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In The Master's Presence - Book By Nidhar Singh Nihang and Paramjit Singh

Table of Contents of the Book 'In The Master's Presence' By Nidhar Singh Nihang & Paramjit Singh

  C O N T E N T S  
  INDEX 321

Introduction to the Book 'In The Master's Presence' By Nidar Singh Nihang and Parmjit Singh

This landmark two-volume work explores the history and traditions of Hazoor Sahib, the fourth Sikh takht or throne of temporal and spiritual authority, situated near Nanded town in Maharashtra State, India.

Spanning three hundred years of Hazoor Sahib's history, this first volume traces the shrine's development, from the founding of very the first modest structure built over the ashes of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, to the shameful and insensitive destruction of its unique built heritage in the name of modernisation and beautification three centuries later.

The authors have drawn upon a wealth of written materials and oral tradition to evoke a vivid and often startling account of the empires, events and characters-maharajas, warriors, mendicants, emperors , nizams, politicians and policemen-that are intertwined with the fortunes of the last resting place of the tenth Sikh Guru.

Here is the story behind one of the last bastions of early Sikh tradition that has now all but disappeared, an exotic and unfamiliar world brought to life with over 150 sumptuous illustrations of paintings, photographs, portraits, maps, artefacts and documents from archives and private collections from around the world.

Published to coincide with tercentenary celebrations beginning in October 2008 to mark the pivotal decision taken by the tenth Guru to transfer the Sikh Guruship to the sacred scripture and body of loyal disciples, In The Master's Presence  presents, for the first time, a significant but little-known aspect of Sikh history.

About the Author 'Nidar Singh Nihang and Parmjit Singh' of the Book 'In The Master's Presence'

Nidar Singh Nihang is the ninth gurdev (teacher) of the Baba Darbara Singh Shastar Vidya Akhara, founded in the seventeenth century to teach Sikh martial tradition and has contributed to several television documentaries, radio programmes and publications on the subject. He has spent two decades intensively researching the history, philosophy and way of life of the four traditional Sikh orders, Akali-Nihangs, Udasis, Nirmalas and Sewapanthis. He is preparing an extensive series of books on shastar Vidya.

Parmjit Singh is an independent researcher specialising in the photographic history of nineteenth-century Punjab. His previous publications include Warrior Saints: Three Centuries of the Sikh Military Tradition (I. B. Tauris, 1999) and 'Sicques, Tigers, or Thieves': Eye-witness Accounts of the Sikhs (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). He is currently working with Nidar Singh Nihang on a four-volume, official history of the Buddha Dal, the ancient warrior order of the Akali-Nihang Sikhs.


Many people became martyrs there; and many houses for fakirs were erected in that place. Amidst them all, they erected a shrine over the Guru['s ashes], and, near his burying place, they made many other mausoleums and dharamsalas, and deposited Granth sahibs in them. The name of that city, which was called Nader, was changed to Abchalnagar. In the present day, many Sikhs go there, and offer their oblations with much devotion. In that tomb, thousands of swords, shields, spears, and quoits, are to be found at all times; moreover the Sikhs, who go there, all worship those arms. The Sikhs believe this, that all those arms were formerly the property of Guru Govind Singh himself.

In cogently recounting the sense of bereavement and separation felt by Guru Gobind Singh's disciples at the time of his death on 7 October 1708, the nineteenth-century author of this passage vividly conveys the deep sense of reverence and mystery that has surrounded the tenth Guru's final resting place for over three centuries.

The Guru spent his last days camped just outside the town of Nanded, now in Maharashtra State but back then located within a distant quarter of the sprawling Mughal Empire. Referred to by Sikhs as Abchal Nagar ("Everlasting City"), a small shrine dedicated to the memory of the tenth Guru was raised  here soon after his demise. Variously known as Sach Khand ("Realm of Truth") and Hazoor Sahib ("Master's Presence"), the shrine's modest appearance belied its significance as the last of the four takhts or thrones of temporal and spiritual authority for the Sikhs.

The takht rapidly became the focal point of a vibrant community of Sikhs who devoted their lives in its service. The very first 'Hazoori' Sikhs were warriors and mendicants who adopted a pattern of life that has endured through time, change and strife. Separated from the Punjab by hundreds of miles and spared the post-annexation 'Dalhousian revolution' that transformed the Punjab into a shining colonial jewel, the Hazoori Sikhs steadfastly maintained ancient religious traditions and a fascinating oral history, which uncovers an aspect of Sikh history that appears so astonishing at odds with modern rhetoric, it is almost considered heresy.

