About two decades ago, I wrote one article on the origins of our Sikh Flag (*Nishan Sahib*) in Punjabi, *Dharam Dhuja Fahirant Sada* (“The Flag of Faith is eternally flying”) which appeared in *PANCHBATI SANDESH*, Vol. 2, No. 2 (!979), a quarterly journal of Dr. Balbir Singh Sahitya Kendra, Dehra Dun. (This jouranl is now published under the auspices of Punjabi University, Patiala). I could not find that article from my own “well orgainzed shelves” (?) now. Perhaps that is lying in some boxes of old magzines and books. When I wrote that article I was bubbling with enthusiasm and used to spend a great deal of time on research. What I am going to write here is just the main points from my memory.
The first Sikh Flag was unfurled by Guru Amar Das at the completion of Bauli Sahib at Goindval Sahib on the bank of River Beas. Its color was white. The evidence for this comes from Bhat Kirat’s Savayyie (“Panegyrics in Praise of the Guru”) from the Guru Granth Sahib:
*dhavalu dhuja seti baikunth bina*
“[Whose] white pennent is flapping on the bank of heavenly abode” (AG, p. 1393)
This flag was meant to invite people to visit the Guru’s place, share the common meal in the community kitchen (*Langar*) and have audience with the Guru. Even Emperor Akabr was attracted to visit the Guru and share the meal with commoners.
The tradition of raising the flag continued at Ramdaspur (Amritsar) through the periods of Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan. Bhat Mathura bears witness in the following verse:
*phuni dharam dhuja fahirant sada
agh punj tarang nivaran kau//
mathura jan jani kahi jia sachu
su aur kichhu na bicharan kau//*
“[Master’s] flag of righteousness ever waves
to destroy the waves of swarms of sins.
Mathura has stated this truth after knowing the facts,
there is nothing else for deliberation.”
(AG, p. 404)
We must remember that by the time of Guru Arjan the town of Ramdaspur was thickly populated. There is lot of evidence in this regard in the Sikh scripture. By this time the socio-religious community of Guru Nanak’s followers had become a “state within a state.” In his compositions Guru Arjan claims to have established the rule of justice and humility (*halemi raj*):
“There is no other place like the beautiful and thickly populated Ramdaspur.
The ideal rule of Rama (*ramraj*) prevails in Ramdaspur due to the grace of the Guru.
No *jizya* (tax on non-Muslims) is levied, nor any fine, there is no collector of taxes.”
(AG, pp. 430 and 817)
Evidently the administration of the town was in the hands of Guru Arjan. In a certain sense, Ramdaspur was an autonomous town in the context and framework of the Mughal rule of Emperor Akbar. The Sikh flag was still white, perhaps with the symbol of “Ikk Onkar” on it. It was also the envy of Mughal authorities. To a large extent, the liberal policy of Emperor Akbar’s reign provided the overall context for the peaceful evolution of the Sikh Panth, but within eight months of Akbar’s death in October 1605, Guru Arjan was executed by the orders of the new emperor, Jahangir, on May 30, 1606. For the Sikh communtiy, Guru Arjan’s death was the first martyrdom.
Guru Hargobind bore two swords of “temporal and spritual authority”(*Miri and Piri*) and fought four battles against the Mughal authorites. During the warfare the fighting troops need their flag, but the color of the Sikh flag had now become “saffron”, the symbol of sacrifice. Perhaps the two swords were also displayed on these flags, along with the symbol of “Ikk Oankar”. The Sikh doctrine had certainly evolved by this time.
Guru Hargobind hoisted a flag at the completion of the Akal Takhat. The flag was called *Akal Dhuja* (“the Timeless Flag”) or *Satguru Ka Nishan* (“Standard of the Guru”). It became part of the Miri-Piri doctrine of the Guru. After four skirmishes with the Mughal authorities, Guru Hargobind established a new Sikh center at Kiratpur Sahib. The Sikh army was maintained by him and his successors.
