Heritage beyond Borders

Navjeevan Gopal
Gurdwara Nanaksar Fateh Bhinder, Sialkot

From pictorial description of a village in Pakistan where Meherban Janam Sakhi, a controversial hagiographic account of Guru Nanak Dev's birth and life journey, was believed to be written to details about the village in Pakistan where Guru Arjan Dev's brother Pirthi Chand unsuccessfully tried to make a replica of Golden Temple , a book by a US-based dentist provides an insight into as many as 84 Sikh heritage sites, majority of which have remained unexplored in Pakistan.

It took Dr Dalvir Singh Pannu 11 years to complete the book 'The Sikh Heritage - Beyond Borders' after he decided to have a go at it in 2008. The 416-page book contains details of 84 heritage sites, more than 60 of these gurdwaras, belonging to first six Sikh gurus, who had visited Pakistan.

Gurdwara Baoli Saheb Sialkot.

To make the book a reality, 46-year-old Pannu collected historical details from what he calls primary sources, which included ancient hand-written books of contemporary authors not only from Persia, India and Pakistan but also the Portuguese, Dutch writers and the European travellers.

Dr Pannu said he got inspired to research on the topic following interactions with his staff from countries like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan who work in his six dental facilities in the United States.

He engaged a large team of professional photographers from Pakistan, visited the country twice in 2008 and 2016 and got drone photography and videography of the identified sites done. This November, he went there for the release of the book at major academic institutes across the country.

"Not all gurdwaras have domes I found. At places, there are gurdwaras where people are living. They were aware that this is some historical site but did not know how important it was for the Sikhs. There were historical places which were being used for example as a cattle feeding area. With appeals and at times with gentler approach, I was able to convince the owners to maintain the sacred character of such sites," says Pannu.

Dr Dalvir Singh Pannu

"The good news is that the frescos and interiors are in good condition. The structures have the simplest of the architecture, some in yellow colour. These are elegant and glamorous buildings in contrast to the marbled ones which are being made at other places in the name of giving shrines a facelift," said Pannu, who had an inaugural launch of the full-colour Chicago manual style formatted coffee table book at Kapurthala on November 10.

Pannu said he had identified around 260 such heritage sites in Pakistan and would come up with two subsequent editions of the book with details about the remaining marvels.

The book also contains contradicting historical accounts of various authors about the same events, thus throwing open a new window of research on the Sikh history. For instance, he explains, the Janam Sakhis (hagiography/birth and life journey story) contain details about the miraculous power of the Sikh gurus, something proponents of other religions mock at times. "But, a comparative analysis of the hagiographies written before the advent of Sikh gurus revealed that in our subcontinent it was normal to attach supernatural phenomenon to gurus and saints to promote piety among the faithful and get new followers," said Pannu, adding that through the book he has tried to convey that those who wrote Janam Sakhis were likely to have borrowed this theme from the earlier writings.

Pannu has also added the geographical coordinates of each building to allows readers to virtually visit the place.

"The book presents a new account in connection with Guru Arjan Dev's martyrdom. Without being judgmental, I have pieced together different accounts of historians and writers at that time. And it shows many new things. It is very good for the researchers," said Dr Pannu, who initially practised as a dentist at Phagwara, near his village Pharala in Nawanshahr district in Punjab for about two years before moving to the United States and starting dental practice there in 2000.

Dr Pannu said San Jose Public Library with its treasure of rare publications and unpublished manuscripts was of tremendous help to him.

He also gathered details from sources in Farsi and Urdu and tallied those with information obtained from Indian Law Reports in British archives.

"There is a very detailed account of legal battles when SGPC tried to gain control of gurdwaras from Udasi Mahants. For example, a lawsuit relating to Gurdwara Sahib Manak Lahore where SGPC had a long legal fight has a lot of information about the gurdwara," said Pannu.

"After having done research for the book I can say now that there is a lot of scope for research and scholarly exchange. Even if five students cross over from Amritsar to Lahore and vice versa daily, many new aspects of Sikh history could emerge," said Pannu.

"I want my book to be placed in educational institutions and I want Sikh bodies like SGPC and DSGMC to come forward and promote more such research," said Dr Pannu, whose bibliography, index et al extends over 30 pages.