Amardeep Singh: Chronicler of a lost legacy

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by Zafar Anjum, Editor-in-chief, Kitaab

A Singaporean Sikh’s journey into the lost heritage of his community in Pakistan

Amardeep Singh“Lost Heritage—The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan” by Singapore-based Amardeep Singh is a travelogue across Pakistan, seven decades after the Partition of India in 1947. In this book, the author shares exploration of the remnants of the Sikh community that once thrived in these lands across West Punjab, North-West Frontier and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. His work covers abandoned, occupied and functional Gurdwaras (Sikh temples), forts, battlegrounds, mansions, art, architecture, spiritual remnants, education institutions, residential and commercial establishments that collectively reflect the erstwhile secularity of the region.

Born on Gorakhpur, India and schooled in the prestigious Doon, first-time author Singh, 49, studied electronics engineering at Manipal Institute of Technology in India, and later on Business Administration at the University of Chicago. For years, he worked in India and Hong Kong. In 2001, his job at American Express brought him to Singapore. Impressed with the Island nation, he opted to become a Singaporean in 2005.

In his late forties, when this father of two children hit mid-life crisis in 2013, he decided to hang his boots to answer his ‘spiritual calling’! The result of that break is a voluminous book “Lost Heritage—The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan”, published by the Nagaara Trust in association with Himalayan Books. It is a tome with 507 pictures and over 55,000 words in text, in 504 pages—a rare work of photography and scholarship that is making waves among those who value such historical and cultural treatises.

Here we present an exclusive interview with Amardeep Singh:

Tell us a little about your background. Your parents migrated from undivided Punjab to Gorakhpur. You were born in that town. How was your childhood? What kind of stories did you hear that had an impact on you?

Impacted by the partition of India in 1947, our families moved from Muzaffarabad (now in Pakistan Administered Kashmir) to Gorakhpur, where I was born in 1966. While majority kept the tragic events of partition to themselves, my parents did not hesitate to share their fond memories of the region. We grew up hearing accounts of how they were affected and uprooted, struggling thereafter as refugees in their endeavor to re-start their lives. Hearing the positive and challenging accounts, left a deep impact, making me curious about the region. I grew up with a dream to once travel across Pakistan to understand the impact of partition cataclysm.

When did you move to Singapore? What brought you to this island state? Have your impressions about Singapore changed over the years?

My job at American Express got me to Singapore in 2001. Impressed with the Island nation, we opted to become Singaporeans in 2005. While I have seen the country continue to add many external imprints but its essence has remained well-grounded in its founding principles. Cross community integration is what the world should learn from Singapore.

You were in a corporate job in a leadership role. What prompted you to chuck it all in 2014 and start on a journey that resulted in your book?

Journey of life has to be experienced fully. Having led a successful Corporate career, I decided to take a break to surface my innate creative being.

Being an India-born citizen of Singapore, was it difficult for you to get an entry into Pakistan? Did you face any trouble while you traveled in Pakistan? Did you have any access issue to the Sikh heritage sites in Pakistan?

Pakistan Embassy was very generous in granting me a 30 day non-restricted VISA.

The journey was preceded by apprehension from family and friends. However, my calling was much stronger. I entered the country with no firm plan but just a desire to reach Muzaffarabad, our ancestral town. With 30 days at hand, I also wished to maximize exploring other areas in the country. Embarking on the journey, I kept connecting with like-minded people, who resonated with my passion for exploration and they all helped and guided me. The research presented in this book is an outcome of the love and support showered by the common-man in Pakistan.

The remnants of the Sikh heritage are in abundance across Pakistan. Seven decades after the searing partition of 1947, the Sikh community remains deprived of its glorious heritage, wrenched from it and now virtually inaccessible to most. For those fortunate, who are able to visit Pakistan, they remain confined to the few functional gurdwaras (Sikh Temples). Would the heritage of the land where Sikhism was born and the Sikhs had created an empire, be limited to just these few functional gurdwaras (Sikh Temples)? Are there any remains of the Sikh era that could provide insight of the erstwhile society? This is what prompted me to be observant as I moved across the country. The remnants lie scattered, abandoned and some occupied. The abandoned sites were easier to access while to view the occupied sites, was challenging at times. In addition, for North-West Frontier and Pakistan Administered Kashmir, I was advised not to travel in these areas because of the trailing effects of terrorism. However I consider myself fortunate to have been able to make brief visits to these places too.

Were you scared while you were traveling through the country? Did the common people of Pakistan help you?

Fear arises from one’s mind trap. My passion for exploration far outweighed ambiguous thoughts. This journey wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the local Pakistanis, who saw a sincere passion in me. My apprehensions were short lived and dropped off as I inter-mingled with people and experienced their way of life, which is a part of the collective culture that our forefathers left.

