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Seduced by a Heritage Fast Disappearing in the Mists of Time

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A map of the places which were major settlements and towns during the reign of Ranjit Singh’s Empire in 1839

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: It is often said that preening into your past becomes an intoxicating drink that only takes you delving further and further back in Time and you have to be pulled back to share what you found. In the case of Amardeep Singh, who had read books on the history of the Punjab and in whom burned the desire to revisit the jewels of a bygone age, that look backward was at a whole architectural and cultural heritage which was fast crumbling through neglect and lack of practitioners, in a land that had been divided seven decades ago.

After 21 years of working as the head of Asia Management for American Express, Singh could no longer control the impulse inside him to learn more about the places he had heard about from his elders and all those that history books had described. For him, the epic narratives of nineteen century cartographers Lt. Alexander Burnes (who was later hacked to death by Afghans), William Moorcroft and the nineteen-year-old George Trebeck were as fascinating for their contributions as spies for the British Empire as for what the travelogues revealed of the terrain and the people during the zenith of Raja Ranjit Singh’s rule around 1839.

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Amardeep Singh spoke passionately of the please he visited in Pakistan in search of his Punjabi heritage

When he could hold back no more, Singh, who lives in Singapore, decided on taking a year-long sabbatical from working in the corporate world to visit these sites himself, “My health was really down in 2013 and I decided to stop working if I had to live,” recalled Singh as he spoke to a full hall of over 200 at India House on Wednesday, June 15, with a surprising large number of Sikhs, who had never even stepped into the building since its inception, in the audience.  “When my health had returned,” he continued, “I remembered my father’s recollections of Muzaffarabad and thought of going to Pakistan.”

Armed with his facts and history books, and his cameras (as he is an avid photographer), Singh went to the Pakistani Embassy and objected when he received a ten-day visitor’s visa, instead demanding – and receiving – a 30-day visa to travel unrestricted all over the country. He visited 36 places in 30 days and stayed only two nights in a hotel, otherwise staying in ancient Gurudwaras or the homes of people he met. He counts 14 such Pakistanis who were like-minded and whom he connected with as his good friends. “It was one man’s journey in search of community roots,” Singh told the rapt audience, “and it happened due to Divine intervention. It was a labor of love from the prime years of my career.”

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Gary Hanspal gave a brief introduction of the book and its author, Amardeep Singh

In those 30 days, Singh visited many of the sites of the former undivided Punjab – 80 percent of which went to Pakistan after it was created by the Partition in 1947. He visited the few Gurdwaras, still barely functioning by the 12,000 Paktoon Sikhs in the country, and the many more which were crumbling through neglect and the even more temples which were fast disappearing. He visited Muzaffarabad and stayed only a day. “There I saw the Neelum River where it makes a sharp U-turn and was reminded of the U-turn that the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims made in 1947.”He related the story of Noori whose parents were killed on the Muzaffarabad Bridge massacre of Sikhs and who was then raised as a Muslim.

In the process of his travels, taking pictures and notes, Singh became an “accidental historian but I infuse emotions into the narrative.” What emerged for him is a picture of an undivided Punjab that was truly a secular empire during the time of Ranjit Singh and beyond. He remembered visiting a grave, inscribed “Ghulam Sarwar, vlad (son of) Makhan Singh” in a Manshera graveyard. He related more examples of the mixing of the population and realized that all religions had coexisted side-by-side. “In partitions of lands, the Third Generation always asks the questions,” Singh declared, “just like the Syrians will many decades later” referring to the conflict in the Middle East.

It took Singh 14 months to put his book “Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan” together, during which he “was lost to my wife and two daughters”. And since the publication of the 504 page volume interspersed with 507 photographs of historic monuments, forts, battlegrounds, commercial and residential establishments and places of worship, Singh has travelled to 40 events across the world to promote it. In virtually all the events, he asks what his audience first thinks of when thinking of Pakistan, and the Sikhs almost always give the same answers: Lahore, and the Gurdwaras at Panja Sahib and Nanak Sahib.

But Singh admonishes his audience that the history and heritage of the Punjab was much more varied and vibrant and to be inquisitive about it, but is in sore need of their attention before a large portion of their legacy crumbles into dust. “Seven decades later, 70 per cent of these heritage sites have been wiped out, and the rest are crumbling.”

Singh was brought to Houston by his friend Gary Hanspal who gave a brief introduction on his work. The event, which concluded with a buffet dinner by Madras Pavilion, was sponsored by Bal Sareen, a Trustee of India House. Copies of the book were available for sale and those wishing one of their own can order the book Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan by Amardeep Singh online at www.lostheritagebook.com or through the author’s publishers in India who will air ship it to a local address.

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