The Tat Khalsa and Sikh historiography


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WHEN I first arrived in India in 1958, I proceeded to the Punjab to take up a teaching appointment. Living in the Punjab I followed my interests from university days which meant that I would take up the history of the area. But what variety of history appealed to me? It would have to be either the history of the Sikhs or that of the Arya Samaj. The choice fell on Sikh history without entirely excluding the Arya Samaj. I devoted my nine years in the Punjab, first to learning the elements of Sikh history and then to pursuing research in the subject. Since then the interest has persisted unabated and doubtless will continue until the day I die.

It was some time before I was able to read books in Punjabi; in 1958 books about Sikh history were few for those whose language skills were limited to English. Cunningham’s history was available and while it was sympathetic to Sikhs it was first published in 1849 and, consequently, well out of date. From a dealer in Edinburgh I picked up a first-edition copy of Macauliffe’s The Sikh Religion which failed to excite me.1 This was not because of its factual content which at that early stage I was unable to evaluate, but rather its style that seemed to me to be rather pious and old-fashioned. Khushwant Singh’s The Sikhs had been published, yet it too failed to satisfy me because it was too brief and seemed to be rather too popular for my taste.2 The work which did excite me was volume I of A Short History of the Sikhs by Teja Singh and Ganda Singh.3 This, however, carried the account only up to 1765 and no second volume ever appeared. But this short work was read and scrutinised with close attention.

Meanwhile I was making very slow progress with my attempt to understand Sikh history. Two things helped me, one of them considerably. The lesser help came from the Sikhs with whom I worked, demonstrating that Sikhs are by and large well informed about their history. It may have been information which was strictly traditional, yet it certainly impressed me. The larger help came from a chance meeting with Ganda Singh in Patiala.

This first meeting with Ganda Singh led to occasional contacts and from these contacts I learnt a great deal about the history of the Sikhs – or rather the history of the Sikhs as it was understood by him. After my two years in London I also had the good fortune to encounter Harbans Singh, Registrar of Punjabi University, and he too helped me in my understanding. Both men were extremely pleasant, unfailingly honest, and forthcoming with their knowledge of Sikh history, sharing it with a foreigner who was eager to learn. To both of them I owe a debt which I can never hope to repay. Both willingly related their understanding of various features of Sikh history and with equal willingness I initially absorbed everything that they told me.


Their understanding of Sikh history – their historiography – was wholly immersed in the understanding which they had absorbed from their Tat Khalsa background and for many years I too viewed Sikh history through a Tat Khalsa lens. The Tat Khalsa was the radical segment of the Singh Sabha movement represented by the Lahore branch, which was founded in 1879 and committed to the belief that Sikhs emphatically were not Hindus. Men such as Kahn Singh Nabha and Vir Singh belonged to this segment and the booklet by Kahn Singh, Hum Hindu Nahin, became its rallying-cry. Sikh history was recast in accordance with this understanding and from this recasting emerged a distinctive historiography.

Looking back it is abundantly clear that the view of Sikh history held by both Ganda Singh and Harbans Singh had been exclusively moulded by Tat Khalsa historiography. A traditional view of the Guru period had been accepted; the struggles of the eighteenth century had been fought with great heroism; Ranjit Singh marked an apex of Sikh strength; and the years following his death marked a speedy decline and an acceptance of the erroneous Sanatan interpretation of the Sikh faith. Only with the birth of the Singh Sabha movement was the direction reversed and once again Sikhs could look ahead with hope and confidence. Manifestly mistaken claims were certainly rejected and some others might be questioned, but the framework remained firmly intact. This was the historiography of the Tat Khalsa and it was this pattern that Ganda Singh and Harbans Singh, together with virtually all other Sikh scholars, accepted.

This was the interpretation that for many years I too accepted. It is true that my PhD research led me quite some distance away from the usual interpretation as far as the life of Guru Nanak was concerned, earning me much ire from some of those who adhered to a traditional view of the janam-sakhis as the primary sources for his life. Basically, however, I still followed the Tat Khalsa line. So too did Khushwant Singh. I found his A History of the Sikhs of great help in preparing my Punjab History lectures at Baring College in Batala and certainly his two-volume work was immensely readable.4 The interpretation which he followed was, however, that of the Tat Khalsa, and though interspersed with critical comments was never enough to draw him away from the dominant pattern.


Not until I began working on the Khalsa Rahit5 did the truth finally begin to dawn. As I worked my way through the various rahit-namas6 of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I increasingly perceived the simple truth that there were different ways of interpreting the backdrop of Sikh history, and that the Tat Khalsa propounded only one such view. The Sanatan or ‘traditional’ interpretation was another such view and the ‘western’ understanding with its strong emphasis on reliable sources, was yet another. The ‘western’ view, based upon the European Enlightenment, was the one which I had been taught and which, without apology, I have always held. Slowly I was beginning to appreciate that it differed fundamentally from the Tat Khalsa interpretation in more than matters of detail.


