Ancient House Visits India

Creating the Duleep Singh gallery

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Dogs, swords and Elephants – all in a day in India!

What an amazing last day in India I’ve had – never did I image that I would be held up by an elephant or have such an enjoyable day hearing a Sikh military history. My day started with a trip to Attari, I had been invited by Colonel Attari who had read about my visit and on the advice of Peter Bance I accepted his kind offer.

So with the sun shining I set off with Bir Inder Singh Sidhu. Attari is situated 3km away from the Indian/Pakistan border at Wagah. Just before reaching Attari, we passed the impressive India Gate monument to General Sarder Sham Singh Attariwala on the Grand Trunk Road.


General Sarder Sham Singh Attariwala has gone done in history for his fierce loyalty to the Sikh Empire, leaving his village aged 60 to fought for Maharani Jind Kaur at the Battle of Sabraon in 1846. Following his death, his body was returned to Attari on the back of an elephant and his wife committed the last known satee at the funeral. Today the memorial contains a small museum, a guest suite along with several samadhi and a Gurdwara.  There is also a large tank built for the wedding of Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s grandson, Prince Nau Nihal Singh and General Sham Singh Attariwala’s daughter, Bibi Nanaki Kaur. The memorial is run by a family trust and has aspiring plans to turn the site into a fascinating visitor attraction.  Every year on 10th February a Martyrs Day celebration is held to honor General Sham Singh, it’s now on the state level function list and attended by a range of VIPs every year. General Sham Singh is now classed as a national hero and interest from local schools is rising. I was greeted by several members of the Attari family, all of whom are involved in the trust, the caretaker, resident priest, several journalists  and quite a large pack of dogs!



Inside the museum there are a series of images relating to the family’s story and the General. On one panel featuring the Durbar of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, Sham Singh is circled, you can clearly see his prominence at court.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES I also came across a memorial plaque and reference to Sardar Surat Singh who was awarded the Victoria Cross. I’ll be adding this reference to our Thetford Remembers Project. The family come from a distinguished line of soldiers and continue to play a part in the military today.


Following the museum visit, I was welcomed into the small but beautiful Gurdwara, to hear the priest read from the Guru Granth Sahib. Very generously I was allowed to take as many photos as I wanted to use with our school sessions. As with most of my visits, I was given a gift for the museum, my collection from this trip has grown to quite a collection.


Much to my amusement when we were leaving the priest hopped on his motorbike – I had to take a photo! I was asked if it’s  normal to see priests on motorbikes in the UK. Not normally armed with a sword was my reply!


Next stop was the family havelies, the original fort dates back to the 18th century, and is now divided into individual homes for the family. I was able to see the actual sword that belonged to General Sham Singh, a huge privilege as it normally only comes out for display on special occasions such as Martyrs Day. I suggested the museum has a replica made as I feel certain that visitors would like to see it. The family was very generous inviting me into their homes, and it was great to see how they were all working together as a team. The family have a small archive, amongst the letters was an invitation from Princess Bamba Duleep Singh.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI was invited to take Langar at lunchtime with the family back at the complex, it was delicious and definitely the best I’ve had in India.

Unfortunately it was soon time to leave; on our way back the most peculiar thing happened. We were held up by an elephant! As we approached the India Gate an elephant appeared from the right hand side of the gate at the stood right in front of the car much to my amazement. I was thrilled to see one close up on my last day as I’ve heard so many stories about Maharajah Ranjit Singh using them as transport whilst I’ve been here. Never one to miss a photo opportunity, I hopped out and asked if I could have a pic taken.


Finally, to finish my visit I really had to go to the Golden Temple and see it lit up at night. I was mesmerised as I stood looking at the Sanctum Sanctorum shimmering on an inky black pool. It was quite busy when I arrived, people were standing and sitting around the holy tank joining in with the hymns and generally enjoying the serene atmosphere. I felt it was the perfect ending to my first trip to India, I’ll be leaving with a full notebook of work to do with the museums I visited and the promise of a return to the many new friends I’ve made.



