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Construction of Gender and Religious Identities in the First Punjabi Novel Sundari

The first Punjabi novel Sundari was written by Bhai Vir Singh with the objective of keeping the followers of Sikhism adherent to their practices. The author's reference to the historical records and writings of his period lend great sociological relevance to the novel Sundari. Through his main character, the author presents an ideal Sikh woman who is benevolent, brave and courageous in the struggle of Sikhs. His narrative has constructed the Sikh identity as not only the defender of the honour of its women, but of all women. This paper analyses the construction of gender and religious identities in this novel against the backdrop of 18th century Punjab when Sikhs were trying to consolidate themselves in difficult conditions.

Construction of Gender and Religious Identities in the First Punjabi Novel Sundari

The first Punjabi novel Sundari was written by Bhai Vir Singh with the objective of keeping the followers of Sikhism adherent to their practices. The author’s reference to the historical records and writings of his period lend great sociological relevance to the novel Sundari. Through his main character, the author presents an ideal Sikh woman who is benevolent, brave and courageous in the struggle of Sikhs. His narrative has constructed the Sikh identity as not only the defender of the honour of its women, but of all women. This paper analyses the construction of gender and religious identities in this novel against the backdrop of 18th century Punjab when Sikhs were trying to consolidate themselves in difficult conditions.


hroughout history gender has been constructed and reconstructed through reform movements, moral codes, normative values, education and literature to meet certain social requisites of the times. The construction of gender has remained of paramount importance to construct a community. In the present article, an attempt has been made to analyse the construction of gender and religious identities in the first Punjabi novel1 Sundari2 by Bhai Vir Singh, which was published in 1898. The historical landscape of the novel is the mid18th century when Sikhs were trying to consolidate themselves in the unfavourable conditions of the times. Constructed by the author, Sundari is an ideal type of Sikh woman as a main character in the Sikh movement. She is a person performing the role of benevolent, brave and courageous woman in the struggle of Sikhs. Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957) wrote numerous3novels, epics and stories in the late 19th and early 20th century. In his four novels, Rana Surat Singh, Bejai Singh, Satwant Kaur and Sundari, woman occupies the pivotal role. His writings in this genre are aimed at recreating the heroic period of 18th century of Sikh history. Through these novels he has made available to his readers the typical models of courage, fortitude and human dignity [Singh 1998]. The most famous of these is Sundari in which he successfully elevates an ordinary woman in flesh and blood to the status of a goddess. The story of the novel is placed in the time of alleged Mughal persecution of the Sikhs, which has been constructed on the basis of a popular folk song about a beautiful young and newly married Hindu woman who was abducted by a Mughal hakim.4 The author himself has mentioned that the story of Sundari and the conditions of Sikhs have been constructed on the bases of Panth Parkash, Khalsa Tavareekh5 as well as the oral narratives of the old men and women. The main objective of the author for writing this book in the novel form was that by reading it in a popular fiction form the Sikhs would adhere to their religious practices more strongly. The objective of the author is normative, but at the same time his reference to the historical records and writings of his period lend great sociological relevance to his novel, Sundari.

After losing to the British in 1849, the Sikh community was facing a tough time. There were internal conflicts; their religious practices got mixed up with other religions, particularly the Hindus. The underlying motive of the Sundari is to create a pure/ pious Sikh identity, to consolidate Sikhism, and to construct gender as well as the other religious identities. As a result of such writings, the Khalsa Diwan and the Singh Sabha reform movements emerged and worked towards the same direction. Man Singh Advocate recalls in the epilogue of Sundari published in 1933 that within a few years of its publication numerous instances of Sikhs getting baptised came into the limelight.

To achieve his goal, the author has gone back in time and space. The time is just after the death of Banda Bahadur, that is, some times between 1716 and 1757 and this was also the time of the persecution of the Sikhs when thousands of Sikhs allegedly sacrificed their lives for the sake of their religion and identity. It was a struggle between Sikhs on the one hand and Mughals and Afghans on the other. For the first five years after Banda Bahadur’s execution, very little was heard of the Sikhs. The trivial issues amongst the Sikhs became important which led to the squabbling and then an open fight to gain control over the Harimandir Sahib in Amritsar. In 1721, Mata Sundari (widow of Guru Gobind Singh), appointed Bhai Mani Singh as the head priest of the Harimandir Sahib thus settling the internal strife. The Sikhs started the tradition of deciding the community matters at the biennial meetings known as ‘Sarbat Khalsa’ to be held at Amritsar. The Sarbat Khalsa appointed ‘jathedars’ (group leaders) who were empowered to negotiate on behalf of the Sikhs. These jathedars formed small bands of outlaws and began taking nearby villages under their protection [Singh 1977]. In this novel, Sundari becomes a part of one such band of outlawed Sikhs that was operating in different parts of the state under the group leader Sham Singh.

