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I. J. Singh and Amarjit Singh Buttar | New York City, New York and Vernon, Connecticut
Posted: 12:29 PM | August 25, 2013

Kartarpur: Where It All Began

Ever since India was divided into Bharat and Pakistan, in 1947, Sikhs from all over the world have been travelling to Nankana Sahib, now in Pakistan, to pay obeisance to Guru Nanak’s birthplace.

The Sikh congregational prayer, too, pleads for the opportunity to freely visit and manage Nankana Sahib and the many Sikh historical places that now lie in Pakistan, including Punja Sahib, Dera Sahib, Kartarpur, and the many other lesser-known historical gurduaras.

It seems to us that in this list of Sikh religious markers and sites in Pakistan, when we pay homage, Nankana Sahib invokes the most reverence while Kartarpur remains the least known.

It would be instructive to briefly revisit the prevailing country and conditions when Guru Nanak treaded the earth. Until the Europeans and the British reached India by sea in large numbers, all migrants, invaders, traders and visitors came by a long precarious land route – be they Caucasians from Asia Minor, Greeks with Alexander the Great, Turks, Mongols, Mughals, even Marco Polo and his ilk – entered India through the historic and dicey Khyber Pass. This was almost a rite of passage for budding conquistadores to perish, stay or plunder and return. And their forays were like annual pilgrimages.

Indian society at that time was internally divided and seriously weakened by a rigidly enforced caste system. What was the response of the Indians of the area to the perennial invasions? They threw down their arms and prayed that the enemies be struck blind by divine intervention. It was a fond hope that remained unfulfilled.

What the people needed was a paradigm shift – not so much a revolution but a meaningful evolution. Such matters are not resolved in a day or a sermon. Ideas of integrity, transparency, accountability and participatory self-governance cannot be taught and practiced quickly. These are life lessons and they demand what is often more than a lifetime to become enduring character traits. These matters have to be institutionalized so that they can transcend generations.

How and when did Guru Nanak formulate the vision and the formula that was taught over the next ten generations, until Guru Gobind Singh?

According to historical record and folklore, Guru Nanak spent his early years in Nankana Sahib and moved to Sultanpur in his teens. It is here that he saw a vision of his ministry and embarked on his mission when he was about 30.

The details are not always precisely spelled out but history also tells us that Guru Nanak traveled for about 20 years across much of the known world of that time. He went on four long odysseys (Udasees) in all four directions, from Tibet to the North, Mecca and Iraq in the West, Sri Lanka to the South and through the lengthy extent of the subcontinent in the East. From each epic trip he returned to Punjab.

During his travels, Guru Nanak debated the intricacies of God and human reality with the religious scholars of every belief system and taught the common folk how to live a productive and ethical life in awareness of the Infinite within each one of us.

He finally returned around 1521 to settle in Kartarpur, a sleepy little village in Punjab now at the border between India and Pakistan. It is here that when Guru Nanak shed his mortal coil, his followers from the Hindu tradition wanted to cremate his body while those from the Islam tradition wanted to bury him. We do not know who prevailed but I consider this a wonderful tribute and compliment to Guru Nanak as we know him. Two memorials now stand at that site: one built by the Muslims and the other by the Hindus.

It’s true that Guru Nanak was born and spent his childhood in Nankana Sahib, which is remembered as his birthplace, but he spent his last 18 years – perhaps the most meaningful, significant and impactful years of his life - at Kartarpur, which hardly evokes many memories or attracts hordes of pilgrims.

But it was in Kartarpur that Guru Nanak put Sikhi and its new way of life to the test. He built up this township as the Utopia of the day. The institutional development of Sikhi, such as sangat and pangat, began in Kartarpur. By the time of the tenth Guru, many such townships in Punjab had taken root from Kartarpur, including Khadur Sahib, Goindwal, Taran Taaran, Amritsar and Anandpur, among others. This is how the infrastructure of Punjab was built by the Gurus, one Guru at a time. This is how the foundation of a new faith, independent of Hindu and Islamic practices, was firmly established.

Kartarpur is where it all began. It is where Sikhi as a belief system took birth and developed its roots. The process took a good two centuries. It is where, on June 13, 1539, Guru Nanak anointed Guru Angad as his successor. But Guru Nanak lived another three months until September 7. This was a critically needed object lesson in the orderly and peaceful transfer of power for society of that time. This developmental history of Sikhi is such that we would dub it also as the art of nation building.

Through the generations of Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Nanak’s message transformed a people. Sikhs learned to live and die for a cause. They learned the meaning of moral courage, dignity and how to tell truth to power. From random hordes of frustrated, defeated and divided people, a forward-looking community of Sikhs had emerged.

Kartarpur, dating from the 1520s, was the logical antecedent of Anandpur Sahib, where the institution of the Khalsa was unveiled in 1699. There is a direct and unbroken trail connecting the two.

With the creation of Sikhi and the Sikhs, the porous and risky passage through the Khyber Pass was finally sealed after centuries of being the pathway for every two-bit conqueror and despot of the time. This is how, early in post-Guru period, Banda Singh Bahadur and later Ranjit Singh were able to establish the Khalsa as rulers and a free people.

But while we celebrate the Sikh success story, we forget that it all started in Kartarpur. It is time to put our historical priorities in order.


Inder Jit Singh, is an anatomy professor at New York University. He is also on the editorial advisory board of the Calcutta-based periodical, The Sikh Review, and is the author of five books: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias; The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress; Being and Becoming a Sikh; The World According to Sikhi; and, the latest, Sikhs Today: Ideas and Opinions. He can be reached at

Amarjit Singh Buttar of Vernon, Connecticut, retired in 2009 after two decades of service to the state of Connecticut's Worker's Compensation Commission. He also served on the Vernon Board of Education where he was elected as its chairman, in 1999, and became one of the first Sikh-Americans elected to public office. He has been an active participant in local, state and national Democratic politics, and was chosen to be a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, in July 2004. Amarjit Singh also was a chairman of the World Sikh Council, America region. He is a graduate of University of Michigan law school. He can be reached at

Commentaries are the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily that of Sikh News Network.

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