The Khalsa Era
During the 18th century between the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708 and the final destruction of Darbar Sahib in 1764, Sikhs faced one of the darkest periods of their history. Over 30,000 Sikh men, women and children were massacred by Ahmed Shah Abdali on February 5, 1862. With the eventual establishment of rule over Punjab by the Sikh Misls (twelve sovereign groups of the Sikh Confederacy), the period from the 1760’s to the early 1800’s represented a time where Sikhs could now begin to turn their focus from basic survival to reflections on their history. It was during this time period that we find the first Sikh paintings and beautiful illustrated manuscripts with paintings of the Gurus.
The Nishan Sahib banners from this era reveal a triangular flag, either a solid color or patterned, often with a border along its edges.
As Sikhs of the 18th century were mainly focused on survival and facing an era of intense persecution to the brink of extinction they did not have time to develop a flourishing artistic tradition of paintings. It was only during the late 18th century with Sikh rule in Punjab that they could turn to other pursuits such as art. It was during this time period that the first Sikhs commissioned trained artists and scribes to create Sikh paintings and illustrated manuscripts.
Most of the trained professional artists that produced these paintings were Hindu with long family artistic traditions passed down for generations and employed by various Maharajas and other wealthy patrons.
The colors, shapes and patterns used by these Hindu artists when asked to produce paintings of the Sikh Gurus would inherently have been influenced to some extent by their own religious traditions. It thus becomes difficult and subjective when viewing these early paintings to make a clear distinction between what may have been a Hindu artists creative interpretation, verses a Sikh patrons input into the final image. This relationship between artist and patron from diverse religious backgrounds has to be kept in mind when viewing Sikh paintings, especially early works from the Khalsa Era.
Sword and Shield
A unique item from this early Sikh era is a Guru Granth Sahib at Patna containing a Mul Mantra (opening stanza of the Japji Sahib prayer) said to have been written by Guru Gobind Singh himself. Appearing at the very beginning above the Ik Onkar are two small symbols that may possibly represent a sword and shield.
A little over 73 years after Guru Gobind Singhs death, explorer Charles Wilkins provides us with one of the earliest European accounts of a Sikh Gurdwara. Wilkins visited a Gurdwara at Patna Sahib and describes the religious symbols he observed at the altar of Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
A little room, which as you enter, is situated at the left hand end of the hall, is the chancel, and is furnished with an alter covered with cloth of gold, upon which was laid a round black shield over a long broad sword, and, on either side, a chowry of peacock’s feathers, mounted in a silver handle.
Charles Wilkins, The Sicks and their College at Patna, Banares 1 March 1781
Transactions of the Asiatick Society. (Calcutta: 1788), vol 1, pp. 288-94
The large broad sword that Wilkins observed was likely a khanda sword and the black shield would have been a dhal shield made of cowhide or rhinoceros leather.
A very early sword and shield configuration can also be seen on a Nishan Sahib from a 1775 manuscript.