In 1726, Zakarya Khan became the governor of Lahore. The combined strength of the jathedars was enough to persuade him to remain in a conciliatory mood with the Sikhs. Zakarya Khan even offered them a ‘jagir’ (estate) worth a lakh of rupees. But soon the policy of appeasement was given up and the jagir was confiscated as the Sikhs occupied quite a large portion of the land. At this time, Nadir Shah invaded Northen Punjab by scattering all opposition and pushed towards Delhi. After plundering Delhi while on his return along the foothills of Himalayas, the Sikh bands that were already hiding there started attacking his army in the darkness of the night. Nadir Shah’s army became an easy pray for them who plundered his loot. Nadir Shah’s loot came as a great rescue for the Sikhs in the times of crisis.

Zakarya Khan turned hostile towards the Sikhs and pledged to eliminate them. Everyday the Sikhs were beheaded when forced to convert to Islam. Bhai Mani Singh was tortured and executed, prices on the heads of the Sikhs were fixed – a blanket for cutting off a Sikh’s hair, Rs 10 for information of a Sikh’ whereabouts, Rs 50 for a Sikh scalp. Plunder of the Sikh homes was made lawful. A person providing shelter and food to a Sikh faced the death penalty. Men were sent into villages to capture the Sikhs who then were publicly tortured and killed [Singh 1978].

The murder of Jaspat Rai while committing atrocities on the Sikhs at Emnabad maddened his brother Lakhpat Rai, a khatri and diwan (minister) of the Lahore government with revenge against the Sikhs. Zakarya Khan died in 1745 and his son and successor Yahya Khan backed the policy of the diwan to ruthlessly suppress and prosecute the Sikhs. As a result of personal vendetta of Lakhpat Rai, the Sikhs suffered a lot and the time (1746) is known as first holocaust6 (‘chhota ghalughara’) in the history of Sikhs. Sundari’s plot is constructed around this battle.

The period of the governor of Lahore, Mir Mannu (1748-53), is considered as the darkest period in the history of Sikhs when even the Sikh women and children were not spared. The women were imprisoned, starved, tortured and killed. It is alleged in the popular history of the Sikhs that during such a time of crisis the Sikhs never lost their moral values, discipline and sense of sacrifice. They braved the times and there is hardly any instance when any Sikh gave up the religion to save his life. The author, through the medium of Sundari, wants to remind those times when Sikhs suffered heavily in terms of loss of life, but they saved their religion and its practices and ultimately emerged victorious. Such a parallel from 18th century has been articulated to motivate the Sikhs in late 19th and early 20th century when once again the Sikh religion was understood as passing through the crisis.

Sundari is both a social and literary phenomenon. The prime motivation behind its writing was reformist. Singh (1998) argues that it was the product of the late 19th century fears and aspirations

– fears that Sikhism might die out if corruption and decadence which had overtaken Sikh religious institutions and society were not remedied; and aspirations that Sikhism should take the place of pride to which it was entitled by reason of the excellence of its doctrine and the virility of its tradition.

I Constructing the Gender

The social construction of gender is generally a process of interpreting, articulating and justifying the existing unequal relationship between the two sexes. At the same time, it may involve a reverse process in which the unequal relationships between the sexes are shrouded in the ideology of equality through a complex process of the creation of conceptual framework. Therefore, gender implicates and dispenses socially constructed meanings, which are continuously produced and reproduced through the actor and his agency over the time and across the space. Gender is a dynamic category as the meanings attached to the social roles assigned to men and women keep on changing from society to society and across time. However, societies always remain interested to produce and maintain the gender differences in favour of men over women through various social processes: socialisation, the actions of social institutions and interaction among people [Reskin and Padavic 1994].

Why did Bhai Vir Singh took up the women question in late 19th century when western influence had already started penetrating into the Indian houses and families? At this juncture, why did he go back to the traditions? The social reformists were actively working against the prevailing social vices such as selfimmolation (sati), polygamy and child marriage. In the political arena, a nationalist discourse was built that was devoid of women’s question. The politics of nationalism glorified India’s past and tended to defend everything traditional. It fostered a conservative attitude towards social beliefs and practices [Chatterjee 1993]. Therefore, gender was constructed as a representative of Indian culture and traditions. Women are to be protected in the four walls of the house lest there be no western modernising influence on them. In Bengal, Chatterjee opines, the women question was a central issue in the most controversial debates over social reforms in early and mid-19th century, but in the period of nationalism there is retrogression. Nationalism fostered a distinctly conservative attitude towards social beliefs and practices. Bhai Vir Singh constructs gender in a religious-historical context in which the Sikh intellectual leadership perceives a crisis within the community caused not only of western forces, but also from other religious communities. In the process, he subverts the gender spatially and temporally.

Bhai Vir Singh’s construction of Sundari is also considered as a reaction formation to the Christian missionaries writings, particularly the first Punjabi (translated) novel Jyotirudae in which the status of Indian women is depicted as very low as compared to their European counterparts besides highlighting the gender inequalities. The European woman is taken as a model of beauty. In reaction to them Sundari is presented as a beautiful woman, more beautiful than even the moon and stars. Thus the author has specifically pointed out beauty among the Hindu women. Through his main character Sundari he shows the prevailing equality between men and women in our society. He says that even in the middle ages, our women are able take their own decisions and Sundari decides to join the Sikh brigade after renouncing the family life. She equally participates in the struggle and fights the wars along with men [Kaur 1994].

