Amardeep Singh grew up hearing about the beauty of the Punjab and reading about the might of the Sikhs who rose to power there in the late 1700s.
In his book, Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy In Pakistan, he explores many of the places he had heard about, places connected to Sikhs and their gurus in the region, making them come alive for readers.
After 1947, many of these iconic sites were no longer in Sikh hands. That was when the Indian subcontinent was Partitioned into two independent countries: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Millions of non-Muslims were forced to move across the border to India and vice versa, with violence breaking out between the communities.
About 80% of the Punjab, including many historical sites linked to the Sikhs – such as Lahore, the birthplace of Sikhism.
“When I embarked on this documentation, the motivation was the 180-year-old travelogues made by the British at the time they entered the Greater Punjab.
“That’s when I thought, if the old travelogues could motivate me after two centuries, then perhaps a book could motivate someone in the future and, indeed, for posterity,” Amardeep said on Jan 23 at the launch of Lost Heritage at Universiti Malaya’s Languages and Linguistics Faculty.
The launch was organised and coordinated by the Malaysian Young Sikh Leaders Initiative with the collaboration of the Coalition of Malaysian Sikh Organisations.
Amardeep spent a month in Pakistan documenting and taking photographs of iconic sites for the 504-page book, which contains 507 stunning images alongside personal anecdotes about scores of Sikh heritage sites.
The book has been a labour of love for the 49-year-old, who was born and grew up in India but is now a naturalised Singaporean.
“My father used to talk about the pristine beauty of that land. It left a lasting impact and made me want to go to these places,” said Amardeep whose father was born in Muzzaffarabad, which is in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
During Partition, Amardeep’s extended family was among those caught up in the mass migration, many losing their lives in the ensuing massacres.
Growing up, Amardeep read widely about the homeland he had never seen. He decided to quit his high-flying job in a multinational bank to follow his passion.
“Visiting Pakistan became an obsession for me and I think it was a spiritual calling,” says the father of two daughters.
He travelled to Pakistan in October 2014 and visited 36 places, including his father’s birthplace, in search of his family’s roots and, upon returning, began putting the book together.
At the launch, Amardeep reminisced about how proud he was to step into the gurdwara (temples), mansions and forts built by his community – symbols of the erstwhile Sikh residents of the region.
“A hundred years from now, many of these places will no longer exist. I don’t think they will last more than 10 to 15 years,” said the author in explaining another of the impetuses behind the project.
The structures include an 18th century fort in Haripur built by Hari Singh Nalwa – the legendary Sikh general in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army – as well as former homes of Sikhs in major cities like Lahore and Rawalpindi.
Getting to some of these places was no easy task, but everywhere he went Amardeep was warmed by the welcome he received from ordinary Pakistanis.
He also visited the Fakir Khana Museum at Lahore that holds a private collection of artefacts from the Sikh era. He met Fakir Syed Saifuddin, a descendant of the Fakir family and a fifth-generation custodian of the museum.
“I was shown the knife that belonged to Hari Singh, who had led the empire’s expansion to the north-western frontiers.
“Fakir Syed Saifuddin’s ancestors held ministerial posts in Ranjit Singh’s Cabinet. Fakir was a title bestowed on them by Ranjit Singh for their piety. Ranjit Singh appointed people on meritocracy and his immense trust in the Fakir family who were Muslims is a reflection of his secular personality,” Amardeep writes in the book.
Guru Nanak was born about 65km from Lahore in the 15th century and the place, now called Nankana Sahib, has one of a handful of functioning gurdwara left in the country. Today, there are only around 20,000 Sikhs in Pakistan, which has a population of 182 million.
Amardeep was saddened by the dilapidated state of many of the Sikh buildings he visited. Some were abandoned and crumbling. Others had been occupied by hundreds of poor families. But he also took heart that some were still standing, although turned into government offices, schools and even a library.
Amardeep told Sikh website asiasamachar.com that he plans to plough back the money raised from the sale of the hardback book to produce a cheaper print version for the masses.
“I’m not motivated by profit. I want to trigger interest to maintain key heritage sites,” he said.
Amardeep hopes the book will spur members of the Sikh diaspora around the world to work with the Pakistani Government to preserve their heritage.
“I see myself as a catalyst, taking this work across the world, and hopefully, we can save some things.”
Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy In Pakistan by Amardeep Singh (published by Nagaara Trust in association with Himalayan Books) is priced at US$80 and is available for purchase online at lostheritagebook.com; the book will also be available for purchase at the Grand Vaisakhi Event, International Youth Centre, Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, in April. For further information, e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Autar Singh at 012-205 5011.