HER STORY : WOMEN IN HISTORY
The history of Sikh women has to start with Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh Religion. According to the Bala Sakhis, Guru Nanak was very fond of his maternal grandmother. They were very close. Her name was Mata Bhirai, she was married to Rama of the village Chahal near Lahore. She was likely a frequent visitor to the home of Mata Banarasi, his paternal grandmother. In the prevalent custom of a joint family system, a woman always went to live in her husband's family household, and because it was the custom for the grandparents to raise the children, one can assume that he would have been brought up by Mata Banarasi, his paternal grandmother. She was the mother of two sons, Kalu and Lalu, and wife of Shiv Ram, resident of Talvandi Rai Bhoi Ki, now called Nankana Sahib.
Much of what we know about the women of that era, has to be conjecture. One must look at what is known about socio-political, as well as the economic situation of the era, before one can even begin to guess what life must have been like for any given woman. The oral history or Janamsakhis give clues to events, but cannot be taken too seriously, in that they are coloured by the tellers' own perception and background. As with any oral history, the story changes with time. Each story-teller tries to put his personal stamp on the story, as well as embellishment, so that it is always told better than the time it was told before. We do know that at that time in Hindu society, woman, at least in theory, controlled the family finances. In fact, they probably controlled only the portion of income that dealt with the personal household; i.e., the groceries and small household items. In a joint family system, even that would be limited to the "mother-in-law" and not to all the women. Also, it would be subject to the whims of the man of the house. Nevertheless, this was the situation at the time of the birth of the first Guru.
The mother of Guru Nanak was Mata Tripta. He was born on the third day of the month of Vaisakh, Saturday April 15, 1469. A midwife assisted Tripta on the occasion. Her name was Daulatan. Macauliffe narrates in the tradition of the Janamsakhis that the midwife, when interrogated the following morning by Hardial, the astrologer, as to nature of the child's voice uttered at birth, said it was "as the laughing voice of a wise man when joining a social circle."
Mata Tripta was reputed to be a kind lady. The young Nanak had a sociable nature, and, therefore, had many friends. He liked to treat them often. We know from the oral history tradition that Mata Tripta would sometimes slip him a coin or two to spend on his friends. She also often made sweets for him to share with his friends. She loved her son dearly, but his rejection of tradition and custom was a source of constant aggravation. Her son, Nanak, questioned the authority of the Brahmin priests, refused to wear the holy thread, and rejected the validity of the caste system. Mata Tripta did not understand the divine mission of her rebellious son. This is clear in the story of Nanak's return from his first travel. His parents met him at the edge of town. Nanak was overcome with emotion, and wept when he met his mother. She offered him sweets and asked him to remove the beggar's gown and put on the clothes she brought him. She obviously worried about the friends and neighbours and what they would say, should they see him like this. On the same occasion his parents were much distressed. They believed that his travels and the rejection of present conventions were a sign of great unhappiness. His father, Kalu, was greatly disturbed when he exclaimed; "Only if I knew what has disappointed you in life, I would set things right. If you want to marry another woman, I'd get you one, if another house, I'd provide you with it." This clearly was a generation gap. His parents, who were well-to-do and respected in their community, were greatly disturbed, because they did not understand why he would not conform to social customs of the day.
Nanak had a sister by the name of Nanaki. She was 5 years older than he was. The Guru's love for his sister is referred to in most touching terms in some of the Sakhis. A sister's love for her brother is a perennial theme of Punjabi folklore. There are many stories of Nanaki's deep and devoted affection for her brother, Nanak. She was perhaps the first to recognise the spiritual potential of the young Nanak. She protected Nanak from their father's wrath, when repeatedly he disappointed and angered him. She was with him throughout the early years of his childhood. When he was only eight years old, Nanaki was married to Jai Ram, a revenue official of very good reputation, at Sultanpur, which is in the present native state of Kapurthala, and was then the capital of the Jalandhar Doab. Nanak continued to live at home. He was a bright boy who learned his lessons quickly and asked his teacher more questions than he could answer. He questioned the reasons for almost every social custom. He rebelled against any norms that were imposed without reason. He loved to be in the company of sants who were the wise men of the day, and gave money away to the poor and the hungry. His father despaired of never being able to make him behave and take on a respectable position in the village. And so it was that his father gave up, and so, at the age of fifteen, Nanak was sent to live with his sister, and to work for her husband. It was Jai Ram who arranged the wedding of Nanak to Sulakhani, daughter of Moolchand Chand Khatri and Mata Chando of the village Pakhoke, District Gurdaspur.
