VĀRĀṆASĪ (25º-20'N, 82º-58'E), the holiest place of Hindu pilgrimage, has since ancient times, been one of the most important centres of Sanskrit learning. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh sent five of his Sikhs to Vārāṇasī to study Sanskrit, and following them several centres for the study of Sanskrit and theology were established by Nirmalā Sikhs. Thus there are many places of historical importance for the Sikhs in this holy city.
GURDWĀRĀ BAṚĪ SAṄGAT SRĪ GURŪ TEGH BAHĀDUR, NĪCHĪ BĀGH. Probably since the visit of Gurū Nānak but certainly since the time of Bhāī Gurdās, a Sikh saṅgat had been in existence in Vārāṇasī. When Gurū Tegh Bahādur came here in 1666, he was received by the saṅgat led by Bhāī Javeharī Mall, the local Sikh minister. The Gurū was put up in the house of Bhāī Kalyān Mall, the site of the present Gurdwārā Baṛī Saṅgat where he is said to have stayed for several months. Bhāī Gurbakhsh, the masand at Jaunpur, came with his saṅgat to offer obeisance. Bhāī Gurbakhsh, a practised musician, pleased the Gurū with his melodious kīrtan and gave Bhāī Gurbakhsh a mṛdaṅg (a drum) as a mark of his appreciation and blessing.
When he was not preaching or meeting his devotees and visitors, Gurū Tegh Bahādur meditated in a room still kept apart as his Tap Asthān. Once, it is said, Bhāī Kalyān Mall came to the Gurū's Tap Asthān early in the morning and invited him to a dip in the holy Gaṅgā, that being an auspicious day of the month. The Gurū, as the tradition goes, asked him to lift a stone lying near by. Immediately, a spring of river water gushed forth. The spring is still preserved in the form of a narrow well, called Bāolī Gaṅgā Pargat, inside the main hall of the Gurdwārā, and its water is used for drinking. People believe in its curative properties. In the Gurdwārā are preserved two cloaks (cholās) and a pair of shoes belonging to the Gurū. The shoes have since decayed with only the soles left.
Gurū Gobind Siṅgh also visited this shrine in 1670 when as a child he was being escorted from Paṭnā to the Punjab. A pair of his shoes is also preserved here as a relic. The Baṛī Saṅgat at Vārāṇasī remained an important Sikh centre. Seventeen hukamnāmās of Gurū Tegh Bahādur, Gurū Gobind Siṅgh and Mātā Sāhib Devāṅ addressed to the Saṅgat are preserved in the Gurdwārā.
SHRI CHETAN MAṬH, located in Bishveshvargañj, popularly known as Bisesargañj, is another site of historical importance. This is the place where the five Sikhs sent by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh to study Sanskrit had stayed and which became in due course a centre of the Nirmalā Sikhs. The centre now functions as Shri Gurū Nānak Nirmal Sanskrit Vidyālaya, affiliated to the Sanskrit University. The Gurū Granth Sāhib is installed in a portion of the building and is studied by those interested, but such study does not form a part of the school curriculum. Most of the scholars hail from Nepal.
GURDWĀRĀ CHHOṬI SAṄGAT, commemorates an old Sikh saṅgat in Vārāṇasī visited both by Gurū Tegh Bahādur and Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. The building is privately owned and is crowded by families to whom the different rooms are let out on hire. A room on the first floor is set apart for the Gurū Granth Sāhib, with a Nirmalā sādhu as the custodian. Among the several large-sized old paintings in glowing colours and heavy frames depicting scenes from Hindu mythology is a portraiit of Gurū Nānak with Bālā sitting on one side of him and Mardānā on the other. Bālā is shown beardless with a high peaked cap, but Mardānā is dressed like a Mughal prince with a plumed turban, though he is not without his rebeck. The Gurdwārā possesses an old hand-written copy of the Gurū Granth Sāhib transcribed in Phāgun 1833 Bk/ February 1777.
GURDWĀRĀ GURŪ BĀGH commemorates the visit of Gurū Nānak to Vārāṇasī at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The occasion was the Śivarātrī of 1563 Bk, which fell in February 1507. Gurū Nānak’s apparel which was neither of a householder nor of a hermit attracted notice. One of the leading Paṇḍits, Chatur Dās, came and began to question him, "What faith do you profess? You carry no Sāligrām, the devotee's stone, nor do you wear the necklace of Tulsī, the holy basil. You have no rosary and no mark of white clay upon your forehead. What devotion you have attached yourself to?" Gurū Nānak asked Mardānā to play the rebeck and recited the hymn : "Let God's Name be the Sāligrām thou adorest and good deeds the basil-wreath round thy neck. Seek divine grace and let this be thy raft's anchor. Why waste thy time watering barren land and plastering walls built on sand? Let good deeds be the string of vessels to draw water from the well and yoke thy mind to the wheel. Distil the nectar and irrigate with it the land. Then wilt thou be owned by the Gardener." Chatur Dās was proud of his learning and invited the Gurū to stay in Vārāṇasī and master the various branches of knowledge. Gurū Nānak said that for him only one word was of real account and that was the God's Name. He reckoned him truly learned who remembered Him and engaged himself in the service of others.
The bāgh (garden) where this colloquy took place is no longer in existence. However, Gurdwārā Gurū bāgh marks the site. The construction of the present building was inaugurated on 23 November 1969, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Gurū Nānak’s birth. The vast rectangular dīvān hall has an elegant little porch at the entrance and a 5-metre wide gallery at mid-height on three sides. There are 14 small rooms for use as office and residence for staff and pilgrims. One of these rooms in the building houses a Library named after Gurū Nānak. In an adjacent campus is a girls college called Gurū Nānak Khālsā Bālikā Inter College, Gurū Bāgh The management of the Gurdwārā is in the hands of a local committee.
SAṄGAT MĪR GHĀṬ is situated near Vishālakshī Temple on the bank of the Gaṅgā. The spot is sacred to both Gurū Tegh Bahādur and Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. The building consists of a hall with several small rooms attached and a triangular stone-paved compound in front overlooking the river. At present it is used by Udāsī students whose main school, Udāsīn Sanskrit Vidyālaya, is located at some distance from this site. The Gurū Granth Sāhib is seated in the hall on the raised platform.
NIRMAL SAṄGAT LAHORĪ ṬOLĀ, since redesignated Nirmal Sanskrit Vidyālaya, Nirmal Saṅgat, Lahorī Ṭolā, located in the interior of the city near the famous Vishveshwarnāth Temple, is another old saṅgat established and maintained by Sikhs of the Nirmalā sect. The building of the Nirmal Saṅgat was originally a mandir acquired by the Nirmalā Sikhs in 1887 circa. The Gurū Granth Sāhib is seated on the first floor. 'The institution is affiliated to the Sampūraṇānand Sanskrit Vishvavidyālaya. The present mahant is Gurdip Siṅgh Kesarī, a prominent Nirmalā scholar of Punjabi origin.
Major Gurmukh Siṅgh (Retd.)