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In Search of Roots: Guru Amar Das and Bhallas

In Search of Roots: Guru Amar Das and Bhallas
Item Code: IDK675
Author: A.S. Bhalla
Publisher: Rupa Publication Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9788129113337
Pages: 362 (27 Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.2" X 6.0"
From the Jacket

Guru Nanak Dev founded the Sikh religion when Mughal rule in India was flourishing. Against much resistance and violence, he influenced many Hindus to convert to the new religion largely through its doctrine of caste equality. The third Guru, Amar Das Bhalla, took his legacy forward and introduced reforms for the emancipation of women and the lower castes. In Search of Roots traces the lineage of the Kharti Bhallas (Sikhs and Hindus) to the third Guru and examines whether his teachings, and those of the earlier Gurus, were followed in practice by his descendants.

One of the novel features of the book is its integrated analysis of history, religion, biography and genealogy. It compares and contrasts the religious policies of pre-Mughal and Mughal rulers and analyses the history and economy of many towns and cities of the Punjab (e.g. Goindwal, Ferozepore and Jalandhar) rarely found in existing literature. These places were quite prosperous during the Lodi and Mughal rule. The industrious Bhallas traveled far and wide and their emigration to Kenya, Canada, the UK and the US in the early and middle twentieth century is discussed in the context of a broader Indian diaspora. This unique research should spark of similar studies in genealogy within the subcontinent.

About the Author

Dr Bhalla is a Special Professor at the University of Nottingham (UK). He is a former Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (UK) and former Special Adviser to the President of International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada. Earlier, he had a distinguished career in the United Nations Civil Service. He also held academic positions at world-renowned universities like Oxford, Yale and Manchester. He is the author/editor of eighteen books. His recent publications include: Globalization, Growth and Marginalization (also in French); Uneven Development in the Third World; Poverty and Exclusion in a Global World (also in Japanese); and Royal Tombs of India.


This book is about the historical period and circumstances during which Sikh religion was born and nurtured. It was the period of Muslim rule of Lodis and Mughals in India during the sixteenth and seventeen the centuries. The idea of tracing the history of Bawa Bhallas originated during my home leave to India in 2002. I discovered a family tree of Bawa Bhallas dating back to Guru Amar Das (presumably, the records for the earlier period are not available) during my brief stay in New Delhi. My two brothers living in Chandigarh showed a good deal of enthusiasm when I mentioned the family tree and my intention to do some further work on it. I discovered from my bother-in-law (a descendant of Guru Nanak Dev) that his uncle commissioned a more detailed family tree of the Bedis giving addresses and photographs against each entry. He was also very supportive of a similar effort by Bhallas. So, the work started in 2003 in Geneva on my return from Chandigarh and Delhi.

A family tree on its own is a rather narrow exercise of not much significance. Therefore, I decided to dig deeper into the period of Lodis and Mughals during which the early Gurus, Nanak Dev Bedi, Angad Dev Trehan and Amar Das Bhalla, lived. As Guru Amar Das was a Bhalla, I became interested in his immediate family and descendants: where they lived, what they did for a living, the economic geography of the places where they lived-particularly, Goindwal and Ferozepore besides Hoti Mardan, Sri Hargobindpur in Gurdaspur district and Jalandhar. The relationship of the Lodi and Mughal rulers with the Sikh Gurus is also relevant to demonstrate how Sikhism grew rapidly during Akbar's reign despite opposition from the orthodox Hindus and Muslims alike, who felt threatened by the new religion.

Writing this book was difficult for several reasons. Firstly, much of what is written on Guru Amar Das and other Gurus is based on tradition rather than historical facts. Quite often the two are so mixed up that it is difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction. On other occasions, it is hard to verify tradition on the basis of historical facts. Secondly, while many Bhallas gave full cooperation in offering personal information about their families, others were very reluctant to do so. Many declined to participate in the exercise. As a result the story of Bhallas is only partial and incomplete. Nevertheless, I believe that this incomplete exercise in genealogical history may be worthwhile if it stimulates future interest in such research. In contrast, in a country, such as the United States (US) one author notes that 'by the end of World War I eight thousand genealogies had been published. By 1968, no fewer than twenty thousand were printed and each year the number is increasing' (Draznin, 1978:14). That genealogy is so popular in the US and other developed countries, is not surprising. There are well-documented historical and synagogues, censuses of population, specialized professional directories and so on. Similar records are simply not available in countries such as India, where oral tradition and memories of elderly people are the main sources of information on genealogy.

Official and unofficial records that may exist are often contradictory and unreliable as is suggested by the fact that even the dates of birth of the Gurus, their names (Hari Rai or Har Rai, for example) and those of their wives are the subject of vigorous debate and controversy.

In the absence of required information from many Bhallas whom I approached by correspondence, or through phone calls or e-mails, I tapped several other sources of information, namely:

(1) Directories: Medical directories in India, Canada, the UK and the US, and Who is Who of Indians in North America; Army lists, and handbooks of High Court and Supreme Court judges, and so on,

(2) Articles or books, very few of which deal with Bhalla families. Even works on Guru Amar Das Bhalla rarely throw much light on the Guru's biographical data.

