Amardeep Singh’s The Quest Continues: Lost Heritage – The Sikh legacy in Pakistan is a vivid reminder for Sikh enthusiasts searching for their dying heritage in inaccessible lands.
At the peak of its powers, in the first half of the 19th century, the Sikh empire stretched from the Khyber Pass in the west to the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in the east, from Kashmir in the north to the confluence of the rivers in the Indus basin. The main geographical footprint included the Punj-Ab, or Five Rivers, from which the region derives its name, with Lahore at its focal centre. These were the golden years that saw Sikh heritage flourish in the form of various arts as well as the exquisite architecture of Gurudwaras and stately homes.
The formation of two new countries in 1947 saw most of these sites go west of the Radcliffe line, to Pakistan, while the majority of Sikh population and the patrons, moved eastwards, to India. The properties were soon occupied by new migrants with no connection to their heritage. This was exacerbated by the new laws of the land, under which these were classified as “enemy properties”. Seven decades of neglect have taken their toll. Several have vanished, some lie in disrepair, and most of these are on the verge of being lost forever.
In 2014, Amardeep Singh left the comfort of a corporate job and embarked on a personal journey to document this heritage. With limited access to sites, he managed to detail them in his book, Lost Heritage – The Sikh legacy in Pakistan. Later, with support from the government of Pakistan, he went back to document sites that were previously inaccessible, even to heritage researchers of Pakistan. He travelled to over 90 cities and the experience is part of his compelling sequel, The Quest Continues: Lost Heritage – The Sikh legacy in Pakistan, released in late November.
In the book, Singh weaves in dark accounts of the Partition exodus, finds stories of gratitude for the departed Sikh community and traces personal accounts of heart-wrenching incidents from the last eyewitnesses alive.
Muhammed Aslam, aged 88 years, at the time of the tragic events of Kahuta was 18 years old when he witnessed 25 Sikh women jump into a well that lies in the fields…. With teary eyes, he looked into the well, saying “This is the site where the girls jumped and I helplessly stood in a corner. I still wonder why I did not make an effort to stop them. I was not a part of the mob but was afraid of the miscreants who had turned against our own brothers and sisters. Years later, the event still haunts me.”
It is a wide field. Singh travelled to smaller villages and towns with Sikh names, which serve as a vivid reminder of the past when these lands were predominantly populated by Sikhs. He also traced the fate of the 27 Sikh forts that barred the only invasion route into Punjab and Kashmir from the western frontiers of the Khyber Pass and beyond. By digging up land records from across Baltistan, still under the title of Khalsa Sarkar – a term associated with the lands acquired by the Lahore Darbar after it expanded to these territories – Singh places into context the historical importance of these locations.
The book is also littered with anecdotes and tales that have faded from the local discourse of the Sikh community in India:
In the winter of 1840 a Mohmand lashkar succeeded in breaking down the gates of Shabqadar fort. The then Sikh Maharajah Sardar Sher Singh (Ranjit Singh’s son) had them court martialed for treason. The French General Jean Ventura headed the proceedings, which lasted two days. Having found them guilty as charged, the gates were sentenced to a hundred years of imprisonment and are languishing enchained ever since to the a tower in the fort.
Lahurey was a name given to a Nepalese who had worked abroad. The term came from the Nepalese who joined Ranjit Singh’s army. While today, the Gurkha soldiers are found in far and distant lands, in the early 1800s the farthest they travelled to was Lahore. Lahurey in Nepalese parlance, referred to the soldiers commissioned in the Lahore darbar, over time became a generic word for any Nepalese who had worked abroad.
The book is not only a guide map for Sikh enthusiasts searching for their dying heritage in inaccessible lands, but also a reference for locations of historical and cultural importance. It is perhaps the most definitive book providing glimpses of past magnificence and the last architectural remnants of the Sikh era.
The Sikh legacy in Pakistan is not limited to tangible heritage comprising monuments, art and architecture. Singh goes beyond brick and sand to understand the intangible aspects of the community comprising cultural, religious and social aspects. Some of this is found from fading memories of important local heroes.
The world famous Sikh wrestler, Kikar Singh Sandhu (1857-1914), once uprooted a Kikar tree (Gum Arabic tree) with bare hands and ever since became known as Kikar Singh. His fame and antics still lives around the village of Ghanienke but is forgotten elsewhere.
He finds that the Sikhs who stayed back in the North West Frontier, who are of Pashtun origin, read Guru Granth Sahib in Gurmukhi but their mother tongue is Pashto and not Punjabi. This adds to an encouraging account of a thriving Sikh community in Kyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Sindh. Then there are Nanakpanthis – who do not adhere to external forms of Sikhism, but are still ardent believers of Guru Nanak and his philosophy. He lays bare the emotional grievances of the Nanakpanthis and their continued everyday struggle of acceptance within the Pashtun Sikh community.
The practices of Nanakpanthis of Ghorghushtis, the Sikhs of Quetta and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Udasis of Sindh, are all reflective of the syncretic belief systems that prevailed in the Greater Punjab, when all religions coexisted leading to a cultural confluence that has precipitated in these communities.
From the resurgence in the members of Nanakpanthis, the breaking away from the practices of mixed darbars to establishing new Gurudwaras in Sindh, the book brings alive the history and forgotten legacy of Sikhs in Pakistan.
Shozeb Haider is an academic based at University College London.