What a find!

Legendary Sikh sword bought by Canadian businessman

By Tim Alamenciak Staff Reporter
Tue., April 8, 2014 3 min. read

Bob Dhillon is bringing a major piece of Sikh history to Canada thanks to a fateful flub.

The Calgary-based businessman was part of a delegation to India in February with Gov. Gen. David Johnston when he picked up a copy of The Tribune, an English-language newspaper. A front-page story caught his eye — a U.K. auction house was selling the sword of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

“It’s like they’re auctioning off King Arthur’s sword,” said Dhillon.

Singh was responsible for uniting the Sikh tribes in the early 19th century and founded the Sikh Empire, based in the Punjab region from 1799 to 1849.

“People think of it as the most proudest moment of the Sikh community. A lot of people, if you say who was the greatest Sikh ever, after the prophets they would say Maharaja Ranjit Singh.”

When Dhillon returned from India, the Sikh history buff researched the sale. It was legitimate, he found, so he put in a bid using a printed form.

But Dhillon thought he was bidding in Canadian dollars.

“They sent us a form and I said, ‘I’ll bid this much.’ In my mind it was a Canadian dollar bid,” he said, laughing. “It clearly said pounds.”

The preauction estimate for the sword was £10,000 to £15,000 ($18,295 to $27,440 Cdn).

Dhillon’s bid was enough to beat out every other one in the blind process. He won’t say just how much he spent on the sword, but plans to share it with any institution that would like to show it.

The sword, about 85 centimetres long, is a curved talwar-style blade with engravings in Punjabi script and an engraved silhouette of Singh. It’s expected to arrive in Canada later this week.

Dhillon hopes it prompts Canadian-born Sikhs to learn about their history.

“After the empire was conquered by the British, most Sikh artifacts remain in the hands of private collectors or museums in the United Kingdom,” he said.

“I am humbled that after 165 years, my family can help our community once again become the custodian of our own history. This is probably the first time such an artifact will be held in Canada.”

Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra, co-ordinator of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, praised Dhillon’s approach.

“A lot of philanthropists will purchase an item of historical significance and it will just be locked away in a vault,” said Sandhra.

She hopes the sword will make a stop at the Sikh history museum in Abbotsford, where the university is located.

“It’s very nostalgic for the community to look back and see that artifacts are still in existence to prove that he (Singh) was a real-flesh human being,” she said. “You can . . . go back to that time period and touch a piece of history.”

The auction also highlighted just how much history, particularly from the South Asian region, could potentially be locked away in the U.K.

“The U.K. is a treasure box that nobody can even imagine. How many attics, and these boxes and safety deposit boxes in people’s homes,” said Dhillon. “I think the whole country is a hidden museum.”

London-based Mullock’s auction house kept the source of the sword secret, he said, adding the auction included more than 500 Sikh historical items, some of which he also bought.

He speculated that a member of the British Empire in South Asia may have taken them out of the country and tucked them away in an attic.

Sandhra said the removal of artifacts from South Asia was a frequent occurrence.

“When it comes to imperial history, everything was written about our communities from a European, kind of hierarchical perspective of what they imagined us to be in South Asia,” said Sandhra.

“But the pieces that actually showcased who we were and what we were, we don’t even have control over. I think that’s why a lot of people like Bob want to take that control back to a level and be able to bring it back to the community.”