(3) A questionnaire designed specifically for Bhalla women (by birth and marriage) to generate original information on them. Over seventy questionnaires were sent out to which sixty-one women responded. The responses are analysed in the chapter on the 'Status of Women'.

(4) Profiles of Bhalla men and women solicited through correspondence, parallel to the questionnaire on Bhalla women. These profiles are included in Appendix II, which serves as a Who is Who on Bhalla men and women. Besides, the profiles provide inputs to the discussion of educational and professional achievements of Bhalla men and women contained in Chapters 5 and 6.

The book is organized into three parts: (I) Lodis, Mughals and the Gurus; (II) Caste, Education and Women; and (III) Places and People. Chapter 1 is a historical analysis of the Lodi and Mughal rule in India. It outlines religious policies of pre-Mughal and Mughal rulers of India with a view to examine whether or not they systematically persecuted their subjects. The policies of the two Mughal rulers, Akbar and Aurangzeb, are compared and contrasted. We argue that Akbar's liberal attitude towards Hindu and Sikh subjects was significant in promoting Sikhism despite opposition from caste-ridden Hindus and fanatic Muslims. Chapter 2 sketches the life and social reforms of the third Guru. It presents his views on caste, emancipation of women, female infanticide and examines his institutional reforms. Chapter 3 presents short biographies of the Guru's prominent descendants, which include his nephew, Bhai Gurdas Bhalla, lawyers, educationists, and philanthropists.

Among Guru Amar Das Bhalla's descendants, the book deals with both Sikhs and Hindus, dead or alive. One of its objectives is to determine whether the Guru's descendants, the Bawa Bhallas, lived up to his expectations and teachings. Of course, all Bhallas are not the direct descendants of the Guru but we have no way of telling who are and who are not. Therefore, we assume that all Bhallas are related to the Guru or his family (father, brothers and uncles). The third Guru was a great social reformer who (a) discouraged caste hierarchy, (b) preached equality among all castes and social classes, and (c) promoted the cause of women. Have Bhallas, whether Hindus or Sikhs, observed these teachings and followed in their Guru's footsteps? Chapters 4 and 6 deal directly with this subject.

Chapter 4, 'The Caste System, Gurus and Bhallas', poses the question: did the Guru's teachings and the denunciation of caste have any significant effect on his followers? Questionaire responses, inter alia, are analysed to answer the question. Chapter 5 deals with the educational and professional achievements of Guru's descendants in different walks of life. Army and medicine were the two most prominent professions pursued by the older generation of descendants. These and other occupations/professions are analysed on the basis of over four hundred and fifty profiles of Bhallas solicited worldwide. Chapter 6, 'The Status of Women', begins with an introductory note on the position of women in different Indian and non-Indian religions. The chapter discusses the following issues on the basis of questionnaire responses received from a number of Bhalla women: education, professional achievements, treatment by in-laws and gender discrimination. Female infanticide is discussed as a specific example of gender discrimination. It is practiced by the Sikhs and Jains, and to a lesser extent, by the Hindus. Between 1881 and 2001, the female to make ratios became worse for all the three religions. This analysis is followed up by a selected number of biographies of prominent Bhalla women starting with Bibi Bhani, the wife of Guru Amar Das Bhalla, Others include a professional artist based in the US; head of a BBC division based in Birmingham (UK); a flying instructor; and a classical dancer.

In Part III, Chapters 7 to 10 deal with places of origin/residence of the Bhalla Guru and his descendants: Goindwal (which was quite prosperous during the period of the Mughals); Ferozepore (dating back to the reign of Feroz Shah Tughlaq), a place to which many Bhallas moved from Goindwal and Vairowal; Sri Hargobindpur and Jalandhar in India; and Hoti Mardan (North Western Frontier Province) in Pakistan. The descendants of Guru Amar Das are found in all parts of the world. Most outside India are concentrated in North America (Canada and the US), the UK, and East Africa (particularly Kenya). Chapter 10 discusses their experiences in the context of the early waves of Indian migration to these countries and regions. There were important differences between the early migration to Canada and the US and the post-1965 migration. While the first wave of migrants were mainly Sikhs from the Punjab from the farmer and artisan classes (they constituted eighty to ninety percent of the original Asian immigrants into the US) who were largely illiterate, the subsequent migration was that of highly educated professionals (Hindus and Sikhs) who settled more on the East Coast than the West.

This book could not have been written without the help and encouragement of Hew McLeod, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Otago, New Zealand and one of the authorities on Sikh history and religion; Professor Pritam Singh, former head of the department of Guru Nanak studies at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Punjab; and Professor Gurinder Singh Mann of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Many Bhallas have provided useful inputs, moral support and constructive criticism, but they are too mumerous to be all noted here. But I would like to mention a few: my brother, Kuljit Bhalla, who contributed sections of Chapter 3 and obtained other useful material for the book; my sister, Harinder Bedi, who obtained Bhalla profiles; her husband, Parminder Bedi, who translated several documents from Punjabi into English; and their daughter, Ira Bedi, who obtained responses to a questionnaire addressed to Bhalla women. They were a constant source of inspiration and valuable help. Their relentless efforts enabled me to fill many important informational gaps. Last but not the least, I feel a sense of gratitude to my American friends of over thirty years from Colorado (US), Joseph Stepanek, and his wife Antoinette (Tony, who died in 2004), for their guidance on the approach and scope of the subject. They too have published several books tracing the genealogical history of their respective families.

