Anandpur Sahib is a holy city in Punjab. Its historical significance to the Sikhs is second only to Amritsar. Hundreds of Sikhs once embraced martyrdom here. Sikh history is deeply marked by their struggle for survival in a volatile land, especially during the peak of Mughal persecution under Aurangzeb, which radicalized the Sikhs (many paintings in the museum at the Golden Temple in Amritsar record the horrifying persecution stories retold across the land). The mystical faith of Guru Nanak transformed into the fiercely spartan and nationalistic faith of Guru Gobind Singh, who also committed the Sikhs to the five Ks. In early 19th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh further militarized the Sikh nation, creating the first modern army in the subcontinent. Reversing the dominant historical trend, he went west to conquer new lands (which later fell in the British lap).
Takhat Kesgarh Sahib—one of five Takhats, or seats of authority, in Sikhism—is the centerpiece of Anandpur Sahib. It stands upon a hill and is visible for miles. The Khalsa was revealed here by their tenth and last guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who selected the five beloved ones and administered baptism of Khanda (Khande di Pahul), instituting the Khalsa panth on Baisakhi, 30 Mar 1699. A special congregation was held that was attended by thousands. Kesgarh Sahib Fort was built here in 1699, replaced long since by the Gurdwara (a room in its inner sanctum holds twelve important military relics of Guru Gobind Singh). The Sikhs celebrated the 300th anniversary of the day in 1999 with thousands of religious gatherings all over the world. Two Gurus and families of four Gurus lived in Anandpur Sahib for many years.
This transformation is still reflected in the iconography and practice of Sikhism. Swords, spears, shields, and daggers are a centerpiece display in all Gurdwaras, besides the Guru Granth Sahib covered in finery. Even today many Sikhs become Nihangs, an order founded by Guru Gobind Singh himself as the fighting body of the Khalsa. The Nihangs—in distinctive blue robes and armed only with traditional swords, spears, daggers—renounce worldly possessions and commit to embracing martyrdom should the need present itself. Even today a disproportionate number of Sikhs enter the Indian defense forces.
The evening I arrived here in early September '06, the Gurdwara resounded with a Hindu devotional well-known in the north. In its liturgical music above all, Sikhism still betrays its mystic roots. I was below the hill when a massive monsoon downpour began—somehow the sun, near the horizon, managed to stay out the entire time. I took shelter under a souvenir shop awning, bathed by sunlight and watching water rivulets gushing by with great force. When the rain stopped, I ambled up the hill and sat inside the Gurdwara, heard the three singers (one sang notably well), did two parikramas (circumambulations), ate the prasad of sooji halwa, and took photos.
I had dinner at the Gurdwara langar: a simple, tasty, nutritious, and free meal of thick dahl, roti, and pickle. Open to all humans twice a day, believer and non-believer alike (no questions asked), these meals are sustained by donations and volunteers who cook, serve, and clean each day. I was moved by this afresh, and it struck me that this is one truly meaningful service that major temples, mosques, and churches in a syncretic India would do well to emulate.