The Singh Sabha movement worked towards the emancipation of women. Various women role models were developed through literature. As already mentioned, Bhai Vir Singh wrote numerous novels with female figures in the central roles. The first and the most famous Punjabi novel, Sundari depicts a young woman who was true to her faith, devout and pure. She was active in battle and elevated at times to the status of goddess. Jakobsh (2003) writes that the story of Sundari was designed to advance the cause of Sikh women. It also attempted to glorify the status of Sikh women as compared to their Hindu and Muslim counterparts. While constructing the gender, the novelist has tried to construct a Sikh woman who is clearly distinct from all other women. The construction of the other is significant to understand a Sikh woman. In Sundari both the Hindu and Muslim religions are depicted as oppressive to their women. At the same time,

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006 the Muslim regime is made responsible for the oppression and exploitation of women on the other. It is alleged that the holy book of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, provides an equal status and rights to women in religious and social affairs. Let us look at the narrative of the construction of gender in the novel.

In a thickly populated small village comprising both Hindus and Muslims households, there was a house of an affluent Hindu khatri named Shayma. He had a beautiful daughter named Surasti (Sundari) who was 18 years old. She was newly married and it was the day of her ‘muklawa’ – an occasion to go to her husband’s home for the consummation of marriage. Ipso facto it had been informed that she was a virgin. She was all dressed up and was in a jubilant mood in the anticipation of the good times ahead. In the evening, health her friends and relatives when she was celebrating, singing and dancing, a young, strong Mughal chieftain approached them from the backyard of house in a horse and in a speck of a second abducted Surasti. When the Mughal abducted Sundari none dared from the village to set her free. It seemed they had lost courage and determination. Perhaps the political control and inhibitions had killed their inner psyche and rendered them mute [Khahra 1999].

Just a mile away from the village he had set up his camp where she was taken. The wise men of the village decided that the father, brother and husband of the girl along with two panches (members of panchyat) of the village would go to the chieftain and request him to return her hoping that he would be moved by their vulnerability. The five men on reaching the camp bowed their head in front of the Mughal chief and requested him with folded hands to free the girl. They tried to offer money, jewels, gold and silver to him in exchange of the girl. The chieftain behaved as if it was his right to have one of his choices. Getting assurances from Surasti they decided to return. To save her honour, she instead decided to kill herself, but at the last moment her brother, Balwant Singh, who had become a Sikh and joined their brigade, appeared on knowing the whereabouts of his sister and reached to rescue her. The chieftain had gone to collect some water to drink and she was just about to set herself on fire that her brother appeared and convinced her that killing oneself was a heinous crime and took his sister to return to the parents. The family, fearing the wrath of the Mughal chieftain, refused to accept her back and suggested him to return her to him. He decided to take her along to which she agreed and then onwards she pledged to take care of the Sikhs. Newly married Surasti ultimately decided to remain single, virgin and thus pure. Surasti being born in a Hindu family was secretly practising Sikhism. She had been reciting the Sikh scriptures and was always fascinated by the Sikhs. Her Sikh brother came as a saviour and became the only brave and daring man in the times of danger. She was skilful in horse riding and could ride the horse without any inhibitions and purdah (veil). Jakobsh (ibid) opines that for the writer it was only the Sikhism that produced truly moral and exemplary women and men. The ideal of service towards others, crossing religious boundaries were integral to Sikhism.

Sundari is portrayed as a bold, strong and determined woman and while witnessing her brother’s courage and boldness, she ponders over why women are not joining the Sikhs and fighting the just war. She decides to become the first woman to be brave enough and to set an example of courage to fight along with the men. She begins to reflect on the role of women. She dedicates her life to the cause of Sikhs and Sikhism. Women at that time were kept well protected and not playing any significant role in the outer social world.

On knowing the disappearance of Surasti, a fierce fighting took place with the men of Muslim chief. They fought bravely with the enemy but unluckily their horses got wounded, thus both brother and sister were imprisoned. After the release from the prison with the help of other Sikhs she reached the band of the Sikhs in a jungle and thus began the life of Surasti in the company and service of warriors. The leader of the band Sardar Sham Singh baptised her and she because the god sister of all the men and all were appealed that she might be considered the daughter of mother Sahib Deva and father Guru Gobind Singh. She was named Sunder Kaur according to the religious rituals. Later she was popularly known as Sundari and everybody in the band treated her as a sister. Soon after the ceremony she went to the kitchen and took charge of the ‘langer’/food of the ‘dera’. From then onwards she delightfully cooked the food for all and served them with care. She used to accompany them on all encounters, operations and was camping in the jungles. She would fight bravely and took care of the wounded soldiers irrespective of whether they were Sikhs or their enemies. There are many incidents when she, out of sympathy and benevolence, helped even the enemies’ injured soldiers. Even her end came by a stroke of sword when she tried to help and show mercy to a Pathan (Afghan) soldier who was lying wounded and unattended in the jungle in an unconscious state. At the same time, she was one among the warriors. Once when she was imprisoned by the local amir7 and was being taken to his palace, she tactfully snatched his sword and swiftly killed him. After killing him she rode on his horse and eloped in the dense jungle.