During the period of Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh armies on the march had the Sikh standard carried in front by standard-bearers (*Nishanchis*). The weapons, the double-edged-sword, the standards, the *Nagaras* (“Victory Drums”) and martial literature were all part and parcel of Sikh life at Anandpur Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh used to sign at the head of the letters of his command (*Hukam-names*) by inscribing either one sword or two swords, along with the symbol of “Ikk Oankar” and his blessing (See *HUKAMNAME*, published by Dr Ganda Singh. The Khalsa insignia had not yet come into being. All the Sikhs were required to wear “five weapons” (*panj hathiar*) as part of the Khalsa dress.
Guru Gobind Singh had declared *Deg Tegh Fateh* (“Victory of the Cooking Vessel and the Sword”, signifying the ideals of “magnanimity and justice”) as the ideal of the Khalsa (*degh tegh jagg mahi dou chalai*). This ideal became part of Banda Singh Bahadur’s seal and coin (*dego tegho fateh nusrat bedrang//jafat az Nanak fateh Guru Gobind Singh*). During the eighteenth-century *Deg Tegh Fateh* was the popular slogan of the marching bands of the Khalsa. The symbols of a “Sword or Sabre”, “a cooking vessel” and a “*katar*-dagger were inscribed on the Khalsa Flags (*Nishan Sahibs*). The *Chaupa Singh Rahit-nama* (1740-65) specifically mentions: *JAS DEGH DA RAJ TEGH DA* (“Munificence earns praise in the world, the right to rule is won by the Sword”). *Deg Tegh Fateh* became part of Sikh congregational prayer (*Ardas*). The Flag on the top of Harmandir Sahib was first installed by Sardar Jhanda Singh of Bhangi Missal in 1771.
Let me now come to three most important colours of the Khalsa dress and the Nishan Sahibs. Here we can rely on the observations of early Europeans who came in contact with the Khalsa bands.
The observations made by the early Europeans on the contemporary Sikh institutions, manners, dress and customs offer valuable information on the nature of Sikh society late in the eighteenth century. For the most part they seem to have recorded what they actually saw in their personal encounters with the troops of the Khalsa army. Thus from the historical point of view their accounts constitute an independent witness to the Khalsa tradition in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. However, one must use them cautiously because their authors “brought to bear on the subject of their writing the prejudices of a diverse culture.” For instance, when Major James Browne writes about the dark blue dress of the Sikh soldiers that “gives them when collected in large bodies together, a very dismal appearance”, he is imposing his own cultural values on entirely a different people having different cultural meaning of the colour of their dress. Ganda Singh’s apologetic comment on Browne’s observation runs as follows:
Guru Gobind Singh never ordered his Sikhs to put on the dress of any particular colour. The zealous Nihangs however patronized the dark blue colour used by the Guru during his escape from Machhiwara.
(*Early European Accounts*, p. 17)
Here Ganda Singh is trying to explain away the significance of the dark blue colour by associating it with the zealous Nihangs who may be following the tradition of Guru Gobind Singh. His primary concern is to make the point that blue colour is not really the part of Sikh orthodoxy. For the Khalsa Sikhs, however, the significance of deep blue colour lies in the “highest ideals of character” (*nili siahi kada karani*, AG, p. 16) and the “deepest urges in the life of spirituality,” as the blue sky reflects the highest horizon and the blue ocean stands for the depth.
George Forster encountered two bands of Sikh troops on his journey, and he makes the following observation:
In this matter I speak from a personal knowledge, having in the course of my journey seen two of their parties, each of which amounted to about two hundred horsemen. They were clothed in white vests, and their arms were preserved in good order: the accoutrement, consisting of primary horns and ammunition pouches, were chiefly covered with European scarlet cloth, and ornamented with gold lace.
(*A Journey From Bengal To England*, Vol. I, 1798, p. 288)
In the footnote, Forster elaborates on the meaning of “white vests” as “a long calico gown, having close body and sleeves, with a white skirt.” Here one encounters Khalsa soldiers wearing white dress with their usual weaponry. In Sikh understanding, the colour white stands for “purity” in life. White dress has always been a part of the Sikh tradition.
