding of the Granth. This fact evidences a poetic career which may quite reasonably be taken to have commenced more than three decades earlier. Bhai Gurdas could be taken to be a very reliable chronicler by reason of the fact that he came in intimate touch with the Sikh church at a time very close to Guru Nanak’s life-time, and that he met men who had personally seen Guru Nanak.

The story of Guru Nanak’s Baghdad visit is also related in the Janam Sakhi in the India Office Library in UK, which is popularly known as Vilayait Wali Janam Sakhi. But since it is not known when this Janam Sakhi was written, Bhai Gurdas’s Var deservedly ranks as the earliest universally accepted testimony of Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad.

This was the position as to the evidence in support of Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad upto March 1917, when Sikh soldiers forming part of the British Indian expeditionary force entered Baghdad.

The Sikh soldiers discovered some memorials commemorating Guru Nanak’s visit to the city. They could have discovered these memorials only in one way: the Indian soldiers could have been told by the custodians of these memorials of the visit of “an Indian saint, Nanak.” That there still persists a strong local tradition of Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad is supported by the testimony of Kartar Singh Kartar (to be referred to in detail later) and a Pakistani writer and diarist, Zafar Payami, who was accosted by the keeper of a shrine, the door-way of which bore the inscription that the building was erected by Sherif Hussain of Pakistan in memory of Baba Nanak. The shrine, according to Zafar Payami, was situated at a distance of twelve miles from Baghdad.

Incentive to Research

Among the Sikh soldiers accompanying the Indian expeditionary force was one Risaldar Sunder Singh, a winner of Indian Distinguished Service Medal. Risaldar Sunder Singh was the son-in-law of S.S. Khazan Singh, a member of the Punjab Civil Service and author of a voluminous book in English on Sikh history and religion. Knowing that these would interest his father-in-law, the Risaldar sent to S.S. Khazan Singh the photographs of the mausoleum of Bahlol Dana and a section of the interior of a room with a stone tablet set in its wall above a four foot high platform. The standstone tablet had embossed on it a quatrain in Ottoman Turkish, or some sister language, which, since it was in Arabic script, was then taken to be an Arabic quatrain. Perhaps what interested Risaldar Sunder Singh and his fellow Sikh soldiers then was the words “Baba Nanak” with which the second line of the quatrain began. For the rest, it appears, they accepted the verbal testimony of the custodian of the mausoleum as to a visit by Guru Nanak to Baghdad.

The words Baba Nanak, as the reproduction of the 1917 photograph and another taken by Kartar Singh in 1931 leave no room for any doubt as to their correct reading.

The materials transmitted by Risaldar Sunder Singh to S.S. Khazan greatly interested the latter and he wanted to write to the Sikhs in Baghdad, and elsewhere in the Middle East, to collect more material. But the Akali Movement, which then started, prevented his executing his research plans and, when the Akali agitation ended, he had too many more jobs on his hands to be able to write to Baghdad and other places. Eventually, on 17th October, 1931, he wrote to The Indian Association and The Sikh Gurdwara, Baghdad, asking, among other things, for “a clear and readable copy of the inscriptions with their translation in English or Urdu, the approximate date of the Guru’s visit” to Baghdad and other particulars connected with the Guru’s visit. His letter was acknowledged by the President of the Central Sikh Committee, Baghdad, Kartar Singh Kartar, who, thereafter, energetically addressed himself to the task of collecting materials as per S.S. Khazan Singh’s request.

Ananda Acharya’s Discovery

Between S.S. Khazan Singh’s hearing from Risaldar Sunder Singh and his initiating correspondence with the Central Sikh Committee for more materials, an event of great significance happened. This was the publication, in 1919, by Macmillans of Swami Anand Acharya’s collection of poems under the title Snow Birds, which included a poem entitled: “On reading an Arabic inscription in a shrine outside the town of Baghdad, dated 912 Hejira. The full text of the poem, which is of special relevance to the present discussion, is :

“Upon this simple slab of granite did thou sit, discoursing of fraternal love and holy light, O Guru Nanak, Prince among India’s holy sons.

What song from the source of Seven Waters thou didst sing to charm the soul of Iran!

What place from Himalaya’s lonely caves and forests thou didst carry to the vinegroves and rose-gardens of Baghdad?

