Repository of Rare Treasure

A miniature painting of Radha-Krishan in the gurdwara library
A miniature painting of Radha-Krishan in the gurdwara library. — Photo by Rajiv Sharma
A non-descript border village in the Majha region has lately become the Mecca for book lovers and historians with an interest in research material. The historic gurudwara at Mallu Nangal village houses extraordinary literary riches within its walls.

Rare manuscripts, dating back to the Vedic period, miniature paintings, documents in Persian, Devanagri and Gurmukhi scripts, which are primary source of research in Sikhism, exceptional lifetime editions of the world level thinkers, collection of remarkable books of different faiths of the past make this Sikh shrine, open to people of all religions, a unique place.

To understand how the book world existed prior to the advent of printing or to have look at the oldest surviving books, printed with movable types, and publications on stone printing, original form of lithography introduced in 1798, a visit to this historic Gurudwara is a must.

The efforts of a septuagenarian genius, Jathedar Dalip Singh, a former vice-president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, has made the gurdwara library a repository of rare hand-written manuscripts of Hindu mythology, Sikh scriptures, along with outstanding relics of European Renaissance.

Wearing a white kurta pyjama with blue turban, this tall 70-year-old baptised Sikh is found sitting or lying on a cot under a tree in the village gurdwara discussing manuscripts and Punjabi and Urdu folklore. He rues that some rare manuscripts which were borrowed, including that of legendry poet Hasham Shah, who also wrote Heer, were not returned back to him.

Rare manuscripts in the gurdwara library include ‘Amritsar Sarover Da Mahatam’ (significance of the Holy Tank of Golden Temple), a rare manuscript of ‘Kavi Madhwa Nal’, manuscripts of Guru Bilas, Makkei Wali Sakhi (Guru Nanak Dev) Dasam Granth, Sabh-Parkash, Zafarnama Patshahi Daswin, Zindgi-Nama Bhai Nand Lal, Guru Partap-Suriya, Guru Bilas.

Some manuscripts have beautiful ornamental calligraphy and outlining in gold and blue which that is feast to the eyes. An Urdu translation by Attar Singh Bhadore, of part of Guru Gobind Singh’s Bachittar Natak bearing the date Jan 31, 1875, has a golden outline. Another manuscript, Gur Ratanavali Sakhi, is an example of sublime calligraphy. There is also an ultra small matchbox-sized Guru Granth Sahib. The copy has 1430 pages and can be read only with the help of a magnifying lens.

Jathedar Dalip Singh has worked hard to collect these manuscripts and books. The sources have been various, including deras of sants and Udasis.

True to the tenets of Sikhism, the Jathedar is a secular scholar. He recites stanzas from the Vedas, Vishnu Puran, Koran and Bible. All religions get the respect as all religious manuscripts are wrapped in a silk cloth.

Preserving these manuscripts is a passion for this old man, who follows the mantra of ‘simple living and high thinking.’ While a lot of rare books and manuscripts of the Sikh Reference Library were destroyed during the infamous Operation Bluestar in June 1984, Jathedar Dalip Singh managed to preserve this treasure, which is proving to be a bonus to the satisfaction of researchers and book lovers.

However, the passage of time has left its imprint on these old books, ancient manuscripts and rare photographs, some of which have become discoloured and blurred. For want of finances, the rich nuggets of history are slowly disintegrating. They need to be preserved and timely treatment can restore them so that they can be preserved for future generations. The archives also have to be managed.

Jathedar Dalip Singh does not have the necessary funds to preserve the rare treasure by micro-filming or digitalising, a standard practice the world over. He does not have adequate money to employ people for maintenance or a curator to take care of the treasure in his possession. As a result, t material in the library is slowly falling apart as time leaves its mark.

Many old books, photographs and prints are on paper made from wood pulp with a high acidic content which is destroyed with passage of time. The paper self-destructs, chemically burning itself up, turning weak, discolored and brittle over time.

Mallu Nangal has rich secular traditions. The gurdwara was built to commemorate the visit of the fifth Sikh master, Guru Arjun Dev, to the village dominated then by ‘Lile Pathans’. The village was dominated by Muslim till the Partition of the country. During Partition, the Sikhs volunteered to take the Muslims of the village to the newly created Radcliff Line safely. Even at the height of militancy in Punjab, no Hindu resident of the village suffered loss of life or property.

The mystery of the fire at the Sikh Reference Library, Amritsar, during the Operation Bluestar refuses to clear up even after 23 years. The repository of over 1,500 invaluable rare manuscripts, including copies of the Adi Granth, Damdami Bir (dated Bikrami 1739) and various portraits and manuscripts, was destroyed during the army action.

Even after a lapse of more than two decades, what exactly happened to the library is not clear. Conflicting statements of former Defence Minister George Fernandes added to the confusion. Ranjit Singh Nanda, a retired CBI Inspector, had made a startling disclosure that rare manuscripts, Hukmnamas, books and invaluable material from the library was put in gunny bags and trunks and taken to an unknown place after the Operation Bluestar.

Although the President, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, during his recent visit to Harmandir Sahib, had assured the SGPC chief that he would take up the issue with the department concerned, yet the SGPC has not got its ‘treasure-house’. The Sikh reference library, besides containing rare historical books, documents, manuscripts on Sikh religion, history and culture, also had a number of handwritten manuscripts of the Guru Granth Sahib and Hukmnamas, some with signatures of the Sikh Gurus. There were a few rare documents related to the Independence struggle. The CBI has returned a few documents, but it is barely 2 per cent of the missing total.

What happened to the rest of the material is too important to be brushed aside. The Sikh Reference Library, Amritsar, was established in 1946 through resolution No 822 of the SGPC, dated October 27, 1946. A significant role in its establishment was played by the Sikh Historical Society, established in 1930 at Lahore under the leadership of Bawa Budh Singh.

In the mid-15th century, the world of books began to change with the advent of the printing press. In 1452, Gutenberg, born in Germany in 1397 to a wealthy family, conceived of the idea for movable type. In his workshop, he brought together the technologies of paper, oil-based ink and the winepress to print books. Jathedar Dalip Singh claims that his collection has manuscripts of Gutenberg period.

Stone printing, the original form of lithography, introduced in 1798 by Aloys Senefelder, is a form of planography, the process of printing from a flat plate. It is based on the principle that water and oil do not mix. Generally, with stone printing, an image is drawn using an oil medium that will adhere to the surface of the stone, such as a crayon. All blank areas on the stone are prevented from absorbing oil by the application of a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid. At this point the stone is ready for inking. The stone is sponged wet and ink is applied with a large hand roller. The moistened areas resist the ink, but the drawing accepts it. This step is repeated until the ink buildup is sufficient for printing. Stone printing is perhaps the t sensuous of all printing media because of its unique response to the artist’s hand.

Mallu Nangal village is a part of cluster of dozen villages. t residents are Gill Jats. It witnessed the first battle between the Sikhs (followers of Guru Arjun Dev) and Pathans, all residents of the village, much before the Sikhs were called to arms for the cause by Guru Gobind Singh. Neither Jathedar Dalip Singh nor other villagers could save the heritage from being destroyed. Beautiful old frescoes have disappeared from the walls of the Sikh shrine. So much so, the samadh of the founder of the village, Mallu has also vanished. A ‘Theh’ (mound), which could have provided traces of old civilisation, has been flattened for cultivation.

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