PURĀTAN JANAM SĀKHĪ is considered to be the oldest extant Janam Sākhī. The term ‘Purātan,' is used to designate an early Janam Sākhī tradition, rediscovered in 1872 after more Than a century of oblivion. By the mid-eighteenth century the Bālā Janam Sākhī tradition had won general acceptance as the authentic record of the life of Gurū Nānak largely displacing other important collections. In the popular estimation it still retains this reputation, but, as the nineteenth century wore on, educated opinion became increasingly dissatisfied with its apparent exaggerations. The discovery of a different and apparently more rational tradition was accordingly greeted with considerable interest and delight. The newly discovered tradition was called by Max Arthur Macauliffe "the most ancient biography of Bābā Nānak" and has ever since provided the Bālā tradition with its strongest competitor. Although the Bālā narrative retains a greater popular appeal, the Purātan version has won an overwhelming victory amongst educated readers. Since its rediscovery, no sophisticated biographer of Gurū Nānak has overlooked its claims and most have accepted it as a sufficient basis for reconstructing the story of his life.

         Two important Purātan manuscripts came to light within the space of twelve years. The first of these had been acquired with other works from the H.T. Colebrooke collection which had been presented to the library of East India House, probably in 1815 or 1816. It lay unrecognized in London until 1872 when it was loaned, as one of several manuscripts in Gurmukhī, to Ernest Trumpp, the German missionary commissioned by the Punjab Government to prepare an English translation of the Sikh scriptures. Although Janam Sākhīs were not a part of Trumpp's commission, he gave his new discovery considerable prominence in the preface to his The Ādi Granth.

         Trumpp's description of the manuscipt provoked much interest in the Punjab and, in 1883, a group of Sikhs from Amritsar petitioned the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Charles Aitchison, to have it brought to India for inspection. Aitchison agreed and, having perceived the measure of interest aroused by the manuscript, he arranged to have it photographically reproduced. A limited edition, known as the photozincograph facsimile, was issued in 1885. Meanwhile, the Lahore Siṅgh Sabhā had in 1884 produced a lithographed version of the text.

         To distinguish it from other janam sākhīs of the Purātan tradition, this manuscript is now known either as the Colebrooke Janam Sākhī or as the Valāitvālī Janam Sākhī. It bears no date. A cryptic reference in one of the sākhīs may be interpreted as a reference to 1635, but the evidence it offers is altogether too tenuous to support even a tentative conclusion. Various periods have been suggested by various scholars. Some of them suggested that it was written in the first half of the eighteenth century. A recent publication gives 1588 as the year of its completion. Its language and grammatical constructions show that this Janam Sākhī must have been written around the time of the compilation of the Ādi Granth Sāhib. Now that we have a manuscript of Bālā Janam Sākhī bearing the date 1658, it could safely be accepted that Purātan Janam Sākhī is a writing of the sixteenth century, because its language is much older than that of Bālā.

         While the examining of the Colebrooke manuscript was in progress, a second Purātan manuscript was discovered in the town of Hāfizābād by Gurmukh Siṅgh of Oriental College, Lahore. Gurmukh Siṅgh loaned his find to Macauliffe who, having divided its unbroken lines into separate words, published the text privately in 1885. The version is variously known as the Hāfizābād Janam Sākhī or as the Macauliffevālī Janam Sākhī.

         These two manuscripts, the Colebrooke and the Hāfizābād, remain amongst the most important of the Purātan tradition. The only other extant manuscript which warrants inclusion in this select group is the one preserved at the Languages Department, Paṭiālā (No 194). Although each differs significantly from the others, the areas of agreement are much more extensive than the variants and all three clearly belong to a common tradition. Behind all the Janam Sākhīs of the Purātan tradition, there can be detected an early cluster of sākhīs from which all are variously descended. This cluster underwent separate development (presumably in different geographical areas), producing two distinct versions of the tradition. LDP (Languages Department, Punjab) 194 represents an intermediate stage in one line of development; and the Colebrooke manuscript stands at the climax of the other. The Hāfizābād manuscript, latest of the three in terms of development, draws the two lines together in a generally consistent reunion.

