Surrey man shares collection of rare books on Sikh, Punjab history online to ‘preserve the past’

Raj Singh Bhandall says he is neither an academic nor claims to be an antique collector. But once he leads you into the hall where his collection is kept, it’s hard to believe that’s true.

The walls are lined with shelves containing hundreds of leather-covered books of various colors. In one corner of the room is an antique chessboard with figures dressed as Mughal and English soldiers, and in the other a work station with craft supplies. And in the middle of the room there is a long table with rare books about the lost Sikh Raj, Sikhism and India during the time of the East India Company of the British Empire.

Now Bhandall, 52, says his collection – which includes items he bid on and some items he received as gifts – is so extensive that he wants to share each of these rare books with anyone who can read them for free or would like to study on his website.

Canadian Sikhs, rooted in the Punjab, sometimes feel like they don’t belong anywhere, leading to an identity crisis, says Bhandall, a Surrey, BC resident

By sharing his collection, he hopes to help enlighten those who wish to explore its complex roots.

Bhandall holds Military Memoirs of Mr George Thomas, a rare first edition autobiography by a late 18th century Irish mercenary. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

“The younger generation needs to understand where they come from. What are their qualities, what are their attributes?” said Bhandall.

He says he can’t remember how or when he started searching for rare books and other antiquities such as maps, medals, swords, figurines and parliamentary documents, but it was his desire to understand these unbiased stories that got him started inspired to keep going.

Bhandall’s growing collection includes rare books, maps, lithographs, medals, swords and government documents. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

“I had to understand where I came from. But for that I had to understand the geopolitical perspective. When did the British come, when did they come [Mughals] come to punjab like that [Sikh] Empire was annexed. And how we got scattered to different countries, to different beautiful corners of the world,” Bhandall said.

His collection today includes some of the rarest books on the subject, dating back to the mid-18th century.

“We have here a copy signed by Maharaja Duleep Singh himself,” Bhandall remarked, showing a book signed by the last emperor of the Sikh kingdom, dated June 18, 1856.

One of Bhandall’s many prized possessions is a book signed by the last Emperor of the Sikh Kingdom, Maharaja Duleep Singh on June 18, 1856. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

Bhandall’s collection includes first editions of History of Hindustan (1768) and the annexation of the Punjab (1897), the first Punjabi-English dictionary published by Bhai Maya Singh in 1895, a Glossary of the Court and Tax Terms of the Indian Parliament printed in 1855, and a rare volume of Guru Granth Sahibthe Sikh scriptures, which are a personal copy of Dr. Kuldip Gill was a BC-based social anthropologist.

Bhandall encourages anyone who owns rare books or antique family heirlooms to keep them and preserve them as a piece of personal history.

His goal is to preserve what can be preserved and eventually open a free museum somewhere on the west coast.

Bhandall’s ultimate goal is to share his growing collection with the public by opening a physical museum on the west coast. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

His reasons are simple: “So that the people who come after us, the generation after us when we go physically, will look at how we have contributed to this great country and they will also know our history, where we came from.” .”


CBC British Columbia has established a Surrey office to help you tell your stories with reporter Kiran Singh. Story ideas and tips can be sent to kiran.singh@cbc.ca.

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