A Sikh (/siːk, sɪk/; Punjabi: ਸਿੱਖ sikkh [sɪkkʰ]) is a follower of Sikhism, a monotheistic religion which originated during the 15th century in the Punjab region of South Asia. The term "Sikh" has its origin in the Sanskrit words शिष्य (śiṣya; disciple, student) or शिक्ष (śikṣa; instruction). A Sikh, according to Article I of the Sikh Rehat Maryada (the Sikh code of conduct), is "any human being who faithfully believes in One Immortal Being; ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh; Guru Granth Sahib; the teachings of the ten Gurus and the baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru". "Sikh" properly refers to adherents of Sikhism as a religion, not an ethnic group. However, because Sikhism has seldom sought converts, most Sikhs share strong ethno-religious ties. Many countries, such as the U.K., therefore recognize Sikh as a designated ethnicity on their censuses. The American non-profit organization United Sikhs has fought to have Sikh included on the U.S. census as well, arguing that Sikhs "self-identify as an 'ethnic minority'" and believe "that they are more than just a religion".

Male Sikhs usually have "Singh" (Lion), and female Sikhs have "Kaur" (prince) as their middle or last name. Sikhs who have undergone the khanḍe-kī-pahul (the Sikh initiation ceremony) may also be recognised by the five Ks: Kesh uncut hair which is kept covered, usually by a turban to protect the Dasam Duwar ("god head"); an iron or steel bracelet (kara); a kirpan (a sword tucked into a gatra strap or a kamal kasar belt); kachehra, a cotton undergarment, and kanga, a small wooden comb. Initiated male Sikhs must cover their hair with a turban. The greater Punjab region is the historic homeland of the Sikhs, although significant communities exist around the world.


Guru Nanak (1469â€"1538), founder of Sikhism, was born to Mehta Kalu and Mata Tripta, in a Hindu family in the village of Talwandi, now called Nankana Sahib, near Lahore. Guru Nanak was a religious leader and social reformer. However, Sikh political history may be said to begin with the death of the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev, in 1606. Religious practices were formalised by Guru Gobind Singh on 30 March 1699. Singh initiated five people from a variety of social backgrounds, known as the Panj Piare (the five beloved ones) to form the Khalsa, or collective body of initiated Sikhs. The Sikh faith has generally had amicable relations with other religions, except for the period of Mughal rule in India (1556â€"1707). Several Sikh gurus were killed by the Mughals for opposing their persecution of minority religious communities including Sikhs. Sikhs subsequently militarised to oppose Mughal rule.

The emergence of the Sikh Confederacy under Ranjit Singh was characterised by religious tolerance and pluralism, with Christians, Muslims and Hindus in positions of power. The confederacy is considered the zenith of political Sikhism, encompassing Kashmir, Ladakh and Peshawar. Hari Singh Nalwa, the commander-in-chief of the Sikh army in the North West Frontier, expanded the confederacy to the Khyber Pass. Its secular administration implemented military, economic and governmental reforms.

After the annexation of the Sikh kingdom by the British, the latter recognized the Martial qualities of the Sikhs and Punjabis in general and started recruiting from that area. During the 1857 Indian mutiny, the Sikhs stayed loyal to the British. This resulted in heavy recruiting from Punjab to the colonial army for the next 90 years of the British Raj. The distinct turban that differentiates a Sikh from other turban wearers is a relic of the rules of the British Indian Army.

The months leading up to the partition of India in 1947 were marked by conflict in the Punjab between Sikhs and Muslims. This caused the religious migration of Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus from West Punjab, mirroring a similar religious migration of Punjabi Muslims from East Punjab.

The 1960s saw growing animosity between Sikhs and Hindus in India, with the Sikhs demanding the creation of a Punjab state on a linguistic basis similar to other states in India. This was promised to Sikh leader Master Tara Singh by Jawaharlal Nehru, in return for Sikh political support during negotiations for Indian independence. Although the Sikhs obtained the Punjab, they lost Hindi-speaking areas to Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Chandigarh was made a union territory and the capital of Haryana and Punjab on 1 November 1966.