Historians have failed to record much about the wives of the ten Gurus. That they have contributed much to the making of Sikh history, and establishing Sikh traditions, cannot be denied. By studying the lives and teachings of the Gurus, one can, with the little information picked up, put together what must have been the lives of these important women. When historical data is sketchy, conjecture must be used. Filling in the gaps is important, if we wish to know "Her story." Historians have always written with their own personal slant and interpretation of the facts. Why should "Her story" be any different ?
In the book, Mahan Kosh, Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha writes that a girl was born in the village Pakhoke, district Gurdaspur to Moolchand Chand Khatri and Mata Chando. Her father was a pious Chona Khatri merchant, who was the tax collector (patwari) of his village. The year is not given, but on the basis of her year of marriage, one can guess that it was around 1473. The writer states that she was born with "super characteristics," but neglects to elaborate what these were. It is quite obvious that he was not too concerned about this child. He does state that she was named Sulakhani. Nothing could be found about her childhood or her education, but we know as fact that girls were not formally educated in those days. If she had any training, it would have been in cooking, sewing, embroidery and house-keeping. Unfortunately, no-one has bothered to record anything about her personal tastes, hobbies or interests.
In 1969, Sikhs celebrated the 500th birth anniversary of their founder. Much research was done at that time and some literature was produced. Professor Sahib Singh has written that : "Bhai Jai Ram was resident of Khanpur and was in the service of Nawab Daulat Khan. For his official work, he used to go to Pakhoke village. There he talked to Shri Moolchand for the marriage of his daughter, and he readily agreed to it. Guru Nanak was engaged on Visak 5, 1542, vs, and the marriage took place on Harh 24, 1544 vs. Guru Nanak was 18 years old at the time of marriage." Sulakhani must have been about 14.
Earlier writers have written many interesting stories leading up to the wedding day. It seems that Nanak refused to follow the marriage rituals dictated by the Brahmins of the day. He stated that any time would be an auspicious time for the wedding. There was no need to cast horoscopes as he was not superstitious. He consistently tried to break old traditions. Moolchand became alarmed and refused to marry his daughter to Guru Nanak. In those days, this would have been considered to be a major scandal. The news of this scandal spread quickly. Another gentleman, Shri Bhandari of the city of Batala offered his daughter for marriage with Guru Nanak. But Moolchand did not wish Guru Nanak to marry Bhandari's daughter. He thought that this could be interpreted as rejection of his daughter and, therefore, would be an insult to his family's honour. He conspired to kill Nanak instead. Moolchand arranged for the Brahmin priests to debate marriage rituals with the Guru. They made him sit near a damaged wall. It had been raining and the winds were strong. Everyone expected the wall to collapse. The story goes that Sulakhani, not wishing to break her relationship after two year engagement, sent an old woman to warn Guru Nanak of the conspiracy. Guru Nanak told the woman not to worry, the wall would not collapse for years to come. Indeed, that same wall stands today in Batala and a famous gurdwara has been built to commemorate the spot.
In 1487, the marriage finally did take place, and it did ignore the Brahmin rituals. Guru Nanak and his bride took four rounds instead of the prescribed seven around the sacred fire. It is said that he also spoke a few words at the ceremony. Unfortunately, these words were not duly recorded and nothing has been written regarding Sulakhani's thoughts or sentiments on the subject. That the event had a profound effect on her can certainly be taken for granted. At any rate, the marriage party and celebrations were a grand and impressive event attended by the rich and influential people of that time. Early writers have indicated that it was a most grand affair as befitted the daughter of the town's tax collector.
