How a gurudwara in Pakistan’s Nankana Sahib preserved and promoted Punjabi for centuries

Gurudwara Patti Sahib was where Guru Nanak is said to have composed his poetry, elevating Punjabi to a language of literature and learning.

Pakistan Gurudwara
Photographer Iqbal Qaiser

Gurudwara Patti Sahib is relatively small, as far as Sikh places of worship go. The single-storey structure is surrounded by a courtyard, next to which there are several rooms. These were once reserved for pilgrims who would travel from across pre-Partition India to Nankana Sahib to celebrate Guru Nanak Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the first Sikh guru on whom this Pakistani city is named. Most of these rooms have now been taken over by Sikh families who moved to Nankana Sahib over the past decade after fleeing Taliban violence in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

It was at this gurudwara that Giani Pratab, a devotee, decided to teach young children the tenets of Sikhism and its holy book, the Adhi Granth.

Till a few years ago, just a handful of Sikh families lived in Nankana Sahib, said to be the birthplace of Guru Nanak, a majority of them having migrated to India after Partition. Today, the city is home to 200-250 Sikh families.

Giani Pratab had come to Nankana Sahib in the 1960s to pay homage to Guru Nanak. Looking at the condition of its gurudwaras, abandoned since Partition, he decided to stay on and look after them.

This was years before the Pakistan government started renovating Sikh shrines and Sikh families from tribal areas too had not yet migrated to Nankana Sahib. In a Muslim-dominated city he was the only Sikh. Starting from the late 1960s, Sikhs slowly started migrating here from India and the process gathered pace with the Talibanisation of Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Pratab, well-versed in the Adhi Granth, started acquainting children with the Gurmukhi script, giving them access to the sacred poetry of Sikh Gurus. Alongside their school education, the children were given religious learning at this gurudwara. This was essential for the children who, educated in the Pakistani system, would otherwise never have learnt the principles of Gurmukhi and would have been unaware of their religious scriptures.

Years later when Mastan Singh, a prominent member of Nankana Sahib’s Sikh community, established the Guru Nanak High School, the only institute that imparted religious learning alongside secular education to students in the city, the makeshift school at Gurudwara Patti Sahib was shut down.

Preserving Punjabi

Patti, in Punjabi, refers to a wooden board on which children learn to write and this gurudwara has a legacy of education.

As Guru Nanak was from the Bedi clan, who were ancient readers of the Vedas, it was imperative for him to learn Sanskrit. After mastering the ancient Indian language, he was taught Arabic and Persian, the two most politically dominant languages of his time. The place where Nanak was taught these languages, by Maulana Qutab-ud-din that came to be called Gurdwara Patti Sahib.

Almost five centuries after Nanak, young Sikh children, at this very place, were taught the alphabet of Gurmukhi, a script created by Nanak’s disciple and spiritual successor, Guru Angad Dev. The second Sikh Guru had sought to develop a new script to teach the message of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak.

It was also at this gurudwara that Nanak the poet was born. Having mastered several languages, Nanak fused Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit words with the vernacular Punjabi for his first composition.

New words, phrases and symbols were added to a language which, before Nanak, was not considered worthy of containing serious philosophical knowledge. In this way, Nanak not only contributed to the spiritual development of Punjab but played an even greater role in its linguistic development.

Punjabi today has acquired the status of a sacred language in institutional Sikhism but when Nanak wrote, it was considered the language of the laypeople, not fit to be used by the educated elite. Literature, history, philosophy and religion were passed on in sacred languages – Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian – not accessible to everyone. This perhaps was one of the most revolutionary steps taken by Nanak.

He took knowledge from the elite, from their scriptures and their languages, and presented it in the vernacular. He democraticised philosophy and restored dignity to a language, a people and a culture that had for centuries been culturally subjugated.

However, years after Sikhism elevated Punjabi to a sacred language, it has once again been relegated to the sidelines in Nanak’s land. Urdu and English are the languages in which formal education is imparted in Pakistan’s Punjab province, while any references to Punjabi poets, literature and culture are obliterated. The common sentiment towards Punjabi is that of derision. It is considered to be a language of curses — for instance, last year, a private school listed Punjabi as an example of the kinds of “foul language” to be banned on its premises. Though the school claimed that this was a misunderstanding and they meant Punjabi curses, the controversy reiterated the disdain towards the language and its fading away in Pakistan.

On February 21, the world celebrated International Mother Language Day with a focus on promoting multilingual education. Now more than ever before, there is a need to revisit Nanak’s legacy and the significance of languages not just in Punjab but across the world, wherever they have been subsumed by purportedly powerful languages.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak

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