Tensions arose again during the late 1970s, fueled by Sikh claims of discrimination and marginalisation by the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress party and tactics adopted by the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

According to Katherine Frank, Indira Gandhi's assumption of emergency powers in 1975 resulted in the weakening of the "legitimate and impartial machinery of government", and her increasing "paranoia" about opposing political groups led her to institute a "despotic policy of playing castes, religions and political groups against each other for political advantage". Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale articulated Sikh demands for justice, and this triggered violence in the Punjab. The prime minister's 1984 defeat of Bhindranwale led to an attack on the Golden Temple in Operation Blue Star and to her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Gandhi's assassination resulted in an explosion of violence against Sikh communities and the killing of thousands of Sikhs throughout India. Khushwant Singh described the riots as a Sikh pogrom; he "felt like a refugee in my country. In fact, I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany". Since 1984, relations between Sikhs and Hindus have moved toward a rapprochement aided by economic prosperity. However, a 2002 claim by the Hindu right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that "Sikhs are Hindus" disturbed Sikh sensibilities. The Khalistan movement campaigns for justice for the victims of the violence, and for the political and economic needs of the Punjab.

During the 1999 Vaisakhi, Sikhs worldwide celebrated the 300th anniversary of the creation of the Khalsa. Canada Post honoured Sikh Canadians with a commemorative stamp in conjunction with the 300th anniversary of Vaisakhi. On April 9, 1999, Indian president K.R. Narayanan issued a stamp commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa.

Sikh Culture and Religious Observations

Five Ks

The five Ks (panj kakaar) are five articles of faith which all baptized Sikhs (Amritdhari Sikhs) are obliged to wear. The symbols represent the ideals of Sikhism: honesty, equality, fidelity, meditating on God and never bowing to tyranny. The five symbols are:

  • Kesh: Uncut hair, usually tied and wrapped in a Dastar
  • Kanga: A wooden comb, usually worn under a Dastar
  • Kachera: Cotton undergarments, historically appropriate in battle due to increased mobility when compared to a dhoti. Worn by both sexes, the kachera is a symbol of chastity.
  • Kara: An iron bracelet, a weapon and a symbol of eternity
  • Kirpan: An iron dagger in different sizes. In the UK Sikhs can wear a small dagger, but in the Punjab they might wear a traditional curved sword from one to three feet in length.

Music and instruments

The Sikhs have a number of musical instruments: the rabab, dilruba, taus, jori and saranda. Playing the sarangi was encouraged in Guru Har Gobind. The rabab was first played by Bhai Mardana as he accompanied Guru Nanak on his journeys. The jori and saranda were designed by Guru Arjan. The taus was made by Guru Gobind Singh Ji, who supposedly heard a peacock singing and wanted to create an instrument mimicking its sounds (taus is the Persian word for peacock). The dilruba was made by Guru Gobind Singh at the request of his followers, who wanted a smaller instrument than the taus. After Japji Sahib, all of the shabad in the Guru Granth Sahib were composed as raags. This type of singing is known as Gurmat Sangeet.

When they marched into battle, the Sikhs would play a Ranjit Nagara (victory drum) to boost morale. Nagaras (usually two to three feet in diameter, although some were up to five feet in diameter) are played with two sticks. The beat of the large drums, and the raising of the Nishan Sahib, meant that the singhs were on their way.


Numbering about 27 million worldwide, Sikhs make up 0.39 percent of the world population; approximately 83 percent live in India. About 76 percent of all Sikhs live in the north Indian State of Punjab, where they form a majority (about two-thirds) of the population. Substantial communities of Sikhs (more than 200,000) live in the Indian states or union territories of Haryana (more than 1.1 million), Rajasthan, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir.