Nanak lived with Sulakhani at Nankana Sahib for fourteen years. Once again, he broke the conventions of the time, by living apart from both his family and hers. His sister Nanaki would try to neutralise any criticism by explaining to one and all, that her brother needed his own space, and a lot of it, because of all the people who were constantly drawn to him, to listen to his teaching. During those fourteen years, Sulakhani gave birth to two sons, Shri Chand and Lakhmi Das. Nanak took great interest in his family and gave them his love and attention. He demonstrated by his actions, his personal commitment to his teachings; that salvation is reached best through a married family life. His teaching of the equality of women must have also been demonstrated by the way he treated his wife. Sulakhani's self-esteem and happiness grew each day. She, in turn, supported his mission, participating in hymn-singing (kirtan), and working endlessly to feed the crowds that came to listen to her husband.
The Call of Nanak
One day, when he was approximately 30 years old, the day of destiny came. Nanak sat in meditation at the bank of the Vanyi river, when he heard God's call to give his life for world up-lift by guiding men on the right path to Him. Nanak resolved to obey the call immediately. After three days in prayer, he emerged saying "There is no Hindu, no Moslem." Then he returned to the place of employment, resigning his post. He gave away all he had to the poor and prepared to set out on foot to bring his teachings to the world at large. Many authors have described this incident. Mata Sulakhani is reported to have complained of his absence to her sister-in-law. Most writers make this appear as a negative incident, with the wife whining and being unreasonable. However, one must ask, was it indeed unreasonable ? Any woman would worry if her husband suddenly disappeared for three days. What the incident demonstrates is that Sulakhani had enough self-esteem and courage that she was not afraid to speak to her sister-in-law. In the customs of those days, that was not easily done. Sulakhani took the initiative to tell Guru Nanak's family as well as her own, that he was missing. How they all must have rejoiced when he reappeared three days later.
Throughout this period, though he lived a relatively quiet life, Nanak continued to question Brahmin rituals and to rebel against them. He became quite well-known. His sister Bebe Nanaki and Rai Bhullar, the Choudhry of the area, proclaimed him "Messenger of God." His following grew. It is about this time that he met Mardana, a minstrel from Talwandi, who soon became his friend and confidante. They spent many evenings together, composing and singing sweet hymns to God. One Bhai Bhagirathi also came from Mailasi, near Multan, and stayed with him for a while, as a sort of disciple. Nanak's teaching life was beginning. At this point, Nanaki gave him a rabab, or rebeck, a musical instrument with which he accompanied himself in singing hymns of praise of the one true God. A rabab was a stringed instrument, which was of Arabian origin, and was very popular in Northern India at the time. It had four to six strings made of goat gut, with corresponding steel strings underneath which provided resonance. It looked somewhat similar to our modern mandolin. With time, it fell into disuse in India, though it remains popular in Arabic music. In providing her brother with a rabab, and later his companion Mardana with another, Nanaki helped Guru Nanak establish a musical tradition in the Sikh religion from the very start.
Nanak's disregard for Brahmin rituals must have caused havoc in his private life. All his piety did not impress his parents who did not understand what they considered to be his rebelliousness. His father-in-law would have preferred a more conventional mate for his daughter. While everyone around them lived in a joint family arrangement, Nanak, his wife and children lived separate from all. Every time he refused to observe Brahmin ritual, every time he scorned an accepted custom or tradition, it would have been Sulakhani who would have had to face the scorn of her neighbours and family. Still, he was consistent in denouncing any injustice, any custom based on caste, any tradition that discriminated against any one at all. On the other hand, Sulakhani had the benefit of listening to his preaching and his discussions with many strangers. She did not travel with him, as their children were very young when he went way. Travelling was most difficult in those days. But she did most certainly benefit by listening to the many people who constantly came to her house, seeking to hear the Guru speak. It was an education that should be envied by many.
At the age of 32, after making arrangements for the well-being of his family, Nanak left for his religious tours of preaching the doctrines of his mission. His boys were five and six years old at the time. Before leaving, he made sure that his growing congregation of disciples would also be cared for. It was important that they not disband and lose faith in his absence. He left his wife with the task of being their spiritual and moral support until such time as he was able to return. Thus, it can be deduced that Sulakhani, a woman, was the first preacher and guardian of the new faith. She was assigned the task of making sure that the congregation (Panth) stayed on the path given them by their founder.