What light from Badrinath’s snowy peak thou didst bear to illumine the heart of Bahlol, thy saintly Persian disciple?

Eighty-four nights Bahlol hearkened to thy words of Life and the Path and Spring Eternal, while the moon waxed and waned in the pomegranate grove beside the grassy desert of the dead.

And after thou hast left him to return to thy beloved Bharat’s land, the fakir, it is said, would speak to none nor listen to the voice of man or angel;

His fame spread far and wide and the Shah came to pay his homage, but the holy man would take no earthly treasures nor hear the praise of kings and courtiers.

Thus lived he - lonely, devoted, thoughtful - sixty winters, sitting before the stone whereon thy sacred feet had rested.

And ere he left this house of Ignorance he wrote these words on the stone: “Here spake the Hindu Guru Nanak to Fakir Bahlol, and for these sixty winters since the Guru left Iran, the soul of Bahlol has rested on the Master’s word, like a bee poised on a dawnlit honey-rose.”

Date of Acharya’s Visit to Baghdad

W.H. McLeod, who has propounded the thesis that the stone tablets in the walls of Bahlol Dani’s mausoleum, which has for some decades been accepted as decisive proof of Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad, cannot be accepted as such (on grounds, inter alia, that the words Baba Nanak in the second line of the quatrain cannot be unambiguously deciphered as such) and who has examined evidence in support of the visit in all its ramifications, opines that Anand Acharya visited baghdad in 1916 (vide p. 130 of his book Guru Nanak and Sikh Religion). He, however, concedes in a foot-note on the same page, that it is possible that Anand Acharya may have chanced upon the inscription before its reported discovery in 1916. It is extremely unlikely that Ananda Acharya visited Baghdad in 1916. The Ottoman Turkish Empire, of which Iraq was a province in 1914, entered the First World War on the side of Germany in November 1914. The British thereafter sent an Indian expeditionary force to annex Iraq for the Allies and the city of Baghdad was conquered by this force in March 1917. However, the expeditionary force did not complete the occupation of Iraq till 1918. This means that hostility on the Iraqi soil continued from November 1914 until 1918. It is extremely unlikely a sadhu from the subject country, India, was allowed to visit Iraq during the continuance of hostility for the purpose of - evidently - of sightseeing. Nor, of course, could a man, whose work Macmillans published in 1919, be a guest of Turkey in 1916. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that Swami Anand Acharya’s visit, during which he chanced upon the inscription to which he refers in the poem reproduced above, took place before November 1914, that is, long before the Sikh soldiers had entered Baghdad. This goes to show that the stone inscription or inscriptions, purporting to testify to Guru Nanak’ visit to Baghdad were seen by two independent witnesses: Anand Acharya and the Sikh soldiers.

But how did Swami Ananda Acharya chance upon the inscription? The only possible way in which he could have come to know of it is that he would have been told of the visit of an Indian saint Nanak by name, by some local people. This means that even in 1914 there existed in Baghdad a local tradition of Guru Nanak’s visit to this city.

Evidence of a Local Tradition

The existence of such a local tradition is evidenced by the story told by Ananda Acharya in his poem, of Guru Nanak’s Baghdadi devotee Bahlol’s hearkening to “thy words on Life and the Path and Spring Eternal” for “eight fortnights”, his fame spreading far and wide, his having declined to accept “earthly treasures” presented to him by the Shah and his having sat “lonely, devoted, thoughtful”, for sixty winters before the stone whereon thy sacred feet had rested. The tablet bearing the Ottoman Turkish quatrain does not tell this story. Swami Ananda Acharya, therefore, either saw some other tablets on which the story was inscribed - which possibility will be discussed later - or, in any case this story was related to him by someone in Baghdad. Both these possibilities testify to the existence of a local tradition of Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad.

The point that deserves to be noted is that the existence of such tradition relating to a non-Muslim saint in a place thousands of miles away from the area of his followers’ influence should indicate that the tradition must have been derived from the actual visit. The tradition could have easily been preserved in a place like Baghdad where the keepership of shrines passed from father to son in an unbroken line.

