By Sonia Dhami, a trustee at The Sikh Foundation International based in Palo Alto, California.
Etched in Stone – Anup Kaur, Lachmi Devi, Lajwanti…
Rarely do we come across names of women etched on marble slabs commemorating their contributions. It is also true that rarely do we actually look for these names.
While watching the films “Peering Warrior” & “Peering Soul “ by Amardeep Singh, I found myself scanning the memorial plaques on gurudwaras & other Sikh heritage sites covered in the film. And what I found surprised me.
It wasn’t one odd female name somewhere, but multiple places carried names like Anup Kaur, Lachmi Devi, Lajwanti, Swarna Devi, and Jamna Devi.
These were women who had paid for the construction of these shrines as a mark of devotion and reverence. To me it was a marker that these were women of means and standing in their communities. And they lived and contributed to their communities far beyond their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers.
This is a powerful revelation for me that in the late 19th to early 20th century Punjab, women had the confidence to etch their name on stone.
Bibi Anup Kaur’s name is engraved in Gurmukhi on a marble slab on a wall of the gurudwara at Baherwal, a small town south of Lahore in Lehanda Punjab. The shrine was abandoned after the migration of the Sikh community in 1947. It was later used as a refuge for a Muslim family, which had migrated from the Indian side.
Another marble plaque which I saw fixed up high up on an un-plastered wall is unique in that it bears the names of a mother and her deceased daughter “ Mai Lachmi Devi supatni xxx Singh ji ne apni saputri xxx Kaur suragvasi di yad vich…”(translated as Lachmi Devi wife of xx Singh undertook this in memory of her daughter xx Kaur who is now deceased). This is contrary to the prevalent notion that parents did not value girls.
Suwarna Devi contributed her money to help lay the marble floor at the Gurudwara in Hazro, a town north of Attock. This particular act of benevolence and devotion is recorded on a tile on that floor as “Suwarna Devi saputri Gobind Ram” (translated as Suwarna Devi daughter of Gobind Ram). Today the gurudwara is home to another refugee family.
The name of Shrimati Mata Jamna Devi accompanies the names of her family members, who contributed for the building of the Baba Dhaan Singh Gurudwara at village Kot Fateh Khan near Lahore.
Similarly, Mai Lajwanti’s name is recorded along with her sons at the Gurudwara at Alibeg.
The names of these women, etched in stone fills a space that was empty for a long in my community’s history. The names of Mai Bhago (17th century), Mai Sada Kaur (18th century), & Maharani Jind Kaur (19h century) are well known in Sikh history. Were these women, and many others like them, outliers? Were they isolated examples of women showing community leadership?
I don’t think so. I think it takes a certain mindset, a certain environment, which helps create outstanding leaders. They must come from a pool of thousands of progressive-minded women, who too were nurtured in an environment, which produces such stellar examples.
For Mai Bhago, a 17th-century woman from the Muktsar region in Punjab, to ride into battle, it must have taken years of learning to ride horses, swordsmanship and leadership skills which prepared her for the day when she led her men onto the battlefield.
Mai Sada Kaur, the astute leader of the Kanhaiya misal, one of the most powerful Sikh misals (confederacy)controlling vast territories in 18th century northern Punjab, spent her formative years learning the art of diplomacy, leadership and administration of her territories from the elders in her family. I believe that this must have been the norm for many women of these times. There are references in our books of others including Mai Desan Kaur, the grandmother of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who administered the Sukerchakia misal since her husband was mostly away to battle.
Lepel Griffin, the author of “Raja’s of the Punjab”, has acknowledged Rani Daya Kunwar of Ambala, as the best administer in the region of that time. In neighboring Patiala, Rani Sahib Kaur served as the prime minister of the kingdom in the late 18th century. The bravery, courage and diplomacy of another braveheart – Rani Rajinder Kaur kept the Patiala flag flying high in the face of Maratha aggression. Mai Fato, the wife of Baba Ala Singh who founded the Patiala dynasty, too equally shared her husband’s administrative burdens.
It is my hope that women today will take a cue from these confident and powerful women from our past, and proudly and boldly put their name in ways which will live beyond themselves.
This is how our contributions, will remain alive in the collective memory of our communities. Women will now be remembered beyond Mataji or Beeji.
[Photo courtesy: Amardeep Singh author & filmmaker -“THE QUEST CONTINUES, LOST HERITAGE, The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan” and the documentary film “PEERING SOUL”]