It was the winter of December 2010 and the only time a luxury train in India journeyed to the 5 important seats of the Sikh gurus. The journey also rang in the New Year of 2011, along with lessons of bravery, sacrifice and willpower
Words: Ambica Gulati
A GIFT FROM the heavens and an experience to savour! It was no ordinary train journey. I traveled ‘maharajah-style’ to fulfill the soul’s call. It was the maiden journey of a luxury train called Deccan Odyssey to the five Sikh takhts. And it opened a pandora’s box with unforgettable experiences. We traveled across three states (Punjab, Maharashtra, Bihar), saw the Taj Mahal, explored the Ellora Caves, enjoyed hospitality by the Taj Group in the train, experienced traditional Punjabi welcome with garlands and gur (jaggery), ate langar (food made in a community kitchen for devotees) at the gurudwaras and came back blessed by a divine energy. Takht means throne or seat in Persian and these are seats of important events for the Sikhs.
Journey of Firsts
The Deccan Odyssey was going to Punjab for the first time. The circuit was specially designed to combine leisure tourism and pilgrimage. Like the 100-odd passengers in the train, I was going to experience the collective divine power of the 5 takhts for the first time. The group was varied. Darshan Dhaliwal, an entrepreneur in US, had come with his family of 27 members. A young Veronica had come all the way from Bulgaria to experience ‘spiritual India’.
Interiors & Mannerisms of a Luxury Train
Chartered from the Government of Maharashtra by Delhi-based travel company ‘The Luxury Trains’, the initiative was supported by Punjab Tourism Board. The coaches in the train are named after places in Maharashtra. I spent eight nights in Ratnagiri and discovered that each coach had four cabins. Greeted by a butler dressed in a Maratha livery, Shashi led me to my cabin that I shared with a fellow journalist.
The small but bright cabin had twin beds, plug points for electrical appliances, a small table for work, music system, cupboard, hair dryer, bathroom accessories, hot water, roses and wine. Each coach had a common sitting area where children enjoyed their time with play stations.
The train had two presidential suites, spa, beauty parlour, health club, conference room where one could watch movies and browse the internet, two restaurant coaches, a bar and lounge. And the treatment has a mark of exclusivity, like the luxurious surroundings.
There is a designated coach for getting into and out of the train, as the train attracts a lot of attention. You have to keep the curtains drawn at night for people can look in. Sometimes there are incidents of stone-pelting, a train attendant explained as he closed the restaurant car curtains. The food menu changes every day, so there is a unique dish in every meal.
Moving a special train is quite different from the way normal trains run: there’s paper work at every station, water needs to be filled every 12 hours, special permissions are needed for parking the train for long hours and co-ordination with the officials for the routes. We entered the Anandpur Sahib Railway station but had to be shifted to the lesser used Nangal Dam station for parking. But this journey was fulfilling the soul’s needs and the tracks didn’t matter.
DELHI: The 8-nights and 9-days journey began early in Delhi, but I missed the day’s tour. The registrations were at The Imperial hotel, Janpath, and a tour of the famous gurudwaras–Bangla Sahib, Sis Ganj Sahib and Rakab Ganj Sahib, culminating in a lunch at The Imperial. And then evening boarding at Safdarjung Railway station for the maiden journey.
ANANDPUR SAHIB: The birthplace of khalsa
Not used to the train’s motion, my cabin mate and I slept little, turning up the heating to combat the chill. Early next morning, we stepped out on the platform, dazzled by the music, the garlands, camera shutters clicking rapidly, men and women in traditional Punjabi clothes greeting every passenger with gur. The reason: Tourism Minister of Punjab was on the train too.
Though Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib was a just a short distance away, the rain didn’t allow us to walk through the lush greens. This serene town is the birthplace of khalsa, which means pure or devoted. Situated amid the Shivalik hills on the bank of the Satluj, this is where the guru-disciple matrix is revered.
History reveals that the Mughal emperor Jahangir persecuted the Sikhs. In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Tegh Bahadur’s only son and the last 10th guru, decided to stand up against this injustice. The guru was born in Patna and we culminated our 9-day trip at his birthplace–Patna Sahib.
Guru Gobind Singh sent hukmanamas (letters) to his followers to meet at Anandpur Sahib on April 13, 1699. Guru Gobind Singh addressed the congregation from the entryway of a tent pitched on a hill (now the gurudwara). He drew out his sword and asked for a volunteer who would sacrifice his head. On the third call, Daya Ram offered his head. Guru Gobind Singh took him inside the tent and emerged shortly, with blood dripping from his sword. He demanded another head. One more volunteer went. The Guru again emerged from the tent with blood on his sword. This happened three more times. And then the five volunteers came out.
These five became the Panj Pyare (five beloved ones) and were the first khalsas. Till date, every evening there is ‘shastra darshan’ (weapon display) for a few minutes and devotees get a glimpse of the precious weapons and we did too.
