The Materiality of the Past: History and Representation in Sikh Tradition

The Materiality of the Past: History and Representation in Sikh Tradition

The Materiality of the Past: History and Representation in Sikh Tradition

The Materiality of the Past: History and Representation in Sikh Tradition


Anne Murphy offers a groundbreaking exploration of material representations of the Sikh past, showing how objects, as well as historical sites, and texts, have played a vital role in the production of the Sikh community as an evolving historical and social formation from the eighteenth century to the present.

Drawing together work in religious studies, postcolonial studies, and history, Murphy explores how 'relic' objects such as garments and weaponry have, like sites, played dramatically different roles across political and social contexts-signifiers of authority and even sovereignty in one; collected, revered, and displayed with religious significance in another-and are connected to a broader engagement with the representation of the past that is central to the formation of the Sikh community. By highlighting the connections between relic objects and historical sites, and how the status of sites changed in the colonial period, she also provides crucial insight into the circumstances that brought about the birth of a new territorial imagination of the Sikh past in the early twentieth century, rooted in existing precolonial historical imaginaries centered in place and object. The life of the object today and in the past, she suggests, provides unique insight into the formation of the Sikh community and the crucial role representations play in it.


IN APRIL 2008, Sotheby’s auction house in London withdrew an object from sale, following protests in India. The piece—an eighteenth-century steel armor plate—had been offered for sale on behalf of an unnamed owner. It was described by Sotheby’s as being similar to one that had formerly belonged to Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru of the Sikh tradition. Estimated at the time to be worth over 10,000 pounds, the item was described as “a rare 18th-century Sikh steel armour plate from North West India/Pakistan” and is said to have featured a verse of the Tenth Guru called the “Akal Ustat,” which describes the nature of God. Although Sotheby’s later argued that the plate had not actually belonged to the Guru—and that they therefore did not “deem the piece to be a relic of the Guru”—in the original auction catalog they had noted its similarity to a set of plates in the collection of the royal family of Patiala, a former princely state in Punjab, which was said to have been gifted to the family by the Guru himself, and that “the existence of this plate … suggests that the Guru commissioned more than one set.” Controversy then erupted, causing an important Sikh official to argue that “the Central Sikh Museum” in Amritsar, India, “is the right place for such treasures.”

This is not the first time that objects belonging to (or possibly, in the Sotheby’s case, reminiscent of those belonging to) the Guru have caused controversy in the complicated postcolonial relationship between India and England.

1. Amit Roy, “Sotheby’s Pulls Sikh Armour Auction,” April 8, 2008, http://www.telegraphin (accessed June 16, 2008). The “Akal Ustat” is
found at the opening of the Dasam Granth, a text attributed to the Tenth Guru.

2. Arifa Akbar, “Sikh Protests Stop Sotheby’s Auction of ‘Religious Relic,’” http://www.
religious-relic-806323.html (accessed June 16, 2008). The official was Avtar Singh Makkar, the
President of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). See below for more
on this organization.

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