Gurdwara Nanak Shahi, Dhaka

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GURDWARA NANAK SHAHI in Dhaka is one of the seven known Gurdwaras in Bangladesh. It is the most important historic Gurdwara, commemorating the visit of Guru Nanak (1506-1507). This Gurdwara is said to have been built in 1830. Besides, Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru of the Sikhs stayed at Dhaka for over two years. The news of the birth of his only son Sri Gobind Rae - Guru Gobind Singhji Maharaj - in Patna was received by Guru Tegh Bahadur when he was sojourning in Dhaka. This gurdwaras is among the few places outside India which were graced more than once by Guru Baba Nanak. Its historic and religious importance outside India is second perhaps only to the Gurdwaras of Nanakana Sahib and Panja Sahib.

The present building of the Gurdwara was renovated in 1988-1989 and a parkarma verandah has been constructed on all four sides of the original building to protect it from wear and tear. This was a massive task completed with the help of overseas Sikhs under the supervision - and at the initiative - of this writer who was posted at Dhaka as Chairman, International Jute Organisation. During my many tours and travels to various countries I was successful in mobilizing support and collecting a sufficiently large sum of money for the purpose. A beautiful rose garden has been laid out in the front yard, with about 100 rose plants and about 200 beauty plants, further beautification was planned and remains overdue. The present building of the gurdwara was shown to the public by Bangladesh Television authorities on Dhaka TV Network on 16th May, 1990. During the programme, it was stated by the Director of National Museum that this Gurdwara was "the foremost among the ancient historical buildings existing in the Dhaka City".

Fewer than 10 Sikh Families reside in Bangladesh. They are all here transitorily, mostly officers and staff of Indian High Commission. The Ministry of External Affairs have - thoughtfully - continued to post three Sikh families at Dhaka High Commission, right from 1972, under a tacit understanding. The Gurdwara has become a social forum for all the employees of High Commission of India in Dhaka and a few other Sikhs attached to United Nations Organisation and similar agencies and employees of Sikh contractors, who holy contracts in Bangladesh. They all assemble here on Fridays and on Guru Nanak Birthdays and Vaisakhi.

There are no permanent Sikh residents in this country. Only a Granthi appointed by Takht Patna Sahib looks after the two Gurdwaras in Dhaka, However, Kirtan is conducted every Friday, where devotees professing different faiths - Sikh, Hindu and Muslims and others, recite Gurbani Shabads in praise of God, the true Creator. Free weekly langar is regularly served on these days without any distinction of caste or creed.

Sikh Relics: There are two hand-written Birs (Recensions) of Guru Granth Sahib in the Gurdwara, one of 18 x 12 inches with 1336 pages. Each page is decorated with art work on borders in seven different colours. The significance of this Bir lies in being a Relic rather than Granth Sahib per se. It weighs about 80 lbs and the leaves may wear out if used for reading. Accordingly, it has recently been rebound and placed in a glass case,. along with other manuscripts, photostat copies of some Hukam Namas (Original Hukam Namas were reported to be stolen), and a pair of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s wooden Kharavan (sandals) handed down from generation to generation are also kept in the show case. The last custodian being Mata Kanchan Devi, locally called Sikher Mata, or mother of the Sikhs. Devotees can view a document issued under Imperial (Aurangzeb) Farman by the then Mughal Governor, Shaista Khan, granting land to Guru Nanak Home exempted from taxes in perpetuity.

During the Pakistan Army crackdown in Bangladesh in 1971, Mata Kanchan Devi was evacuated to Calcutta, along with the precious and beautiful Bir, where she died at the age of 110 years. The Bir was brought back by Captain Bhag Singh to this Gurdwara. The unique Bir and a water-colour painting of Guru Tegh Bahadur, sandals and other Relics, were retrieved from the house which later came to be known as Gurdwara Sangat Tola situated in old Dhaka, was especially built by Bhai Bulaki, the Cardinal of Sikh church in old Dhaka, which remained the abode of Guru Tegh Bahadur for about two years.

An oil painting, copy of the original painting of the Guru, is kept in Nanak Shahi Gurdwara. The original water colour painting was retrieved from the house which later came to known as Gurdwara Sangat Tola. His mother, a devout lady wanted to have a portrait of the Guru made, before the Guru returned to Punjab. The old lady engaged a renowned painter, Ahsan by name. The painter painted the body and the apparel but could not give finishing touches to the radiant face of the Guru. Seeing the painter in a predicament, the Guru took the brush in his own hand, corrected and completed the picture, and handed it to the lady. It is thus stated in Mehma Prakash, one of the oldest biography of the Guru:-

"bada likhari leai mai satguru hazur tasvir likhai sagal ang bastr subh likha mukh kamal Prabhu nahin likh saka dekh Dial kalam hath lina nij hath sudhar sampuran kina tab mai ko murat Prabh dina".

This painting is now believed to be in custody of the Victoria Museum Calcutta, where it was taken to be restored in its torn part and for preservation treatment, by the Late Captain Bhag Singhji. (efforts are being made to trace the documents appertaining to this entrustment - Ed. S.R).

The lack of knowledge among the Sikhs in India and abroad about the two sacred shrines needs to be rectified. The best way is to start an annual pilgrimage of these Gurdwaras, on the lines of Gurdwaras at Nanakana Sahib in Punjab, Pakistan.

The Sikh devotees temporarily stationed here invite individuals and jathas of devotees for pilgrimage to this historic/religious shrine on the occassion of Guru Baba Nanak’s birth anniversary in November. Their boarding and lodging, upto a week of their stay here, will be duly taken care of. The weather in November in Bangladesh is pleasant and half-sleeve shirt may be worn day and night. For sleeping one will need a pillow and a bedsheet, which the devotees are recommended to bring for themselves.

This invitation may also be used as a document for obtaining the necessary visas for the members of the jatha. Subject to its conformity with the Sikh maryada, each pilgrim will, if he/she so desires, be supplied with a 1000 page hard-bound photocopy of the smaller hand-written Granth Sahib at the photocopying cost of Rs. 500 (US$ 30).

Pilgrims coming to Dhaka to visit these two shrines can as well visit Chittagong and see the Sikh Temple where Guru Nanak stayed for a time with two of this disciples. Raja Sudhir Sen of Chittagong became his disciple, Guru Nanak appointed one, Jhanda, the first Cardinal of the faith in Chittagong. In later times, the temple was erected by Diwan Mohan Singh, a Behari Sikh who was the Diwan of Nawab Murshid Kuli Khan of Bengal, and extensive properties yielding income of about Rs. 5000/- were endowed for the maintenance of the shrine. The Nawab made the endowed properties rent-free, and the grant perpetuated the said endowment. The endowment was recognised and confirmed as a Sikh religious endowment by the Government, as would appear from a letter No. 318 A of 7th May 1878 from the Secretary to the Board of Revenue L.P. to the Secretary to then Government of Bengal Revenue Department.

What is left of it now is not less than 3 acres in Mauzah Khizirpur, and other 23 Mauzahs 15-20 miles off Chittagong. The first Secretary-General, Capt. Bhag Singh [Editor, The Sikh Review, Calcutta] visited some of these fertile lush lands; claims have been lodged for full ownership of the Sikh temple by a local committee, its members were selected and proposed by Capt. Bhag Singh, and appointed by the District Judge, Chittagong, who remains the Ex-Official Administrator of the Sikh Temple property, vide 1931 order of the Calcutta High Court. We hope, one day, this tangle will be solved.