Sikh migration from British India began in earnest during the second half of the 19th century, when the British completed their annexation of the Punjab. The British Raj recruited Sikhs for the Indian Civil Service (particularly the British Indian Army), which led to Sikh migration throughout India and the British Empire. During the Raj, semiskilled Sikh artisans were transported from the Punjab to British East Africa to help build railroads. Sikhs emigrated from India and Pakistan after World War II, most going to the United Kingdom but many to North America. Some Sikhs who had settled in eastern Africa were expelled by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 1972. Economics is a major factor in Sikh migration, and significant communities exist in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Malaysia, East Africa, Australia and Thailand.

Although the rate of Sikh migration from the Punjab has remained high, traditional patterns of Sikh migration favouring English-speaking countries (particularly the United Kingdom) have changed during the past decade due to stricter immigration laws. Moliner (2006) wrote that as a consequence of Sikh migration to the UK "becom[ing] virtually impossible since the late 1970s", migration patterns evolved to continental Europe. Italy is a rapidly growing destination for Sikh migration, with Reggio Emilia and Vicenza having significant Sikh population clusters. Italian Sikhs are generally involved in agriculture, agricultural processing, the manufacture of machine tools and horticulture.

Primarily for socio-economic reasons, Indian Sikhs have the lowest adjusted growth rate of any major religious group in India, at 16.9 percent per decade (estimated from 1991 to 2001). Johnson and Barrett (2004) estimate that the global Sikh population increases annually by 392,633 (1.7 percent per year, based on 2004 figures); this percentage includes births, deaths and conversions.

Sikh castes

Sikh Gurus criticised the hierarchy of the caste system, however, one does exist in the Sikh community. Over 60% of Sikhs belong to the Jat caste, which is a rural caste. Despite being very small in numbers, the mercantile Khatri and Arora castes wield considerable influence within the Sikh community. Other Sikhs castes include the Ramgarhias (artisans), the Ahluwalias (formerly Kalals (brewers)) and the two Dalit castes, known in Sikh terminology as the Mazhabis and the Ramdasias .

According to Sunrinder S, Jodhka, the Sikh religion does not advocate discrimination against any caste or creed, however, in practice, Sikhs belonging to the landowning dominant castes have not shed all their prejudices against the dalit castes. While dalits would be allowed entry into the village gurudwaras they would not be permitted to cook or serve langar (Communal meal). Therefore, wherever they could mobilise resources, the Sikh dalits of Punjab have tried to construct their own gurudwara and other local level institutions in order to attain a certain degree of cultural autonomy. In 1953, the government of India acceded to the demands of the Sikh leader, Master Tara Singh, to include Sikh castes of the converted untouchables in the list of scheduled castes. In the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, 20 of the 140 seats are reserved for low-caste Sikhs.


Sikhs have been represented in Indian politics by former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and the deputy chairman of the Indian Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is also a Sikh. Past Sikh politicians in India include former president Giani Zail Singh, Sardar Swaran Singh (India's first foreign minister), Speaker of Parliament Gurdial Singh Dhillon and former Chief Minister of Punjab Pratap Singh Kairon.

Politicians from the Sikh diaspora include the first Asian American member of the United States Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, British MPs Piara Khabra, Parmjit Dhanda and Paul Uppal, the first couple to sit together in a Commonwealth parliament (Gurmant Grewal and Nina Grewal, who requested a Canadian government apology for the Komagata Maru incident), former Canadian Shadow Social Development Minister Ruby Dhalla, Canadian Minister of State for Sport Baljit Singh Gosal and Legislative Assembly of Ontario members Vic Dhillon and Jagmeet Singh. Ujjal Dosanjh was the New Democratic Party Premier of British Columbia from July 2004 to February 2005, and was later a Liberal frontbench MP in Ottawa. In Malaysia, two Sikhs were elected MPs in the 2008 general elections: Karpal Singh (Bukit Gelugor) and his son, Gobind Singh Deo (Puchong). Two Sikhs were elected assemblymen: Jagdeep Singh Deo (Datuk Keramat) and Keshvinder Singh (Malim Nawar).

