Saturday, 27 October 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Sikh Heritage of Pakistan


The Sikh Heritage of Pakistan by Dr Safdar Ali Shah and Syed Javaid A.
Constellation Plus, Islamabad, ISBN 978-969-01-6, 100pp. Rs2,495

Reviewed by Asif Noorani

THE youngest of major religions of the world, Sikhism is only 500 years old. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was held in reverence by both Muslims and Hindus, which was why when he died the Muslims wanted to bury him, while the Hindus wanted to cremate his body.

Sikhs formed somewhere between 10 to 12 per cent of the population of undivided Punjab but they were, and still are, highly prominent by virtue of their hard work. As a result, their contribution to society is greater than their numbers.

Sikhism has its origin in what is now Pakistan, which is why a very large number of their holy sites are in our part of the Punjab. Every year thousands of Sikh pilgrims, young and old, men and women, visit these places. They come from all over the world. They also go to a secular site, the grand monument that houses the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, certainly the most distinguished of all rulers of Punjab. He lived in the Mughal Fort.

All these historical sites feature in the lovely coffee table book, The Sikh Heritage of Pakistan. The book is a labour of love put together by historian Dr Safdar Ali Shah and photographer Syed Javed A. Kazi. The third member of the dedicated team is the publisher Mansur Rashid. They had earlier produced the much-in-demand Churches of Pakistan. As in the case of its predecessor, the standard of printing of The Sikh Heritage of Pakistan is without doubt world class.

All the gurdwaras featured in this book are well-maintained, largely thanks to the Evacuee Trust Property Board of the Government of Pakistan. The one exception is the gurdwara near the dilapidated Rohtas Fort that was built by Sher Shah Suri. Another place of worship which is being restored is the Gurdwara Bhai Biba Singh in Peshawar. A few Sikh traders, who moved from the tribal areas to the capital of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, have begun to use it.

While one cannot help but marvel at the architectural beauty of many monuments, the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Gurdwara Janamasthan, where Guru Nanak spent 35 years of his life. It was later extended and beautified by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It is located in a town which was rechristened Nankana Sahib, as it is the birth place of Guru Nanak.

Another breathtakingly beautiful structure is the Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Abbottabad, which has on its premises a large rock bearing the mark of a palm believed to have been left by Guru Nanak. Every April, the Baisakhi Fair attracts a large number of Sikhs, from home and abroad.

Gurdwara Darbar Sahib is of great significance for it was here that Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life. It houses the mazaar of the Guru and his Samadhi. One carries a part of his sheet and the other the ashes of the other half of the sheet that the Guru used in his life time. His body, like Bhagat Kabeer’s, is believed to have disappeared when the Muslims and the Hindus were locked in a fierce argument about the last rites of the Guru’s mortal remains.

The book also features havelis built by the Sikhs, and the most attractive is undoubtedly the Haveli Naunihal Singh in Lahore. Also appearing in the book is a collection of sculptures and some exquisite paintings by eminent European artists. These, as also the weaponry dating back to the Sikh period, are on display at the Lahore Fort Museum.

While looking at the specimens of Sikh architecture, one cannot help but conclude that these were inspired by late Mughal architecture. The decorative ceilings, the frescoes, the filigrees and the arches were all borrowed from the Mughals.

The Sikh Heritage of Pakistan also carries Allama Iqbal’s poetic tribute to Guru Nanak. One wonders why the poem is not included in the curriculum of schools and colleges.

The two books by Safdar and Javaid are fulfilling a twofold mission; they show that Islam accepts the right of the people to follow whatever religion they wish to and that Pakistan is not about terrorism only. These two volumes should be sent in large numbers to Pakistan’s diplomatic missions for distribution among major libraries in the world.

www.dawn.com, 27th October 2012.

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