Since some of the most far-reaching events in Sikh history centred on this takht, it rapidly earned the status as a pilgrim destination of great importance.

Generations of pious Sikhs made the arduous journey from Punjab to the fabled shrine in the distant Deccan. Through the passage of time, their collective reminiscences lent Hazoor Sahib a sence of awe and grandeur in the minds of those back home. It was this sentiment that became enshrined in a popular saying among the Akali-Nihang warriors of the Buddha Dal, the fifth itinerant takht: "Just as Haridwar is far Hindus, and Mecca for Muslims, so too is Sach Khand Hazoor Sahib for the Khalsa."

Despite in sacred status, history has been singularly unkind to the Hazoori Sikhs. While bookshelves are crammed full with tomes on virtually every facet of Sikh history centred round the Punjabi experience, very little by way of a connected narrative is available on Sikhs of either Hazoor Sahib or the Deccan; even less published material exists by way of early photographs or paintings. Until recently, there was no compulsion for us to fill the gap created by the dearth of material dealing with Hazoor Sahib. That all changed two years ago.

At the end of 2006, news reports from India highlighted the wilful destruction of Hazoor Sahib's built heritage in preparation for the tercentenary celebrations slated for October 2008.

As the story unfolded , it became worrying clear that the shrine had become a victim of a fatal cocktail of ignorance, arrogance and apathy, and made worse by the corrupting influence of 'new' money injected by the central and state governments for infrastructure projects in and around Nanded.

The action of the takht's custodians, the Gurdwara Board, surprised many observers and heritage lovers. Supposedly charged with protecting and preserving the shrine complex, a brash Board ignored calls made by conservation experts and concerned member of the global Sikh community to stop the demolition. As their pleas fell on deaf ears, several important historical structures in and around the Takht Hazoor Sahib complex were flattened in the name of modernisation. These events crystallised our intention to act, giving rise to this book in the hope that sad scenes recently witnessed at Hazoor Sahib will never repeat themselves.

It gives us great pleasure, therefore, to present In the Master's Presence, the story behind one of the early pillars of Sikh tradition that has now all but disappeared in its original form. In this first volume of two , we delve into the history of the built heritage of Takht Hazoor Sahib and trace the major milestones in the growth of the colony of Hazoori Sikhs.

The earliest Sikh interaction with the region dates back to the time of Guru Nanak's visit to the Deccan shortly before Babur, the first Mughal emperor, wrested control of northern India from the grip of the Afghan sultans of Delhi. Two hundred years passed before Nanded was visited by Guru Nanak's ninth successor, Guru Gobind Singh. The rediscovery of his meditation place from a previous life, a bungled assassination attempts, the passing of his divine authority to the holy granth and loyal panth, and the raising of the modest structure over his ashes, are some of the crucial events that led to the founding of Takht Hazoor Sahib. From the moment of the takht's origin in 1708, and the emergence of a distinct community of Sikhs devoted to protecting and serving it, to the shameful and insensitive destruction of its unique built heritage in the name of modernisation and beautification three centuries later, In the Master's Presence chronicles Hazoor Sahib's eventful history.

The tale is one of Gurus and goddesses, intrigues and treachery , bizarre plots and political patronage, played out by a host memorable characters-maharajas, warriors, mendicants, emperors, nizams, politicians and policemen-whose lives are intertwined with the fortunes of the tenth Sikh Guru's final resting place. The constant traffic of humanity, lavish gifts and coded messages carried on between Punjab and the Deccan by courtly agents, itinerant Sikh warriors, naked ascetics, rogue spies and jobless mercenaries, all contributed to the tapestry of intrigue and mystery that colours much of the account.

Without a doubt, one of the most beguiling characters to make an appearance is Maharaja Chandu Lal. For over four decades beginning in the first half of the nineteenth century, this diminutive bookkeeper, who rose to become virtual dictator of the Muslim-ruled state of Hyderabad, stands out as Takht Hazoor Sahib's single-most important patron years before Maharaja Ranjit Singh took a keen interest in the Guru's Deccani legacy. This sahajdhari Sikh's interactions with his master, the Muslim nizam of Hyderabad, his backer, the British resident, and his co-religionist, the one-eyed Sikh monarch of Lahore, provides a fascinating insight into the broader impact of Sikh polity on nineteent-century empire-building in the subcontinent.

The volume two of In the Master's Presence, we build upon the historical backdrop presented in this first volume, unveiling the ancient traditions and customs conducted within the hallowed walls of the takht. We also explore the beliefs and practices of the Hazoori Sikhs who live around the takht and regularly take spiritual sustenance from it.

