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Mata Sundari: A Multi-Faceted Personality

Mata Sundari was born in 1667 A.D. Her father Bhai Ram Saran Das was a well to do Khatri of Lahore. He was the head of a fairly large clan.

As a child Sundari was extremely beautiful, which is probably the reason that this name was given to her. Bhai Santokh Singh has referred to her as 'Sunder Samp'. She was later named (Mata) Sunder Kaur after she was given Amrit i.e. the water of immortality.

Marriage

Bhai Ram Saran Das, Mata Sundari's father, was a keen devotee of Guru Ghar. He would frequently visit Guru Tegh Bahadur at Anandpur. And the time came when he happened to be there when Guru Gobind Singh had also reached there from Patna. Bhai Ram Saran was instantly captivated by the young Gobind Singh's charm and forceful character. He at once approached Mata Gujri and his maternal uncle Kirpal Chand for a matrimonial alliance. The Tenth Guru had by this time ascended Gurugaddi after the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur. He agreed to accept Bhai Ram Saran's pro­posal, but set a single condition. Instead of going to the bride's house at Lahore, as desired by Bhai Ram Saran, he would establish a new city, a new Lahore as the venue for the marriage ceremony. Bhai Ram Saran was extremely surprised. Only two months remained for the auspicious day. How' could a new Lahore come into existence in such a short time? At this, the Guru replied "if the hustle and bustle of newly built Lahore is found to be commensurate with the old Lahore; you may bring your relations and near and dear ones and solemnize the marriage.

How could the innocent Ram Saran understand the fathomless capacity of the Guru? It was neither difficult nor new for the Gurus to found new' cities and towns. Guru Nanak Dev had formed Kartarpur and Guru Angad Dev Khandur. Guru Amardas brought Goindwal into existence. Guru Ramdas had established the city of Amritsar and Guru Arjan Dev found Taran Taran. Guru Har Gobind got Kiratpur established and Guru Tegh Bahadur laid the foundation of Anandpur. And now the Tenth Guru started the founding of Guru Ka Lahore. It was ordered to be established seven kos or about 15 kilometers away from Anandpur. Kirpal Chand was the chief organizer and supervisor of the project. Even today this town is counted as one of the sacred places associated with the Tenth Guru.

Guru Gobind Singh's edicts were sent through the masands to far-flung Sikh congregation, inviting them to come and settle in this newly built town. The fifth Guru, Arjan Dev had given financial assistance to the people of 52 different occupations and had thus helped them to settle down in the city of Amritsar. Following the tradition established by his predecessors, the Tenth Guru also gave financial help to businessmen settling down in this New Lahore. The city was beautifully built and decorated. Various bazars were established e.g. Sarhandi Bazar, Ropri Bazar, Hoshiarpuri Bazar and Lahori Bazar. Bhai Santokh Singh writes in admiration of this city in Gur Partap Suraj Granth. Guru Ka Lahore soon became a full-fledged and bustling town. Everyone looked forward eagerly to the Guru's marriage, the preparations were made on a large scale and the entire city rejoiced.

No other Guru's marriage took place with as much grandeur and splendour as that of the Tenth Guru and Mata Sundari. Numerous Sikh devotees come from far and wide to participate in the celebra­tions. Five cousins (his paternal aunt's sons) of the Tenth Guru participated – Sango Shah, Gulab Chand, Jitmal, Ganga Ram and Mahri Chand.

The marriage party was accompanied by elephants and horses, bands and fireworks. As the marriage party approached "Guru Ka Lahore", Bhai Ram Saran came forward with his relations to welcome them. He presented large number of gifts and decorated horses as a sign of welcome (called milni). The following morning the ceremony of Anand Karaj, i.e. solemnization of the marriage was completed amidst great rejoicing. A grand house named the Guru's Palace had been built under the supervision of Kirpal Chand. The Guru and Mata Sundari entered this house after the marriage cer­emony. It has been written that the people were so gay and the bands so spirited and loud that one could hardly hear each other.

