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the evolution of sikhism and the khalsa identity

Sikhism originally started as an individualistic and pacifist religion, but morphed into a faith focused on a militaristic and warrior approach. Punjab, before Sikhism was founded, consisted of various tribes scattered throughout the state, with a social hierarchy based on the caste system (Singh 2004a:26). In the 1500s, Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, created a sense of Punjabi nationalism with his belief in an individual religion with an omnipresent god, focused entirely on self-discipline and equality for all people (Singh 2004a: 45). Earlier passages in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, emphasize the importance of individual enlightenment instead of a communal identity: “Those who take on the mind are the greatest of heroes, Through their knowledge of self they stay merged in the Lord” (Shakle and Mandair 47).  The Khalsa, or soldier-saint, identity developed under the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, as a result of constant invasions into Punjab and became the only way to preserve the faith in these times of tumult. As the Khalsa became more established, it also became a symbol of the strength for the Sikhs. A fully united Khalsa has indicated prosperity and power for the Sikhs throughout Indian history.

Guru Nanak, the First Sikh Guru

As Sikhism was beginning to emerge, Muslim rulers from Persia were gaining more of a stronghold in the Indian subcontinent. Babar was the first Mughal ruler in 1527, and his successors varied in their tolerance towards other religions in India. Emperor Akbar, a powerful and tolerant Mughal king ruled from 1556-1605, respected the growing prevalence of Sikhism in India, even awarding Guru Ram Das the land on which the Golden Temple would later be built. However, the next Mughal ruler, Jehangir, who ruled from 1605 to 1627, was influenced by the prejudiced views of people in his courts and developed a strong hatred of the emerging Sikh religion (Sheob et al 170).  As the Mughals consolidated their control over India, Sikhism was gaining popularity and becoming more mainstream. Many of the Sikh beliefs, such as monotheism and equality for all people, aligned with Islam and went against Hindu traditions of purdah and the caste system. Consequently, these two religions began to form an alliance (Sheob et al 168).. This relationship threatened Brahminic Hinduism as many Hindus held important positions in the Mughal courts. There was a distinct hierarchy in Delhi, with Muslim rulers at the top, closely followed by the Hindu maharajas as their close advisors. As Muslims were in the minority in India, the Mughal rulers offered many more perks to the Hindus in order to appease them, as compared to their Muslim peers. The Orthodox Muslims, or ulemas, grew increasingly disgruntled and critical as the number of Hindus and the power wielded by them, grew in Mughal courts. The ulemas also began to feel threatened by the burgeoning Muslim-Sikh relationship and felt that if these alliances grew stronger it would undermine the preexisting fragile social order, even more (Sheob et al 172).

The ulemas were unsuccessful in spreading Islam under Akbar’s reign, so they proceeded to make a concerted effort with Jehangir to instigate his hatred for the Sikhs. They used flattery and referred to him as the “King of Islam,” in order to heavily influence him. These Muslims, together with the Hindus in the courts, worked together on a warrant for the death of Guru Arjun, falsely accusing the guru of undermining Jehangir’s position and sabotaging his rule (Sheob et al 172). Guru Arjun also had many enemies among the Hindus that were conspiring against him. His brother, Parthi Das, was upset that their father, Guru Ram Das, had picked Arjun, the younger sibling over him and had vowed revenge against his family by complaining to the Mughal courts. Chandu Lal, a Hindu also in the Muslim courts, began to plot against the guru after Guru Arjun refused the marriage proposal between Chandu Lal’s daughter and his son, the fifth guru, Hargobind. Chandu Lal alleged that Guru Arjun had written anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim books and was actively plotting to overthrow the Mughal leaders under the guise of a saint (Sheob et al 172). As the complaints against the Guru grew, they began to infuriate Jehangir; he said that “[The guru] was noised about as a religious and worldly leader… and from all directions fools would come to him and express great devotion to him.” Eventually, he had the guru arrested and decreed that “his property be confiscated, and that he should be put to death with torture” (Singh 57). The guru was tortured while in captivity and ultimately martyred on May 30, 1606.

This event was, perhaps, the pivotal turning point in the transformation of Sikhism from a pacifist religion to a warrior class. This led to the first confrontation between Sikhs and Muslims, and also revealed the growing tension between the Sikhs and the other religions in India at that time. Sikhism was under threat and the Sikhs had no other option than to band together to form a unified identity that could fight against the persecution they were facing (Sheob et al 173).

Guru Arjun’s son, Guru Hargobind, assumed the title of the next Sikh Guru and started to assemble an army and construct a fortress to defend against the series of clashes between the Sikhs and Muslims following the death of Guru Arjun. During the ceremony celebrating his accession as the next guru, Hargobind held two swords, which depicted him both as a spiritual and a political leader of the Sikh community. He said that his “rosary shall be the sword-belt,” showing the intersection between spirituality and a warrior identity (Singh 2004a: 60). Even the leisure time of the Sikhs was characterized by military exercises as Guru Nanak’s peaceful hymns turned into long discussions about battle strategies and victory songs. However, based on the sheer disparity in numbers of Sikhs and Muslims (the Sikhs being in the minority), the Sikhs realized that they would be unable to fend off Muslim attacks over an extended period of time (Singh 2004a:63). Guru Hargobind built a battle fortress near Amritsar and named it Lohgarh, which means castle of steel. Jahangir viewed this change in the Sikh identity as a threat to his throne and jailed Guru Hargobind for twelve years. The Guru was released after this time in exchange for a commitment of Sikh assistance in defending the Mughal throne against the other states in India that were beginning to mutiny against Mughals (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Hargobind”).

Guru Hargobind’s son, Guru Tegh Bahadur, became the ninth guru after the deaths of Guru Har Rai and Guru Har Krishen. The Mughal ruler at this time, Aurangzeb, was arguably one of the cruelest and most prejudiced Mughals (Sheob et al 175). He started his rule by demolishing Hindu temples, imposing taxes on non-Muslims and forcing conversions on Sikhs. When Guru Tegh Bahadur refused to convert to Islam, he was brought to Delhi and publicly executed in 1675. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s torture and subsequent execution further bolstered Sikh unity, so they could defend themselves from further persecution (Singh 2004a: 71).

This uncompromising unity became the first line of defense and survival and fully culminated into a distinct appearance for the Sikhs with the tenth and final guru, Guru Gobind Singh. With Aurangzeb’s increase in power after the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Sikhs experienced more aggression from the Mughals: their food supply was halted and they were trapped inside of their fortress. Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa and selected the Panj Pyare, or the five chosen ones in 1699. The Khalsa formalized the official metamorphosis of the Sikhs from pacifists to an organized military group, with a focus on external identity as the unifying force (Singh 2004a: 80). The Khalsa identity was defined by the five ‘Ks’: Kesh, meaning uncut hair, which was a symbol of strength, but also provided easy recognition of other Sikhs; Kara, a steel bracelet, showed a tangible connection to the guru; Kanga, a comb, demonstrates a pure body and soul; Kaccha, an undergarment, represents chastity; and finally, Kirpan, a symbolic sword, defines the warrior aspect of the saint-soldier Khalsa (BBC, 2009). The Guru’s four young sons were martyred by Mughal forces for their refusals to convert to Islam, so Guru Gobind Singh determined that the Khalsa and the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text, would become the path to practice Sikhism. Thus, the formation of a united warrior class became a necessity in order to preserve Sikhism, and is yet another example of the faith adapting with the circumstances at that time. This idea is illustrated in the Dasam Granth, a literary collection composed by Guru Gobind Singh. The Zafarnama section, written as a letter between the Guru and Aurangzeb, the Guru states, “Surrounded with no choice, in turn I too attacked with bow and gun. When matters pass all other means, it is allowed to take up arms” (Shackle and Mandair 140). This quotation highlights that the only way to defend Sikhism against cruelty and injustice was to form a warrior identity and fight back.

The Ten Sikh Gurus, with Nanak at the centre (Wiki Commons, Public Domain)

Banda Bahadur, a general in the guru’s army, fearlessly promoted the Khalsa and spread the guru’s word, after Guru Gobind Singh’s death in 1708. He was the first strong military leader of the Sikhs who was not a guru (Mahmood 108). He led a revolt that minimized Mughal power in Eastern Punjab and Haryana, but in retaliation, Banda, along with 700 other Khalsa soldiers were killed. With the loss of a strong leader, the Sikhs became outlaws, living in jungles where they would not be found and killing anyone who was associated with the Mughal Empire. This way of life became the only way for Sikhs to protect themselves and their faith. There was no strong Khalsa leader who could organize them militarily and, ultimately, this led to the persecution of Sikhs and diminished their power (Singh 2004a: 114).

In 1751, the Afghans began to invade Punjab, and there was a strong resurgence of the Khalsa, which led to the creation of the Sarbat Khalsa. The Sarbat Khalsa was a group of 11 different  misls, or tribes, led by strong leaders such as Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Hari Singh Bhagi. These misls met twice a year in a large gathering in Amritsar (Singh 2004a: 116). The Sikhs once again emerged overwhelmingly victorious against Afghans, because of strong leadership which unified the army through the spirit of the Khalsa. This approach radically changed the Sikhs from outlaws into an organized group of freedom fighters, with the strength of the religion unifying the community (Singh 2004a: 117). The unified Khalsa army became a necessity against the enemy, especially as the Afghans greatly outnumbered the Sikhs. Unfortunately, despite the unity of the Sarbat Khalsa, the Afghans easily overpowered the Sikhs in the Wada Ghallughara, or the Sikh genocide, in which almost a third of the Sikh population was killed in 1762. After this event, Ahmed Shah Abdali tried to attack Amristar and the Golden Temple, but the Sikhs were able to regroup and defend themselves, and eventually were able to reestablish control over all of Punjab (Singh 2004a: 147-48).

Unfortunately, as the misls began to disintegrate, there was a rise in conflict amongst Sikhs over land and the Khalsa became more about gaining individual power or wealth (Singh 2004a: 174). Sikhs also began to form alliances with the British, who were just starting to make their presence in India known, in order to create a Sikh stronghold in India. During this time, the Punjab was heavily divided and difficult to rule politically, causing the state to be particularly susceptible to attacks from invaders (Singh 2004a: 185). Finally, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was able to reunify Punjab and unite the Sikhs so they could defend themselves. He was able to accomplish this through a common language and way of life. He established a secular kingdom that honored Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims and advocated for the peasants, who made up the majority of Punjab. This sense of Punjabi identity and nationalism reinvigorated the Sikhs and strengthened the military spirit of the Khalsa. At the height of Ranjit Singh’s rule, the Sikh empire extended from modern day Afghanistan in the east to China in the west, even though Sikhs were a minority in India. The Maharaja was able to achieve both Guru Nanak’s dream of uniting the Sikhs and Muslims as well as Guru Gobind Singh’s vision of military brotherhood (Singh 2004a:193).

