Kids Corner

Above: A school now encircles the historical gurdwara.


Guru Baba Nanak Rested Here
During His Fourth Journey:
Dera Ismail Khan





In 1870, the district (Dera Ismail Khan) attracted for a time a melancholy notoriety through the death of Sir Henry Durand, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, who was crushed against an arch and precipitated from his elephant. His remains were interred at Dera Ismail Khan.” -- Excerpts from The Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1908

Nobody could have imagined in those days that the terse description flowing from the pen of some austere western writer would continue to haunt Dera Ismail Khan even a century after.

Being a tourist in a trouble-besieged terrain has complexities of its own.

In the case of my planned visit to the region, the primary objectives were two-fold -- to offer fateha for a martyred police officer friend belonging to the area, and to try and find a centuries old gurdwara in Dera Ismail Khan city, where Guru Baba Nanak had briefly stayed during his fourth Udaasi (sojourn) which ultimately took him to the holy lands in Arabia [and, as recent revelations have brought to light, possibly to Europe as well].

I had read about this gurdwara in an old book, titled ‘Gurdwaras of the World’ and was curious to know whether this centuries old structure existed in any form to this date. My preliminary inquiries in this regard were rather disappointing as almost everybody I contacted expressed that I was being naïve in expecting an un-Islamic relic to exist in an area not far off from the militancy-hit region.

But my host, a Surkha friend who had spent his childhood years in Dera Ismail Khan before relocating to Peshawar several years ago, insisted we should try.

This is how I reached the city one evening in the company of my friend and landed in a motel on the banks of the mighty River Indus.

I have seen the Indus all across Pakistan in many locations -- starting from Hamzi Ghun in Baltistan where it enters Pakistani territory in the Kargil sector, all the way to Kharo Chan in Thatta where it becomes part of the Arabian Sea. But the sight that Indus presents in Dera Ismail Khan towards the evening is certainly a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle.

From the bank, your eyes run over the river and you will never be able to see the other bank. It’s a huge body of water with small islands dotted here and there, carrying thick riverine jungles and, as golden red rays of setting sun dance atop the ripples of reddish brown waters, you land in a world of peace and serenity.

A far cry from suicide bombings and jail breaks!

But the real fun was yet to follow.

My host took me in his car to a spot that looked like a small island, right in the midst of the river and connected through a katcha (dirt) road. As we left our cars, a huge fire caught my attention and as I was about to ask about the nature of this fire, the area reverberated with gunshots. Seeing me turn pale, my friend explained that we were joining a group of his Mehsud friends and the gunfire  was a prelude to the night’s festivities.

Very soon tall tribesmen donning magnificent turbans, with their chiselled features glowing like red embers in the backdrop of crackling log fire, surrounded us.

The hospitality of our Mehsud and Dera hosts was exemplary. I had never experienced the two items they offered me -- Paenda or Sohbat, a local dish where crumbs from tandoori roti are mixed with mutton curry, which the whole company eats from one large platter using their hands.

I had partaken of this magical dish to my maximum when I was horrified by the announcement that, as per Mehsud tradition, I will have to eat one handful each, fed from the hands of my loving hosts.

I had hardly accomplished this herculean task when dhol beats burst through the misty air of mighty Indus. Soon I was informed that now was the time for Attan, a traditional Mehsud dance, where all present have to join the rhythmic motions. And the dance was actually surrealistic, as tall and sturdy Mehsuds made a big circle, their shadows looming in mysterious fires which surrounded us, and danced in a reverie that almost transported us to some distant Mehsud villages in the hinterland of Waziristan.

My Mehsud friends were termed ‘Internally Displace Persons’ (“IDP“s) having been uprooted from their homes, but their collective spirit was alive and as fiery as was their Attan dance, notwithstanding the strife and calamities they had been living through in the recent decade.

Fully charged by the festivities of the night before, my friend and I started early next morning on our original mission -- in our quest for the historical Gadara marking Guru Baba Nanak‘s stop-over during his 15th century world travel.

Getting a cue was difficult as a few relevant officials whom we contacted shared only obscure information. One of them was more direct and almost ridiculed our foolishness in trying to locate what he termed as ‘un-Islamic’ stuff.

However, I must salute the audacity of my Surkha friend who was least perturbed by the acid remarks and kept knocking at door after door.

I was almost at the point of resigning when suddenly light dawned from nowhere. We had gone to the local assistant commissioner for a courtesy call and, as I broached the topic, he suddenly remembered that during his examination duties, he once went to a boy’s school which carried some marble plaques, fixed in the cement floor.

I knew from my experience of Sindhi temples that, as a gesture of humility, sometimes plaques by devout Hindus and Sikhs are fixed in the ground in these holy buildings. The good officer did not exactly remember the school where he had seen this and advised us to visit all schools around Topaan Wala Bazaar (The Market of The Canons).

Thanking our host, we started in good spirits and reached Topaan Wala Bazaar through the Chhota (Little) Bazaar.

Our visit to the first two schools was futile as these were standard modern-day school buildings. In a last ditch attempt, we reached the third school, and at once our hopes went skyrocketing.

The main door of the school had a disfigured marble arch where the name of the school was written in bold words. But a little scratching and closer examination revealed some words inscribed beneath in what I thought was Gurmukhi.

Luckily, it was afternoon and after some arguments, the school’s caretaker opened the main gate.

And there our dream came true.

Four sides of the school building carried dilapidated rows of rooms, some renovated and others left as they were. But in the middle, a grandiose building stood with beautiful marble arches.

As we got close to the main building, we saw some two marble plaques fixed in the ground, carrying the names of Sikh and Hindu devotees who had in previous centuries offered Tehl Seva at the site. It was all in line with what I had read in the book on gurdwaras.

But if it was to be the gurdwara we were in search of, it would have a Tharrha Sahib (raised platform) to mark the spot where Baba Nanak was reputed to have sat.

After more arguments, the caretaker opened the darkish main hall and as we entered the big hall, we knew we were there …

There was the raised platform (over which a table and chair were placed) towards one end; intricate woodwork decorated the roof in an immaculately attractive pattern. The balconies had been closed with masonry but we could still see the exquisitely done marble carvings, most of which had been covered in brightly coloured pictures of Pakistani national leaders and Iqbal’s poetry.

The hall had been converted into several classrooms in the upper balconies but luckily much of the artwork inside the gurdwara was intact.

As I reached the Tharrha Sahib, the thought that some centuries ago Guru Baba Nanak, during his fourth journey which took him to Arabia, must have given his sermon of love and respect for all from this place, made me cry.

I was happy to have found my objective -- Gurdwara Baba Sahib -- which though it has now been changed to ‘Government High School No. 3’, but which luckily has preserved much of the grace and attraction of the original, quaint gurdwara.

The “melancholy notoriety” that ailed Dera Ismail Khan in the British days seems to have come back to the town in recent decades. But my visit convinced me that the spirit of the city is indefatigable as long as the Mehsuds continue to dance Attan on the drum beat and some unknown teachers continue to spread knowledge from Tharrha Sahib, just like Baba Ji must have sermoned love and peace for all, en route to his journey westwards five centuries ago.

[Courtesy: The News. Edited for]

January 3, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 09, 2015, 8:59 PM.

Our heartfelt thanks to Syed Rizwan Mahboob ji. You are 'Mahboob' indeed to have painstakingly found the hallowed spot where Guru Nanak rested. "Jithhe Baba pair dharai pooja aasan thhaapan soa" - " Wherever Baba put his feet, that place is hallowed.' Mahboob ji, you have Baba Nanak's blessings on you.

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During His Fourth Journey:
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