Determined to remember

Ammad Ali on Amardeep Singh's relentless quest to document the Sikh heritage in Pakistani Punjab

Determined to remember
On a cold Bhadon night of the 26th of August 2017, Dukh Bhanjhani Gurdwara in village Thoha Khalsa near Rawalpindi was razed to the ground .As news came out on social media, it became apparent that the site where Dukh Bhanjhani previously stood had now had been replaced by piles of rubble and bricks.

This Gurdwara has seen its fair share of human cruelty and destruction.

Once the centre of spiritual learning of Sikhism, this Gurdwara witnessed the earliest Partition riots in 1947 that led to ethnic cleansing in East and West Punjab .These started on the 6th of March 1947. It was the place where more than a hundred Sikh women gathered to pledge their preference for death over rape, torture and abduction. This was one of the earliest documented incidents of Partition-related communal violence in the Punjab during 1947 – a watershed event that deepened communal fault-lines. When no way was left to save their honour from assailants, Sardarni Basant Kaur ordered Sikh ladies to make a queue and all started jumping into a well. By the time it was Basant Kaur’s own turn to jump in,  the well was so full of bodies that there was no water left behind for her end.

Thousands of such stories of blood and pain are recorded in Punjabi, Urdu,Bengali and English literature. The cry of Amrita Pritam’s “Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu” a heartrending dirge on the violence and pain of Partition, becomes a metaphor of the agony that women suffered in that horrific period. Another part of this great human tragedy Is the trauma of being uprooted – leaving for another place and never seeing their homes or friends again. Those places and sites, the havelis and Gurdwaras, planted banyan trees and limpid water ponds ,they were forced to leave behind. All they could carry as they fled were the memories of their life violently interrupted.

Many of those buildings left behind during Partition were brought down, dismantled or changed from their original form in the 70 years since Partition. Sikh heritage has been never systematically documented in Pakistan, either at an institutional level or by individuals. But what we do have in the way of a proper record comes from Amardeep Singh. He is dedicated to preserving the heritage of the Sikhs in the form of photographs and oral histories of locals – material that he collected and documented  in his latest book The Quest Continues: Lost Heritage - The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan, a sequel to his first book Lost Heritage. He covers an immense region – 126 cities,towns and villages across Pakistan in this second volume.

Kashmore Darbar (Sindh)

Amardeep Singh calls himself an accidental author. Quite a multi-faceted personality, Amardeep is a trained engineer and a business executive by profession, and a photographer and traveler by passion. He holds an MBA from the University of Chicago. He has spent 25 years in jet setting corporate roles. Now he is delving into philosophy, photography and history – which are his forte. Through a passionate dedication, in a short span of three years, he has delivered two comprehensive and pioneering books that showcase the abandoned and forgotten legacy of a Sikhism – that once thrived in the lands that became Pakistan.

Amardeep Singh’s family migrated to Gorakhpur in UP, India, after Partition. He grew up hearing his parents reminisce about their lives in the lush green valleys of Abbottabad and Muzaffarabad –from which they hailed originally. During a personal visit in 2014 to Pakistan, to his ancestral home in Muzaffarbad, Kashmir – a journey that took him across 36 cities and villages of Sikh heritage in 30 days –Amardeep felt it was important for posterity that he document his explorations. This resulted in a book entitled Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan. The visit thereafter pulled him into an almost obsessive quest to research further the tangible and intangible Sikh legacy across Pakistan. In January 2017, he undertook another journey – this time travelling extensively to 90 cities and villages across Sindh, Gilgit-Baltistan , Balochistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. The continuing thread of explorations again motivated him to document them in the sequel.

Kanoha Gurdwara

His two books are visually intensive and weave a storyline that takes the reader on a virtual journey. His work spurs the reader into walking alongside Amardeep Singh to those sites. The photographs are eye-catching and the supporting text is written in a deeply personal style. The text is well furnished with maps of the travel route. The narrative itself is rich in anecdote. The language is unpretentious. There is no mincing of words. Most rewardingly, it places historic events and personalities in context – and this is an invaluable feature of both books.

What is today Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa , Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan comprises regions that were more than 80 percent of the land area of Ranjeet Singh’s empire. So this area was full of Sikh sites, many of which diminished with the passage of time. The hatred between Sikhs and Muslims was quite temporary – if volcanic in its eruption.

How are Sikhs from India received and treated in Pakistan when they came to see their homes and what they left behind? I can speak from some personal experience. Two of my Indian friends came to Pakistan a few years ago and asked me to accompany them – we were going to trace their old family havelis. As we wandered through narrow alleys in search of their ancestral home, almost the whole village gathered there. The people were cheering and generally showing the utmost respect and hospitality.At almost every home that we passed, they opened the doors of their drawing rooms to welcome us. That made further progress quite difficult for us. One man came out and humbly requested : “Sardar Ji! My daughter never saw a Sikh in her entire life. Could you please come to my home just for five minutes?”

Many Sikh religious sites after Partition were reoccupied for public services – either in the form of educational institutions or health centres. In that way Sikh religious sites became social welfare centres and so locals had no issue with preserving those sites. But the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque in India, unfortunately, sparked off a spiral of destructive bigotry on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. Consequently, a number of Gurdwaras in Pakistan fell victim to destruction and vandalism. Many Gurdwaras were turned into markets and shops. These sites were located in commercial hubs, making them ideal for such unfortunate use.

Nevertheless, there is much still left for Amardeep to document and cherish.

For this book, Amardeep owes a lot to his better half and his daughters. Their company was the force without which this book would never been completed.

For Amardeep Singh his work is not on Gurdwaras alone but about a much broader legacy. The determined maverick, after all, is walking in the steps of Baba Guru Nanak in his own land.