The Janam Sakhi at Baba Atal By Shivi Legha

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Satinde Kaur Kapany Gallery

San Francisco has a gallery devoted to Sikh art. I believe this gallery is one of very few in the world devoted to displaying and in the process educating all of us in what has been a neglected genre of art.  I mention neglected not in the sense that this art in its many forms whether they are painting, textile, armaments or music has not been seen and studied but that it has been put together with art from the general region of north India, Punjab, the hill states Rajasthan and Mughal art. There are common influences in all of these but just as Sikhism evolved in its own unique form taking its inspiration from the prevailing religions of India, Hinduism and especially the Bhakti movement and to a lesser extent was influenced by Islam to form a religion with its own very unique characteristics, that emphasized the brotherhood of man, equality amongst all, tolerance and monotheism, that are different and recognizable from the prevailing religions, the style of art that evolved during this era was also influenced by the same forces but is unique. We have Dr and Mrs. Kapany to thank for their interest in collecting a series of work that we can clearly begin to see as Sikh art.

The subject for today is a Janam sakhi. It is an auspicious one for a new endeavor. Guru Nanak founded the Sikh religion in the Punjab in the 16th century. He was born a Hindu in1469 and was the first of 10 Gurus. The life of Guru Nanak was passed down in the oral tradition, and embellished with fantastical events resulting in a hagiographic text called the janam sakhi or literally life story. The Janam Sakhis and there are a number of  different versions are a reflection of his life and times during the early development of Sikhism. The Janam Sakhis are important because of the influence that they have had on the development of the religion and the regard with which they are held by the Sikhs, apart from their value as artistic and cultural documents. Most of these have been extensively studied, but the one that I will be talking about is a lesser known one. It is the Janam Sakhi at Baba Atal.

It is based on a popular version of the Janam sakhi, the "Bala Janam Sakhi". It is the only place where you have a Janam Sakhi painted on a wall in its complete form. What is extraordinary is the density of narration", like a book painted on the wall".

In this respect it is similar to the tradition of the Biblio Pauporum, the poor mans bible, seen in Europe, in which the bible would be illustrated in some medium, whether stained glass, block prints or paintings to allow the priest hood to preach to the laity, mostly uneducated and poor. This tradition of pictorial depiction is what has been done here for probably the same ends.

Bala Janam Sakhi

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This was built in Amritsar in the memory of the son of Guru Hargobind (6th Guru), who died at the age of 9. The legend concerning his death is interesting, the young boy was playing with his companion, who got bitten by a poisonous snake and died. Baba Atal is said to have awakened him from his death earning the displeasure of his father, Guru Hargobind who disapproved of miracles, chastised the young Baba Atal is said to have given up his own life instead.

The building has 9 stories and was started by Jassa Singh Ramgariah a local chieftain in 1778 and completed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1821.

Two interesting asides, this building is known as the "thanedar" or policeman of Amritsar as all of the city can be seen from the top, secondly a commonly heard phrase " Baba Atal Pakian, Pakiian khal". Unlike the other Gurudwaras where the langar or communal food is prepared in the premises and distributed, here in Baba Atal the faithful bring langer prepared in their own homes and it is distributed here.  

The Janam Sakhi in Baba Atal are on the walls of the first floor, and were painted in 1903. Some of the details regarding the artists and the techniques used are known. The paintings on the walls depicting the various Sakhis was painted using the fresco secco technique. In the tradition of miniature paintings certain artists were responsible for a part of the entire painting,  Jaimal Singh Nakash, Mehtab Singh Nakash and Hukum Singh  are the artist of many of the painted Sakhis.

The paintings are representative of the Punjab plains which on first impression strike one as being coarse and garish. The quality of draughtsman ship is poor, the repertoire limited and it leaves one very perturbed. In contrast to the very fine Pahari style where the paintings are beautifully composed, exquisitely detailed and executed with sensitivity.

In the style of these paintings it is clear that the artists though influenced by the Pahari tradition have left it behind and instead have embraced a style that is more influenced by the European tradition in which floral backgrounds, angelic figures and typical European facades are incorporated. Though on first impression the paintings appear coarse and garish this amalgamation does grow on one and for me it was difficult to leave them behind.

Nirankar. The birth of Guru Nanak

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1)  Nirankar. The Birth of Guru Nanak.

Guru Nanak was born in 1469 AD in the village Rai Bhoi di Talvandi. His father was Kalu a Hindu, his mothers name was Tripta and he had one sister Nanki. This painting, one of many depicting his birth is titled Nirankar, which literally translates," no form or shape, the all supreme". The earth is depicted here in the shape of a mother cow, and included in the painting are a pantheon of Hindu gods awaiting his birth.
Clearly, depicting Hindu gods was accepted by the local populace at this time to the extent that they were painted in Sikh shrines.

Guru Nanak is coming to us from the kingdom of the gods.

Guru Nanak as a child

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2) Guru Nanak as a child.

Here Guru Nanak is shown as exceptional and precocious. In this painting he is seven years old and is shown sitting with his teacher the Maulvi receiving his first lesson in Urdu. The setting is interesting, Guru Nanak is seated formally in the center, an auro of maturity and calm surrounds him. In contrast children are playing, writing on chalk and running. The contrast is evident. The Maulvi, as part of his first lesson, says the first alphabet of the Urdu language, alf representing the formal beginning of a child’s education. Guru Nanak is said to a have responded with a couplet starting with the letter alf .

