GRANTHĪ, from the Sanskrit granthika (a relater or narrator), is a person who reads the granth, Sanskrit grantha (composition, treatise, book, text). The terms are derived from the Sanskrit grath which means "to fasten, tie or string together, to compose (a literary work)." In Sikh usage, granth refers especially to the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the Scripture, and the term granthī is used for the officiant whose main duty it is to read the Holy Book in public.
The granthī is the principal religious official of Sikhism, but should not be thought of as a "priest" in the usual sense. Priestly offices of other major South Asian and Western religious systems typically rest on conceptions of a fundamental separation between their officers and those to whom they minister. Hereditary Brāhmaṇ priests are distinct in virtue of having inherited unique religious properties such as specific texts and temples, or at least a religious rank or status that sets them inherently apart from those they serve. Priests, ministers, and rabbis in the Judeo-Christian tradition are often thought of as receiving a "calling" or "election" that others have not heard, and are ritually "ordained" into a special ministerial group within the community that sets them apart from "lay" members and entitles them to special esoteric knowledge not generally accessible. But the office of Granthī is defined by common practice and the role of Granthī in any ritual can in principle be taken by any Sikh. There is no ordination of a Granthī apart from initiation as a Sikh, and the relationship between a Granthī and any other Sikh is one of perfect equality of status and religious importance.
The Granthī is the custodian of the Holy Book in the gurdwārā, the Sikh place of worship. He ceremonially opens it in the morning and closes it in the evening. In addition, he performs morning and evening services, which include the recitation of specific bāṇīs or compositions from Scripture, and leads the ardās or supplicatory prayer. He may also perform or lead kīrtan, i.e. devotional singing of the hymns. He conducts the rites of passage, and performs pāṭh or complete reading of the Scripture on behalf of the saṅgat (local Sikh community) or individuals and families, in the gurdwārā or at private homes. In small villages or urban localities, he is responsible for maintaining and managing the gurdwārā with public donations and offerings. Larger gurdwārās have their local managing committees with Granthīs employed on regular salary. Since Sikhs do not have a hereditary priestly caste or class nor an hierarchical body of ordained priests and clergymen, any person competent to perform the duties and acceptable to local community can be appointed a Granthī. He should of course be a baptized Sikh of blameless character, leading a simple life of a householder according to the ideals and traditional code of Sikh conduct. Ideally, a Granthī is fundamentally an ideal for a Sikh in general stressing piety and humility. The Sikh Granthīs generally wear turbans of white, black, blue or yellow colour, long shirts or cloaks and chūṛīdār trousers, in the manner of breeches with folds at the ankles. They carry a white sash or scarf hung loosely around the neck. Their duties and obligations are set out by example rather than by rule or dogma.
Historically, the first Granthī of the Sikh faith was the venerable Bhāī Buḍḍhā (1506-1631), who was so designated by Gurū Arjan to attend upon the Ādi Granth (Holy Granth) as it was installed for the first time in Harimandar at Amritsar. This was the origin of the office. Since copies of the Ādi Granth began to be made immediately after the completion of the first recension and as the number of saṅgats increased, more Granthīs were needed for service. The office of Granthī became particularly significant after the Ādi Granth was proclaimed Gurū by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh (1666-1708) just before his death. The most eminent Granthī after Bhāī Buḍḍhā at Harimandar, the Golden Temple of modern days, was Bhāī Manī Siṅgh, appointed to the exalted station by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's widow, Mātā Sundarī, in 1721. He met with a martyr's death in 1737. During the subsequent period of persecution and turbulence, while the Sikhs were fighting a guerilla battle for survival, hiding in hills, forests and deserts, Sikh shrines were looked after by priests of the Nirmalā and Udāsī sects who being recluse sādhūs were spared by the persecuting Mughal and Afghān rulers. Most of these early custodians or granthīs were dedicated men and some of them were eminent scholars, too. But later, as large jāgīrs or land grants were made to these shrines by Sikh rulers, corruption crept in and the gurdwārās had to be freed from the hold of mahants (as the custodians called themselves) by launching a prolonged agitation. Ever since, the granthīs are by and large amritdhārī (baptized) Sikhs. They are addressed respectfully as bābājī, giānījī or bhāījī. There exist several institutions for the training of Granthīs, the best known among them being the Shāhīd Sikh Missionary College at Amritsar run by the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee, a democratically elected body legally entrusted with the management of the shrines and the conduct in general of religious affairs of the Sikhs.
Murray J. Leaf