Kids Corner

Above: Scanning a pothi. Below, third from bottom - the damage done to a manuscript by termites in a day! All photos: courtesy, The Nanakshahi Trust.


Taking the Bull by the Horns:
Preserving Our History



Something has always bugged me about 1984.

Not just the attack on The Golden Temple, horrendous though it was. Not just the attack on The Akal Takht. Not just the attacks on numerous other gurdwaras across Punjab at the same time.

It was the deliberate attack on, and the looting of the Sikh Reference Library.

This seemed to be a malicious and purposeful attempt to harm us and to destroy our "virsa," our heritage. Someone with devious designs was behind this; sacks of manuscripts were carted away - and till today, they remain missing.

What bothers me is that we were caught so unprepared. No microfilming (the technology of that day) or photography of these manuscripts had been done.

Backups had not been created. Catalogues had not been prepared. Voluminous records were missing. What if the same situation arose again, and more of our heritage went up in smoke?

Recently, on a trip to India, I was pleasantly surprised: it seems that others had seen this exact same problem and have taken the bull by the horns. Despite tremendous obstacles, they have put together an outstanding resource of published material by Sikhs, about Sikhs, or related to Sikhs. And they have done this using modern technology, taking steps to ensure that it is now in the internet domain, so that it will be accessible to others.

This organization that has taken on this enormous task is the Nanakshahi Trust, based in Chandigarh, Punjab.

It was a hot summer day when I visited them and, as usual, the power was out and they were running on a generator. Davinder Pal Singh, Operations Director and Co-Founder of the Trust, sat me down and explained what was going on.

The process is "digitization," he informed me. Published material is either scanned or photographed with high resolution cameras and the image is captured in both RAW and JPEG forms. This is then put into the central resource and given an access number. The digitized version is then checked with the original to make sure that the whole page/document has been captured. They can further use OCR (optical character recognition) on the files to make them more easily searchable.

Storage is then done on a large server, with a backup at another server at a different location, in addition to other backups with different formats.

Most of the employees I saw there were sitting before computer monitors. Davinder explained that they were doing the checking and collating of data coming in from the field. Some of the digitization is done at the Chandigarh office, but they also now have five teams (each team has two to three people) who are doing field work in Punjab and other places.

Nanakshahi's collection is growing at the rate of about 50,000 pages per week. All their scanned material comes to Chandigarh for storage via the internet. They have digitized over 2.5 million folios (a folio is two sides of a page), which represents over 16 terabytes of data. (A terabyte is equivalent to 1,000 gigabytes.)

They are now doing private collections - including that of Dr. Man Singh Nirankari and Dr. Harnam Singh Shan - and library holdings, as well as the collections of the S.G.P.C. and the Government Museum in Chandigarh.

Items scanned include old newspapers, periodicals, legal documents, manuscripts, video recordings and vintage photographs. (Davinder showed me some fading images from the 1920s of the Guru ka Bagh Morcha that I had never seen before - a very gratifying experience. See photo on right, first from bottom)

"Will this be available to all?" I wondered loudly.

That was when he informed me of the impending launch of the Panjab Digital Library (PDL), a searchable collection of all their scanned items - a monumental project in conjunction with the Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI), Texas, U.S.A.

They are well aware of security and access issues, and guidelines were being developed to accommodate these concerns. In fact, they have 15 working groups to study the issues involved, with specialists in fields like "metadata" and "data migration." (And I thought only birds and Punjabis migrate!)

"Did they have any difficulty in getting access to collections and documents?" I asked.

Davinder smiled. "A lot," he answered.

He went on to tell me that there is suspicion of the sort of work that they are doing. Some people feel that they should be paid for having their documents "copied." Others feel that they will lose the privilege of being the sole owners.

In addition, there are some groups in Punjab who believe that if a pothi or a birh of Guru Granth Sahib is old and torn, the only respectful way to dispose of it is through cremation.

Although the S.G.P.C. has issued a proclamation that handwritten birhs or pothis should not be consigned to the flames, it is still being done, Davinder told me.

"We sometimes have to plead with them to at least let us photograph these items before they are destroyed," he added. Sometimes they are successful, sometimes not.

A sad note for bibliophiles is the fragile state of many old documents and manuscripts. Various types of old handmade paper are delicate and, as they age, they crumble. The process is hastened by the inks used, also handmade (using the soot from a diva, for example), and by the presence of moisture. Many of those in possession of these manuscripts have no knowledge of this and some of these documents are therefore in a pitiable condition.

Preservation will help these paper-based artifacts, says Davinder, but they lack those resources at present.

