With thanks toUK Punjab Heritage Assoc.UK Punjab Heritage Assoc.

The Sikh kingdom

Sikhism has a turbulent history. Believers have sometimes needed to fight for the sanctity of their faith and traditions. This faith burst forth from the radical spiritual and social teachings of Guru Nanak.

A new religion demanding equality for all, Sikhism made possible a life without the constraints of the Indian caste system. It also offered the chance for anyone to communicate directly with the Infinite One, the Sikh idea of the divine.


Birth of a Guru

Dorling Kindersley

illustration of Ek Onkar, meaning God is One, the first 2 words in the Guru Granth Sahib

The symbol above is the Ek Onkar. It means 'God is One' and is at the cornerstone of Sikhism.

Sikhism was founded in 1469 in Punjab, the land of five rivers in northern India, with the birth of Guru Nanak. A Guru is a teacher-leader.

Sikh tradition says that he was a deeply philosophical boy brought up by Hindu parents. As a child, he studied the teachings of both Islam and the many Hindu faith traditions, and impressed his teachers with his thinking.

Why choose a life as a young religious leader?


A radical spiritual streak

Print Collector/ Getty Images

Brahmin is the highest caste in Indian caste system within Hindu society

Brahmin is the highest caste in Indian caste system within Hindu society. Nanak was born into the Kshatriya, traditionally the ruling military class.

At the age of 11, Nanak refused to wear the ‘sacred thread’ – a mark that Hindu boys belonging to the upper castes wear from that age.

He said that people should be distinguished by what they did, rather than by what they wore. Nanak continued to demonstrate a radical spiritual streak. He argued with local holy men and sages, both Hindu and Muslim, that things like pilgrimages and rituals were of far less spiritual importance than internal changes to the soul.

Is Sikhism a feminist religion?

Not the sun, the moon, the planets, the seven continents, the oceans, food, or the wind – nothing is permanent. You alone, Lord, you alone.

Guru Granth Sahib


Nanak's travels

India Pictures/ UIG

Portrait of Guru Nanak, Khushwant Singh's residence, Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, India.

A portrait of Guru Nanak, sometimes known as Sri Guru Nanak Dev and Baba Nanak.

In 1500, although married with a family, Nanak set out on the first of four journeys to spread his unifying message of peace and compassion.

The most famous teachings attributed to Guru Nanak are that everything in existence is all part of the One, and that everyone can have direct access to this Supreme Being, with no need of rituals or priests. He radically denounced the caste system and taught that everyone is equal, regardless of status or gender. Over the next centuries, nine Gurus developed the Sikh faith following Guru Nanak. Succession passed to the most deserving, family succession was common from the fourth Guru onwards.


The first Sikh martyr

Angad Singh Sodhi

Worshipers in front of the Golden Temple at Amritsar

Worshippers in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Sikhism was well established in Punjab by the time of Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru.

He completed the construction of the Harimandir Sahib (later known as the Golden Temple) in the city of Amritsar, the capital of the Sikh world, and compiled the first authorised book of Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth. The Mughal Empire (a dynasty ruling over a large swath of modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan for over 300 years) began to see Sikhism as a threat to the dominance of Islam in India. Emperor Jahangir had Guru Arjan tortured to death for his faith in 1606.


Fighting to keep the faith

Dea Picture Library

Emperor Akbar in conversation with Jesuit missionaries

Before Emperor Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire was broadly secular. The above painting shows Emperor Akbar in conversation with Jesuit missionaries.

The Sikhs were a minority in Punjab, at the mercy of political rulers. Guru Arjan's son, Hargobind, became the sixth Guru on his father's death.

He believed his community needed to be militarised so they could resist opposition. The small Sikh army fought against the Mughal forces with remarkable success. The Sikhs then entered a period of relative peace but that ended during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled over much of India. Aurangzeb was a pious Muslim. His predecessors promoted a broadly secular state, but under his rule many of his subjects were forced to convert. Aurangzeb had the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, killed in 1675.


