When Babar came to India there lived in the Punjab a saint called Nanak. You have already read of the part he played in the Bhakti movement. He believed that the system of caste was wrong and that all men, whether they were Brahmins or Shudras, Hindus or Muslims, were the same in the eyes of God. Many people collected round Nanak and called him their Guru. These followers came to be known as Sikhs, which means shishyas or disciples. That is how the Sikh community began.
THE TEN GURUS
When Guru Nanak felt that he was about to die, he did not let either of his two sons succeed him but chose a faithful disciple to carry on his work. In this way, the Sikhs had ten Gurus. At first the Sikhs were a quiet and peaceful people, interested only in the worship of God. Emperor Akbar who respected all religions gave their Guru a piece of land, where there was also a small tank, to build a temple. This temple was later re-built in marble and its domes covered with gold leaf. Around it grew up the biggest trading centre of the Punjab and it came to be known as Amritsar. It is even today the holiest place of pilgrimage for the Sikhs.
The fifth Guru, Arjun Dev, compiled the Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs. This book has not only the writings of the Sikh Gurus but also of many Hindu and Muslim saints like Kabir, Farid and Namdev.
How did a peaceful people like the Sikhs become so warlike? Because, the Mughals started to ill-treat them. You will remember that the sons of Jahangir rebelled against their father. Guru Arjun helped one of the rebellious princes. This made the emperor so angry that he had the Guru imprisoned, and finally put to death.
The murder of their Guru caused great anger among the Sikhs. Their next Guru, who was the son of Guru Arjun Dev, refused to put on the necklaces that the people offered as tokens of their respect. He said, "The only necklace I will wear is my sword-belt." He organized his followers and raised a small army. He was arrested and had to spend twelve long years in a Mughal prison.
Aurangzeb cared for no religion except his own. In his time, Tegh Bahadur was the Sikh Guru. He was arrested and ordered to give up his faith. When he refused he was beheaded.
Tegh Bahadur's son, Gobind, was the last Guru of the Sikhs. Under his guidance, the Sikhs became a very large and powerful brotherhood of soldiers. He called them Khalsa or 'The Pure.' To become Khalsas, the Sikhs had to be baptized. They were given 'amrit', after it had been stirred by a dagger, to drink. They were given new names with Singh, which means 'lion' at the end. They promised to keep themselves ready to defend their faith and their people and always carry kirpans or swords on their person. Like the sages of ancient times, they were ordered never to cut their hair or beards but to become an army of soldier-saints. When Guru Gobind Singh passed away, he told his people that after him there would be no Guru but that they must regard the Adi Granth as their teacher. That is why the book is called Guru Granth Sahib.
The struggle between the Sikhs and the Mughals lasted for more than a hundred years. There was a lot of bloodshed and hundreds of Sikhs were killed for refusing to give up their religion.
After Guru Gobind, the Sikhs found a remarkable leader in a man called Banda. He was an unknown sadhu whom the Guru met just before he was murdered. Banda swore to avenge the cruelties inflicted by the Mughals. The Sikhs flocked into Banda's army. They defeated the Mughal armies and looted the district of Sirhind. Then the royal army came from Delhi. Banda and his soldiers fled to Gurdaspur. The army pursued them and surrounded them on all sides. After many months of terrible hardships the Sikhs were forced to surrender. Banda, his wife and little son, together with a thousand of their soldiers were captured and taken to Delhi. There they were treated with great cruelty and most of them were killed.
The Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali also tried to wipe out the Sikhs and destroyed their temple at Amritsar. The Sikhs were quick to take revenge. They fell on his retreating army and deprived it of the loot he was taking away.
The Sikhs divided themselves into twelve groups called misls. The leadership of one of these misls fell to a very able and daring young boy called Ranjit Singh. He brought the Sikhs together and made a great people out of them. Although he was short and thin and had only one eye, he was a born fighter, and a wonderful horseman.
At the age of eighteen, Ranjit Singh became ruler of Lahore, the main city of the Punjab. After Lahore he took Amritsar, Multan and then Peshawar and some places beyond it. He rebuilt the temple at Amritsar in marble and covered its domes with gold.
A big danger which faced the Sikh kingdom was the British who were by now masters of the whole of India except the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was a wise man and knew that it was no use fighting them until he was strong enough to do so. He remained friendly and agreed that the river Sutlej should be the boundary line between the British territory and his own. Ranjit Singh ruled for forty years and worked hard to make the Sikhs a mighty power.
The Khalsa army built up by Ranjit Singh was over 50,000 strong and trained by European officers. After Ranjit Singh there were ten years of chaos when one after another of the Sikh rulers were murdered by their relatives. The British found a golden opportunity and moved up their troops to the Sutlej and started building bridges across the river. The Sikhs forestaIled them and waded across a ford to the other side. There were four bloody battles fought between the British and the Khalsa army and at last, let down by traitors in their ranks, the Sikhs laid down their arms. The Sikh kingdom was annexed. Its infant ruler Dalip Singh was taken prisoner and removed to England. The famous diamond Koh-i-Noor which the Sikhs had wrested from the heirs of Nadir Shah was taken and cut up to adorn the British Crown. This was nearly a hundred and twenty years ago.