A Descriptive Introduction
Book: The Sikh Heritage: Beyond Borders
Authored by: Dr Dalvir S. Pannu, San Jose, California, USA.
Published by: Pannu Dental Group, 2019
Printed by: Copywell, Canada. Hard Bound Edition,
Pages 416; Price: 95 US$
The journey of Dr Dalvir S. Pannu into the realm of Sikh Heritage, in his own words, started as ‘a plan to show his parents their abandoned homes and the land they had to leave during the partition of 1947’.
The high watermark of his self-chosen path is that his once domestic mission gradually got translated into a cherished project of documenting all the heritage sites sanctified by the memories of Sikh Gurus alongwith the places which bear a testimony to the times when Sikhs were at their glorious zenith.
The special credit that goes to the author is that very soon he found himself immersed in the project so much that it occupied every nook and cranny of his being. His labour of love and dedicated research about the sacred spots, which may be called a divine blessing, led him into a state of spontaneous fulfillment when he confessed that, “I get the feeling that I can now almost talk to these buildings and even listen to them.”
A startling fact that emerges from the book is that it was not until the displaced Sikh settlers progressed economically that their interest in historical Sikh shrines really showed up.
The colossal project of colonization, as the author tells us, began in 1886 when the British decided to involve the hardy farming communities of Central Panjab by alluring them with the prospect of land allotments and providing assured canal water irrigation. After nearly two decades of continues hard labour the land started yielding bumper crops which brought about a change of fortune unimagined by the working farmer.
The book brings out a fact to the fore that before the era of prosperity, which grew during the execution of the Canal Project that was completed in 1904, the Sikh shrines received meagre offerings which hardly provided subsistence to their caretaker priests. An ICS officer Michael O’Dwyer on his visit to Nankana Sahib in 1886 notes that, ‘The Mahant, or abbot in charge, and his disciples were maintained by the pilgrims’ offerings and by uncertain/irregular income from the thousands of acres of dry and wasteland surrounding the shrine.’
But the revenue from the same shrine six years later in 1892 swelled as the vast Nankana Sahib estate got water from the lower Chenab Canal. Added to it were the rise in offerings from the Sikh settlers who had become richer with their lands irrigated and income from the bumper crops multiplied.
With many fold increase in the offerings, the Mahants of prominent Sikh shrines too prospered financially and reports of profligacy and moral wrongdoings by some of them started surfacing. It was these two reasons that fired the incited feelings of repulsion among the Sikh devotees who considered themselves as stakeholders in the increased revenue of Gurdwaras which eventually became the prime cause of triggering off the historic phase of Gurdwara Reform Movement.
It may be concluded that the hard won victory in gaining control of the Gurdwaras in 1920 saw the Sikhs collectively as stakeholders in the administration of Gurdwaras. With the increased economic income of the settlers of Canal Colonies, their attachment and concern for the shrines grew in proportion to their contribution to the hefty collections from the offerings.
The religious sentiment coupled with a sense of belongingness amplified the sense of emotional loss of shrines separated from the main body of Sikh community in 1947. It evoked the sense of nostalgia among the Sikhs who were well-off and hailed from the lands dotting the historic Gurdwaras. Slowly this sentiment percolated to everyone in the Sikh community and the struggle for the liberation of Sikh shrines became a united movement of the entire Sikh people.
Nankana Sahib, being the birthplace of the founder of the Sikh religion, emerged as a core reference point to symbolise the pain of separation from the historical Sikh shrines and the land of their ancestors. The Daily Sikh prayer Ardas echoed these sentiments as it read Nankana Sahib te hor gurdwarian di sewa sambhaal Bakhsho.
Though at no stage the author intended to be exhaustive, yet this monumental book at places tends to become encyclopedic in character.
The details of Gurdwara Patti Sahib are not confined to relevant pictures of the site. As this place commemorates the early education of Guru Nanak when he was familiarised with the alphabet (Patti) by his teacher, the author goes on to trace the entire history of the development of Gurmukhi script. Dr Pannu quotes celebrated authorities to explain the philosophical basis of devising a whole new alphabet.
