Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1539) was the first Guru and Founder of the Sikh faith.
Blessed with divine thoughts from an early age, Guru listened to the divine call to spread the “real message of God” and set out at the age of 30 to spread his message.
In his lifetime, Guru Nanak undertook five journeys, referred to as Udasis, spanning 24 years, before returning to settle down in Kartarpur (presently in Pakistan).
During his five Udasis covering several present-day countries, Guru Nanak travelled 28,000 km, mostly on foot. He is recognized as the second most travelled person after the famous Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta (1304-1369).
We trace Guru’s steps during his first Udasi (1500-1506) and look into his experiences and impact he left on the people and places he visited.
Guru Nanak started from Sultanpur to first reach his parent’s house in Talwandi and seek their permission and blessings for the divine mission ahead. From here, Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak’s childhood friend and companion, headed towards Eminabad in present-day Pakistan.
Eminabad: The Guru’s First stop
Guru Nanak’s first stop was Eminabad (earlier name Saidpur or Sayyidpur), located 8 km south of Gujranwala town, Pakistan.
On entering Eminabad, Guru Nanak met Lalo, a local carpenter. Despite being very poor, he invited Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana to his very humble home and asked to stay with him. Guru Nanak saw sincere warmth in Lalo and readily accepted.
Lalo would become Guru Nanak’s disciple, but before that, there is an exciting story.
There was a rich man in Eminabad called Malik Bhago who had a reputation for having built his wealth unfairly and by exploiting the poor.
When Malik heard some Holy man was in town and staying with Lalo, he organised a special meeting of holy men and sent Guru Nanak an invitation to attend. Guru Nanak declined, and this upset Malik.
Determined to meet this mysterious holy man, he sent another invitation to Guru Nanak, inviting him to visit his residence. Guru Nanak accepted. On meeting Guru Nanak, Malik asked him why he chose to stay with an impoverished person like Lalo when he could have chosen to stay with him. Guru Nanak replied there was a unique sweetness in the Roti (flatbread) offered by Lalo. Malik challenged Guru Nanak to prove it.
Guru Nanak held Rotis made by Lalo in one hand and the ones offered by Malik in the other and squeezed. From Lalo’s Roti, milk gushed out while Malik’s drained blood.
Guru Nanak explained this to Malik, saying Lalo’s Roti’s were made with love and honest income while Malik’s were made by exploiting others.
Overcome by grief and guilt, Malik fell at Guru Nanak’s feet. The Guru advised Malik to give away all his ill-gotten wealth to the poor and start life anew with honest income.
In Eminabad, the Gurdwara Kuhi Bhai Lalo is marking the place where Guru Nanak first met Lalo. It is said, Guru Nanak was in Eminabad when Babur attacked and looted Eminabad in 1521. Guru Nanak was imprisoned and forced to manually operate the Atta-Chakki (manual stone mill) in captivity. Gurdwara Chakki Sahib in the town marks this event. There is yet another Gurdwara called Rori Sahib. This marks the time Guru Nanak slept on a bed of rocks along with Lalo after Babur destroyed the town.
Tolumba: Guru Nanak meets Sajjan Thug
From Eminabad, Guru Nanak traveled east to Tolumba (present-day Makadampur) in West Pakistan. He, Guru Nanak, encountered an evil character called Sajjan Thug. Sajjan used to disguise himself as a holy man and invite unsuspecting weary travellers to his residence for spending the night where he would rob and sometimes kill them.
He invited Guru Nanak to spend the night at his home, which the Guru accepted. When seeing Guru refusing to sleep, Sajjan asked the Guru the reason. The Guru replied by signing a verse with a life lesson for Sajjan.
It was a defining moment for a person who was nothing short of evil. He fell at the Guru’s feet, begging for repentance. Sajjan gave up his evil ways and became Guru Nanak’s disciple. There is a Gurdwara to mark the occasion.
Haridwar: Guru Nanak Pours Water on Superstition
Guru Nanak travelled east to Haridwar (Haridwar). Arriving on Baisakhi day, Guru Nanak took the customary dip in the holy Ganges River. Guru Nanak was amused to see devotees and priests turn east and offer water towards the early morning Sun.
He asked for the reason and was informed the holy water was offered to ancestors to quench their thirst. Guru Nanak immediately turned west and began offering water.
The priests found it amusing and asked Guru Nanak why he was doing it. He replied saying he was watering his fields back home. They laughed and said how he could irrigate his fields from here. “Precisely,” Guru responded. Just as I can’t provide water to my farms from here, how you could offer water to your ancestors from another world, he asked.
The priests had no answer, but in Guru Nanak, they saw a person with divine knowledge. In every place he visited, Guru Nanak would enlighten people on the folly of pursuing superstitions and irrational rituals and would teach them the existence of a single God and how they could connect with Him.
There is Gurdwara Nanakwara on the banks of the Ganges River to mark Guru’s arrival.
Gorakhmata: Guru Nanak Unravels “Nanak Matta”
From Haridwar, Guru Nanak went via Uddham Singh Nagar, Joshi Math, and Almora to reach Gorakhmata, just north of Pilibhit. The Guru faced resistance from local Yogis, known to possess special powers.
The temperature was cold, and Bhai Mardana requested their help to light a fire. They refused, asking him to get his Guru to light it. Guru Nanak looked at the pile of firewood, and it lit up.
