Sunday, April 4, 2004

A search for totality
Daljeet, an art scholar, writes on the sacred, secular and aesthetic dimensions of the Sikh heritage.

The Golden Temple and its surroundings (Sikh, Punjab, dated A.D. 1849)

SIKHISM did not approve of idol worship, but held in deity-like reverence things known to have remained associated with their Gurus, or formed part of spiritual sanctity, elevating them to status of timeless, formless entity, though such things were subject to decay, decomposition and change. These things, by virtue of their association with the Gurus or the Panth, moved a Sikh, thus emotionally generating in him a feeling of devotion towards his Gurus and a commitment towards his Panth. It is partly in such things that Punjab has its sectarian unity and a recourse to spiritualism for in such material forms, its deep devotional mind perceives the presence of the formless, timeless supreme and its Gurus, guiding and commanding it to the path of righteousness.

The Tomb of Anarkali
The Tomb of Anarkali
(from Gulgashat-i-Punjab). 

The entire Sikh world, within and beyond the boundaries of Punjab, has as an invaluable legacy of past several things, most religiously and meticulously preserved and protected by generations of Sikhs, from Nanak’s seli, topi, kamandal and gudari to Guru Gobind Singh’s kalam, sword and pair of shoes which the tradition believes and reveres as to have once belonged to their Gurus. The genuineness of a Sikh’s faith and his emotional attachment to these objects renders insignificant the question whether they were genuine or otherwise, for a thing fake could not so long and so massively move a community to such pious feelings of devotion and reverence. In Sikh’s genuine faith lies their genuineness.

Besides such personal belongings of the Gurus, other things, though composed materially alike of elements to decompose and change, which stood for something beyond their material meaning, were as much revered and imparted alike spiritual sanctity and a status beyond time. They were revered as sacred and sometimes as divine for they transported a Sikh to a realm different from his own. The rabbab, by virtue of its association with the Sikh tradition from the very inception of such tradition, has been to a Sikh a sacred instrument. But the Nishan Sahib, conceived initially by Guru Hargobind as a pennant to enthuse his Sikhs and soldiers with a champion’s spirit, far above being a material thing, is a divine entity, an institution of Sikh faith. After the birth of Khalsa Khanda, the symbol of might, was added to crown it, which imparted to the Nishan Sahib such sanctity that its very presence consecrated any place as a holy shrine. Without its holy presence no building, whatever its structure, could attain the status of a shrine.

Guru Nanak with Bhai Bala and Mardana
Guru Nanak with Bhai Bala and Mardana

Military spirit was as much a Sikh legacy as was its spiritualism, one bringing to it strength and splendour, the other its thought and piety. Hence, weapons symbolising might, military spirit and a Sikh’s inner strength were held in great reverence since the days of Guru Arjan. After the birth of the Khalsa two of them, Khanda and Kirpan, one the instrument of preparing by its touch the baptising amrit, the nectar and the other constituting one of the five physical attributes, the emblems of a Sikh’s identity, were consecrated into the holy tradition as Sikh’s sacred objects. Guru Gobind Singh had used the Khanda for stirring the sharbat with which he baptised as Khalsa his first five Sikhs and himself. Since then the Khanda was not a mere weapon but an essential organ of baptisim for the Khalsa. Khanda symbolised an instrument, which transformed by its touch simple water into nectar and a simple folk into the purest one. A simple weapon was thus transformed into a spiritual instrument of sectarian conversion and had become the symbol of guided strength and resolute mind. This Khanda was later made to crown the Nishan Sahib and with a couple of Kirpans, to serve now for three hundred years now as the Panth’s emblem.

Khalsa made a few material objects respectable to a Sikh. A member of the community of the Khalsa was required to be absolutely pure and observe a code of conduct and to adhere to a certain mode of personal living with some physical attributes prescribed apparently for their identity as Sikhs. These attributes had otherwise too a deeper significance and guided a Sikh’s life from his head to toe. The turban added to the head’s physical height, held it high and by its spiral shape led the mind to incline upward to ever-greater heights. The comb, Kanga, weeded out evil and the undesirable. The Kara clutched a hand to right doing and abstaining from wrong, and its touch, transformed food into Gurus’ bounty. The Kirpan, or sword, protected and preserved the right and eradicated wrong. Perched on the waist with an upward handle, it required mind to hold it and with its downward blade it aimed at cleansing and purifying the Earth. Kachchha inspired grace and modesty.