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A visit to Khalsa College


Today I had the opportunity to visit the prestigious Khalsa College in Amritsar. Built in 1892, it’s difficult to put into words the grandeur of the building and it’s size. The College is every Britisher’s idea of an Indian Palace! The building has been sympathetically maintained and new buildings blend into their surroundings well. As well as a seat of learning, there is a small museum and study centre on site. The College had been following my trip via local newspapers, and were keen that I had a look at their collection and offered some advice. The collection has some fascinating works on paper, like some of the other museums in the area, they have weaponry and a large number of photos. Unfortunately like many of the museums I’ve been to; no one on site seems to have had any formal museum training. However they were very open to ideas and how they could use some best practice models from the UK which was great. The College aspire to redisplay and open the museum to the general public, which I am sure would be very popular. And as every good museum in Amritsar should have an image of Maharajah Duleep Singh, here’s theirs! (apologies for the rubbish snap)

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES I didn’t really have the opportunity to take too many photos, but I managed to snap one of the entrance hall, which reminded me of Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s Summer Palace and Elveden Hall. Fortunately the College building is supported by a regular maintenance programme and looked in very good condition. The site itself is on the outskirts of Amritsar, so feels very peaceful with lush lawns and excellent sporting facilities.


The second part of my visit gave me the opportunity to meet some of the students and staff. Today is Holi, so the College itself was rather quiet although I did see several students covered in bright powder as we arrived. I gave a talk on Maharajah Duleep Singh’s story and the Anglo Sikh work at Ancient House. Most of the students had heard of the Maharajah, but were unaware that he had tried to reclaim his throne and return to India. They were really interested in the Anglo Sikh work going on in Thetford, especially the Prince Frederick cricket match and Gatka performances. And of course everyone recognised Satinder Sartaaj when an image of him at the museum appeared! The response from everyone to my trip has been so positive, I’ve count of the times people have said thank you for telling our story or how surprised they are that a museum in the UK is so interested in Sikh culture. On my part I thought the students were fantastic, especially as some had given up their Holi celebrations to meet me. To mark my visit the college presented me with a framed photograph of the building.


Back in the city centre people were out and about enjoying their holiday. I really wanted to take some photos of paint and powdered cover people, but every time I saw some, they were whizzing past on a motorbike! I did manage to catch these two looking very splendid though.


Sadly tomorrow is my last day, although I will be leaving with a notebook full of connections and partnerships to be developed fully. I have loved my visit to the Punjab and have started to make a wish list of where to visit next – Patiala is at the top!

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Phulkari – the traditional embroidery of the Punjab

Phulkari is an embroidery technique originating from the Punjab – its direct translation  Phul – flower, Kari – craft means flower working and was once the word used for the term embroidery. Popular since the 15th century, over time the word Phulkari became restricted to embroidered shawls and head scarfs. The ceremonial garments that cover the entire body are known as Baghs (garden), and scattered work on the fabric is called adha bagh – half garden. This embroidery is traditionally created using silks on a cotton fabric. Today a wide range of synthetic materials are also used. These beautiful, colourful garments are worn by women across the Punjab during marriage festivals, and other special occasions. Traditionally they were embroidered by women for their own use or as gifts to other family members, a purely domestic art passed down from one generation to an other. Brides are given Phulkaris and barghs at the time of their marriages.

Using a darn stitch on the wrong side of coarse cotton cloth with coloured silken tread, innumerable designs and patterns are created – backing cloths vary from different areas, for instance in western Punjab the base cloth is finer than that of central Punjab. The key to the embroidery’s success is the manipulation of the stitches by the embroider. traditionally shades of red are favoured as red is an auspicious colour. Phulkari emblems are not concerned with religious subjects or durbar scenes, but feature life in the villages instead. Geometric patterns inspired by objects of everyday life and motifs including wheat and barley heads are common.

