Early in the morning, on June 6, 2019, Mahanta Naiyam Muni Udas heard the sound of heavy tractors. He came down the Math to the Main Street to see what went wrong. What he saw was a very disappointing event -- three excavators and a few dozen people were cutting 300 hundred years old trees in front of the gate and demolishing the boundary wall under a deployment of police to expand the road.
When contractor and ward chair saw Nayam Muni coming down with some sympathizers, he was prevented to exit from the gate and police warned him he would be put in prison if he created obstructions. Helpless Udasi phoned the chair of Guthi Sansthan and concerned people, but nobody received his phone.
As it was a public holiday, declared on the occasion of the Muslim festival of Id-ul-Fitr, the contractor, with consent from local administration, ward and some local people, expanded the road at Bishnumati corridor, encroaching almost 6 ropanis of land and clearing a 300 hundred years old tree.
“ If the state and community come together to loot the property of temples and shrines, what a lone Mahanta can do other than to helplessly stand as eye-witness of encroachment and devastation,” said Naiyam Muni Udasin, a follower of the Udasi sect of Sikhism founded by Sri Chand. “I requested and bowed down, begging for tree, nobody listened to me. Within 24 hours of the holiday, Nanak Math’s land was looted and compound wall demolished.”
Although it has a historical, religious and spiritual importance in Nepal for all sects, particularly Sikh, Prachin Guru Nanak Math, which lies at a small hill, 4 kilometers north of Kathmandu City or just next to Bishnumati bridge at Balaju, seems to be forgotten by everyone.
Chairman of Guthi Sansthan Muni Raj Chaudhary said that he has not given permission to the expansion of road under a directive of the government. “Soon after I received the information, I visited the site and complained about it,” said Chaudhary. “We are discussing how to protect and manage the Math with different stakeholders.”
It is said that Guru Nanak visited Nepal on his third udasi, from Mt. Kailash in Tibet. The Guru came to Nepal and stayed in Balaju and Thapathali, where his mark remains, run by Guru-Ji and the Udasin Akardha. Udasins are Sadhus, belonging to a sect (akardha), that Guru Nanak’s son, Sri Chandra began.
This was not the first case. With the urbanization of Kathmandu valley since 1960s, the areas of Math started to shrink. After 1980s, the pace of encroachment was intensified further.
After 1990, the pace to encroach the land of Nanak Math took a speed and it is shrinking every day. Since Math is now in prime locations, everybody wants to control it.
As the Math is under Guthi Sanstahn, its land is encroached for school compound, road or whatever other purposes. The land of Nanak Math has been facing the encroachment for centuries. The jungle, which spread across 1,200 ropanis of land, has now shrunk to just 25 ropanis and houses.
Led by Naiyam Muni Udasi, a follower of the Udasi sect of Sikhism, founded by Sri Chand, a portion of the Udasin Shri Guru Nanak Math was also damaged in the 2015 earthquakes. However, the building has already been renovated by Department of Archeology, retaining its old architecture.
Originally from Gagalphedi above Sundarijal, the 65-year-old Naiyam Muni is the 31st Udasi of the Muth and was appointed by Guthi Sansthan. He holds the view that the Math needs to be retained for its centuries old practice of religious harmony. With negligence of Guthi, owner of the place, followers and believers, such a revered place remains forgotten.
“People have been visiting. Compared to the past, Sikhs from Nepal, India, USA and other parts of the world have been frequently visiting the Math. Since Guthi Sansthan has paid nothing for it, the contributions from the visitors is helping to perform all kinds of puja here,” said Mahanta Naiyam Muni. “Every morning we chant Guru Nanak Grantha as other Sikhs do but we do also have other Hindu gods here.”
Whether they are rulers and people in power, community groups and schools, everyone tried to grab the land of Math and Mahanta has been unable to stop encroachment.
“With an order (Hukum Pramangi) from King Birendra in 1975, the math was able to take control of half of present property which was taken by Agnihottri in the name of building hostels for Brahimin during King Mahendra’s time. The ownership of the land was canceled by King Birendra’s order,” said Mahanta.
