What is really going under the hammer?

A “Guru’s relic under the hammer” is an arresting image. The hammer is, of course, the gabble of the auctioneer and the word ‘relic’ is equally ambiguous.  The response to the sale of this single, well-preserved object has ranged from disbelief to outrage. It is a response that we should welcome. The armour plate is an important piece of Sikh material heritage, whatever its provenance may be.  The plate’s possible attribution to the tenth Guru has generated a great deal of interest and discourse on the issue of Sikh material heritage.

 This interest and discussion is in sharp contrast to the general lethargy and indifference that is attached to genuine items of Sikh heritage that come under the hammer – and not a figurative hammer but a real one.

Over the last two years Punjab Heritage News, our readers and activists have highlighted the planned destruction of Sikh built heritage in Nanded, Amritsar and Lahore. We have reported on heritage being vandalised, defaced, vulgarised, neglected and torn down. Having done this for many years we know that the Sikh authorities simply do not engage in this debate because they are complicit in the charge.  The result has been that virtually every historical building surrounding the ancient Hazur Sahib complex has been torn down in the last few months.  The sacred spaces where the Guru meditated and ministered in the last months of his life have fallen under the hammer with none of the furore or controversy that this single piece of metal has achieved.

The origins of the armour plate cannot be confirmed using European standards of provenance.  By the same western standards of documentation not a single weapon in Hazur Sahib or at Anadpur Sahib can be proven to be that of the Guru’s. Is this specific piece the Guru’s side plate or a just a side show? If the family tradition of the Royal house of Patiala is to be believed their char-aina set once belonged to the tenth Guru. Thise Sotheby's piece bears a staggering similarity to that set. The Sotheby’s catalogue entry and press release makes the tantalising connection to this being a possible second set: “The existence of this plate . . . points to the possibility that the Guru commissioned more than one such set.” The noisy reaction to that conjecture has been remarkable; the silent reaction to the reality at Hazur Sahib is equally startling.

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