A Sikh pilgrim's chronicle of gurdwaras across the nation in 1930s
Some stories can only begin with “once upon a time” — like this little-known history of an indefatigable pilgrim, Dhanna Singh ‘Patialvi’, who in the 1920 and 30s, travelled to every Sikh shrine in the country on his humble bicycle, clicking pictures and chronicling his travels.chandigarh Updated: Aug 20, 2015 11:06 IST
Some stories can only begin with “once upon a time” — like this little-known history of an indefatigable pilgrim, Dhanna Singh ‘Patialvi’, who travelled to every Sikh shrine in an undivided India on his humble bicycle in the 1920s and 1930s, clicking pictures and chronicling his travels.
When his lost legacy — eight diaries and more than 200 pictures — came up for preservation at the Punjab Digital Library (PDL) in Chandigarh, Singh returned to life, 85 years later, to tell the story of the Sikh shrines as they stood in that bygone era. While many of these gurdwaras are big centres of the Sikh faith today, some have lingered on the margins and a few remain unknown. What we know about Singh is from his diaries and a brief mention in the Sikh Encyclopedia.
'Sarovar Panja Sahib Gurdwara':Hasan Abdal, Kaimalpur district (now in Pakistan). Clicked in April 1932.
Born as Lal Singh Chahal in the early 1890s at Ghannauri village of Sangrur district, he grew up in an orphanage with his brother and later served the royal family of Patiala, taking care of the cars of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. “The royal family records would have some details on him,” said PDL head Davinder Pal Singh.
Baptised as Dhanna Singh at Nanded in his thirties, he quit royal service to feed his hunger for travel. A devout Sikh, he bicycled to every gurdwara in India, starting in the 1920s with a trip to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Assam. Newspapers published the accounts of what he saw.
'Pind Baddo Ki Gosain Ka':Gujranwala (now in Pakistan). Other than Sikh Gurus, the place is also dedicated to the Gosain sect. Clicked in October 1933.
From Wazirabad, he came to Gujarat on the April 6, 1932. His first photograph is of Takht Damdama Sahib (dedicated to the sixth Guru), where he stopped on his way from Kashmir; the second of a gurdwara in the northeast of Gujarat linked to Guru Hargobind; and the third of Shaheedi Gurdwara Fatehsar, north of Gujarat, where Singh reports that “the Sikhs saved 17,000 Hindus from the cruel Muslim forces” — the entry translated by Mannat, a volunteer at PDL.
“Dhanna Singh wished the world to see these places too. So he bought a camera, an expensive proposition in those times, and learnt photography before starting his next journey — across undivided Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and what is now Pakistan,” said digital libray head Davinder Pal. Visiting various Sikh shrines and historical places, the pilgrim took several hundred photos, which he captioned, dated and signed meticulously, as his gift to posterity.
The picture is captioned 'Pind Dehra Sahibji' dedicated to Banda Singh Bahadur. He is also referred to as Baba Lachhman Singhji and Baba Gurbaksh Singh Shahid. It was clicked in September 1932 in Jammu.
He called himself “cycle yatru” and he appeared in pictures with his ride twice in the 1935 edition of ‘Phulwari’, a popular magazine of that time, which recounts one of his trips to the hills. The same year, it reported that Singh, who had logged 25,000 miles on his bicycle by then, had been killed by a freak gunshot.The Sikh Encyclopedia reports that while travelling to the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), he halted at Hasokhel village near Mir Ali in Bannu district, now in Pakistan. "It was a common practice for the people in that disturbed area to keep loaded weapons by their side at night. Next morning, as the host was unloading his gun, it went off, killing Dhanna Singh on the spot.
'Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara Qila Anandgarh':Falling in Hoshiarpur district. Clicked in May 1934.
His earlier travel notes were safe in the custody of one Seva Singh, son of the late mistri Gurbaksh Singh of Patiala, but his photographs were lost, until a family, which wishes to remain anonymous, brought these to the languages department in Patiala. The family said he had left the works with a friend for safekeeping before setting out on the final picture pilgrimage.
The man behind the pictures: The rediscovered photographs of Dhanna Singh who is on his bycyle (left) which was featyred in a 1935 edition of magazine 'Phulwari'.