Plea for Guru Nanak chair at the Utkal University at Bhubaneswar

Bhubaneswar: To mark the 550th birth anniversary of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak Dev, the Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has recently announced that eleven academic Chairs in the name of Guru Nanak will be installed in different universities, including one from Iran. Of these, seven are in Punjab, while the rest are one each in Gwalior, Bhopal and Kolkata. These Chairs will be entrusted with conducting research on the life and teachings of Guru Nanak, and will assist scholars in collecting information on the life, philosophy and vision of Guru Nanak.

Anil Dhir, who has written a well researched book on Sikhism in Odisha and the impact of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s visit to Puri in 1506 has written to the Chief Ministers of Punjab and Odisha, requesting them to set up a Chair at the Utkal University at Bhubaneswar. According to Dhir, the relevance of Odisha, Lord Jagannath and Puri in Sikhism has not been studied and given its proper place in history, hence Odisha deserves a Chair more than any other place.

Guru Nanak Dev has culminated his first and most important Udasi at Puri, walking more than 3500 kms across the northern and eastern parts. His visit and the composition of the Sikh Aarti at Puri are very most important events in Guru Nanak’s historical timeline. Consequent to Guru Nanak’s visit to Puri, the Mangu Mutt was set up by Bhai Almast, the Sikh preacher and Dhuari of the Udasi sect sometime in 1615 C.E. He had been deputed to the eastern provinces by Baba Gurditta, the eldest son of Guru Hargobind, to preach the message of Guru Nanak Dev Ji in the eastern provinces. The image of Baba Shri Chand, the son of Guru Nanak Dev Ji is kept in the shrine inside the mutt. It is because of Almast’s impressive work that Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji chose to visit the place in 1670 CE.

Another cherished link of the Sikhs with the Puri temple is its connection with Guru Gobind Singh Ji. In 1699, at Anandapur Sahib, while the guru was creating the Khalsa, Himmat Rai, a young lad from Puri who came from a humble background, offered his head to the guru. Even the lyrics of the Poet Laureate of Odisha, Bhagat Jayadeva finds a place of eminence in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. There are many such legends like these that indicate a strong bond between Puri and the Sikhs. Maharaja Ranjit has bestowed huge grants including a lot of gold to the temple and even bequeathed the Koh-i-noor to Lord Jagannath.

The Nanak Panthis would travel 2000 miles each year to visit Puri. They were primarily responsible of taking the Jagannath culture to Northern India and spreading the word of the Lord. Even after partition, they still came from Lahore each year during the Rath Yatra. Their presence has been recorded till 1955, after which border restrictions were imposed and they could not travel from Pakistan.

Historic mentions of the Sikhs in Odisha are made in innumerable texts and written records. In 1868 Smith, Sanitary Commissioner of Bengal reported that Punjabis came to Puri walking on foot about 2000 miles for six month long journey. They used to stay at Puri a day or two and walked back home happily. In 1873, J.S. Armstrong, Magistrate to the Commissioner, Orissa Division, wrote about the Mutt and its Sikh occupants. The Gajapati Raja of Puri had also granted the right of Chamar Seva or Mayur Pankhi Seva to be rendered by the Mahant of the Math. Mangu Math also played an important role during the freedom struggle. Many freedom fighters, both from Odisha and upcountry were sheltered here.

Dhir further said that during his research on the Old Jagannath Sadak, which was conducted in 2012, he had found numerous relics of Guru Nanak’s visit. There are tangible evidences of the Guru’s visit at Balasore, Markona, Biranchipur, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Kendrapara, Cuttack and Puri. With proper research much more will be unraveled. Biranchipur in Simulia block has fifty families who have been practicing the Sikh faith since the last 500 years, after hearing the words from the Guru himself. The tradition of Nanak Tamasha at Bhadrak flourished for centuries and can be revived.

The sheer lack of proper knowledge of Guru Nanak’s Odisha connection, both among the Sikhs of Odisha and the academicians led to the recent unpleasant incidents in which two of their important Mutts were slated for demolishment at Puri. The proper outcry and protests put a halt to the destruction of this valuable heritage. Even the representative of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee and the Akal Takht were unaware of the importance and relevance of these places. Dhir says that 500 pages of references were made available by him to the petitioners in the Supreme Courts cases to justify the Sikh claim.

Dhir further said that the Odisha Government should set up a Jagannath studies Chair at a prominent University in Punjab. This reciprocal gesture will give impetus to proper research to the syncretism that exists between the Jagannath and Sikhs cultures.

According to Amiya Bhusan Tripathy IPS (Retd.), the State Convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the path taken by Guru Nanak to come to Puri should be declared as the Guru Nanak Corridor and all the vestiges pertaining to the Sikhs should be properly restored and conserved. He said that these shrines hold immense potential for religious and cultural tourism and will draw Sikhs from all over the world. Dr. Biswajit Mohanty said that the Panjabi Mutt at Puri should be converted into a Sikh Museum.

Advocate Sukhvinder Kaur, whose activism was vital in stopping the demolishing of the two Sikh Mutts at Puri, has appealed to the Sikh Community of Odisha to collectively write to the Punjab Chief Minister. She has also appealed that the Odisha Sikh Pratinidhi Board should fund the Chair in case the Punjab Chief Minister does not agree.