For reading the manuscript and for comments and suggestions, I am grateful to a number of people including Professors Hew McLeod of Dunedin, New Zealand, and Pritam Singh, Patiala; Dr. Anil Bhalla of Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh; Gagandeep and Hemani Bedi, Eindhoven, the Netherlands; Ms Radhika Malik, the Hague, the Netherlands; Ms Hardeep Kaur Kanwar (nee Tangri); Gurcharan Singh Sethi, Mohali Punjab; Bawa Kartar Singh Bhalla, New Delhi; and an old friend and classmate, Rajinder Khurana (of the Indian Police Service, now retired) Based in Bhopal.

A number of Bhallas and others, generously contributed a good deal of information on their respective families as well as other relevant information and documents. To name but a few: Narotam Bhalla, Amritsar; Kuljit Bhalla, Jagjit Bhalla and Harjinder Bhalla, Chandigarh; Satish Bhalla, Gurgaon; Tripti Kohli, Bangalore; Nirad and Timmy Grover, Akhil Bhalla, Akshay Bhalla, Anil Bhalla, Harish Bhalla, Jagdish Bhalla, Kartar Bhalla, Gurkirpal Bhalla, Satyendra Bhalla, and Ripudaman Bedi, New Delhi; Gay Bawa, Idaho, Gurpreet Bhalla, Pennsylvania and Rajinder Pal Bhalla, Houston, Texas, US; Alka Bhalla, Baldev Raj Bhalla, Gagan Bhalla, and Shireen Sondhi, Ontario, Canada; Anita Bhalla and Rokesh Bhalla, Birmingham, UK; Maninder and Swarn Lamba, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; and Iftikhar Ahmed, Founex, Switzerland.

Nicholas Rogers, archivist, Sidney Sussex College, Combridge (UK) provided valuable help in tracing citations for honours and awards granted to individual Bhallas noted in Chapter 5. Lee Sands, information officer, Records and Archives of the British Medical Association (BMA) (London) kindly supplied information on Bhalla medical doctors in the UK. Suhani Malik from Birmingham University was most helpful in finding the number of Bhalla residents in different cities in the UK.

I owe a debt of gratitude to all those who provided profiles (see Appendix II). I am also very grateful to the sixty-one Bhalla women who generously filled in a questionnaire (see Chapter 6, Appendix 6.1) and provided personal and sometimes sensitive information. The confidentiality of this information is strictly maintained. It is perhaps the first time information is strictly maintained. It is perhaps the first time that Bhalla women of today have been studied in such detail and their educational achievements and professional contributions recognized and reported. Ira Bedi of Chandigarh was kind enough to coordinate the questionnaire survey.

I visited Goindwal in February 2005 to obtain first-hand information about the Gurus' abode and to take photographs of their places of residence and worship. Paramjit Singh, Manager, Gurdwara Baoli Sahib and Paramjit Singh, Granthi (preacher), Gurdwara Chaubara Sahib in Goindwal, kindly showed me around and acted as guides to the residences and places of worship of Guru Amar Das, Baba Mohan (son of the Guru), Baba Jetha (son-in-law of the third Guru who later became the fourth Guru), Bibi Bhani (Guru's daughter married to Bhai Jetha), as well as the site where Akbar is alleged to have visited Guru Amar Das. Ashwani Kumar Sharma, Advocate, Ferozepore, kindly supplied information on RSD College (where a large number of Bhallas studied) and photographs of institutions in Ferozepore; and Sartaj Baswana, Advocate, Gurgaon, provided two photographs of the Gurgaon Gurdwara. My family members and close relatives supplied other photographs (including those of Nishat Bagh) contained in this book. Hemani Bedi of Eindhoven, the Netherlands, prepared a sketch of Guru Amar Das included in Chapter 2. Maninder Lamba drew the map of the districts of Punjab included in Chapter 8.


Lodis, Mughals and the Gurus
1Muslim Rulers and the Gurus3
2Amar Das Bhalla: The Third Guru29
3Other Prominent Bhallas49
Caste, Education and Women
4The Caste System, Gurus and Bhallas69
5Educational and Professional Achievements85
Appendix 5.1: Selected paintings of a male Bhalla artist106
6The Status of Women107
Appendix 6.1 A questionnaire for Bhalla women135
Appendix 6.2: A poem dedicated to a Bhalla woman137
Appendix 6.3: Selected paintings of a female Bhalla artist139
Places and People
7Goindwal: Seat of the Bhalla Guru143
8Ferozepore: Home of Bawa Bhallas159
9Other Places179
10Indian Diaspora and Overseas Bhallas201
Appendix I: The Bhalla Family Trees231
Appendix II: Profiles of Bhallas237
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