SIKH TRADITION (HISTORIOGRAPHY) begins with Janam Sākhīs, the life stories of Gurū Nānak (1469-1539). There is hardly any evidence of the tradition of history writing in ancient India, though in modern times attempts have been made at different levels to show the existence of somewhat vague historiographic elements particularly in the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata: but religious, mythological and allegorical legends and stories are so mixed up with the Indian religious thought and philosophy in them that it is extremely difficult to discern in them a pure historiographical tradition. Similarly, the Purāṇas contain mostly mythological elements with a semblance of history. Pāli and Prākrit literature, too, is predominantly religious. Bāna's Harsha Charitra (7th century) and Kalhana's Rājataraṅgiṇī (12th century) are rare exceptions to show that, generally speaking, historiography was not the vogue until recent times.

         The art of historiography came to India with the Arabs soon after their conquest of Sindh. They brought a fully developed art of history-writing with a deep understanding of the Islamic polity, religious institutions and sociological issues. Also, they possessed a keen chronological sense, and their historical narratives begin yearwise instead of the regnal years of the kings. The Arabic language was for a short while the vehicle of their expressions, but when Arabic replaced Persian, Indo-Muslim historians adopted Persian as their medium. Under the influence of Persian Renaissance, the Persian norms of history-writing became their models. While the Arab historiographers were rarely official, the early Indo-Muslim historians, depended on the Sultāns whose patronage they sought. In methodology and technique Indo-Muslim historiography is based on the prophetic traditional method (hadīs), which precludes a critical estimate of events and persons and lays stress on the true concept of an Islamic state. It is biographical in nature.

        The early Sikh historical tradition which begins during the latter half of the sixteenth century is also in the form of biography. The Janam Sākhīs of Gurū Nānak are not historiography in the true sense of the term because these accounts rely mostly on oral tradition, without distinguishing fact from fiction. Myths, legends and allegorical stories are interwoven in their narratives; their lack of historical perspective, however, is counterbalanced by their faithful record of the current Sikh religious tradition. These Janam Sākhīs, the most important source of information on the life and mission of Gurū Nānak and for constructing the early history of Sikhism, represent the early Sikh historical and religious traditions. Among the important Janam Sākhīs are: a collection called the Ādi Sākhīāṅ, Purātan Janam Sākhī, Miharbān Janam Sākhī, Bālā Janam Sākhī, Gyān Ratnāvālī or Bhāī Manī Siṅgh Janam Sākhī, and the named B-40 Janam Sākhī. The first two are commonly believed to belong to late sixteenth, the next two definitely to seventeenth century, while the last ones belong to early eighteenth century. Of these, the Miharbān tradition leans heavily on discourse and exegesis. Next come Vars and Kabitts by Bhāī Gurdās (d. 1636). Written in elegant verse, Bhāī Gurdās' Vārs are vigorous in thrust and constitute a work of very high order on the mission of Gurū Nānak and his five successors, but they contain very little biographical information. A unique example of early Sikh historiography is Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's Bachitra Nāṭak. Autobiographical in style, the work traces the history of Bedī and Soḍhī clans and relates the major events of the Gurū's life up to the year 1696.

        Vār, a genre of indigenous Punjabi origin, became very popular. It gave birth to semi-historical, poetically-inspired ballads on mundane themes, and Jaṅgnāmās (accounts of wars and battles). Prominent Vār writers are : Dayā Siṅgh (Fatahnāmā), Qādir Yār (Vār Harī Siṅgh Nalvā), Shāh Muhammad (Aṅgrezāṅ te Siṅghāṅ dī Laṛā'ī), and Pīr Bakhsh (Chāṭṭhīāṅ dī Vār). The Jaṅgnāmās are poetical narratives on events, persons and places. The Jaṅgnāmās of Anandpur, Lahore, Multān and Delhi are especially interesting study.

        Of a different category are the chronicles written by local historiographers in the Punjabi language. These may be termed as semihistorical, for modern norms of historiography cannot be applied to them. Amongst them are Kripāl Dās Bhallā's Mahimā Prakāsh Vārtak (prose) and Sarūp Dās Bhallā's versified Mahimā Prakāsh. These are anecdotal in style and provide glimpses of the lives of the Ten Gurūs. Then there are fuller and connected biographical accounts in verse known as the Gurbilāses. The first example of the gurbilās style is Srī Gur Sobhā related to the life of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. It was written by Saināpati, who enjoyed the patronage of the Gurū, and was completed in 1711. Others in the chronological order are Gurbilās Chhevīṅ Pātshāhī (1718), usually attributed to a poet called Sohan; Kuir Siṅgh's Gurbilās Pātshāhī 10 (1751) ; Kesar Siṅgh Chibbar's Bāṅsāvālīnāmā Dasāṅ Pātshāhīaṅ Kā (1769); and Sukha Siṅgh's Gurbilās Dāsvīṅ Pātshāhī (1797). These writings in verse fall under the old Janam Sākhī tradition for their mixing of fact with fiction but do not follow the anecdotal style of the latter. Both were, however, pane-gyrical rather than analytical in their treatment.

        Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, a new comparatively modern trend in Sikh historiography took birth with Ratan Siṅgh Bhaṅgū's Srī Gur Panth Prakāsh better know as Prāchīn Panth Prakāsh, completed in 1841. Unlike the Janam Sākhī and Gurbilās traditions which dealt with the lives of the Gurūs, the focus of Bhaṅgū's book is on the Khālsā, the community of initiated Sikhs created by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh on the Baisākhī of 1699. Ratan Siṅgh Bhaṅgū took up the project with a definite aim which was political rather than theological or panegyrical. He cared more for truthful record of facts than for poetical finesse. As he himself states in the beginning, the British when they occupied Delhi in 1803 were given to understand by the nominal Mughal emperor that the Sikhs were his subjects in rebellion, and had no legal title over the lands they had occupied. A British officer, named Murray, asked Ratan Siṅgh, "Tell me how the Siṅghs acquired the ruling power and which king gave them the authority to rule." Ratan Siṅgh replied, "The True King, (Gurū) Nānak, gave the rulership to the Siṅghs." Murray further asked, "But Nānak was a faquir, what did he know about kingships?" Ratan Siṅgh explains the origin and development of the Sikhs under the first nine Gurūs, their transformation into the Khālsā commonwealth under the Tenth Gurū, Gobind Siṅgh, their struggles and vicissitudes until they realized their destiny. The Khālsā, he maintains, was created to rule, and all who acknowledge its discipline must be prepared to assert the right. For Ratan Siṅgh this was no mere doctrine but was an existential fact.

        Another work in the line of authentic history is 'Umdāt ut-Twārīkh in four parts by Sohan Lāl Sūrī, official diarist of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh. Barring the first part (origin and rise of the Sikhs up to the close of eighteenth century) which is based on traditional accounts, 'Umdāt ut-Twārīkh is day-to-day record of the Sikh rule in the Punjab.

        Ratan Siṅgh Bhaṅgū's example was, however, not followed immediately. Bhāī Santokh Siṅgh's celebrated works Srī Gurū Nānak Prakāsh and Srī Gur Pratāp Sūryodayā, commonly known as Sūraj Prakāsh.(1841), marked a reversion to earlier forms and interest, although this did nothing to deprive the works of their enormous and continuing influence. Giānī Giān Siṅgh's Panth Prakāsh in verse (1880) and his Twārīkh Gurū Khālsā in prose (in several volumes published between 1891 and 1919), although appearing to be popular history of the Panth, carry a large measure of the old Janam Sākhī-Gurbilās tradition including a substantial doctrinal content and anecdotal material.

        Meanwhile, under the impact of the western rule and western education a new trend of writing authentic and critical history based on scientific research was making its appearance. Joseph Davey Cunningham's A History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej (1849) may be regarded as the first such book as far as Sikh history is concerned. The next important work in this line was Syad Muhammad Latīf's History of the Punjab from the Remote Antiquity to the Present Time (1891). These works by non-Sikh authors, however, cannot be claimed as belonging to Sikh tradition in historiography. The first Sikh to adopt modern scientific research as a basis for historiography was Sardār Karam Siṅgh (1884-1930), commonly remembered as Karam Siṅgh Historian on account of his zeal for this discipline. His pioneering efforts resulted in several short books and articles on Sikh history and doctrine. Khazān Siṅgh's The History and Philosophy of Sikh Religion, published in two volumes in 1914, was another pioneering work. With the establishment in December 1929 of the Sikh Historical Society and a department of historical research in Khālsā College, Amritsar, Sikh historiography entered, as it were, its adulthood. Many able researchers and historians have since been studying, reinterpreting and rewriting Sikh history, more eminent among them being Gaṇḍā Siṅgh and Khushwant Siṅgh. The contribution of Harī Rām Gupta is no less significant.


  1. Bhaṅgū, Ratan Siṅgh Prāchīn Panth Prakāsh. Amritsar, 1914
  2. Fauja Singh, ed., Historians and Historiography of the Sikhs. Delhi,1978
  3. Khurana, Gianeshwar, British Historiography on the Sikh Power in Punjab. Delhi, 1985
  4. Darshan Singh, Western Prespective on the Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1991
  5. Grewal, J.S., From Gurū Nānak to Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh. Amritsar, 1972

B. J. Hasrat