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Bringing Hidden Sikh Histories to Life

Q&A with Rav Singh, ‘A little History of the Sikhs’ and community partner for 'Indian Army at the Palace'

Q&A with Rav Singh, ‘A little History of the Sikhs’ and community partner for 'Indian Army at the Palace'

The Indian Army at the Palace display, launching at Hampton Court Palace in September 2023, is the result of three years' collaboration between Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that cares for the palace, and our community partners who have generously given their time and expertise.

This new collection of objects, photographs, films and personal stories follows on from 'Standing with Giants' which was displayed in the palace grounds in 2021 and 2022.

Here, Rav Singh, founder of 'A little History of the Sikhs' and Historic Royal Palaces’ community partner for both Standing with Giants and The Indian Army at the Palace, explains more about the project's significance.

Header image: Sikh and "Tommy" soldier silhouettes on the East Front of Hampton Court Palace for Standing with Giants. © Historic Royal Palaces

Image: A Sikh regiment from the Indian Contingent parade up The Mall in London, towards Buckingham Palace and troops pass through Admiralty Arch. © Historic Royal Palaces

A Sikh regiment from the Indian Contingent parading up the Mall towards Buckingham Palace, Victory Parade August 2nd 1919. © Historic Royal Palaces
Community Partners, Rav Singh and Tejpal Singh Ralmill at Standing with Giants

Could you introduce yourself, and your involvement in the Indian Soldiers project at Hampton Court Palace?

'A little History of the Sikhs' is a community-based initiative that presents episodes from Sikh, Anglo-Sikh, and Anglo-Punjab history through walking tours in London, day trips across the South-East of England, and weekend study visits to UK and European destinations.

The story of 'A little History of the Sikhs' is also my personal story of being a London-born Sikh. A tale of a journey to discover and connect to my heritage through the streets of London. This is how we now deliver our walking tours – connecting places, spaces, and events to episodes in Sikh History.

The 2020 lockdowns in the UK due to the Covid-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for 'A little History of the Sikhs' to develop and shape our website. This work opened up a new audience, including staff from the Historic Royal Palaces team who contacted us during the research phase of their proposed 2021 'Standing with Giants' project. A three-year relationship that started in the spring of 2021 has led us to the Indian Soldiers at Hampton Court Palace project.

Image: Community Partners, Rav Singh and Dr Tejpal Singh Ralmill at Standing with Giants. Reproduced with kind permission of Rav Singh.

What are your thoughts on the significance of the display taking place at Hampton Court Palace?

I think it's crucial to bring to life hidden histories which feature communities not usually associated with the traditional stories, but also make them accessible to a wider audience. For me, walking tours have proven to be an effective way for families to mix fun activities with educational experiences and that combination works to make sure that visitors "feel" the past so they never forget it. I find that family audiences enjoy this format, and promoting history to attendees who then make more of an effort to find out more.

The traditional history of Hampton Court centres on Henry VIII and the Tudors, but the palace also holds a variety of Sikh, Punjabi, and Indian Army-related stories.

Locals, Londoners, and visitors from around the UK and the world may all attend the Indian Army display and learn about the intriguing stories that we have all worked to uncover.

"The traditional history of Hampton Court centres on King Henry VIII and the Tudors, but the palace also holds a variety of Sikh, Punjabi, and Indian Army-related stories."

Rav Singh

Why did you want to be involved? 

Since 2014, we have been delivering walking tours in London. These curated tours explore stories from Sikh history on the streets of Chelsea, Westminster, Tower Hamlets, and surrounding boroughs. Stories related to Sikh and Punjab history at Hampton Court Palace have sometimes been mentioned by attendees who were familiar with Sikh military history, while others discussed Sophia Duleep Singh's home at Faraday House, which was part of the Hampton Court Estate in the 19th century.

My colleague, Dr Tejpal Singh Ralmill and I frequently discussed his plans to increase public understanding of the palace's rich Sikh, Punjabi, and Indian Army histories. However, without any tangible references of this history, I felt it would be difficult for me to curate a family-friendly walking tour.

Hence, it was a real opportunity to have the chance to engage with Historic Royal Palaces and share some of this largely hidden history at the palace when we were contacted by the project lead for the Standing with Giants project in 2021.

We first started working with the team at Hampton Court Palace in February 2021 to design the silhouette of a Sikh Soldier. This silhouette was to represent the Indian Army and complement the Standing with Giants display of the well-known "WW1 Tommy silhouette". After design and planning sessions from March to May 2021, the display was given the go-ahead in September 2021.

When I initially visited the palace, I remember expecting to see a single silhouette of the soldier we had helped to create. I explained to the security guard, "We designed a Sikh Soldier silhouette earlier this year, and I am here to see it." He said, "I think you'll find there are many more than one."

When I arrived at the East Front Gardens, to my surprise, 25 Sikh Soldiers had been commissioned by the palace and placed among the 100 World War I Tommies.

Since then, we have trialled Sikh Heritage Tours at Hampton Court, a partnership with Standing with Giants to raise money for the Royal British Legion, supported the design and content of a new Interpretation Board in the palace grounds and we are the community partner to Historic Royal Palaces for this year's Indian Army at the Palace display, which will run from September 2023 to March 2024.

Image: Sikh and "Tommy" soldier silhouettes on the East Front of Hampton Court Palace for Standing with Giants. © Historic Royal Palaces

Sikh and "Tommy" soldier silhouettes on East Front of Hampton Court Palace for Standing with Giants

"The past is always alive… if it is remembered. Knowledge has life, and power, as long as it is saved from human forgetfulness."

