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Sikh Transit Gloria Mundi

Dr JOGISHWAR SINGH

 

 

 





I have just returned after a short four-day vacation in Rome with my wife who is 50% Italian Swiss, hence always keen to travel to Italy where we go almost every year.

This visit to Rome has been special because of various factors. For several years, I have resisted my wife’s entreaties to go to Rome since I had read and seen quite a few reports on Sikh media about Sikh passengers being forced to remove their turbans at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome. Being particularly sensitive about the dignity of my turban I did not want to undergo this risk.

This year I decided that I could not continue to be a victim of this apprehension. I did an ardaas requesting Guru Gobind Singh to maintain the honour of his gift to us Sikhs.

My wife was very happy on hearing that we could go to Rome. As always, she made excellent logistical arrangements and off we went on January 4.

I would like to mention right at the start that I approached the return flight from Fiumicino Airport on January 7 with confidence in my prayer to my Guru, tinged nevertheless with apprehension about how I would react if asked to take off my turban.

My fears were put to rest in no time. Clearing the security check I was treated with exemplary courtesy. An Italian official asked me in English if I knew Italian. I replied to him in Italian that I did. He asked me to follow him to a separate cabin where he asked me if he could inspect my turban with a wand. I saw no objection to that, so he passed the wand around my head without touching my turban at any point.

The entire process lasted less than two minutes after which I stepped out to re-join my wife outside. I immediately said a silent prayer of gratitude to Guru Sahib. So many years of apprehension about not going to Rome by air were put to rest in no time.

The Italian airport officials were courteous all through the process. I have no idea whether my being a fluent Italian speaker contributed to this or not.

Rome had always held strong family memories for me which is why not going there for so many years had been rather difficult to accept. I had been there on St Peter’s Suare with my elder brother on Christmas day in 1966 when we had been blessed by Pope Paul VI. We were walking towards the Sistine Chapel when we crossed an Indian family coming in the opposite direction. We asked them whether they had seen the Sistine. The man answered, “The Sistine Capel is closed but there are some paintings on the walls”.

We went nevertheless to see these paintings and it WAS the Sistine Chapel!

No such confusion this time. We had pre-booked the entry ticket from our home in Switzerland in advance. My wife guided us through the shorter itinerary bypassing a lot of the can museums which are 7 km long.

I spent nearly an hour watching Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I lay down on the floor to look up at the ceiling. I was asked by the guards to immediately get up. Watching the Last Judgement on the facing wall and the creation of Adam on the ceiling was a deeply spiritual experience for me.

Michelangelo being a sculptor rather than essentially a painter, the figures in the Sistine Chapel have sculptural dimensions. What a pity that most of the figures in the Last Judgement fresco were covered with clothing in subsequent decades and centuries by prudish mores. I am no art expert but for me the Sistine Chapel should be classified as one of the wonders of the world.

The frescoes are an ode to the beauty of the naked human body, especially those in the Last Judgement. Hardly any women, mostly males. Quite a refreshing contrast to the wraith-like semi-starved icons of beauty seen these days at most fashion shows, even in India where Kalidas of yore had described a nicely rotund female body, with rounded hips, as a standard of beauty in his Meghadoot.

Michelangelo painted male bodies with strong muscles with curves which would put to shame any Bollywood six pack body of Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan these days. Rippling muscles stand out all over the frescoes. The fact that these superbly sculpted male bodies were subsequently ordered to be covered in clothes by moralistic prudes reminded me of when a Congress President in India (Purushottam Das Tandon) wanted to have the naked statues of Ajanta and Ellora caves covered with clothes.

Human stupidity surely knows no boundaries.

The Sistine Chapel is an ode to well-muscled male human bodies, a refreshing change from the modern notions of human beauty, reduced to flat chested clone-like figures in fashion shows. Fortunately, there are still enough South Indian actresses [many of them Sikh, surprisingly, imported from Punjab!] with nicely rounded forms to remind us what beauty could look like.