Anyone  who has ever visited Hazoor Sahib cannot help but notice how brazenly proud the Hazoori Sikhs are of their Singh-Khalsa identity. By way of an example, not only are they are steadfastly against cutting their own hair, a fundamental stipulation of the Singh-Khalsa code of conduct, they also desist from cutting their children's hair. This is one of the most significant physical markers distinguishing Hazoori Sikhs from Punjabi Sikhs, contrasting starkly with the latter's laxity in this respect.

It does not take much to tease out other dissimilarities, the most telling of which are their manner of speech and physical features. Given the demographic factors affecting each group, these differences come as no surprise. The Hazoori Sikhs have flourished in a different cultural and social context, with a host of diverse factors-ethnic, linguistic and political-amplifying the gulf between them and the Punjabis. However, perhaps the most distinguishing facet that places the Hazoori Sikhs at odds with the vast majority of other Sikhs is the ideology underpinning their beliefs.

While fervently acknowledging an undivided loyalty to Guru Gobind Singh, the Hazoori Sikhs take a radically different approach from many of their Punjabi brethren in their understanding of what it means to be a Sikh, specifically vis-a-vis the 'Hindu' world. It is widely accepted that the origins of the divergence between the 'mainstream' Sikh orthodoxy and 'Hazoori' Sikh belief can be traced as far back as the late-nineteenth century, specifically with the ascent of the popular reform movement known as the Singh Sabha ("gathering of Singhs").

Riding on the crest of an uplifting ideological wave, the Singh Sabha surged through the region's bustling bazaars and ploughed fields with its protestant-inspired notions of a homogeneous Sikh identity. Though hugely influential in Punjab, the movement failed to penetrate the deep south, allowing the Hazoori Sikhs to continue on their path, unadulterated by the religious revolution mounted by their northern co-religionists.

There is no dearth of scholarly material on the origins and development of the Singh Sabha. Its founders were Sikhs from a variety of backgrounds who took up the mantle of promoting and preserving what they perceived to be a Sikh identity under assault from two types of people. The first was that of the obsessive Christian missionary who received tacit support from the colonial administration. The second was the corrupting influence of the pernicious Brahmin, the "Hindu boa-constrictor" who was slowly squeezing the life out of the fledgling Sikh community.

What began as a journey of individual inquiry rapidly turned into a mass movement that would divide the community into two bitterly opposed camps, which broadly reflected the prevailing schools of thought at the time. On the one hand were the modernists, largely English-educated middle-class Sikhs based at Lahore, who were inspired to re-examine their faith from the perspective of the western orientalists. On the other were the traditionalists, headquartered at Amritsar and steeped in the traditions of the old Sikh world that had once flourished under the leadership and guidance of the four traditional Sikh orders: Udasis, Akali-Nihangs, Nirmalas and Sewapanthis. Counted among their number were the hugely influential descendants of the Sikh Gurus, the Bedis, Trehans, Bhallas and Sodhis, who commanded large followings and immense resources. Significantly, the hereditary incumbents of Sikh shrines or gurdwaras were also drawn from this side of the fault line.

The modernists' unbridled missionary zeal, combined with the ability to exploit modern print technology, propelled them towards the goal of realising the 'de-Hinduised', 'pure essence' (tat) of a uniform Sikh identity that they deemed suitable for modern times. The Tat Khalsa, as the Lahore Singh Sabha came to be known, revised and reformed their way through the numerous ancient texts, customs and rituals that either failed to conform to their narrow interpretation  of Sikh scripture and history, or fell short of the idealised standards they had set for themselves. Assiduously editing out heterodoxy , the Lahore Singh Sabha even questioned the validity of certain compositions included in the Adi Guru Granth Sahib, namely those written by 'Hindu' bhagats and bards. Some of its adherents went as far as printing copies of the holy scripture that had been expunged of this 'Hindu' contagion.

The Lahore Singh Sabha also challenged individuals, orders and institutions regarded as culpable for having allowed such degenerative thoughts and practices to flourish in the public places of Sikh worship, the gurdwaras. Thus, the time-honoured customs and status of the 'heretical' traditionalists, who publicly acknowledged their Hindu antecedents, came under fire in a series of well-publicised campaigns communicated via pamphlets and the vernacular press for their 'complicity' in the decline of the pure, unambiguous Sikh faith.

The subsequent period of polemics, acrimonious scrutiny and intense vilification took its toll on the traditionalists. Struggling to maintain their hold over the wider community, the final blow came in the 1920s with an unprecedented upheaval that saw the modernists take control of the several hundred gurdwaras spread across Punjab.