Kartar Singh’s Research

To revert to S.S. Khazan Singh’s enquiries from the Central Sikh Committee, Baghdad, it is seen that Kartar Singh Kartar, wrote to him at length on 5th May, 1931 on his return to India. Kartar Singh had worked in Baghdad in the Survey section of the Government of India’s Public Works Department, and his letter is remarkable for the author’s objectivity, scrupulous regard for facts, refusal to be led by sentiment, and his being quite knowledgeable. He frankly admits that he had not, by then, been able to find any Arabic book giving account of Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad and that he cannot corroborate S.S. Khazan Singh’s conclusion that the Iraqi citizens called Suplis, who grew long hair and beards were followers of Guru Nanak. The letter, however, states that he had been able to obtain from mujavars (keepers of shrines) a small quantity of Arabic poetry, etc, and this he had submitted for translation. It seems that S.S. Khazan Singh later received the photographs of the Bahlol Dana mausoleum and the stone inscriptions on its walls, the photostats of the Arabic poetry, etc. obtained by Kartar Singh from the mujavars and the translations of all the writings and inscriptions directly from Central Sikh Committee Baghdad. These are all reproduced in an article culled out from S.S. Khazan Singh’s still unpublished works by his grandson S. Manjit Singh (SR:Oct. Nov. 1969). S.S. Khazan Singh’s records also show that the part of Bahlol Dana’s mausoleum that housed the Guru Nanak memorial which, for that reason, had come to be known as Guru Nanak Asthan, and which had fallen into a miserable state of disrepair was got repaired by the Central Sikh Committee Baghdad by April 1934.

Guru Nanak Asthan is situated at a distance of almost 1.5 miles from the Baghdad West Railway Station, to the north-west, on the fringe of a cemetery covering a large arc in a vicinity which has other important shrines such as those of Zubeida Khatun, Hazrat Junaid, Marauf Karkhi and the Jewish saint Nabi-ul-Usha.

Value of Kartar Singh’s Testimony

In a characteristically scrupulous vien, Kartar Singh states that “it has been heard that the well dates back to Guru Nanak Dev’s time.” He also seeks to correct S.S. Khazan Singh’s impression that Guru Nanak stayed in Baghdad for nearly two years." “It appears,” he writes, “that Guru Nanak, after reaching Baghdad did not stay on here for nearly two years; he stayed only for three or four months.” The sort of observations Kartar Singh makes in his letter leave no doubt in the readers’ mind that he had derived all the information he recorded in this letter from Baghdad sources. He does not betray any tendency to rush to conclusion, even the thrill of discovery. On the contrary, he seems to have an open mind over the points he was investigating. About the Arabic writing recovered from mujavirs he writes, “A small quantity of poetry, etc. in Arabic had been obtained from the muhavars; this I had submitted for translations. When this has been translated and if any clues are found in it, either the Central Sikh Committee or your humble servant will try to send these to you.”

Lost Arabic Manuscript

A most interesting statement that Kartar Singh’s letter contains is regarding the existence of an Arabic manuscript relating to Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad and his discourse with the local divines. “From the mujavirs who at present look after the shrine (Bahlol Dana’s mausoleum) it has been learnt that they had a hand-written Arabic book concerning Guru Nanak in which was recorded the full account of Guru Nanak Dev’s visit to Baghdad and his discourse with pirs and fakirs. But it has been learned that, to our bad luck, somebody stole away that book in 1920.”

Writing Recovered

The small quantity of poetry, etc, referred to in S. Kartar Singh’s letter, together with its translation from Baghdadi experts, were sent to S.S. Khazan Singh and he has incorporated them in the (SR: Oct ’69) article as materials recovered from Muslim sources. These contain a statement by one Rukan Din about “Nanak Fakir”. This statement, which The Sikh Review has got independently translated gives a portrayal of the Guru that is strikingly in keeping with his popular historical image. As per Professor Masoumi’s translation, the statement reads :

“He acquired different sciences. In particular he acquired proficiency in Islamic lore, the interpretation of the Holy Quran, the knowledge of religious cults and Arabic and Persian literature. He made remarkable headway in these. He carried on a struggle to end oppression and repression that prevailed in different countries. He raised the banner of justice and destroyed untruth and hypocrisyl; so long as the weak did not obtain their right he stood by them and regarded the powerful who lost their head in their arrogance as dastardly. He was the best specimen of piety and hunger for travel.”

