HERITAGE: DOCUMENTING SIKH HISTORY AND HERITAGE

February 09, 2020

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Bansal on the hill that overlooks Katas Raj in the Salt Range | Bobby Singh Bansal
Bansal on the hill that overlooks Katas Raj in the Salt Range | Bobby Singh Bansal

Over the years, Bobby Singh Bansal has become even more conscious of his Sikh identity. He lives in London but his frequent travels to India and Pakistan to research the history of Sikh rule have instilled in him an even deeper curiosity about the Great Empire of the Sikhs.

When he speaks about it, he exudes almost a child-like fascination, and his thirst for information knows no bounds.

It is hard to imagine that Bansal was once a student of business management and economics, and ran his family’s import business. His passion for history, heritage and culture was so strong that it took over and ultimately he sold the business. So began what seems to be his life’s mission to document Sikh history and the conservation of Sikh heritage. He has already written and published three tomes on different aspects of the Sikh empire (1765 to 1849): Remnants of the Sikh Empire: Historical Sikh Monuments in India & Pakistan, The Lion’s Firanghis: Europeans at the Court of Lahore and Sikh Monuments in Pakistan.

Bansal is planning to unveil his newest addition soon.

The Chiefs of Punjab — The Lost Glory of the Punjab Aristocracy, looks into the lives of the courtiers who served during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, in the 19th century. It includes Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. With 350 rare and unseen pictures, the book offers an update of the original book written by Sir Lepel Griffin in 1865. The book was last updated in 1939.

Capturing the past glory of Punjab, historian Bobby Singh Bansal unveils his latest work on Sikh history and heritage

“It was extremely challenging work,” says Bansal. “It took me a total of five years just to research the facts and information. It’s been a long hard road.”

The idea struck him as he worked on The Lion’s Firanghis, about the Europeans in the court of Ranjit Singh, covering the biographies of over 20 Europeans who served the Sikh Emperor.

“As I continued my work discovering more about the Europeans who served the Maharaja, I slowly started to develop an interest about those courtiers who were natives and served at the Lahore Darbar,” he says.

For this, Bansal had travelled extensively back and forth from London to both India and Pakistan. Within Pakistan and India, he travelled north and south, interviewing dozens of people whose history was entrenched in the Subcontinent, including some Sikh families who had now converted to Islam.

“The most challenging aspect was to trace these people,” he says. “Most of the people in India and Pakistan knew each other but they did not want to reveal their family history initially. I had met some of them who had attended my lectures in Punjab over the years, and they simply put me in touch with other families. Once they saw that I had been working on the restoration of Sikh structures in Pakistan, and on Sikh history, they began to trust me and opened up after they saw my published books.”

Meeting all the noble families featured in the book was a fascinating experience, especially their stories during the Partition, when most of them had to abandon their vast estates and mansions, in a sudden turn of fate. “This was very hard for them to endure, as their family heirlooms, historical relics and estates had been part of their history for centuries.

“They told me stories that have been passed down through generations. Some of them even have rare artefacts that they still keep safe.”

Instead of understanding the impact of Sikh rule in Punjab in the 19th century and treating it as an important chapter in the history of the subcontinent, the Sikh period has been completely obliterated from the curriculum in Pakistan.

The Sikh rule began in the 1760s when three Sikhs, Lehna Singh, Gujjar Singh and Sobha Singh ruled Lahore. But their harsh rule compelled the locals to intervene and invite a young Ranjit Singh to Lahore, who eventually annexed Lahore and ruled Punjab until 1849. Ranjit Singh ruled for 40 straight years until his death in 1839. The empire went into decline soon after and lasted only 10 more years. Many regarded Ranjit Singh’s reign as the golden period of Punjab.

“The Sikh period is a truly fascinating aspect of the history of not just the subcontinent, but specifically Punjab and Lahore, that must be explored more,” says Bansal. Sikh rule extended to regions other than Punjab, including Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, Ladakh, Peshawar and the westernmost part of Pakistan Jamrud (Khyber Agency) and Dera Ismail Khan. Marking the Sikh legacy, monuments and Sikh style architecture can be found everywhere in these regions, although now this heritage is overlooked. The legacy of Sikh rule is visible in the form of buildings and architectural structures.

The Chiefs of Punjab uncovers the tracks of these noble families.

“The book is basically about the noble families of undivided Punjab, from 1800 to the present day,” says Bansal. “I have covered over 70 families from Lahore to Delhi. In the process, I also ended up meeting some members of the British aristocratic families, including the families of Henry Lawrence, Bentinck, Dalhousie and others.”

On the book’s cover is Sardar Darshan Singh of Vahali, Chakwal.

In Vahali, a building known as ‘Chobara’ has a visible presence in the village. It is typical of Sikh architecture. Although presently owned by a Muslim, with his name plate on the gate, the Sikh legacy is undeniable.

Other buildings of Sikh style architecture also surround the Chobara, signifying the large presence of Sikhs in the area. It can also be discerned that the people who lived here were wealthy as they ended up having built many monuments.

Sardar Darshan Singh was one of them. The Sardars in 1909 were declared as the largest landowning family: holding14,000 acres in Punjab. Sir Griffin’s The Chiefs of Punjab also mentions this.

Sardar Darshan Singh was one of the Sikhs who used to run the Khewra Salt Mines for Ranjit Singh, says Bansal.

Apart from owning the Khewra Salt Mines, the Sardars of Vahali were also nobles and courtiers of the rulers of Punjab and Kashmir — from the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to the Rajas of Kashmir and Poonch and the British government.

“I met Darshan Singh’s family in the US,” says Bansal. “It was just fascinating to discover that Darshan Singh’s family moved to Shimla after Partition in 1947, but ended up poverty-stricken. Later, the descendants who shifted to the US somehow ‘struck gold’. Today, they are one of the affluent families in California.”

Bansal’s book describes how Ranjit Singh had built a ‘formidable empire and a war machine stretching from Afghanistan to China’, with the military support of his flamboyant courtiers and the Sikh Army that had been modernised by European mercenaries.

As the Anglo-Sikh Wars ended by 1849, the East India Company ended up annexing Punjab completely. It was the last sovereign province of India to cede to the British Indian Empire in 1849.

Seeking opportunity, the powerful nobles began switching their allegiance by supporting the British in the Sikh Wars and were handsomely rewarded with pensions and titles and retained their status and wealth. But there were those who fought against the British, who were later deprived of their jagirs and ancestral estates.

“Therefore, the work explores in graphic detail the history of these numerous personalities from the landed gentry today, whose ancestors had served proudly the Sikh and British Empires,” Bansal adds. “Post Partition of 1947, many elite families migrated to India and so this volume also covers the regions of Haryana, Punjab, Uttrakhand, New Delhi and Lahore in Pakistan. The book also includes families such as Malaudh, Majithias, Nakai, Jaijee, Mokal, Kalsia, Retgarh and others.”

The Chiefs of Punjab will be officially launched in India in March, thereafter in UK, Canada, US, the Far East, and Australia in April 2020.

“I hope the book, which includes unpublished and unseen rare photographs, will not only be informative but that it will attract the general reader,” says Bansal. “It is a treasure trove for all history enthusiasts wishing to indulge in capturing the lost glory of the Punjab aristocracy in India and Pakistan.”

The writer is a member of staff. She tweets @xarijalil

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 9th, 2020