How did you prepare for your journey?

Unconsciously, I had been preparing for this journey for years. Study of history of the area of Greater Punjab has been my passion. Photography and story-telling from common pursuits is another skill that I had been enjoying and developing over time. The journey into Pakistan in October 2014 was supported by these sharpened skills, acquired over time. A personal journey subtly transformed into a deeper search.

I entered Pakistan with an open mind and an open heart, which attracted similar energies.

What struck you most about the Sikh heritage sites in Pakistan? Can they be preserved?

After partition, VISA restrictions and the unfortunate relations between India and Pakistan, results in only a few fortunate being able to visit the limited functional places of the Sikh heritage. However 80 per cent of the erstwhile Sikh empire (prior to the annexation of Punjab by British India) fell in Pakistan. A culture that evolved and thrived across this region, surely has to have a broader footprint than these few accessible sites. What struck me the most was that the footprint of the heritage is far greater than what the Sikhs across the world are currently able to freely access. Over time, most of these heritage sites have fallen into dilapidated condition. Only around 20% survives. An effort can at best only be applied on the remaining few sites, which would still be a herculean task to save them.

What was the most moving moment for you while you were traveling in Pakistan?

The entire trip was filled with a see-saw of emotions. At some points, seeing the remnants of the glorious Sikh Empire and culture, my chest would swell in pride at the achievements of our forefathers across these lands. But then the emotions would be at rock bottom, seeing the dilapidation. Much is lost and little that is left, will probably not last more than a decade.

The most touching point of the trip was when I was exploring the remains of the abandoned Mangat Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) at Mangat village. The faint remains of its frescos simply awed me while the crumbling building had me in tears. In the inner wall, when my eyes fell on a chalk graffiti done by some uncaring visitors, it shook me totally. The words read “I LOST MY EVERYTHING”. To me the line resonated with the loss of the Sikh community across these lands.

When you entered Pakistan, you did not think recording your journey in the form of a book or a travelogue. When did the thought of writing a book come to you? 

Having returned from Pakistan in Nov 2014, with over 1500 photos of the discovered remnants of the Sikh legacy, while I was satisfied of having had the opportunity to visit my father’s birthplace, it was only on 26 Dec 2014 that the thought of writing a book occurred. This motivation arose from a chanced glance on the British travelogues in my library, published in 1850s. In early 1800’s British India feared that the outcome of The Great Game in Europe could lead Napoleon of France and Czar of Russia to enter India through Afghanistan and Punjab. The mighty Sikh Empire on the West of British India was feared by the British but strategically it was on their radar to be annexed. In planning, the British started sending spies into the Sikh Empire, essentially to map out the territories in preparation for a potential war in the future. The travelogues of some of these spies were later published from London, after the annexation of the Sikh Empire in 1849. I having read these travelogues years back, had been able to form an impression of the might of the Sikh kingdom.

Could my travel across Pakistan, seven decades after partition, providing a visual documentation of the remnants of the Sikh legacy, serve the same purpose for posterity, as the 180 year old British travelogues served for me?

This became the motivation for me to write the book.

What challenges you faced in the process of getting your book published? Did you approach any big publishers in Delhi or Singapore? Did anybody or any organization come to your help?

This being a voluminous book with 507 pictures and over 55,000 words in text, in 504 pages, traditional publishers were not forthcoming as they were skeptical about the commercial viability. For me this being a passion, that had to be documented for posterity, I had no commercial interest. Hence I adopted a semi-self-publishing model.

Organization support was lacking but individuals who believed in the importance of this work, came together to support. Without these support of these individuals, this book would not have been a possibility. I am grateful to them for having faith in my vision.

Now with the book having been viewed my many, there is a strong organizational support coming from across the world to hold sponsored engagement sessions where the research experiences are shared.

How do you plan to promote your book? 

Initially the book was primarily promoted through social media www.lostheritagebook.com

But now that the value of this work is gaining recognition, organizations across the globe are creating platforms to promote it. My calendar is fully booked with events across many countries, hosted by local community forums.

Is there a message that you want to convey to the world?

Globally we continue to see intolerance and conflict. This book has delved into the impact of the 1947 events. I wish the present and future generations learn to be sensitive to all communities and recognize all that is lost due to a conflict.

How can people support your mission? Where can people buy your book?

I would consider my mission successful if we can restore some of the last remnants of the Sikh legacy across Pakistan.

Change starts at the grass-root and I believe the first step is to increase awareness of this collective loss.

Pakistan could benefit from tourism from the Punjabi diaspora if these sites are maintained.

The book can be bought at Amazon USA, Amazon Canada, Amazon India or from the SHOP tab of http://www.lostheritagebook.com

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Author: Zafar Anjum

I am a writer based in Singapore.

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