“If you could visit any place in Pakistan, where would you go?” asks Amardeep Singh whenever he gives a talk to introduce his recently published travelogue Lost Heritage – The Sikh Legacy In Pakistan.
The question, aimed primarily at Sikh members of the audience, invariably elicits two answers: Sikh holy places. Their ancestral village.
It was the same in Boston on June 18, 2016 at the E-5 Center where Amardeep Singh gave his 42nd such talk. He understands the response all too well. After all, he too once had the same “myopic” reasons, as he says, for wanting to go to Pakistan, which he considers his “homeland”, being the land of his ancestors and also where Sikhdom’s holiest sites are located, like Nanankana Sahib, birth place of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru.
But when Singh did finally fulfill his dream to visit the country in October 2014, he had an epiphany halfway through his solitary trip that changed the meaning of his travels. It also changed the course of his life. He realised that reducing Pakistan to religion was doing a disservice to the country, its people and the larger cause of humanity.
The process may have begun earlier, when Singh applied for a visa at the Pakistan embassy in Singapore, where he has lived for the past 16 years. When the visa officer handed him back his passport, Singh refused to take it.
“I am going to my homeland for the first time,” said Singh, who was born in Gorakhpur, India, in 1966. “And you want to restrict me to ten days?”
The officer laughed and said he would increase the visa duration to 30 days. Emboldened, Singh pushed further. He wanted a visa for the entire country, not just two or three cities, and he wanted it to include “Pakistan Administered Kashmir” – the term that he prefers to use rather than the loaded “Pakistan occupied Kashmir” or “Azad Kashmir”. He suggests using such neutral language, also for “Indian Administered Kashmir” in an attempt to convey an acceptance of the reality that Pakistan or India manage the region, plus “it allows us to balance and focus on the core message of the book”.
Singh is “deeply grateful” to the Pakistan government for granting him a 30-day, non-police reporting country (rather than city-specific) visa – facilities normally denied most Indian / and Indian-origin travelers and vice versa.
But perhaps the story of the metamorphosis of a corporate banker into a photographer/travel writer starts even earlier. Singh was never a “corporate junkie”, even while working with American Express first in Hong Kong and then Singapore as head of revenue management.
He undertook many solitary trekking holidays in remote, far flung areas in India, Tibet and other places throughout his 25-year banking career. Then there was his love for history and travel that led him to devour travelogues like British era explorers like William Mooncroft (1819) and Alexander Burns (1831), and later accounts like Alice Albania’s ‘Empires of the Indus’.
Those experiences — travel with no access to the outside world, reading historical accounts and travelogues, photography, writing – he feels, were “God’s way” of preparing him. The dots joined organically. The Pakistan ‘pilgrimage’ that he initially started with, his life’s pursuit, became not the culmination of a dream but the starting point of another journey powered by secular, universal ideals.
Historical traumas like the cataclysmic 1947 Partition of India with its ensuing bloodshed produces a first generation that doesn’t talk, observes Amardeep. The second is lost. The third, to which he belongs, goes in pursuit of the stories.
His father was born in Muzaffarabad, in the western-most frontier of the former princely state of Kashmir that both India and Pakistan lay claim to and which in turn claims independence. Amardeep turned up to try and find his roots in Pakistan in 2013 like a wanderer on a pilgrimage, carrying three pairs of clothes, his camera, and the contacts of a couple of Facebook friends. “A madman in love” is how one audience member describes him.
In Pakistan, Singh says that he met and connected with 14 Pakistanis who were on a similar pursuit, to discover their common heritage. And all of them were Muslim. Singh realized that the legacy that they shared could not be easily compartmentalised into “Muslim” or “Sikh”.
The “Sikh Empire” touted in the history narrated by the British colonists and their successors, was actually deeply secular. The distortion of history has meant other, more dangerous falsehoods being perpetrated, like the basis-less rumour that Sikhs converted the Badshahi mosque in Lahore into a stable for horses. On the contrary, Ranjit Singh in fact gave financial grants to the Badshahi Masjid.
In the pre-partition era, Sikhs had invested heavily in creating the Khalsa schools and colleges, which imparted excellent education to students of all faiths. Abandoned by the departed community, these today operate as Islamia schools and colleges.
He also came across many non turban-wearing followers of the Sikh Guru Nanak in Pakistan, all of Pashtun origin and from the Khyber area.