Bebe Nanaki took Shri Chand, the oldest boy and adopted him as her own son. This type of arrangement was a quite common and accepted custom at that time. By this time, Sulakhani would have understood why her husband had to leave. With Baba Budha at her side, she looked after the needs of the small congregation. The tradition of hymn-singing continued, and with it the need to feed all who came (langar). Guru Nanak had taught the need to work with his own hands. Mata Sulakhani kept that teaching alive in the community. She did all the household chores herself. Nothing was beneath her. She looked after her son, did the kitchen chores and looked after the animals. Though she undoubtedly was lonely, she waited patiently. When Bebe Nanaki and Jai Ram died suddenly only three days of each other, she took back her eldest son and continued with her daily chores of looking after the fledgling group of devotees and contributed fully to the mission of her husband.
In his first journey, Guru Nanak reached Dhubri in Kamrup (Assam) via Bengal. Nur Shah was the queen. At first she tried to tempt him in every way possible. But soon, Nur Shah was deeply moved by the soul-stirring message of Nanak, and stood before him with joined palms, beseeching him to forgive her past and to accept her as his disciple. This the Guru did, training her to become his main preacher in Assam. Thus, Nur Shah was trained by Guru Nanak himself and became the second known female preacher of Sikhism. Here again, we see Guru Nanak's commitment to the equality of women. It was he, right from the very beginning, who first trained women to take their equal share of responsibility in this new religion.
In January of 1516, after eight years of constant travel, Nanak returned from his first journey. At the age of 46, he settled on the present site of Kartarpur [Pakistan Punjab, on the west bank of the Ravi, ed.] and took up farming. He consoled his aging parents by bringing them to live with him quietly for nearly two years. Though they were upset by his continued disregard for caste rules and social order, they could not help but be impressed by the fact that he had thousands of men and women of every class, seeking to hear him speak. He was their Guru. Late in 1517, Nanak and Mardana once more set out and resumed their journey.
Eventually, Nanak returned from his travels and established the new city of Kartarpur. He farmed to earn his livelihood and dressed himself as an ordinary householder of the day. His followers multiplied and people came to listen to him from great distances. He regularly preached to the crowds, teaching all to live in this world, in the present tense, which is, in fact, the only reality, and to work with their own hands, while at the same time to remember God in their thoughts, praying for nothing more than His grace. His strong personal attraction came from a message of love, a playful sense of humour and his persuasive words which were always simple, straightforward and easy for all to understand.
When his time had come in 1539, he chose to leave responsibility of his mission with a devout disciple, Bhai Lahina. Historians have recorded that the Guru's wife objected strongly to his choice. Their eldest son, Shri Chand had a reputation of saintliness, and was respected and liked by all. Like many others, Sulakhani had expected that he would be the rightful heir. She went to the Guru with her two sons and asked what would become of her and them, if Lahina was to be named the second Guru. Nanak replied simply that she should put her trust in God. Was Sulakhani impertinent or did she show ignorance by asking this question ? I think not. On the contrary, at a time when women were completely subjugated by men, none would dare to question their husband's decisions. Here we see proof positive that Guru Nanak did indeed have high regard for his family. He must have been very respectful to his wife, so much so, that she had the freedom to ask what she felt was important. Her self-esteem allowed her to find the courage to seek answers when she had a question. In his answer, Guru Nanak was not rebuking her or putting her down. He had made a decision. Lahina was better suited to be the next Guru. It was a very simple statement, the rest was up to God. Early writers have recorded that after Guru Nanak's death, Sulakhani spent the rest of her life in Kartarpur, contributing as always to the establishment of Sikh values and traditions. As wife of the first Guru, her role was an important one and she filled it well.
One would expect women to have played a significant role in determining the image of the Sikh religion. This would be particularly true of the wives of the Gurus. They created the foundation of the Sikh traditions. And were, therefore, instrumental in building a firm structure for the emergence of a Sikh Nation. While the Gurus primarily did the teaching, it was the women who looked after the rather mundane details of every-day life. They managed the households and the kitchens. Without them, it would have been impossible to demonstrate, in any substantial way, that the doctrines of equality, hard work and fair play were at all attainable. The primary sources of Sikh history have ignored this important aspect of the basic teaching of the ten Gurus. Yet, however little is available there is enough to substantiate that the women of Sikhism played as important a role in the organisation and establishment of tradition as any man.