Padukas of Guru Gobind Singh
Padukas of Guru Gobind Singh

The Military Manual of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a Persian manuscript with 136 folios, 53 painted and other 83 plain, is apparently a military guideline laid down for training his soldiers and modernising forces much on the lines of French ‘Manuel de Cavelerie’, though different from it Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Manual has imbued, in its illustrated part at least, a deep spiritualism rare even to religious texts. This manual, before anything else, begins by dedicating its first folio to three Brahmanical gods with consorts riding the mystic syllable Om and devotes another 10 for rendering the 10 Sikh Gurus’ portraits, as if symbolising that the manual essentially leads arms to spiritualism rather than to blood-shed, or that recourse to bloodshed could only occasion when nationhood, sainthood or righteousness were in peril. It is not for its decorative worth that the Brahmanical gods have been rendered against the background of mystic syllable Om . With his deeper faith in Guru Nanak’s vision of the Supreme the artist seems to convey that all formative visions of the divine are born of the formless syllable capable of expanding into any form, dimension and discipline, and, thus, conveyed the supremacy of the bani, and that of simaran, the subtlest means of his realisation.

All the 10 gurus are deified in customary regal bearing, nine rendered seated on golden chawkis with morchhal bearers attending, the nimbus defining their divinity. The tenth Guru Gobind Singh, the prime source of inspiration of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s military spirit, has been painted riding a stallion with regalia around. The colours, bright but simple, have been so used that they appropriately project each one’s personality in a distinctive way. The next folio depicts Maharaja Ranjit Singh who advanced the great legacy of Sikh Gurus throughout his life and in all his deeds. His military manual, more than the transcription of his army management, is his tribute to the divine.

Gulgashat-i-Punjab, a Persian manuscript with 286 folios of which 23 are illustrated, scribed by Pandit Raja Ram Kaul Tota, reflects an effort at creating a new historic era to begin with 1469 when with the birth of Guru Nanak, Punjab underwent a renaissance to 1849, the date of its completion. Gulgashat-i-Punjab comprises of all significant events of the lives of the 10 Sikh gurus, their brief life-sketches and a detailed chronology of the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, highlighting the factors responsible for the rise and fall of the Sikh empire during his life-time and after his death. Different from a mere factual history the manuscript records Punjab’s spiritual journey through this passage of some 400 years.

Rabbab and gunpowder flask

Bata Sahib, the bowl of Guru Gobind Singh

Rabbab and gunpowder flask — Baruddan of Guru Hargobind from a private collection. Bata Sahib, the bowl of Guru Gobind Singh. Collection: S.Balbir Singh, Jora Sahib, Nangal, Faridkot, Punjab.

The illustrated part comprises mainly of the designs and sketches of the monuments of Lahore and Amritsar, the most important of them all being the colour sketch of the Golden Temple with its surrounding buildings, the Akal-Takht, the causeway leading to Harmandir Sahib and the holy sarovara. The Akal Bunga and the Bungas of Raja Dhiyan Singh, Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Maharaja Sher Singh, Jamadar Khushal Singh and Ramgarhias, the tower of Baba Atal, Gobindgarh fort, part of Lahore fort, as also the Mughal buildings constructed inside it by Mughal emperors, the tomb of Anarkali, some mosques and gardens, the Kangra fort and the temple of goddess Jwalamukhi situated near Kangra, some private mansions, are other types of structures sketched in the manuscript. Gulgashat-i-Punjab thus not only records the growth of Sikh architecture and various elements incorporated from other architectural styles but also emphasised its continuity. The manuscript visually documents Punjab’s otherwise lesser known architectural heritage.

Gulgashat-i-Punjab displays a multiplicity of approach to its material. Besides the historical part, it includes folk element by introducing the maqbara of Anarkali, the legendary love of Akbar’s son Salim, who later ruled as emperor Jahangir, entombed alive on her refusing to disown her love for the emperor’s son. Gulgashat-i-Punjab has a strong visual aspect representing several significant buildings and important personalities. It includes a decorative tree for a graphic representation of the geneology of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Sandhandwalia misl.

In many ways it projects the grandeur and the rich life-style of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court and his era. Designs, sketches and depictions of monuments and buildings have been rendered in lighter tones of colours whereas portraits are done in brighter ones and with greater embellishment. In many ways, Gulgashat-i-Punjab reflects Punjab’s own personality distinct and unique cast in the mould of 400 years of Sikh tradition.

Excerpted from: The Sikh Heritage, A Search for Totality by Dr. Daljeet, Prakash Book Depot,
New Delhi