Shortly, it began to rain. The Yogis’ fire was put out, but Guru Nanak’s fire remained lit. The Yogis realized this was a person with divine powers. Impressed, the Yogis asked Guru Nanak to join their cult, which Guru Nanak refused.
The Yogis saw Guru Nanak a threat to them and wanted him to leave. The next morning, using their occult powers, the Yogis tried uprooting the Pipal tree under which Guru Nanak sat. As the tree rose a few feet, Guru Nanak placed his hand on the tree, and it rested back. This was when they realised their mistake and asked Guru Nanak for forgiveness. Guru Nanak explained to them the real message of God and showed them the path of pure and selfless meditation. Based on Guru Nanak’s “Mat“ or knowledge imparted, the place came to be known as Nanak Matta and emerged as a popular Udasi destination.
Gurdwara Sri Nanak Mata Sahib stands here.
Reetha Sahib: The Story of the Sweet Reetha
Guru Nanak then traveled forty miles from Gorakhmata to reach a place known to be favoured by yogis. Upon arriving, he rested under a Reetha (soapnut) tree and began plucking some Reetha for Bhai Mardana, who gladly began to eat.
The local Yogis who were watching with interest couldn’t understand how the Guru and Bhai Mardana were eating Reetha, which is extremely bitter. When they tasted the fruit, they realised the part of the tree above where Guru Nanak sat, offered sweet Reetha!
From that time, Reetha is offered as Prasad (divine food) to devotees.
The Reetha tree still stands within what has since come to be known as Gurdwara Sri Meetha Reetha Sahib.
Benaras: Guru Nanak and the Message of Ramkali
From Reetha Sahib Gorakmata, Guru Nanak travelled to the holy city of Benaras (Varanasi) via Ayodhya and Prayagraj (Allahabad). In Benaras, Guru Nanak met Pandit Chatur Das, a highly respected and learned Brahmin priest. Guru Nanak asked him about what he taught people, and the Pandit said he offered the knowledge of fourteen sciences of life.
Guru Nanak explained the futility of these before the primary knowledge of the real God. He recited fifty-four stanzas of Ramkali Mohalla 1-Dakhni Omkar. It was to change Pandit Chatur Das’s life, and he became a Sikh and began spreading Guru Nanak’s teachings to others.
The place where Guru Nanak stayed in Benaras is known as Guru Ka Bagh Gurdwara.
Gaya: Guru Nanak takes on superstition
From Benaras, Guru Nanak traveled to Gaya in Bihar. Arriving on Baisakhi Day on the bank of the Phalgu River (Sarju), Guru Nanak witnessed people and priests offering prayers and food into the river. Amused, he asked the priests why they were doing so.
On hearing the need to satisfy the hunger of the ancestors and show them the light by lighting lamps, Guru Nanak burst into laughter and engaged them in a discussion. He asked them how could food and light travel to the other world when the bodies of the ancestors remained here. Priests and people understood the futility of superstitions and the existence of one formless God.
Kamprup: Guru Nanak and the Black Magic of Nurshah
From Gaya, Guru Nanak travelled to Patna, Hajipur, Malda, Dhubri, and arrived at Kamrup in Assam. He rested outside the town and sent Bhai Mardana into the village to get something to eat. Kamrup was controlled by a woman called Nurshah with Black Magic. She and her female followers were known to influence and exploit people through Black Magic.
When Bhai Mardana did not return, Guru Nanak understood that he must have come under her control. He reached her place, and on seeing the Guru approach, Nurshah tried to deploy her Black Magic. It was a futile attempt. Seeing Guru Nanak was beyond influence, she offered him her wealth to win him over.
It was when Guru Nanak recited three Shabads; Rag Suhi Mohalla 1; Sri Rag Ki Var Mohalla 1; Tilang Mohalla 1. On listening to these, Nurshah was overcome with guilt and asked for Guru’s forgiveness. She became a disciple and is said to have spread Guru’s message to others.
Golaghat: Guru meets Kauda Rakhshash
During his travels in Assam, they once stopped to rest under a tree while travelling through Golaghat. An extremely hungry Bhai Mardana left to find food. There lived a violent cannibal by the name Kauda who feared by locals for his human flesh-eating. Kauda caught Bhai Mardana, tied him, and took him to be eaten. As Kauda lit the large pan with oil, Guru Nanak appeared.
Kauda was surprised and awed by Guru Nanak’s holy presence. The Guru chided him for his actions and life. It was to change Kauda, an emotionless man, forever. He begged Guru Nanak for forgiveness and became a devotee.
Jagganath Puri: The Guru explains God vs Deity
From Assam, Guru Nanak travelled to Puri via Golaghat, Guwahati, Sylhet, Dhaka (Bangladesh), Calcutta, Cuttack, before reaching Puri.
Jagganath Temple is part of the four holiest temples of the Hindus. Arriving here on the auspicious day when Hindus celebrate the arrival of Lord Jagganath’s arrival, Guru Nanak watched the priests pray and offer rituals in obeisance to the Lord. Guru Nanak did not join them, instead looked up and began chanting the Shabad Dhanasri Mohalla 1.
The local priest quizzed Guru Nanak questioning his actions. The Guru responded by explaining the difference between deity and God.
He spoke of the omnipresent presence of the only God, who was formless and existed over everything else. It left an impact on those who listened to his spiritual words.
Puri is said to be the last stop in the First Udasi of Guru Nanak. Some say he returned home from here in 1506, while others believe he travelled southward as part of his Second Udasi.