According to a 1994 estimate, Punjabis (Sikhs and non-Sikhs) comprised 10 to 15 percent of all ranks in the Indian Army, although the state contained less than 3% of the country's population. The Indian government does not release religious or ethnic origins of the military personnel, but a 1991 report by Tim McGirk estimated that 20 percent of Indian Army officers were Sikhs. Apart from the Gurkhas recruited from Nepal, the Sikhs remain the only community to have exclusive regiments in the Indian Army. The Sikh Regiment is one of the most-decorated regiments in the army, with 73 Battle Honours, 14 Victoria Crosses, 21 first-class Indian Orders of Merit (equivalent to the Victoria Cross), 15 Theatre Honours, five COAS Unit Citations, two Param Vir Chakras, 14 Maha Vir Chakras, five Kirti Chakras, 67 Vir Chakras and 1,596 other awards. The highest-ranking general in the history of the Indian Air Force is a Punjabi Sikh, Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh. Plans by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence for a Sikh infantry regiment were scrapped in June 2007.

Historically, most Indians have been farmers and 66 percent of the Indian population are engaged in agriculture. Indian Sikhs are employed in agriculture to a lesser extent; India's 2001 census found 39 percent of the working population of the Punjab employed in this sector. The success of the 1960s Green Revolution, in which India went from "famine to plenty, from humiliation to dignity", was based in the Punjab (which became known as "the breadbasket of India"). The Punjab is the wealthiest Indian state per capita, with the average Punjabi income three times the national average. The Green Revolution centred on Indian farmers adopting more intensive and mechanised agricultural methods, aided by the electrification of the Punjab, cooperative credit, consolidation of small holdings and the existing, British Raj-developed canal system. According to Swedish political scientist Ishtiaq Ahmad, a factor in the success of the Indian green revolution was the "Sikh cultivator, often the Jat, whose courage, perseverance, spirit of enterprise and muscle prowess proved crucial". However, not all aspects of the green revolution were beneficial. Indian physicist Vandana Shiva wrote that the green revolution made the "negative and destructive impacts of science [i.e. the green revolution] on nature and society" invisible, and was a catalyst for Punjabi Sikh and Hindu tensions despite a growth in material wealth.

Punjabi Sikhs are engaged in a number of professions which include science, engineering and medicine. Notable examples are nuclear scientist Piara Singh Gill (who worked on the Manhattan Project), fibre-optics pioneer Narinder Singh Kapany and physicist, science writer and broadcaster Simon Singh.

In business, the UK-based clothing retailers New Look and the Thai-based Jaspal were founded by Sikhs. India's largest pharmaceutical company, Ranbaxy Laboratories, is headed by Sikhs. UK Sikhs have the highest percentage of home ownership (82 percent) of any religious community. UK Sikhs are the second-wealthiest (after the Jewish community) religious group in the UK, with a median total household wealth of £229,000. In Singapore Kartar Singh Thakral expanded his family's trading business, Thakral Holdings, into total assets of almost $1.4 billion and is Singapore's 25th-richest person. Sikh Bob Singh Dhillon is the first Indo-Canadian billionaire. The Sikh diaspora has been most successful in North America, especially in California’s fertile Central Valley. American Sikh farmers such as Harbhajan Singh Samra and Didar Singh Bains dominate California agriculture, with Samra specialising in okra and Bains in peaches.

Sikh intellectuals, sportsmen and artists include writer Khushwant Singh, England cricketer Monty Panesar, former 400m runner Milkha Singh, Indian wrestler and actor Dara Singh, former Indian hockey team captains Ajitpal Singh and Balbir Singh Sr., former Indian cricket captain Bishen Singh Bedi, Harbhajan Singh (India's most successful off spin cricket bowler), Navjot Singh Sidhu (former Indian cricketer turned politician). Bollywood actresses include Neetu Singh, Poonam Dhillon, Mahi Gill, Esha Deol, Parminder Nagra, Gul Panag, Mona Singh, Sunny Leone, Namrata Singh Gujral and director Gurinder Chadha.

