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Overview of Sikh History

Here you can find biographies of Sikh Gurus, Great Sikh Warriors, Sikh personalities, historical events…

Origins of Sikhism


Sikhism was born in the Punjab area of South Asia, which now falls into the present day states of India and Pakistan. The main religions of the area at the time were Hinduism and Islam.

The Sikh faith began around 1500 CE, when Guru Nanak began teaching a faith that was quite distinct from Hinduism and Islam.

Nine Gurus followed Nanak and developed the Sikh faith and community over the next centuries.

Militarisation of the Sikhs

Sikhism was well established by the time of Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru.

Guru Arjan completed the establishment of Amritsar as the capital of the Sikh world, and compiled the first authorised book of Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth.

However, during Arjan’s time Sikhism was seen as a threat by the state and Guru Arjan was eventually executed for his faith in 1606.

The sixth Guru, Hargobind, started to militarise the community so that they would be able to resist any oppression. The Sikhs fought a number of battles to preserve their faith.

The Sikhs then lived in relative peace with the political rulers until the time of the Moghal Emperor, Aurangzeb, who used force to make his subjects accept Islam.

Aurangzeb had the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, arrested and executed in 1675.

The Khalsa

The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, recreated the Sikhs as a military group of men and women called the Khalsa in 1699, with the intention that the Sikhs should for ever be able to defend their faith.

Gobind Singh established the Sikh rite of initiation (called khandey di pahul) and the 5 Ks which give Sikhs their unique appearance.

Gobind Singh was the last human Guru. Sikhs now treat their scriptures as their Guru.

After the Gurus

The first military leader of the Sikhs to follow the Gurus was Banda Singh Bahadur.

He led a successful campaign against the Moghals until he was captured and executed in 1716.

In the middle of the century the Sikhs rose up again, and over the next 50 years took over more and more territory.

In 1799 Ranjit Singh captured Lahore, and in 1801 established the Punjab as an independent state, with himself as Maharaja.

He proved an adept ruler of a state in which Sikhs were still in a minority.

Although a devout Sikh, he took part in religious acts with Muslims and Hindus as well.

Defeated by the British

After Ranjit Singh died in 1839 the Sikh state crumbled, damaged by vicious internal battles for the leadership.

In 1845/6 troops of the British Empire defeated the Sikh armies, and took over much Sikh territory.

The Sikhs rebelled again in 1849, and were defeated by the British, this time conclusively.

The Sikhs and the British Raj

After this final battle, the Sikhs and the British discovered they had much in common and built a good relationship. The tradition began of Sikhs serving with great distinction in the British Army.

The Sikhs got on well with the British partly because they came to think of themselves less as subjects of the Raj than as partners of the British.

The British helped themselves get a favourable religious spin when they took control of the Sikh religious establishment by putting their own choices in control of the Gurdwaras.

Good relations between Sikhs and British came to an end in 1919 with the Amritsar massacre.

1919 – the Amritsar massacre

This was a shameful event in the history of British India.

In April 1919 British troops commanded by General E H Dyer opened fire without warning on 10,000 people who were holding a protest meeting. The troops killed about 400 people and wounded 1,000.

Dyer felt that he had been obliged to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab.

Realising the damage that had been done, the British rapidly retired Dyer, but not without promoting him first.

Some historians regard the Amritsar Massacre as the event that began the decline of the British Raj, by adding enormous strength to the movement for Indian independence.

In October 1997, Queen Elizabeth II made the gesture of laying a wreath at the site of the massacre.

Background to Amritsar – the partition of India

When British India gained its independence in 1947; it was divided between India and the Islamic state of Pakistan. The Sikhs felt badly treated and reluctantly chose to join India.

The Sikhs were unable to demand their own state, because there were too few of them to resist Pakistan’s claim to the Punjab.

Only by siding with India were they able to keep part of the Punjab, although not before appalling loss of life in communal massacres.

Sikhs lost many of their privileges, much of their land, and were deeply discontented.

A state of their own

The Sikh ambition for a state of their own was something that India would not concede. To do so would have allowed communalism (i.e. religious groupings) an unbreakable foothold in the politics of what was supposed to be a secular state.

However, in 1966, after years of Sikh demands, India divided the Punjab into three, recreating Punjab as a state with a Sikh majority.

This was not enough to stop Sikh anger at what they saw as continuing oppression and the unfair way in which they thought India had set the boundaries of the new state. They continued to demand various concessions from the Indian government.

The invasion of the Golden Temple

As Sikh discontent grew, the conflict gradually changed from a purely political conflict into a confrontation between Hindus and Sikhs; and then to real violence.

A Sikh preacher called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale became the leader of the most disaffected of the Sikhs. He was often portrayed as representing all Sikhs, although, actually, he did not. In 1983 Bhindranwale and his closest followers took refuge in the Golden Temple Complex at Amritsar, the most revered place in the Sikh world.

The Indian government believed that the Temple was being used as a militant command post, a sanctuary for wanted criminals and as a warehouse for weapons, and resolved to take action.

In June 1984 Indian troops launched ‘Operation Blue Star’. They attacked the Golden Temple Complex, killing many of those inside, and seriously damaging the buildings.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi

This invasion of the holiest place of the Sikhs infuriated many Sikhs, even the non-militant. They saw the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the invasion, as a deliberate persecutor of the Sikh faith and community.

In October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.

Anti-Sikh riots

Four days of anti-Sikh rioting followed in India. The government said more than 2,700 people, mostly Sikhs, were killed, while newspapers and human-rights groups put the death toll between 10,000 and 17,000.

Sikhs are still resentful that action has not been taken against all those who were responsible.

For several years militant Sikhs responded by killing members of the Hindu community and a number of Sikh political leaders who oppposed them.

The anger and frustration dominated Sikh politics until the mid-1990s.

The current position

The 300th anniversary of the Sikh Khalsa in 1999 changed the Sikh community. It was covered positively and approvingly in the Indian (and world) press, which did much to restore Sikh confidence that they were appreciated for their true worth.

The Punjab is presently peaceful, although in the last two or three years the rise of Hindu nationalism, and renewed claims that Sikhism is nothing more than a Hindu sect, have given Sikhs cause for alarm.

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