Phulkari is highly prized, although a bit of a dying art. Pieces can command high prizes across Indian, particularly amongst those with an interest in the arts.

During my visit to Chandigarh Government Museum & Art Gallery, I had the opportunity to view their textile collection, including a group of Phulkari embroideries from the 19th & 20th century.  My primary interest was to see this work being created – and to find out how we could replicate this at the museum. Seema from the museum told me that they had a modern piece by a lady called Daya Tuli, who lived in a village not far from Chandigarh. As luck would have it, that evening I was introduced to Jasvinder Kaur, a textile researcher working on Punjabi textiles from the 18th, 19th and up to mid 20th century. Jasvinder offered to accompany me to the village of Daun, to see if we could find Daya or any other embroiders.

Daya proved relatively easy to find and equally welcoming. She was very happy to show us her collection of historic Phulkari and the work she and her fellow embroiders are producing today. Daya has 300 embroiders working for her, they are all from families who pass down their skill and therefore are actively keeping this art form alive. Modern intervention has come in the type of materials used and the use of the internet to market goods. Unfortunately we were unable to visit one of families, but hopefully Jasvinder will be able to in the future. In the mean time Daya not only showed me her work, but also allowed me to film her technique. I’m hoping that armed with this information, Stitch in Time at Ancient House might be able to reproduce some samples, including one to send to the Chandigarh Museum and Jasvinder.


Daya is holding a traditional Phulkari, c 20th. The motifs come from rolling pins used for bread. The entire front surface is covered by individual stitches, all hand sewn. The reverse is as interesting as the front, you can see where the beginning and end of each stitch starts and finishes. On some of the pieces, a pre-marked pattern was visible as a stitching guide.


This is a modern piece which took almost 1 year to complete, it has been sold in pieces. This piece would cost in the region of R 80,000. The close up images shows you an image of a western husband and wife, the wife is holding an umbrella.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES On this piece, the rows have been divided up using colour to create a diagonal pattern, a single black thread brings definition to the white border between in stripe. Again the entire surface is covered by individual stitches. The stitches remain regimented to ensure the pattern is successful. Phulkari c 20th


Daya is shown here demonstrating her stitching technique, the needle is about 4 -5 cm long. This allows a succession of stitches to be pulled through quickly and effectively. Some patterns are more tightly stitched than others, especially modern versions. The entire length is thread is used in one go,working from the inside of the pattern to the outside edge.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThis is a modern bedspread currently under construction, traditional motifs and colours have been used; the ground fabric is a mercerised cotton and the tread polyester.

I’m really looking forward to having a go at Phulkari once I return to England. Specialist equipment is minimal, only the long needles. I also saw examples where the ground fabric was a crepe, and the embroidery included sequins. Sparkly additions are definitely modern additions, although proving to be popular in the market place.

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Chandigarh, city of Le Corbusier

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESArriving early on Monday morning allowed me to maximise my time in Chandigarh. It’s a city of contrast compared to Amritsar. The roads are wide and straight, the views from my hotel are of a green tree canopy and most of the shops are easily recognisable brands. The dirt and dust of Amritsar is nowhere to be seen, be equally the most historic building I’ve seen are from by Le Corbusier,  the modernist architect. He had the opportunity to design the layout of India’s first modern city in the 1950s. his building include the museum and art gallery that I visited.

My encounter of the day was with my dear friend Peter Bance. Peter has helped me plan my trip and I was delighted when he said he’d be in Amritsar for a few days whilst I was there. Yesterday I had the opportunity to catch up with him again before he headed back to England before my first major meeting of my trip.

