By Sarjit Kaur
Flashback. It was 1949.
A postcard from Rawalpindi, Pakistan found its way to Sunder Singh, Amardeep Singh’s Dad in Gorakhpur India. Its content was nothing but an address of a Christian Missionary base in Rawalpindi followed by the name – Hari Singh. Sunder Singh told his sister that he reckons her two children are alive. The challenge was that the borders of the two countries were sealed by then. Files moved across borders and a few months later, the children were miraculously reunited with their mother!
19 years after the partition, Amardeep was born and grew among these life stories. Through a passage of time, the footprints only grew bigger and demanded a closure. In October 2014, Amardeep made his maiden journey to Pakistan.
Maiden Journey into Pakistan
This is the story of one man’s journey in finding the lost heritage of the Sikh legacy in Pakistan. Fueled by junoon or passion and the need for closure, Amardeep left his high flying corporate job in Singapore to embark on this trip in 2014. A passionate photographer by nature, Amardeep’s lens captured phenomenal centuries old heritage in the form of gurdwaras and forts.
There, he miraculously travelled to 36 cities and villages in Pakistan amidst high security – in 30 days. He took more than a year to research and write his first book –‘LOST HERITAGE The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan’which was published in January 2016.
Little did he realise – this was to be his calling. Divine enables everything, he confesses. The project of this magnitude cannot be accomplished without the belief and support of many who had contributed immensely. It is not just about remnants from a Sikh lens. This is far greater. This is about humanity. A Sikh legacy that was destroyed in 1947, after the heart-wrenching partition.
The British divided the country between India and Pakistan on the basis of religious demographics. This line has divided us. We want to reclaim the heritage that is rightly ours. It forms part and parcel of us and our roots, he said.
He thought his heritage footage work was finished and went back to the corporate world thereafter. He started reinventing himself, as the world started seeing him as an author by then. However, God had something else in store for him. His work wasn’t over.
Second Journey – The Quest Continues
Where did it begin from, I do not wish to forget
In frenzy do I return, in search of those footprints
Gulzar – Poet
On 20 January 2018, we were taken through Amardeep’s lens on his second journey to Pakistan and second labour of love as he calls it,entitled ‘THE QUEST CONTINUES: LOST HERITAGE The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan’. Amardeep approached the subject holistically to cover religious places, architecture, forts, arts and culture.
We listened and marvelled at this greater than historian figure, powered by a strong desire to further track his roots. While the pictures of gurdwara structures stood tall despite the dilapidation,there was the uncanny sounds of silence, he conveyed. He related how he became emotional seeing a gurdwara that had collapsed 6 months ago with two arms dangling, as if calling out to him, to save her.
It was refreshing to hear his researched talk in an academic setting in Asia Pacific University, Technology Park, Kuala Lumpur. He related his astounding story.
In December 2016, he was extended an invitation by the Counsellor at the Pakistan High Commission in Singapore to attend a conference in Islamabad in January 2017. His task was to share his heritage work to a group of creative industry people. He jumped at the offer!
One week into his trip, he realised he had unfinished work. From Pakistan, he called his employer. He was unable to return and would stay on in Pakistan. It dawned on him that this chance will never surface again. He seized the opportunity and continued his quest. Everything happens for a reason. And as they say, the rest is history.
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With the support of the Pakistan government and divine intervention, he covered 90 cities and villages in 40 days-an amazing feat indeed! He went across Sindh, Balochistan, Pakistan administered Kashmir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab. He took us through his moving anecdotes, with his heritage casts both tangible and intangible, as he travelled across Pakistan.
Religion a subset of Legacy
Symbolic poems became the bridge to the emotional interpretation of his photographs. Religion and politics have partitioned us, as he described here:
Red eyes say it all
Both you and we wept
A human crisis and every community has suffered
We had our ears and eyes on. Our legacy has been reduced to a realm of religion today, he said. While 80% of our Punjabi heritage sites are in Pakistan, a quick show of hands amongst the audience showed that visits to Pakistan have typically been confined to Gurdwara Nankana Sahib, Panja Sahib, Kartarpur Sahib and Dehra Sahib. Sadly, Sikhs have limited their interests to the realm of religion and were not exploring areas beyond the few functional gurdwaras, he observed.
Our legacy has been forgotten. But he reminded that legacy is much more than religion. The depths of Pakistan will offer us, a learning experience. The deeper the learning, the more powerful the insights. The purpose of his journey was to document the legacy for our future generation’s record, so it does not get lost in the process. Structures across remote areas were ruined as a result of age and neglect. They were also unprotected and soon would become extinct, if restoration efforts are not carried out.