The Khalsa

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Peter Owen Jones visits the revered Guru Granth Sahib. The Sikhs now treat their scriptures as their eternal Guru.

Guru Tegh Bahadur's son, Gobind Singh, became the 10th and last human Guru.

He organised the Sikhs as a spiritual-military collective called the Khalsa to make sure they would always be ready to defend their faith. This started what would become a long line of highly coveted warriors. Not all Sikhs are members of the Khalsa, but those initiated must adopt the physical attributes known as the five Ks, as their Punjabi names all begin with the letter K. These are to be maintained at all times, such as uncut hair (kesh).


After the Gurus

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Anita Rani gives a brief history of the turban.

The first military leader of the Sikhs to follow the Gurus was Banda Singh Bahadur.

He led a successful campaign against the Mughals for several years, establishing Sikh rule in Punjab until he was captured and executed in Delhi in 1716. In the middle of the century the Sikhs rose up again, and over the next 50 years took more and more territory, fighting against the subcontinent's latest invaders, the Afghans.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Mughal Empire


Punjab: An independent state

Universal Images Group

Ranjit Singh illustration from the book 'Gallery of Historical Portraits', pub. 1880.

An illustration of Ranjit Singh from the book Gallery of Historical Portraits, published in 1880.

In 1799, a one-eyed Sikh warrior called Ranjit Singh captured Lahore, the capital of Punjab.

In 1801, he established Punjab as an independent state with him as its maharaja (great king). He was an impressive ruler of a state in which Sikhs were still a minority. In the spirit of Guru Nanak's teachings, Ranjit Singh looked upon all his subjects with equality, taking part in the celebrations and festivals of both the Muslim and Hindu communities under his rule.


Battles for leadership

DEA Picture Library

English cavalry attacking the Sikh at the Battle of Aliwal, 1846. Colonial Wars

British cavalry attacking the Sikh forces at the Battle of Aliwal, 1846.

After Ranjit Singh died in 1839 the Sikh state crumbled, damaged by vicious internal battles for the leadership.

In 1845-6 the East India Company's army fought battles against the Sikh forces (from Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Christian backgrounds). The British came within hours of surrender, but were saved by the treachery of Sikh generals and courtiers. The Sikh kingdom was not annexed but much of its territory was taken. Some Sikhs rebelled in 1849, and were defeated by the British. The Sikh Army was disbanded, the Punjab State annexed to Britain's Indian territories and its 10-year-old sovereign exiled.


The Sikhs and the British Raj

Samuel Bourne/ Alinari

The Baba Atal, a nine-storied tower, part of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India 1863.

The Baba Atal, a nine-storied tower, part of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, around 1863.

Following annexation, the British were keen to build a good relationship with the Sikhs, who had nearly defeated them.

The tradition began of Sikhs serving with distinction in the British Army. The British required that Sikhs joining their regiments be initiated into the Khalsa order and to maintain the five Ks. This religious spin was welcome by their new subjects. They also took control of the most famous Sikh religious establishment, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, by putting their own Sikh manager in control.

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World War One

Paul Popper/Popperfoto

Indian soldiers wearing traditional turbans relax around a makeshift dinner table

Sikh soldiers relax around a makeshift dinner table during World War One.

Thousands of Sikh troops fought and died alongside their European and colonial counterparts in the Great War of 1914-1918.

By the end of hostilities, 125,000 Sikh combatants had seen active service in Europe and beyond in many of the war’s forgotten fronts. These included Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), Aden, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, Arabia, Italy, Salonica, Russia, East and West Africa, on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, and as far east as China. Good relations came to a brief end between the Sikhs and British in 1919 with the Amritsar massacre.

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Amritsar massacre

Hindustan Times

A boy looks at a bullet-ridden wall at the site of the Amritsar massacre.

A boy looks at a bullet-ridden wall at the site of the 1919 massacre.