The author of this statement, quite obviously knew Guru Nanak intimately. In fact a statement in Arabic, ostensibly by Guru Nanak, which was printed with its translation as part of the Oct. 1969 article indicates that Guru Nanak and Rukun Din left Baghdad for Hindustan together.

The materials discovered in Baghdad constitute strong circumstantial evidence of Guru Nanak Dev’s visit to the city. They have emanated from indigenous Baghdadi sources. Unfortunately, both S.S. Khazan Singh and Kartar Singh are dead, and it is difficult without their assistance to know where the source documents at present are. Manjit Singh has discovered many letters and documents in Persian script among his grandfather’s papers. These, he regrets, he is not able to decipher without expert assistance. A careful scanning of these might yield useful clues.

Lost Inscription

Kartar Singh also reported the existence of another inscription connected with Guru Nanak. “It had been heard in 1920, he writes, “that another inscription relating to Guru Nanak Dev, set in a wall near the Baghdad Eastern Railway Station and a short distance to the east of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani’s shrine. Some people have seen it; but later on it could not be traced out. A regular search for it was also made in 1926. Several people gave clues. But at that time the wall was found crumbled and the inscription could not be traced." It is not unlikely that Swami Ananda Acharya saw this very inscription.

Bahlol of Ananda Acharya’s Poem

This theory is supported by two items of circumstantial evidence. One of these, as elaborated above, is the story of Bahlol’s having attained enlightenment at Guru Nanak’s feet, his spurning earthly glory and treasures, and his having sat in contemplation for sixty winters after his meeting with the Guru - not one element of which is to be found in the inscription in Bahlol Dana’s mausoleum. The other is the fact that the details of this story strikingly square up with the known facts of the life history of Shah Bahlol Daryaee, next in line of Qadris succession of Shah Latif Barri and a contemporary of Guru Nanak. The line of Qadri Sufi Pirs began with Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani in the twelfth century A.D., and it is near Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani’s shrine in Baghdad that the tablet reportedly seen - uptil 1920 but untraceable in 1926 - was located. Shah Bahlol Daryaee died in 983 Hijri. Guru Nanak visited Baghdad as per the inscription in Bahlol Dana’s shrine in 917 Hijri. That is to say, there was an interval of 66 Hijri years between Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad and Shah Bahlol Daryaee’s death. The Hijri year being a lunar year 66 Hijri year would very nearly span sixty winters.

Bhai Gurdas’ Pir Dastgir

The tradition that Guru Nanak discoursed with a Pir of the Qadri order was first recorded by Bhai Gurdas in his Var I, in which the Pir with whom he conversed is mentioned as Pir Dastgir. The Persian word “Dastgir” literally means holder of hand but is interpreted as “one who rescues or leads by the hand.” This was the appellation applied to Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani by which his successors would not unnaturally be referred to.

So Guru Nanak’s meeting in Baghdad with the Qadri Pir is supported by the testimony of Bhai Gurdas, who obviously based his account on a tradition current in times very close to Guru Nanak’s life-time, and of Swami Ananda Acharya, whose knowledge of the meeting was derived, in all probability, from a stone inscription, but, in any case, from a tradition prevalent in Baghdad at the time he paid his visit to that city. In either case the testimony should rank as a valid source of reliable historical information.

From the foregoing discussion the following conclusions emerge: A strong local tradition of Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad existed in Baghdad long before the Sikh soldiers accompanying the expeditionary force came to that city in March 1917. This has at present not one but two known places associated with it - the Guru Nanak Asthan 1.5 miles from Baghdad West Railway Station, and a shrine built by a Pakistani, Abdul Sharif, about 12 miles from the city.

A third place, a wall with a stone inscription near Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani shrine, has lost its prize stone tablet.

Also, the tradition does not only comprise the bare fact of the visit, but seems to comprehend fairly elaborate details. The photographs of the tablets set in the wall of Bahlol Dana’s mausoleum (Guru Nanak Asthan) taken in 1917 and 1931 clearly show that words “Baba Nanak” occur in the second line of the quatrain on the tablet. These facts in themselves constitute strong evidence of Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad. What is more, they furnish clues to further fruitful research which deserves a well-endowed institution’s close attention.

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