According to the prevailing custom at the time of the bridal send off the bridegroom is seated ceremoniously and the articles of dowry are exhibited. At the same time the bride's relatives bless the groom with gifts. The same ceremonies took place on this occasion also. Bhai Santokh Singh depicts the scene in his Gur Partap Suraj Granth.

Guru Gobind Singh sat surrounded by admiring people. He wore a turban decorated with plumes. The large round jewel studded earrings which he wore flashed radiance with every movement. His lotus like eyes were filled with a divine ecstasy, so that those who looked at him were charmed. Metal trays (thals) filled with orna­ments and a large number of utensils which were to be given as wedding gifts were brought out. The couple was seated side by side - Mata Sundari dressed in embroidered bridal finery. Before the final departure of the bridal palanquin the bridegroom's party displayed fire-works.

At Anandpur Sahib, Mata Gujri, the mother of the tenth Guru, along with the other women folk were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the bridal couple. For Mata Gujri it was probably one of the few occasions in her life when she could celebrate an auspicious occa­sion. When Guru Gobind Singh was born, his father Guru Tegh Bahadur was away in Assam. When the child Guru reached Anandpur to be reunited with his loving father, Guru Tegh Bahadur had to proceed to Delhi to sacrifice his life to protect the faith.

On arriving, the entire marriage party first went to pay homage at the sacred spot of the cremation of Guru Tegh Bahadur. Bibi Sundari had already heard about the sacrifice of her respected father-in-law, but she was seeing the sacred spot for the first time. For the mother and son it was an emotional moment. The solemnity of the occasion pervaded the atmosphere.

In-laws House

There with great joy and enthusiasm she blessed the married couple. The entire Sikh congregation had gathered to witness the ceremony. The house was filled with devotees coming from far and near.

Brought up in affluence amidst the hustle and bustle of a big city like Lahore, Mata Sundari must have found life in Anandpur which was then only a small town, quite different. It is a measure of the Guru's greatness and sensitivity and his high regard for Mata Sundari that he undertook to establish Guru Ka Lahore, so that Mata Sundari would not be deprived of the surroundings to which she was accustomed.

Anandpur is surrounded by the green Shivalik Hills. On the one side are the peaks of Naina Devi, on the other flows the cascading waters of the Sutlej. Mata Sundari soon found much to interest her in her in-law's home. Her husband was adored and admired by every­one. Sikhs came from near and far to seek solace from him. The continuous congregation of Sikhs participating in spiritual discourse particularly impressed her and she, too, began participating in them.

Apart from this, she saw the Guru engaged in military training of his soldiers. A new consciousness, a new awareness had arisen among the Sikhs. He roused the enmity of the neighbouring Rajas and in order to diffuse the tension. Mata Gujri and some prominent Masands persuaded Guru ji to go to Nahan for some time. This was the summer of 1743 Vikrami era. Mata Sundari accompanied Guru Gobind Singh Ji along with Mata Gujri, Mata Jito and others. Twenty-six miles away from Nahan was a beautiful spot with the Yamuna flowing nearby. Guru Gobind Singh consulted Mata Sundari about his plans to build a fortress there. This idea took shape and Paunta Sahib was established. Now the Sikhs came to Paunta instead of Anandpur. The Guru created some of his important literary works here. Mata Sundari saw that her husband desired solitude for his poetic compositions. With her wisdom and large heartedness, she assisted him in every possible way. It was in her presence that the Guru completed writing Krishan Avtar which he had begun at Anandpur. She was a witness to the great composition Akal Ustat. She saw her husband composing Chandi Charitar and Sri Bahgoati Di Var. She got a chance to hear some portion of Chandi Di Var written in Punjabi. Mata Sundari must have been deeply impressed by the depth, abundance and originality of this poetic output.