Sikhs have migrated worldwide, with a variety of occupations. The Sikh Gurus preached ethnic and social harmony, and Sikhs comprise a number of ethnic groups. Those with over 1,000 members include the Ahluwalia, Arain, Arora, Bhatra, Bairagi, Bania, Basith, Bawaria, Bazigar, Bhabra, Chamar, Chhimba, Darzi, Dhobi, Gujar, Jatt, Jhinwar, Kahar, Kalal, Kamboj, Khatri, Kumhar, Labana, Lohar, Mahtam, Mazhabi, Megh, Mirasi, Mochi, Mohyal, Nai, Rajput, Ramgarhia, Saini, Sudh, Tarkhan.

An order of Punjabi Sikhs, the Nihang or the Akalis, was formed during Ranjit Singh's time. Under their leader, Akali Phula Singh, they won many battles for the Sikh Confederacy during the early 19th century.

In the Indian and British armies

Sikhs supported the British during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. By the beginning of World War I, Sikhs in the British Indian Army totaled over 100,000 (20 percent of the force). Until 1945 fourteen Victoria Crosses were awarded to Sikhs, a per-capita regimental record. In 2002 the names of all Sikh VC and George Cross recipients were inscribed on the monument of the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill, next to Buckingham Palace. Chanan Singh Dhillon was instrumental in campaigning for the memorial.

During World War I, Sikh battalions fought in Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and France. Six battalions of the Sikh Regiment were raised during World War II, serving in the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Burma and Italian campaigns and in Iraq and receiving 27 battle honours. Around the world, Sikhs are commemorated in Commonwealth cemeteries.

In the last two world wars 83,005 turban wearing Sikh soldiers were killed and 109,045 were wounded fighting for the British Empire. During shell fire, they had no other head protection but the turban, the symbol of their faith.

British people are highly indebted and obliged to Sikhs for a long time. I know that within this century we needed their help twice [in two world wars] and they did help us very well. As a result of their timely help, we are today able to live with honour, dignity, and independence. In the war, they fought and died for us, wearing the turbans.

Sikh Diaspora

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sikhs began to emigrate to East Africa, the Far East, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. In 1907 the Khalsa Diwan Society was established in Vancouver, and four years later the first gurdwara was established in London. In 1912 the first gurdwara in the United States was founded in Stockton, California.

Since Sikhs (like Middle Eastern men) wear turbans, some in Western countries have been mistaken for Muslim or Arabic men since the September 11 attacks and the Iraq War. Several days after the 9/11 attacks Sikh Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered by Frank Roque, who thought Sodhi was connected with al-Qaeda. CNN suggested an increase in hate crimes against Sikh men in the United States and the UK after the 9/11 attacks.

Since Sikhism has never actively sought converts, the Sikhs have remained a relatively homogeneous ethnic group. The Kundalini Yoga-based activities of Harbhajan Singh Yogi in his 3HO (Happy, Healthy, Holy) organisation claim to have inspired a moderate growth in non-Indian adherents of Sikhism. In 1998 an estimated 7,800 3HO Sikhs, known colloquially as ‘gora’ (ਗੋਰਾ) or ‘white’ Sikhs, were mainly centred around Española, New Mexico and Los Angeles, California. Sikhs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund overturned a 1925 Oregon law banning the wearing of turbans by teachers and government officials.

In an attempt to foster Sikh leaders in the Western world, youth initiatives by a number of organisations have begun. The Sikh Youth Alliance of North America sponsors an annual Sikh Youth Symposium, a public-speaking and debate competition held in gurdwaras throughout the U.S. and Canada. There are a number of sikhs office holders in Canada. In the United States, the current governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley was born and raised as a Sikh but has converted to Christianity after her marriage.

Art and culture

Sikh art and culture are nearly synonymous with that of the Punjab, and Sikhs are easily recognised by their distinctive turban (Dastar). The Punjab has been called India’s melting pot, due to the confluence of invading cultures from the rivers from which the region gets its name. Sikh culture is therefore a synthesis of cultures. Sikhism has forged a unique architecture, which S. S. Bhatti described as "inspired by Guru Nanak’s creative mysticism" and "is a mute harbinger of holistic humanism based on pragmatic spirituality".