There is still another observer John Griffiths, who wrote about “Dominions of the Seeks” in his letter of 17th February, 1794 to Mr. Alexander Adamson. He comments on the dress of the Sikhs as follows:
They sometimes wear yellow, but the prevailing Colour of their Cloaths is deep blue; They make their Turbans capaciously large, over which they frequently wear a piece of pliable Iron Chain or Net work.
(*Early European Accounts*, p. 92)
Here the author mentions yellow, along with the prominent deep blue, as the popular colours of the Khalsa dress. It is the colour of sacrifice in Sikh mores. To tie a large conspicuous turban with a piece of iron chain or network is still a popular tradition among the Nihang Singhs of Punjab. It may have served the purpose of saving the head from the blow of a weapon during the warfare. It is not surprising to see Nihang Singhs carrying the small insignias of five weapons underneath their turbans even today.
The point to be noted here is that each European observer is speaking about a particular group of Khalsa soldiers whom he encountered. It is quite possible that his observation may reflect a partial view, based on an imperfect perception. One must be careful not to accept the observation of one author as a general statement on the Khalsa tradition late in the eighteenth century. The colour of the military uniform is a matter of necessity for the sake of identification during warfare. Different bands of the Khalsa soldiers may have adopted different colours for better organization. However, it may be noted that the three colours – deep blue, white and yellow – mentioned by the Europeans have always been traditionally associated with the Khalsa dress. Thus we have a first-hand independent witness to the “weapons and garments” (*shastar bastar*) traditonally worn by the Khalsa Sikhs in the eighteenth century.
Today, we regard Nihang Singhs as a marginal group within the larger Sikh Panth. In the eighteenth-century, they were the most dominant group and represented the Khalsa orthodoxy. One must not underestimate their nature and contribution to the Sikh Panth. They have preserved the original Khalsa tradition up till now. The Nishan Sahibs of Nihang Gurdwaras are of blue colour even today.
During the Sikh Kingdom, Sardar Desa Singh Majithia whom Maharja Ranjit Singh had entrusted with the management of Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, replaced the two wooden flagposts with steel ones in 1820 in front of Akal Takhat, covered with gilded copper sheets. These two flagstaffs were damaged in a storm in 1841 and replaced with new ones.
Now let us look at the evidence from European paintings of Sikh Darbar. The Nihang dress may be seen in William Carpenter’s painting made in 1854 (Victoria and Albert Museum). This is reproduced in Sardar Patwant Singh’s book *THE GOLDEN TEMPLE* (1988) on page 32. The Khalsa insignia still has not come onto being. The Khanda and swords, along with other weaponary are part of the Nihang turban. These styles of turbans may be seen even today among the Nihang Singhs.
The most significant woodcut of the Harimandir Sahib (1870) is available in Lockwood Kipling Collection at Victoria and Albert Museum. This is also reporoduced by Sardar Patwant Singh in the same book on page 79. One must look carefully the insignia of Nishan Sahibs at the Golden Temple and the Akal Takhat. The insignia in both cases carries the following symbols: a cooking vessel, a *kattar*-dagger and a sabre. This was the tradition since the eighteenth century.
The uniformity and coherence in the Sikh tradition came as a result of the Singh Sabha movement. They presented the Sikh tradition as a well-defined system. The modern insignia of the Khalsa which comprises a vertical double-edged-sword over a quoit (*chakkar*) with two crossed sabres (*kirpans*) below the quoit, came into being in the beginning of the twentieth century. One can look at the gates of Patiala House in New Delhi, near India Gate, where the modern Khalsa insignia is engraved at each door in the most balanced proportions. If one looks at them carefully, the lenth of the double-edged-sword, the *Chakkar* and the two *Kirpans* is equal. I have a photograph of this Khalsa insignia with me which I took when I was teaching at Guru Harkrishan Public School, New Delhi in the seventies. The Patiala House was built in the early twentieth-century when most of the New Delhi buildings were being built. The Khalsa insignia had already come into being.
It was the first decades of the twentieth-century when even the standard pagination of the Guru Granth Sahib (1430 pages) came into being as a result of printing uniformity. It was this time when the modern Khalsa insignia was created.
