Minority communities in South Asia are fascinating examples of movement of ideas, people, and religion. After the 1947 Partition, Hindus and Sikhs migrated from the newly formed Pakistan to the world over, and especially to India. The conversations about war and peace between the two countries tend to revolve around Hindus and Muslims. The religion of Sikhism may not configure into these issues, especially for the Western readers, and yet the Radcliffe line that partitioned the subcontinent also separates two of the holiest shrines of the Sikhs.
Pakistan is the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. When the Sikhs left the country in 1947, they left behind several sacred sites along with the stories related to these sites as mentioned in the hagiographic narratives about Guru Nanak. It is in this context that Dalvir S Pannu, by career a dentist based in the US, makes a unique contribution to help readers realize the extent of the loss to the Sikh community and heritage in general.
Pannu’s monumental book is a work about faith and the crisis the followers of the faith suffer with the loss of access to the location of their origins.
In The Sikh Heritage: Beyond Borders, Pannu, puts together photographs and stories of 84 gurudwaras spread across 5 districts in Pakistan: Nankana Sahib, Sialkot, Kasur, Lahore, and Narowal. A gurudwara is the place where the Sikhs worship: it houses the sacred book Guru Granth Sahib.
Pannu visited Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai with the intention of taking his family to “visit, at least once, their ancestral homeland where they could appreciate their lost heritage.” He went on to research the gurudwaras in Pakistan for over a decade. The book is an excellent resource (for those interested in heritage management), a remnant of Partition, a book about nostalgia, and an intimate history of the sacred sites.
The author’s dedication to the cause and the emotion towards the sacred geography is unmissable. His motive is clear in the way he frames his calling. The gurudwaras call out to him, he says:
We are waiting. We are waiting for the everlasting peace to prevail in the region so that the heritage connoisseurs can visit us freely. And, if anyone wishes to renovate us, please do not strip us of our originality in the name of “kar sewa” or “restoration”; instead, kindly hire experts in preserving the ancient monuments. In return, we promise to make you touch and feel the glorious history of Sikhs, which you might otherwise have only read about in books.
The emotional appeal behind the book is complemented with solid data: as per the 2017 data cited by Pannu, the Sikh population in Pakistan is miniscule. Except for the most famous gurudwaras, most of these places of worship are in ruins. The author hopes that the Government of Pakistan and the Sikh diaspora shall take notice of the dire conditions of the Sikh community as well as its sacred geography.
The book includes numerous stories about Guru Nanak as quotes from the Janamsakhis (as the hagiographic accounts are called). One around the Gurudwara Sacha (Khara) Sauda in Farooqabad helps explain the gurudwara’s name. The words “Sacha Sauda” or “Khara Sauda” mean “a true bargain”. The story goes that Guru Nanak was once given some money by his father to invest in trade and start business as a merchant. However, the saint met some hungry mendicants on the way to the market. He used the money to buy them food. As might have been expected, his father scolded him for wasting the money. In reply, Guru Nanak repeated what he said to his friend while asking him to buy the food:
O Bala, think about it, there is no better trade than this one in the world.
We should feed the saints that we have across in this secluded place.
The book is also replete with historical sources. Archives like gazetteers appear in discussions about the history these gurudwaras have lived through. The Babe Di Ber Gurudwara in Sialkot was the first one to be reformed under Singh Sabha agitation, “a movement to free the shrines from the control of the corrupt… clergy.” The sources cited include international newspapers, such as an article by the renowned Marxist Evelyn Trent-Roy writing for The Communist.
Pannu’s monumental book is a work about faith and the crisis the followers of the faith suffer with the loss of access to the location of their origins. Though the Kartarpur Corridor connecting the Gurudwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Pakistan with the Dera Baba Nanak Saheb Gurudwara in India now allows Sikhs from India to visit one of the holiest sacred sites of Sikhism, the rest of the shrines remain inaccessible.
The documentation and the appeal in The Sikh Heritage will remind readers that more milestones need to be reached to address the consequences of regional politics on religion. The stories about the Guru are beautiful, never sentimental; the photographs make the point they need to about the state the shrines are in. The book is a rare outcome of an objective treatment of a subject that can otherwise easily get out of hand and become nothing more than a blame game.