"alf allah nu yaad kar, gaflat mano vasaar".

Begin by remembering god and shed laziness.

Jeaneau Ceremony 20 inches length 19 inches height.

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3) Jeaneau Ceremony.

This painting is of the very important Hindu ceremony, the Jeaneau, or thread ceremony that represents the formal transition of children into the Hindu religion. Guru Nanak is nine years old. The setting is informal and domestic. He is surrounded by his parents, other womenfolk, and household help. Seated in front of him is the learned priest who has come to perform the ceremony. This painting captures the moment when Guru Nanak sows the seed of philosophical doubt in the elderly and learned priest. The young Nanak and the experienced priest are discussing the meaning of this very important ceremony, their hands are raised and fingers pointed as they make their opinions heard. Nanak asks, if my mind is dirty, what good is a thread and says that “Instead of unthinkingly following a ritual, give me a thread that does not break, burn or need to be immersed in water”.       


Sacha Sauda 25 inches length 20 inches height Baba atal Amritsar.

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4) Sacha Sauda.

The Sacha Sauda, true business is one of the seminal stories. Nanak is shown being introduced to the family business. His father is preparing him to be a successful merchant, giving him a little responsibility, money and goods and sends him to do trade to maximize profits. Nanak is shown in this painting having left his own town in the background on his way to another town also shown, presumably his original destination for the purpose of trade with the goods that he has. He is shown here in the midst of his journey in the presence of a number of fakirs are dressed, others wear loin cloths,another is covered in ash, others shown with their hair uncut tied in a top knot implying that they are sages. There is a prominent Hindu temple in the background completes this scene. Nanak uses the goods in his possession to feed the fakirs, reflecting his view of what constitutes a sacha sauda

The marriage of Nanak 20 inches length 19 inches height. Baba atal Amritsar.

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5) The marriage of Nanak.

What is remarkable in this painting is the depth and density of detail of every incident related to this occasion. Nanak was married to Ghumi, the daughter of Mula at the age of twelve or sixteen. There is no consistency in the different versions of the Janam Sakhis. Here he is shown receiving the shagan, the equivalent of an engagement ceremony. This marriage was of course, arranged by the respective parents. After all the negotiations are complete, the shagan is given by the girl’s family to the boy. This is a typical scene, set in Nanak’s home. There are many excited and curious onlookers. There is music, Nanak and the male members of his family wait to receive the prospective bride’s family. Hands are folded in the traditional greeting. Sweetmeats are exchanged in celebration and Mula gives the shagan to Nanak. He is pensive as he evaluates again, the person who will be the husband and protector of his beloved daughter Ghumi and who will be responsible for her happiness and security.

There is an air of poignancy in this gesture from the father as he begins the first of many steps of what is his most important duty towards his daughter. 

6) Nanak’s Enlightenment.

Nanak’s immersion represents the turning point in his life.

Nanak disenchanted with his worldly life, accompanied by his brother- in- law and companion Bala, goes for his morning bath in the river and disappears. The river is dredged and he is given up for dead.

Nanak is shown being taken to the gods in the presence of Nirankar, the Supreme Being and returns three days later and proclaims

na koi hindu, na koi mussalman, sirf insaan.

There are no Hindus or Muslims only humans.

This signified his enlightenment.   

 Janam Sakhi  of the  Bala version

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 These photographs of the mural paintings are the only ones in existence of a complete “Janam Sakhi” of the “Bala version”. I took these pictures in January 2003 so as to document the current condition before they inevitably deteriorate due to the ravages of time, lack of interest and resources – monetary, technological and political on the part of the SGPC in preserving what is an immensely important work of Sikh Art. Some of these paintings were painted over in the 1960’s in an attempt to restore them but were not done in a professional manner by people experienced in these techniques. The works which had the texts were completely whitewashed and the borders left. In the process many of these paintings or parts of them especially the borders were irreparably damaged. So it’s these borders that have been re painted again.

Whilst I was there, sadly there is no ongoing effort in assuring the survival of this monument to our cultural heritage. The attitude of the authorities was summed up to me by the head priest responsible for the upkeep or lack thereof "our tradition is not in paintings, it is in the Granth Sahib". I think that there needs to bean awareness amongst Sikhs and art historians of the existence of this monument which will I hope lead to a more enlightened attitude towards preserving this and other works of art that are important to our heritage.

The life of Guru Nanak was passed down in the oral tradition and embellished with fantastical events resulting in a hagiographic text. There are many versions of the Janam Sakhi, this is the "Bhai Bala version" the common one found in the bazaar. A lot of us do find that the miracles of he JananSakhi’s are unrealistic. In fact we know that there were several different versions of the Janam Sakhis. The one I talked about was the Bala Janam Sakhi. There was also the Purathum and Nirbhai Janam Sakhi for example. Now

the Bala version was aimed at the local population. They show miracles because this is what they want. If they see miracles they think, yes, this is how God shows that the Guru is special. Without miracles they don’t know it. So this is what is painted there for us.


The Janam Sakhis are a reflection of his times and the early development of Sikhism. They are not historically accurate but reflect the belief of the laity when they were composed many centuries after his death. Of the life of Guru Nanak here is very little known that is corroborated, and therefore one has to go back to these texts. I do agree that the great Guru did not believe in miracles, but these murals that existed and some that survive for everyone to see, are to be appreciated as art and cultural documents and not of the exact details of the of the life of Guru Nanak of which little is known.


* Read the Authors Bio & Introduction to the series here
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