Before conclusion, let me make a brief comment on the “two Nishan Sahibs” in front of the Akal Takhat. They represent a unique phenomena in the history of world religions. If one carefully looks at them, the Nishan Sahib on the side of the Golden Temple is slightly higher than the Nishan Sahib of the Akal Takhat side. Why is it so? Because the Nishan Sahib of “spiritual sovereignity” (*Piri*) is higher than the Nishan Sahib of “temporal sovereignity” (*Miri*). If one carefully looks at the two swords of Guru Hargobind, preserved at the Akal Takhat, the sword of Piri is 40 inches long, while the sword of Miri is 38 inches long. Why? Because Gur Hargobind had intended that “spiritual aspect” must always be stronger than the “secular or politcial” aspect. If that is maintained then a person would never become arrogant or corrupt with the achievement of any political power. Tradition records that Guru Hargobind never used his “Sword of Piri” in the battlefield when his “Sword of Miri” was broken during the fight. Why? He proclaimed: “The Sword of Piri should never be used as a weapon in the political fights.”
What happens when religion is used as a weapon in the political field? The answer to this question comes from contemporary history. When religion becomes a weapn in the hands of fundamentalists, then innocent lives are destroyed, be it Giani Partap Singh, the Jathedar of the Akal Takhat; be it the most articulate Sikh woman, Bibi Rajinder Kaur, the daughter of “the Jewel of the Panth”, Master Tara Singh; or be it a Sikh musician (*Ragi*) Bhai Bakhshish Singh. If religion becomes the weapon in the hands of an Indian state then political will is lost and “Operation Blue Star” and other 1984-events become a reality. When religion becomes a weapon in the hands of RSS, the survival of minorities is at stake. When religion becomes the agenda of the most powerful governement in the world, then right-wing politics enters into American life.
Then, what is the meaning of the doctrine of Miri and Piri? Isn’t religion and politics combined in Sikh thought? To find answers to these questions, look carefully at the two Nishan Sahibs in front of the Akal Takhat. They stand together in parallel lines, reaching out to the highest ideals of Sikh thought in the sky. They are distinct, but not combined together. But they are inter-connected with the “Khalsa Insignia” (*chakkarakar*), with the symbols of “Ikk Oankar”, the “two-edged sword”, “the quoit” and the “two swords” that provide balance to the Sikh philosophy. The spiritual and secular aspects of life must go hand in hand (like parallel Nishan Sahib) and sustain each other. No one aspect (either Miri or Piri) should try to dominate the other to create imbalance in life. The spiritual aspect should always be higher than the worldly achievement. If the Sikhs truly understand this doctrine, no worldly power on this earth can defeat them. They will always stand tall (like Nishan Sahibs) in the face of adversities.
After the two hours of early morning, let me stop here. The Memorial Day Weekend inspires us to be prepared for sacrifice. I have to go now.
I would humbly request the forum members to add to this missive their own thoughts. Please forgive me for any mistakes or misunderstanding of Sikh doctrine. I will welcome constructive feedback.
This is a common sikh Dastaar among young boys. It is normally used as more of a casual Pugree, or sometimes for sports. Commonly, this is a peela (shade of yellow) coloured turban. Contrary to popular belief Patkas are actually types of Dastaars. Wikipaedia – dastar
SAD must drop Akali from its name: Vedanti
Tribune News Service
Amritsar, May 4
In an interview published in the recent issue of the magazine ‘Sant Sipahi’, Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, Akal Takht Jathedar, has said the SAD has been formed under the patronage of Akal Takht and should address aspirations of the Sikh Panth.
If the SAD cannot maintain its Panthic image or identity, it must drop the word Akali, he said.
He said the saffron colour referred to ‘sanyas’ while xanthia was symbol of ‘chardi kala’ and considered auspicious for Sikhs. When contacted, Jathedar Vedanti said he stood by the interview given to the magazine. He also said the colour of the ‘Miri-Piri’ emblem and other Sikh flags had to be changed from saffron to xanthia.