Mata Jito gave birth to only one child i.e. Sahibzada Ajit Singh in 1689 in Anandpur. The 3 younger sons of the Guru were born to Mata Sundari, the younger consort. They were Jujhar Singh born in 1690, Zorawar Singh, 1696 and Fateh Singh, 1699. All the children were loved and looked after by their grandmother Mata Gujri.

Crisis

But in 1704, a great crisis befell. It was decided that the family would leave Anandpur in two groups. The first group consisted of Mata Gujri, Mata Sundari, Mata Sahib Devan, the two younger Sahibzadas - Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, some old people, children and the Sikhs. The second group included Guru Gobind Singh himself the two elder Sahibzadas, Ajit Singh and Jujhar Singh, important leaders and 500 other Sikhs. The group had hardly travelled a little when they were suddenly attacked by the enemy. To make matters worse, it was a cold night and the river Sarsa was in spate. It was the most frightening night of Mata Sundari’s life. The two groups were separated. Disaster befell on Mata Gujri and her two innocent grandsons. She was betrayed by her servant Gangu, a traitor, and the two children were bricked up alive by the Nawab of Sarhind.

In the meantime, two Sikhs belonging to Delhi named Dhanna Singh and Jawahar Singh offered their services to Guru Gobind Singh. It was decided that Mata Sundari and Mata Sahib Devan should be sent to Delhi along with Bhai Mani Singh. Both had to disguise themselves as men and were accompanied by two maid servants, Bibo and Bhago. This was a period of great anxiety and uncertainty for Mata Sundari. She had to undergo a long and painful separation from her husband. She had to carry on bravely with no news either of her husband or her son. At first she stayed at a house in Gali Dilwali Singh inside Ajmeri Gate Delhi. It was here that she came to learn the shattering news of the martyrdom of all the four Sahibzadas, as well as the passing away of her beloved mother-in-law. It was in this house that another momentous event in her life occurred. One day she came across a small child, four or five years old. Its mother put the child in the Mata's lap, saying 'He is Yours'. The joy with which he was received was unbounded. Mata Sundari renamed him Ajit Singh after her own lost son and began to bring up him as her own.

In Damdama

Meanwhile, after encountering numerous hardships and danger the Guru had retreated to the jungles of Lakhi and then proceeded further ahead to Sabo Ki Talwandi, now-a-days called Damdama Sahib. It was here that Mata Sundari was reunited with the Guru. She was restless and impatient to hear the news of her children from the Guru himself. The great master pointed to the Sikhs sitting nearby said: "Char muai to kya bhaya jiwat kaye hazar. "

(I have sacrificed four sons for them. It matters not that the four have died, for we have been blessed with thousands of sons.)

Once again Mata Sundari had an opportunity to serve her husband as he engaged himself in spiritual pursuits. The watchful and deeply wise Mata did not ever complain about loss of status or comforts. She was instrumental in bringing about an atmosphere of harmony and calm.

In Damdama Sahib the tenth Guru accomplished two tasks of great significance. He prepared the authentic volume of Guru Granth Sahib. He also established a school for religious studies and interpre­tation of Adi Granth scripture.

In Delhi

Now Mata Sundari was a witness to the role of her husband as Guru teacher. She saw him reciting the holy hymns and interpreting them. Soon after she returned to Delhi. But this time, her separation from her husband was short. Aurangzeb died in the Deccan, and Bahadur Shah requested for help from Guru Gobind Singh to fight against his younger brother Azam Shah. After a fierce battle near Agra, Bahadur Shah took the Guru with him to Delhi. The Guru stayed there as a royal guest for some days. Everyday people flocked to see him.

Adopted Son

One day Mata Sundari brought her adopted son to the Guru. When Guru Gobind Singh saw the five-year old child he uttered these words: "This child will be the cause of your troubles, be cautious." But a mother's love goes beyond reason. Mata Sundari did not give up her affection for the child, though occasionally her husband's words would arouse in her a sense of forboding.

Leadership

Guru Gobind Singh's greatest contribution was the establishment of a Sikh tradition, with its own distinct form and character and intellectual and spiritual alertness. The Khalsa faith revolutionized the ways of thinking and living of the common man. Ordinary people were turned into bold and fearless warriors, self-reliant and capable of independent thought.

