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Walking the route (Guru) Nanak did

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Walking the route Nanak did

Updated on: 17 October,2021 09:27 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Jane Borges | jane.borges@mid-day.com


A Sikh couple from Singapore retrace the 22-year-long arduous journey that Guru Nanak undertook over five centuries ago, across nine countries for a 24-part docuseries

Walking the route Nanak did

Amardeep Singh (director, host) and Vininder Kaur (co-director) with Khalida Begum, a Muslim resident of village Khost along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border



The world was a very different place 550 years ago. India was still not a jewel in the British crown. There wasn’t a Pakistan to counter Hindustan. Our borders were fluid, even though land was still contentious. And people covered great distances, mostly on foot, because back then, only birds flew.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) travelled the world in these simpler, yet daunting times, where stories about lands beyond were mostly unknown. For over 22 years, the seeker, philosopher, and founder of Sikhism, visited more than 150 Islamic, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sites, covering present-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tibet, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He was accompanied by his Muslim companion Bhai Mardana, a musician, who played the rabāb (fiddle), while Nanak sang shabad (hymns). Though Nanak left a large repository of experiential wisdom, he never wrote anything about his personal life. His travels, hence, were rendered solely through oral narrativesSingh with Dr Raghunath, the last Nanakpanthi resident of Kandahar. Singh says the five gurdwaras and 15 temples here have all been abandonedSingh with Dr Raghunath, the last Nanakpanthi resident of Kandahar. Singh says the five gurdwaras and 15 temples here have all been abandoned

It was only around 65 years after his death that the first hagiographic account about him was written  by Bhai Gurdas. Other men of faith wrote in a similar vein, leading to a wide canvas of storytelling, travelogue and hagiography related to the spiritual teacher, known as the Janamsakhis.

For Singapore-based Amardeep Singh, these texts were his immediate window into Guru Nanak’s extensive travels. The independent visual ethnographic researcher, who worked in the financial services sector for 25 years, switched gears in 2014, when he took a sabbatical to reconnect with his parents’ pre-Partition roots in Pakistan, and visit Nankana Sahib, the birth place of Guru Nanak. “I also wanted to explore the tangible and intangible remnants of the [Sikh] culture, which had been wiped off from this region,” says Singh, who was formerly the Head of Asia Pacific Region at American Express for Revenue Management. The travels that he undertook across 126 cities and villages, evolved into two books, Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan, and The Quest Continues, which comprises photographs and forgotten narratives from the region. His curiosity for the Sikh culture and his own spiritual quest led him to revisit the Janamsakhis. “But these [texts] were hagiographies, written by people, who had an affinity for Guru Nanak, so there were bound to be discrepancies. There are, however, scholars who’ve spent a lifetime researching and studying these works,” says Singh, who then delved into primary hagiographies, alongside academic works available on the subject. “This became the compass that guided me.”

Filming Guru Nanak’s narrative in Sri LankaFilming Guru Nanak’s narrative in Sri Lanka

The result is a 24-episode docuseries, Allegory, A Tapestry of Guru Nanak’s Travels, which sees Singh and his wife, fellow director Vininder Kaur, along with a small film crew, traverse through the nine nations to retrace the route taken by Guru Nanak over five centuries ago, during his “altruistic pursuit to spread the message of the oneness of creation”. The weekly episodes can be viewed for free on TheGuruNanak.com starting October 14. Singh, who is the host, executive producer and director of the show, began the shoot in January 2019, travelling through the deserts of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the arid landscape of Pakistan. The team managed to wrap up shooting in March 2020, the month when the COVID-19 pandemic escalated globally, shutting down the world briefly. “I am not an anthropologist, historian, photographer or filmmaker. Neither have I studied religion or pursued theology,” says the multi-hyphenate Singh, while underplaying the self-taught talents he has acquired over the years, and which find way into this documentary.

His interest in this project, he says, stemmed from the message and spiritual insights that Nanak imparted through his words and music, while interacting with people from different faiths and cultures. Guru Nanak fearlessly challenged the binary constructs of society, and relentlessly opposed gender, religious, racial and class inequalities, he says. “These narratives have been forgotten, because our boundaries have hardened, and the Sikhs are moving away. There was a time when Iran had many Sikhs; Afghanistan too had a vibrant Hindu and Sikh community. Today, they are down to 180 people. What 1947 has done, is that it has severed the entire Indus region, and the connectivity to India, right from Iran, has been fractured,” says Singh, adding that the geopolitical factors and fragmentation have invisibilised cultures and communities. “We have lost the ability to see oneness in diversity,” he says, alluding to the message Nanak had set out to preach.

Amardeep Singh at the Cold Desert in Baltistan (12,000 feet) in PakistanAmardeep Singh at the Cold Desert in Baltistan (12,000 feet) in Pakistan

Their own journey was met with many hurdles. One of the main struggles was getting visas to enter these countries, and securing permissions to shoot. “Even if we did manage [to resolve] that, we knew it wasn’t going to be possible to sequentially map the journey undertaken by Guru Nanak, especially when you don’t have the luxury of time. We were just a husband and wife team, working on a tight budget,” he says, of the film, which has been jointly produced by Lost Heritage Productions and SikhLens Productions. Looking back, he says, it was only “divine intervention” that helped see the crew through those months.

The first two episodes are dedicated to Guru Nanak’s formative years, his early childhood and youth, and interactions with his family, before he has an awakening, and decides to spread his message. “That’s when he decides to embark on his journey [at the age of 35],” says Singh. The next 22 episodes take us through the many lands he travelled. “We have two narratives going on simultaneously [in the film]. The first is about me, retracing Guru Nanak’s journey over 550 years later, and my own turmoil through this time,” says Singh. Lahore-based lawyer Saleema J Khawaja has lent her voice for the songs in the film. She learnt the Gurbani Sangita Sabadritas (compositions of Sikh tradition) from the late Bhai Ghulam Muhammad Chand, who belonged to the Rababi tradition. The Guru Nanak verses that she sings, in a way helps provide answers to what Singh is experiencing while on this journey.

One of the more heart-breaking stories came from Afghanistan, where they met the Sikh and Hindu residents during their visit in March-April 2019. “I prefer to call them Nanakpanthis [followers of the teachings of Guru Nanak] because they all have some adherence to him. A local resident, Chhabol Singh helped take us around. While I was there, I felt the pain of this community. From being a 300,000-strong group before the Russian invasion, they were reduced to a community of 1,300. We also met Dr Raghunath, the last Nanakpanthi resident of Kandahar. The rest of the community has left. There were five gurdwaras and 15 temples, and all have been abandoned. 

Unfortunately, they didn’t have the leadership and vision to move out.” A year later, after the shoot, in March 2020, 25 people were killed in a gurdwara attack in Kabul, when gunmen stormed a religious gathering. When the Taliban took over recently in August this year, most of the Nanakpanthis left the country—a majority of them took refuge in India—leaving behind just about 180 people in regions like Jalalabad and Kabul. What Singh doesn’t talk about is the work that he and other community members like Dalip Singh Sethi did to mobilise sponsorship for many of these families, under the initiative, My family, My Responsibility. 

He admits that micro-managing every aspect of the shoot, left little room for his own spiritual growth. “But, if these narratives arouse the emotions of the viewers, I’d have achieved that spiritual development.”

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