AMRITSAR: The Power Centre
Right opposite The Golden Temple or Harmandir Sahib is the building of Sri Akal Takht. Akal means timeless, infinite and this seat was formed by Guru Hargobind Singh, the sixth guru, on June 15, 1606. He put two swords on a 9-foot-high concrete platform, symbolizing spiritual and temporal authorities. This location was his childhood playground but has seen much turmoil.
Khande-Bate-Dee-Pahul or the sword initiation ceremony started by Guru Hargobind Singh continues to be performed here. Hari Singh Nalwa, a general under Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh, donated part of his wealth to decorate the takht with gold.
After darshan and langar at The Golden Temple, we walked to the neighbouring Jalianwala Bagh, where the Britishers had massacred thousands. The same area has a market, where we shopped for the famous Amritsari papads, wadis and juttis. And then we were off to see the well-known Wagah Border ceremony. We also got a glimpse of the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the museum dedicated to him—Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama.
December 31, 2010 celebrations took off in the train and we woke up to a new year at Bhatinda.
BHATINDA: Seat of Learning
It was not a journey where anybody or anything was in a hurry. Sri Damdama Sahib is located in the village of Talwandi Sabo, which is 28km from the Bhatinda station. Damdama means breathing or resting place. Sri Damdama Sahib was officially recognised as the fourth takht on November 18, 1966.
This is the place where the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, wrote the full version of Sri Guru Granth Sahib in 1705. He stayed here for a year after the Sikhs had fought several battles with the Mughals and two of his sons had been buried alive in a brick wall. Before leaving for the south, Guru Gobind Singh blessed the place as Guru ki Kanshi or place of learning.
The langar here comprised a delicious plate of sarson ka saag, makki ki roti and besan ki barfi.
AGRA AND ELLORA
A day was dedicated to seeing the Taj Mahal, the tombs of Mughal emperor Shahjahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. And then an overnight journey took us to the famous Ellora caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like the Taj, here also the ‘WOW’ factor crept in. The 34 caves excavated out of the Charanandri hills are Buddhist monasteries, and Hindu and Jain temples, built between the 5th and 10th centuries. The silence of the hills provided an invisible solace.
NANDED: The Holy Book
The pace had become slower and the train was six hours behind schedule. We were now in Maharashtra. Nanded took me by surprise. The railway station was the one of the cleanest that I had seen in the country, probably the only one after the Kalka station. And the station’s exterior was a replica of the fifth takht Sri Hazur Sahib. Here, the tri-centennial celebrations of the formation the khalsa were held in 2008.
Located on the banks of the River Godavari, it is where Guru Gobind Singh, left for his heavenly abode along with his horse Dilbag on October 7, 1708. He was the last human guru of the Sikhs and instructed his followers to follow the principles of holy book ‘Guru Granth Sahib’: “Have faith in the holy Granth, as your master and consider it the visible manifestation of the Gurus. He who hath a pure heart will seek guidance from its holy words.”
Guru Gobind Singh understood the perishable nature of humans and the eternal life of noble ideas. Guru Granth Sahib is a repository of hymns of Muslim, Hindu and Harijan saints, in addition to the compositions of Sikh gurus. The gurudwara within the complex is known ‘Sach Khand’ meaning realm of truth. This takht houses the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and Sri Dasam Granth.
The last guru had also baptised Bairagi Sadhu Madho Dass in the first week of September 1708 and given him the name of Banda Singh Bahadur. This hero shook the foundation of Mughal Empire in the northwest from 1709-1715, and paved the way for the liberation of Punjab in 1764-65.
After langar, we walked around the community, went to the neighbouring gurudwaras, saw the museum, and listened to the soulful shabads (devotional songs) by famous ragi late Bhai Nirmal Singh. It was interesting to see the signs in Punjabi, giving the feel of a mini-Punjab in Maharashtra. The laser light and sound show in the evening in the garden left us mesmerized, the beautiful story flashing in my mind as I said goodbye to another day.
Bhai Nirmal Singh’s shabads continued in the morning as the train reached Mumbai. We bid adieu to the Deccan Odyssey and took the flight to Patna.
PATNA: The Last Human Guru
Sri Patna Sahib is located amid narrow lanes. The gurudwara was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839). The last and 10th guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, was born here on December 22, 1666. He was the only son of the ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and his four sons died during his lifetime. Guru Tegh Bahadur had been beheaded at Sis Ganj Gurudwara by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb on November 11, 1675 for saving Kashmiri pandits who refused to convert to Islam. And Guru Gobind Singh became a guru at the age of nine.
Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, had also stayed at Patna Sahib before going to the holy Gaya. The lives of the gurus have many lessons and the trip was just an introduction to the divinity and strength of body, mind and soul. Inspired and blessed, I landed back in Delhi all too soon.