During this time of harmony in Punjab, the British Raj was beginning to gain more power in the rest of India. The first encounter between Sikhs and the British was in 1809 when Ranjit Singh attempted to conquer Malwa, but the British were able to defend themselves successfully. This conflict led to the Treaty of Amritsar which certified that the East India Company would not interfere with the Sikh kingdom from that time forward, as long as Singh would only expand north of the Sutlej River, but not south of it (where New Delhi is located) (Singh 2004a: 221-223).

Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 led to yet another series of conflicts in Punjab. The lack of a central authority weakened the Durbar, and the sense of Punjabi nationalism was lost without a strong leader. Prospective leaders were more focused on personal gain and the succession for the throne which meant that there was less of a focus on the needs of the people of Punjab (Singh 2004b: 5). The insecurity caused the army to become the most powerful political body in Punjab. It was called the Army Panchayat and claimed to act in the name of the Khalsa. In response to the anarchy, British troops began to move closer to the Punjab border under the pretext of restoring order. By offering Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, Sher Singh, and the Sandhawalia family special privileges to sabotage their own armies, the British Raj was able to quickly infiltrate Punjab (Singh 2004b: 18-21). Other leaders of Punjab, such as Maharani Jindan, Raja Lal Singh and Tej Singh were willing to sell Punjab to the British in exchange for their own personal safety. With a weakened Sikh army that was not united under one cause, the East India Company was able to conquer Jammu and Kashmir from the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh War in 1845; commanders of the Durbar army, Lal Singh and Tej Singh, were in communication with the British throughout the war. In the Battle of Ferozeshahr, Lord Hardinge, who was first to declare war on the Sikhs, issued a proclamation saying that those who left the Durbar would receive protection from the British, so once again, a weak Khalsa identity led to the defeat of the Sikhs (Singh 2004b: 49).

The Sikhs attempted to regain their land in the second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848, but the lack of a strong leader on the Sikh side resulted in yet another British victory. This event signaled the fall of the Sikh empire and culminated in the Treaty of Lahore, allowing the East India Company to take over all of Punjab by 1849 (Singh 2004b:81).

In order to prevent another Sikh uprising, the British assigned religion-based jobs in Punjab: Hindus conducted administrative work, Muslims were in the police force and Sikhs formed the army. Maharaja Dalip Singh, one of Ranjit Singh’s sons, was removed from India to prevent another nationalist movement; the Sikh flag was replaced by the Union Jack throughout Punjab, and the Rupee was introduced throughout India, instead of the Sikh currency. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India at the time, also wanted to destroy the Sikh identity to ensure that there was no chance of revolt, which he accomplished by turning the Hindus and Muslims in Punjab against the Sikhs. Sikh army soldiers were no longer trusted or deemed loyal, and as an unfortunate result, the Sikh soldiers lost their strong Khalsa spirit and became criminals (Singh 2004b: 87-88).

The Mutiny of 1857, a revolt that originally began between Bengali sepoys and British soldiers and spread to the rest of India was caused by the growing resentment against the British and their decrees including punitive taxes and forced conversions by Christian missionaries. The British used the old tactics of the Mughal rulers to convince the Sikhs to distrust Hindus and Muslims, in order to convince the Khalsa to side with the British during the riots. Together, the Sikhs and the British were able to conquer Delhi, capturing the palace of Bahadur Shah, the last heir to the Mughal throne. In exchange for their loyalty to the British during this tumultuous time, the Sikhs were given territory, money and palaces by the British (Singh 2004b: 109). They were also allowed back into the army and permitted to wear turbans, keep their beards and practice the tenets of the Khalsa to further foster the East India Company-Sikh relationship. This allowed the Sikhs to keep their identity, but also illustrates how the Sikhs had become more of an individual community within India without a sense of Indian nationalism or unity at this time (Singh 2004b: 112).

With the rise in Sikh conversions because of the advantages offered to them at the time by the British, different sects of the religions began to emerge. The Nirankari sect believed that the faith was beginning to merge into Hinduism (Singh 2004b: 123). To prevent this, they created their own ceremonies and disapproved of the militant Khalsa. The Radha Soamis established their own lineage of gurus to preserve the original message of Sikhism (Singh127). The Radha Soamis also disapproved of the military version of the Khalsa. Finally, the Kuka sect which followed the teachings of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh more strictly than other Sikhs and interpreted the Guru Granth Sahib literally (Singh 2004b: 135). These sects emerged from a need to preserve the Sikh power.

Reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, Pune, India

When England entered World War I in 1914, the British promised freedom to India in exchange for soldiers, weaponry and money. Sikhs formed 20% of the British army in the War, even though they only made up 2% of the Indian population at that time. Over 74,000 Indians fought in the war, most of them in trenches throughout Europe (BBC, 2015). They returned to India, expecting to be hailed as heroes, but instead were treated the same way as before (Singh 2004b: 161). During the war, the British began to impose heavy taxes on Indians, even though most people in Punjab were still recovering from a famine and an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1907. The government became significantly stricter in order to prevent another uprising in India during the war and instituted the Defense of India Act in 1915 (Singh 2004b: 183). With the end of the war, Indians expected these restrictions to loosen, but the Rowlatt Acts replaced these regulations in 1919. These acts essentially allowed Indians to be tried and imprisoned without a jury trial. Mahatma Gandhi called for a peaceful strike against these acts throughout the country. After several Punjabi political figures were arrested, violent riots began all over Punjab (Singh 2004b: 163).

In April 1919, 10,000 civilians were gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a garden in Amritsar to celebrate Basakhi, a spring festival. As large public gatherings were banned because of the ongoing riots, General Dyer, one of the officers of the British army and his troops opened fire on the families, killing almost 400 and injuring over 2000 people. After this incident, martial law was imposed in Amritsar and later included other districts in Punjab, including Lahore, Gujranwala, Lyallpur and the state of Gujarat (Singh 2004b: 164). The aftermath of World War I and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre caused a huge surge in nationalism throughout India and instead of a fragmented insurgency against the British, all of India became united against one common enemy. Protests against the Rowlatt Bills increased in aggression after Jallianwala Bagh, and British infrastructure, such as bridges, churches, and post offices were burnt and telephone and telegraph lines were cut. In response, General Dyer shut off Amristar’s water and electricity and Indians were forced to crawl on their stomachs on streets where British people had been attacked. These measures later spread to other districts in Punjab (Singh 2004b:165). Under Gandhi’s guidance, the Central Sikh League was created to oppose the Chief Khalsa Diwan, a Sikh political party established in 1902, who continued to support the British and General Dyer in order to gain more political standing. Once again, there was discord among the Sikhs and no common ideology to fight for, which weakened the religion (Singh 2004b: 167). However, after these incidents, in order to regain the Sikh favor, the British allowed Sikhs to carry kirpans with them and Sikh prisoners could wear turbans, showing that the best way to appease Sikhs as a whole revolved around preserving the Khalsa identity.

Before World War I, many Sikh peasants immigrated to Canada where they laid railway tracks for the Canadian Pacific Railways. After Canada passed its Immigration Law of 1910 which prohibited ‘artisans or laborers, skilled or unskilled’ from entering British Columbia, Sikhs immigrated to the United States, particularly California (Singh 2004b: 173). As a response to the large numbers of Sikh immigrants, Asiatic Exclusion League was established as a part of the US Immigration Department attempt to stop Indians from entering the country because of disease and violation of the “alien contract labor law” (Singh 2004b: 174). With the extreme racism against Sikhs, gurdwaras (Sikh temples) became safe havens for Sikhs and other Indians. The Khalsa Diwan Society was established in 1907 in Vancouver to build gurdwaras and religion once again became a factor that strengthened the Sikhs’ ability to defend themselves against the turmoil they were facing at that time (Singh 2004b: 175).

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese passenger ship chartered by a Sikh businessman named Gurdit Singh in the early 1900s, specifically to confront the unfair immigration laws in Canada and the US towards the Indians. The ship sailed from Hong Kong on May 23, 1914 via Shanghai and Yokohama and arrived in Coal Harbor, British Columbia, Canada, but was not allowed to dock because of the passengers’ race. The thoughts of the Canadians were clear: Canada was meant to be a “white man’s country” (The Canadian Encyclopedia, Johnston).  The British, who also controlled Canada’s immigration laws, were afraid that the new Indian immigrants would cause more rebellion on the eve of World War I. Finally, the Canadian government decided that they would only allow 24 immigrants of the 376 passengers to stay, of which 20 were returning citizens, and the Komagata Maru returned to India on July 23, 1914. When the ship arrived at the Kolkata harbor in India on September 27, 1914, all the passengers were declared enemies of the Raj. When the ship finally docked at Budge Budge Harbor, 20 supposed leaders were arrested. This created a violent riot, and the British killed 19 other passengers. Out of the remaining, a few managed to escape and the rest were sent back to their villages in Punjab and kept under village arrest for the duration of WWI (The Canadian Encyclopedia, Johnston).

This incident outraged Sikhs in Canada and large numbers of Sikhs congregated at gurdwaras, as they were one of the only places where they could be free of the racism they faced. As a result, political parties began to emerge, one of them being the Ghadar party. Funded by Sikhs in British Columbia and California, this was a Sikh communist party that was the first to declare war on the British Raj after the Komagata Maru incident (Singh 2004b: 175).  At the time, most Sikhs in India were preoccupied with World War I, so even though the Ghadar party used religious festivals to garner support, their ideas did not gain much traction in Punjab. This is yet another example of a split in the Sikh identity; there were now various Sikh political tribes in different parts of the world, which is a theme that affected the latter half of the 20th century as well.

