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How much Sikh heritage is there in Pakistan?


Artwork adorns the memorial of the famed wrestler Kikkar Singh Sandhu in a village outside Lahore. Photo source: Lost Heritage the Sikh Legacy in Pakistan by Amardeep Singh.

 

How many Sikh heritage sites are there in Pakistan? It’s a question I am frequently asked as a tour operator who specializes in heritage tours to West Punjab that take visitors off the beaten path. Depending on how one defines “Sikh Heritage,” the number can range from several dozen to the thousands of sites across the country. Key to informing our understanding of this space today are the books written by a few remarkable individuals - travel writers, photographers, independent researchers, historians and at least one Pakistani civil servant – who took it upon themselves to document Pakistan’s Sikh heritage in the years after partition. As a first step towards building a comprehensive and accessible online database of Sikh heritage sites across Pakistan, I have canvassed these important works and collated their findings.

 

Religious Sites:

My research points towards there being 439 documented Sikh heritage sites across Pakistan. 311 of these are places of religious significance that range from community Gurdwaras to historical sacred sites. There are 123 shrines (either Gurdwaras or other sacred sites) that are associated with the travels of the Gurus: 68 are associated with Guru Nanak, 36 with Guru Hargobind, 19 with Guru Arjun, 1 with Guru Ramdas, 2 with Guru Amardas and 1 with Guru Har Rai. Most of the present structures at these sacred sites were built during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. 60% of the sacred sites associated with the Gurus are concentrated in the districts of Lahore, Kasur, Sialkot, Nankana Sahib and Gujranwala.

 

The Sikh Empire:

There are 95 heritage sites in Pakistan that are associated with Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Lahore Durbar (the Sikh Empire). These include 25 Havelis (residential buildings) that belonged either to the members of the royal household or to its prominent courtiers. Pakistan has 6 large, 3 medium sized and 25 smaller forts that were used by the Lahore Durbar. It’s worth mentioning that most of these forts were captured (and perhaps modified), but not built, by the Lahore Durbar. Although their locations are known, most of the smaller forts no longer exist today. Some of the key battlefields from the Anglo Sikh wars are also situated in Pakistan.

 

Colonial Era Sites:

Pakistan has at least 75 prominent Sikh heritage sites that date to the colonial period. Although a small minority, the Sikhs of West Punjab punched significantly above their weight as prominent entrepreneurs, landowners, contractors, educationists, and patrons of social welfare projects in the colonial era. Their legacy is reflected in business establishments, havelis, Gurdwaras and education institutions that they left behind. Chiefs and Families of Note in the Punjab (1940) identifies 29 prominent Sikh families of West Punjab, such as the Butalias of Gujranwala, Vahalis of Jhelum and the Bedis of Kallar Syedan. Unfortunately, the legacy of these families that has received inadequate scholarly attention.

 

 

Nanakpanthis:

No conversation on the Sikh presence in Pakistan can be complete without a discussion on the Nanakpanthis. This term has historically been used to describe dual identity Hindus who venerate the Gurus and the Granth Sahib, but don’t necessarily adhere to the 5Ks that are markers of Sikh identity. Some, but not all, Nanakpanthis place the Guru Granth Sahib alongside Hindu deities in their worship places.  Most of the 62 worship spaces in Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces of Pakistan were maintained by followers of the Nanakpanthi tradition. In more recent times, the Nanakpanthis played a vital role safekeeping Gurdwaras in conflict prone regions of Pakistan when the country experiences a wave of militancy between 2004 and 2014.

 


Review of Source Texts



Sikh Shrines in West Pakistan (1962)”, by Khan Muhammad Waliullah Khan was the first report commissioned by the Government of Pakistan to document the country’s Sikh heritage. Waliullah Khan served as the Superintendent of the Department of Archaeology’s West Pakistan circle.  Khan records the presence of 130 “Sikh shrines” across Pakistan. He categorizes 28 Gurdwaras as “Sacred Shrines Associated with the Gurus” and 102 as “Other Shrines.” With 67 rare black and white photos of historic Gurdwaras, Khan’s book is the earliest visual catalogue of Sikh heritage in Pakistan. The book also offers brief but important insights into the management of some of these in the decade after partition. We learn, for example, that the Gurdwara Janam Asthan at Nankana Sahib, was “thoroughly repaired” by the Government of Pakistan in October 1959, and that there were caretakers appointed by the government to look after Gurdwara Babay Di Bair (Sialkot), Gurdwara Baoli Sahib (Sialkot) and Gurdwara Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur).


 

Written thirty-six years after Waliullah Khan’s report, Iqbal Qaiser’s groundbreaking Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan (1998) significantly expanded our understanding of Pakistan’s Sikh heritage. Iqbal Qaiser is a renowned activist who advocates for the promotion Punjabi history, culture and language in Pakistan. Qaiser documented 173 Sikh heritage sites along with brief descriptions in English and Punjabi (both Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi scripts). Although Qaiser’s focus is mostly on Gurdwaras, he expands the canvas of Sikh heritage in Pakistan to cover interfaith as well as political history. The book covers the grave of Rai Bhullar, the Muslim chieftain of Nankana sahib who was among the first to recognize the spirituality of Guru Nanak, and shrines connected with Sufi saints who are respected by Sikhs. The birthplaces as well as Samadhis of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Hari Singh Nalwa and notables from the Sikh Empire also find mention. Hundreds of coloured photographs show Gurdwaras in Pakistan in their early condition, albeit with the visible effects of neglect – and in some cases vandalization. Qaiser mentions one Sikh site in Pakistan, Gurdwara Babay Di Bair (Sialkot), as having been extensively damaged by religious extremists in the fallout of the Babri Masjid demolition in India in 1992. The book includes a bibliography at the end. It appears that the Mahan Kosh by Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha was used extensively by Iqbal Qaiser for his research. It’s important to appreciate that Iqbal Qaiser wrote his book long before the internet and tourism incentivized the exploration of Sikh history in Pakistan. Qaiser, who is from a humble background, acknowledges in his book’s introduction that he had to travel between 25 to 30 thousand kilometers across Pakistan to document Sikh heritage sites using whatever means of transportation were available to him.