Ultimately, his aim on the study of the abandoned legacy of one community is to motivate all communities to become aware of their past and through it, learn to live in harmony for mutual progress.
Sikh History and Legacy
He rehashed that the Sikh or Punjab Kingdom was a vast empire and the last to be defeated by the British in 1849 in Pakistan. One of the rulers of the Sikh domain who rose to the challenge was Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who established a secular empire in 1799 and was a major power in the Indian subcontinent. He became the Lion of Punjab, who was feared by even the mighty British. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had ministers and commanders from Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and the European Christian communities and inspired them to rise beyond their religious backgrounds.
Letting Go and Closure
Amardeep met Muhammad Aslam aged 88 years in Thoha Khalsa, who shared that in March 1947, women walked out in large numbers and committed mass suicide in a particular well. This was done to protect their honour. He showed Amardeep the site where once existed the town gurdwara, which is demolished and now has become flat land. Amardeep felt a surge of sadness. Aslam was 18 years old when he witnessed this unfortunate event and the memory of this tragedy still haunts him.
Kashmir was not included in the state of Pakistan, as the option to join or remain independent was left for the ruler, Hari Singh. While he delayed this decision, in mid-October 1947, a Pashtun tribal from Waziristan andKyber region attacked Kashmir to force it to join Pakistan. Over 300 Sikhs from the surrounding valley were shot at Ranbir Singh or Dumel bridge.
Amardeep had a strong desire to carry home the soil of Muzaffarabad from under this bridge where his people had lost the battle. He wanted to preserve it in a sealed bottle to pass onto the next generation, as a reminder of the holocaust. However, he stood there with a numb feeling. He realised that by doing so, he may pass hatred to the future generation. After much thought, he decided to leave the soil where it belonged and do the needful closure. He accepted that he needed to move on. But he knew that what he saw, must be documented.
He wrote in his book that the historical traumas of the catastrophic 1947 partition of India produced a first generation that doesn’t talk about it. The second generation is lost. The third, to which he belongs, goes in pursuit of lost stories.
Many of us, at the session asked ourselves the same question. Are we still harbouring this pain and anger on old wounds? The first and second generation namely our grandparents and parents who witnessed the separation are still impacted. Their emotional pain is real and valid. However, perhaps the time has come for us to help them let go of these emotions, which no longer serve us. While it pains us, there is nothing we can do to change history. Until we don’t break this emotional barrier, we will not want to thread Pakistan and our roots, in a way we must for our needful closure.We owe this to our future generation. So, they no longer carry this emotional baggage.
Taking Possession of our Monument
A sense of excitement stirred him, as he prepared to go to Peshawar where he was finally going to step inside the Jamrud Fort. This fort was built by Hari Singh Nalwa, the Commander in Chief of the Sikh Khalsa Army. He was known for his role in the conquests of several places. He built this fort to protect the plains of Punjab from foreign invasions taking place through the Khyber Pass. Amardeep was of the view that this fort and specifically the room where Hari Singh Nalwa’s body was kept is a historical attraction and tourism wise, people will be prepared to travel to pay homage and respect to this revered man.
Amardeep also shared that people in search of wealth, had leased lands from the owners and dug old gurdwara structures in the hope of finding treasures. The villagers manage to get a stay order. Hence, it is time we took possession of our monument. At Saagri Gurdwara, he met Azmat who had said much in these few profound words:
Bout of intoxication has not subsided
Here I return, now take care of your buildings
Burden of guilt on my head, now stands abated
Divine Forces working in Unison
The divine energy worked in Amardeep’s favour where he met like-minded people. People opened their doors and embraced him. He didn’t have to incur much cost for accommodation and meals. The love that the Pakistanis had for the Sikhs and his spoken Punjabi, carved and bridged his path. They were rekindling the good old memories. Religion spreads through kindness of the heart, he said.
Essentially, he was taken into a time capsule from the time of Guru Nanak, to the invasion by British and right to the present moment. He felt the solitude of connecting with these once functional and occupied structures, of a mighty kingdom once upon a time.
The Lure to Pakistan
“If you could visit any place in Pakistan, where would you go?” asks Amardeep Singh each time he introduces his recently published travelogue. The question invariably elicits two answers from his Sikh audience -Sikh holy places and the desire to see their ancestral village.
He asked our Kuala Lumpur crowd the same pertinent question. While there are tbousands of Sikhs in the Malaysian community, how many were present at the presentation? There was silence in the room. He candidly shared that in the same context, it has been a slow and laborious process of rekindling and reviving the past.
