TANKHĀH, from Persian tankhwāh, generally meaning pay or salary, has an additional, ironical connotation in Sikh vocabulary. The word in this sense means expiatory penalty levied upon a Sikh from breach of rahit, i.e. the prescribed code of conduct or of a vow religiously made. This use of the term appears to have come into vogue during the first half of the eighteenth century. The earliest use of the term tankhāh and tankhāhī or tankhāhīā appears in Tankhāhnāmā attributed to Bhāī Nānd Lāl, Rahitnāmās ascribed to Bhāī Dayā Siṅgh, Bhāī Chaupā Siṅgh (dates not specified) and Gur Ratan Māl (Sau Sākhī) compiled by Sāhib Siṅgh in 1724 (or 1734). While Bhāī Nand Lāl's Tankhāhnāmā and Chaupā Siṅgh's Rahitnāmā list faults of omission or commission which render a Sikh tankhāhīā, i.e. liable to penalty, Bhāī Dayā Siṅgh's Rahitnāmā also suggests amounts of fine for some of the misdemeanours and mistranslations. Chaupā Siṅgh, on the authority of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, lays down a general rule with regard to the administration of tankhāh: "If someone who has committed a kurahit (breach of the code) stands up with folded hands before all, i.e. the saṅgat, pardon him : do not be adamant. Realize tankhāh, but bear him no rancour or animosity."

        Ordinarily it is only the saṅgat, holy assembly of Sikhs or Pañj Piāre, five Sikhs chosen or appointed by it, who have the authority to declare a person tankhāhīā and impose tankhāh. The saṅgat or Pañj Piāre will confront the offending member of the community with the charge and seek his explanation which, if found unsatisfactory, leads to his being declared a tankhāhīā, who generally accepts with humility the tankhāh levied on him by way of penance for his error and who after undergoing the "punishment" returns to the fold ridding himself of all blemish. It is not uncommon for a Sikh who has violated the religious discipline on any count to confess to the saṅgat or Pañj Piāre and voluntarily attract tankhāh in expiation. Since the purpose of tankhāh is to reclaim the defaulter, it generally requires him to perform certain religious acts such as reciting for a given number of times specified scriptural texts in addition to the daily regimen of prayers, and humble service at a gurdwārā which may be in the form of dusting the shoes of the devotees or scrubbing used utensils in Gurū kā Laṅgar or the community refectory. One may also have to make an offering of kaṛāh prasād worth a declared sum or make a cash contribution towards the Gurū's golak or the common fund. In case of one or more of the four bajar kurahits or major lapses, i.e. cutting of hair, smoking, adultery and consumption of kuṭṭhā or halāl (flesh of an animal slaughtered according to Muslim practice), occurring, a tankhāhīā after due atonement must also be reinitiated.

        When an act of an individual affects the community as a whole, the authority of Akāl Takht at Amritsar is invoked. The procedure is the same as followed by local saṅgats in dealing with violation of the religious code. In cases, rare so far, where a person refuses to accept its verdict, the Akāl Takht has the power to excommunicate him/her.

        The first recorded instance of the award of religious punishment involved Gurū Gobind Siṅgh himself. According to Gur Ratan Māl, the Gurū once travelling through Rājpūtānā reached Nārāiṇā, also called Dādūdvārā after the Saint Dādū who had lived there, where he saluted the sepulchre of the saint by lifting an arrow to his head. The Sikhs accompanying him took exception to this and wished to impose tankhāh for he had infringed his own edict : gor maṛhī mat bhūl nā māne (worship not even by mistake graves or places of cremation). The Gurū appreciated the Sikhs' vigilance and immediately offered to pay the fine. The Sikhs then debated the quantum of tankhāh, adds another old source, Mālvā Des Raṭan dī Sākhī Pothī. They in the end asked him to pay Rs.125 which amount they spent on the purchase of a tent for Gurū kā Laṅgar.