Surrounded by trees at the hill, the Nanak Math is still quiet and tranquil. Since the earthquake of 2015, Jagat Guru Ramkrishna Jee Maharaja’s sect is also sharing half of Nanakmath’s property.
With a large number of followers, including those of high level political connections, some would be claiming a portion of land on this historical and architecturally valuable math.
Every day followers of Ramkrishna Ji Maharaj have been performing bhajans on the other side of the wall of Guru Nanak’s ancient Grantha. Ram Krishna Jee Maharaj followers are claiming the portion of Nanakmath as a place where their three Gurus took salvation.
Nepal has a tiny minority of Sikh with around 4000. However, only a few of them know that Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism spent more than a year meditating on the virtually unknown site now known as Nanak Math located in Balaju.
Large numbers of Nepalese even do not know whether there is any temple above the small hill. Once one climbed a little hill, he or she finds tranquil and peaceful place with oldest Granth and Gurudwara.
At the back of the temple, beyond the arching stairway and a number of doors, lies a stone slab with two carved feet marking the very inches where Guru Nanak lay in meditation. Muni, who maintains the shrine, entertains the visitors with folklore and tales of ancient kings.
This building has stood for over 400 years and its simplicity discreetly disguises its history. Inside, Nepal’s oldest copy of the Guru Granth Sahib or Sikh Gita is housed, a 300 year old hand-written copy, resplendent in the finest and brightest of cloths.
“This Gurudwara has historic, religious and archeological significance. With encroachment from various people and road, the area has already shrunk. What the government requires to do is to preserve it," said Dr. Govinda Tandon, former member secretary of Pashupati Development Trust and renowned archeologist. "Gurunanak's traces are also in Pashupati and Gyaneshwor but Gurunanak Math of Balaju is in a very vulnerable position."
“As the world community is celebrating the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, Nepal government needs to make a decision, taking all on board, and hand over the property and shrine to rightful followers,” said Dr. Tandon.
Dispute among Faith
The dispute between Mahant of Udashi sect and Gurudwara Nanak Satsang is also hampering the process of protection of the math. Mahanta and Nanak Satsang group have many things in common as both want to protect the math but both believe in their own faith – a reason for their mistrust of each other.
The current Mahant Naiyam Muni Udasin feared that handing the property of Math to Guru Nanak Satsang will lose religious harmony and its core essence.
“They will turn it Gurudwara, displacing all other important Hindu gods and goddess associated with the Math,” said Mahant. “I read same Granth as they do in other Gurudwara but we regard Nanak as part of all our Hindu Gods, Bishnu or member of Omkar.”
He feared that handing over the management to Sikh will lose its aesthetic value.
"As long as there is no guarantee of protection of all the gods of the family of Omkar, I will not allow this area to go over to Gurudwara committee. They have been initiating the process to acquire the math to convert solely for Gurudwara,” said Mahanta.
Gurudwara committee has made several attempts to take control of the Nanak Math. However, disputes continue between Udashi and Sikh on the essence of their faith.
"We had initiated a process to take charge of Gurudwara Nanak Math situated on the banks of river Vishnumati in Kathmandu. Unfortunately now only about 4 acres of land is left and in the year 1965 we had to make a boundary wall around the land," said Pritam Singh, president of Gurudwara Guru Nanak Satsang, Kupondole.
There is a gaddi system and presently 32nd Mahant was sitting on the gaddi. He informed that a couple of years ago, the government had advertised to auction the Gurudwara land following which Sikhs moved the court and got the stay."
If there is the need to revive the glory and protect the oldest Gurudwara, there is the need of a compromise between the Gurus.
"We have offered to spend Rs 125 crore for the renovation of historical Gurudwara, construction of 200 room sarai, an old age home, a school etc. that would also attract Sikh tourists to visit and pay obeisance at Gurudwara Nanak Math" he said. He informed there was a hand written saroop of Sri Guru Granth Sahib in the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Math.
However, Mahant is demanding more assurance from persons. “My only concern and objection is their proposal to make new Gurudwara. They have to assure me that everything will be kept intact, respecting the traditions and practices of current math.”