Following my site visits in Amritsar, Mr Navjot PS Randhawa, Director of Tourism, Cultural Affairs, Archeology, Museums & Archives Punjab had offered me the opportunity to meet with him whilst I was here. Not only was I able thank him personally for allowing me access to sites and collections not normally open to the public, but also to ask a few questions. We were joined by Gurmeet Rai, the conservation Architect for the Gobindgarh Fort project, Gurmeet is very keen to develop some joint working particularly linking some of the ASHT sites with those in the Punjab and possibly a knowledge network. I was also presented with a folio of Emily Eden prints for the museum. It was a fantastic positive start to my work in Chandigarh.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESLater in the afternoon Dr Aujla took Peter & I to the Punjab Digital Library. Thanks to Davinder Pal Singh’s innovation thousands of documents, photographs, newspapers, coins and books have been digitally copied and are available for use, for free. The data base is extensive, not only have the library developed their own specialist equipment to use, they have also developed their own cataloguing system similar to MODES. The Library receives private funding and is committed to preserving the history of the Punjab as a whole. I will be requesting copies of material for use at Ancient House once I return home.

Tuesday started with a visit to Chandigarh Government Museum and Art Gallery, and meeting Seema Gera. I was delighted to see their collection of Phulkari and to be offered digital copies by Seema. The museum is housed in a Le Corbusier building from the 1950s and there is a dedicated display about the town’s development. I really enjoyed exploring the textile gallery, Seema is very knowledgeable about the objects and more importantly, very passionate about the museum. We talked about the differences between our museum structures & how we could help each other. I gave the museum a copy of the Norfolk  Catalogue featuring Prince Frederick Duleep Singh’s painting collection for their library, it’s great to know something about Ancient House is sitting in another museum collection in India!



After lunch it ws time for a visit to the Government Emporium followed by a quick look at the Panjab University to see the iconic Le Corbusier buildings. The campus looked like a great place to study, it reminded me of the UEA. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

My last visit of the day was to the Arts Council, who were holding the final day of their annual arts festival.


I adored Anuradha Thakur’s Ethnic Expeditions exhibition, and delighted to meet her. Anuradha was lovely and keen to talk about her work, created by spending time in villages experiencing tribal life. We’re standing by her favourite pieces in the photo.


One of the government ministers, Parmider Singh Dhinsa was in attendance, so there were plenty of armed guards around the site. After we were introduced, he took quite an interest in Ancient House and the story of why I was in India. Thinking I was there to watch a presentation ceremony and to meet the Arts Council chair, I suddenly found myself called up on stage and presented with a gift – unfortunately my Punjabi hasn’t progressed, so I just smiled and clapped in what I hope was all the right places!

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI’ve loved my past two days in Chandigarh, it’s a vibrant city with a strong arts focus. Dr Aujla has been supportive but has allowed me the space to get on with the work I need to do, so as I approach my last day here I can reflect back positively. And one final bonus, he introduced me to a textile researcher, Jasvinder Kaur, who is taking me on an intrepid search for real live Phulkari embroiders in a village just outside Chandigarh in the morning!

One last thing – look what I saw in the Government Emporium here…. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

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Rain, rain, go away…..

It was almost like being back in England today, it rained and rained, making the sky as grey as any English late winter day. It was my last day before going to Chandigarh for a few days. Mr & Mrs Singh Sandhanwalia arrived at my hotel and gave me a beautiful pink Punjabi suit, they really have been very kind whilst I have been here.


Not allowing the rain to stop us, we then went off for a little retail therapy in the bazaars around the Golden Temple. Shopping in Amritsar is completely different to shopping in England, I really enjoyed the sari shop where we sat down and fabric was brought out and shown to us on a white sheeted floor. I think they were quite amused by the request for sparkly fabric!


Shawls purchased, next stop was the famous Gurdas Ram Jalebian Wale shop. Jalebians are fried in pure gee and coated in a sugary syrup. Tony Singh, the Scottish Sikh chef featured the shop during his visit to Amritsar as part of A Cook Abroad on BBC 2 recently. Jalebian’s taste as good as they look!