Daya Kaur is described as a lady of gentle disposition, charitable and religious. She gave birth to Lahina on March 31, 1504, at Matte di Saran near Mukstar in the district of Ferozpur. Her son later became known as Guru Angad. Daya Kaur's maiden name was Ramo. She was married to Ferumal, a well-to-do trader, shopkeeper and village priest. The family was very pious and worshipped a female deity. Some sources say it was Chandi, but Dr Gopal Singh, in his History of the Sikh People, says it was Durga. Which deity, matters little in the telling of this event. Every year Ferumal would make a pilgrimage to the shrine of the said goddess in the Shivalik hills. He took his son with him, and there they would tie bells to their ankles and dance in homage to the goddess. At that time, their village was sacked during Babar's invasion. The family moved to the village of Khadur, district Amritsar. When Ferumal died, Lahina kept up the practice of leading a group of people from his village in pilgrimage, to pay their homage to their female deity. The family had a well respected friend by the name of Mai Bhirai. She was like a sister to Ferumal and was also a devout follower of Guru Nanak. It is said that she arranged the marriage of Lahina to Khivi.
Khivi was born in 1506 to Karan Devi and Bhai Devi Chand Khatri. Her father was a shopkeeper and moneylender, and was a popular man in the neighbourhood. She inherited all his finest attributes of generosity and congenial spirit. She was married in 1519, when she was 13 years old. Khivi was married to Lahina for 20 years before he became the second Guru of the Sikhs. There is historical evidence that she had 4 children. Dasu, the eldest was born in 1524. Bibi Amro was born in 1532, followed by Bibi Anokhi in 1535 and son Datu in 1537. The family was content and doing well. As the wife of one of the town's richest men, Khivi must have enjoyed a great deal of respect. Her life was one of luxury and pleasure. Life would have gone on this way, had it not been for her coming under the influence of Mai Bhirai, who told her about Guru Nanak's teachings. At approximately the same time, Lahina also heard of the Guru through Bhai Jodha, one of Guru Nanak's earliest disciples. Lahina was a seeker of truth, and his curiosity was aroused. In 1532, shortly after the birth of his first daughter Amro, Lahina set out for his annual pilgrimage. On the way, he broke his journey at Kartarpur to see the Guru. On listening to Nanak speak, Lahina begged to be allowed to stay and become his disciple. He had found the truth he had been seeking, and would never again stray away from it. He served his master with the greatest devotion. He busied himself, sweeping the visitor's quarters, washing their clothes and helping with the most menial work in fields. As his knowledge and understanding of the new teachings grew, so did the Guru's affection and approval of his disciple. This created a problem for the Guru's sons. Increasingly they grew jealous of Lahina, and took no pains to conceal their dislike. Without a doubt, this kind of stress and strain would have been very difficult for Lahina's wife to deal with. There are no records of her thoughts or feelings or how she handled the situation. Had she behaved foolishly during this time, you can be sure that someone would have recorded it.
Lahina was 28 years old at the time, had a wife and two young children. The Guru he had chosen, spoke of the equality of women and advocated a normal family life as the best way to attain salvation. After serving the Guru for some time, he was sent back to Khadur to see his family. His instructions were to take his time and to spend it spreading the word of the new faith to all he met. He did this well, and Guru Nanak was pleased with the reports he heard of him. The reports were so good that Guru Nanak came to his village twice to visit him and to reinforce his work with his own preaching. Khivi also learnt from her husband, and embraced the new faith wholeheartedly. The women in the village taunted her, saying that her husband was becoming an important holy man, and would, therefore, soon forsake her. She knew she had nothing to worry about, and gave birth to two more children in that period of time.
When Guru Nanak died, Guru Angad felt a great need to prepare himself for the work ahead. Nihali, a devout woman disciple, made her house available to him, while he prayed and meditated for six months. He allowed her to supply him with milk, but otherwise asked to be left alone.