"This Gurudwara has religious, cultural and archeological significance in the history of Nepal. It has seen encroachment from various people and road. To stop further encroachment and ruin, the government needs to hand it over to rightful followers of guru," said Dr. Tandon, former member secretary of Pashupati Development Trust and renowned archeologist. "Gurunanak's traces are also in Pashupati, Gyaneshwor and Bijeshwori but Gurunanak Math of Balaju is in very vulnerable position."
State of Other Nanak Math
Along with this Math, there are also five other smaller Nanak Maths in the Valley that hold historical significance but are lesser known. Shri Raj Rajeshwori Udasin Nirmal Akhada, Guru Nanak Muth Udasin Bhasmeshwor are both located on the premises of the Pashupati Conservation Area, along with the Thapathali Udasin Muth, Gyaneshwor Udasin Muth and Shobha Bhagwati Udasin Muth in Shobhabhagwati.
“Jind Kaur herself placed the Guru Granth Sahib in this location,” says Swami Mahanta Gokulananda, who leads the Nirmal Akhada. Every morning, the Akhada offers to Pashupatinath a tray of flowers, consisting of ashrafi flowers grown on the Akhada premises and fresh rajnigandha flowers flown in everyday from Kolkata,” says Gokulananda. “This exchange of respect and values shows the peaceful synchronicity that has existed for so long between the two religions.”
Except in Pashupati Area, the Nanak’s Math in other parts of Kathmandu valley is in a pathetic situation. Udasi Nanakmath of Bijeshwori, which was said to be removed from sites of current Singh Durbar, is also less known to many people. According to Muni, the Nanakmath was relocated by Chandra Sumsher from its earlier site to build Singha Durbar.
Chandra Sumsher ordered to relocate the Math to remote parts of Kathmandu and Bijeswori was regarded as a remote part.
Construction of Math dedicated to Guru Nanak has shown that there used to be good connection of Guru Nanak and ruling kings in the early days.
Legends Related to Guru Nanak
According to legends, a Malla king of the early sixteenth century suffered a disturbed mind. His brothers, alarmed by his behavior, banished him to India. Roaming in a forlorn manner through the holy city of Banaras he came upon saint Guru Nanak and begged him to cure his affliction. After many visits and much beseeching, the guru advised the king to return to his kingdom where his health would be restored.
Miraculously, the saint preceded the king to Kathmandu for there he was, meditating under a papal tree on a hill beside the river. The king visited him at once, begging the guru to return him to the palace.
Guru Nanak refused to do so, saying that in this serene spot he had all he wanted. So the king had a temple built for his guru and a small shrine for himself where he often came to meditate. When the king died, some of his ashes were buried in the shrine according to his last wishes.
In Kathmandu, the Guru Ji stayed near the Pashupatinath temple on the bank of Bagmati Ganga. He asked Bhai Mardana to play upon the request and himself sang one of his hymns. The yogis and ascetics of other cults gathered around the Guru and held discussions. The Guru forbade them from idol worship and made them devotees of the Lord.
The king of Nepal, Raja Sasodhia Rajput Mahan Ranbir Singh came to the Guru Ji and received secular as well as religious instructions. It is said that with the blessing of the Guru, the King had two sons.
Later king, Rana Bahadur Shah, also of unsound mind, is said to have found solace at the Guru Nanak Math. He gifted considerable land to the temple so it might never be in want for support.
Perhaps the records have long since perished because slowly the Gurdwara lands have been encroached until only the hill remains. It would be a tragedy if modern hunger consumes the trees and pushes concrete within reach of the peaceful old building.
History of Sikh In Nepal
The history of the Sikhs in Nepal dates back centuries, possibly to the late 15th-early 16th centuries, if the Sikh hagiographies are to be believed. More reliable historical reports, however, account for Jind Kaur as the first prominent Sikh in Nepal, who paved the way for the entry of others a hundred years later.
From ancient times, one can see the traces of Guru Nanak in Nepal. It is said that during one of his journeys, Guru Nanak Dev had stayed in Kathmandu while returning from Tibet. The then king had given around 200 acres of land for him to meditate.