During the Mughal and Afghan persecution of the Sikhs during the 17th and 18th centuries, the latter were concerned with preserving their religion and gave little thought to art and culture. With the rise of Ranjit Singh and the Sikh Raj in Lahore and Delhi, there was a change in the landscape of art and culture in the Punjab; Hindus and Sikhs could build decorated shrines without the fear of destruction or looting.

The Sikh Confederacy was the catalyst for a uniquely Sikh form of expression, with Ranjit Singh commissioning forts, palaces, bungas (residential places) and colleges in a Sikh style. Sikh architecture is characterised by gilded fluted domes, cupolas, kiosks, stone lanterns, ornate balusters and square roofs. A pinnacle of Sikh style is Harmandir Sahib (also known as the Golden Temple) in Amritsar.

Sikh culture is influenced by militaristic motifs (with the Khanda the most obvious), and most Sikh artifactsâ€"except for the relics of the Gurusâ€"have a military theme. This theme is evident in the Sikh festivals of Hola Mohalla and Vaisakhi, which feature marching and displays of valor.

Although the art and culture of the Sikh diaspora have merged with that of other Indo-immigrant groups into categories like "British Asian", "Indo-Canadian" and "Desi-Culture", a minor cultural phenomenon which can be described as "political Sikh" has arisen. The art of diaspora Sikhs like Amarjeet Kaur Nandhra and Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh (the "Singh Twins") is influenced by their Sikhism and current affairs in the Punjab.

Bhangra and Giddha are two forms of Punjabi folk dancing which have been adapted and pioneered by Sikhs. Punjabi Sikhs have championed these forms of expression worldwide, resulting in Sikh culture becoming linked to Bhangra (although "Bhangra is not a Sikh institution but a Punjabi one").


Sikh painting is a direct offshoot of the Kangra school of painting. In 1810, Ranjeet Singh (1780â€"1839) occupied Kangra Fort and appointed Sardar Desa Singh Majithia his governor of the Punjab hills. In 1813 the Sikh army occupied Guler State, and Raja Bhup Singh became a vassal of the Sikhs. With the Sikh kingdom of Lahore becoming the paramount power, some of the Pahari painters from Guler migrated to Lahore for the patronage of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and his Sardars.

The Sikh school adapted Kangra painting to Sikh needs and ideals. Its main subjects are the ten Sikh gurus and stories from Guru Nanak's Janamsakhis. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, left a deep impression on the followers of the new faith because of his courage and sacrifices. Hunting scenes and portraits are also common in Sikh painting.

See also

  • List of Sikhs
  • List of Sikh soldiers
  • List of Sikhs in Bollywood
  • Guru Gobind Singh
  • Ganga Sagar (urn)

References and notes

Further reading

  • The Sikhs In History: A Millennium Study by Sangat Singh, Noel Quinton King. New York 1995. ISBN 81-900650-2-5
  • A History of the Sikhs: Volume 1: 1469â€"1838 by Khushwant Singh. Oxford India Paperbacks (13 January 2005). ISBN 0-19-567308-5
  • The Sikhs by Patwant Singh. Image (17 July 2001). ISBN 0-385-50206-0
  • The Sikhs of the Punjab by J. S. Grewal. Published by Cambridge University Press (28 October 1998). ISBN 0-521-63764-3.
  • The Sikhs: History, Religion, and Society by W.H. McLeod. Published by Columbia University Press (15 April 1989). ISBN 0-231-06815-8
  • The Sikh Diaspora: Tradition and Change in an Immigrant Community (Asian Americans â€" Reconceptualising Culture, History, Politics) by Michael Angelo. Published by Routledge (1 September 1997). ISBN 0-8153-2985-7
  • Glory of Sikhism by R. M. Chopra, Sanbun Publishers, 2001, ISBN 978-3-4734-7119-5.

External links

  • DiscoverSikhism.com â€" Site covering a range of Sikh topics, beliefs and the Sikh way of life
  • Sikhs.org â€" general resource site introducing the main concepts of Sikhism
  • The BBC page on Sikhism
  • SikhPhilosophy.net â€"An Interactive Resource on Sikh Philosoph
  • Sikh-History.com

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