Varanasi: The Sikh Connections

Gursharn Singh Randhawa

      Varanasi, the holy city, is situated on the banks of sacred river Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of India. Earlier known as Kashi or Banaras (Benares), it is one of the oldest living cities in the world. This wonderful city has fascinated not only Indians but also several famous visitors from abroad. Mark Twain, an eminent English author, wrote: "Benaras is older than history". Octavio Paz, a Nobel Laureate and a former ambassador of Mexico to India, composed a poem on this city. According to Hindu mythology, Kashi is the original ground created by Shiva and Parvati and hence Varanasi is also called as the City of Lord Shiva. Hindus believe that the river Ganges in Varanasi has the power to wash away the sins and one who dies at Kashi achieves salvation. After attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon in Sarnath in Varanasi. Just before his death Buddha named four sacred places for his followers and Sarnath was one of these. Because of these facts Varanasi is a very important place for Hindus and Buddhists. But very few know that it is a very important place for Sikhs as well. The highlighting of the following facts is expected to further add to the role of Varanasi in the national integration.

Sikh Gurus and Banaras
      The Sikh religion was started by Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539) and hence he is known as the first Sikh Guru. Subsequently there were nine more Gurus in person. All the Sikh Gurus recognized Banaras as a very important place. The edicts issued by the Gurus to their followers were called as 'hukamnamas' In the 'hukamnamas' there are references like 'Sarbat Sangat Banaras Ki', i.e., the entire Sikh community of Banaras. Guru Nanak visited Banaras in 1506 and during his visit collected the writings of saint Kabir, saint Ravidas and other saints. Selected writings of these saints are a part of the holy book 'Guru Granth Sahib'. Guru Nanak had discussions with Pandits in Banaras and explained to them his teachings. A gurdwara (Gurubag Gurdwara) has been constructed at the place where Guru Nanak stayed during his visit to Kashi. Bhai Gurdas had the company of four Sikh Gurus and he was the first custodian of Akal Takhat Sahib, during the time of the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind. He went to Banaras to spread the teachings of Sikh Gurus. The ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur (1621-1675), when he was at Baba Bakala from 1644-1664, visited several holy places which included Banaras. Later he visited Banaras again in 1666, the year of the birth of his son, the tenth Guru. A gurdwara (Nichibag Gurdwara) has been built at the place visited by Guru Teg Bahadur. In the year 1672 Mata Gujri and six-year-old Gobind Rai, who later became Tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, stopped for some time at Banaras when they were going back from Patna Sahib to Punjab.

Guru Granth Sahib and Kashi
      The first version of Guru Granth Sahib, known as 'Adi Granth', was compiled in the year 1604 by the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev. The tenth Guru included the writings of the ninth Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur, in the holy book and named it as 'Granth Sahib'. Just before his death in 1708 he directed his followers to accept 'Granth Sahib' as their Guru. The holy book Guru Granth Sahib, which is in fact meant for the entire humanity, contains the sacred writings of 36 spiritually enlightened persons, out of which four, namely, saint Ramanand (Sant Ramanand/Swami Ramanand), saint Kabir (Sant Kabir), saint Ravidas (Sant Ravidas) and saint Surdas (Sant Surdas), belonged to Kashi. Swami Ramanand (1366-1467) was born in Kashi and became a disciple of an eminent preacher of the Ramanuj sect which was started by the great saint of Tamil Nadu, saint Ramanuj (Sant Ramanuj). He died at Kashi at the age of 101 years. His one 'Shabad' in 'Raga Basant' is on page 1195 of Guru Granth Sahib. The writings of four of his followers, namely, saint Kabir, saint Ravidas, saint Pipa and saint Sain, have also been included in Guru Granth Sahib. Saint Kabir (1398-1518) lived in Kashi and Guru Granth Sahib contains 541 'Shabads' of saint Kabir in 18 'Ragas'. In terms of quantity of writings in Guru Granth Sahib, saint Kabir is at number five. The place of emergence of saint Kabir is located near railway station of Varanasi and it is the main centre of the followers of Kabir, called 'Kabir Panthis'. Saint Ravidas (1378-1529) was born in Kashi and lived here for the entire life. Guru Granth Sahib contains 41 'Shabads' of saint Ravidas in 16 'Ragas'. The birth place of saint Ravidas is located just near the Banaras Hindu University and a beautiful memorial at this site has been constructed. Madan Mohan, who later became famous as saint Sur Das, was born in Kashi in 1529. He was made a ruler of Sandila in Awadh area and later he became a saint. Guru Granth Sahib contains his two 'Shabads'.