These realisations – about the secular or syncretic nature of what he had assumed was a “Sikh” heritage — pushed Singh beyond his original limited goal of taking a fistful of earth back from Muzaffarbad as a momento for his family. It stopped him in his tracks as he picked up some riverbank soil at the site of a bloody massacre of Sikhs soon after Partition.
The place is known as “Domel”, where the Jhelum River meets the Neelum River. (“We even ascribe religion to our natural resources,” comments Singh, referring to the Muslim name, Neelum, for the waters known as Kishan Ganga on the Indian-administered side).
On October 21, 1947, a war cry arose over the hills that the local non-Muslims were ill-prepared to counter: Loot the Hindus, behead the Sikhs. Armed marauders herded some 300 Sikhs to the bridge on “Domel”. Shots rang out. Among the bodies that toppled into the river were the grandparents (Nana and Nani) of Amardeep Singh’s wife.
Also killed were both parents of five-year old Jaswanti. A Muslim neighbour the next morning found the little girl scrambling along the riverbank looking for her father and mother. He took her into his own home, renamed her Noori, and brought her up as his daughter.
Jaswanti/ Noor is Amardeep’s distant “bhua” (aunt) related to his father. In his book he relates the stranger-than-fiction story of how she was found in 1998 and connected to her to the Sikh side of her family. At 73 years, today she continues to live in Pakistan as a Muslim.
Amardeep recounts how, looking at the bridge over the river, he let the soil fall back to the earth from his hands at “Domel”. It was what he had come for. But he realised that the lesson he wanted to impart to his children was different. This souvenir could remind them forever of hatred and bloodshed.
“I went to get soil but came back with a book,” he says. The soil would have been just for his daughters. The book however is a reference for coming generations of future traveler and history lovers.
In the two weeks he had spent so far in Pakistan, Amardeep had realised that the “Sikh legacy” of this land went far beyond gurudwaras and ancestral homes, and was in fact not limited to adherents of the Sikh faith. The legacy lived on in human interactions, experiences, memories, music, poetry, spirituality and other aspects of a shared history that belongs not just to Sikhs but also to Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others. For example, others too lay claim to rituals, poetry and music that Sikhs consider to be “theirs” This legacy, he stresses, is secular in nature.
Throughout his journey, Amardeep used the lens, not of a pilgrim, but of a traveler chronicling socio-historical aspects.
An important aspect of this lens is to place the contemporary reality of gurudwaras and havelis built and owned by Sikhs into a historical context without blame or judgment. Many of these buildings are being used as police stations, libraries or people’s homes. The mass cross-border exodus left these buildings abandoned, and those who came to this land were bound to fill the vacuum for their own survival.
Putting things in context also means being able to see the positive aspects, like the fact that the Pakistan government has since 1980s been looking after the holy places of non-Muslims. With the mass exodus of an entire community, the government can’t possibly maintain every aspect of the heritage but clearly the intent is there, as Amardeep stresses. The number of functional gurudwaras in the Punjab has increased from one to twenty-three over the past decades. Several Hindu temples has also been revived. People of all faiths must support and encourage these moves even though they may be, as Singh “the tip of the iceberg” given the magnitude of the issue.
Amardeep also holds responsible for the neglect those who have kept silent rather than being vocal in demanding that this heritage be preserved. Sikhs who visit Pakistan don’t even ask to visit the Lahore Museum, he observes. Due to the lack of demand the Museum’s Sikh Gallery has been closed as Amardeep discovered when he tried to see it.
Pakistani Sikhs, he observes, are in general too poor and focused on their own survival to pay attention to such higher pursuits. It is up to the diaspora — increasing numbers of whom now visit Pakistan for religious reasons — to push for these demands beyond religion.
After Partition, practically the only Sikhs left in Pakistan were those living in the Pashtun areas bordering Afghanistan. Post 9/11 Taliban inroads into the region, accompanied by attacks on religious minorities forced large numbers to flee to the Punjab. Many Sikhs took refuge in the Gurdwara Punja Sahib at Hassan Abdal, says Singh. He notes that Pakistan has for years been combating militancy while also reviving the historical religious sites belonging to religious minorities.
All in all, Amardeep Singh’s message is clearly not limited to Sikhs and Punjab or Pakistan. It is about the need to go beyond surface identities and labels to an interconnected, secular past, and universal values. This is not just about the past but the way to a more harmonious way forward.
This article was first published in Himal Southasian. Amardeep Singh’s “Lost Heritage – The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan” is a monumental 504-page book, weighing 3 Kg, with 507 photos complementing the story line. It can be ordered at www.lostheritagebook.com