When it comes to rendering a helping hand her character is universalised. She crosses the religious boundaries. She helped any person who needed it. In the process, she could achieve the most respectable status amongst others. The first woman poet of Punjab, Peero argues that women have a universal identity. They are above the divisions, as religious distinctions exist only among men. Peero emphatically emphasises that religious identity does not subsumes women’s identity. Men have constructed identities for themselves through religion, whereas women’s identities lie in being women [Bal 2003].

Over a period of time, some other destitute women joined the Sikhs and converted to Sikhism. They were baptised and their names were changed accordingly. The distinct names of Sikhs, common for men and women point towards the equality of sexes within the religion. Jakobsh (2004) has pointed out that the suffix “kaur” in the names of the Sikh women was as a recent as the second half of the 19th century. Saying that in the first half of the 18th century the Sikh were giving the suffix ‘kaur’ is an evidence of how Bhai Vir Singh is constantly constructing the religious identity through the gender. The author in the novel often gives his personal comments to pursue his religious agenda. He wishes Sikhs to be firm and staunch in their religious beliefs. They must perform their religious duties simultaneously with worldly chores. It is our prime duty to expand the religion and need of the time is to get organised to counter the disrupting forces.

Bhai Vir Singh addresses the contemporary situation of Sikhs and the Sikh women in particular. He alleges that he is presenting the true image of a Sikh woman through the model of Sundari. Sundari represents an identity – constructed for Sikh women to follow. Jakobsh (ibid) argues that the Singh Sabha was trying to build a parallel and a contrast, alternative to the Hindu images of gods and goddesses. They created their own heroes and heroines. It was basically a rejection of Hinduism. The change of her name points towards it. Surasti is a derivative of goddesses Sarasvati – having power of knowledge and learning. Now a new identity for woman is being constructed who is brave, courageous, bold and beautiful. Sundari – a virtual goddess, replaces the goddess Durga. Her elevation to an archetype personifies all the good characteristics and traits of a person. It does not include the features of a woman; rather she is manly. Thus the construction of gender becomes blurred in the sense that there is an overlapping of woman and man in terms of certain characteristics that had been traditionally associated with the latter though there had been a historical presence of personalities like Joan of Arc, Razia Sultana, etc. What is interesting in Bhai Vir Singh is that he is simultaneously constructing woman as an in-charge of the kitchen – a provider of food and also taking care of sick and wounded soldiers. Care and service towards others is a part of the role model. She prays to god to bless her with knowledge so that she could recite the Holy Scriptures (‘naam japana’) and serve others. She is religious, devoted and god-fearing person. She is a symbol of new power who is a devout Sikh on the one hand, and, on the other, a brave, strong and bold soldier. The woman is constructed as a dichotomy of saint/soldier (sant/sipahi). It is mentioned in the epilogue of the novel that near Kahnuwan (district Gurdaspur) in Punjab, there is an old ‘bauli’ which was constructed by the Sikhs in the memory of Sundari.

The construction of distinct identity of the Sikh women differentiates them from others. The boldness and dying bravely for the religion and for the love of Gurus is something extraordinary. The wife of great intellect Harkirat Singh bravely accepts the killings of her son and husband. Similarly, a woman from a village Tung comes along with her son to pay homage at Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple), Amritsar knowing fully well that Diwan Lakhpat Rai’s soldiers might kill them. She refuses to accept others’ advice, and is determined and remains faithful tothe Guru. She believes that it is a testing time to perform her duty.

Towards the end of the novel (pp 83-84) Bhai Vir Singh gives the message to the contemporary women:

O Sikh maiden of today born with a silver spoon in your mouth

and living in luxury and comfort! The daughters, sisters and

mothers of the poor and rich Sikhs! Look at the faith and the plight

of your forerunner Sundari. She never loses her faith. She takes

a risk with her life, but does not give up her virtue. In times of

trouble and calamity, she remains firm and sticks to the doctrine

of Sikh religion. Just look at yourself and find out for yourself

if you are damaging the Sikh community or not.!…Be brave and

truthful Sikh ladies like Sundari: be virtuous like her and make

yourself and children true Sikhs, otherwise you would prove to

be, for your husband, the pernicious creeper which dries up the

plant and then itself perishes [translation Jakobsh 2003:164].