In Punjab, the British government had taken over many gurdwaras for their political gain, impacting the extremist Central Sikh League’s management of temples. As a result, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) was established, a loyalist group associated with the Chief Khalsa Diwan. The Shiromani Akali Dal was also created later that year to work under the SGPC on gurdwara reform (Singh 2004b: 194-98). In 1921, there was a famine in Punjab which brought economic failure to the state, leading to more anger towards the government and the loyalist parties, such as the Chief Khalsa Diwan. Extreme nationalist leaders were able to rise to power quickly and join the Akali party. In 1921, the SGPC also radicalized, passed a resolution that would boycott British goods. As more political parties were trying to follow the Non-Cooperation movement of Gandhi, the British understood that any violence against them would make the Raj look poorly (Singh 2004b: 200). Instead, to weaken supporters of Akalis, the British government proclaimed that the Akalis wanted a Sikh only state. However, this had the opposite effect as the Sikhs wanted a political party that gave them their freedom and their territory back to when the Khalsa was the most powerful. This message once again resonated and unified the Sikhs and the Akali party. The British reacted to this alliance by banning the Sikhs from serving in the armed forces if they continued to echo their support of the Akalis (Singh 2004b: 210).

The Sikhs made up the majority of the Indian army at that time, with almost 80,000 Sikhs serving. They were also the most active participants in the Indian government and had the highest proportion of voters compared to the other religions in Punjab. However, the government in Punjab did not reflect that. The Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909 allowed Muslims to have their own representation as they were a religious minority in India. Even though Sikhs were also a minority, these guidelines did not apply to them and their voices were quelled by Muslims and Hindus (Singh 2004b: 218). The councils in Punjab also did not fairly represent the Sikh population: the Punjab Legislative Council had 93 members, out of which only 15 were Sikh. The Central Assembly consisted of 145 Indians, with only three Sikhs and the Council of States had 60 members, out of which one was a Sikh (Singh 2004b: 222). Yet again, Sikhs were frustrated with the government, leading to nationalist leaders being elected to offices in Punjab.

The elections of 1936 brought about the creation of another Sikh political party: the Khalsa National Party, whose entire stance was anti-Akali. Because of all the various Sikh political parties, there was no unified Sikh front, and therefore, they were not a powerful group that could make a major impact in Punjab (Singh 2004b: 223). It was difficult to create impactful change because the Sikhs did not know what they collectively wanted.

Similarly, the different political parties held different stances on World War II, which Britain had just joined. The Chief Khalsa Diwan encouraged Sikhs to enlist in the war, whereas the Congress party Sikhs did not support the effort, and Akalis only agreed to help the government if there were more Sikh soldiers involved. As the war began to come to a close, India itself was divided on what freedom meant for them. The National Congress Party wanted freedom for the entire country, whereas the All-India Muslim League wanted a separate Muslim state. Sikhs were apprehensive about complete freedom as that would mean losing their separate privileges from the British. They were also against a Muslim state as that would cause the split of certain areas of Punjab as well. This opposition to Pakistan became a unifying factor for Sikhs as they could either live in a majority Muslim state or have their land taken away because of it. The Sikhs came to a consensus that they would either support a united India or create their own Sikh state if Pakistan came to fruition (Singh 2004b: 238). The Sikhs were not originally involved in the Hindu-Muslim violence leading up to Partition, instead offering shelter for both religions in gurdwaras, following the peacemaking vision of Guru Nanak. But the Sikhs could be easily identified through their turbans and uncut hair, many Punjabi villages were destroyed, and Sikhs were raped, killed, kidnapped and forcibly converted. The militant Akali groups, such as the Akali Dal, the Akal Fauj, and Akal Sena were not real military groups with strong leaders, so the Sikhs did not have a strong fighter identity and it was difficult for them to defend themselves in the riots (Singh 2004b: 269).

Because so much of Punjab was lost after Partition, there was another surge in nationalism, eventually leading to a Punjabi-speaking state in 1966. Akalis claimed that Punjabi with the Gurmukhi script should be the only language in Punjab and the idea of Punjabi Suba, a Sikh state, started to gain more traction. Because of this, Punjab was further divided into three different states: Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh (Singh 2004b: 303). Master Tara Singh, one of the key figures in organizing the SGPC, believed that with a Sikh majority state, Sikhs would be able to preserve their identity and traditions (Singh 2004b: 306).

In Punjab itself, some Hindus regarded Sikhs as a militant sect of Hinduism, with the only difference between the two being the Khalsa identity. Several fundamentalist leaders tried to give Sikhs an identity beyond the Khalsa. For example, President Giani Zail Singh created celebrations for each Guru and opened hospitals and universities with their names (Singh 2004b: 313). Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a nationalist Punjabi leader, tried to spread a message of returning to the traditions of Guru Gobind Singh by forbidding “modern evils”, such as alcohol and drugs. He believed that the only way to be a ‘true’ Sikh was to be baptized into the Khalsa and that all Sikhs should carry kirpans as well as modern weapons. He did not acknowledge the caste system, created differences between the Hindus and Sikhs and instigated communal violence (Singh 2004b: 324).

As religious violence between the two communities became more and more intense and Bhinderwale’s Khalistani, or Sikh-only state, vision gained traction, he moved to the base of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and declared war against the government. The Pakistanis aided the Khalistanis and provided them with weapons hoping that Pakistan would gain access to Kashmir through Punjab (India Today, 2014). After the Indian government unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the militants, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi commenced Operation Bluestar in 1984. The army surrounded the Golden Temple, but underestimated the firepower of the terrorists. After a 24 hour standoff, the Indian army was forced to enter the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. Based on the government’s report, almost 1600 militants were apprehended but there were 500 casualties, including many civilians that were in the gurdwara as the gunfire started. However, actual estimates place the death toll between 1500-5000 (Singh 2004b: 364).

In the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, the Sikhs were seen as enemies of India. The Sikhs’ houses were searched for any arms and Sikh men were brazenly beaten and tortured in the streets by the police. Bhindranwale’s followers began plotting revenge after the attacks on the Golden Temple, targeting both Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zail Singh. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi’s two Sikh bodyguards shot and killed her. Her assassination set off a cascade of anti-Sikh violence: Sikh-owned stores and gurdwaras in Delhi were burned and robbed and Sikhs were murdered and raped, while the police did little to quell the violence. The Khalsa identity made the Sikhs easy targets, with their turbans or uncut hair. The Congress Party, the political party in power, believed that Sikhs “should be taught a lesson”(Singh 2004b: 378). By the end of the riots, over 10,000 Sikhs were killed, with another 50,000 that were displaced and living in refugee camps (Singh 2004b: 378-79).

A Sikh prays at a Gurudwara in Montreal. A poster speaks of the Sikh homeland of Khalistan. The display of weapons is prominent.

The resentment, tragedy and alienation the Sikhs faced during this time, once again, unified them. The nationalist, Khalistani movement grew in popularity, and was funded primarily by Sikhs living in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. The 1985 elections in Punjab resulted in the appointments of people who were extremely anti-government and held extremist views (Singh 2004b: 399).

The bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985 was the Sikh response to the tension between the Indian government and Sikhs. On June 23, 1985, the Air India flight en route to London from Toronto was bombed off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 passengers on board. This was coordinated with the Narita Airport bombing in Tokyo that killed two people. The intended target was the Air India Flight 301 headed to Bangkok (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v., “Air India Flight 182 Disaster). There are many conspiracies about the real perpetrators. One of the theories is that the attack was executed by Sikh militants as a display of power after the 1984 riots and subsequent unrest in India (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v., “Air India Flight 182 Disaster). Only one person was convicted for the attack, Inderjit Singh Reyat (Roach 1). He was later freed in 2017.

Young Sikhs practice traditional music at a Gurudwara, keeping their tradition alive.

While there is a huge disparity between how Sikhism evolved from Guru Nanak’s original vision of a pacifist faith focused on internal enlightenment into a warrior-saint identity, ultimately it was Guru Nanak’s ideology that has united the Sikhs throughout history. The Sikhs were forced to adopt the warrior persona primarily because of Punjab’s geographical location which made it particularly vulnerable to invaders, starting with the Mughals in 1527. Shortly after the decline of the Mughal empire, the Afghans began their occupation of Punjab, resulting in the Wada Ghallughara, which wiped out a third of the Sikh population in 1762. This was followed by the Anglo-Sikh Wars and the British annexation of Punjab. As a result of this constant turmoil, the Sikhs were forced to form a united front and a stronger, militaristic identity in order to preserve themselves and their religion. As has been documented throughout history, whenever the Sikhs were united under one cause, the Khalsa, a warrior style identity, the entire community emerged stronger. The Khalsa continues to be such a powerful uniting force for the Sikhs because of Guru Nanak’s original teachings of peace and equality for all. Guru Nanak’s message was emphasized both under Guru Gobind Singh and Ranjit Singh’s leadership as well as the Sarbat Khalsa. Over time and in the context of the larger Sikh diaspora, the idea of unity has changed and the political ideology of the Sikhs has taken on different forms to different people throughout the world, but the Khalsa identity remains the pivotal unifying aspect of Sikhism.

Works Cited

“Air India Flight 182 Disaster.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., June 16, 2019.

Dhavan, Purnima. When Sparrows Became Hawks: the Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

India and the Sikh Challenge, India and the Sikh Challenge § (1987).

Johnston, Hugh. “Komagata Maru.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 7, 2006.

Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley. Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

McLeod, John. The History of India. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2015.

McLeod, William Hewat. “Sikhism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., November 4, 2019.

Pletcher, Kenneth. “Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., April 8, 2020.

Rai, Raghunath. A History of the Punjab (1977-1984). 6th ed. Vol. 2. Jalandhar: New Academic Publishing Co., 2001.

“Religions – Sikhism: The Five Ks.” BBC. BBC, September 29, 2009.

Roach, Kent. “The Air India Report And The Regulation Of Charities And Terrorism Financing.” University of Toronto Law Journal 61, no. 1 (2011): 45–57.

Shackle, Christopher, and Arvind Mandair. Teachings of the Sikh Gurus: Selections from the Sikh Scriptures. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005.

Shoeb, Robina, Tauqueer Ahmed Warriach, and Muhammad Iqbal Chawla. “Mughal-Sikh Relations: Revisited.” Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan 52, no. 2 (2015): 165–81.  Robina  Shoeb_v52_2_15.pdf.

Singh, Khushwant. A History of the Sikhs. 2nd ed. Vol. I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004a.

Singh, Khushwant. A History of the Sikhs. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004b.

Singh, Tavleen, and Inderjit Badhwar. “Pakistan Involvement in Sikh Terrorism in Punjab Based on Solid Evidence: India.” India Today. Living Media India Limited, January 31, 2014. t-in-sikh-terrorism-in-punjab-based-on-solid-evidence-india-800879-1986-05-15.

