The ambience of the Jagannath temple in Puri, today cannot even be a patch on what it would have been five centuries ago. Yet, those who stand there watching the Aarti at night, the frothing sea as the fountain, swear by its breath-taking beauty.
So did Guru Nanak—as he stood at the temple under a star-studded sky sometime in 1506. In a spontaneous song, Nanak expressed his deep awe at what he saw, and reverence to the “ultimate creator” whose glory, he said, could not be contained in anything humans had to offer.
Guru Nanak composed the Aarti after he witnessed the priests perform the evening puja at the temple. With the addition of five more compositions by other people, the Sikh Aarti, as it has come to be described, is sung in Raga Dhanashri at the conclusion of the day’s last prayer, the Rehraas Sahib, also composed by Nanak.
The gist of the Aarti is that the creator’s grandeur is too much to be sung with a small set of lamps and incense; the sky itself is the grand platter, the stars are the lamps, the wind is the celestial fan and the flower-filled forests are the scent.
Such is the poetic appeal of Nanak’s composition that Rabindranath Tagore translated the Aarti into Bengali and recited it daily. The late actor, Balraj Sahni, on a teaching tour of Shantiniketan, asked Tagore why he had not written an international anthem. “It has already been written (by Guru Nanak),” Tagore told Sahni, as he called it the “universal anthem,” according to the actor’s autobiography. The late Chief Minister of Odisha, JB Patnaik, too had rendered an excellent translation of the Aarti in Odia in 1986.
The connection between Jagannath Puri and Guru Nanak and other icons of the Bhakti movement, including Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Namdev, runs deep. Thousands of their followers continue to visit the places touched by these saints en route to the Jagannath temple.
Even historians are discovering a wealth of heritage here, as evident in a new, three-volume book, ‘Jagannath Sadak’, by author-activist Anil Dhir. Invited by the Delhi-based think tank, Odisha Forum, Dhir gave a talk at the India International Centre (IIC) last month on ‘Guru Nanak’s visit to Puri and the spread of the Jagannath culture’.
The author of seven books, a popular columnist and television panellist, Dhir comes from a Punjabi family that settled in Odisha two generations ago. He said that he had been fascinated with pilgrims prostrating on the old Jagannath road, a sight that triggered the idea to explore its history.
He, along with a group of researchers and archaeologists, undertook a 14-day journey on a bullock cart from Jagannath Ghat in West Bengal’s Hooghly to the temple in Puri, a journey that turned out to be “eye-opening about the history of this route.” The project was sponsored by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTAC) seven years ago and the book was long in the writing.
In a riveting, 75-minute talk supported by telling pictures, Dhir talked about the oneness of Jagannath culture and Sikhism. “The Odisha model of the composite culture of India,” Dhir said, finds its truest reflection in Jagannath Sadak. Besides Vaishnav Hindu shrines, there are Shaivite, Muslim, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist shrines all along the road, which was as popular with pilgrims as with plunderers.
The Sikh Aarti, which has verses of four people, besides those of Nanak and the tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, Dhir informed, represented the essence of Sikhism. The subsequent inclusion into the Aarti of the compositions of cobbler Ravi Das, barber Bhagat Sain, weaver Kabir and farmer Bhagat Dhanna, all men of humble stock, along with those of the two gurus, signify “the all-encompassing Sikh faith.” “The Aarti is the preamble to Sikhism; it is half of what Sikh religion stands for.”
Dhir’s interpretation of the Aarti is also a far cry from the politically coloured view that reads it as a parody on Brahminical rituals: “It was Guru Nanak’s first view of the sea; as a seeker, he must have been awe-struck with the dazzling spectacle he saw and the song must have been a spontaneous flow rather than a satire.”
In fact, Dhir believes that “the seeker in Guru Nanak found in Puri what he had been looking for and that is why he broke the pattern of travelling along circular routes and went straight back to Punjab from Puri after spending 24 days there.”
Dhir’s book is due for release this month in what would be the Odisha government’s tribute to Guru Nanak on the occasion of his 550th birthday on November 12.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi)