Review of Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics

Rare record of a glorious heritage

Harish Dhillon

Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics
by Bhayee Sikander Singh and Roopinder Singh. Rupa. Pages 204.

Sikh Heritage: Ethos and RelicsFor almost all my adult life, both as a teacher and a writer, I have been a trader in words and have done fairly well for myself in this capacity. Yet, today, when I sit down to review this book my trade fails me. What do you say about a book that is so beautiful that once you hold it in your hand, you do not want to put it down? What do you say about a book which has pictures that move you with their beauty and inspire in you a deep feeling of reverence? What do you say about a book which has a text so interesting and fascinating that you want to read it again and again? Only superlatives come to mind and superlatives are not enough to make up a review. So inadequate as my review may finally be, I am compelled to take a shot at writing it.

The book had its genesis in the exhibition entitled: Sikhs: Legacy of the Punjab mounted by the Smithsonian Institute and in the annual Sikh Heritage lectures that the Institute conducts. As an outcome of these two projects, Dr Paul Michael Taylor, Director, Asian Cultural History Program of the Institute suggested that keeping in mind the wealth of information and the number of relics associated with the subject that were now available, Bhayee Sikandar Singh might be able to locate scholars who could write a book on the subject. Bhayee Sikandar Singh’s reaction was immediate and definite: He would do it himself. So for the next five years, he and his co-author, Roopinder Singh, laboured tirelessly and this beautiful book is the result.

Heritage, as the authors remind us in the introduction, takes two forms — the tangible and the intangible. The relics that the book images, are representatives of the tangible Sikh heritage, while the Gurus’ teachings and mandate are the intangible heritage. What the book seeks to do is to use the tangible heritage, the relics, to describe for us the intangible heritage against which these relics claim their value.

The book is divided into two sections: “Ethos” and “Heritage”. In the first section, without wasting a single word and without being pedantic, the writers give us the historical, political and social background against which the Sikh religion was born. Then in quick, sweeping movements, but without missing out on any important details, they take us through the entire sweep of Sikh history, providing us with essential points of the lives and teachings of each of the Gurus, thorough Banda Singh Bahadur’s war against the Mughals, the establishing of the first Sikh empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and then onto more recent times: the British colonial rule, the Singh Sabha movement, the freedom fighters, the emigrants, stopping for breath only with the Partition. The entire gamut of Sikh history is there for us to delve into and the text is more than amply supported by rare, archival images.

The second section “Heritage” gives us a look at a mind-boggling range of relics which are a tangible representation of the intangible Sikh ethos. This section begins with a note on locating relics and then goes on to tell us about the custodians of the relics that have been published in the book. So we learn about Bhai Rup Chand, his association with the Guru, the gift of the relics and then the genealogy of the current custodians of Bhai Rupa and Bagrian. This is followed by an awe-inspiring darshan of the various relics in Bhai Rupa, many of them being published for the first time, with an accompanying explanatory note for each relic. The same pattern is followed in the accounts pertaining to the Phulkian states: Patiala and Nabha.

The entire range of relics depicted is unbelievably wide sweeping. Old paintings, illuminated manuscripts, utensils from the langar, cots, wooden kharawan, documents in the handwriting of the Gurus, musical instruments, hukamnamas of Mata Sundari and Banda Bahadur, swords and daggers, arrows, and many, many more. Most of these once belonged to the Gurus and were gifted to the ancestors of the present custodians. Each of them represents not only a historical episode in the lives of the Gurus, but also the love that the Gurus had for the recipient of this precious gift. Most of all, they represent the reverence which an entire community feels welling up in the breast of each of its members whenever a reference is made to the Gurus. Though the book is priced at Rs 1,500, it is truly invaluable in every sense of the word.


Author of eleven books, Dr Harish Dhillon has taught English for forty-four years. He has been Principal of Lawrence School, Sanawar, and the two Yadavindra Public Schools at Patiala and Mohali.

Review of Sikh Heritage: Ethos & Relics by Dr Harish Dhillon

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