In the colonies: Sikh worship. Monday, Feb 3 2014 

Photographs, in absence of substantial narratives help retrieve forgotten histories. With Shanghai Sikhs, the images are plenty and offer vital clues but sometimes you just have to peek over Shanghai’s shoulder to judge the context of the visual content. In Malaysia, Singapore , Burma, Sikhs were engaged in the British army or police and a odd picture of them here, a skimpy fact there help straighten a very potholed Shanghai Sikh narrative.

The British replicated their police and army system in the colonies and a handy blueprint was utilized in various corners of the empire. Quite like the modern  fast food franchises. Try going to McDonalds. The layout is same everywhere. The menu too…only few local elements make it different , I would imagine. For instance, in India, McDonalds offers tandoori style chicken nuggets . At least it did couple of years ago…The same theory applied to the British raj…engineer the “Tommy” framework, bring in the “natives”, some Sikhs, then just throw in a reference here  to the local language and a custom there and voila… hail the McDonald look of the British raj!

Image

Above is a picture of a Sikh regiment in Burma praying to the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib. In pristine white, praying, perhaps imagining what it would be like back home in their local holy gurdwara.

In British wars in the colonies, the Sikhs , in absence of a Sikh temple would have worshipped out in the open, put some borrowed, potted flowers in bloom on either side of the temporary dais, two soldiers holding the talwar would stand guard and others would sit, legs folded on a sheet or rug.. The granthi who was attached to the regiments would drape  a raised dais in decorative silk folds, and depending on the time of the days, keertans followed by the ceremonial robust shout celebrating the Wahe Guru would have rung the air.  It must have been a splendid sight.

Some Opium war/Boxer uprising visual narratives hint a similar happening in China. Then, of course one has to rely on bare bones that help conjure the image of a Shanghai Sikh praying out in the open, much before a gurdwara was opened, perhaps it was in a little house or in the police barracks where the festivals, like Guru Nanak’s birth celebrations took place, among other fellow  Sikhs, reminiscing of good times back in Punjab with family and friends.

Sometimes a picture can say so much and other times one has to trek the McDonald path that the Shanghai Sikh sojourners like their fellowmen in the colonies would have undertaken to retrieve their lost stories. One that left a strong British whiff but little scent of their own.

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Desmond Power and the Tianjin gurdwara Tuesday, Aug 20 2013 

Recently, I posted on the Tientsin gurdwara, established for the Sikh policemen in the former British concession. The gurdwara that really no one knows about or has escaped notice like so many histories in Old China. Based on archival notes, I was aware that there was a Sikh temple in Tientsin. Maps, J J Singh of Kapurthala’s book provide sufficient evidence of a gurdwara’s existence in Tientsin, today’s Tianjin.

By sheer stroke of luck, my post on Parsees in Old China helped me connect with Angela Elliot. She knew the DhunjiShah family from Tientsin. She also knew Desmond Power. Long story short, Desmond Power actually knew of the Tientsin Sikh temple and had mentioned it in passing in his book, Little Foreign Devil. He didn’t know much about the temple, except that it had a Sikh guard at the entrance. In one of the photographs (from his own collection)  there is the fuzzy yet undeniable evidence of the Sikh emblem flag post.  In a generous gesture, for which I am deeply grateful, Desmond Power furnished a sketch of the Sikh Temple’s whereabouts (See map below).

Tracing the gurdwara is a herculean task in itself, especially given the fact that old buildings in China have been demolished in the name of modernization,   but I am optimistic more information is available somewhere. Similarly for the Hankow Sikh temple. As long as we have an inkling we can rebuild the Sikh and Indian history in Old China.

Map drawn by Desmond Power

Map drawn by Desmond Power

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