Gurus Growing Up In Gobind Rai's 'Hood - Part I


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Growing up in Gobind Rai's 'Hood - Part I

The following article, and its sequel tomorrow, are presented to mark the Gurpurab of Guru Gobind Singh (January 5, 2010).

None of the recent shenanigans one hears about from the Bihar State in Eastern India have deterred me from continuing to proclaim myself a proud Bihari!

How could I not? Born and brought up in the Old City of Patna, in the land of Buddha and Mahavira, of Chandragupta, Ashoka and Channakya, where Sita was born and where the heroes of the Mahabharta gambolled, I have always revelled in the moniker.

But the clincher for my ego was that I was born not far from the birthplace and neighbourhood of young Gobind Rai - the son of Tegh Bahadar who later succeeded the latter as our Tenth Guru and, becoming the sixth soul to take Amrit on the first, historic Vaisakhi Day, transformed into Gobind Singh!

Once known as Pataliputra, the capital of the great Maurayan empire, it now honours Guru Gobind Singh in its new name: Patna Sahib.

It's my only claim to fame, but it is no small mercy for which I thank my Maker.

Being a Bihari who spent the first 21 years of his life in the State's capital city has shaped me into whatever I am today ... in so many different ways.

My childhood and early years are therefore different from that of most other Sikhs who hail from Punjab, because West Punjab is where my parents fled during the great human tragedy of Partition, and East Punjab for me was but a place to visit every now and then to visit relatives or to explore the part of Sikhdom that was now left to a diminished India.

My earliest memories of Patna are, of course, of the Gurdwara. Being the birthplace of Gobind, the sprawling complex constitutes a Takht - one of the Four original Thrones (now five) of temporal authority in Sikhdom.

It was a much smaller edifice then. Its features remain etched in my mind since my earliest days in considerable detail, even though none of the original structure - sadly - is around today. Probably because we were there so often, and because I saw the old structure taken down ... and the new, current one built ... before my very eyes.

One of the earliest detailed accounts of Sikhs by European travelers date back to March 1, 1781 - a mere four months after Ranjit Singh was born in distant Punjab.

Sir Charles Wilkins, an eminent orientalist of the time, visited Patna on that day and wrote a marvellous account of it titled "The Seeks and Their College at Patna", which was published by The Asiatic Society in 1788.

I marvel at his description of the main building of the Gurdwara then, because it is little different from what I remember it as, from more than 170 years later. He writes:

"The whole building forms a square of about 40 feet, raised from the ground about six or eight steps. The hall is in the centre, divided from four other apartments by wooden arches upon pillars of the same materials, all neatly carved. The room is rather longer than it is broad. The floor was covered with a neat carpet ... "

The building he describes was burnt down in a fire in the early nineteenth century, and rebuilt by Ranjit Singh - by then, Maharaja of Punjab.

It must have been built along the original lines because it is the building I saw through my childhood.

I remember the commotion and the massive mess and operation around the building of a grand new, monumental gurdwara, beginning around the time I was barely four years old. I remember the regular visits to do seva - as sangat from across the country came in droves to help in the construction.

I vividly remember the hullabaloo around the arrival of Yadvinder Singh, the then Maharaja of Patiala - the late father of Amrinder Singh. It had stirred the imagination of all Indians that a Prince would dirty his hands and soil his clothes to carry cement and bricks up the scaffolding in the 'kar seva'. It seemed to give everyone added fervour ... and I remember the electricity in the air while he and his entourage did their seva, mingling freely with the rest of the sangat.

Once we moved to the new part of the city - Patna Junction, it is called - our visits to the Gurdwara continued, but were mostly limited to Sundays. Each trip therefore was an event because it involved a full day's outing since it was a dozen miles away now, and driving through the gullees of the old city - which had been demarcated centuries ago - required deft negotiations with pedestrians, horse carriages, rickshaws and cattle, all of whom claimed greater right of way.

