Bhai Mardana Ji was one of the first disciple and lifelong companion of Guru Nanak and his rebbab player. With all the wit and humor of a Punjabi minstrel, Bhai Mardana became a poet and philosopher in the Guru’s company. He was a Muslim by birth and a Mirasi or minstrel by caste and rebeck player by profession. Bhai Mardana was born at Talwandi Rae Bhoe Ki, the home-town. of Guru Nanak, in 1459, ten years before the birth of the Guru. Bhai Mardana’s parents had lost all their children. When Bhai Mardana was born, his mother out of sheer despair and desperation called him Marjana, one who was about to die. But he survived and lived a fairly long life of sixty-one. Guru Nanak changed his name to Mardana meaning brave or manly.
His father was Badra and mother Lakho. Badra was the family bard of Mehta Kalu. Badra and Mardana called every morning at the houses of local residents and obtained alms generally in kind in the form of flour or some eatables. Both would sing to the accompaniment of music on rebeck and on receiving charity would move next door. Nanak as a child listened to their sweet music and felt fascinated. He had a natural attraction for boy Mardana.
In course of time, Nanak left Talwandi and went to Sultanpur Lodi where he was employed in the service of Daulat Khan Lodi, the Governor of the Jalandhar Doab. Mehta Kalu, Nanak’s father, was not getting good reports about Nanak’s work. It struck him that Mardana’s company might do him good. Mardana was thirty years old when he was sent to Sultanpur. Nanak was highly pleased at his arrival. It became usual with both of them to sing songs together in praise of God in the morning and evening before and after office hours, in a public place. Their melodious voice and soft strains on rebeck touched the hearts of listeners and transported them into a state of bliss. Both lived together and became inseparable. This drama was daily enacted in the streets of Sultanpur for seven long years.
Then Nanak became a missionary, and he decided to move from place to place. Mardana stuck fast to the Guru. Both left for Talwandi. While passing through Muslim villages they stayed in a faqir’s takia generally situated near a graveyard. There they recited verses in praise of Allah. As Mardana attended prayers in a mosque, Nanak also accompanied him, and some times joined in prayers. The fanaticism of the Mulla or Maulvi was often softened by the presence of Mardana. The Mulla thought that under Mardana’s influence Nanak might embrace Islam.
Visiting Sayyidpur and Sialkot on the way, they reached Talwandi. Nanak stayed outside the town, while Mardana called upon his family folk. He had a wife and two sons named Shahzada and Raezada and a daughter. Nanak’s parents called on him and tried to persuade him in vain to lead the settled life of a householder. Mardana’s wife and children also failed to detain him. In a couple of days both left together for Multan. In due course they returned to Sultanpur Lodi. This took place in 1496.
In 1497 Nanak and Mardana started on a journey to the east. They went as far as Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh and returned through Central India to Panjab in 1509 after twelve years. At Delhi Nanak and Mardana were both imprisoned by Sikandar Lodi for preaching in public in violation of his orders. In jail both sang songs while Mardana played upon rebeck also. This was a fascinating performance, and the prisoners thronged to listen to them. Such a scene was rare in gaol. As this disturbed the normal routine of the place, the Guru and his disciple were set free.
Guru Nanak undertook several journeys. His last journey was made to West Asia from 1517 to 1521. Mardana was with him. From Sultanpur Lodi they went in a boat down the river Beas and Satluj to Panjnad. From there they passed through the country of Sind. In this tedious journey Nanak once rode on horseback. They were halting in a jungle. The horse was let loose to graze and Mardana was looking after it. Nanak suddenly called Mardana to play a particular tune on. his rebeck. Mardana would not leave the horse as it was trying to run. away. Nanak shouted:
“Let go the horse and come back at once. The word is coming.” Mardana quietly obeyed.
At the old harbor of Kot Lakhpat they sailed for Arabia. Having visited Mecca and Medina they went to Baghdad in Iraq, the capital of the Caliphs of Islam. As usual they stayed outside the town near a graveyard. Nanak’s visit to Baghdad is recorded in the Vars of Bhai Gurdas who wrote:
Baba gaya Baghdad nun bahar jai kiya asthana,
1k Baba akal rup duja rabab Mardana.1
[Baba went to Baghdad, and put up outside. The immortal Baba was accompanied by the rebeck-player Mardana.]
On the roadside Nanak began to sing hymns in praise of God, and Mardana played a symphonic strain on his musical instrument. The language of the people being Arabic listeners could only catch the names of Allah and Khuda, but the combination of a melodious voice, sweet tune, and saintly appearances produced a soothing effect on their minds. But as music was a taboo in Islam, somebody objected to their performance remarking that music turned mind from God towards sensuality. Nanak could understand and speak some broken Arabic. He replied that God created music, and that He was more easily accessible through pleasing poetry than pale prose.
The pilgrims stayed there for some time. Mardana’s health and spirit had been failing, and he felt tired of travelling. To reach home they had to cover a distance of about 5,000 kilometres. If they could walk at the rate of 20 kilometres a day it would take them 9 or 10 months. At this prospect Mardana’s heart began to sink. He had realised his life’s ambition of making a pilgrimage to the greatest holy places and sacred shrines of Islam at Mecca, Medina and Baghdad. He had won the title of Haji. He did not want to go farther. He felt that he would die at this holy place. As luck would have it, he soon afterwards gave up the ghost in peace and tranquility.
Nanak grew sad. The separation was unbearable. But the Guru had a stout heart and an indomitable will. Besides he had a certain mission in life. With a heavy heart he performed the obsequies of Mardana with his own hands. A humble monument was erected in memory of Mardana. Within an enclosure on a wall an inscription in mixed Turkish and Arabic marks the site. Mardana was called Murad by the residents of Baghdad and being older than Nanak by ten years was considered Guru. Consequently the inscription which was put up after Guru Nanak’s departure said:
“Guru Murad died. Baba Nanak faqir helped in constructing this building, which is an act of grace from a virtuous follower, 927 A.H.”
Mardana seems to have died in December, 1520 A.D. at the age of 61. The monument lies near a graveyard, 2.5 kilometres away from the railway station.
Mardana was a master-rebeck-player. He improved the old form of instrument by fixing 4 to 6 strings to a hollow gourd so as to produce deep and mellow resonance. He sang devotional songs of Kabir, Ravidas, Trilochan, Beni, Dhanna and Nanak. He composed verses also, three of which are included in the Adi Granth in Bihagre ki Var. They are against the use of wine which brings about misery, lust, pride, self-conceit, falsehood, ill health and disease. He says:
The barmaid is misery, wine is lust; man is the drinker.
The cup filled with worldly love is wrath, and it is served by pride.
The company is false and covetous, and is ruined by excess of drink.
Instead of such wine make good conduct thy clarified butter, and modesty thy meat to eat.
Such things, O Nanak, are obtained by the Guru’s favour; by par-taking of them sins depart.’
Mardana’s last wish to Guru Nanak a little before his death was:
“Only ferry me across this ocean of the world for the sake of the Word of God, which I have been singing to thee and thy people.”
On his return to Panjab Guru Nanak called at Talwandi. His parents had died. Mardana’s parents also were no more. He condoled with his wife and sons. He persuaded Mardana’s eldest son, Shahzada, to accept his father’s post, and assured him of equal honour, care and consideration. Shahzada accompanied the Guru to Kartarpur, and served as the chief minstrel to the Guru as well as to the Sikh sangats.