The author creates binary oppositions of female/male, good/ bad, Sikh/Muslim, sympathy/cruelty, sincerity/betrayal, creation/ destruction throughout the text. In the beginning, when Surasti was abducted all her relatives – Hindus – came back without securing her freedom. They were cowards. Then a Sikh went as a saviour of her honour and gave a new direction to her life. However, it is in the case of Hindus that ambivalence is structured in their relationship with the Sikhs. Lakhpat Rai – a local Hindu chief – is determined to destroy the Sikhs. The character of Kaura Mal – another Hindu chief – personifies the goodness. As it would be seen in next section, this ambivalence disappears in the narrative the moment the construction of Muslim identity begins. Starting from the beginning of the narrative to the end, the image of the Muslim remains unchanged. Interestingly, even the Muslim woman is forgotten in the process. Why does it happen? The next section of the paper aims at exploring this issue.

II Construction of Religious Communities

Bhai Vir Singh has created the society of 18th century Punjab in which three religious communities are shown interacting with each other. In view of Judge (2005), there is an evidence of presence of eclectic space, that is, an inter-subjective world – with shared and common meanings in a multi-religious society. Bhai Vir Singh has shown three religious communities interacting with each other despite the existence of differences, hierarchies and exclusion, but they exist not in a harmonious manner rather in a contentious form. The construction of communities deprives them to share any eclectic space, which consists of traditions, cultural practices, local history and its consciousness.

Bhai Vir Singh in Sundari creates religious communities by giving them specific identities. First of all there are Sikhs who are brave, strong and are saviours – an ideal. Second, the Hindus are portrayed as coward, meek, docile, helpless, tactless, deserving mercy and sympathy throughout the text. Among the Hindus we also have Diwan Kaura Mal who is sympathetic and helpful to the Sikhs. Third, there are Muslims who are tyrants and oppressors.

Sikh Identity: Warrior, Brave and Saviour

Becoming a Sikh at that time was not yet acceptable in the society. The family treated the person as dead and they used to feel extremely bad when somebody converted to Sikhism. Who is a Sikh? A Sikh is one who is believed to be the son of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru of the Sikhs. In the triangular presentation of three religious communities, the Sikhs are shown as saviours of the Hindus from the oppression of the Muslim rulers. The Sikhs can safeguard their interests, but the Hindus are not able to do so. A rich Hindu khatri whose wife was abducted by the local Muslim chief feels helpless and attempts to commit suicide. His encounter with Sundari makes him to realise that there is a hope – the Sikhs can help him to get his wife back. She brings him to the camp blindfolded and assures him the possible help. With the help of the Sikhs, his wife was set free who was made to eat prohibited food in the imprisonment. The Sikh leader Sham Singh used to instruct his followers/soldiers not to let any woman or child irrespective of the religion suffer by your actions. They are allowed to take away only the eatables and were not supposed to touch any other item of belonging to the enemy. During the time of abduction Sundari tried to take her own life, her brother Balwant Singh told her that committing suicide is the biggest sin according to Sikh religion. When the khatri whose wife was abducted by the Mughal chief wants to commit suicide, Sundari tells him that taking one’s own life was like committing a sin.

Whenever the Sikh army attacked the Muslim areas or palaces to save some women, their operation was planned in such a way that the action would be swift, tactful and excellent in aiming at the opponents. Their attack on the Muslim culprits was so well planned that each time in a rapid action they could punish the culprits, plunder their treasury and even kill the guilty.

One construction of the sikh religion that run through the narrative is that it is universal, egalitarian and based on the principle of equality: “We are not partisans. Both the Hindus and the Muslims are equal to us; we do not envy any of them.

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006 We are to destroy the prevailing injustice and inequality from the society. We have to cleanse cruelty and exploitation of the times. They, being rulers give trouble to the masses, do not provide justice, rather the innocents are being killed. They collect the revenue but do not provide them protection. They are forcefully converting the people to Islam” (p 33).

There are enough instances to show that the Sikhs were benevolent. The wounded Muslim soldiers were cared and cured by Sundari, but in return, they created problems for her and the Sikhs. Instead of being thankful to her, they became instrumental in the abduction of Sundari and put her into imprisonment on getting the first opportunity. Many times Muslim women would come to the Sikhs for justice and to be rescued from the atrocities of the Muslim rulers. In an instance, when the only son of a poor Muslim woman dared to see towards the palace of the local chief, he was beaten to death. The Sikh leader helped even the poor Muslim women financially. The war of the Sikhs was against the oppression, injustice and cruelty of the Muslim rulers against the masses. The Sikh personality and behaviour have been presented in the binary opposition of fire/water – the symbols of aggression and soothing.

The Sikhs, with the help of references to certain contemporary writings, are shown to be pious, ethical and having high moral standards. The women Sundari, Dharam Kaur and others were treated with lot of regard and reverence. They were treated as real sisters and many a time the warriors had to put their lives into danger to save their honour and respect.

