To remember Guru Nanak is to necessarily remember Bhai Mardana, long extolled as the first Sikh

Among northern India’s more unique communities are the Mirasis. The word ‘Mirasi’ comes from the Arabic ‘miras’ which means inheritance or heritage. And that more or less points towards their traditional occupation. They were the genealogists of yore who kept track of the family tree, its history and were called upon by their patrons to narrate these at family gatherings and functions. Tales of bravery by the warriors of the family, banal accounts of property transactions (especially useful in times of dispute) and the finer details of marriages and alliances — these and other snippets constituted the material that the Mirasis stored in their heads. These homegrown historians often rendered these accounts in song and hence, their skills as musicians were also in demand.

In 1459, Bhai Mardana was born into one such Mirasi family in Rai Bhoi Di Talwandi (Talvandi Rai Bhoe in some accounts) now Nankana Sahib, in the Sheikhupura district of Pakistan. His parents were Bhai Badre and Bibi Lakho. While few details are available about their lives, it would not be wrong to assume that they lived the itinerant Mirasis’ life, going from village to village singing their songs, narrating histories on demand and thus earning their keep. It is likely that owing to the nature of their work and the fact that they hailed from the same village, the family of Bhai Mardana were familiar with Mehta Kalu, who in 1469, became the father of a boy, who would eventually become known to the world as Guru Nanak.

According to the 18th century Sikh scholar and martyr (whose execution is among the more heartbreaking tales of Sikh history) Bhai Mani Singh’s Janamsakhi (there are several Janamsakhis, all of which are early biographies of Guru Nanak, blending mythology and history), Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana first met in 1480. The young Nanak, a soulful singer, as narrated in 19th century historian, Ratan Singh Bhangu’s Prachin Panth Prakash, fashioned a musical instrument out of reeds and gave it to Mardana to play while he sang.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Some years later, Nanak, whose saintly and spiritual demeanour had caused the family much concern, was at Sultanpur, working as a granary-store keeper with Nawab Daulat Khan Lodi, a kinsman of the Lodi dynasty which then controlled Delhi. Hearing some adverse accounts of how Nanak was doing, Nanak’s father sent Mardana to check on how his son was faring.

Mardana made the journey, reconnected with Nanak and never left his side thereafter.

To begin with, Nanak and Mardana organised the singing of hymns every evening. Mardana played the rebab (or rebec), a stringed instrument of Arabian or Iranian origin. A Janamsakhi describes their life in Sultanpur:

Every night they sang hymns … They fed everyone who came … An hour and a quarter before sunrise he (Nanak) would go to the river to bathe, by daylight he would be in the durbar doing his work.

During one such early morning, Nanak would have his first mystical experience. Soon, Nanak decided to forgo the worldly life he was leading and embark on his travels to share with the world at large the message that had been revealed to him.

These travels or Udasis, as they are known, probably began around 1500 and lasted close to a quarter of a century. Accompanying Nanak throughout these travels was Mardana, who — like Nanak — left behind his wife and children in order to disseminate a greater truth.

A rare Tanjore style painting from the late 19th century depicting the ten Sikh Gurus with Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardana. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Setting out from Punjab, together, on foot, they covered an area ranging from Assam in the east to Sri Lanka in the south to Mecca in the west besides Tibet, Sikkim, Kashmir and the length and breadth of their native Punjab. (While historians do not dispute that Nanak travelled extensively, firm evidence for every one of these destinations is sometimes lacking. Nevertheless, popular lore holds that Nanak travelled to all of these places.)

In the course of these travels, the duo came upon many interesting people and incidents. In almost all of these incidents, Mardana was the perfect foil to Nanak, asking him the questions that prompted Nanak to reveal a certain truth that eventually became the foundation of much of his philosophy.

Legend holds that Mardana once asked Nanak about his religion and sought to convert to it. Nanak’s response was to tell Mardana, who was born Muslim, that he should strive to be a good Muslim. Likewise, a Hindu should become a good Hindu. That is how one could become Nanak’s ‘Sikh’, his disciple. So, in essence, Mardana became the first Sikh.

In Mardana’s company, Nanak is also said to have effected many miracles which have been recorded in the Janamsakhis.

Near Hassan Abdal, close to Islamabad in Pakistan, Mardana complained of thirst. Nanak instructed him to trudge up a hillock where a Muslim saint, Wali Qandhari, lived by a pool. Qandhari, on learning about Nanak who was purportedly a saint, thereby refused to allow Mardana use of the pool, asking him to tell his own saint to find water. Nanak, on learning of Qandhari’s rejection, nevertheless insisted that Mardana make the steep climb two more times, before pushing aside a rock near where he sat, to reveal a gushing fountain. Qandhari’s pool soon dried up and enraged, he threw a rock at Nanak from atop the hillock. Nanak is believed to have stopped this with his bare hands. A rock with a handprint is enshrined at the Gurdwara Panja Sahib, which now stands near where this incident occurred.

In another incident narrated in a Janamsakhi, Mardana and Nanak were taken prisoner by the Mughals at Saidpur. Nanak was given a load to carry on his head and Mardana to lead a horse by its reins. Mir Khan, the Mughal commander, purportedly saw that the Guru's bundle was floating above his head and Mardana's horse was following him without the reins, establishing the unusual credentials of the duo.

These stories of miracles were part of the popular imaginings of the time that sought to establish the saint’s credibility and message.

Throughout their time together, music was their constant companion and the many pictorial renderings of Nanak almost always show him singing accompanied by Mardana on the rebab. Nanak, of course, wrote much poetry in Punjabi. So did Mardana. At least three of his poems find place in the Guru Granth Sahib.

Mardana passed away in 1534. There is some disagreement as to where he died. It is likely that he was at Kartarpur, where Nanak had settled down post his Udasis. Some accounts though state that he died in Baghdad, where Nanak was on an Udasi (while it is fairly certain that Nanak did go to Baghdad, the dates are uncertain and hence this disparity). A deep and abiding friendship that had lasted more than half-a-century had come to an end. Nanak followed in 1539.

To remember Nanak is to necessarily remember Mardana, who is extolled as the first Sikh, who stood by his friend and mentor and played an important role in enabling his message to reach a wider audience.



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