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The Unsung Empress - Mata Nanaki


ਨਾਮ ਨਾਨਕੀ ਸੁੰਦਰ ਰੂਪ । ਜੋ ਸਭਿ ਤੇ ਬਡਿਭਾਗ ਅਨੂਪ ।

ਤੇਗ ਬਹਾਦਰ ਜਿਨ ਹੁਇ ਨੰਦਨ । ਪੌਤ੍ਰ ਬਲੀ ਬਿਦਤਹਿ ਜਗਬੰਦਨ ।

ਜੋ ਨਿਜ ਦਾਸਨਿ ਦੇ ਛਿਤਿ ਰਾਜ । ਕਰਹਿ ਬਿਨਾਸਨਿ ਤੁਰਕ ਸਮਾਜ ।

ਪਿਖਹਿ ਪੋਤ੍ਰ ਜਿਹ ਬੈਸ ਬਡੇਰੀ । ਯਾਂਤੇ ਬਡ ਭਾਗਨਿ ਸਭਿ ਹੇਰੀ ।

Her Name is Nanaki, the most beautiful, the one and only, the most fortunate,

Whose son is Tegh Bahadur, and whose grandson’s power was spread wide, the whole world bows to them,

That Grandson who gave his servants the Kingdom of the World, destroying the Turks [Mughal Empire]

Nanaki, who would see her grandson while in old age; this is why everyone sees her as the most fortunate.

- Suraj Prakash (1843), Raas 5 Chapter 28



While praise is never sought out in the Sikh tradition, the community has a longstanding tradition to daily remember the sacrifices and wealth of merit of the Gurus and their Sikhs. The Mahala9 Project aimed to visually illustrate the extraordinary stories related to Guru Tegh Bahadur, but in the backdrop of nearly all of these stories the presence of Mata Nanaki is powerfully palpable. Nanaki, the second wife of Guru Hargobind, and mother of Guru Tegh Bahadur, lived an exceptionally long life, being the backbone and caretaker of the community for much of the 17th century. As a young child Nanaki saw Guru Arjan Dev Ji, and also witnessed the birth of her grandson Guru Gobind Singh Ji.


Nanaki was born in Amritsar, her parents, Sikhs of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, had promised their daughter to Guru Hargobind at a young age. Nanaki entered the Guru’s house in Amritsar at a time of great extravagance, the pomp and pageantry being well documented in the historical sources that describe her wedding with Guru Hargobind. It was in these fortunate times in Amritsar when Nanaki gave birth to her two sons, Atal Rai and Tegh Bahadur (illustrated in the April painting of the Mahala 9 Calendar). During her long life however the community faced untold hardship and she bore the brunt of these pains, losing her father in law, Guru Arjan Dev Ji, at a young age. Even before the community had to leave Amritsar as a result of tensions with the Mughal Empire seated in Lahore, Nanaki saw the death of her eldest son, Atal Rai, who passed away at the tender age of eight. These events marked the theme of Nanaki’s life, facing tragedy with a steady resolve, only wanting the best for her family.


In nearly all twelve of the paintings of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Nanaki plays a significant role in the story. In the last battle of Guru Hargobind, the Battle of Kartarpur (1635), the young Tegh Bahadur at that time mounts up to provide support fire for the troops. Nanaki, standing on the rooftop of her house watching the vicious battle take place, sees her now only living son prepare to join the battle and displays her caring nature by calling out, telling him to seek safety instead (illustrated in May painting). These traits of Nanaki, having an unbendable spine while never losing her tender empathy, will see constant mention through her recorded history.


When Guru Hargobind passes away, Nanaki then travels with her son Tegh Bahadur to Bakala, the village of her mother-in-law, Mata Ganga. It is in the city of Bakala that Guru Tegh Bahadur is made public and ascends to the throne of Guru. The feverish jealousy of others who wished to attain the title resulted in an armed group of men storming Guru Tegh Bahadur’s house with rifles. During this assault one thug shot at the Guru, wounding him as the bullet grazed his head. Nanaki quickly rushed to action, shielding the Guru with her body while chastising the group so viciously that they left in shame (illustrated in February painting). After the armed mob left, Nanaki cleaned the wound, wiping the blood off the Guru’s head before lovingly caressing her son’s head. This poignant scene, the beginning of Guru Tegh Bahadur's role as Guru, mirrors darkly with the completion of the Guru's life, in both situations Nanaki was there, caressing the head of her beloved son.


As Guru Tegh Bahadur traveled across the subcontinent, Mata Nanaki joined in the arduous journey, including the Guru’s visit to Allahabad, where they performed the first Akhand Paat with Nanaki in attendance (illustrated in March painting). It was only Guru Tegh Bahadur’s campaign out East to Bengal and Assam where Nanaki remained in Patna, as she was taking care of her pregnant daughter in law, Gujari. Nanaki stayed in Patna viewing and assisting with the birth of her grandson, Guru Gobind Singh (illustrated in August painting). It was several years until Guru Tegh Bahadur returned home from his travels out East, during which time Nanaki helped to raise the young to-be Guru.


When Guru Tegh Bahadur was imprisoned in Delhi (illustrated in November painting), Nanaki was on the mind of the Guru, who wrote a special couplet to comfort his mother who would soon hear of her son’s passing. This couplet ending with, “Nanak says, nothing in this world remains; the world is like a dream” (Kahu Nanak Thir Kachu Nahi, Supne Jio Sansar), gave strength to Nanaki who battled through the grief as she caressed the head of her deceased son in Anandpur. Nanaki’s resolve was on clear display to everyone shortly after when Guru Gobind Singh ascended to the throne of Guru, by first bowing down to Nanaki and receiving her blessings.


While many Sikhs know the significant role that Baba Budha Ji played in the Sikh community, living across the lives of six Gurus, not many know this is closely paralleled with Mata Nanaki's role. 2021 marks the 400 years since the birth of Guru Tegh Bahadur, but behind this auspicious event let us also give thanks to the Unsung Empress, Mata Nanaki, whose history demands reverence.


Post Art: Sunroop Kaur Mata Nanaki sitting with her daughter-in-law, Mata Gujari, with Guru Tegh Bahadur reading from the Guru Granth Sahib in Allahabad.


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