Gurpurabs - Sikh high holidays marking important historical days such as the birth anniversaries of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, the martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan, and Vaisakhi - were extra special, and we looked forward to them all year long.

The Guru Gobind Singh Gurpurab was particularly a red-letter day... nay, a week, actually!

First of all, it meant that our uncles, aunts and cousins - and friends too - from all over the country would turn up for several days. And they stayed with us ... no matter how many! Billeting merely became cosier if more than usual turned up, but 20-30 or more guests at a time staying over was not unusual. [There's a Punjabi saying: "Raise a knee, and you can snuggle in one more Singh!"]

The Gurpurab itself would be at least a full three-day affair, with programs going on all day and late into each night.

The excitement, however, began in Patna Junction, around the smaller local gurdwara near the railway station, a few blocks away from where we lived. Parbhat pheris - pre-dawn rounds between Sikh homes, not unlike Christmas-time carol-singing in the West - began a couple of weeks leading up to each important gurpurab. It was a blast for us kids because it always involved the culmination of the morning at some friend's home for tea and snacks.

I'd be home from boarding school for these high holidays and it would give me a chance to let my world know that I was back in town for fun and frolic.

The highlights of the Gurpurab itself were many:

The Kavi Darbar ... the Poetry Night ... was one which, oddly, even the young ones enjoyed to the hilt. Poets, raagis, singers and musicians of the highest calibre, Sikh and non-Sikh, would turn up for it and regaled us with their latest creations. It was the only time we got to hear song and music in Punjabi; they were the days before gramaphones and subsequent technology. And Bihar being a Hindi-speaking area, there was no Punjabi to be heard anywhere, on radio or otherwise.

The jaloos - a grand parade more than a couple of miles long, and trudging through several miles of the city - would take much of a second day, cutting a swathe through the teeming populace. It was always a delight because it invariably involved, unlike their poorer counterparts in the West, exotic delights: Nihangs on horses or in gatka circles, richly caparisoned camels and elephants, flower bedecked wonders posing as floats, and moving concerts on trucks by the likes of Hazara Singh Ramta, Surinder Kaur and Asa Singh Mastana. And the whole town, Sikh and non-Sikh alike, seemed to be there along the route.

My father's role during these days added a further dimension for us. He was always averse to accepting any position on the gurdwara committee, but steadily agreed to one seva which remained his till the time we left the land for Canada.

He would take on the responsibility of running the overall Langar operations - that is, the feeding of well over a hundred thousand souls three meals a day. [On special anniversaries - such as the Guru Gobind Singh Tercentenary in 1966/67 and the Guru Nanak Quincentenary in 1969 - over three hundred thousand visitors entered the city for the Gurpurab and had to be fed!]

Which meant that, despite the wall-to-wall people, I could always find him in the langar area whenever, for example, I needed urgent candy money - at any time day or night, over the three days. There was a downside to it as well - we, his kids, had no choice but to do langar seva for a minimum of one hour each morning and evening. It was a must!

The competing draws weren't easy to handle. My cousins would be waiting, and there so much to catch up with, so much to do. The bazaars too were calling ... with the aroma of street food permeating every nook and corner. And there were sumptuous sights to see - jugglers, snake charmers, animal trainers, Tibetan monks down from the mountains for the winter, fascinating yogi performers, wierd sadhus ... And yet, the lure of the kirtan jathaas too - they were the cream of the crop - was overwhelming. One saving factor was that we - all cousins - liked good kirtan, and seemed to share the same favourites.

The final day and night was not to be missed, not a minute of it. Through the years, Presidents, Prime Ministers, national heroes, movie stars, all would - sooner or later - turn up to pay their respects at the Gurdwara, and to address the sangat.

The climax would be on the final night when the best raagis would rev up things to a crescendo inside the main hall - the focus would shift indoors for the final hours; a few thousand would have saved places inside all day, while tens of thousands participated from the pavilions outside - when, around 2:00 am or so, the birthday service concluded.

I can't remember a single year I lived in Patna to have missed the Gurpurab!

January 4, 2009


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