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"Sicques, Tigers or Thieves": Eyewitness Accounts of the Sikhs (1606-1809).

"Sicques, Tigers or Thieves": Eyewitness Accounts of the Sikhs (1606-1809). Edited by Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 391 pp. $27.95 paper.

This title is from East India Company man George Forster's letter of 1783, in which he expressed gratitude for having safely evaded three threats. Forster's view of the Sikhs, the editors suggest, typifies British attitudes towards them at that time as a lawless, destabilizing element, in contrast to their later image as "loyal stalwarts." The editors gather together thirty-nine eyewitness accounts of Sikhs by European writers, which they group by writers' professions into missionaries, company men, travelers, Military men, News, and Orientalists, although these categories overlap. Each account is preceded by data on the writer, while a Glossary of Names gives additional biographical information. There is also a useful Glossary of Terms and twenty-two illustrations. The time frame was chosen because it represents a neglected period of Sikh history, between the "sacred era of the Gurus" and the better documented princely court period. This was also when Nanak's religious community transposed itself into a political movement.

One writer calls Nanak the author of the Sikhs' religion and Gobind Sing "founder of their political greatness." As Moghul power waned, the Sikhs, despite "repeated attempts to suppress them, continued to acquire strength," eventually dominating the Punjab. It was, this writer comments, the distinction of their political and religious convictions as well as their "spirit of independence" that attracted converts. This spirit was both praised and criticized, since it also served to fragment the Sikh community under local chiefs. Gobind Singh's transformation of a previously pacifist community into a military force can, on the one hand, be seen as "deviating from the ordinances of his predecessors." On the other, it can be seen as an evolution of Nanak's rejection of all human authority and of his opposition to monarchy. What Gobind and his successors did was assert independence for the panth at a time of opportunity. The Persians, the Mahrattas, the British, the French among others all saw this as a time when their imperial agendas could be furthered.

The Sikhs, described variously as an "aristocratic republic," a "commonwealth," and as a Nation met to vote in a plurality on important issues. Disparaging remarks that they thrive on rape and pillage leveling mosques in their wake are set alongside positive comment on their industry, bravery, agricultural productivity, simple diet, and on their anti-caste policy. One writer describes them as, like all Asians, "prone to treachery" while another says that "above all others" they "venerate truth." One saw Sikhism as a bridge to Christianity, another as an attempt to reconcile Hinduism and Islam. Some descriptions of Nanak refer to his religious pretense but most depict him in positive terms. Some saw the Sikhs as serving British interests as a buttress between "the Mahrattas and us." This fascinating collection may also shed light on contemporary politics in the Punjab, where some Sikhs aspire for independence.





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Author:Bennett, Clinton
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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