The Sikh Heritage Beyond Borders
Reviewed by: Rupinder S Brar, MD FACC (Author of The Japji of Guru Nanak: A New Translation with Commentary. Published by Smithsonian Institution 2019).
One of the most enduring and celebrated research stories of all time is that of Heinrich Schliemann and his discovery of king Priam’s Treasure. Schliemann was a German businessman turned amateur archeologist who astonished the archeological community in 1837 by using his knowledge of the Homeric epics to dig out hundreds of artifacts — gold coins and masks, copper shields and weapons — from a site in Turkey that he claimed was the ancient city of Troy. Until then, many people had dismissed the story of the Trojan war as mere legend.
In a similarly astonishing feat, Dr. Dalvir Pannu, a dentist turned researcher based in San Jose, California, has delivered an equally unbelievable treasure in his book titled: The Sikh Heritage: Beyond Borders, except that in Dr. Pannu’s case the job must have been so much harder because of the obvious travel constraints to Pakistan; therefore he had to direct his field work from his office, thousands of miles away. What he has accomplished however, is no less. In a painstaking research that took more than a decade, Dr. Pannu used his knowledge of the Sikh scriptures, research into Sikh history, review and compilation of Sikh legends and hagiographic literature to methodically construct a veritable encyclopedia of Sikh shrines and places lost to the community and left beyond the Radcliff line in Pakistan after the bloody partition of India and Punjab in 1947. The book that emerged from his labors is a rich panorama of pictures and places, historical facts and references peppered by scriptural quotes and Janamsakhi legends.
Pannu sets the tone of his book in the very introduction by describing in excruciating detail the magnitude of the tragedy that was the partition of Punjab— 600,000 dead; 14,000,000 driven from their homes; 100,000 young girls kidnapped on both sides of the border. With a sensitivity of an artist he then uses his own family’s story and that of his wife’s, to humanize the shock and trauma of an entire generation. From there takes us on a magical tour of the Sikh shrines and historic places; 84 sites in all that are spread over 6 districts of West Punjab.
The layout of the book itself shows a scientifically logical mind at work. Each district has its own section and each shrine its own chapter. Each chapter begins with the name of the shrine followed by an exact numerical geographical longitude and latitude location so that one can go on a virtual tour of sorts using anyone of the easily available digital maps and search engines on the net. Each chapter has multiple pictures of each shrine, as they stand now. Many of these also depict beautifully intricate details of the fading yet hauntingly beautiful art work that once adorned the walls and the doorways in their heyday. The book’s real strength however lies in the way the author juxtaposes his pictures and carefully researched history, often quoting extensively from original sources, against a backdrop of legends and stories associated with each site to then weave a three dimensional tapestry. The result is that the reader can find it easy to imagine what must have been once and to believe the author when he claims that ‘these shrines in the pictures talk to him’ and that he can ‘listen to them.’
The stories and legends are as fascinating and rich as the frescoes on the ancient walls. The chapter on Chubacha Ram Rai for example, begins with historical references to a pond in Lahore associated with Guru Nanak and then the story of his legendary walking stick. It then continues the story of the stick’s passage through the hands of Mian Mir to that of Guru Har Rai’s disinherited son, Ram Rai. According to the legend, in an act of apparent generosity Ram Rai miraculously created a pond of water for the benefit of the parched populace of the area—hence the name ‘Chubacha’ meaning pond in an old Punjabi dialect. Even if one ignores the obvious hagiographic references to the miraculous, the picture that emerges should still be of interest to both the general reader and the scholar for in it one can see how even the competing Sikh institutions and personalities were often complementary and instrumental in creating the larger Sikh narrative of altruism and community service.
While most of the featured shrines are indeed Sikh and the storyline clearly from a Sikh point of view, it is not exclusively so. Lahore’s historic Wazir Khan’s mosque is covered prominently in the book with its beautiful pictures together with the story of its founder’s legendary kindness towards the Sikhs and his reverence for the Gurus. Included also is a detailed account of the glory of the mosque, during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh as noted by the visiting Europeans. The book thus recreates not only the sense of division and loss experienced during the partition but also a more gentle era of Punjabiyat that existed in the still earlier times. This perhaps is another big strength of the book, it tells a story against a looming backdrop of partition and loss— yet without recriminations so that the overall message is still uplifting and fraternal.
For the Punjabis—especially the Sikhs—many of us now spread around the world but still yearning to connect with our roots, this book will be act as a catalyst to convert our yearning into action and seek more, perhaps even travel to Pakistan. For the academic community too, The Sikh Heritage Beyond Borders, with its more than thirty pages of notes, will serve as a rich reference guide for years to come.
Very appropriately, Dr. Pannu concludes his book by quoting Guru Arjan Dev: ‘The egg of doubt has burst, my mind has been enlightened.
The Guru has shattered the shackles on my feet, and has set me free’(SGGS 1002). Indeed, the book is likely to burst several misconceptions and unshackle many feet, from lay persons to academics, some of whom may then travel to the land of their ancestors and experience their heritage beyond borders.