WHEN one thinks of Sikh rule in Punjab — one that spanned at least half a century — who comes to mind but their leader, the powerful Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The man who later became known as the ‘Lion King’ became the official ruler of Punjab in 1801 but Sikh rule had already begun in 1799. Even today, the man’s formidable imprint cannot be shaken off. He constituted tough resistance for the British Raj — even at 22 years of age, he was a man to reckon with as he began consolidating his empire.
Sikh history in Punjab is replete with countless conquerors and while the Maharaja’s image is mostly that of a man with a sword, it was not war mongering that the man promoted, but peace. And much of this peace was promoted by art. At the Lahore Museum recently, a sampling of the arts he patronised were on display.
At this British-built structure, which itself is an edifice of historical value, were displayed several artefacts of the Sikh Empire, almost all of them reflecting the religion. Visitors marvelled at the fading but beautiful paintings, the weapons — rusty now, but still wielding intrinsic power — coins and intricate woodwork, symbols of a lost time. The exhibition was a world of its own, taking one back to the Sikh period when their unmatchable glory exerted influence — an integral chapter in the history of Punjab. And this last fact is fitting, for Sikhism is the only religion that rose from Punjab.
Globally, Sikhism is the fifth largest religion with 23 million followers, while Sikh history is more than 500 years old. That has been enough time for Sikhs to have developed unique expressions for art and culture, influenced heavily by their faith but also by other traditions, including Hindu and Mughal styles of art and architecture. Since Sikhism is an indigenous Punjabi faith, its art too is synonymous with that of the Punjab region. It was under the Sikh Empire that a uniquely Sikh form of expression was created. For his part, the Maharajah patronised the building of forts, palaces, bungalows and havelis (opulent residences), and colleges. In these were fitted archetypes including jharokas with intricate woodwork; domes featured often in their buildings and not one is without decoration such as inlay, carvings, and paintings.
The Lahore Museum has a rich collection of Sikh artefacts. There are gold, silver and copper coins, as well as Ranjit Singh’s gold medals, miniatures including portraits of Sikh spiritual and political figures, weapons, some clothing of the nobility, elegant furniture from the darbar (royal court), royal decrees and Sikh holy books. Those associated with this exhibition are rightfully proud.
“This is the first time that the museum has displayed what points to a unique Sikh identity,” said Iffat Azeem, research officer of the Lahore Museum. “Our most important relics are Ranjit’s gold medals that were minted in France. There are also some original edicts by Ranjit.”
“At the time Ranjit Singh took over Punjab, there had been a lot of chaos and anarchy,” said historian and writer Mushtaq Sufi, also one of the visitors. “In fact, it was the Lahoris themselves who invited the leader to conquer Lahore and subsequently Punjab. When Ranjit’s army reached Lahore, all the prominent citizens, including Mian Mohkam Din who personally opened the Lohari Gate for the army, presented to him the keys of the city.” Today, this meeting place is marked by the Punjab Public Library.
“In those days, miniature paintings depicted the apparel of the Central Asian states and that of the Persians,” said Sufi. “But soon, local culture began seeping into such artwork. Some Sikh and European artists also started visiting Ranjit’s darbar and so there was also a European influence.”
Since Ranjit Singh brought peace to Punjab through promoting art and culture, the king’s popularity grew.
A former director of Lahore Museum, Dr Saif-ur-Rehman Dar, termed the exhibition a good effort. Generally, it was felt that while the effort behind the exhibition was laudable, it was unfortunate that Sikhs from other countries could not be part of it. Dr Dar said that it could have been even better if the display had been put up during the Baisakhi festival when Sikhs make their way to Punjab for pilgrimage. “There is great importance to such an exhibition, with its display of letters and documents of the Sikh period,” he said, adding that visitors should have also had a copy of the list of relics on display.
For the museum’s additional director, Naushaba Anjum, this was not just an exhibition. “We are trying to send the Sikh community a message of solidarity,” she said of her brainchild. “And at the same time, it is not limited to being a message of love and peace. The exhibition raised a lot of awareness among the public about Sikh culture and identity.”
After all, Sikh rule can never be forgotten by Punjab.
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2017