Both the first Guru, Guru Nanak, as well as the last living Guru, Guru Gobind, travelled extensively across the Indian Subcontinent.

Sikhisms southern sojourn A look at the historic Gurudwaras below the VindhyasBy Santosh3397 via Wikimedia Commons
Features Religion Tuesday, November 03, 2015 - 11:47
Written by  Manek Kohli

The moment you step into the marble-encased courtyard of Guru Nanak Jhira Sahib, a historical Sikh Gurudwara located in Bidar, Karnataka, you feel like you're walking across the pages of history. There's a calm 'sarovar' or pond whose water, known as 'amrit' (nectar), is considered pure and holy. Walk up the marble staircase, and you enter the main domed shrine - a large carpeted room where everyone is barefoot, sitting cross-legged and quietly listening to serene hymns and verses. Outside the main shrine, you find an octagonal well always filled will water to the brim; considered very holy by pilgrims. Peace of mind is omnipresent here. This is one of the very few historical Gurudwaras in South India, and its relevance and importance to Sikh history cannot be discounted.

Sikhism originated in the 15-16th centuries and is based on the fundamental belief of “Ek Ong Kar” (God as a single, all encompassing entity). It was introduced by Nanak Dev, its first leader or Guru, who travelled across South Asia and Central Asia spreading his teachings. In the process, he acquired a huge body of followers who came to be known as the ‘Sikhs’. Many of the places he visited were immortalised as Sikh shrines or Gurudwaras (literally, Guru’s abode). The Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, is housed in these very shrines. Guru Nanak's tradition was kept alive by a lineage of nine subsequent Gurus who continued to spread his teachings and added their own. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last living Guru, further organised the religion into the 'Khalsa sect'; giving the Sikhs a newfound identity. 

Both the first Guru (in the 15th century) as well as the last living Guru (in the 17-18th centuries) travelled extensively across the Indian Subcontinent. While Guru Nanak’s travels were mainly for missionary purposes, Guru Gobind travelled to escape from and battle the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, who wished to consolidate his kingdom by defeating the Guru. They visited numerous places across the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh and many of these visits are immortalised in the form of Gurudwaras.

The most important of these is the Guru Nanak Jhira Sahib. Guru Nanak Dev visited the city during his second Udasi (or missionary tour) between the years 1506-1513 to meet Pir Jalaluddin and Yakoob Ali, two revered Muslim saints. According to accounts, he stayed in the outskirts of the city, where numerous fakirs and city-dwellers began gathering to listen to the Guru’s teachings and sermons. Once the news of his saintly qualities began to spread, the Sikh leader was approached to remedy the city of its water shortage. According to legend, Nanak Dev touched the hillside with his toe, removed some rubble from its face, and a spring of fresh water rushed out of that very spot. Additionally, one of the Guru’s most beloved followers (Bhai Sahib Singh), also hailed from Bidar. Because of these two reasons, the shrine is one of the most frequented and revered amongst Sikhs across the nation today. 

All of Guru Nanak's travels to South India were undertaken during the second Udasi (missionary tour). He passed through all of these states on his way to Sangladip (modern day Sri Lanka). During his journey, another place he stopped by was Guntur in Andhra Pradesh where Gurudwara Pehli Patshahi rests today. ‘Pehli Patshahi’ means ‘first visit of the Guru’ in Punjabi, and hence, the shrine has been established to mark the first visit of the Guru. While the travels itself took place in the early 16th century, the shrine was not established till the early 19th century. 

Gurudwara Nanak Dham, Rameshwaram. Image:, Darshan Singh

Gurunanak also stopped at numerous places in the state of Tamil Nadu. Of these, Gurudwara Nanak Dham located in Rameswaram (situated in the Gulf of Mannar), has great historical prominence. The Guru spent nineteen days here in the year 1511. He was returning from Sri Lanka, and was headed back to North India. According to legend, the Guru found the water in the island town saline. He proceeded to dig a spring that produced sweet water. This spring, as well as the ‘mandapam’ (temple porch) where the Guru stayed have been preserved to date. The Gurudwara built here in remembrance of this legend and the Guru’s stay is visited by pilgrims from as far away as Punjab. 

As the Guru continued his journey, he also stopped at Pallipuram and Kotayyam in the state of Kerala. Here, the local ascetics or the ‘Sidhs’ handed him a single sesame seed to test his principle of ‘wand chakanaa’ (sharing with others) – an ideal that he had enshrined within the tenets of Sikhism. The guru upheld his tradition by pressing the seed and diluting it in water. He distributed the same to everyone, and therefore, managed to share it with all. Here, Gurudwara Tilganji Sahib has been enshrined in Guru Nanak’s memory. 

The Guru spent the next two years reaching home and after that he continued missionary journeys across other parts of the subcontinent, as well as Central Asia. It was not until the 18th century, during the reign of the last living Guru, Gobind Singh, that the South once again came into prominence.

The tenth Guru had been evading Aurangzeb, one of the prominent Mughal Emperors. His pursuit of the Guru took place across the Indian plains, and the latter lost all his sons while fleeing. Gobind Singh finally escaped and settled in Nanded in Maharashthra, which is where he was ultimately cremated.

Gurudwara Tap Asthan Mai Bhago, near Bidar. Image: Flickr/Hari Singh

During one of his battles against Wazir Khan, a commander under Aurungzeb, a women named Mai Bhago was particularly brave and helpful. She united the womenfolk of her village to collectively shame a band of soldiers who had deserted the Guru during the battle. Eventually, she donned a man’s dress and convinced the band to return to the service of their leader. Due to her endeavour, they returned and fought valiantly in battle. Mai Bhago eventually settled in Janwada Village in Karnataka after Guru Gobind passed away. A Gurudwara called Gurudwara Tap Asthan Mai Bhago, located about 11 kilometres from Bidar, was enshrined here in her memory. 

Regions across South India have always had a strong connection with Sikhism. Their legacy as a part of Sikh history cannot be forgotten. Even today, Sikh communities recount these legends with great pride and fervour.

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