The Sikhs are fortunate to have many well-preserved relics that belonged to the Gurus. Their significance is timeless. Yet, many remain unaware of this vast treasure. Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics elucidates the essence of Sikhism, and entwined with it, the history and lore of the people of Punjab. Through photographs and descriptions of many hitherto unseen relics of Sikh heritage bestowed by the upon the disciples, the authors place each artefact in its historical cont broad perspective of Sikh heritage powerfully to each one of us.
Every relic, every article is a living symbol of the Sikh ethos. Included here are priceless artefacts in the custody of the descendants of Bhai Rup Chand. The Maharajas of Patiala and Nabha still have significant collections which find a special place in this profusely illustrated volume that welcomes the reader with unsurpassed clarity and sensitivity to the world of Sikh heritage, an endearing blend of art, enthusiasm and knowledge. The authors have used their thorough undemanding of Sikh ethos to give us a profound feeling for all that has been left behind by the Sikh Gurus.
About the Authors
BHAYEE SIKANDAR SINGH has an MBA degree from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and a Master's degree in English Literature from Delhi University. He is a scion of the Bagrian family, whose ancestor Bhai Rup Chand was blessed by Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru. Bhayee Sikandar Singh acquired the knowledge of classical languages and scriptures at an early age. He is the co-founder of Nishaan, a journal about Sikhs.
ROOPINDER SINGH read philosophy at St. Stephen's College, Delhi, and earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Delhi University. A journalist who worked in New York earlier, Roopinder is now a deputy editor with The Tribune, Chandigarh. A prize-winning photographer, he is the author of Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh DFC (2002) and Guru Nanak: His Life and Teachings (2004).
It is an honour for me, on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution's Sikh Heritage Project, to introduce this truly unique volume of new perspectives on the material and the intangible heritage of the Sikhs. This book's two authors have worked in a unique partnership that transcended their individual accomplishments. Bhayee Sikandar Singh is co-editor of the magazine Nishaan. His position within the cultural life of the Punjab gives him unprecedented access. His upbringing, training and interest give him a unique insight into the subject that he has tackled in this book.
Roopinder Singh is deputy editor of the 131-year-old daily newspaper, The Tribune, which is the largest circulated English newspaper in North India. A respected editor, scholar, journalist and an accomplished photographer, he is author of many books, including a critically-acclaimed volume on the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak Dev.
Together, they worked for five years and combined their different kinds of expertise to write with profound authority and eloquence. As a result of this successful teamwork the general reader-even those readers with little awareness of Sikh traditions-will surely feel the powerful appeal of being led along the very same paths trodden by the founding Gurus of Sikhism. The immediacy and presence of history is all around us as we read this book, particularly because history inheres within the Sikh 'relics' or heirloom heritage objects from throughout the Punjab and beyond, in ways that few, if any other, authors could more authentically describe.
As the authors note, many of the families who own the heirloom artefacts most directly associated with the earliest founders of the Sikh faith have made them available for publication here for the first time, for which historians and the public owe a debt of gratitude to these families, to the authors and to the many others who have helped bring this book to print.
Working together with the Sikh Heritage Foundation (of Weirton, West Virginia), the Smithsonian Institution, as America's national museum, was pleased to play an early role in encouraging the authors to bring together the great wealth of information that they have produced in the present book. Certainly, the topic and subject- matter of the objects described here had been a subject of interest and preliminary study within the Smithsonian's Sikh Heritage Project, founded in 2000 with the support of many donors, including those who later set up the (independent) Sikh Heritage Foundation.
In April 2003, at the third of the Smithsonian's annual Sikh Heritage Lectures (held that year in Livonia, Michigan), Dr Gurpreet K. Maini presented an informative and well-illustrated lecture on family heirloom collections of Sikh relics in the Bagrian family, to which Bhayee Sikandar Singh belongs. She called everyone's attention to their importance for art history and for understanding the broader cultural history of the region. Also participating that year from Chandigarh was the distinguished museum administrator and scholar Mohan Singh, who concurred with the importance of registering and publishing such private collections. Both these scholars were extremely helpful later when, in June 2006, the Smithsonian co-organised, with the Anandpur Sahib Foundation, in cooperation with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Sikh Heritage Foundation, the international conference on 'New Technologies for Preservation, Research, Exhibition, and Publication'. Held primarily in Chandigarh, with site visits at Patiala and Anandpur Sahib, this conference was sponsored by the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) of Washington, DC, and New Delhi.
Bhayee Sikandar Singh was quite generous when I, later, (in May 2007) proposed to him that perhaps our project might be able to locate some scholars of material culture who could write a book about these previously unpublished relics within the important collection of his own family at Bagrian. After a pause he responded, 'I'd rather write it myself.' Subsequently, he got Roopinder Singh on board and they have indeed masterfully produced the present volume. Instead of confining the narrative to relics in the possession of the descendants of Bhai Rup Chand, both at Bhai Rupa and Bagrian, they have enlarged the scope of the book and included the important Phulkian families of Patiala and Nabha, whose Maharajas have significant collections (indeed the collections of the Maharaja of Patiala were among those which the Smithsonian conference participants in 2006 were allowed to visit and examine, for which we all remain extremely grateful), as well as the families at Sursinghwala, Darauli, Bilga and other places. Roopinder Singh has taken most of the pictures of the relics.