After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, for the remaining 40 years of her life, Mata Sundari Ji took up all the tasks that had been initiated by the Guru and established herself as a capable successor and leader of the Panth.

Her first exercise of authority as leader took place in connection with Banda Bahadur. When Guru Gobind Singh went to Nanded, he met a "Bairagi" saint. He baptized him with Amrit (the water of immortality) and then sent him to Punjab to establish control. The saint, now changed into a warrior and renamed Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, fought bravely and devastated Sarhand. Wajid Khan, who was then the Governor of Sarhind and his ally Shame-ud-din-Khan of Bijwara, gave Banda Bahadur a tough fight but were ultimately defeated. A Sikh follower of Banda Bahadur cut off Wajid's head. Banda Bahadur took control of Sarhind and began advancing further.

When Bahadur Shah who was then on the throne of Delhi, heard this, he was panic stricken. He sent his officers to Mata Sundari Ji who was living in Delhi at that time, complaining of the atrocities being perpetrated by Banda Bahadur and requesting her to intervene and dissuade Banda from fighting. They promised that the king would offer compensation by way of presenting jagirs to prominent Sikhs. When Mata Sundari heard this, she sent an edict Hukamnama to Banda and his followers that they should cease to pillage the country side and settle down with their jagirs. Her aim was to establish peace and harmony. But Banda was contemptuous of the king’s offer and replied to Mata:

"You want us to be subservient to those Turks who have destroyed your entire family. You are not aware of their cheating tactics. They will not give us property, they will merely deceive us. They want to weaken us through this sort of diplomacy."

When the reply became known to the Court, the Mata was put under detention. Though Giani Gian Singh is of the opinion that Mata Sundari was imprisoned, there is no historical evidence for this. Her detention seems to be aimed at cowing down the Sikhs by threatening their leader. After the martyrdom of Banda Singh, the Sikhs were divided into two groups; the pure Khalsa (Tat Khalsa) and Banda's followers (Bandai Khalsa), both fiercely hostile to each other.

When the news of this dispute reached Mata Sundari, she was dismayed. She realised that this friction would lead to a weakening of organization. With her wisdom, she realised that bringing the two groups together was not possible just then. What was more important was to prevent bloodshed among them. She decided to appoint a person of authority to tackle the issue. Bhai Mani Singh was established as the Head Priest (Granthi) at Amritsar. He was a close friend of Guru Gobind Singh, had studied with him both as a child and later as a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian. The Guru had unflinching faith in Bhai Mani Singh. He had sent him to accompany Mata Sundari and Mata Sahib Devan to Delhi after the evacuation of Anandpur Since then, he had always devoted himself to the service of Mata Sundari.

Bhai Mani Singh was a serious thinker, a renowned scholar, of a tactful and amicable disposition. He persuaded both parties to accept him as a mediator. He had now to make a very difficult and painful decision He ordered two slips to be placed on the Sarovar (Lake) of Sri Harminder Sahib. The slip which sank would indicate the groups that would have to withdraw. The Bandai Khalsa slip sank and thus this group withdrew to Gurdaspur. Thus, Mata Sundari was successful in her first decision as leader of the Panth after Guru Gobind Singh.

Bhai Mani Singh remained in Amritsar as high priest going now and then to Delhi to meet Mata Sundari to discuss with her important matters and to seek her counsel. As mentioned earlier Guru Gobind Singh had established a school for the exposition of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and conferred the title of Giani on Bhai Mani Singh and Baba Deep Singh. Now Mata Sundari carried forward the work in this area by persuading Bhai Mani Singh to carry on the noble tasks of Gurbani exposition. He was empowered to give an authentic and definitive meaning to her scriptures. He began his work in Bunga Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar. Now this school is to be still found in Sato Street, Amritsar. Many Nirmala scholars emerged from this school including the great scholar and teacher Giani Amir Singh.