What is particularly striking in the Sistine is the portrait of God on the ceiling. He (sorry ladies, the figure is male) has long hair and a long beard like us Sikhs. A nice contrast to these modern times when long hair and beards are not exactly fashion icons.

God also has a fiery fierce look, even in the fresco where He is giving life to Adam. What a refreshing contrast to what we see in most religious paintings of persons with closed eyes and haloes around their heads with beatific looks. Michelangelo’s God is fierce, fiery and strong. Not somebody one would want to fool around with.

I was reminded of a painting of Baba Deep Singh with a similar forbidding, fierce look and way of being.

The contrast between the restored portions of the Sistine Chapel and the unrestored portions was striking. The blue, green and yellow colours of the restored frescoes are just stunning in their beauty. What I had seen as a 15 year old boy in 1966 had been much darker.

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Michelangelo lying on the moveable platform he had constructed for painting the Sistine Chapel. It reminded me of the time when I had seen the film “The Agony and the Ecstasy” about the painting of the Sistine. Charlton Heston was acting as Michelangelo in this film. He was overshadowed by Sir Rex Harrison acting as Pope Julius II.

It took four years for Michelangelo to paint the ceiling and another five years to complete the Last Judgement under three different Popes. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, I could not help thinking that if the Sistine had been under the control of our Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), they would most probably have covered the ancient frescoes with white paint and replaced it with marble slabs, so dear to them and to the kar seva babas who have systematically destroyed Sikh heritage in small brick-and-mortar structures to replace them with marble mausoleums resembling each other in boring conformity.

I was reminded of what I had seen at the Gurdwara of Baba Atal in the periphery of Darbar Sahib in Amritsar where original frescoes on the walls have been painted over with white paint and damaged beyond repair.

Europeans have carefully preserved their heritage.

Our SGPC is systematically destroying our heritage.

It was nice to be able to visit the Vatican at a time when the hordes of tourists thronging it were relatively sparse. It rained almost the entire time of our stay in Rome but if rain keeps tourist hordes away it is a price worth paying. At the Castel St Angelo we were greeted by a young Italian man with “Satnaam Waheguru”. My wife and I were surprised at this greeting.

We chatted a bit with the man. He informed us that he was a part of the welcome group meant just to greet people visiting monuments in Rome. I am used to being greeted with Sat Sri Akal even by some foreigners during my travels but have never ever been greeted by a foreigner with Satnaam Waheguru.

My wife and I complimented this person for his greeting. My prejudices against travelling to Rome were evaporating pretty quickly.

Surprisingly enough, we did not see a single Sikh visitor in the Vatican or at the Castel St Angelo. I guess early January is not really a time when most people consider travel to Rome.

Another sentimental visit was to see the statue of Moses in the church San Pietro in Vincoli. Another masterpiece by Michelangelo with two small horn like formations on his head. These represent Moses with an aura of light radiating from his head when he returned from Mount Sinai having received the Ten Commandments from God.

This was the statue I had seen as a 16-year-old in 1967 with my father who used to work for the FAO which had its headquarters in Rome. He was there for some official work so we hardly got much time with him. My mother and elder brother were busy somewhere and I had gone with my father to see this statue of Moses.

Once again, I closed my eyes and imagined my father by my side. A strong emotion. A journey into the past to connect with the present. The statue still there, my father not.

Rome represents the best blend between antiquity and modernity for me. I have seen New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Singapore and so many other big cities but nowhere have I found a similar blend as a continuous feature of the entire city.

Wherever we went in Rome we saw antiquity side by side with modernity, not separately confined to well-defined spaces as in other cities. I think Delhi could have come closest to being like Rome with such a blend had city planners been more vigilant. Also, the nexus between corrupt politicians / bureaucrats and builders in India has destroyed such a chance of blending antiquity and modernity in a harmonious fashion.