“The ‘Incident.’” The “Incident” | Komagata Maru Journey. Simon Fraser University Library, 2011.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Hargobind.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., January 1, 2020.

Tuteja, K.L. “Akalis and the Non-Cooperation Movement – 1920-22.” Indian History Congress 41 (1980): 520–29.

“What Led to Operation Blue Star? A Look Back, 30 Years Later.” Hindustan Times. HT Media Limited, June 3, 2014. ears-later/story-mAAcKtvwDQzCfipYksoKAL.html.

“Why the Indian Soldiers of WW1 Were Forgotten.” BBC News. BBC, July 2, 2015.

This article was written by a sophomore at San Francisco University High School, Ria Dhillon (May 2020), who is solely responsible for its content. It was completed in partial fulfilment of an Independent Study conducted there, and submitted to the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge, with permission granted for publication on

Balinese Hindu Childhood Rituals

Bali is an island located in Indonesia renowned for its beauty, vibrant culture and religious practices (Peacock 102). Hinduism is the most prominent of all the religions in Bali (Peacock 102).  Balinese Hinduism can be traced to its origin in mainland India (Peacock 102). However, the Balinese practice their faith in many ways unique from mainline Hinduism with sacred rituals and ceremonies distinct from all other Hindu sects (Howe 57). They have been able to preserve their unique cultural practices and traditions because they are isolated primarily in rural Bali, away from outside influences of Islam and the West (Peacock 102). Some of these distinctive religious practices are related to childhood rituals, as part of the Hindu life cycle (manusa yadnya) (Jenson 21). Additional rituals are observed beginning with the day of birth, centering around the separation and burial of the placenta (Jenson 21). This is followed by rituals at 7 days after birth, at one month, at one month and seven days, and at six months (Jenson 21). Many childhood Hindu rituals function as rites of passage such as the naming ceremony, puberty, birthdays, and tooth-filing (Howe 58).   The three rituals given prominence are the three-month ritual, the first birthday, and tooth-filing (Lansing 35 – 37). Since these three rituals mark significant rites of passage in the life of a Balinese Hindu, they will be the focus of this article.

The three-month ritual, known as the nyabutanor tiga bulan ceremony, is practiced to bring the infant into earthly human existence (Barth 39 Williams 254).  For the first one hundred and five days of an infant’s life, it is viewed as divine in nature, the incarnate form of one of the father’s ancestors re-born (Lim 1997, np). The infant is bathed twice a day; once in the morning and once in the evening (Jenson 65). Since the baby is considered to be divine, the bath water is deemed sacred (Lim 1997, np). During this period, the child is not allowed to touch the ground, to prevent ritual pollution (Barth 39). Families along with their extended relatives go to great lengths to prevent uncleanliness and ritual pollution, ensuring that the infant is carried everywhere for its first three months of life (Williams 253-254). The ritual contains broader elements beyond solely introducing the child into earthly life. The secondary purpose is transforming the baby’s spirit through taming and purification, while simultaneously ensuring health and strength (Lansing 35). Offerings are made to the Sun god and the five great elements, five spirits of the outer world, represented by earth, air, fire, water and ether witness the offerings and respect given to them through the child (Lansing 35).

The process of performing the three-month ritual is the responsibility of a religious leader, either a Brahmin priest or a ritual specialist, depending on the family’s income (Lansing 35). Wealthy families can afford a Brahmin priest, while others turn to a ritual specialist instead (Lansing 35). The ceremony typically takes place in the family temple and the infant is usually dressed in white and yellow (Williams 254). The priest begins by dedicating an offering to the sun god and the five elemental spirits, also commonly referred to as demons (Lansing 35). Symbolically, the child is composed of its own spirit, as well as the four sibling spirits, whose names change as the child grows into adulthood (Lansing, 35). These four sibling-spirits, guide and determine the infant’s fate as it grows into adulthood (Lansing 34).  In the next step of the process, the priest purifies the parents of the infant through prayers and the sprinkling of holy water (Lansing 36). Afterwards, the parents carry their baby clockwise around a jar of holy water three times to signify the life cycle (manusa yadnya) of birth, life, and death (Lansing 36). A representation of the infant is created using various kinds of fruit or vegetables, most commonly either a banana or a coconut (Lansing 36, Lim 1997, np). This effigy is blessed by the priest with holy water and for a time is treated as though it is the actual infant, whether by being placed in the cradle or near the built shrines, or treated as the child by the mother (Lim 1997, np, Lansing 36). This effigy is later taken away and destroyed (Lansing 36, Williams 254). This is done to trick and mislead any malevolent demons, allowing the baby to grow up in peace (Lim 1997, np, Lansing 36, Williams 254). Various forms of jewelry, such as an amulet filled with lucky stones, a piece of the infant’s umbilical cord, or in the past a tooth from a tiger, are blessed in holy water and placed on the infant for protection (Lansing 36, Lim 1997, np). The child is blessed with various kinds of holy water and given its first taste of food, typically rice or rice flour (Williams 254, Lim 1997, np). Finally, the mother walks with her baby across a drawing of the ultimate avatar, a turtle with the symbol for Om on its back and through some holy water, before placing the infant on the ground for the first time (Lim 1997, np, Lansing 36).

Variations may be found in the execution of this ritual. Some sources mention the priest drawing the ultimate avatar with the symbol of Om on its back, while others did not. Additionally, the inclusion of the baby eating a first meal varies from text to text. Aspects that all sources include are the creation of an effigy, the purifying with holy water, and blessed jewelry being placed on the infant.  Lastly, there was disagreement on when the child first touches the ground, most sources saying during that it occurs during the nyabutan ceremony, while a few stated it occurred on the first birthday, oton.

The next major ritual in a child’s life is their first birthday known as oton (Howe 59). It is celebrated when the child is six months old or, more precisely, two-hundred and ten days old (Lansing 36). The ritual nyambutan, the three-month ritual, is repeated every six months until the child is six years old (Howe 59). Thereafter, the child is considered an autonomous human being, able to distinguish right from wrong and thus morally accountable for its actions, whereas before the child was criticized little, as it was still considered partially divine (Howe 59). These otons are repeated in order to cleanse the soul from a variety of ritually polluting sources with an offering known as bia kaon (Howe 59).

Though the oton ceremony very closely imitates the nyambutin ritual, there are many novel aspects (Lansing 36). In the child’s first oton, the infant is given its first hair cut and its first “real name” (Lansing 36-37). The child’s real name is given by the priest, who, through divination, chooses a name for the child (Lansing 37). There are numerous ways that a priest may divine the child’s name (Lansing 37).  In some cases, this divination is done by writing names on several pieces of a palm leaf, which are then set on fire (Lansing 37). Whichever leaf segment burns the least or takes the longest to burn is the child’s name (Lansing 37). Wealthy families may engage in more elaborate ceremonies (Lansing 37). For instance, a chicken may be introduced into the ritual that will symbolically remove all dirt and grime from the child’s mouth (Lansing 37).  Additionally, the jar introduced in the nyambutin ritual may reappear at which time the child may place a fish in the jar in return for a small article of gold jewelry (Lansing 37). Cakes are sometimes given to symbolize the quality of generosity (Lansing 37). It is also traditional in families that can afford it to hold a shadow puppet performance (Lansing 37).

The final primary childhood ritual is tooth-filing (metatah). It is traditionally done when a child, girl or boy, reaches sexual maturity (Lansing 37). The ritual does not have to be completed at the time of puberty, often being postponed until just before marriage (Boon 213). Most families postpone the ritual because it is very costly (Howe 59). Some Balinese Hindus may even postpone tooth-filing indefinitely (Boon 213).  However, very few forfeit the practice of tooth-filing (Fischer 1998, np). This could be in part because tooth-filing must be done before cremation, where people pay homage to their dead (Boon 213). More so than the other childhood rituals, tooth filing is symbolic of a family’s status because it is a very public display of extravagance in ceremonial dress, food and offerings (Howe 59). Delaying tooth-filing is seen as a sign of poverty (Howe 59).

The purpose of the tooth-filing ceremony is to symbolically remove physical signs of the child’s animalistic desires and pursuits, thus eradicating the primal vices in the child (Barth 39).  This ceremony frees the child from animalistic and selfish desires: greed, anger, selfishness, drunkenness, envy, and disobedience (Barth 39). These traits are weaknesses in Balinese character, and therefore are to be eliminated (Fischer 1998, np).  The filing of the tips of the incisors and canines is also considered a symbol of beauty, making one more attractive to the opposite sex (Lansing 37). The change in physical appearance also signifies the calm disposition of a person filled with integrity and responsibility, desired qualities in Balinese-Hindu culture (Fischer 1998, np). This ceremony is the most festive of all the childhood rituals, taking the most money, time, and preparation. There are two sections to the ceremony, the actual filing and the celebration that follows.

 The actual tooth-filing takes about an hour and is private with only a few familial witnesses. The family members help hold down the feet of the child, keeping them calmly in place. A piece of sugar cane is frequently used to keep the mouth open for the procedure. The three tools involved in the ceremony, the hammer, chisel, and file are each used for their specific purposes in removing the points from the incisors and the upper canines, six teeth in all (Fischer 1998, np, Lansing 37). The fragments of these teeth are placed in a coconut that will be buried later in proximity to the household shrine of the ancestors, as these fragments of teeth are seen as part of the ancestor reincarnated into the child (Lansing 37, Fischer 1998, np) This is also done to prevent the release of evil spirits which the teeth represent (Fischer 1998, np). The evil spirits are sadness (ripu), anger (krodha), greed (loba), conceit (mada), lust (kama), drunkenness(moha), and jealousy (matsarya) (Lansing 37).  The tooth-filing is done by a ritual specialist or a priest known as a sangging, meaning ‘painter’ or ‘sculptor’ (Lansing 37). The god of beauty, Snag Hyang Semara-Raith; male and female gods of love, which are treated as a single deity during the ceremony, are represented by a cloth which is placed on the lap of the child after the filing of the teeth (Lansing 37, Fischer 1998,np). This highlights physical beauty as a significant part of the tooth-filing (Lansing 37). After the ceremony, the whole family is cleansed and blessed with holy water by the priest (Lansing 37).