During my time in Amritsar I’ve experienced so many things that are so different to life in Thetford; the ladies of Amritsar Inner Wheel however, bear a remarkable resemblance to the ladies of Thetford Inner Wheel. I was particularly touched that they started their meeting with their prayer in English in my honor. Welcoming, noisy and fun to be with, I had a lovely time with the ladies especially Maina. Once banners had been exchanged the ladies told me about their group and the projects they’ve been supporting. One of the nicest outcomes of my trip are the extra partnerships I’ve been able to facilitate and the beginning of new friendships.


Next stop Chandigarh!

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Gobingarh Fort, Jallianwala Bagh and Khandas galore!


Another exciting auto rickshaw ride to start the day again! I am beginning to get used to the traffic now and have learnt how to cross the road in relative safety. A short ride away from the bazaars is Gobingarh Fort. Built in the mid 18th century by the leader of the Bhangi Misl, Gobingarh Fort was named after Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru when Maharajah Ranjit Singh took possession from the in 1805. It is the sole remaining fort from Ranjit Singh’s reign and it’s Tosha Khana once held the Koh-i-noor diamond. Today the fort stands empty but the subject of an extensive regeneration project. If successful, this project will not only breathe new life into the buildings but will dramatically enhance the tourism offer in the area and create large scale employment opportunities. Currently the fort is closed to the public, an exception was made for our visit and Mr PK Mehta, the site manager & engineer. Generously, Mr Mehta took us on a full tour of the site, explaining what the existing building were used for and the plans for their use in the future.


We entered the fort through the gatehouse where Maharajah Ranjit Singh would have entered on one of his majestic elephants . Inside, on each side were 6 matching arches. Mr Mehta explained that in the time of the Maharajah there would have been 3 women and 3 men on each side throwing rose petals as the most importnt visitors arrived and went past.

The site will contain museums, artisan retail units, a hotel, banqueting facilities, leisure facilities and an area for ‘glamping’. Once I had explained what glamping was, Mr Mehta decided that they were going to drop the term camping, so visitors of the future, you will be glamping in style just outside the south rampart. Fairly close to the planned spa facilities!


The site is huge, the perimeter wall is 1.6km long. Redevelopment has been divided into 4 phases depending on the project priorities. Several areas have had extensive work completed including the eastern cells with their domed ceilings. The plan is to retail locally produced handicrafts linked to Sikh culture in each cell – today they just contained Amritsar’s resident Britisher much to the amusement of everyone else.


The North East Bastion will be turned into an Anglo Sikh Gallery, which immediately interested me; the storyline will include Maharajah Duleep Singh. I hope this is a project that Ancient House can be involved in, possibly sharing our East Anglian story. Throughout our tour people were at work around us, including whole families who work and live on the site. It was quite strange to see a family washing themselves and their clothes right next to the lime pits where the lime mortar is ground up, and other building materials are laying around. Its something you would never see in the UK but is perfectly natural here. Some of the small children even teased Mr Mehta for sweets which he produced from his pockets and handed out.


My two personal highlights were seeing and going in the Tosha Khana. The structure is designed around seven arches to make the roof virtually indestructible. The story of Duleep Singh and the Koh-i-noor diamond is a huge part of our Seeking the Maharajah schools session, so to go inside a place where it was originally kept was just fantastic. Eventually the room will display some of the archeology found on the site and a selection of Sikh swords.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES The other building was the Darbar Hall. This building has unique oval windows and fabulous views across the fort, standing opposite Dyer’s bungalow (which is nothing like our interpretation of a bungalow). The British occupied the fort from 1849 after the second Sikh War. Many of the buildings have a colonial feel to them because of this. The fort remained under the control of the Indian Army until 2006, with regeneration work initially beginning in 2011. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe site is being renovated sympathetically using traditional methods and materials. I feel certain that Maharajah Ranjit Singh who added the moat and outer defensive walls would approve. I really hope this project is successful and completion is sooner rather than later. If the work can be completed with integrity and to the high standard we saw today, it will set a precedent for city and the future could be bright for Amritsar’s heritage.