A M Dean

Why is it important that we tell these stories?

A line in a book I was reading in 2013 felt like a divine moment, when I was looking to bring my curated Sikh History Tours in London to a wider audience via a presence on social media. A sentence in the book, The Lost Library, authored by A M Dean in 2012, reads: "The past is always alive… if it is remembered. Knowledge has life, and power, as long as it is saved from human forgetfulness."

This has always our mantra for ‘A little History of the Sikhs’. This history can reach back to our Sikh Gurus, our forefathers who established the Sikh Empire through to our elder generations who have migrated across the globe and settled in so many countries since the late 19th century. This all provides a wealth of stories, from which we curate our experiences on our tours.

So many schools in west London visit the palace, and many young visitors have Punjabi heritage or are from the wider Indian Subcontinent – for them to see or learn of these stories centred on their ancestors I hope is a portal to inspire, gain confidence and raise aspirations.

For older and international visitors, I hope visitors appreciate the shared history, the contribution that our elders made and we all make to the country we call home.

I hope that every visitor who views the display and reads the stories in the palace's surroundings will be able to sense the history the palace walls hold, and perhaps feel a little more gratitude and appreciation for those soldiers from India who laid the foundations within British society for the comforts and liberties we have today.

"So many schools in west London visit the palace, and many young visitors have Punjabi heritage or are from the wider Indian Subcontinent – for them to see or learn of these stories centered on their ancestors I hope is a portal to inspire, gain confidence and raise aspirations."

Rav Singh

What do you hope visitors will take away from the display, if they choose (and are able) to visit in person?

The contribution of the Indian Army to the British Army and Britain throughout the 20th century is significant and important. Our display will reveal the presence of the largest contingent of Indians in England for the Coronations of 1902, 1911, 1935 and 1937, and the Peace Parade of 1919. There are so many stories of our community that have their origins with the regimental delegations from the Punjab and wider India.

I hope that visitors will learn about the Sikhs and the Indian Army, which were important to the British Empire and the history of Britain.

In terms of both numbers and responsibilities, the Sikhs and the Indian Army also played a significant part in all significant Royal celebrations throughout the 20th century, such as jubilees, coronations, and parades.

From a personal perspective, I hope visitors also learn about the Sikhs as people, their way of life and the impact they make by supporting their local communities.

"In terms of both numbers and responsibilities, the Sikhs and the Indian Army also played a significant part in all significant Royal celebrations throughout the 20th century, such as Jubilees, Coronations, and Parades."

Rav Singh

Why is it important to make supporting content accessible online?

Although I have worked as a community history practitioner for many years to share my research in London, the UK, and throughout Western Europe, I have always been aware of our capacity and reach, hence the name ‘A little History of the Sikhs’. Working with the different teams across Historic Royal Palaces we will develop a range of supporting resources. Through the established channels that Historic Royal Palaces will use, this content will then be accessible to audiences around the world.

I'm interested to see how the exhibition will be received by audiences other than the local populations I work with, who are predominantly Sikh. I hope that in the future, the resources, exhibition content, and stories will appear in research, stories, and media projects.

What are your hopes for the legacy of the project?

As mentioned above up until 2019, all of the stories of Sikh and Punjab history that the palace holds were hidden from sight, are only really known to a small community of military historians and those who read or researched about Hampton Court Palace. Already, we have seen a legacy take shape, with:

  • The Standing with Giants installations in 2021, 2022, and 2023, which incorporate the Hampton Court Palace story of the Indian Army, symbolised by the silhouettes of the Sikh Soldiers.
  • The construction of the Interpretation Board at Home Park, the location of the troops' tent during their travels to London.
  • The six-month display, which will spark discussions at Hampton Court and online around the globe, with a lasting impact.

Also, at Faraday House, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh of Lahore's grace-and-favour residence on the Hampton Court Estate, the long-awaited English Heritage Blue Plaque was unveiled on 26 May 2023. For us at 'A little History of the Sikhs', we hope to continue our guided tours of Sikh & Punjab History at Hampton Court Palace for many more years!

Image: Sikh and "Tommy" soldier silhouettes on the East Front of Hampton Court Palace for Standing with Giants. © Historic Royal Palaces

Sikh and "Tommy" soldier silhouettes on East Front of Hampton Court Palace for Standing with Giants

EXPLORE WHAT'S ON

  • Exhibition
  • Things to see

The Indian Army at the Palace

Explore the forgotten story of Indian Army soldiers who camped at Hampton Court Palace in the early 20th century, through a new exhibition of previously unseen objects, photographs, film and personal stories.

  • Until 29 September 2024
  • In line with palace opening hours
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
Learn more
  • Things to see

Home Park and The Long Water

Explore 750 acres of wilderness in Home Park - an appointed Site of Special Scientific Interest. Observe ancient trees and rarities from the natural world.

  • Daily 07:00 – 18:30
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Free
Learn more
  • Things to see

Great Hall

Experience the splendour of the Tudor court in Henry VIII's Great Hall, complete with his magnificent tapestries.

  • Open
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
Learn more

BROWSE MORE HISTORY AND STORIES

Sophia Duleep Singh

The Indian Princess who fought for women’s rights

Coronations Past and Present

An ancient ceremony, largely unchanged for a thousand years

Shop online

The story of Hampton Court Palace

Written by Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, this book explores Hampton Court Palace's rich history.

£14.95