The reference to the memorial turns out into a researched description of the significant development wherein the author invokes the authority of Sir Gokul Chand Narang cited in the ‘Transformation of Sikhism’ where he remarks, “no crushing blow to the predominance of Brahmans could be devised than the invention of Gurmukhi language and the very name of the new script, reminded those who employed it, their duty towards their Guru and constantly kept alive in their consciousness that they were something distinct than the common mass of Hinduism”(40).
It has also caught the attention of the author that the Sikhs themselves have callously destroyed some of their structures over the years. The house of Guru Nanak’s earliest teacher Gopal Das was demolished by local Sikhs now living in Pakistan and converted into a room where Guru Granth Sahib is kept by night (40-41).
Dr Pannu laments the pathetic plight of several structures with visible helplessness. His camera zooms in on the heaps of cowdung cakes (paathian) piled up against the walls of some historic shrines. He draws our attention to gurdwara Mal Ji Sahib, Kanganpur where the cowdung cakes are seen stuck on the outer walls of gurdwara for drying up in the sun to be used as fire-fuel.
He also bemoans the loss of rare frescoes lost forever and caused by defacement and apathy. Alpa Kalan in Kasur is another memorial which was once replete with frescoes depicting the life and incidents of the Gurus. Similarly the pictures of some neglected heritage memorials send a chilling sensation down the spine. The gurdwara at Hadiara erected in the memory of Sixth Guru wears a pathetic look but the only consolation about it is that the structure has been turned into a dwelling place by poor Muslims who are without means and do not afford to demolish it.
The author has shown absorbing interest in some characters and incidents and turned their accounts into a well researched articles that we generally come across as part of doctoral theses. The writer has cited scores of sources and marshalled facts to establish the story of Bhai Bala which ultimately gives credence to the heritage site known as Bale da Khooh.
Of all the heritage buildings, the most extensive and intensive research has gone into the martyrdom of Guru Arjan. For the author, Gurdwara Dehra Sahib is a starting point for going into researched details on the life and work of the Fifth Guru culminating into the earthshaking event of his martyrdom. The whole gamut of activities of the Guru and Jehangir’s policy of religious intolerance are discussed in finer detail alongwith the working of the behind-the-scene philosophy of Naqshbandi sect which persuaded the emperor to take the extreme step of torturing the Guru to death.
The author is of the firm belief that all these sites indelibly mark the spots sanctified by the footsteps of the Gurus and should forever be viewed as such. The deep reverence of the Sikhs has inspired them to erect memorials to mark even the remotest association of the Gurus to these places. For the author the hymn, ‘jithai jaye bahai mera Satgur so thaan suhava ram raje’, is literally true and not a mere metaphorical reference.
Several heritage sites incidentally become witness to some later happenings that the reader may readily recall with interest. The writer reminds us that the village Ghalotian where a Gurdwara commemorates the visits of Sixth and Seventh Gurus is also the birthplace of Dr Diwan Singh Kalepani who was tortured to death by the Japanese during the last stages of the Second World War in the Andeman Nicobar Islands.
Similarly the writer does not fail to remind the reader that the village Jambar Kalan consecrated by the visit of Guru Arjan is also the place where two copies of Banno Wali Bir were once housed in the Gurdwara there. He also traces the belongingness of the village to the Sikh martyrs Shabeg Singh and his son Shahbaaz Singh who were tortured on the spiked wheel by the tyrannical Mughal governor Zakaria Khan.
We have numerous other instances where the writer goes back and forth to relate the heritage spots to our own times in an effort to widen their range and enhance its significance for the curious readers. Not only are such cross-references interesting but extremely informative and engaging for the modern reader. Let us reproduce some more instances to show that the writer was forever awake while writing this book of momentous value for the posterity.
Of the heritage site at village Qadiwind near Kasur where Guru Amar Das stayed for several days, the writer tells us, “The eminent Punjabi writer Sohan Singh Seetal resided in Qadiwind before moving to India in 1947. He set his famous novel Tootan Wala Khooh (1962) in the nearby village of Pero Wala located halfway between Kasur and Werna.” Adding on to the information about the birthplace of Guru Ramdas at Chuna Mandi Lahore, the author says, “In 1883, Giani Ditt Singh, Jawahar Singh, Mayya Singh, Dr Jai Singh and a host of others initiated the Singh Sabha Movement from this very place”. At Buddhu da Aawa on GT Road Lahore, the writer mentions that “during the Sikh period (after the death of Kharak Singh and Nau Nihal Singh) Maharaja Sher Singh and Raja Hira Singh, by turn, gathered armies here to lay the siege of Lahore. The summer house of Gen Avitabile of the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was located next to Buddhu da Aawa. Closely situated was Sikh National College Lahore (now named University of Engineering and Technology) which was shifted to Qadian in district Gurdaspur after 1947.”
