Excerpt | from ‘Story of the Sikhs’ by Sarbpreet Singh (Penguin, 2021) | Issue 42, March 2023

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India
Chapter 12 ‘Immutable’ (Partial)

There is great joy in Amritsar today. Women of modest means but rich in happiness walk the streets bearing baskets laden with flowers. Men and women, dressed in their best clothes, are buying flowers by the basketful. Some women twist flowers into garlands. Others pluck the petals to create colourful, fragrant mounds. The men decorate their shops, and the bazaars resound with the joyous sound of laughter. Men, women and children frolic in the streets, running hither and thither in excitement. People from the surrounding villages are flocking to the town.

The Har Mandar Sahib is teeming with the faithful, lost in the melodious sounds of hymns being sung. Is a King approaching? No! The master of the three worlds himself is nigh. Is it a tyrant? Who builds prisons and uses force to oppress the people? Far from it. It is the Emancipator. The one who shatters the gates of prisons. The one who believes in the reign of love. The one who provides relief and sanctuary to the poor, the orphaned, and the weak. Not a king who rules by fear, but one that is lovingly seated on the throne of every heart. They revere him, not because they fear his power or because they seek to benefit, but because the vastness of his heart makes their hearts swell as well. Yes, he bears swords, but these are not to be feared, for they are instruments of liberation from tyranny.

Today, the fount of love, who provided shelter from the chilling rain of oppression, is returning to Amritsar. As he nears the city and beholds the golden glow of happiness that suffuses it, he dismounts and continues on foot. He sees the throng of the faithful approaching. On one side Baba Buddha, Bhai Jetha, and the other Sikhs shine like stars in the firmament as they sing hymns of joy. On the other, Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Saindas, and other Sikhs, heads bowed in humility, eyes shining with love, approach to the sound of hymns, their hearts affixed on their master. The joy of reunion is indescribable.

The cavalcade proceeds directly to the Har Mandar Sahib. A beautiful service concludes with the Ardas or the communal prayer, and then the Guru ventures out into the town. The streets are packed. Women fill all the balconies along the streets that the Guru walks. A rain of fragrant petals falls everywhere. The Guru walks through the joyous crowds, drenched in love like a regal swan. Finally, he reaches his home where his mother, Mata Ganga, awaits. Mata Ganga who has patiently and serenely waited for her son and her Guru to return for years. The Guru respectfully bows to his mother who clutches him to her chest and then tries to salute him by bowing. The Guru smiles and stops her. Who can understand the ways of these exalted beings?

The conversations continue into the night, until it is time to return to the Har Mandar Sahib. After so many years, the Guru is present again as the melodious strains of the Asa Di Var fill the serene surroundings of the Har Mandar Sahib.

This is my translation of Bhai Vir Singh’s imagining of the Guru’s return to Amritsar.

A Sikh trader from Kabul, Bhagmal, had heard that Guru Hargobind was fond of fine horses. He searched from Kabul to Bukhara until he found a steed worthy of his master and purchased it at great expense. He bought several more horses, intending to sell them, and hid the Guru’s horse, covered with tattered rags, in his herd, as he made his way towards Amritsar. He was of course fearful that such a fine animal would attract the attention of Mughal officers, who might try to appropriate it for their own use, or as a gift to curry favour with the Emperor Jahangir or his sons.

When he reached Lahore, the provincial capital of the Punjab, much to his chagrin the horse caught the eye of the Mughal Governor, who decided to acquire it for the Prince Shahabuddin. When Bhagmal protested that the horse was not for sale, the governor simply confiscated it! Bhagmal hastened to Amritsar and angrily told Guru Hargobind the sorry tale, who quite unperturbed, advised him to be patient.

There was much consternation in the royal stables. The prince’s new horse refused to eat! He developed quite an attitude and would stand on three legs, as though the fourth were injured, angrily whinnying if anyone tried to approach. The prince’s mentor, the Qazi Rustam, was summoned and the horse was handed over to him, in the hope that he might be able to calm the animal down, perhaps by reciting a few sacred verses! 

Of course, nothing the Qazi tried had an impact on the horse’s temperament. Aware of the fact that the horse had been intended for Guru Hargobind, he decided to sell the horse to the Guru. Once the horse was in the Guru’s stables, his health and temperament were restored, and his strength and beauty attracted attention far and wide. The Qazi was annoyed and felt that he had somehow been cheated, having parted with the magnificent horse for a pittance!

Rustam had a young daughter named Kaulan, who was extremely devout. She was a follower of the Sufi saint Miyan Mir, who had been a dear friend and beloved follower of Guru Arjan’s. Kaulan would spend hours at Miyan Mir’s compound, listening to discourses and recitations of Guru Arjan’s hymns, which she would memorize and continue to recite when she got home. Her father, of course, was incensed! ‘How dare you! You are Muslim and the daughter of a Qazi! It is an offence to recite the writings of the infidels!’ Kaulan would calmly ignore his rantings and continue with her devotions, angering her father even more.

Once Rustam realized that his daughter was intent of defying him, he grew irrationally angry and sought the counsel of his fellow Qazis. It was determined that Kaulan was an apostate and the only appropriate punishment was execution. A fatwa or decree was issued to that effect.

Kaulan’s mother, terrified at the prospect of her daughter’s execution, rushed her to Miyan Mir. The old sage was much saddened but could find no way out of the dilemma. But then a solution presented itself. He summoned one of his attendants, Abdullah Shah, and gave him these instructions: ‘The girl is in danger and I cannot protect her. Since a fatwa has been issued, the Qazis can have her seized at any moment. Make haste and take her to Amritsar. The Guru always provides shelter to the needy. Besides, nobody can dare to forcibly bring her back if she is under his protection.’

Guru Hargobind received Abdullah Shah and Kaulan with great courtesy out of respect for Miyan Mir, and when he heard the whole sorry tale, offered her shelter without hesitation. Kaulan was given clothes and provisions from the Langar, and a room was prepared for her. Pleased with her humble demeanour and devoutness, he said, ‘There is no reason for you to be fearful anymore. Even if the Emperor himself came here, he would be unable to take you away by force.  This is your home now and nobody will ever harass you or interfere with your devotions again.’

Thus Qazi Rustam’s daughter Kaulan came to live in Amritsar.

In the Twarikh Guru Khalsa, Giani Gian Singh offers this account of Kaulan after her arrival in Amritsar.

Kaulan started her new life with great joy, spending her time in prayer and service, getting even more intensely attached to the Guru. While her connection with the Guru was intensely spiritual, she was completely in the thrall of her master and slowly her feelings began to change. One day, she visited the Guru’s private quarters and had a wonderful time playing with one of his young sons. As she was playing with the lad, she found herself thinking, ‘What if my relationship with the Guru were different? What if I bore him a son?’

After returning to her room, Kaulan fell into a daze. She stopped eating and drinking and affixed her mind on the Guru. Just as the Hindu God Ram visited the aboriginal woman, drenched in his love, and Lord Krishna visited Draupadi, who was intensely enamoured of him, Guru Hargobind visited the home of his devotee, and was surprised to find her senseless.

When Kaulan was revived, she bowed to the Guru and sat at his feet, obviously distraught and miserable. ‘What is the matter Kaulan? Why are you in this state? Did someone insult you or try to molest you? Have you been robbed? Or perhaps you are unwell?  Tell me! Truthfully!’

Sarbpreet Singh is a writer, podcaster and commentator. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Night of the Restless Spirits and the bestselling The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, and the writer-narrator of the Story of The Sikhs podcast which has listeners in over ninety countries.

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