The scholarly interpretation of the sacred text is an important part of the propgation of faith. This was why Guru Gobind Singh had sent five Sikhs to Benaras for higher studies. They later become leading Nirmala Sikhs. This task flourished further under the guidance and encouragement of Mata Sundari.

An even greater task completed by Mata Sundari was the compilation of the works and writing of the tenth Guru into what is now known as the Dasam Granth. It was a formidable challenge to search for and locate all the scattered material, but Mata Sundari proved equal to the task. The tenth Guru was a scholar of Brij, Avadhi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian and Punjabi. He was also a translator from the Sanskrit. His own works are voluminous, written mostly in Brij Bhasha, the literary language of Northern India, but also in Punjabi. It weighed nine maunds, approximately 340 kg. The entire work was put together into on volume entitled Vidya Sagar. But this valuable piece of work was lost in the flooded Sirsa river during the march from Anandpur. But copies of the hymns had been prepared side-by-side with the original work and these were now in the possession of Sikhs scattered all over the country, who were using them to learn the hymns by heart and recite them in their daily prayers. Under the supervision of Mata Sundari, Bhai Mani Singh undertook the task of collecting these pieces and compiling them into what came to be known as the Dasam Granth. The workers of the Takht Sri Harmaindir, Patna, cooperated whole heartedly and collected much material. This was compiled by the end of the 18th century and came to be known as Patna Di Missal. A large amount of money was donated by Kesar Singh Chhiber so that funds were not lacking for the use of Bhai Mani Singh in Amritsar. This was distributed in order to trace the poetical compositions of Guru Gobind Singh. The task was a daunting one, for the Guru's Sikhs were scattered in faraway places. Some had sought shelter against the atrocities of the government in hills and forests. Some works had passed into alien hands, who refused to part with them unless given payment. By a stroke of good luck, Mata Sundari came across a list of works written by Guru and this list even contained his signature. This proved valuable in checking the material for the final volume.

Not only did Mata Sundari initiate the compilation of the sacred writing of Guru Gobind Singh, she also persuaded the Sikhs to prepare copies of the holy hymns of the Adi Granth. Bhai Mani Singh was also instructed to prepare such a volume. Meanwhile, Bhai Mani Singh while teaching the Gurbani, realized the need for small volumes containing parts of the Adi Granth, these being more ideally suited to the need of the students. These volumes were entitled Panj Granthi, Bhagat Bani, Baae Waran, and Das Granthi, and were intended to be recited serially so as to gain an ideal understanding of the Adi Granth. But few could understand Bhai Mani Singh's intentions. The Sikhs said his body should be cut into pieces just as he had cut the sayings of the different Gurus into pieces. But Bhai Mani Singh bore their calumnies with fortitude till his martyrdom in Lahore in 1794 of the Vikrami era.

Thus ended Bhai Mani Singh's thirty years association with Mata Sundari. He had been her right hand man after the Guru's death. He had accompanied her almost everywhere, had helped to settle the dispute between the two rival groups; the Tat Khalsa and Bandai Khalsa. It was Mata Sundari's wisdom which prevented bloodshed from destroying the entire Sikh brotherhood. It was to Bhai Mani Singh that the Mata Sundari entrusted collecting of the Guru's works and their compilation into one authentic volume, a task which Bhai Mani Singh accomplished with efficiency and wisdom. He ran the school for the study of the Adi Granth with great dedication.

With the passing away of Bhai Mani Singh, Mata Sundari's last link with her family was broken. She herself survived for 10 more years, leaving for her heavenly abode in A.D. 1747/1804 Vikrami era. The last 43 years of her life were spent in Delhi. Her Haveli still exists near Turkman Gate in Delhi and her last shrine is in Gurdwara Bala Saheb.

