Saturday, July 28, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Breathing new life
into samadhis

Art restorers at work at Damdama Baba Sahib Singh Bedi. Photos by the writer.
Art restorers at work at Damdama Baba Sahib Singh Bedi

Damdama Baba Sahib Singh Bedi and the samadhi of Baba Kaladhari in Una are significant monuments of Punjabi heritage. They are now being restored to their original glory without the help of government funds, says Roopinder Singh.

UNA is a small town with a big heritage. Situated in the south-western part of Himachal Pradesh, it touches Hoshiarpur district of Punjab, of which it was a tehsil till 1966. No wonder, this hill town is linked so intimately with the history of Punjab. It makes an interesting repository of Punjabi heritage, especially the period between the rise and the fall of Maharaja Ranjit Singh as well as the British rule that followed it.

According to the noting by British officers in Punjab Gazetteer of Hoshiarpur district, "The mausoleum of Bedi Sahib Singh (sic) is a conspicuous object at Una and its dome with a golden point is visible from a great distance." The monument is still situated at a height, though it is no longer so prominent as time has taken toll of the site.

Baba Sahib Singh Bedi was a towering religious leader of the Sikhs, a scion of the family that traced its descent from Guru Nanak Dev's son Baba Lakhmi Das. Born in 1756, Sahib Singh Bedi played a pivotal role in effecting unity and peace in Sikh ranks during a crucial time when Misil Sardars were often at loggerheads.

"Just when it seemed that Afghan diplomacy had succeeded in breaking up Sikh unity, a saviour appeared in the person of Sahib Singh Bedi, who by virtue of his descent from Guru Nanak and his age, enjoyed the status of father of the Sikhs," says Khushwant Singh in Ranjit Singh, Maharaja of Punjab.

He had followed the tradition of his father, Baba Ajit Singh, who was the first person from the Bedi family to take amrit. Sahib Singh, Bedi was baptised at Anandpur Sahib and was very active in baptising Sikhs, especially those of the Malwa region. It was he who performed the Raj Tilak ceremony for Maharaja Ranjit Singh.


The exterior of the damdama
The exterior of the damdama 

As Baba Sarabjot Singh Bedi, a descendant of Sahib Singh Bedi and the present head of the family, says: "Maharaja Ranjit Singh was not crowned as the king of Sikhs. He was only given the Raj Tilak, that too by Baba Sahib Singh. Basically, according to our traditions, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was advised by Baba Sahib Singh that he could not be the king of the Sikhs, but was a custodian of the Sikhs." The Maharaja always signed as Khalsa Sarkar, rather than inscribe his name on treaties or such state documents. He was, however, often addressed as Maharaja, especially by the British.

"Though less famous than the contemporary whom he "crowned", Sahib Singh Bedi's impact on Punjab's history is profound. As Principal Teja Singh puts it: "Baba Sahib Singh was one of the greatest figures in Sikh history, a moulder of the Sikh nation, especially in the heyday of the Sikh kingdom. But for him, and his able guidance, even the great Maharaja would not have achieved those heights, which made him shine in the darkest days of Indian history."

Detail of the restored parapet of the damdama and the walls depicting scenes from Sikh and Hindu legends.
Detail of the restored parapet of the damdama and the walls depicting scenes from Sikh and Hindu legends. 

Sahib Singh Bedi is also remembered for getting the Maharaja to grant jagirs (land) for the upkeep of various gurdwaras. His notable contribution was in constructing a gurdwara with a massive jagir, which was granted by Maharaja Ranjit Singh at his behest, at Dera Baba Nanak.

This is the person whose samadhi and damdama, where he used to go after meditation every morning and meet people, is at Una. The building has succumbed to the ravages of time but is now being restored by the Bedi family.

"We had been thinking about it for many years, even during the time of my father," says Baba Sarabjot Singh, "and when I brought Gurmeet Rai here, she gave us a comprehensive plan and we started. There is a shortage of funds, no doubt, but we made a beginning and are proceeding gradually."

A panel depicting Guru Nanak with Bala and Mardana.
A panel depicting Guru Nanak with Bala and Mardana

Gurmeet Rai is Director, Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI), New Delhi. The CRCI, an NGO, has been involved in conservation projects in Gurdaspur district like the restoration of Krishan temple in Kishankot, which was built during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Guru ki Maseet in Sri Hargobindpur, built by the sixth Sikh Guru for the Muslims who lived in the city he founded, and the Dargah of Baba Shah Bidar Dewan in Massania village which has been looked after by a Christian family ever since the Muslims left the village in 1947.

"I saw this site when Baba Sarabjot Singh Bedi asked me to see it while I was cataloguing sites for the Khalsa tercentenary celebrations in 1999. We already had projects going on in Kishankot and Sri Hargobindpur at that time.

"We started the work on the damdama here about two months ago. The first thing that we needed to deal with in this building was the (uprooting/treatment of the) roots of plants damaging the structure. That, in fact, is a common problem. Structurally also, once the roof gives way, nothing is left to hold the building together and that's when the whole thing collapses.

"There was a lot of seepage in the roof, so we began concreting it. In the meanwhile, the art conservators consolidated the ceiling."