Nirmale Saints and Kashi
      The tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, when he was at Paonta Sahib (1685-1687), sent five Sikhs to Kashi for learning Sanskrit. After getting education at Kashi, they became very learned persons and reached a higher spiritual level. When they returned, Guru Gobind Singh blessed them saying that you are my 'nirmale (pious) saints' and directed them to go to different places to spread the message of Guru Nanak. Hence the 'Nirmal Sect' (Nirmal Sampardai) started. Some of the prominent saints of the Nirmal Sect were Sant Thakur Dyal Singh, Sant Buddha Singh (1848-1937) and Sant Nikka Singh (End of 1890s-1983). Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the famous former ruler of Punjab, used to get the blessings of Sant Thakur Dyal Singh. Kalpana Chawla, the first female astronaut of India, used to get the blessings of Sant Nikka Singh. To facilitate the learning of Sanskrit, Sant Buddha Singh established an ashram, known as Sangat Gian Gufa, in Kashi. This ashram is still in operation at Varanasi.

Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Sikhs
      Kashi Vishwanath temple, situated in the heart of the Varanasi city on the western bank of the river Ganges, is one of the most important places of worship in Hindu religion. The temple is very old and dedicated to Lord Shiva. The first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, visited this temple. The temple building has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The present structure of the temple was built in 1780 by the Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore. In 1839 two spires of the temple were covered with gold donated by the famous Sikh ruler of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Banaras Hindu University and Sikhs
      Banaras Hindu University (BHU) is one of the oldest and topmost universities of India. A society with the name The Hindu University Society was registered on 15th December, 1911 for the establishment of the BHU. A large sum of money was required to set up this university. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a key member of the Hindu University Society, issued an appeal on 15th July, 1911 for donations of one crore of rupees. The Sikhs responded favourably to this appeal. When the Hindu University delegation visited Punjab cities, the Sikh Sangats warmly welcomed the delegation and made generous contributions. Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha made a donation of Rs. 1,00, 000. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala donated Rs. 10, 000 and also sanctioned a recurring grant of Rs. 6, 000 per annum to support a Chair on Agricultural Botany. Maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala made a donation of Rs. 5,00,000 for teaching in the fields of mechanical and electrical engineering. He also gave a recurring grant of Rs. 24, 000 per annum.

      The Banaras University Act was passed on 1st October, 1915. About a year before the passing of this Act, the Hindu University Society decided to make a beginning of the University by laying the foundation of Sanskrit College by a Sikh saint Sant Attar Singh Mastuane Vaale (1866-1927). In May, 1914 Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya went to Punjab to invite Sant Attar Singh personally. As a mark of respect to Sant Attar Singh and caring little for summer heat, Pandit Malaviya removed his shoes at Sangrur railway station and walked bare-foot on the sandy and hot road for about 8 kms to reach the Ashram of Sant Attar Singh at Mastuana. After reaching, he conveyed to Sant Attar Singh the request of the Hindu University Society for laying the foundation and requested him to perform five Akhand Paths (non-stop recitations) of Guru Granth Sahib before the foundation ceremony. Sant Attar Singh agreed to reach Banaras a few days before the foundation laying ceremony to be held on 24th December, 1914. Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, brought Sant Attar Singh to Banaras by his private royal train. Near the site, where the foundation of Sanskrit College was to be laid, a beautiful open 'pandal' was erected and continuous reading of Guru Granth Sahib (Akhandpaths) for 10 days was done in a special tent. After performing of 'Ardas' (Sikh Religious Prayer), Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner brought the building material in a silver 'tagari' (plate). Maharaja Prabhu Narayan of Kashi State offered 11 gold bricks. Sant Attar Singh with a golden 'krandi' put lime in the foundation (buniad) of Sanskrit college and placed 11 gold bricks on the lime. After the ceremony, the Maharaja of Kashi requested Sant Attar Singh to stay at Kashi for one week. Out of great respect for Sant Attar Singh, he requested him to sit on his throne on which he never sat considering it a seat of Lord Vishwanath. On the occasion of the foundation laying ceremony, a Hindu saint of Niranjani Akhara, Asi Ghat Bhadaini, composed a poem which was later published. One line of the poem was "Hindu University neev pawitar Attar Hari ne dhari kar se" (the foundation of the Banaras Hindu University was laid with the hands of Sant Attar Singh Ji"). The above account of the foundation laying ceremony is based on the description given in the book "Jiwan Katha, Gurmukh Piare Sant Attar Singh Ji Maharaj, Part I" (Life story of Gurmukh Piare Sant Attar Singh Ji Maharaj) written by Sant Teja Singh (M.A. Punjab, L.L.B. Punjab, A.M. Harward, U.S.A.).