        In 1733, a Sikh, Bhāī Subeg Siṅgh, who was an employee of the Mughal government at Lahore and who was deputed to negotiate peace with the Khālsā, was, on reaching the appointed venue, first declared tankhāhīā for being in the service of the oppressors and allowed to commence parleys only after he had made good the tankhāh. Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh (1780-1839) was once summoned to the Akāl Takht and, held guilty of moral and religious misdemeanour, was awarded tankhāh including physical punishment which he readily accepted. The latter punishment was, however, waived by Akālī Phūlā Siṅgh, then Jathedār, of the Akāl Takht. More recent instances are those of the imposition of tankhāh on Bābā Kartār Siṅgh Bedī, one of the direct descendants of Gurū Nānak, for supporting Mahant Naraiṇ Dās, the head priest of the Nankāṇā shrine, who had started a campaign against the reformist Sikhs culminating in an open massacre of them on 20 February 1921; proclamation of Jathedār Tejā Siṅgh Bhuchchar as tankhāhīā and his expulsion from the membership of the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee for his defiance of and disrespect towards the Pañj Piāre who inaugurated kār-sevā or cleansing by voluntary service of the holy tank at Amritsar in June 1923; and the excommunication on 6 August 1928 of Bābā Tejā Siṅgh of the Pañch Khālsā Dīwān, Bhasauṛ, and his wife for garbling the scriptural texts and altering the form of gurmantra as well as of ardās.

        In November 1961, five Sikhs, eminent in the religious hierarchy, were named as Pañj Piāre to investigate and decide upon an allegation that Master Tārā Siṅgh, the senior most political leader of the Sikhs, had broken his solemnly made religious vow during an agitation against the government. Tārā Siṅgh was pronounced guilty of having gone back on his plighted word and of having blemished thereby the Sikh tradition of religious steadfastness and sacrifice in that he had abandoned his fast begun after ardās or prayer at Srī Akāl Takht without achieving the stipulated goal. He was laid under expiation to have an akhaṇḍ pāṭh or unbroken reading of the Gurū Granth Sāhib performed at the Akāl Takht, daily to recite for one month an extra pāṭh of the Japu, offer kaṛāh prasād of the value of Rs.125 and to clean the shoes of the saṅgat and dishes in the Gurū kā Laṅgar for five days. The Pañj Piāre exonerated Sant Fateh Siṅgh, another political leader, of a similar charge saying that he had given up his fast, which preceded Master Tārā Siṅgh's, under the command of Pañj Piāre and the saṅgat in general, though he too was held guilty, along with eight members of the working Committee of the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal, for acquiescing in Master Tārā Siṅgh breaking his fast. Fateh Siṅgh was to recite for one month an additional pāṭh of the Japu and wash dishes in Gurū kā Laṅgar for five days. Other members of the Working Committee were to broom the Golden Temple precincts. and clean dishes in Gurū kā Laṅgar for two days.

        In 1984, Giānī Zail Siṅgh, then President of India, Būṭā Siṅgh, a Central minister, and Santā Siṅgh, leader of the Buḍḍhā Dal of Nihaṅgs, were declared tankhāhīās by the Akāl Takht, the first for allowing the army to march into the premises of Golden Temple in June 1984, and the other two for subsequently holding an unauthorized Sarbatt Khālsā meeting and taking up, on behalf of the government but against the wishes of the Sikh community, the reconstruction of the Akāl Takht building. Giānī Zail Siṅgh, however, convinced the Pañj Piāre of his innocence and was pardoned. The other two failed to submit their cases and were consequently excommunicated from the Panth. The institution of tankhāh has thus served over generations to ensure religious integrity and discipline among Sikhs, at individual as well as at panthic level.


  1. Sikh Rahit Maryādā. Amritsar, n.d
  2. Attar Siṅgh, ed., Mālvā Des Raṭan dī Sākhī Pothī. Amritsar, 1950
  3. Padam, Piarā Siṅgh,ed., Rahitnāme. Patiala, 1974
  4. Randhīr Siṅgh, Bhāī, ed., Prem Sumārag Granth arthāt Khālsā Jīvan Jāch. Amritsar, 1965
  5. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. New Delhi, 1994
  6. Nripinder Siṅgh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990

Balbīr Siṅgh Nandā