The resulting book is a unique and very important document. It is detailed, beautifully illustrated, systematic, and intellectually rigorous-yet, not at all like a typical museum catalogue of a public or private collection. The 'systematic' nature of the book is not in the descriptions of the media that make up the objects, nor of their forms. It is, rather, in the thoroughgoing and systematic placement of each object within a historical sequence of actions by the earliest founders and developers of the Sikh tradition, as that can now expertly be deduced from the highly localised oral and written traditions of Sikh cultural studies. It is, therefore, most logical that the authors chose to begin this book on Sikh relics by summarising, in their own authoritative voice, the history and ethos of the Sikhs, with special emphasis on the ten Gurus, whose actions, teachings, and relations with individuals (and their descendants) most directly infuse the objects within family collections described in the latter part of the book.
Both the Sikh Heritage Foundation and the Smithsonian hope that this book will be the first of a series of books presenting new and previously unpublished material alongside authentic and well documented voices and interpretations of Sikh heritage. The costs towards the production of the book have generously been supported by the Sikh Heritage Foundation of Weirton, West Virginia, and especially by two of that city's households who made the book possible, Dr Amrik S. Chattha and Mrs Jaswinder Kaur Chattha, and Dr Charan Singh Nandra and Mrs Surinder Kaur Nandra. The assistance provided by Dr Gurpreet Maini, and the efforts of both this book's authors, have all been a purely unpaid work of great service to scholars and the public. Our profound thanks go out to all of them, and to all the 'Keepers of the Heritage' families who have shared their unique place in history through the pages of this book.
The Sikh religion is founded in reality. The Sikh Gurus were not mythological characters or flights of poetic imagination. They were real and walked this earth, living the life of ordinary people, fulfilling their social and familial responsibilities, even as they performed extraordinary deeds. The Gurus are exemplars for all Sikhs as their lives can, and should, be emulated.
Every time a Sikh prays, he invokes the memory of the Gurus, recounts their lives and cites them as his role models. There is a continuity of connect between the living Sikh and his heritage, extending all the way back through history to the days of the Gurus.
Some families are blessed because of their association with the Gurus, which is recalled through oral tradition and/or recorded in contemporary texts. The tangible manifestations of their heritage are the articles bestowed upon them by the Gurus, at times things the Gurus had personally used, which keep the ethos alive.
Heritage is both tangible and intangible. The Gurus' gifts are the tangible heritage and their directions and mandates are the intangible aspect. The real import of tangible elements of heritage comes alive when projected against the background of the intangible heritage, which, in a way, is the ethos of the people. Every relic, every article is a living symbol of ethos and reminder of a living heritage, which strengthens the community's will and cause.
The gifts of the Gurus, the artefacts associated with their lives and their belongings are sacred for the 'Keepers of Heritage', the families blessed by the Gurus. The reverence with which they keep them vouch for their authenticity.
These gifts have to be nourished, cherished, and generations have to be consecrated to uphold them. The Keepers have an allegiance to the way of the life taught by the Gurus and have helped keep the Sikh maryada (practices) pristine over centuries of hardship and glory. What they have in their possession, in remote areas or in Gurdwaras associated with Sikh history, was for a long time not exposed to exploitation or commercialisation.
It is our bounden duty to preserve these articles of heritage. We must help these custodians to preserve these artefacts. In modern-day conflicts, collections in museums and big cities become vulnerable, as was the case in Iraq and, nearer home, in the destruction of the Sikh Reference Library in Amritsar and the Gurus' relics kept at the Akal Takht. Heritage items preserved in small villages or personal collections have the advantage of being spread out widely.
In our selection of the collections, we have chosen a few families that are interlinked with Sikh history and religion and whose mutual associations date back to the Guru period.
As we shall see, one man's love and devotion (sidak) earned him the status of the Guru's brother, Bhai. But that man's consecrated life and utter faith bestowed honour unparalleled on generations to come and inspired his progeny to live up to the Guru's trust and serve the community for generations.
Bhai Rup Chand's family has been the central axis round which Sikhi grew in the Malwa area, and was among the first to assist the tenth Guru to rebuild the community after the exodus from Anandpur in 1705-6. The Phulkian families were the pillars of the community in this area. Thus, these families form the central scene of the presentation.
Of late, numerous items have emerged, with the owners claiming historical/religious import. One has to be wary about such claims. The questions we posed to ourselves were: was there a historical relationship of the possessor with the Guru, or record of the Guru visiting the place on an occasion during which the articles could have been bestowed? Do the present custodians have continuity of possession? Besides other resources, we found Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha's Gurshabad Ratnakar Mahankosh, an encyclopaedia of Sikh religion, first published in 1930, as the most authentic source, and as such we have relied heavily on its affirmations.
Time past and time present are both present in time future. Heritage artefacts, preserved and faithfully documented history, have helped rebuild a people even after thousands of years. Every relic, every article is a live symbol of the ethos and a reminder of the living heritage, which strengthens the community's will and cause. Preservation of our past and conservation of today will help our future.
A journey into the Sikh ethos, history, theology and lore is imperative for one to understand the significance of the relics of Sikh heritage cherished and held sacred by those upon whom they were bestowed. We undertook this exploration and, having taken a path less travelled, we now feel we must share the wonders we discovered on this expedition with you, dear reader.
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