Jvala Singh: Remembering Mata Nanaki’s Impact On Sikh History This International Women’s Day
Mata Nanaki, mother of Guru Tegh Bahadur and second wife to the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, was the caretaker and support of the Sikh community for most of the 17th century
March 8, 2021 | 3 min. read
As International Women’s Day approached, Time Magazine displayed on their March cover the brave image of women leading the charge on the front lines at the Farmers Protest.
Nilanjana Bhowmich’s article sheds light on the role women are playing not only in this struggle but in agricultural labour, where even though they are the backbone of the industry their labour is generally invisible.
This invisible backbone is a framing in which women have often fallen into at times, only to have their voices and histories recovered and presented.
During the Mahala 9 Calendar project, an illustrated calendar project presenting the history of the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, in celebration of their 400th year birth anniversary, the invisible backbone of the Sikh community manifested for all to see.
Mata Nanaki, the mother of Guru Tegh Bahadur and second wife to the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, was the caretaker and support of the Sikh community for most of the 17th century, even though her importance has faded from recent memory.
The Mahala 9 Calendar Project brought together half a dozen contemporary artists around the world to bring to life stories of Guru Tegh Bahadur, and the unavoidable fact is that Mata Nanaki remained an important face, visually apparent in the backdrop in the majority of the Guru’s important stories.
Mata Nanaki also shows up on the Suraj Podcast, another project to uncover precolonial Sikh history, specifically examining the life stories of Guru Hargobind.
Regardless of the prevalence in precolonial history, Mata Nanaki’s history currently remains foggy in common knowledge. While many Sikhs know that Baba Budha was a very important long-standing Sikh, spanning the lives of the first six Gurus, not many know that Mata Nanaki lived through the lives of the last five Gurus.
Mata Nanaki lived an extraordinarily long life; as a young girl she had the sight of the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan and in old age saw her grandson, a young Gobind Rai, ascend to the throne of Guru. Although married to Guru Hargobind in Amritsar, she faced tragedy at a young age seeing the death of her firstborn, Atal Rai.
Following the death of her husband, Guru Hargobind, various disputes regarding the title of Guru broke out, which continued to the time when her son, Guru Tegh Bahadur ascended to the throne. When thugs stormed Guru Tegh Bahadur’s house, it was Mata Nanaki who shielded the wounded Guru, chastising the thugs, sending them sulking away in shame.
Mata Nanaki’s stern resolve was paired with a warm caring nature, evident in the description of her wiping the blood off the face of her son, Guru Tegh Bahadur. During her life she traveled great distances with her son Guru Tegh Bahadur and daughter-in-law Mata Gujari, helping to build wells and promote Dharam [righteousness] across the subcontinent.
Tragedy would arise again for Mata Nanaki, as her son was imprisoned and executed by Emperor Aurangzeb. Mata Nanaki would see and caress the head of her deceased son in Anandpur, before her grandson, a young Gobind Rai, would ascend to the throne only after bowing down and receiving her blessings.
This is only a snapshot of the expansive history of Mata Nanaki - for a more detailed life story please visit the Suraj Podcast Blog page to read the article, the Unsung Empress – Mata Nanaki.
Her story, like so many women supporting the Sikh community, demands reverence.
Jvala Singh is a lawyer and PhD student at the University of British Columbia studying pre colonial Sikh historiography. He runs the Suraj Podcast, an uncensored look into the preeminent Sikh history book, the Suraj Prakash  and is the author of 54 Punjabi Proverbs. You can find him on Twitter at @jvalaaa.
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