Sanjay Dhar, an art conservator, says though the main structure is old, the art work on the interior of the Damdama Sahib Singh Bedi has been done at the turn of the 20th century.

The decorative patterns are very delicate. The colouring is appealing, and the motifs have a folk character. They have been executed very finely. They have many elements, some Rajasthani motifs and some European ones like fruit trays, flower vases, etc. The exterior work on the damdama is quite similar to the interior work on the samadhi of Baba Kaladhari, which is a much earlier work.

"In the damdama, there is a greater emphasis on architectural elements in terms of decoration rather than painting. This is in contrast with the samadhi of Baba Kaladhari." Many of the embellishments consist of bricks that have been carved and then fired. There are bricks in different shapes. This is a distinctive feature of this area. Such bricks can also be seen in Amritsar and Hargobindpur.

It is a difficult, slow and painstaking work that involves skilled craftspersons. Dhar says he has worked with Rajasthani craftspersons to re-make the architectural elements. He is involving local people, and the four persons who were trained in Kishankot are now a part of the team of restorers. Others who worked on the exteriors are also being used for structural work.

Baba Kaladhari, whose samadhi Dhar referred to, was a contemporary of Guru Gobind Singh and his samadhi is situated in the main quila where the Bedi family resides. He is widely considered the founder of Una, where he had shifted from Dera Baba Nanak, the traditional home of the Bedi family, at the call of Guru Gobind Singh.

A Pahari 19th century equestrian portrait of Baba Sahib Singh Bedi. Collection: Chandigarh Museum & Art Gallery.
A Pahari 19th century equestrian portrait of Baba Sahib Singh Bedi. Collection: Chandigarh Museum & Art Gallery.

The samadhi is better maintained and has exquisite wall paintings depicting the Sikh Gurus as well as various legends related to Hindu gods and godesses. "The paintings in the building that houses Baba Kalahari's samadhi date back to 1750 or so," says Dhar.

In fact, many important wall paintings were "lovingly white-washed" by devotees, says Neelam Bedi, Sarabjot Singh's wife, who is taking an active interest in the restoration work.

This was specially so during the mela is held on March 20 every year to commemorate the birth anniversary of Baba Sahib Singh which draws large crowds.

Incidentally, the work is being carried out without any grants from any organisation. Besides personal contributions from the family, the offerings given by common people at the shrines connected with the family are also being used for the restoration work.

What makes these buildings significant? "They remind you of the towering personality of Baba Sahib Singh," says Gurmeet Rai. "They are also architecturally important because very few buildings built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, or those constructed during that period, survive now."

"Sikh heritage is beyond ethnicity. When we look at an ethnic group, we are bound by a religion, geographical boundary, a definite physical dimension. Sikh heritage is not just a physical form but is something that reflects the philosophy," she says.

As you look out from the structures around the fort where Baba Kaladhari’s samadhi is situated, you see the ruins of the outer wall of the fort, which was brought down in a battle with the British forces in 1847.

The British, in fact, razed the entire area, leaving just a small building, to punish Baba Bikrama Singh, the then head of the family, for revolting against them. He was a powerful jagirdar (he held a jagir worth Rs 2 lakh which included many villages and forts of Nurpur, Gunachaur and Dakhni Sarai) at that time. He had been asked to surrender his guns to the British. He, however, refused to do so and revolted, finding support among the hill rajas as well as Sikh Sardars. Eventually he was forced, along with others, to surrender.

As Sarabjot Singh Bedi narrates, "Baba Bikrama Singh was interned in Amritsar, as per his request, so that he could have the darshan of Darbar Sahib. When he used to go there, the sangat would gather to see him so the British stopped him from going for the darshan. He was put in a small cell, in which he died after 14 years of imprisonment. He was cremated in that very building."

From the time of the Gurus, through the period of the Misils; the rise and fall of the kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the British Raj—its quite a sweep of history.

Una is a town the denizens of which played a major role in shaping the history of the region. It has a heritage which its people can be proud of, and one that they need to keep alive.


Bring about heritage awareness

The following are excerpts from an interview with Gurmeet Rai, Director, CRCI:

Gurmeet RaiWhat needs to be done to conserve our heritage?

We need to identify historical buildings and conserve them. We need to have relevant legislation and heritage management. There are different problems with buildings owned by the Public Works Department, Railways and so on.

Is there any existing model that could be followed?

Not really. You can't have a common approach for all buildings that are used for varied purposes such as government guest houses, gurdwaras and museums. We have a living heritage, we can't have "freezing in time" as an attitude, nor can we have "reuse into hotels." For things to have importance to the community, they have to continue to belong to it.

Local history has to be introduced into school curriculum so that people identify with their heritage buildings. Baba Sahib Singh Bedi has to mean something to the people in order for them to conserve the buildings, and not the other way around. I look at a three or four-fold approach, which would include awareness, conservation, identification, legislation and management.

One way of raising the money would be to find thousand persons who could give $1,000 each. You get a corpus of Rs 5 crore. Intach works out of a corpus from the Charles Wallace India Trust.

— Photos by the writer