Odisha Forum to campaign for a ‘Guru Nanak Chair’ at Utkal University

Report by Jagpreet Luthra; Delhi: Lutyen Delhi’s India International Centre, an emblem of India’s intellectual elite, is the unlikeliest place where you would hear the Sikh religious greeting, “waheguru ji ka khalsa waheguru ji ki fateh” and “bole so nihal sat sri akal”. But that is exactly what echoed in the lecture hall of IIC as scholars and activists gathered there earlier this month. The occasion was a talk on ‘Guru Nanak ‘s Visit to Puri and the Spread of the Jagannath Culture’, organised by a Delhi-based Odia think tank, Odisha Forum.

The connection between Jagannath and Nanak runs deep. It was by the seaside at Jagannath Puri under a star-studded sky that Guru Nanak composed the first stanzas of the Sikh Aarti–after he saw the pandits do the evening pooja with lamps and incense. The Aarti is sung in raga Dhanashri at the conclusion of the day’s last prayer, the Rehraas Sahib, also composed by Guru Nanak.

The gist of the Aarti is that creator’s grandeur is too much to be sung with a small set of lamps and incense when the sky itself is the grand platter, the stars are the lamps, the wind is the celestial fan and the sandalwood trees are the scent. Poets, philosophers and pilgrims cannot stop celebrating the beauty of the Aarti composed in 1506.

Rabindranath Tagore described it as the “universal anthem”, according to the autobiography of the late actor, Balraj Sahni, who, on a teaching tour of Shantiniketan, asked Tagore why he had not written an international anthem. “It has already been written (by Guru Nanak),” Tagore told Sahni. Gurudev, as Tagore was known, was so enamoured of it that he translated the Aarti into Bengali and recited it daily.

The visit of Guru Nanak and other saints to Puri and the places touched by them along the Jagannath Sadak continue to attract thousands of devotees, but it is a part of history that has largely been ignored by historians. However, it finds its due place in a new, three-volume book, titled “Jagannath Sadak”, by author-activist Anil Dheer, who had been invited as the main speaker by Odisha Forum.The book is due for release next month in what would be the Odisha government’s tribute to the first Sikh guru on the occasion of his 550th birthday on November 12, 2019.

The tone of the IIC event was set by Forum President Gokul Patnaik, a retired Punjab cadre Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer, who speaks fluent Punjabi. “The Sikh langars and Puri langars”, Patnaik said, “have a lot in common” as he spoke of the Jagannath followers’ “deep connection with Nanak”.

Patnaik described Dheer as a man “continuously in search of knowledge, whose passion for the preservation of the composite culture of Bharat” gets reflected in the book. Author of seven books, a popular columnist and television panelist, Dheer comes from a Punjabi family that settled in Odisha two generations ago. He said that he had been fascinated with pilgrims prostrating on the Jagannath road, a sight that triggered the idea to explore its history. What he found, as he travelled on a bullock cart with a group of researchers and archaeologists, Dheer said, was “eye-opening”. The project was sponsored by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTAC) seven years ago and the book was long in the writing.

In a riveting, 75-minute talk supported by telling pictures, Dheer talked about the oneness of the Jagannath culture and Sikhism. “The Odisha model of the composite culture of India,” Dheer said, finds its truest reflection in Jagannnath Sadak. Besides Hindu shrines, there are Shaivite, Muslim, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist shrines all along the road, which was as popular with pilgrims as with plunderers.

The Sikh Aarti, which has verses of four people besides those of Nanak and tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, said Dheer, represented the essence of Sikhism. The inclusion of the compositions of cobbler Bhagat Ravi Das, barber Saint Sain, weaver Saint Kabir and farmer Bhagat Dhanna, all men of humble stock, along with those of the two gurus, signify “the all-encompassing Sikh faith.” “The Aarti is the preamble to Sikhism; it is half of what Sikh religion stands for.”

Dheer’s interpretation of the Aarti is a far cry from the politically-coloured view that reads it as a parody on Brahminical rituals. “It was Guru Nanak’s first view of the sea; as a seeker he must have been awe-struck with the dazzling spectacle he saw and the song must have been a spontaneous flow rather than a sattire.”

In fact, Dheer believes that the seeker in Guru Nanak found in Puri what he was looking for and that is why he “broke pattern” of travelling along circular routes and went straight back to Punjab from Puri after spending 24 days there.

The Gurudwaras along the Jagannath road, said Dheer, all bear testimony to the spiritual pull of Nanak. Datan Sahib in Katak, for instance, is a place where some devotees came to Nanak and spoke of the distress caused by the ravaging floods in river Mahanadi. Nanak, who held a tree bark (the bark tooth brush is called datan in Punjabi) in his hand, buried the small datan in the ground and told them that the level of river would never rise above it. Odias, till date, believe that Cuttack has been spared the floods ever since due to Nanak’s blessing.

The 14-day journey from Jagannath Ghat in West Bengal’s Hoogly to Jagannath Temple at Puri “There are 300 tangible monuments but a thousand have disappeared, and for every one historical place that has been preserved ten have vanished. Out of the 512 kilometers from Hoogly to Puri, 300 kilometers of the Jagannath road have vanished.”

Dheer expressed concern about the lost treasures, including monuments, motifs, scripts and family heirlooms inherited by the progeny of those who originally came into contact with various saints, warriors and explorers. There are scores of places which, although in a decrepit state, are being preserved by the present owners, more for the spiritual than the heritage worth.

According to Dheer, there is a mafia in Odisha that goes about tricking the simple custodians of these old places into parting with precious heritage pieces, including scripts. The black market for these antiques is worth billions of rupees. A student of Jawaharlal University, fascinated and shocked in equal measure by what she had heard, asked Dheer about the steps being taken to counter the mafia. Dheer said, “A people’s movement is needed for heritage conservation.”

Taking a cue from Dheer and some Sikh scholars and activists among the audience, Patnaik announced the plan ahead. The Forum, he said, would be writing to the Odisha government to revive the Jagannath road (all the monuments included), to name it as the Guru Nanak Marg and to create a Guru Nanak Chair in Utkal University along the lines of the one in Jadhavpur University in West Bengal.

(Jagpreet Luthra is a Delhi-based senior journalist).

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