         The primitive cluster from which all Purātan Janam Sākhīs are descended was probably the earliest of all coherent collections of individual sākhīs. No evidence exists to suggest that this comparatively small selection was ever recorded. Apparently, it assumed a rudimentary chronology while still circulating orally. Emphasis at this stage was laid on stories of Gurū Nānak's childhood and early manhood, with comparatively little attention devoted to the period of his travels.

         During the period of separate development, however, the tradition expanded vigorously, particularly within the subsidiary tradition which eventually produced the Colebrooke Janam Sākhī. Most of the additional anecdotes incorporated during this stage concerned the travels of Gurū Nānak and it was evidently the Colebrooke subsidiary which ordered these into the distinctive Purātan itinerary. This involves four separate journeys to the east, south, north, and west, respectively.

         The other subsidiary tradition seems to have been much less prolific. It does, however, possess a particular importance in that traditions which borrow extensively from early Purātan sources all seem to have utilized this second subsidiary. Obvious links in the Ādi Sākhīān, the B40 Janam Sākhī, and the Miharbān tradition must evidently be explained in these terms. The reunion of the two subsidiaries took place when the Hāfizābād compiler, using a manuscript of the Colebrooke subsidiary as his principal source, added to it anecdotes and discourses drawn from the other subsidiary tradition.

         Purātan manuscripts are much rarer than those of the Bālā tradition, a feature easily explained by the length by period of Purātan eclipse. Shamsher Siṅgh Ashok in his Punjabi Hatth Likhatāṅ dī Sūchī, Parts I and II, lists only three in the Punjab (one of them incomplete). Although at least three others are known to exist within the state and others may yet be found, it seems most unlikely that the total will ever exceed ten including the famous Colebrooke manuscript in London. The Hāfizābād manuscript is no longer extant. It was apparently destroyed during an ownership dispute which developed in 1923.

         The published versions have already been noted. These are the lithographed and photocopy editions of the Colebrooke manuscript (1884-1885) and Macauliffe's lithograph edition of the Hāfizābād manuscript (1885). Perhaps the most influential of all has been a conflation of the two manuscripts prepared by Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh and published under the title Purātan Janam Sākhī (Amritsar, 1926). In the second edition (1931), Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh added material drawn from a manuscript held by Khālsā College, Amritsar. The text of an expanded Purātan manuscript in the possession of Sevā Siṅgh Sevak has been published by its owner under the title Prāchīn Janam Sākhī (Jalandhar, 1969). A work compiled by Shamsher Siṅgh Ashok, Purātan Janam Sākhī Srī Gurū Nānak Dev Jī Kī (Amritsar, 1969), uses a Purātan manuscript as its foundation, but interpolates much material drawn from two non-Purātan manuscripts.

         The language of this Janam Sākhī invites special attention. It is Lahndī or Western Punjabi. Its grammatical pattern is akin to the language of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Many of the case inflexions which are frequently used in Gurū Granth Sāhib, but have disappeared in the modern language, are present in the language of this Janam Sākhī. Suffix ‘u' which is the marker of masculine, singular, nominative case or accusative case, and suffix ‘-i', a marker of case of agent of locative case, are two important suffixes commonly employed in the Sikh scripture as well as in Purātan Janam Sākhī, but are no longer in use in modern Punjabi. The use of suffix ‘-i' or '-ai' in adverbial forms and suffix ‘i' with the first element of the compound verbs are other characteristics of the old language freely employed in Purātan Janam Sākhī. Yet another conspicuous characteristic of the language of the Purātan Janam Sākhī is the much lower frequency of nasalization as compared to modern Punjabi. In this case too Purātan Janam Sākhī is in line with the Gurū Granth Sāhib.


  1. Vīr Siṅgh, Bhāī, ed., Purātan Janam Sākhī . Amritsar, 1926
  2. Sevak, Sevā Siṅgh, Prāchīn Janam Sākhī . Jalandhar, 1969
  3. Macauliffe, M.A., ed., Janam Sākhī Bābe Nānak Jī Kī . Rawalpindi ,1885
  4. McLeod, W.H., Early Sikh Tradition . Oxford, 1980

W. H. McLeod