Paradise lost: Sikh historian chronicles rule of his ancestors

Says it is imperative to preserve their culture

Hidayat Khan February 04, 2016
The book is an attempt to trace the shared heritage and culture of three countries with focus on the Sikh Empire. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

PESHAWAR: Not enough about Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Sikh heritage is recorded, but one Bobby Singh Bansal has taken it upon himself to change just that. He says his new book, Remnants of the Sikh Empire, shines a spotlight on undiscovered sites such as forts, havelis, memorials, mansions and palaces that are yet to be documented.

“My estimation is there are over 30 major Sikh [heritage] sites in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata,” the British-born historian and filmmaker tells The Express Tribune. He recently launched his book with the magnificent Jamrud Fort on the cover.

A history lost

“I am not satisfied with the condition of Sikh forts with the exception of those under the Frontier Corps.” He was referring to the Jamrud, Balahissar Peshawar, Bannu, Shabqadar and Haripur forts. At the same time, mansions and other iconic architectural wonders are on the verge of vanishing. The famous tomb of Akali Phula Singh at Nowshera is an example of neglect.

The book is an attempt to trace the shared heritage and culture of three countries with focus on the Sikh Empire and it catalogues historic structures associated with the nobles and courtiers from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time in the early 19th century.

The author also sheds light on the cultural and architectural landscape of the 19th century. “Remnants of the Sikh Empire catapults the reader into an unforgettable journey,” says the writer. He believes his work will engage people in the subject and help them understand Sikh contribution in the 19th century was indelible.

Beyond borders

Bansal has been working since 1989 on Sikh heritage and has travelled to tricky regions of the Pakistan-Afghan border to collect information first hand. His book took four years in the making as it was difficult to travel due to militancy and he had to wait for security forces’ permission. However, he recalls the “hospitality and kindness in field work” allowed the completion of a seemingly herculean task.

This region is rich in Sikh heritage and sites of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire extended from the Indus River to China, Kashmir, the borders of Sindh and the Sutlej River in the south, which lies in modern-day Pakistan. Only 10% of that empire is now in India; Amritsar and Jammu. The remaining 90% is in the country, said Bansal. Numerous writers have compiled their studies on it.

Turning an image

He adds history has been distorted by unethical historians who have portrayed Ranjit Singh as a “looter”.

“Removing stones from certain monuments does not make him a looter.” He says those who truly looted India have been presented as heroes.

Bansal says Ranjit Singh built more mosques and Hindu shrines all over his kingdom than Sikh gurdwaras. He adds the ruler was a secular king.

Ranjit Singh was the first Punjabi to control the volatile area of the Pukhtuns; something even the mighty Russians could not achieve in the 20th century. Though his rule was firm, Ranjit could not have achieved such success had it not been for his loyal commander General Hari Singh Nalwa.

“We need a leader like Maharaja Ranjit Singh or Hari Singh Nalwa to restore peace and tranquillity in the region; a feat the US or its allies could not achieve.

The book states Sikh heritage sites in Pakistan are crucial to the country’s cultural heritage. It is suggested heritage should be preserved not just to please the Sikhs, but to promote tourism and educate those who are unaware of the contribution of Sikh rulers. “This book will certainly promote tourism in Pakistan through the legacy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh,” says Bansal.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th,  2016.


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