The second part of the ceremony is the celebration (Fischer 1998, np). The child is dressed in fine and elegant ceremonial dress (Lansing 37). The celebratory feast includes many invited guests, gifts, and copious amounts of food (Fischer 1998, np). In some instances, speeches are given to explain the significance of tooth-filing and shadow puppet displays entertain the guests (Fischer 1998, np). Many offerings of differing quantities and qualities are offered at the temples all day throughout the village by the family, villagers, and their guests (Howe 60). In the days following the ceremony, the child will receive visitors and open gifts (Fischer 1998, np).  During the last three days, the child will go to the priest and thank them for performing the ritual (Fischer 1998, np).  This time is seen as dangerous, because the child is still weak from the tooth-filing and is thus susceptible to bad spirits (Fischer 1998, np).

The Balinese Hindus are known for their unique and vibrant religious practices for good reason. Though this article reviewed only three of the major childhood rituals, there are many more to delve into, each with their own practices and purposes. The three-month rite introduces a previously regarded god-like infant into its earthly presence. The birthday ceremonies maintain ritual purity and spiritual protection over the child, until the child is realized as an autonomous individual no longer divine in nature, but morally responsible for their actions. The third significant ritual of the Hindu life cycle, manusa yadnya, is metatah, the expelling of one’s base characteristics and vices that accompany our animalistic nature, freeing a person to be a realized, calm, responsible, and wise individual, ready for the last manusa yadnya, marriage. Each of these rituals mark an important stage or transition in an individual’s life, as they grow in maturity, spirituality, and responsibility, preparing them for the final stage in the Hindu life cycle, cremation (ngaben) (Jenson 21). After reincarnation, the life cycle comes full circle, bringing one back to the Balinese childhood rituals all over again. 

Bibliography and Related Readings

Barth, Fredrik. 1993. Balinese Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Belo, Jane. 1970. Traditional Balinese Culture: Essays. New York: Columbia University Press.

Boon, James A. 1977. The Anthropological Romance of Bali, 1597-1972: Dynamic Perspectives in Marriage and Caste, Politics, and Religion. Vol. 1. Cambridge;New York;: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer, Clare B, and Luh Estiti Andarawati. 1998. “Tooth-Filing in Bali: One Woman’s Experience.” Journal of Ritual Studies 12 (1): 39–46.

Geertz, Hildred. 2004. The Life of a Balinese Temple: Artistry, Imagination, and History

Peasant Village. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Howe, Leo and MyiLibrary. 2005; 2006;. The Changing World of Bali: Religion, Society and Tourism. New York; Oxon;: Routledge.

Jensen, Gordon D. and Luh Ketut Suryani. 1992. The Balinese People: A Reinvestigation of Character. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press.

Lansing, John Stephen. 1995. The Balinese. Toronto; Fort Worth, Tex;: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Lim, Robin. 1997. “Growing Up in the Sea of Milk…Bali’s Ritual for Babies.” The Journal of Perinatal Education 6 (1) (Mar 31): 49-57.

Peacock, James L. 1973. Indonesia: An Anthropological Perspective. Pacific Palisades, Calif: Goodyear Pub. Co.

Williams, Victoria and Inc ebrary. 2017; 2016;. Celebrating Life Customs Around the World: From Baby Showers to Funerals. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO.

Further Areas of Study:



Manusa Yadnya

Separation and burial of placenta ritual

Seven-day ritual

One-month ritual

Month and seven-day ritual

Sibling spirits

Brahmin priests

Shadow puppet displays

bia kaon

Snag Hyang Semara-Raith

Related Articles for more info:


Article written by Mackenzie Kure (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Changu Narayan Temple

The Changu Narayan temple is a religious heritage site located in the Kathmandu Valley, historically known as the Nepa, or Nepal valley, in the province of Bhaktapur, Nepal. The country of Nepal has a very strong Hindu presence with roughly 80% of the population identifying as Hindu (Burke, 1). The temple is located on the top of a hill 12 kilometers east of Kathmandu, the capital and largest city in Nepal, and is surrounded by chimpak trees. The Changu Narayan temple is considered by most to be the oldest temple in Nepal’s history. The exact time when the temple was created is unknown, but it is said to have been created during the time of the Licchavi kingdom (400 – 750CE) (Sharma, 3). The temple pays homage to the deity Visnu and is considered the most important temple in the valley (Sharma, 1999, 8).

Kathmandu Valley from the hill upon which Changu Narayan is built, Nepal

This temple is one of four major temples in Nepal’s surrounding area dedicated to the Hindu deity Visnu. Changu Narayan is the earliest and most famous temple dedicated to Visnu, but many other temples dedicated to various other deities can be found throughout Nepal. Visnu first appears in the Rg Veda as a solar deity with a part of him representing the sun (Krishna, 7). Visnu has a wide variety of depictions across the various Hindu denominations. In early vedic religion Visnu was a minor god, but as the religion progressed he grew in strength and popularity until he was recognized as one of the most powerful gods in Hinduism (Krishna, 9).

The temple’s origin story stems from an ancient legend concerning the deity Visnu. Harsimran Kaur’s article summarizes the legend of the creation of the Changu Narayan temple and its relevance to Visnu. A gwala, or cow herder, had purchased a cow from a brahmin that was renowned for producing large quantities of milk. The gwala often took this cow to a forest of Champak trees to graze on the grass, however the cow would always go into the shade of its favourite tree where a boy would drink the cow’s milk. In the evenings, the gwala would return home to milk the cow but found that he would only get a small amount of milk from the cow. This trend continued for several days and the gwala became very sad. The gwala went back to the brahmin that sold him the cow and explained how the cow was no longer producing the large quantities of milk. The next day the brahmin and the gwala hid and observed the cow’s behaviour through the day. They noticed the little black boy drinking the cow’s milk and the two men thought that the boy must be a devil that lived in the cow’s favourite tree. The two men became furious and began to cut down the tree, but when they struck the tree they noticed human blood coming from it. The two got worried and feared that they had committed a serious crime. The Lord Visnu then emerged to the two men and explained that those events were not their fault. Visnu then told them his story of how he unintentionally killed Sudarshan’s father while hunting in the woods. Afterwards, he was cursed for his sins and wandered the earth until ending up on the Changu hill where he survived using the stolen cow’s milk. When the brahmin and the gwala cut down the tree, Visnu was decapitated and freed from his sins. After listening to Visnu’s words the two men decided to erect a temple in honour of Visnu. The temple has been considered sacred since the site was constructed (Kaur, 1).

Two-storied structure of Changu Narayan temple, before earthquake damage in 2015. Nepal

The Changu Narayan temple is a two story structure with copper and wood carvings all around it. The layout of the temple has been changed several times due to natural disasters damaging the temple. The four entrances to the temple all feature triple doorways that have been cut into the brick walls of the temple, and on the western entrance there are copper plated sheets molded over the carvings. The temple contains artworks from the fourth, ninth and thirteenth centuries, most of which are Newar art: work from the Newar people, an Indiginous Indo-Aryan group primarily from the Kathmandu Valley (Lo Bue et al., 1). Newa art is centered around Hindu and Buddhist deities, sculptures made in this art style use the lost-wax casting method (Lo Bue et al., 1). The most valued art piece is an earthquake damaged sculpture of Visnu in his universal form – Vishvarupa. Two other structures just outside of the temple are devoted to Laksmi. The centre of the temple has a mandapa, a hallway supported by pillars and a roof, that is used for public rituals. The mandapa was contributed to the temple by Jayprakash Malla, the final king of the Malla dynasty that ruled over the Kathmandu valley from 1200 – 1770 CE. Archaeologists suggest that the mandapa was the origin of the temple and that the brick walls that surround the temple were built afterwards (Sharma,  9).

Visnu in his Narasimha (Man-lion) avatara depicted in a superb sculpture at Changu Narayan Temple, Nepal.

A stone pillar stands outside of the entrance to the temple with Sanskrit writings on it referencing king Manadeva and his mother queen Rajyavati of the Licchavi dynasty (Riccardi, 611). The pillar once stood directly directly in front of the shrine, but was knocked over and damaged sometime in the eighteenth century; as a result, the pillar now sits to the side of the entrance to the temple. Part of the inscription from the pillar was buried in the ground until 1899 when permission was given to dig up the lost section of the inscription and the pillar was fully read for the first time in recent years. The inscription is carved into three sides of the pillar with the first portion that was damaged when the pillar fell now on the northward facing side. The other two sides are in almost perfect condition. The first side of the pillar describes Sankaradeva, the son of the king Bhupalendra, who was renowned for his “perfect actions” and “upholding of Dharma” (Riccardi,  617). Sankaradeva gained permission from his father to expand the kingdom and through his actions became “as pure as moonlight in mind and body”  (Riccardi,  617). The second side explains how Sankaradeva’s father dies and ascends to “the third heaven” (Riccardi,  617). Rajyavati the “true wife of the king” and Sankaradeva’s mother told him to rule in his father’s place after his passing (Riccardi, 618). The final side of the pillar explains Sankaradeva’s role as king Bhupalendra’s successor. Sankaradeva knew his devotion alone was not enough to repay his father. The boy was known for his wisdom as well as physical abilities and vowed to travel east to destroy his kingdom’s enemies. When Sankaradeva returned from the east having conquered several kings he was “pleased in spirit” and his devout mother Rajyavati should share her “happy heart” with her people (Riccardi, 618).

Bronze lintel over a doorway to Changu Narayan temple depicts Visnu. Nepal.

The Changu Narayan temple has been plagued with destruction since its creation and has been rebuilt on multiple occasions. The most recent of which was a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that affected most of Nepal and killed over nine thousand Nepalese people in April of 2015 (Mendoza, 11). A few of the main support pillars were compromised during the earthquake and a large granite slab fell from the second story laying next to a brass bell tangled in prayer flags. As the temple is upwards of thirteen hundred years old the structural integrity of the temple is not what it once was, combined with illegal mining operations at the base of the hill (Burke, 1). A British architect named John Sanday led an effort to restore the temple, but was appalled to see the state of the temple after the disaster (Mendoza, 11). Pillars and walls of the temple had been destroyed leaving large piles of rubble and debris strewn across the courtyard. The people living in the Changu village were distraught from the earthquake but offered what little they could to contribute to seeing the temple rebuilt to its former glory (Mendoza, 11).

