As a history enthusiast, I understand the importance of preserving historical artefacts or priceless works of art. After all, the cliché saying of “You need to know where you’re from to know where you’re headed” is essentially true.
Author Drew Bettina further sums it up best, “The past reminds us of timeless human truths and allows for the perpetuation of cultural traditions that can be nourishing; it contains examples of mistakes to avoid, preserves the memory of alternatives ways of doing things and is the basis for self-understanding.”
When Calgary business magnate Bob Dhillon heard of an upcoming auction, in which the sword of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was going to be auctioned off, it was only natural that he investigated the authenticity of the sword and put in a bid for this integral artefact from the days of the Sikh Empire.
With a slew of international bidders stretching from Punjab to New York and Mongolia to Hong Kong, the private auction took place on April 2, 2014. As it was a sealed bid process, the bidders strived to remain anonymous, in addition the final bid amount would not be disclosed. A day later, Dhillon learned on April 3 that he was the successful bidder for Singh’s majestic sword.
“I was absolutely elated that our bid was successful,” says Dhillon, as we chatted over the phone. “Maharaja Ranjit Singh was one of the most formidable individuals in Sikh history, not only because of his conquests but of how he ran the state of Khalsa, creating equality – it was 19th century democracy at work. Moreover, Singh’s empire was the last sovereign state that the British annexed, another interesting aspect of Sikh history.”
He goes on to explain that the majority of Sikh artefacts from books and paintings to art and jewellery are not displayed in museums, but instead are sitting in the hands of private collectors in the United Kingdom. “To me, Singh’s sword is a priceless piece of Sikh history. To a collector, it’s a collector’s item…how much more Sikh history is sitting there? We should as Sikhs be the custodians of Sikh history.”
Dhillon cites an example, which not only served as a source of inspiration for him, but illustrates the range of important historical and religious Sikh artefacts that remain in the United Kingdom, rather than being on home soil in India. According to Dhillon, IFS Officer Manjeet Singh Jaijee took the UK government to court in the 1960’s and petitioned to bring back Sri Guru Gobind Singh’s shabads back to India. Jaijee was successful in winning the case, and he brought the shabads back to Anandpur Sahib in India.
Dhillon is the founder, president and CEO of Mainstreet Equity Corporation, and the corporation’s assets are valued at over $1 billion and consists of 8,500+ apartments in Western Canada. Furthermore, Dhillon is the owner of National Payments, a Visa and MasterCard approved merchant processor in the financial services industry. Dhillon has turned his sights to India, and Mainstreet has invested in outsourcing its corporate digital assets from website and apps to operations software to India. The corporation is also looking to open an office in India. Since 1999, Dhillon is the Honorary Consul General of Belize for Canada. He owns a private 3,000-acre island in Belize, which he is developing into a world-class tourist resort.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) ruled over the Sikh Empire from 1799 to 1849, and he is credited with unifying the Sikhs on the foundations of Khalsa and creating a vast empire in less than a quarter of a century, which encompassed much of what is today Pakistan, Kashmir, East Punjab and even parts of Afghanistan, which has been a difficult region for modern-day nations to occupy.
According to the auction description, Singh’s sword is an early 19th century Northern India curved talwar sword, inscribed in Punjabi script inside the hilt ‘Akal Sahai Ranjit Singh Lahore’ and dated. The sword has remnants of what seems gold pitted around the hilt. The blade has an engraved silhouette on the upper part nearing the hilt depicting Singh seated beside a cushion and inscribed ‘Ranjit Singh’ beneath it. The sword hilt is possibly earlier of 18th century with a watered blade possibly Persian, and leather covered scabbard. The overall length is 85 cm (33.5 inches).
“Sikhs in Canada per capita are more than Sikhs in India, so it’s about time that Canadian Sikhs try to contribute back to society,” says Dhillon, adding we need to “tell Canada about our history, heritage and our religion and possibly, build our own museum – so Canadians can get a glimpse of what it’s all about.”
With the acquisition of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s sword on Canadian soil, Dhillon is hoping the sword will ignite a discussion amongst new generations of Canadian Sikhs and all Canadians alike about who Singh was, and what his accomplishments were as a leader.
And Dhillon is making headlines, as the media buzz across Canada and the rest of the world has continued to increase, as everyone is interested in learning about the chain of events leading up to the sword acquisition. He says “The story has gone viral, and the end result is that individuals are reading up on Maharaja Ranjit Singh and learning about Sikh history, which is a great outcome of all this – they are getting to know one of the biggest minority groups in Canada.”
In addition to the sword, Dhillon has also purchased Sikh books, pictures and paintings. And he says the sword will be exhibited in museums on special occasions, in addition to social and heritage events for the public to view.
“I hope this ignites a discussion, and Sikh Canadians start bringing Sikh treasures into our own backyard…we should be the custodians of our history,” says Dhillon. “This is the first step to a long journey of creating a Sikh museum.”