Delhi is as ancient if not older than Rome. It has the stellar distinction today of being the most polluted city in the world. Unplanned construction, regularisation of slums all over the place to get votes and unbridled corruption have eliminated any chance of Delhi becoming a magnet for tourists from all over the world. Its description, not just as the Capital of India but also as the rape capital of the world does not help either.

Watching the well preserved ruins of the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, the Aqueduct network which used to provide water to households in ancient Rome, I was struck by what would have happened if the Indians or the SGPC had been in charge of the city. All this would have been destroyed to be replaced by marble mausoleums.

What amazes me is that hardly any Sikh organisation protests against the wanton destruction of our architectural heritage in Punjab / India by ignorant persons put in positions of authority.

Private companies and individuals have donated large sums of money in Rome to restore monuments. A large fashion house donated 25 million Euros for the restoration of the Colosseum (this is what our guide told us). Another corporate house paid for the cleaning / restoration of the Trevi fountain which looks splendid now.

I did throw a coin over my shoulder to ensure my return to Rome as per popular legend.

I know of so many wealthy Sikhs in India and overseas but do not know of any of them having donated large sums of money to preserve Sikh architectural heritage. I know of a Sikh family which paid for the installation of a new water recycling and filtering system at the Darbar Sahib but am not aware of any donations to ensure the maintenance of ancient ruins or monuments to prevent their destruction followed by their conversion to marble mausoleums. Why can wealthy Sikhs not get together, create a forum dedicated to preservation of Sikh architectural and cultural heritage, get properly trained scholars and conservationists to ensure such preservation? Such professionals surely exist.

If this is not done, there will very soon be nothing left of ancient Sikh architectural vestiges. All we will be left with will be cloned copies of white marble structures which are the darlings of the SGPC and the kar seva babas.

I find it amusing to hear Sikhs in Delhi proudly pointing out that such and such family donated such a large amount of money to put so many kilos of gold at Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. I have watched this beautiful Gurdwara which used to truly reflect what I treasure about Guru Har Krishan Sahib (“Sri Har Krishan jee dhiayeeye, jis ditthe sab dukh jayé”) into a commercial structure with heaps of marble and gold plastered all over it.

Simplicity and devotion have yielded place to rampant commercialism.

Some scholar should do proper research on why we Sikhs are so little attached to the preservation of our architectural and cultural heritage. I do not have the requisite professional knowledge for this task.

Rain ceased on the last day of our stay in Rome, yielding to a spell of sunshine and blue sky. We used this to visit Ostia Antica, the ruins of the old port city of Rome.

There were hardly any visitors. My wife and I walked all over the ghostly city. It was so easy to close my eyes and almost hear the sounds of everyday life amongst the well-preserved ruins.

This excursion justifies the title of my present article, with just a slight modification from Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. My younger son suggested the title in a few seconds after my request to him to suggest a title for this article.

In front of our eyes lay an entire city in ruins. A monument to the transient nature of human glory. Sounds strange but I felt a deep spiritual experience observing Ostia Antica, just as I had felt watching the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel. We ran into two Italian workers carrying spades, an old man and a young boy. They pointed us to a subterranean temple of the pagan god Mithra with a sculpted young human figure about to sacrifice a calf. I remembered reading that a lot of Roman legions used to worship Mithra. The cult of Mithra was incorporated by early Christianity as a transition for new converts.

The statue is beautifully sculpted with the calf having an elongated neck while the young man is about to plunge his dagger in to it. Such a statue would cause a religious riot in India, I suppose, since the holiness of the cow seems to justify all kinds of violence ny Hindus these days.

Another aspect of Rome which justifies the title of this article is the part created by Benito Mussolini during the period of fascist rule (1922-1943). It is now known as E.U.R.

Mussolini wanted to create a New Rome. He proclaimed a new roman empire after annexing Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1936.

