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The Sikh Manuscript tradition and the destruction of Heritage.

Writtne by Gurinder Singh Mann, Leicester, UK

December 2008.

The legacy of the Guru Gobind Singh’s Durbars (courts) had the profound effect of creating a new
impetus on the literature of the Sikhs. These Durbars was the arenas which saw the development
of early recensions of the Guru Granth Sahib and some smaller liturgical texts known as pothis.
The creation of the key to Gurbani or the Vars of Bhai Gurdas and the seldom read Kabitts hold
tremendous value in understanding the Guru Granth Sahib itself. There is also the development
of the birth stories of Guru Nanak known as the Janamsakhis which help us in understanding the
mission of Guru Nanak and for children growing up this serves as an important learning tool
about the religion.

The shake up of the manuscript tradition was improved on by Guru Gobind Singh by ensuring
that the Sikh corpus of the Granths maintained its validity and importance. History narrates that
the finalization of the Guru Granth Sahib was one of his most important tasks. His compositions
known as the Sri Dasam Granth1 being another thought provoking and liturgical endeavor which
took the Khalsa to a new footing. The employment of the poets or Kavis was another strategic
step taken by the Guru to promote the Gurmukhi language.

The Kavis were instrumental in bringing about a revolutionary change in what the Sikhs were
reading, the translations of various texts including the Mahabharat, were for the first time
translated and then read at the court of the Guru. The vision of the Guru was that he wanted the
Sikhs to be learners and as a result the Sikhs should respect all literature but hold faith in their
Granths. Its is within the court of the Tenth Guru we see another strain of Sikh philosophical
thought being created by Bhai Nand Lal and the numerous works created by him in Persian.

The manuscript tradition had evolved considerably in the Sikh tradition from the early pothis and
Granths which were created with motifs and hence share similarities with Islamic manuscripts of
the time. The early manuscript tradition was enhanced with the Nishans of the Sikh Gurus. These
Nishans tended to be invocations or couplets from the Guru Granth Sahib, these tended to be
pasted into manuscripts but some manuscripts do bear the Nishans on the opening folios of
manuscripts2. This pasting of pages is most notable in various recensions of the Sri Dasam
Granth where some of these Granths contain the Khas Patras of the Tenth Guru. It is clear that
these pages came from one source and a close comparison with the Hukumnamas ( letters of
command) of the Tenth Guru and other internal symbols show the unique style of writing known
as Shikasta (broken script) belongs to the Tenth Guru3.

The creation of Taksals or Mints was an instrumental step in ensuring that the Sikh Scriptures
were developed and also learnt. Damdama Sahib being given the status of Guru Ki Kashi is a
reflection of its literary importance. The chief architects of the literary tradition notable Bhai Mani
Singh and Baba Deep Singh. They were given the task of creating Sikh manuscripts and then
sending to them sangats across India. In these turbulent times when faced with many obstacles
the manuscript tradition was maintained by these stalwarts of the Sikh faith. Bhai Mani Singh
created a new recension of the Guru Granth Sahib, adding the compositions of the Tenth Guru.
This was a new formula in promoting the learning of the Sikh scriptures4. The Damdama School
of manuscripts created their own seal showing the designation of the manuscripts. Tradition also
notes that Baba Deep Singh was instrumental in the creation of Guru Granth Sahib and Sri
Dasam Granth recensions5.

At the start of the 19th Century we notice a change in manuscript design under the patronage of
the Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Maharaja developed a two fold plan of maintaining the legacy of
the Gurus. This was undertaken by the upkeep of sacred places of the Sikhs6 and the continued

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development of the manuscript tradition. This development of manuscripts was maintained by the
employment of Kashmiri scribes and artisans. The new kingdom of Punjab territories became a
beacon for creating a new style of manuscript. The Kashmiri style manuscripts were now
illuminated with highly decorative features; these included highly exquisite floral patterns to
pictures of the Gurus and other deities7.

These highly elaborate designs met its end with the advent of the printing press and block
printing. Whilst there is many lithographic pothis and Granths they do not provide the reader with
the sense of awe as does the illuminated manuscripts of previous. The decline continued with
handwritten manuscripts completely being superseded by the printed saroops of the Sikh
Scriptures. What is clear is that whilst up until the late 19th century there was a clear purpose of
promoting the Sikh Scriptures this seemed to have declined with the lack of distinguished scribes
capable of creating handwritten manuscripts. This decline has been coupled with the cremation of
Guru Granth Sahib saroops after they have worn out after recital.

The Destruction of Heritage

When the late Dr Trilochan Singh an avid researcher on manuscripts found a rare document
detailing the ascension of Guru Gobind Singh it was indeed a rare find. However this was not
found in a library or in a Gurudwara but in the rubbish bin waiting to disappear in the black hole of
Sikh history. This is just one anecdote where something has been saved there is indeed others
but these seem like lucky saves rather than a concerted effort to preserve, maintain and conserve
a tradition.

Even some manuscripts which are kept in Universities and Gurudwaras are being eaten away by
mice and insects. Is this the tradition and legacy that we want to uphold? Some of the
manuscripts that have been maintained have been given a facelift, nothing we can be proud of
but something that defies belief i.e. manuscripts that been laminated8. This destruction is not
confined to manuscripts some Sikh relics have also been given the golden effect, i.e. the Shoes
of Guru Gobind Singh at Patna Sahib.