      After the passing of the BHU Act on 1st October, 1915, the foundation-stone laying ceremony of the BHU was performed by the British Viceroy Lord Hardinge on February 4, 1916. A fortnight before this ceremony, religious ceremonies were started which continued till the evening of February 8, 1916. These ceremonies included Sikh religious ceremonies too. An Akhand Path (non-stop recitation) of Guru Granth Sahib was performed near the site where foundation-stone laying ceremony was to be conducted. The foundation ceremony of 4th February was followed by lectures by distinguished experts on 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th February. The closing function on 8th of February, 1916 consisted of religious ceremonies which again included Sikh religious ceremonies. Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha attended the closing function in person. At 3:00 PM in the afternoon Bhai Arjun Singh and Sant Amar Singh made recitations from Guru Granth Sahib in the School Hall. These recitations were followed by an address by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya in Hindi on the Hindu religion in general and Guru Granth Sahib in particular.

      The Banaras University Act, passed on 1st October, 1915, came into force on 1st April, 1916. As per this Act, 14 heads of local administrations in British India became Ex-officio Patrons of the University whereas 18 Ruling Princes or Chiefs were appointed to be the Patrons of the University. These Patrons included two Sikh Maharajas, namely, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha and Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala. Further, as per the Act, highest governing body named as Court was constituted for the university. After the inclusion of the names of the elected members on August 12, 1916, the total strength of the Court became 140 members and out of these, the following 8 were Sikhs:

1. Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha
2. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala
3. Sardar Bachan Singh, Education Minister, Nabha
4. Bhai Arjun Singh of Bagrian, District Ludhiana
5. Baba Gurbaksh Singh Bedi of Kullar, District Rawalpindi
6. Major-Genral Bakshi Puran Singh of Kapurthala
7. Dewan Lilaram Singh of Hyderabad (Sindh)
8. Bhai Sardul Singh, Editor, Sikh Review, Delhi

     Presently, the Court consists of only 51 members out of which 30 are nominated by the President of India. In December, 2005, the then President of India, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, nominated the author of this article as the Member of the Court of BHU for a period of three years (2006-2008).

     From the beginning of the BHU till now, several Sikhs have occupied eminent positions in this great institution. Sant Teja Singh, A. M. Harward University (1877-1965) was the Principal of the Teachers Training College in the Banaras Hindu University from 1919 to 1920. Prof. Gurbaksh Singh, who later became the founder Vice Chancellor of University of Hyderabad and Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, had been the Head of the Chemistry Department and Dean of the Faculty of Sciences at BHU. Prof. Shamer Singh and Prof. Gajendra Singh have been the Directors of the Institute of Medical Sciences. Prof. Gajendra Singh was also nominated by the President of India as the member of BHU Court from 2006 to 2008. Prof. Balbir Singh Katt, an internationally renowned sculptor, had been the Dean of the Faculty of Visual Arts. Prof. Saluja had been the Director of the Institute of Technology. Prof. Amrik Singh Ahluwalia, an eminent botanist and a former Dean at Punjab University, Chandigarh, got his Ph. D. degree from BHU.

Banaras and Dyal Singh Majithia
     Dyal Singh Majithia (1849-1898), a Sikh aristocrat and philanthropist, was born in 1849 in Banaras. He was brought up in this city till the age of five. In 1854, when his father Lehna Singh died, the family shifted from Banaras to Majitha in Punjab. Dyal Singh started "The Tribune" newspaper which at that time was one of the two main newspapers of India. He was the founder Chairman, Board of Directors of India's first Indigenous bank, the Punjab National Bank. Dyal Singh played a major role in the establishment of Punjab University at Lahore.

     It is hoped that after reading this article the inhabitants of Varanasi would like to take pride in the role of their city in the Sikh religion and appreciate the contributions made by the Sikh community in the development of this city. The awareness of their connections with Varanasi will help the Sikhs to strength their bonds with this holy city.

      (The author is a Professor in the Department of Biotechnology, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, Uttarakhand, India; E.mail : SHARNFBS@IITR.ERNET.IN)