Knowing about her deteriorating health and foreseeing the end of her life Sundari pledges two favours from the accompanying Sikhs. She showed her gratitude towards the Hakim, who had spent money for her treatment and care and she expressed her indebtedness (‘rinee’) to him. She told them to send some money to him. The second is a profound advice to her Sikh brethrens thus

I request you to regard your women as equal partners and never ill treat them. As and when you would treat them with harshness, cruelty and would have bad intentions, then would start the fall of your repute. In the Shastras the woman is treated as Shudra

– a low caste, impure and polluted. All our ten Gurus have praised her. In Guru Granth Sahib, woman has been eulogised and she has been given equal right of worship and recitation of Holy Scripture. You have been protecting and bestowing honour on us that is why in the ocean of dangers of the enemy we are fine and in high spirits (p 95).

In contrast to the oppressive and subordination of women in Hindu religion, this kind of positive attitude towards women is integral to Sikhism. Even the Muslim regime is shown as directly responsible for the sufferings and exploitation of women.

In spite of the universality of the Sikh religion, the author tries to establish a distinct space of the Sikhs. He makes the women responsible for the present time crisis in the Sikh religion. The crisis within the religion has been created to further strengthen the religion and to avoid digressions. His basic argument is that the Sikhs are not sticking exclusively to their own religion but they also intrude into other religions. He thus writes,

Leaving your own saints and gurus aside you worship stones, trees, pyres and pirs. Forgetting your own religion you are teaching yourchildren the tenets of other religions. In this way from upside down you would be mixed up. The head would be of a Sikh, neck ofa Hindu and the body of a Muslim. The women of other religionslaugh at you because of your activities. Do not go for false ritualsand practices on various occasions. You! by leaving aside the livingGuru have fed the snakes. By leaving aside the omnipresentAlmighty you along with your husbands and children are walkingon a path which heads towards hell. By removing all anomalies,become pure and pious Sikh. For the sake of greed do not giveyour daughters to non-believers... Let us do something good forour children and ourselves! (p 84).

In view of Malhotra (2002), Bhai Vir Singh has performed a very difficult task of convincing sahajdharis of the significance of the Khalsa identity, as well as high caste (khatri) Hindu conversions to Sikhism. He very carefully constructs a Sikh history of the 18th century marked by Sikh bravery and suffering. In view of Pashaura Singh (2004) the construction of Sikh identity in the colonial period was a result of negotiation between the British and the leaders of Singh Sabha movement. Bhai Vir Singh’s Sundari is the culmination, objectification and justification of that identity through the invention of a tradition. For the British, the defined identity was the essential condition for the community to exist in the demarcated boundaries and its essential feature was that it could be enumerated [Judge 2005]. Sekhon (1972) even remarked that Bhai Vir Singh seems to be satisfied with British rule and believes that Sikhs can flourish and progress under their rule.8

Muslim Identity: Tyrant and Oppressor

We encounter Muslims – both Afghan and Mughal – as rulers who are shown to be cruel to their own people as well as the Hindus. Any one could be killed who even by mistake passed along the palace of local chief. There was nobody to help or listen to the grievances of the people. Even the Muslim women and children were living in utter fear and desperation. Such people learning about the existence of the Sikhs would come and ask for justice. Throughout the novel the Muslims are presented as the violators of the faith of Sundari and also of the Sikhs in general. The Sikhs are a symbol of good deeds, whereas the Muslims are bad, dishonest and thankless persons.

During one of the battles Sundari comes across an Afghan soldier whom she gives water and puts bandages on his wounds. On regaining consciousness he inquires about her religion and coming to know that she was a Sikh, he attacks her with his sword by calling her a kafir (a non-believer of god), which gave her deep wounds. She was lying helpless in the jungle when the hakim (the same chief who had abducted her) passes through that route and takes her to his palace where he attends her well with an intention to marry her as soon as she recovered. She was provided best of the treatment and care. She started feeling much better. Her comrades were quite worried on knowing her whereabouts. They planned to rescue her, but when she was about to escape she received a powerful blow of sword and got seriously wounded from which she could never recover and died after some days in spite of the best care and treatment.

All the Muslim rulers and conquerors were depicted as hostile towards Sikhs and seem to be possessed by the sole objective of eliminating them – whosoever/wherever. Fierce battles also took place between the Muslims and the Sikhs. Mir Mannu’s atrocities on the Sikhs are recorded in the history. Adeena Beg, who was at one time considered to be a sympathiser of the Sikhs, reacted violently against them after Ahmed Shah’s return in 1757 and ordered that no Sikh should remain alive. Even Hindus seeking any kind of justice from the Muslim rulers were denied any sympathetic hearing. The women were abducted, taken to their palaces where they were forcibly made to eat the prohibited food and were converted to Islam. The Muslims are shown not only the cruel and oppressors. but also of loose moral character.