Tat Khalsa historiography can be viewed as an overarching theory embracing all aspects of Sikh history, or be seen in particular aspects of that history.7 One such aspect is the Tat Khalsa conviction that all female members of the Khalsa must bear the second name Kaur, corresponding to Singh in the case of male members. Prior to the 20th century, Kaur was sometimes used but by no means always. Kahn Singh Nabha, for instance, primarily favoured its use for female initiates. There was, however, a strong feeling that Kaur should be used for all female Sikhs and with the publication of Sikh Rahit Marayada in 1950 it became a standard feature of all naming ceremonies conducted shortly after birth.8

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of a particular aspect of Tat Khalsa historiography is evident in its belief that Guru Gobind Singh had instructed all Sikhs who entered his Khalsa to observe the Five Ks (pan¸j kakke or pan¸j kakka´r), each beginning with the letter k. The Five Ks were kes (uncut hair), kangha´ (comb), karÜa´ (iron or steel wrist-ring), kirpa´n (sword or dagger), and kachh (shorts which must not come below the knees). These were not included in Guru Gobind Singh’s instructions when he established the Khalsa order and they do not appear as an item of the Rahit until the late nineteenth century. Only when they were enshrined therein by the Tat Khalsa did they become a part of regular Sikh observance. The Khalsa Sikhs were certainly required to wear five weapons (pan¸j hathia´r) and there is no denying that all items of the five Ks may possibly have been worn by many of the Sikhs of the early Khalsa. Only three of them were evidently specified by the Guru (the kes, the kirpa´n, and the kachh) and these three may certainly be treated as necessary parts of a Khalsa Sikh’s uniform. The difference between the Tat Khalsa requirement and the actual fact is, however, that Guru Gobind Singh did not make these three or all five a part of the Rahit.9


In some cases Tat Khalsa historiography was only a partial success, an example being provided by its notion of caste. Tat Khalsa leaders maintained that all the Gurus had preached against caste as it necessarily involved discrimination as practised by Hindus. Most Sikhs, however, have ignored the teaching. Discrimination (or at least difference) is widespread in the Sikh Panth. In this case Tat Khalsa teaching failed to distinguish between baran (varan) on the one hand and za´t (ja´ti) on the other. The Gurus were certainly opposed to baran but their opposition to za´t and to got (gotr) was only to the extent that it involved discrimination.10


The Tat Khalsa historiography is still strongly prevalent amongst Sikhs in the Punjab including those Sikhs who can be regarded as historians. J.S. Grewal is an exception and there are certainly a few others, yet a large majority are unmistakably in the Tat Khalsa mould. The situation is, however, somewhat different in countries to which Sikhs have emigrated. Here the Tat Khalsa hold has weakened amongst Sikh scholars and the process of weakening continues. It would be difficult to brand Pashaura Singh, Gurinder Singh Mann, Jeevan Deol, or Arvind-Pal Mandair as enthusiastic followers of Tat Khalsa historiography. Harjot Oberoi is no longer working on Sikh Studies, but his book, The Construction of Religious Boun-daries, was a singularly impressive work which vigorously attacked the Tat Khalsa interpretation.11 As children of the diaspora are educated in western schools and universities this pattern will inevitably be weakened. Cross-confessional marriages will further dilute it.

It is, however, a very slow process and at least three responses have contributed to that slowness. First, there is the vigorous attack that has been mounted against certain exponents of a new approach. Three Sikhs have been targeted in this manner, two of them writing from North America and the third from the Punjab. This of course also involved westerners (of whom I am one) though the attack launched against Sikhs was much more severe than that against others as the Sikhs were regarded as traitors. Those perceived as traitors were Harjot Oberoi, Pashaura Singh, and Piar Singh. Piar Singh is now dead and Harjot Oberoi felt compelled to give up Sikh Studies in view of the quite disgraceful threats levelled against him. Of the three, Pashaura Singh alone continues the fight with events slowly moving his way.


A second issue, closely related to the first, was the establishment of Sikh ‘chairs’ in various universities across North America. These were positions funded by contributions from Sikhs and most of them went to individuals chosen by the respective universities who were unacceptable to the same Panthic group which mounted the attacks against those perceived as traitors. The situation is now much calmer than previously and all such appointments seem relatively stable.

The third issue, the one that now commands the greatest significance, is the influence of the internet. Almost all the various Sikh web-sites on the internet (and there are several such sites) are dedicated to upholding the Tat Khalsa view. They certainly vary from the relatively liberal to the strongly conservative and it is true that the liberal variety does permit the expression of points of view which at least question aspects of Tat Khalsa historiography. On the whole, however, practically all of these sites uphold the Tat Khalsa point of view in varying degrees of strictness.

One should never suppose that questioning the Tat Khalsa interpretation will threaten the Sikh religion. Manifestly this will not be the case. It is only a particular notion of Gurmat that will be modified. One cannot expect a sudden collapse of that interpretation. Though it will be fitful and gradual it is nevertheless slowly occurring.



1. Max Arthur Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion: its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors. 6 3. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1909.

2. Khushwant Singh, The Sikhs. George Allen and Unwin, London, 1953.

3. Teja Singh and Ganda Singh, A Short History of the Sikhs, vol. 1 (1469-1765). Orient Longmans, Bombay, 1950.

4. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, 2 vols. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1963, 1966. Only the first volume was available during my time in Batala.

5. The Khalsa code of belief and discipline believed to have been laid down by Guru Gobind Singh when the Khalsa order was established at the end of the 17th century.

6. Manuals of the Rahit.

7. In his survey of all varieties of Sikh historiography, Tony Ballantyne labels Tat Khalsa theory as the ’internalist’ approach. Between Colonialism and Diaspora: Sikh Cultural Formations in an Imperialist World. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006, pp. 4-12. See also pp. 54-61.

8. Doris R.Jakobsh, Relocating Gender in Sikh History. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, p. 231.

9. This subject is argued in W.H.McLeod, Sikhs of the Khalsa. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 204-13.

10. For a discussion of caste in the Sikh Panth see my essay, ‘The Sikh Concept of Caste’ in Essays in Sikh History, Tradition, and Society. Forthcoming from the Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

11. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994.