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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

CAT. NO. 76

Guru Nanak

Lahore or Amritsar, mid-nineteenth century

From a series depicting the ten Sikh Gurus | Painting in opaque watercolour including gold and metallic paints on paper with painted margins | 32.5 × 24.9 cm (page); 18.2 × 12.2 cm (image) | RCIN 925202

The most common subjects depicted in Sikh art are the ten gurus and, of these, depictions of Nanak, the first Sikh Guru (1469–1539), are undoubtedly the most popular.[255] This painting is one of a series depicting all ten, of which the first nine are in the Royal Collection. Guru Nanak is typically represented as a wise, elderly man wearing an ascetic’s domed cap with upturned flaps (mukat), a rosary (mala), a cord around his neck (seli) and a crutch (bairagan).[256] Here he is depicted wearing a dervish’s patched garment and Kashmiri shawl, and gesturing towards his companion, Mardana, who is playing the rabab. Mardana’s instrument was supposedly a gift from the Guru who encouraged him to play and sing devotional hymns (kirtan) wherever they travelled. 

Sharing several of the ideals of both Islamic Sufism and the Hindu bakhti movement, Sikhism emerged in the Punjab as a distinct religion which aimed to unite Hindus and Muslims, its essential belief being the ‘oneness’ of all existence through an ‘unborn, eternal and indefinable’ creator.[257] There is a popular saying in the Punjab, Nanak Shah faqir / Hindu ka guru / Musulman ka pir, ‘Nanak the King, but also the faqir (‘holy man’); to the Hindus a guru (‘teacher’), for the Muslims a pir (‘saint’).’[258] Guru Nanak’s simple messages of tolerance, equality and community attracted followers known as ‘Sikhs’, from a Punjabi word meaning ‘disciple’ or ‘learner’. Before he died, Nanak appointed a successor, establishing a lineage that terminated with the death of the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, in 1708. His spiritual lineage is sustained to this day in the Sikh Holy Scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, each copy considered the embodiment of the Guru. 

This series of paintings in which each of the Gurus is depicted on a riverside, Mughal-style terrace listening to a musical performance of a devotee was probably produced for a member of the Sikh nobility either in Lahore or Amritsar, the second city of the Punjab but the province’s wealthy commercial and sacred capital. The names of the Gurus are written above each portrait in Punjabi in the gurmukhi script, meaning ‘from the mouth of the Guru’, used to write the Guru Granth Sahib.

  • In Punjabi (gurmukhi script): guru nanak-ji 

  • [255] For painted depictions of Sikh gurus see Goswamy 2006 and Archer 1966. For a similar painting see BL MS Or. 5259.

    [256] McLeod 1991, p. 24.

    [257] Singh 1999, p. 14.

    [258] Goswamy 2006, p. 130. 

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