Hindu Identity: Coward and Oppressor

The Hindus were in a precarious situation. The author puts them in a dialectical situation where on the one hand, the Muslims are cruel to them and, on the other, they also fear the Sikhs. During the wartime the Hindu women were forced to provide food to the Sikh soldiers. They would cook food for them with a promise that they would not touch/trouble their men. As a principle and practice, the Sikhs would make a payment to them for the food. The Hindus strongly believed that the Muslims were cruel and if there was any power to match them, it was that of the Sikhs. The Hindus had ambivalent relationship with the Sikhs. “The Hindu religion is like raw threads, which can easily be broken and once broken they are of no use” (p 34). The Hindus are very rigid in their religious practices, but at the same time they (brahmins) are also greedy. “With the help of money you can make them ready to do any thing”, commented Sundari. She made this comment on knowing that Dhram Kaur had been forced to eat prohibited food during her custody due to which the brahmins refused her entry into the Hindu faith. Accepting Sundari’s advice her husband first offered each of them a gold coin followed by prashad (p 35) from her which all of them had without any inhibitions.

The Hindus are depicted as cowards as well as cruel, tyrant and full of vengeance. In the form of the portrayal of the character of Diwan Lakhpat Rai, they are also presented as hostile to the Sikhs. His brother Jaspat Rai was killed in a battle with the Sikhs. In reprisal, he started killing the Sikhs indiscriminately; even the children and women were not spared. To begin with, he got all his Sikh employees killed.

The writer also presents the character of Kaura Mal9 – the diwan to the governor of Lahore, who was a sympathiser of the Sikhs. He rescued many Sikhs from the onslaught of Lakhpat. He admired the bravery of Sikhs. Whenever there was any crisis in the Sikh camp with regard to finance and food, he used to send the needful clandestinely. He wanted their struggle to continue against the Muslim rule. He was a great friend of the Sikhs. Amongst the Sikhs he was popularly known as Mitha Mal

– means sweet. It was also believed by the Sikhs that he was a baptised Sikh – named Khulasa Singh. The socio-linguistic analysis reveals that Diwan Lakhpat Rai, being anti-Sikhs, has been referred as Lakhu while the Kura Mal’s name has been referred with great respect. Lakhpat Rai and Kaura Mal present a binary opposition of good and bad. Kaura Mal, in contrast to Lakhpat Rai, is a seasoned statesman who without shedding a drop of blood with his stewardship by using Machiavellian tricks could capture and controls the area. Kaura Mal has a prominent place in the history of struggle of the Sikhs against the cruelty and exploitation of the Muslim rulers. The Mughal army led by “Lakhu” attacked the Sikh army who were moving towards the north-western hills expecting their rulers to help them. Contrarily, the Hindu rulers of hills refused to give them shelter and hence many of them were killed in a fierce battle amongst them. This was a big loss of manpower and ammunition to the Sikh army.

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

They retrieved back to Malwa region where they consolidated themselves and their number increased manifold. Lakhpat Rai lost the rule of Lahore to Mughals who fined him Rs 30,00,000 in addition to imprisonment. To pay the fine his property/ possessions were sold for Rs 20,00,000. Kaura Mal paid rest of the money and took him into his custody where he died after six months. Kaura Mal helped the Sikhs with food, moral support besides the construction and repair of Gurdawaras and died while fighting with Ahmed Shah Durrani’s army. Though Durrani lost his first invasion on India, yet the loss to the Sikh army was immense.

It is clear from the narrative that with regard to the Hindus the neat binary oppositions are absent. The Hindus are shown as both friendly and hostile towards the Sikhs. The author seems to be aware of the fact that the Sikhs were earlier Hindus. The transformation through religious conversion is radical in the sense that the Hindu who is helpless and coward turns into a saviour and brave. Since every Hindu does not become Sikh, the construction of the Hindu identity receives an ambivalent treatment from the author. It may be reminded that in the same year when Sundari was published, Kahn Singh Nabha wrote his famous polemical pamphlet Hum Hindu Nahin in which his presentation of the Hindus was similar to that of Bhai Vir Singh.

Concluding Remarks

Bhai Vir Singh’s Sundari should be read against the backdrop of the 19th century construction of religious communities in Punjab. The British rule was consolidated and to use Oberoi’s (1994) argument, the Christian missionaries had also started their proselytising activities the reaction to which could be found in the form of the Singh Sabha movement. The Singh Sabha movement and the Arya Samaj movement were having close interaction in which the two become competing forces and crystallised the construction of communalism. On the other hand, the Muslims remained socio-culturally distant. However, the influence of sufi tradition remained a thorn in the paw of the Singh Sabha movement. The Sikh intellectuals worked hard to reclaim the Sikhs by purging all influences of other religions – both Hindu and Islamic. The most important element of this text is that the construction of the Sikh identity has been carried through gender. Woman is the underbelly of the religious community. In the face of threat to the community, she is the first to face the attack. The protection of woman becomes central in the discourse of the community. Can a community save the honour of its women? Bhai Vir Singh’s narrative constructs the Sikh identity as not only the defender of the honour of its women, but all women. Such a positive construction decentres other religious communities and in the process, the invention of a tradition and the construction of religious identity through gender are completed.