Incidentally, two Sikh divisions participated in the campaign to drive the Italians out of Ethiopia in 1940-41. Sadhu Singh, the man who used to bring me to school and back home on a bicycle in Nabha, had been a soldier in one of those two divisions. He had narrated so many tales of how the Italians used to flee when the Sikhs used to charge to the war cry, “Boley so Nihaal Sat Sri Akal”.

Mussolini was fond of marble, much like our SGPC characters today. He built a big church in E.U.R. It is the church of San Pietro and Paolo. Just like St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, it is situated on top of a hill dominating the surrounding countryside. It is built entirely in marble. Reminded me of fleeting worldly glory (‘gloria mundi‘).

Mussolini ended up being hung upside down in a public square in Milano, shot by Italian partisans who caught him wearing a German uniform in a German army truck, attempting to escape by fleeing towards the Swiss border in Northern Italy. The body of his mistress, Clara Petacci, too was hung upside down from its feet besides Mussolini’s body. This humiliation convinced Adolf Hitler to not let his body fall into Allied hands.

Mussolini created so many buildings in marble in fascist style. He built many roads intersecting each other at right angles. In fact the only place where one could drive on wide roads in Rome is in E.U.R, the part built by Mussolini.

But what an end he had. All his delusions of grandeur and all his creations in marble did not save him from an ignominious end.

A good lesson for SGPC characters to remember, if they have any inkling of how fleeting worldly glory is.

My wife and I also visited the war cemetery in Anzio where thousands of American soldiers lost their lives trying to capture Rome in 1944 by outflanking German soldiers facing the British 8th Army moving up the spine of Italy from Monte Cassino. I make it a point to pay homage to these young heroes of all nationalities who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom from the darkness imposed by Nazi, Fascist, Communist and other dictatorships.

These visits are like pilgrimages for me.

My wife and I will certainly return to Rome next year. I have full confidence that the dignity of the Sikh turban will be respected. Rome is special. It is a city like no other that I have seen.

It is a unique example of Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.


[The author was with the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) before leaving India in 1984, the year of cataclysmic events for Sikhs in India. With an M.Sc. (Hons School) in Physics and an M.A. in History from Panjab University, Chandigarh, he did his D.E.S.S. at Sorbonne in Paris, followed by a Ph.D. from Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg, Germany. Now a Swiss citizen based in Le-Mont-sur-Laussanne, he is serving as a Managing Director with the world famous Rothschild Group in Geneva, having earlier served as Senior Vice-President, ING Bank, Switzerland and Director with the Deutsche Bank Switzerland.]  

January 10, 2016

Conversation about this article

1: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), January 10, 2016, 1:09 PM.

I am also surprised that our billionaires haven't done much for the plight of the Sikhs in their own homeland. We go around doing langars around the world, trying to help others. Good. But, charity must begin at home if it is true and sincere. I had heard of the ferocity of the Sikhs in Ethiopia during the World War II years from the locals. Anyway, it was interesting to read about Rome, and I agree with you, it is really a special city.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 10, 2016, 6:21 PM.

Jogishwar Singh ji, what a wonderful 'Roman Holiday'!

3: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), January 11, 2016, 11:45 PM.

Dr. Jogishwar Singh ji, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your travelogue. My own visit with my wife to the Vatican more than a decade ago will remain unforgettable. You have pointed out important lessons for Sikhs which cry out for action and for some sense to prevail regarding our cultural heritage. In a hopeless situation, hope must prevail.

4: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 12, 2016, 3:31 AM.

I profoundly enjoyed this article.

5: Sarvjit Singh (Millis, Massachusetts, USA), January 12, 2016, 7:36 AM.

Very well-narrated description of Rome. This is giving me motivation to travel and explore Italy. You are a very well-read person. In 1986 as a kid I met your brother in Bangalore, I still remember sitting and staring at his Books on the shelves, especially about European History and Indian literature.

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