In the last 8 months, Amardeep had conducted 74 seminars around the world, educating on our lost heritage. Through his global seminars and social media, he discovered the strong desire across the world to learn the lost Sikh legacy in Pakistan. His research has been received with much enthusiasm and interest. The world was hungry for this piece of documentation and long elapsed puzzle.
A Multi-Cultural Community and influence of Guru Nanak
His travelogue brings focus to the life and practices of forgotten communities which continue to thrive and evolve across Pakistan. Islam, Hindu and Sikhs co-existed back then, as a multi-cultural system and community.People would light up a lamp every Friday. Old writings in Gurmukhi and Urdu were found engraved on buildings. Blotched yet attractive frescos of Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana were seen at Gurdwaras.
He found 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. Then there are Nanakpanthis – who do not adhere to external forms of Sikhism, but are still ardent believers of Guru Nanak and his philosophy. They struggle for acceptance within the Pashtun Sikh community.
In his book, Amardeep wrote that Guru Nanak visited faraway lands to abound his love for mankind. He emphasised that humans can connect with the omnipresent without rituals and priests. His teachings propagated equality regardless of caste, financial status, religion and gender. Nanak preached that one should be a good Muslim if born a Muslim and a good Hindu if born a Hindu. His revolutionary movement gathered a large following and time and again stood up against oppression.
He met an 86-year-old man from Bassali who was 16 in 1947. Abdul embraced him and said that Amardeep reminded him of his Sikh childhood friend. The Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs once lived together till the fateful events of partition that created a deep wedge. Society was fractured and the British used it to their advantage. As the previous generations continue to perish, taking away with them significant eye-witness accounts of the events of 1947, the same is happening with the tangible heritage, which is rapidly perishing seven decades later.
Amardeep was sitting with a certain group of Hindus. While they don’t look like Sikhs, they remember and embrace Baba Nanak. Amardeep asked them,“How many Hindus believed in Baba Nanak here?” The answer he got, struck him hard. “Dear brother, you don’t recognise us as Sikhs yet?”, was their reply.
There are effectively 3 million people who practice Sikhism in Pakistan, though the official census reflects 15,000 turban-wearing Sikhs. This 3 million population is waiting to make themselves count in the census. Amardeep asked the audience: “What is the definition of Sikh then?” Perhaps we shouldn’t define faith, was his answer.
While women are not allowed to do Kirtan in Harmandir Sahib, India, it is a non-issue in Dera Sahib. Here Amardeep saw the beauty of a Sindhi and a Muslim descendant of Bhai Mardana reading the Guru Granth Sahib. Bhai Mardana was the Muslim rabab player who had accompanied Guru Nanak on his travels and they sang all the time. He was told by the descendants of Bhai Mardana, “We continue to carry this responsibility to sing, but there is no one to hear”. He was saddened by their response.
We won’t see this melting pot, taking place in India. There are gender and racial biasness. The tradition of non-Sikh musicians, singing hyms at gurdwaras was an integral part of the Sikh culture till the unfortunate event of the partition.
A Call to Return Home
As Amardeep prepared to depart Kirtangarh Gurdwara which means – A house of spiritual singing, a gentleman by the name of Raj Mohammad held his hands and pleaded in innocence – asking the Sikhs and Hindus to return to Alibeg, Pakistan. Raj said he would assume the responsibility of having the occupied homes vacated and ensure the ease of their resettlement. He will return the land that had always belonged to the Sikhs. The people of Alibeg was thankful to the selfless Sikhs who had fed and educated them without expectation. He could not help but reflect on the lasting impact of the philanthropic activities of the Sikh Community.
Amardeep shared that what has happened to him in the last 3 years, has changed his life forever. We pray that his devoted and laborious sewa continue to shed light and guide disciplines like us and inspire affected communities around the world – to go through a similar transformation and emotional healing for a complete closure.
He fulfilled his father’s dreams in echoing his voice in the valleys of Muzaffarabad, his father’s pre-partition hometown in Kashmir. Perhaps someday, like Amardeep, we are able to do the same.
The above content and photographs were extracted from the following resources:
- Amardeep’s sequel book –THE QUEST CONTINUES: LOST HERITAGE TheSikh Legacy in Pakistan
- Amardeep’s talk and presentation material on his journey,held atAsia Pacific University, Kuala Lumpur on 20 January 2018
[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com] 17619
Pakistan proudly hosts of over 300 Sikh historical religious sites, gurdwaras (Asia Samachar, 27 Jan 2018)
Talking about Nanakpanthis and forgotten Sikh forts in Pakistan (Asia Samachar, 16 Jan 2018)
Amardeep’s burning passion sparks second book on Sikh legacy in Pakistan (Asia Samachar, 1 Sept 2017)