State to state connection started even before the unification of Nepal. After unification, Gurkhas even served in Ranjit Singh’s Army. During the rule of Bhimsen Thapa and his nephew Mathbar Singh Thapa, Nepal inherited many things from Sikh.
This linkage continues even after fall of Thapa clan. In the 18th century, Sikhs entered Nepal. Maharaja Ranjit Singh from Punjab had a good rapport with Jung Bahadur Rana. After Ranjit Singh passed away, East India Company gave a plenty of trouble to his wife Jinda Kaur, who came to Nepal and sought asylum. Despite the pressure from British, Jung Bahadur Rana gave asylum to Jinda Kaur.
However, it looks that it was significantly eroded in later phase or during the Rana period. Although King Tribhuwan married two princes from Punjab Kanti Rajya Lakshmi Devi Shahanam Sada and Ishwari Rajya Lakshmi Devi Shahanam Sada, there was no influence of Punjab in power coteri because the King was powerless.
Despite such a long history, there are 4,000 Sikh populations, who call Nepal their home and have retained, to a commendably high degree, their distinctive cultural and religious identity. All other groups are currently enjoying the state power in the name of inclusion, but Sikhs are yet to get state positions.
Nepal government will introduce special gold coins with the emblem of the religion and Guru Nanak’s name on it on his 550th birth anniversary. Nepal will also issue Postal stamps of Guru Nanak along with Rs 100, Rs 1000 and Rs 2500 gold coins.
"With our persistent efforts, Nepal government has agreed to release Rs 100, Rs 1000 and Rs 2500 coins besides a postal stamp," said Pritam Singh, president of Gurdwara Guru Nanak Satsang, Kupondole, and Kathmandu. "We had been conveyed that coins and postal stamps would be released ahead of Guru Nanak's birth anniversary," said Singh.
This is not the first time. Nepal is the first country to print coin dedicating to Sikh after great Sikh Ruler Ranjit Singh. In 2005, Nepal's King Gyanendra issued Rs. 250 coins commemorating 400 Years of Guru Granth Sahib. The coin was released to 400th Anniversary of Guru Granth Sahib Reverse Holy Book of Sikhs. This was the first time after 1849.
"Marking his sojourn in Kathmandu is Nanak Math, which has a peepul tree, marking the exact spot where Guru Saheb meditated. The math, like a few other shrines in Kathmandu, is linked to the Udasi tradition and has a mahant presiding over it. The shrine is not well-known and remains neglected; this prompted author Desmond Doig to call it the “forgotten shrine of the Sikhs”. Nepal also boasts several handwritten copies of the Guru Granth Sahib, including a couple in the Pashupatinath Temple complex," writes Manjeev Singh Puri, in his recent article published in The Hindustan Times.
Sikhs have contributed immensely in Nepal’s modernization. Sikhs have shown solidarity and sympathy to Nepal and Nepali people in all times of crisis. In 1935 earthquake, Sikhs came to Nepal to restore roads and drinking water pipes and as engineers and transporters. The city was rebuilt.
After the earthquake of 2015, Sikhs from Punjab came to Nepal and ran longer to feed the earthquake victims. Just a day after the earthquake, a group of Sikh arrived in Kathmandu and started feeding a large number of victims.
In the transport sector, Sikhs have helped introduce modern transport in Nepal. Pritam Singh first set foot in Nepal as a teenager—in 1958, when attending a wedding of a friend’s sister in Nepal, just across the border from Uttar Pradesh. An aviation student from Jammu and Kashmir in India, Pritam came from a family of transport entrepreneurs.
“After the partition of India, militancy was on the rise in Jammu and Kashmir and my family business, once flourishing, had begun to suffer. We started looking for new avenues to explore after I returned with a plan,” says the now octogenarian Pritam. “With financial backing from my father, I packed my bags and within days, entered the Kathmandu Valley via Birgunj.”
The Guru Nanak Satsang gurdwara was formally established in 1982, and has since been operated entirely by the Sikh community, unlike the other smaller gurudwaras that are run by Nepal government’s Guthi Sansthan.
As Nepal agrees to bring coins in the name of Gurunanak, the government and Guthi Sansthan need to take a drastic action to preserve historical and architectural Prachin Guru Nanak Math.