Kirpal Singh is an unforgettable name among scholars of the history of Punjab. He has gifted Punjab history with yet another mark of his erudition, his long devotion to the subject, his command of several languages and his constant dialogue with the subject. This new book boasts a brilliant and very topical foreword by yet another literary stalwart, the vice-chancellor of the University, professor Jaspal Singh. He has rightly emphasised the importance of knowledge of the Persian language, which had been the court language during 800 years of Turko-Afghan and Mughal rule in northern India and therefore the dominant literary language of the period, for a proper and in-depth study of Sikh history as the rise and evolution of the Sikhs coincided with this period. Singh belongs to that rare genre of scholars who could command both Persian and Gurumukhi with equal ease and therefore master a complete view of Sikh history and not a truncated version of it like present day US-based Punjabi scholars, some of whom are able to access Gurumukhi sources without being able to cross check it with the available Persian ones.

These Persian sources have an immense variety like the Dabistan -i-Mazahb (School of Religious Doctrine) by Mohsin Fani (fani meaning perishable), a Mohammedan traveller of Kashmiri origin, who had the good fortune to meet Guru Hargovind and Guru Har Rai in 1643-44 in Kiratpur. It mentions the cardinal tenets of the Sikh doctrine like the oneness of God and repudiation of idol worship. It also mentioned the Guruparampara or continuity in the line of the Gurus through the characterisation of all Gurus by the name of Nanak through different mahals (incarnations). The creeping in of abuses in the Sikh religious administration through the introduction of the masand system is also mentioned. 

Abul Fazal’s Akbarnamah is also an important source of Sikh history as it provides the important information that Akbar had visited Guru Arjan at Goindwal and remitted the revenues of the Lahore subah on the request of the Guru. The Tuzk-i-Jahangiri, authored by Emperor Jehangir himself, bears testimony to the martyrdom of Guru Arjun. Among other important Persian sources there was the Maktubat-i-Imam Rabbani by Sheikh Ahmad Mujaddid Alfsani or Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, a conservative Muslim of the Naqashbandi order; the Khulasatu-i-Twarikh attributed to Sujan Rai Bhandari, a resident of Batala, written in 1695-96 AD or the 40th year of the reign of  Aurangzeb;  Muntakhib-ul-Lubab, authored by Mohammad Hashim or Hashim Ali Khan, better known as Khafi Khan in 1731 contained an eye-witness account of the battle of Chappar Chirri and the great bravery with which Banda Bahadur avenged the cruel murder of the infant sons of the tenth Master by killing the wicked Wazir Khan, the faujdar of Sirhind in battle. 

It is from the pen of Khafi Khan that one is able to hear of the unusual devotion of the youth Nihal Singh to the cause of the Sikhs, when he refused to disown his commitment to the faith even when his mother had obtained pardon for him from Saiyid Abdullah Khan and the Emperor Furrukhsiyar persuading them that her son had been forcibly taken from his home by Banda’s followers to serve in the army and he actually had no affiliation to the faith.

Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnamah (Letter of Victory) addressed to Emperor Aurangzeb in 1706, inviting him for a talk was also written in Persian. It was couched in terms of admonitions to the Emperor and contained important references to the martyrdom of his faithful “Forty”, who were pitted against a huge Mughal army.

Several other Persian works related to the reigns of  Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah like Masir-i-Alamgiri by Saqi Mustad Khan (completed in 1710), Inayet Ullah Khan Kashmiri’s Ahkam-i-Alamgiri, the anonymous work Tarikh-i-Bahadurshahi, composed during the 40 years following Aurangzeb’s death, the  Ibratnamah of Mirza Muhammad Harsi providing a day-to- day account from 1705 to 1719 and the Akhbar-i-Darbar-i-Maulla or summaries of court news composed by the waqai nawis (news writers) have also been discussed by Singh as valuable sources.

The author’s knowledge of Persian also enabled him to study the history of the persecution of the Sikhs by Mir Mannu, the Mughal Subahdar of Lahore, recorded in the Tahmasnamah or the Diary of Timur, the valet of Mir Mannu. The Hakikat-i-Bina Uruj-i-Firka-i-Sikhan, authored by Timur Shah, the son of Ahmad Shah Abdali, threw important light on the philosophy of Guru Nanak and the destruction of the holy lake of Ramdaspur, later named Amritsar, by the invading Afghans. Qazi Nur Mohammad’s Jangnamah provided important details of the Shah’s seventh invasion of India. Dewan Ajudhia Parshad’s Waqai-i-Jang-I Sikhan revealed important facts about the First Sikh War of 1845-46. 

The book also dwells extensively on Gurumukhi sources of which the Shri Guru Granth Sahib or the Adi Granth , put together by Guru Arjun Dev in 1604, but containing the compositions of the different Gurus and Bhagats , is the most important. It provides an important key to the socio-economic developments, stretching over a long period since the days of the Bhagat Baba Farid (1265) to those of the ninth Guru Teg Bahadur in 1675.

The various hukmnamahs or letters of Guru Teg Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh and his two wives, Mata Sundari and Mata Sahib Devan, preserved at the Patna Sahib, where Guru Teg Bahadur had moved with his family, throw some light on the itineraries of Guru Teg Bahadur and the gradually extending sway of the Panth in the eastern part of the country. The Bachittar Natak attributed to Guru Gobind Singh versifies all events in the Guru’s life till the foundation of the Khalsa in 1699. What followed afterwards is carried forward by Sainapat in his Gursobha composed at about 1741 AD. 

The Mehma Prakash Vartak in prose is particularly noteworthy for giving a special version of the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev. According to this version, the Khatri Chandu Shah had complained to Emperor Jehangir about the increasing wealth and influence of the Guru. The Emperor therefore demanded a fine. Chandu Shah took advantage of the Guru’s inability to pay the fine. He obtained the custody of the Guru’s person and tortured him to death. This would shift the responsibility for the Guru’s martyrdom to the internal conflicts of the Khatris rather than to the complicity of the Emperor Jehangir. In 1833 Sarup Das Bhalla’s Mehma Praksh versified the facts available in the prose version. Kankan’s Dasgur Katha bears testimony to the close collaboration of Hinduism and Sikhism in the tenth Guru’s times.

The second part of Singh’s source book deals with more recent sources, which were written in historic times and therefore can claim better authenticity. Some works were inspired by British administrators. With the extension of their territories, the British wanted to fortify themselves with greater knowledge of what lay across their political frontiers. Diplomatic relations were often a preliminary to the conquest of these areas. Their attempt to penetrate the cultural and social institutions of the conquered people did not cease even afterwards. They encouraged the Singh Sabhas to write new histories of the Panth and revive forgotten stories of the valour of their race to move forward with greater glory.

Singh has tried to make a comprehensive study of Persian, Gurumukhi or even Spanish and French sources for the benefit of the students of Sikh history. He provides enough clues to rouse the learner’s interest in knowing more by actually going to the sources. The book is a beacon inviting the reader to the garden of learning from where no one can turn back.  

The reviewer is professor, department of history, Visva-Bharati University