In the end we conclude that, in the 80 years of her life, almost half was spent in guiding and leading the Sikh Panth after the death of Guru Gobind Singh. Of the wives of the Gurus, Mata Sundari is the most impressive personality. Her whole energy was devoted to building up the Panth and keep it united. She was the accepted mediator and judge for the Sikhs and even when she could not go personally, she would always depute a responsible person to act in her stead. Her edicts make this very clear.

Mata Sundari was a woman of strong principles and adhered to a strict code of conduct. She was bold and fearless and refused to compromise even when the matter concerned her adopted son. When he cut off his hair, the Mata was horrified at this, yet her mother's heart retained its tenderness and when she found him starving, she gave him an allowance, but refused even to see him or to let him come near her. Thus, we see evidence both of her tenderness as well as her determination. She refused to take the side of Ajit Singh when he was involved in the crime of killing an innocent fakir and let justice take its course.

In Mata Sundari's rejection of her adopted son Ajit Singh for his sin in renouncing Sikhism and cutting off his hair, we notice the Mata's desire to preserve Sikhism from political influences. She was prepared to do anything to preserve their social and religious solidarity. She taught them a sound lesson. In sending Ajit Singh to justly deserved death, she issued a warning that losing dharama could mean losing life.

Mata Sundari was thus clearly different from ordinary women personalities. Personal relations were of lesser importance to her than her religious beliefs. It is also clear that even the Mughal government held her in great esteem. She was regarded as a worthy representative to the great ninth Guru who had advocated fearless­ ness with the words:

Bhei knhu ko det neh,

Nehn bhei manat aan.

(Do no frighten anybody, neither be afraid of anybody.)

Another achievement of Mata Sundari was the protection of the building of Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, the last resting place of Guru Tegh Bahadur. While she lived in Delhi, no one could touch it. It was only when she was at Mathura that the building was demolished and replaced by mosque. This shows her authority as leader of the Sikhs and how she struggled to preserve the honour and glory of Sikhism.

Her spiritual leadership was also note-worthy. Under her guidance a school for the interpretation of the Gurus, sacred teaching was established at Amritsar, headed by Bhai Mani Singh. The earlier such school at Damdama was strengthened. She arranged for copies of the Gurus, hymns to be prepared. Four copies of the Adi Granth were prepared by Baba Deep Singh. In all this we see Mata Sundari playing the role of leader and organiser. It was through by efforts that these centres of learning flourished.

All the Sikhs all over India were considered by Mata Sundari to be her children and she kept in constant touch with them through her edicts such as those addressed to the Sikhs in Patna (Bihar) and the Jamania Sikh assembly. Sikhs from Kabul and Kandahar came to visit her and receive her blessings.

Mata Sundari was a great believer in tradition and she faithfully maintained it in continuing the running of Jangarsor free community kitchen. Her keen interest is made clear in the edicts which request donations for the langar. Her achievement becomes all the more significant since she was the only member of the Guru family that now remained and could look for support to no one else, except her Sikh sons.

Mata Sundari holds the foremost rank among the Gurus' wives. Mata Jito is rarely mentioned except as the mother of the Sahibzada and as being the one who added patashaas into the water in the Amrit ceremony conducted by Guru Gobind Singh. Mata Sahib Devan was given the title, 'Mother of the Khalsa' by the Tenth Guru himself. She remained as a friend and helper to Mata Sundari, living with her almost all her life except when she accompa­nied Guru Gobind Singh to Nanded. The Guru gifted to Mata Sahib Devan the five pieces of armour through which she could see him every day.

But it was on Mata Sundari that the mantle of successorship fell. She was wise, coura­geous and far-sighted, patient as well determined. She had to experience great sorrow as well as great happiness in her lifetime, but she faced both with equanimity. She obeyed the Guru's orders without murmur and faced all hardships with courage. Her whole life was dedicated to the cause that was dear to her husband's heart and she made it her own. She gave wise and able leadership to the Panth when it was still a fledgling organization and set it on the path of future greatness. She proved herself a worthy consort of the great tenth Guru.

Source - The Role and Status of Women in Sikhism by Mahinder Kaur Gill