As the old order made way for the new, so too did the generations-old, multifarious practices, customs and rituals disappear, only to be replaced with those that conformed to the ideals first formulated by the Lahore Singh Sabha.

For the zealous victors, the triumph of what came to be known as the Gurdwara Reform Movement was enough to vindicate their revisionist tendencies, which were increasingly viewed as being beyond reproach. In stark contrast, the traditionalists had little to celebrate; forced to relinguish their conventional power base to the zeitgeist, they were pushed or voluntarily withdrew to the margins of Sikh society where they found solace in the small pockets of support  in their local constituencies.

Observing these tumultuous events from far afield were the staunchly traditional Hazoori Sikhs. It was precisely owing to their remoteness from the customary Sikh heartlands in Punjab that enabled them to retain control of Takht Hazoor Sahib and keep its traditions intact, which from their perspective, were original and incontrovertible.

Firmly entrenched at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, this separation allowed significant differences to persist in a whole range of social practices, life cycle rituals, spiritual beliefs and views of nature and the cosmos; even the fundamental question as to what qualified as scripture remained unresolved. Consequently, an unbridgeable chasm divided the two mindsets.

In tandem with post-Independence India's improving transport facilities came the flood of pilgrims to Hazoor Sahib. They travelled from Punjab and the diaspora, bringing with them both a great deal of wealth and the Lahore Singh Sabha's yardstick, with which they measured and judged the Hazoori Sikhs.

Today, while Punjabi Sikhs, chastise the Hazooris with charge that they have grafted 'Hindu' or 'Brahmin' customs and philosophy into their daily lives, resulting in profane rituals being practiced within the takht, Hazoori Sikhs counter by insisting that they alone have preserved the bona fide, unalloyed traditions imparted by Guru Gobind Singh to his loyal disciples.

Who is 'right' ? Who has the credible proof to support their assertions? If the Hazoori Sikhs are to be believed, is it really possible that millions of devout practicing Sikhs have got it all so horribly 'wrong' ? Hazoori Sikhs posit that earlier generations of Punjabi Sikhs spurned the true traditions in the process of accomodating the British Raj. According to them, the process of the subjugation of Punjab by the East India Company had a lasting effect on the original Sikh traditions. The Punjabi Sikhs, they say, will never admit as much.

The sheer fact that the Hazoori Sikhs pride themselves on being the last bastion of ancient Singh-Khalsa tradition is what makes them so fascinating to study. At present , they are mired in a struggle between the preservation of tradition in the face of the pressure to modernise. Their story deserves to be told now more than ever, since the unique 'Hazoori' viewpoint is also under threat from today's revisionists.

In the Master's Presence endeavours  to bring a greater understanding of the colourful and proud Hazoori Sikh community, which counts its blessing for always being "in their master's presence", to the rest of the Sikh world.

In preparing this volume, we drew upon a wealth of written materials that included numerous historical accounts, administrative records, letters, diaries, newsreports and hukamnamas penned in Punjabi, Persian and English, and housed in libraries, museums, archives and private collections around the world.

Since this is the first effort to tell a connected narrative of Hazoor Sahib, we made special efforts to tell it from the point of view of the local tradition. We made several field trips to Hazooor Sahib during the period 1999 to 2007, during which we gained the trust and confidence of the Hazoori Sikhs, whom we found to be friendly and open. Invited into their homes, they permitted us to observe and query their practices and beliefs. For a broader understanding of the traditional (sanatan) Sikh mindset, we have relied upon over twenty-five years of research and interviews with the Akali-Nihang, Udasi, Nirmala and Sewapanthi Sikh orders. Aided by this largely untapped resource, we have gained a better grasp of the 'mechanics' behind Hazoori Sikh practices which differ so greatly from the modern-day Sikh mainstream.

Besides the written and spoken word, we have also tapped into the rich and  exotic reservoirs of visual heritage to bring to life the unfamiliar world of Hazoor Sahib in over 150 illustrations of paintings, photographs, portraits, maps, artefacts and documents from several public and private archives. Among these are examples of the sumptuous murals that have decorated the inner walls and ceilings of Hazoor Sahib since the 1830s. It is regrettable to report that several exquisite and vibrant examples of Sikh fresco art that once adorned the walls of some major shrines in Punjab, and reproduced in this book, are no longer extant, having been destroyed or painted over in recent times. This sad state of affairs is due mainly to a dangerous apathy and wilful disregard for the heritage on the part of their custodians.

Nidar Singh Nihang
Parmjit Singh



Author Nidar Singh Nihang & Paramjit Singh
Pages 330
Cover Hardbound
Language English

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