Changu Narayan temple undergoing reconstruction in 2017 after the devastating earthquake in 2015. Nepal

The country of Nepal relies on tourism, making up approximately 10% of the country’s total GDP, so with their famous landmarks being so greatly affected it impacts their culture and the country as a whole. Many of the people around the Kathmandu area have taken issue with the government’s treatment of the sacred site and blame the destruction on corrupt officials (Burke,  1). Global efforts have been started to reconstruct the temple; for example, Germany has contributed thirty thousand dollars of the needed three hundred thousand to start repairs on the heritage site (Mendoza, 11). In Nepal many aspects of ways of life are interconnected from religious to historical to economic elements. The residents around the temple have come together under a common goal of fixing the temple, not only for personal use, but for the benefit of Nepal as a whole.

Artisans sell wood carvings to tourists en route to Changu Narayan temple.


Burke Jason (2015) “Nepal begins to assess its cultural losses after earthquake; Many

internationally recognised monuments preserved intact for centuries have been destroyed, but hope remains that Nepal’s shattered heritage sites can be rebuilt”. The Guardian 1:1

Kaur Harsimran.  (2017). “Changu Narayan: Ancient Hindu Temple in Nepal’s History:

Historical Significance.” 1:1 Accessed February 18, 2020

Krishna, Nanditha (2001) The Book of Vishnu. New York: Penguin

Lo Bue, Erberto F., Ian Alsop, Adalbert J. Gail, Eric Chazot, Theodore Riccardi jr, Mary

Shepherd Slusser, John Sanday, Gautam Vajracharya, T. P. B. Riley-Smith, Anne Vergati, Susi Dunsmore, Bronwen Bledsoe, Ken Teague, and Judith Chase (2003) “Nepal.” Grove Art Online. 1:2-38 Accessed 18 Feb. 2020. doi:10.1093/9781884446054

Mendoza Martha (2017) “Architect rebuilds ancient temple.”The Associated Press Telegraph

Herald 1:11.

Riccardi, T. (1989) “The Inscription of King Mānadeva at Changu Narayan.” Journal of the

American Oriental Society 109(4):611-620 Accessed February 19, 2020 doi:10.2307/604086

Sharma, Prayag Raj (1999) “A Fresh Look At The Origin And Forms Of Early Temples

In The Kathmandu Valley.” Nepalese Studies 26: 8-9.

Related Topics For Further Investigation





Licchavi kingdom

Rg Veda

Newar People

Lost-wax Casting

Indo-Aryan / Indic people

Prayer Flags


Related Websites

Changu Narayan Wikipedia Page

General Information on The Temple

Pictures Documenting Damage From the Earthquake

The Inscription on The Pillar Dedicated to King Manadeva

This article was written by: Ross Visser (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Amrita Sher-Gil

The Life of Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil is a female pioneer of modern Indian art in what was formerly a male dominion (Sivan G 108). With a talent for hybridity in art, she incorporated Western techniques and visuals as well as Eastern. Her personality was one of confidence, blunt, and comfortable promiscuity between men and allegedly women (Dalmia 33, 38: Mzezewa 2018, np); likewise, her paintings portrayed women as strong and powerful while capturing the “neglected” areas of a woman’s life (Sharma, Jha, & Gupta 254). She showed early signs of rejection of the patriarchy that would reflect in her life and her works. Sher-Gil was born in Budapest, Hungary to a Sikh philosopher father named Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, and an equally talented Hungarian mother named Marie Antoniette Gottesmann on January 30th, 1913 (“Cultural India”). According to Dalmia, Amrita was baptized in 1918 as a Roman Catholic and she was partly Jewish (11).

At the outbreak of World War One, the Sher-Gil family moved to Dunaharaszti in 1916. During this period of four years in the village life, Amrita showed interest in coloured crayons to copy toys around her and drew folk songs that her mother would sing to her (Dalmia 14: Sivan G 107). After moving back to Budapest briefly, political instability arose, and the family moved back to India in 1921. Despite her unfamiliarity with formal education, Amrita was enrolled in Santa Annuciata School in Florence, Italy in January 1924. Amrita rebelled against the Roman Catholic regime of the school with a nude portrait and withdrew, but was enrolled into another Catholic school in Simla, India to which she rebelled again (Dalmia 19-20). The Sher-Gil family stayed in India from June 1924 to April 1929.

In 1927, Amrita’s uncle Ervin Baktay encouraged her to move to Paris to develop her artistic skill as well as paint from live models (Dalmia 23-25). While in Paris between the period of 1930-1932, Amrita created over sixty paintings which were mostly of self-portraits and young women (Dalmia 31). Amrita attended the Ecole des Beaux Art from 1929-1934, which is associated with her interest in line and colour (Tillotson 59). In these Paris years, Amrita’s self portraits began to show a change in her personality as she became more confident. This is when she appears to have grown to become her own vivacious person, as well as becoming comfortable in her own sexuality. She began to long for India after five years of gaining new techniques in Paris, and subsequently left in 1934 for her ancestral home in Amritsar.

While back in India, she left behind her Western clothes and vowed to wear saris for the rest of her life (Dalmia 59). Her painting palette began to switch and contain recurring ideas since being in India. It is there in Simla where Amrita starts to depict the poverty in India. She moved to her family’s estate in 1936, but then began a tour of South India with Barada Ukil in which she visited the Ajanta and Ellora caves. (Dalmia 79). These cave paintings inspired some of her work in the future and seemed to have awoken something in her. The winning of the gold medal at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society on January 15th, 1937 occurred when she was touring South India (Shakeel 9). This was also when she began to be noticed.

After travelling to two major temple complexes in India, Amrita was influenced by the religious life. In Trivandrum, she found inspiration in the colours of life. The Indian prince (maharaja) and the Prince’s wife (maharani) in Trivandrum sent for, then refused to buy Amrita’s paintings because they were not within the norm. Her artistic style never was within the norm, as she painted troubled women with expressions of oppression (Mzezewa 2018, np). She then ventured to Cape Comorin, where she stayed for eleven days, and incorporated her South Indian experiences into her paintings. After a visit to the Cochin frescoes, Allahabad, and Dehli, she returned to Simla and “regurgitated” her memories into paintings (Dalmia 86). In the year 1937, Amrita created what became known as the south Indian trilogy; hence Bride’s Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to the Market were created to encapsulate the exposure to form and colour Amrita saw in south India (Dalmia 91: Sivan G 117).

Amrita had become increasingly popular with a unique and identifiable style, and yet she felt as though people were misunderstanding her paintings. Her paintings were praised for showing Indian poverty with sympathy, but criticized for showing the countries’ bad side, or even aestheticizing the poor (Tillotson 68). Amrita’s sister Indira Sher-Gil got married in 1937, which caused Amrita’s paintings to stop as the house became engulfed in turmoil (Dalmia 99). Amrita ventured to Lahore for an art exhibition, where she met an important art critic whom she became close with, Dr. Charles Fabri. He, along with others, provided her with truth and criticism to improve her style.

After making two paintings in Lahore and feeling regenerated from the trip, she returned to her family estates and married her cousin Victor Egan. Her parents disapproved, but that seemed to make her more determined (Dalmia 108). Before Amrita and Victor were to be married in Budapest, Amrita got pregnant. Victor arranged for an abortion, which was carried out soon after. Amrita’s parents continued to be hostile and reluctant to the two, but Amrita and Victor persisted. The two made agreements in their marriage to not have children, to have a quiet wedding, and that Amrita was also allowed to see other men (Dalmia 112-114). Victor was called out to Kiskunhalas for military duty and sent for Amrita to come live with him, which she did. She also went with him when he moved to Lake Balaton, and then they moved back to Kiskunhalas where Amrita took to painting again.

With the rising of more political instability, Victor and Amrita left Hungary in June 1939 to Genoa and boarded a ship to Colombo. The couple finally reached Simla to live with Amrita’s parents, but her mother was extremely hostile to the couple. The couple were relieved when Amrita’s cousin Kirpal Singh Majithi invited them to live with him in Saraya but were unsatisfied in finding inspiration or work (Dalmia 122). Victor finally attempted to settle things with Amrita’s mother in 1940 after her relentless hostility to him, but to no avail. It was as if the turning point in Amrita’s relationship with her mother also made a turning point in Amrita. After a period of depression, Amrita’s spirits were lifted again. She now began to link form with context in her paintings with the help of the Mughals, who were Muslims who ruled over a large Hindu majority country. Amrita and Victor visited Sonepur Mela in Bihar and Amrita took to painting elephants, which began another turn to other life in Amrita’s paintings (Dalmia 138). And yet, Amrita began to feel herself become sad again even while practicing new art techniques like sculpturing. Amrita hit an artist’s block before her friend, Karl Khandalavala, came to visit but became stuck again when he left. She is said to have felt defeated and depressed, as though her artistic muse had gone. Things were not going good for either Amrita or Victor, so they set out to Lahore in 1941. Victor then moved back to Saraya, and Amrita moved from Lahore to Simla to find her sister Indira and her husband had taken up her art studio. After a fight with Indira over Amrita always being “in the limelight,” Amrita left without a single bag to her old friend Helen’s house (Dalmia 157).

            By now, Amrita was a recognized original painter. Amrita left Simla in August 1941 for Saraya with Victor, then left again to Lahore in September. The couple found a place and Amrita enjoyed life again as the two met and congregated with intellectuals and artists. Finally comfortable, Amrita scheduled an exhibition in December of 1941. Amrita began to work on her final painting that depicted animal forms and the Indian landscape, though it was never finished. Two weeks before her exhibition, Amrita fell ill. Amrita had been sick with the Spanish flu, acute tonsillitis, and a sexual illness, but this was different (Dalmia 13, 35, 80). She died on December 5th at midnight from peritonitis after being visited by three doctors, one of which was her husband. She was only 28, leaving her “artistic voyage… unfinished” (Dalmia 173: Sharma, Jha, & Gupta 254). Her family decided to have a Sikh funeral for her on December 7th, 1941 and her body was cremated on the bank of the river Ravi (Shakeel 15). In her wake, many of her friends and family thought of her as she remained immortal in her works. There are allegations that she passed because of food poisoning, her husband not having enough knowledge to treat her, or a failed abortion (Dalmia 179-180: Mzezewa 2018, np).

            The life on Amrita Sher-Gil can be described as incredibly ambitious, bold, and always changing. Her life was reflected in her art in that it was always shifting, whether leaning more to her European techniques, or to her Indian ideas. Amrita is described as having a “ferocity of mind and sharpness of tongue, combined with an unashamed openness about her own behaviour” (Zaman 2020, np). Her paintings portrayed early ideas of feminism in that it showed overshadowed women, and people who were oppressed. Her comfortability in her sexuality was also a bold notion in her time, and yet she was blunt and open. Some say it is narcissism, some say confidence. Overall, as said by Sivan G, Amrita was a significant, “volatile personality amongst the artists of colonial India” who shaped modern Indian art with her European and Eastern hybridity (106).