1 However, there is a viewpoint that the first Punjabi novel was Jyotirudae,

an anonymous work published in 1882 by the Punjab Text Book Committee

of the Ludhiana Mission. Though it was written in Punjabi, but it was

a translation from Bengali. 2 Whenever “Sundari” as a text is used it is in italics and since the name

of the main character of the novel is ‘Sundari’, therefore while mentioning

the character no italics has been used. 3 We have a list of 48 publications by Bhai Vir Singh focusing on the Sikhism

as such besides some novels and epics. Sundari is the most read literary work in Punjabi and no other Punjabi novel has influenced the lives of the people the way it has worked. The common people of Punjab have varied glimpses of the Sundari starting from the childhood story narrated by the father at bedtime to a serious piece of literary work. More thana century-old novel appears to them still as relevant as ever.

4 Hakim means a local level officer of Mughals dealing with the collection of revenue. In the modern sense of the term he is a judicial magistrate.

5 Panth Parkash,subsequently known as Prachin Panth Parkash was written by Ratan Singh Bhangu in the middle of 19th century (probably 1841). Ratan Singh was the grandson of Mehtab Singh – one of the assassinsof Massa Ranghar who tried to spoil the sanctity of Golden Temple. The focus of the author is strongly on the creation of the Khalsa though he retained the earlier writers’ emphasis on destiny and struggle as well. The Khalsa was created to rule [quoted from McLeod 1995]. Khalsa Tavareekh was a newspaper.

6 Chota Ghalughara was fought between the Mughal army and the Sikhsin Kahnuwan Chhamb area. Chhamb is a low-lying area where water used to get accumulated and resultantly there was a thick growth of shrubs and trees. Later it was all reclaimed and the land is very fertile, the place is known as Kahnuwan in district Gurdaspur.

7 Amir means a local caretaker of the Mughals.

8 Khahra (1999) in ‘Punjabi Ad Paratham Maulik Novel: Sundari’ makesmetaphorical equations, the abduction of Surasti (Sundari) with the control of Britishers of mother earth. In Indian tradition woman and earth are equivalents. In the novel, Surasti twice has been referred as Sone Di Chirri, which refers to India. The Britishers have captured India – rich in resources. As the Sikhs setting Sundari free from the control of hakim, similarly, the patriots/revolutionaries are expected to free the country from colonialrule. The injured Sundari is lying alone unattended at a secluded place and the novelist comments that now perhaps centuries may pass over you as there is nobody to rescue you. Sorry! We do not know your fate. The injured Sundari signifies the enslaved India. Here Bhai Vir Singh appears highly nationalist in his ideas.

9 Malhotra (2002) writes that Bhai Vir Singh in Sundari is absorbed with justifying his ancestor’s (Kaura Mal) service to the Mughal government pitched against the Sikhs.


Bal, Gurpreet (2003): ‘A 19th Century Woman Poet of Punjab: Peero’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 10: 2, pp 183-200.

Chatterjee, Partha (1993): The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and PostColonial Histories, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Jakobsh, Doris R (2003): Relocating Gender in Sikh History: Transformation,Meaning and Identity, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

– (2004): ‘What Is in a Name? Circumscribing Sikh Female Nomenclature’ in Pashaura Singh and N G Barrier (eds), Sikhism and History, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp 176-93.

Judge, Paramjit S (2005): Religion, Identity and Nationhood, Rawat Publications, Jaipur.

Kaur, Kanwaljit (1994): ‘Mudhalay Punjabi Naval Da Rajnitik Avchettan’, PhD thesis submitted to Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar (unpublished).

Khahra, S S (1999): ‘Punjabi Da Paratham Maulik Novel: Sundari’, KhojDarpan, Vol XXII, No 2, pp 25-46.

Malhotra, Anshu (2002):Gender, Caste, and Religious Identities: RestructuringClass in Colonial Punjab, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

McLeod, W H (1995): Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Oberoi, Harjot (1994): The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Reskin, B and I Padavic (1994): Women and Men at Work, Pine Forge Press, New Delhi.

Singh, Bhagat (1978): Sikh Polity in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Oriental Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi.

Singh, Pashaura (2004): ‘Sikh Identity in the Light of History: A Dynamic Perspective’ in Pashaura Singh and N Gerald Barrier (eds), Sikhism and History, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp 77-110.

Sekhon, S S (1972): Bhai Vir Singh Te Unha Da Yug, Lahore Book Shop,Ludhiana. Singh, Attar (1998): ‘Vir Singh, Bhai’ in Harbans Singh (ed),The Encyclopaediaof Sikhism, Volume IV, Punjabi University, Patiala, pp 428-32. Singh, Khushwant (1977):A History of the Sikhs: 1469-1839,Oxford University Press, Delhi, Vol 1, pp 120-30. Singh, Kulraj (1998): ‘Sundari’ in Harbans Singh (ed), The Encyclopaediaof Sikhism, Vol IV, Punjabi University, Patiala, pp 275-77. Vir Singh, Bhai (2003): Sundari, Bhai Vir Singh Sahit Sadan, New Delhi (first published by Khalsa Samachar, Amritsar, 1898).

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