Feeling rather buoyant by the first visit of the day, we then headed to Jallianwala Bagh. I had very mixed feelings about this site. It really is a lovely garden and a pleasure to visit until you remember why it is there. Some things are very difficult to reconcile. We were standing in the enclosed space where the British gunned down families picnicing on Vaisakhi in 1919.  This event is now known as the Amritsar Massacre and a symbol of India’s freedom struggle. On some of the walls bullet holes are marked out. There is a large central monument to the victims in the centre of the garden and several galleries. In one area topiary soldiers are shooting across a lawn, it really does stop you in your tracks. Slightly lightening the mood was the reaction from some of our fellow visitors when we stopped to sit down for a while. Several groups just stopped and stared or tried to join our photos. One person apparently gleefully told his friend that the Britisher was in his photo when I accidently photo bombed him. This resulted in more teasing from Sukhpreet and Damandeep, in Punjabi there is a plural of British, which is why the English translation is Britishers, however it just sounds so strange!


Next on my list was some retail therapy, something I was much keener to do than my companions, especially when they heard it was for bangles and shawls. They perked up when I said I wanted to buy a selection of Khandas for a museum trail later in the year. Bangles were quickly purchased & we headed towards one of the many markets near the Golden Temple. This one, announced Sukhpreet was the religious market and Khandas were going to be abundant. I now have what I consider is possibly the best collection (and maybe the only one) of Khandas in Thetford. If you want to see my dazzling purchases (not all of them are in the photo), come and do the trail in September, where they will be artfully hidden around Ancient House by my colleague Lynne. I also fell in love with a very kitsch Guru Nanak figurine which was set to be mine until I was reminded that it Guru Gobind Singh had decreed that idol worship is a false practice, sadly this included my spangley, brightly coloured Guru Nanak. So the Guru figure remained in the shop, but I do feel very pleased with my hoard of Khandas!  Poor Damandeep, beginning to feel unwell enlisted Mr & Mrs Singh Sandhanwalia to take me to buy some juttis and experience real haggling, the shop keeper looked extremely put out when we left but I was assured that it was all part of the selling process and the right price was paid. Hopefully Damandeep will have recovered by tomorrow, he’s at the Golden Temple when the rest of us are asleep, and has ensured that everything I need to achieve is as easy for me as possible. So to you Damandeep I say “Thank you” and I hope you survive until the end of my trip………


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A visit to a family home


The Singh Sandhanwalia  family very kindly invited me to their home today to see their own private archive relating to the Duleep Singh family. The archive contains many letters from Princess Bamba and Princess Sophia to Sardar Pritam Singh Sandhanwalia. The family are keen to share their story. Another benefit of being invited to a family home was the very delicious lunch, all home cooked and being in the Punjab – there was lots of it! I really am very grateful to have been invited into their home and made so welcome.

Whilst I was visiting several family friends popped in to say hello, one of Damandeep’s aunties has a boutique and promptly measured me up for a suit! I was shown some beautifully embroidered pink fabric which will be returned tomorrow as something lovely to wear. I really have had a very warm welcome from Amritsar.

The interest in Ancient House has continued, this afternoon I had an interview with the very lovely Neha Saini from The Tribune. Neha was very interested in the British Council’s project and how the heritage of Amritsar could be enhanced, Amritsar and Chandigarh are both interested in gaining UNESCO status. Having been here for almost a week I can see why tourists only stay for a couple of days, but there is so much more to Amritsar than the Golden Temple, wonderful as it is, and with the right development the city could attract visitors for longer periods.

I also had a tv interview with Gurprit Singh from Sangar TV who have a large following in Birmingham – Gurprit, a well known actor and presenter was interested in the Sikh connections at the museum and the British Council project, endorsing how important it is that British Museums share their expertise and that Indian Museums must engage with the offer of help and advice.


I can barely believe I’ve almost been here for a week now. I am hoping that the huge amount of interest generated by visit will help with the new gallery project. We need our supporters to dig deep and help us raise the £50,000 it will take to create the new displays.