A fair amount of romance is woven around the story of a royal falcon of Emperor Shahjahan landing into the hands of a roaming party of the Sikhs during the time of Guru Hargobind. On being approached by an armed band of the emperor, the Sikhs refused to part with it. The writer reminds the reader that the bloody engagement that ensued between the opposing armed groups took place at exactly the site where Khalsa College Amritsar stands today.
Dr Pannu has laboured for over a decade on this project with unrelenting zeal and undying passion. Though numerous books have been published on the Sikh Heritage so far, yet none of them is so comprehensive in visual coverage and researched detail of these sites. A very vast variety of resources involving different languages has been consulted in considerable detail to construct and illustrate the text accompanying the photographs of heritage sites.
The author accessed the Sikh historical literature, Janam Sakhis and numerous books on the lives of Gurus to authenticate the veracity of heritage memorials. The digitised material and the internet have been extensively employed to reach out to the rare texts which are no longer extant in the book form.
The secondary sources have been used with good care though the author tripped up at some places. The name of the wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (mother of Kharak Singh) is not Maharani Nakkain as the author seems to believe. She was the daughter of a Sardar of Nakai Misl and took her apparant name after the territory called Nakka in the south of Lahore that falls between Sutlej and Ravi before the rivers merge to close the land. Her name was Dataar Kaur and the Maharaja fondly addressed her as Nakkain. (215)
For his apparent lack of understanding of the Braj-laced Panjabi of Giani Gian Singh, the author has misread some words. Panjabi text ‘Kables ka nazim chacha’ has been taken to mean ‘Kables region’s Nizam’s uncle’, whereas it simply means ‘administrator uncle of the King of Kabul’. Similarly the writer could not decipher the word Gilji or Giljey. It literally means the Afghans or Pathans belonging to Gilayee tribe. (90)
These are however small aberrations in a text which has dealt with thousands of proper names and places. The reference list spells the name of the writer of Sachi Sakhi as Kapoor Singh instead of Kapur Singh ICS. I remember Sirdar Kapur Singh had once returned a letter to the sender as it spelt his name wrongly. Proper names must be spelt carefully as not doing so is hurtful to the addressee.
Some of the sites forming a part of this book are not essentially confined directly to the Sikh heritage. The reader comes across memorials belonging to Muslim saints which were included in the Sikh heritage because of their association with the Gurus in one form or the other.(202).
Dr Pannu notes with concern that the heritage structures are fast disappearing for want of care and sheer neglect. As the years pass by, the remnants of several Gurdwaras and other structures have altogether vanished. The existence of a Gurdwara at Ghavindi village just inside Pakistan at the Khalra border documented in 1962 has since disappeared in the last forty years as the author testifies. The Pakistan’s policy of indifference towards the preservation of Sikh and Hindu heritage sites seems to flow from the general neglect of Muslim heritage in India.
The author at the same time is grateful to the Govt of Pakistan for graciously repairing or restoring some of the damaged structures. He notes that, ‘In the aftermath of the Babri mosque incident in Ayodhya in 1992, the marble structure of a samadh in Lahore was severely damaged. However, significant restoration work done by the Government of Pakistan in 2017 has restored its former grace.’
Many photographs of heritage sites which have remained unused due to the restricted scope and size of the book still lie stored with the author. The readers of this fabulous book look forward to the occasion when all this valuable wealth will be made available to them, especially, as even the vestiges of the remains of these sites in many cases are fast disappearing for want of care, maintenance and preservation.
The book printed in this form may aptly be called a love-child of author. Brought out in a glossy expensive paper, it is nearly free from typographical errors. By virtue of its valuable contents and equally qualitative photographs this book must adorn the personal libraries of the lovers of Sikh history besides every Sikh household.