Hence Libraries and museums in the UK especially seem reluctant to hold exhibitions on the Sikh
scriptures as some people consider it sacrilegious to have the Granths open to display, however I
find it sacrilegious that after over a hundred years of immigration of the Sikhs to the west we are
still unable to convey the Sikh religion to the public in a proper context.

The report of numerous Guru Granth Sahib’s at Gurudwara Angthia Sahib, Deharadun been
confined to the sacrificial burning ceremony further reiterates the need to look at ourselves as
people9. This tradition of burning Guru Granth Sahib manuscripts lies in the belief that the Guru
Granth is a living Guru. Hence as a result just like a human is confined to be burnt when dead so
is an old Guru Granth Sahib saroop. So hence we should agree with this procedure?

My answer would be no, in my research on manuscripts I have clearly seen that Sikh history is
created by these manuscripts and the less we have the less history we have. Let me expand on
this a little, there have been numerous debates on issues like whether the Ragmala is part of the
Guru Granth Sahib and did Guru Gobind Singh write the entire Sri Dasam Granth but manuscript
evidence resolves these issues in a instance. The whole Sikh manuscript tradition has suffered a
setback not only by this cremation ceremony of manuscripts but also the destruction of many rare
manuscripts in the attack on the Harimandir Sahib in 1984. According to some heritage experts
the corpus of Punjabi Manuscripts had been reduced to barely 10% of what was available in the
19th century.

So what can we do as people, shall we go back to our villages in the Punjab end elsewhere and
ask our families of the where abouts of manuscripts, it might be a start but we need a more
coordinated effort and with the advent of new technologies this has now given us a helping help
hand in preserving our heritage. Some esteemed individuals who do care and do want to make

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an effort are busy ensuring that our manuscripts remain intact and hence our history is
maintained. Digitization is the order of the day and many photographic endeavors are being
undertaken throughout the world. The UKPHA (The United Kingdom Heritage Association) is on
the final phases of releasing the Punjabi manuscript catalogue which contains a description of UK
based manuscripts ranging from Guru Granth Sahibs, Dasam Granths, and Janamsakhis to other
less known Punjabi works10. This project has catalogued many manuscripts in various collections
including the British Library, Welcome Trust and other private collections. The Nanakshai Trust in
Ludhiana under the leadership of Devinder Singh is also busy ensuring that Sikh manuscripts and
newspapers are digitized11. Dr Mohinder Singh, director of the Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan in
Delhi has also ensured that its institute has a rich library of the manuscripts and other relics of the
Sikhs. Their numerous publications have also enriched our knowledge of manuscripts. However
the most important and strategic endeavor will that of digitizing the manuscripts at the Sikh
Reference Library in Amritsar so that our important history is not lost again. Dr Anurag Singh who
has recently been appointed director SGPC of the Sikh Ithias Board has confirmed that this
important task is under way and that he would ensure its success.

As the Sikh diaspora spans the globe so do the numerous Sikh organizations who claim to
represent the interest of the Sikhs. We need more organizations to come forward and lend their
support to these initiatives because otherwise we are headed for a disaster in terms of heritage
and the unique corpus of literature being destroyed for ever. The rich legacy of the Sikh
manuscript tradition should not be a footnote in history but a proud moment to showcase this
important tradition for future generations to come.

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1
There are several Sri Dasam Granth manuscripts created in the Tenth Gurus lifetime. Two of which are the Anandpuri Bir
with internal dates of 1695 and 1696 and the Patna Sahib bir of 1698.
2
A Guru Granth Sahib at Takht Sri Patna Sahib carries the Nishan of the Tenth Guru. See my article, Sri Takht Harimandir
Sahib Patna Sahib: A perspective of its History and Maryada, Sant Siphai, September 2008, p41
3
The Shikasta Script is very unique script mainly seen in Islamic manuscripts and books and it was employed by some of
the Gurus most notably Guru Hargobind and Guru Tegh Bahadur in their Hukumnamas. This innovation was limited to the
Sikh Gurus and the Guru Gobind Singh uses this style in abundance in his Hukumanamas we do not see this style of writing
continued with his widows or his followers.
4
Bhai Mani Singh bir, kept at the house of Raja Gulab Singh Sethi, New Delhi. The Granth was been compiled authorwise
starting with Mohall1 until Mohall 10, with the bhagats work at the end.
5
A Baba Deep Singh Dasam Granth is kept at Damdama Sahib and one of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib recensions is kept at
Takht Hazur Sahib.
6
The Maharaja spent huge sums of money undertaking the new developments and restoration of Takhts Sri Patna Sahib and
Sri Hazur Sahib.
7
Whilst Sikh religious thought quite clearly demonstrates the worship of one God, many manuscripts show pictures of non
Sikhs gods and goddesses. As most of the Kashmiri scribes were not Sikh the idea of other deities was prevalent but also
noteworthy is that the manuscripts that were created for patrons who may not have been Sikh.
8
The Kartapuri Bir, said to be the Pothi created by Bhai Gurdas and which contains the Nishans of both Guru Arjan Dev
and Guru Hargobind and kept with the Sodhis, has been given the lamination treatment.
9
See Gurudwara Angitha Sahib cremates old volumes of Guru Granth Sahib, Asheesh Goel, ANI, November 23 2008.
10
I have helped the group in this project at the British Library.
11
Visit www.nanakshahi.org for details of the work they are undertaking.

Gurinder Singh Mann, UK, is currently working on the several Sikh projects in the UK and abroad. He is keen to
hear from anyone who has information on any Sikh and Punjabi manuscripts. He can be contacted on
admin@sikhnugget.com.