In the Punjabi language, out of respect, elder sister is called Bebe. Bebe Nanki was the elder sister of Guru Nanak. She has a special place in the Sikh history. She played an important role in the spread of Sikhism. She was the first disciple of Guru Nanak and so she is considered one of the prominent women in the Sikh history.
She was born in 1464, five years before Guru Nanak to Mata Tripta and Mehta Kalu who lived at Talwandi, now called Nankana Sahib in Pakistan. She was born at the house of her maternal grandfather, Ram Ji,of village Chahal, district Lahore. Her maternal grandfather and grandmother loved her a lot and named her Nankian, which means house of maternal grandparents. By and by the word Nankian was changed into Nanki.
Her uncle, Lalu Ram, was issueless. He loved her from the core of his heart and played with her . She also loved him very much. She was brought up in a lovely atmosphere in the house of her father who was a well to do revenue officer in the village. Her sharp features, round mouth, and cheerful face attracted everybody. Her mother taught her cooking and other household chores. She helped her mother in her daily household responsibilities. In fact, her mother’s training made Nanki adept in the household. She had a sweet tongue and was very popular with everybody she came in contact with.
She was only five years old when her brother, Nanak, was born in 1469. He was named after her and people said Nanak of Nanki. She was overjoyed to have a baby companion and started babysitting in the absence of her mother. As Nanak grew, she played with him, took him shopping and looked after his comforts.
Right from his childhood, Nanak’s keen mind would not accept all groundless rituals and superstitions. Bebe Nanki was the first who recognized that Nanak was not an ordinary child, but a man of God. She was the first follower of Guru Nanak She stood between Nanak and her parents when they got mad with him and told them to recognize the true worth of Nanak. For her, Nanak was not only her brother (Veer) but also her Guru (Peer). When Nanak went to the river to take bath and did not return for two days, people thought he was drowned in the river, but she said that Nanak had taken birth to save the people and ferry them across this world, he cannot be drowned at all.
She was married at the age of eleven in 1475 to Bhai Jai Ram, a revenue officer at Sultanpur under Nawab Dault Khan Lodhi. Early marriage was the custom those days. Five years after her marriage, when she started living with her husband, Nanak felt her separation so much. He did not take interest in worldly affairs and remained busy in meditation. Bebe Nanki was also longing for the company of her brother, Nanak. She prevailed upon her husband to find some job for Nanak at Sultanpur so that she can enjoy his company also. Consequently, Bhai Jai Ram got Nanak employed as storekeeper under the Nawab of Sultanpur in 1485. Thus she played the role of an elder sister to settle in life her younger brother.
Now Bebe Nanki and her husband planned to get Nanak married so that he may have his independent life. They were successful for finding a suitable match, Mata Sulakhni, for Nanak and with the consent of all concerned, the marriage was celebrated in 1487. The marriage party left Sultanpur for Batala, Distt Gurdaspur and came back to Sultanpur. After marriage, Nanak started living separately at Sultanpur. He was provided a big house by his sister. It shows how Bebe Nanki willingly performed the part of an elder sister by helping her younger brother. This tradition of elder brother or sister helping the younger one is part of our culture even today. It also shows the sisterly love that Bebe Nanki cherished for her brother. Guru Nanak also has expressed this type of love in one of his hymns given on page 935 of Guru Granth Sahib wherein he says when brother (soul) departs, sister (body) burns in separation.
Bebe Nanki had a very good and cordial relation with her sister in law, Mata Sulakhni, and helped her in bringing up her sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Chand. She rather adopted Sri Chand as she herself was issueless. She even looked after her necessities and let her not feel lonely. Once, Sulakhni’s mother interfered and complained to Bebe Nanki that her brother was not keeping his wife happy. Bebe Nanki admonished her and convinced her that there was nothing to grumble. Thus, Nanki was also a great help in the family life of Nanak. . When Nanak got his accounts checked to the satisfaction of everybody, he planned to start on his missionary work to spread his message in the world, she assured him that she will look after his family in his absence and did not discourage him. In fact, the idea of depicting devotion to God in musical notes was due to the inspiration given by Bebe Nanki. She knew the musical talent of her brother and persuaded Mardana to accompany her brother. She also bought him a Rebab (musical instrument with strings) for him. This tradition of recitation of hymns with the help of musical instruments is still prevalent in Sikhism and has played a big role in the preaching of Sikhism. We cannot forget her role in the spread of Sikhism. She removed all obstacles which hindered Guru Nanak from preaching his mission.
When Guru Nanak spent many years in preaching his religion all over the world, Bebe Nanki took care of his parents, wife, and her nephews during Guru Nanak’s absence. This is a good example of our culture how brothers and sisters prove main pillars of help to each other. These values are a part of our culture and credit goes to Bebe Nanki.
At the end of his second tour when Guru Nanak returned to Sultanpur, Bebe Nanki was not feeling well and asked him to stay for a few days. She breathed her last in a few days and Guru Nanak performed her funeral rights. She lived at Sultanpur for about forty years. A tree planted by her provides shade to the people still. There is also a well, which she had constructed for the people. Really, everybody can be proud of a sister like Bebe Nanki. She was the first disciple of Guru Nanak and the first one to perceive the holiness in Guru Nanak’s person. There is no doubt that the first Gursikh was none other than Bebe Nanki. Like a wise daughter, she explained the Guru’s mission to her parents and sheltered Guru Nanak from their anger. She treated her brother like God and played an important role in the mission of Guru Nanak. We cannot forget her role in the spread of Sikhism. Contribution of Bebe Nanki in the spread of Sikhism is really unique and praiseworthy. Bebe Nanki’s status in Sikhism can be safely compared to that of Mother Merriam in Christianity and to that of Bibi Khudejai in Islam.