Other difficulties include space, equipment and funding. It is a constant struggle to raise money for this effort. The sophisticated equipment required to scan large documents is expensive. Computers and servers are required to store and process the data - and more are needed.

Nanakshahi Trust is a not-for-profit organization and they get no revenue from the Indian Government. They have survived and grown by doing some project work, but are largely supported through charitable donations. There are a few individuals in India and some in the U.S. who have helped them, but they are having a difficult time.

"It is much below our needs," Davinder said of their funding. "Does the S.G.P.C. support you?" I asked naively.

He smiled again, taking a look at this unknowing feranghi from abroad, and shook his head. It appears that none of the Sikh institutions in India have done anything to help them.

I could see that their office was cramped. "We need some more scanners, but we have no place to put them," he said, adding ruefully, "No money to buy them, either."

We discussed how I could help. The Trust was interested in scanning some of my personal manuscript collections. That sounded promising. But it was getting late and my time at Nanakshahi was drawing to a close.

I went home with a much lighter heart, sure that this was something definitely worth supporting. It was a relief to know there was some light at the end of the tunnel, after all.

The website of the Panjab Digital Library is:


August 27, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), August 27, 2009, 5:18 AM.

A fantastic project - critically needed. It enjoys invaluable material and moral support from Gurpal Singh Bhuller, people at the Sikh Research Institute, and many others. But much more is necessary to transform this limited but growing effort into a national priority. Thank you for sharing information on this initiative.

2: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), August 27, 2009, 7:13 AM.

This important database will become an invaluable resource for researchers and historians around the world. My hope and prayer is that they are able to digitize the most priceless manuscripts in the Sikh religion before it's too late - Guru Arjan's Kartarpur Bir, for example: the earliest version of the Guru Granth Sahib which is currently in the hands of a private family.

3: Meena (Delhi, India), August 27, 2009, 2:24 PM.

Words elude me ... Thank you, thank you, thank you.

4: Manjyot Kaur (New York City, U.S.A.), August 27, 2009, 7:40 PM.

While the information contained in these texts can be saved for posterity via digitization, the significance of these precious manuscripts extends far beyond this aspect alone. As physical objects of great intrinsic value, they are amazing windows into the times and places in which they were created, giving fascinating insights into the social, political and economic realities extant during those particular periods. Besides being "mined" for the data they contain, such rich repositories of heritage deserve the best book preservation techniques available, in order to ensure that their survival in original format is extended for as long as possible. Let's hope that a full-scale book preservation laboratory will one day be added to Nanakshahi/PDL's very laudable efforts. Kudos to these organizations (and their supporters) as they "move forward into the past"!

5: Tejpal Singh (New Delhi, India), August 27, 2009, 10:23 PM.

Let's collect and preserve whatever is available before any other "Blue Star" destroys the remaining heritage. Besides, the electronic media, TV and Bollywood are busy destroying the image, culture, religious ethos and spirit of Sikhism. These efforts would help future generation in connecting the dots of history.

6: Ravinder Singh Kohli (Chesterfield, U.S.A.), August 28, 2009, 7:13 PM.

This is great work and we as Sikhs need to support this organization. The jathedars of Punjab and the S.G.P.C. cannot understand the importance of this work though they proclaim to be the "keepers" of the Sikh Faith. We should set up a fund to support them.

7: Parminder Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 29, 2009, 1:32 AM.

Nanakshahi Trust's contribution towards preserving and a concrete attempt in protecting the heritage of Sikhs and Punjab, is really commendable. It is to be noted that the Nanakshahi Trust and SikhRI have started the process; it is time now for others to contribute their share in supporting them in preserving our heritage.

8: Brig K. S. Grewal (Retd) (Panchkula, India), August 29, 2009, 1:39 AM.

A commendable work. It is beyond our Jathedars and S.G.P.C.'s comprehension whose main business, it appears, is to destroy our heritage and replace it with marble structures, domes and shops. It seems all our gurdwaras are perenially under construction/ renovation. Our weakness for funding such activities rather than for educational or health is fully exploited.

9: Gurpal S. Bhuller (Virginia, U.S.A.), August 29, 2009, 8:50 AM.

I appreciate the comments of Brig. Grewal and others and their desire to help. The budget of the Nanakshahi Trust sorely needs funds - their work uses up several lakh rupees per month. If you wish to contribute from India, you can send them a contribution directly. For those in U.S.A., the Sikh Research Institute acts as their fiduciary; contributions to Nanakshahi can be sent to SikhRI and they can pass them through to avail of the tax benefit.

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