 


The Sikh Heritage of Pakistan (2012) by Dr. Safdar Ali Shah and Syed Javaid A. Kazi bears mention as a coffee table book with high quality photos of Sikh heritage sites across Pakistan. Mr. Kazi is a Fellow of the Royal Society Photography and President of the Photographic Society of Pakistan. The book covers 40 sites, mostly the major functional Gurdwaras, with a section dedicated to the Sikh Empire.

 


 

Eighty per cent of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire is in present day Pakistan. Bobby Singh Bansal’s thoroughly enjoyable Remnants of the Sikh Empire: Historical Sikh Monuments in India and Pakistan (2015) educates us about these aspects of Sikh heritage that are often overlooked. The book documents 67 sites, mostly forts, havelis, and memorials connected to the Sikh Empire. It is in covering the forts and havelis of the senior courtiers of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that Bobby Singh Bansal demonstrates his depth of understanding of Sikh history. Many of the sites, like the havelis of Dewan Mohkam Chand, Sardar Attar Singh Lamba, Mangal Singh Sidhu and Jhanda Singh Butalia came to light for the first time after partition through Bobby Singh’s efforts. I had been traveling by Qilla Sardar Attar Singh for years, unaware of its existence until I read Bobby Singh’s book! Attar Singh was a courtier and close companion of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It was interesting to learn through this book that  Attar Singh’s family treasure was discovered in 1951 after the inner walls of the fort residence caved in. Bobby Singh’s book also does justice to Hari Singh Nalwa’s illustrious legacy in Pakistan’s northwest frontier regions. He has since also written the The Punjab chiefs: the lost glory of the Punjab Aristocracy in India and Pakistan (2022). The book features on its cover Sardar Darshan Singh Vahali of Jhelum in West Punjab, who was among the wealthiest landowners in colonial Punjab.

 



Singapore based Amardeep Singh’s Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakisan (2016) and The Quest Continues – Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan (2017) are the most comprehensive documentation of the country’s Sikh heritage. Written in a unique style that is travelogue, history book and an ethnographic study, the book appeals to amateur readers as well as history enthusiasts. From a visual perspective, I find Amardeep Singh’s coffee table books to be the richest of all the books written on the subject. The histories of the sites are interspersed with tales of interactions with locals, all while the author reflects on his personal journey as a second-generation partition affectee who left behind his life as a corporate executive to search for his roots in what is today Pakistan. Perhaps it is this human centered narrative that has allowed the book to develop a large readership base in Pakistan as well. Amardeep has documented 239 Sikh heritage sites across Pakistan. Amardeep expands the canvas of Sikh heritage to cover forts, art sites, gurdwaras, havelis, memorials, education institutions, marketplaces, battlefields and even partition massacre sites. The focus on the gurdwaras managed by the resilient and courageous Nanakpanthis of Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa raises poignant questions about Sikh identity in Pakistan. The book also covers in detail Hari Singh Nalwa’s legacy on the northwest frontier. This includes the forts and havelis held by my seventh-generation ancestor who was a prominent rival of Hari Singh Nalwa in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.



I found The Sikh Heritage Beyond Borders (2019) by USA based Dalvir S. Pannu to be the most well researched book on Sikh Gurdwaras in Pakistan. Pannu limits his scope to 84 sites across the six districts that have the highest density of Sikh heritage in the country: Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib, Kasur, Lahore, Sialkot and Narowal. Acknowledging the challenges of relying on Janamsakhi traditions alone as sources of knowledge, Dalvir S. Pannu fortifies his descriptions of the heritage sites with dozens of primary sources. To illustrate, Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Lahore marks the location where the fifth Guru Sahib was martyred on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The book starts the section on Dera Sahib by triangulating the known events leading to the Guru Arjun’s martyrdom with Sikh, Mughal, Sufi and even Portuguese sources. The chapter continues tracing the origins of the Gurdwara Dera Sahib first to a Thara Sahib (memorial) built by the sixth guru, and then to the present structure that was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1829. The chapter ends by shedding light on the violent partition riots in 1947 in which many of those who had sought refuge in Dera Sahib were slaughtered by miscreants. The book’s bibliography demonstrates the impressive work the author and his team put into writing an analytical and profoundly insightful book on Gurdwaras in Pakistan.



 

In recent year the study of Sikh heritage in Pakistan has branched into more specialized fields. Architecture of Sikh Shrines and Gurdwaras in Pakistan (2019) by the architect Samia Karamat documents the architecture of 14 historic Gurdwaras. The documentation includes photos of artwork, 2-D plans, building structure, material, elevation and architectural motifs. The book will prove invaluable to students of Sikh architecture and conservationists. The Samādhi Of Maharaja Ranjit Singh In Lahore: A Summation of Sikh Architectural and Decorative Practices (2018) by Nadhra Shahbaz Khan also bears mention as an important work of recent scholarship on Sikh architecture in Pakistan.

 

Jahandad

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