When Lahina became Guru Angad, second Guru of the Sikhs, life became very busy for Khivi. People were now coming to her house to see their Guru. She had always been accustomed to a busy social life, but this was different. There was a purpose to all this coming and going that had not been there before. Moreover, Sikh teaching was very clear that one must earn one's living through one's own labour. Khivi took these teachings very seriously. She took upon herself the onerous task of managing every detail of the langar. Only the best possible ingredients were used, and everyone was treated with utmost courtesy. Her hospitality has been emulated over the centuries and has become the first cultural identity of the Sikhs. She helped the Guru in establishing the infant Sikh community on a stronger footing. She has been described as good natured, efficient, beautiful and all round perfect Khivi. She has the distinction of being the only one of the Guru's wives to be mentioned by name in Guru Granth Sahib. There she is described as a "good person", "an affectionate mother" and as "one who provides shelter and protection to others."
Khivi did much more than work in the kitchen. She created a loving atmosphere for all whom she came in contact with. She and Guru Angad were very fond of their children. They lavished their love and affection on not only their own, but on any child in the community. Their commitment was so strong that it gave a beautiful example to all who witnessed it. The Guru took great delight in spending time with the children, teaching them a modified version of the Punjabi script which was easier to learn by the illiterate masses. This new script, which was his invention, soon became known as Gurmukhi script. He is credited in popularising this alphabet, in which the Guru Granth Sahib is written. Each day there was special time set aside first to teach the children and delight in their clever ways. Then they would watch the children at play, and often watch wrestling matches together. From the games, the Guru would draw lessons for his congregation. Guru Angad, with the help of Bhai Bala and other disciples, wrote the first "Life" of Guru Nanak, and this work became the first published prose of the Punjabi language.
Mata Khivi lived for thirty years after her husband's death. She continued to serve the community and remained associated with the Guru's house in all that time. When Guru Angad passed the succession to Guru Amar Das, his son Datu was very disappointed. Encouraged by some of his friends, he tried to declare himself the rightful heir. He took his following and they sang hymns by themselves. Khivi was quite upset. When Datu developed headaches, she was able to persuade him that his responsibility was too much for him. The only way to cure the headache is to go back to the rightful Guru and beg his forgiveness. She took her son back to Guru Amar Das, who on hearing that she was coming, came out to meet her half way. All was forgiven. Datu's headaches disappeared and Sikhism was spared another schism, thanks to Khivi's intervention. Khivi continued to manage Guru Amar Das's kitchen. She was proud of her children till the day she died. Her daughter Amro had married Bhai Jasoo of Basarke village. He was the son of Bhai Manak Chand and nephew of Guru Amar Das. Bibi Amro had become a preacher of Sikhism, and it is she who transformed the life of Guru Amar Das by introducing him to the teachings she had learnt from her father Guru Angad. Later, when Amar Das organised the teaching of Sikhism into specific districts and jurisdictions, he gave her a Manji, that is, he appointed her head of a diocese. Being appointed to head a Manji would be the equivalent of being a bishop in the Christian Church. She was responsible not only for the quality of the preaching, but also for collecting revenues and making decisions for the welfare of her diocese. Her diocese or Manji included Basarke, her husband's village. Today, close to the modern village of Basarke an old tank (man-made pond) bears the name of Bibi Amro Da Talab (Tank of Bibi Amro) in her memory.
Khivi had the distinction of meeting five Gurus. She lived to the age of 75 and died in the year 1582. Guru Arjun Dev attended her funeral. Her contributions to the Sikh cause can easily be divided into three parts. The first period was the twenty years of marriage before Guru Angad succeeded Guru Nanak. This period was a test not only for Angad, but for her as well. Any decisions he made affected her very much. Her response would also have affected his actions. She never complained, nor did anything to deter him from his objectives. The second period of her life as wife of the Guru was extraordinary in its devotion and dedication to the cause. The third and last period would be after her husband died. She continued to nourish the Sikh community and to work tirelessly for that which she now believed in with all her heart.
She had a long productive life. She worked hard and was loved by all. Her good humour and pleasant personality made a large contribution to the spirit of hospitality, which is now considered an essential trait of Sikh culture. She is quite possibly the first woman of her era who ever worked outside her immediate family home and obligations at a time when her children were very young. She handled both roles admirably well. It is time that Sikhs acknowledge her very important contribution.
HER STORY : WOMEN IN HISTORY