Britannica Academic (2013) “Amrita Sher-Gil.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Cultural India (2020) Amrita Sher-Gil: Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https:/

Dalmia, Yashodhara (2006) Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life. New York: Penguin.

G., Sivan (2014) “Mimesis and Beyond a Major Philosophical Trend in Modern Indian Painting.” Shodhganga: Reservoir of Indian Theses: 103-129. Retrieved from

Mzezewa, Tariro (2018) Overlooked No More: Amrita Sher-Gil, a Pioneer of Indian Art. New York Times. No page numbers available.

Shakeel, Talat (1998) “Amrita Shergil and Bengal School of Painting.” Shodhganga: Reservoir of Indian Theses, pp. 1-113. Retrieved from

Sharma, Mandakini, Jha, Pashupati, and Gupta, Ila (2016) “Amrita Sher-Gill’s Paintings: A Cultural Evaluation.” THAAP Journal 2016: 254-265.

Tillotson, G.H.R (1997) “A Painter of Concern: Critical Writings on Amrita Sher-Gil.” India International Centre, Vol. 24, No. 4: 57-72. Retrieved from

Zaman, Sahar (2020) Amrita Sher-Gil: A Heroine of Two Nations. The Quint. Retrieved from No page numbers available.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Ajanta Caves

Bengal Renaissance

Bombay Art Society


Bride’s Toilet

Cochin Frescoes

Ecole des Beaux Art School

Ellora Caves

Cultural Hybridity



Marie Antoniette Gottesmann

Modern Indian Art

Santa Annuciata School

Sikh tradition

Three Girls

Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia

Victor Egan

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Allison Vonk (February 2020) who claims authorship of this content.

Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil was born on January 30th, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary. Her father, Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia was an owner of a large amount of land that had been granted to him by the British. Originally, he was a member of the well known Majithia clan that was fighting against the British with the Sikhs, however, he switched sides and helped the British win the war. As a thanks for his contributions he was then given land and became an even wealthier, prominent member of society. His brother, Sir Sunder Singh Majithia, turned a large portion of the land into sugar factories that continued to help the family’s wealth grow (Singh 1975).  

Sher-Gil’s mother also came from a wealthy, upper class family. Marie Antoinette Gottesmann was a well known musician and opera singer though she never became a professional. She was known for her love of entertaining and keen eye for decorating. Marie was raised with a very good education (Dalmia 2006) and is the one responsible for the Roman Catholic baptism of both of her daughters, despite Catholicism not being a theology that she practiced directly or insisted on her children practicing. Chrisitianity, specifically Catholicism was something to which both girls were exposed. Amrita attended and was expelled from two Catholic schools as a child (Singh 1975).

The first eight years of Amrita’s life were spent in Hungary until the family moved to India in 1921. The family specifically rooted in Simla where Amrita and her sister began the first parts of their education (Singh 210). Sher-Gil took up a passion for drawing and quickly began an education focused on art and the expansion of her talents. The first teacher she had, Major Whitmarsh, was known to be very conventional and made Amrita draw the same things over and over until she was able to do them as realistically as possible. Major Whitmarsh was dismissed shortly after he started as Sher-Gil strongly disliked listening to him and his teaching style (Singh 211). Her second teacher, Hal Bevan Petman, maintained his position for a considerable time frame and even recommended a formal European style education in art for Amrita, claiming she had a great promise as an artist. In 1924 the family moved again to Florence, Italy, where Sher-Gil was able to study art and go to school at the School of Santa Annunciate. Unfortunately, she was expelled in less than six months as she was caught drawing nude women in class, which was against the strict orthodox rules (Singh 211). 

After the school in Florence did not work out, the family moved back to Simla, India, and Amrita began to develop the relationships that would later become so crucial for her work as many of these individuals became her models. The majority of the models from her later and most famous paintings came from the hills surrounding the Simla area, known as Saraya (Singh 211). Of course, Amrita had to continue in a formal education so she was once again enrolled in a Catholic School and was once again expelled thanks to a letter she wrote to her father that was intercepted by one of the teachers. She was writing to explain to him that she was denouncing all religions as she thought they were pointless and stifling, which was not well received by the religious staff at the school (Singh 211). 

It was not until Amrita’s uncle, Ervin Baktay, started taking an interest in her talent that her parents considered Paris as an option for a formal art based education. He was able to inspire her to focus on incorporating things from the real world in her paintings and cultivated an interest in autonomy in Sher-Gil and her work. In 1929 the family moved, yet again, to Paris for Amrita to pursue her education there (Dalmia 25). 

After first arriving in Paris, Sher-Gil painted at the school Grand Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillent until she was able to get further settled into the area. Once further settled, she began to study at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Art under Lucien Simon. It was here that she was taught to focus on the development of the human form and anatomy, as well as things like line, form and colour (Singh 212). She stayed at Ecole Nationale for almost three years and began to see her first success within the larger art community. In 1932 she was featured in an exhibition and in 1933 she was again featured, but this time won the honor of Associate of the Grand Salon. This made her the youngest individual and first Indian to win this title (Singh 213). This honor gave her the privilege of displaying two paintings at the exhibition every year (Dalmia 31). Paris is the first place we see a shift in her works from naturalism to a focus on anatomy. It has been suggested by critics that due to the influential painters around her, Sher-Gil started to incorporate the styles of painters such as Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh as they quickly became her favourites (Dalmia 30). However, it became increasingly clear to Sher-Gil that she wanted to go back to India and that is where she believed she was destined to become a great painter (Singh 1975).

In 1934 Sher-Gil returned to India and began painting on her family’s land in Simla. Almost immediately after her arrival, a large controversy surrounded her as she declined to accept an award from the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition. She had submitted ten paintings, out of which, five had been chosen by the exhibition to be displayed.  One of those five won an award but Sher-Gil felt it was a lesser option compared to the other paintings she had on display and declined the acceptance of the award. In the letter she wrote to the exhibition, she explains that the judges seemed to pick paintings that followed a very traditional view and she did not want to be set into this mold (Singh 214). Sher-Gil’s early works have been described as a literal and romanticised view of India that seems to follow a “tourist lens” of India (Dalmia 61). 

Sher-Gil settled back into India and while there she was able to gain traction as a recognized artist. In 1936 she won two prizes for self-portraits in the Delhi Fine Arts Exhibition (Singh 214). This award won her large amounts of publicity that resulted in a market for her to participate in individual commissions and solo exhibitions. In 1937 she won a gold medal in the annual exhibition which only further increased the recognition she was gaining (Dalmia 77). It is at this time that she paints her most famous works, including the South Indian Trilogy, and writes consistently that this was a happy time of her life. Sher-Gil painted upwards of 15 of her most famous paintings at this time while she traveled between Simla, Saraya and Lahore (Dalmia 2006).

 When Sher-Gil was asked why she decided to move back to India and out of the European art capital she explained that she wanted to be able to express and illustrate the country that had impacted her so much. She was known for saying that “vibrant art had to be connected to the soil of the land” (Singh 45). Sher-Gil felt that her identity was built in with the people and reality of India, and wanted to bring awareness to the lives of the poor (Dalmia 75). In simple terms, Sher-Gil felt she had only experienced India as an outsider and longed to become an insider through her paintings and the interactions they helped to stimulate with her local models (Tillotson 63). 

Sher-Gil’s original painting and drawing style was based on naturalism and keeping things as authentic to the reference as possible. She was taught to draw the same things over again to make sure that they came across as close to the original as possible. However, after she first returned to India there is a shift in her work that starts small. The colours she uses are influenced heavily by the art she was exposed to in Paris and early paintings show bright blues and greens that will eventually transition to reds and browns that develop deeper hues the more Sher-Gil uses them (Dalmia 60). In her mind, she begins to create a new style of Indian painting that is not traditional but still fundamentally Indian in spirit (Dalmia 2006). She is described as creating paintings that are modern in theory but do not follow any of the typical rules required in modern styles. While she uses clear lines and simple colours, there is still this balance between realism of the specific characters but it is done in a lucid stylization (Dalmia 90). This style is a large change from her early works which are based on realism and naturalism. Realism and Naturalism were the styles Sher-Gil was encouraged by her father for learning and she slowly moved away from them as her education expanded (Dalmia 2006). 

Sher-Gil faced many criticisms both in life and death, however, some of the most critical views of her work come from Sher-Gil herself. She noticed that over time she began to become detached both in a romantic sense as well as a humane sense (Tillotson 68). Her formalistic style was learned from other painters while she was in Paris, but it was also a conscious choice that she made. This formalism caused many individual critics to be very uncomfortable with the tensions it created in her work, mainly that it caused the feelings that form was more important than any individual details that may have been illustrated (Tillotson 65). Some critics felt that the attachment to the formalist values left a weakening of her connection to the human element in her work, to the point that some commented that it seemed she “painted colours more than subjects.”(Tillotson 65) Prioritizing form over the subject was the main critique that Sher-Gil faced and seemed to become more of an issue over time, especially voiced at some of her final works. 

In 1938, Sher-Gil married her first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan. They lived together for a few years in Hungary before moving back to Lahore in 1941. It was here in Lahore where Sher-Gil starts to paint again, completing a few small pieces before starting her final large work that was never completed. In December of 1941, Sher-Gil was struck with a mysterious illness and died two days later. She was 28 years old (Singh 216). Victor planned a Sikh style funeral for her that ended in the cremation of her body on the river Ravi (Dalmia 174). While there is no conclusive idea of the illness that killed her, there are many theories, ranging from basic things such as food poisoning or the straining and rupturing of internal organs due to picking up a heavy painting, to more extreme theories such as the deliberate killing of Sher-Gil at the hands of Victor (Dalmia 179-181).

Sher-Gil strived to express herself in a way that was different from the traditional art style that was prominent in India. In doing so she was able to create a new style and set a course for different art types to break into the artistic community. The largest collection of her works on display is housed at the National Gallery of Modern Art and while it is rare that one of her paintings goes up for sale, when it happens they are very hot items for purchase (Dalmia 207). Sher-Gil has been described as a liberator of Indian art (Singh 216) and continues to be an inspiration for not only artists within India, but also on a global scale as her work continues to captivate new audiences. 