This was a shameful event in the history of British India. In 1919 Brigadier General Dyer's troops opened fire on 10,000 people in Amritsar.

This included women, children and the elderly who were holding a demonstration after two of their leaders had been arrested. Dyer's troops killed and injured well over 1,000 people. Dyer felt he had been obliged to teach a moral lesson to the people of Punjab. Realising the damage that had been done, the British rapidly retired Dyer, but not without promoting him first. In 1997 Queen Elizabeth II laid a wreath at the site of the massacre as a symbolic gesture.


World War Two

Eliot Elisofon

Sikh members of the 4th Indian Division of the British 8th Army

Sikh members of the 4th Indian Division of the British 8th Army manning a captured Italian 20mm antiaircraft gun.

Despite the massacre, nearly 300,000 Sikhs fought for the Allies in World War Two as part of the 2.5 million troops furnished by India.

This was the largest volunteer army ever assembled.


Partition of India

Universal History Archive

A distraught boy sat near a refugee camp in Delhi during the Partition of India.

A distraught boy sat on the walls of a refugee camp in Delhi, 1947.

When Britain withdrew from the subcontinent in 1947, Punjab was divided between Independent India and the Islamic Republic of West Pakistan.

The Sikhs' demand for a homeland was not fulfilled and their leaders reluctantly chose to join India. Lahore went to Pakistan, Amritsar to India. This was the greatest mass exodus in human history, with an estimated 15 million Hindu, Muslim and Sikh refugees pouring across the border. Approximately a million lives were lost in communal massacres. Sikh war veterans lost much of the land they had been awarded for gallantry during the Great War.


A state of their own?


Riots between Hindus and Sikhs over the future of Punjab State

Riots erupt between Hindus and Sikhs over the future of Punjab State in Chandni Chowk shopping centre in Old Delhi.

The Sikh ambition for a state of their own was something that the Indian government would not concede.

To do so would have allowed communalism (religious groupings) an unbreakable foothold in the politics of what was supposed to be a secular state. In 1966, after years of Sikh demands, India divided the region of Punjab into three, leaving the Sikhs as a majority in a much reduced Punjab state. This was not enough to stop Sikh anger at what they saw as continuing oppression. They continued to demand various concessions from the Indian government.

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June 1984

Operation Blue Star

Leon Neal

A Sikh woman cries during a demonstration in central London on June 8, 2014

A Sikh woman cries during a demonstration in London in June 2014 to mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star.

As Sikh discontent grew, the conflict gradually changed from a political conflict into a confrontation between Hindus and Sikhs.

A Sikh preacher called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale became the leader of the most disaffected of the Sikhs. In 1983 Bhindranwale and his closest followers took refuge in the Golden Temple Complex at Amritsar, the most revered place in the Sikh world. In June 1984 Indian troops launched Operation Blue Star. They attacked the Golden Temple complex, killing many of those inside, including innocent pilgrims and seriously damaging the buildings.

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October 1984

Indira Gandhi


Indian bystanders look on as a building belonging to Sikh merchants burns in Delhi.

Indian bystanders look on as a building belonging to Sikh merchants burns in the Daryaganj District of New Delhi.

This invasion of the holiest place of the Sikhs infuriated many Sikhs, even the non-militant.

They saw the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the invasion, as a deliberate persecutor of the Sikh faith and community. In October 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Four days of anti-Sikh attacks followed in India. The government said more than 2,700 people, mostly Sikhs, were killed in Delhi alone, while newspapers and human-rights groups put the death toll between 10,000 and 17,000.

Bobby Friction describes being caught in the attacks


Striving for justice

Leon Neal/ Getty Images

Members of the Sikh community hold aloft black flags

Members of the Sikh community hold aloft black flags to mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star.

Sikhs are still fighting for justice for those killed during the events of 1984.

On the 30th anniversary of the attack on the Golden Temple, thousands of Sikhs took part in a demonstration in London.

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