Dalmia, Yashodhara (2006) Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life. New Delhi: Penguin. 

Singh, N. Iqbal (1975) “Amrita Sher-Gil.” India International Centre Quarterly 3:209-217

Singh, N. Iqbal (1984) Amrita Sher-Gil. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House

Tillotson, G.H.R. (1997) “A Painter of Concern: Critical Writings on Amrita Sher-Gil.” India International Centre Quarterly 4:57-72

Related Topics:

To see other female painters of colour:

To see other famous painters from India:

For a book on art and modernity in India: 

            Worldly affiliations: artistic practice, national identity, and modernism in India, 1930-1990 by Sonal, Khullar (available through the University of Lethbridge Library)

Related Websites: 

To see a simplified version of all of this with pictures:                                              

To see the website for the museum where most of her works are kept today:

To see her obituary in the New York Times:

To see some of her most popular pieces:

To see all things Amrita:

This article was written by: Tiana Williams (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois was a French-Catholic missionary with the Missions Etrangeres de Paris sent to India in the early seventeen-nineties whose mission-work continued until the early eighteen-twenties. During this time Dubois authored a number of important detailed accounts of the Hindu faith and culture, which were valued by many for their ethnographic knowledge. Once such contemporary proponent of the Abbe Dubois’ work was Lord Bentwick. As discussed in the articleCastes of Mind, Nicholas B. Dirks quotes Bentwick, writing that, “in a political point of view, the information which the work of the Abbe Dubois has to impart might be of the greatest benefit in aiding the servants of the Government in conducting themselves more in unison with the customs and prejudices of the natives.” (see Dirks  65).

Little information is known about the Abbe’s life before his ordination an subsequent missionary work in India, where he was first stationed with the Pondicherry mission in the south of India. Following this the Abbe worked in Mysore aiding the reorganization efforts of the Christian community in the area, (see Dubois 1823:1-2). To better coalesce with the natives, Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois adopted the diet and clothing tendencies of his Hindu contemporaries, effectively renouncing the Euorpean lifestyle of the time. During his time in India many small agricultural communities were said to have been founded by the Abbe Dubois, as well as the introduction of vaccinations as a method of disease prevention, (See Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:19). By eighteen-twenty-three Dubois left India and returned to Paris, where he later became the director of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:xxviii).

Of the works authored by Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois, the most influential of which is Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, which is divided into three distinct parts, each of which discusses at length a different pillar of both Hindu culture and religion. The first and second sections discuss respectively the ‘General View of Society in India, and Especially of the Caste System’ and ‘The Four States of Brahmanical Life’, having a primary focus on cultural and societal implications of the Hindu tradition. While the third section aptly titled ‘Religion’ is concerned with the actual spiritual beliefs of practitioners of the Hindu tradition. Each of the three larger sections is further divided into chapters concerned with specific topics falling within the overarching theme of the section.

The first five chapters of the first section discuss at length the caste system found at the epicentre of  Hindu culture. The Abbe suggests that the ubiquity of the caste system in Hindu culture is the sole reason the Hindus did not regress into total barbarism which had been observed by other cultures occupying the ‘torrid region’ (Dubois  and Beauchamp 1897:29). Dubois further illustrates the importance of the caste system by observing what  became of social ‘pariahs’ a demographic of Hindu society with which he had become very familiar with. Stating that a population composed of such individuals quickly devolves into something altogether worse than the cannibalistic hordes observed in the African continent (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:29).

The second section takes an in-depth look at the Brahmin caste of Hindu society, covering a vast array of religious practices and expectations. It discusses at length all stages of brahmanical life starting with upanayana a ceremony in which young brahmin males are bestowed with a sacred cord, signalling their entrance into brahmic life. From this point until the age of matrimony they are acknowledged as residing in the condition of brahmacari. If the young male does not marry for any particular reason in the prescribed time period is no longer viewed as brahmacari andthe name of grhasthais not given to him. However, the six privileges afforded to the caste are still available to him. The six privileges being ‘to read, and get to read the Vedas, to make and to cause to me made, the sacrifice of the yajna, and lastly to receive alms and to give presents to the Brahmins,(Dubois 1816:101-102).

The second stage of brahmanical life  is that of grhastha, a title afforded to Brahmin males who have married and had produced children. The Abbe highlights myriad of different observances this state of Brahmins is required to maintain, a significant portion of which focus on ritual purity and auspiciousness. Not the least of these practices is ritual bathing in water that is deemed sacred, like that of the Indus or Ganges rivers. While in the water, it is of utmost importance that the man to keep his thoughts transfixed on Visnu and Brahma, the ritual bath is finished “by three times taking up handfuls of water, and with their faces turned toward the sun pouring it out in libations to that luminary”, (Dubois 1816:149). After exiting the water the grhastha brahmin dresses himself in a particular fashion that does not affect his purity or auspiciousness. This practice is conducted three times over the course of a day.

Dubois also discusses at great length the assortment of different prayers devout members of the Brahman caste observe and provides an exhaustive example highlighting the specific mechanics of the sandhya or ‘triple-prayer’ (see Dubois 1816:154-157).

The third and final section of Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies focuses more attentively on religious beliefs at the core of Hindu tradition. The first chapter of this section begins to draw a parallel between the Roman and Hindu primary deities, comparing Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto to Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (see Dubois 1816:370). The Abbe continues by explaining the origins of each member of the trimurti (the aforementioned Hindu gods) and begins to highlight the henotheistic nature of the Hindu faith. Following this the Abbe gives a more in-depth description of each member of the trimutr, as well as other prominent figures like Krsna or Indra.  Discussing in detail the role each member plays in the Hindu religion. Special attention and detail is given in the discussion of Visnu, as Visnu is said to take up to ten different forms or avatara, each of these forms and the situation(s) they correspond to are briefly illustrated.

In his Letters on the State of Christianity in India in which the Conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable, a work composed of a collection of correspondences written by the Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois which were sent to his superiors in Paris, the Abbe gives a detailed account of the state in which the Christian, and especially the Roman-Catholic faith(s) were in India. The opinion held by Abbe Dubois was that because the caste system was so deeply entrenched in the Hindu tradition, the conversion of natives proved to be a task of immense difficulty. Abbe Dubois writes that “during a period of twenty-five years that I have familiarly conversed with them, lived among them as their religious teacher and spiritual guide, I would hardly dare to affirm that I have anywhere met a sincere and undisguised christian,” (see Dubois 1823:63). Dubois continues to describe the degree to which this effect was observed, noting that one of the greatest points of contention for Hindu converts is the christian belief of total equality between people of varied societal position in the eyes of God, that a Brahmin of high standing should be treated as equal to a ‘pariah’. Continuing this sentiment, the Abbe suggests that even a totalitarian or despotic rule could be imposed upon the Hindu people with greater ease than it would be to dismantle the caste system; thus highlighting the vast emphasis placed upon the caste system in the Hindu tradition.

The writings of Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois offered a valuable insight into the complexity of the Hindu culture and the religion as a whole. The thirty years of experience working and residing among the Hindu people, adopting many of their customs and practices, allowed the Abbe to accrue a wide and intimate knowledge of the manners and customs of the Hindu tradition. Henry K. Beauchamp writes that “any account given by such a man of the manners and customs of the people amongst whom he lived must in any case be instructive,” (see Dubois and Beachamp 1897: xxii).

Works Cited and Bibliograhy:

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs, of the People of India; and of Their Institutions Both Religious and Civil. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, (1816)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Beauchamp, Henry K (1897), Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1905)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1823), Letters on the State of Christianity in India in Which the conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable. To which is added a vindication of the Hindus, male and female, in answer to a severe attack made upon both by the Reverend ****.

London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green (1823), Reprinted by Asian Educational Services

Dirks Nicholas B. (1992) “Castes of Mind.” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992): 56-78

Related Topics:

  • Sadhya
  • Protestant missionary work taking place at the same time
  • Lord Bentwick

Related Websites:

Article Written By: Brendan Spiess (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi Varma was born in 1848 in Kilimanur, which was inhabited by about 200 people of the Kilimanur clan, and he later died in 1906. He was born as a Ksatriya; a part of the warrior class in the Indian caste system (Rupika 20). This caste distinction allowed him to successfully pursue a career in art because of the privilege and connections this caste holds. Ravi’s father was known as a namboothiri brahmin the highest among all brahmins in his area, while his mother was an acknowledged poet (Rupika 25). But even with these great influences and broad skillsets exposed to him, his uncle Raja Raja Varma was the one who inspired and taught him to paint. The prefix “Raja” before Ravi Varma’s name symbolizes the recognition and credit he received as a painter (Rupika 19). After years of practice and broadening his knowledge and skills, Ravi Varma submitted his first two paintings to the Fine Arts exhibition in Madras, and to people’s surprise, he was awarded a gold medal by the governor (Rupika 22). After this initial recognition he believed himself ready to begin his travels and expand his career. His travels began in Travancore, there, with his background from Kilimanur, his status, and his proximity to the royal family aided in his growth as an artist, gaining him many new opportunities (Rupika 36). Because of Varma’s orthodox background, knowledge of scriptures and classical literature, and his incredible innate ability to paint, he was able to expand his sensibilities among the court in Travancore (Rupika 37). This in turn allowed him to make important connections with the influential members of the court which led to him acquiring more opportunities for painting commissions. Varma was first known for his massive oil paintings; the style and use of oil painting was introduced by the Europeans (Rupika 38). The style and scale of his paintings allowed a broader audience to enjoy one, or many pieces of art at once rather than a smaller audience only being able to admire at close range. As oil paintings could be made on massive canvases, the idea that a painting could be moved around, hung on a wall and observed at convenience was very appealing to Varma, as his dream was to have a huge exhibition of oil paintings created by him, displayed in a gallery (Rupika 157).

Raja Ravi Varma, Self-portrait, Government Museum, Chennai

Varma became well aware of the many styles that were being introduced by the Europeans (such as oil paintings on canvas, academic realism, and chiaroscuro) but was also aware of the many traditional and historical styles that had been part of Indian culture, his very own upbringing, and traditional art for a very long time (such as the Chitrasutra, from the Vishudharmottara) (Rupika 157). With all this knowledge, one of the main modern techniques he chose to incorporate was lithography. Lithography was created just before 1800 by Aloys Senefelder and it became one of the most popular mediums of the 19th century (Davies 911). Lithography involves the practice of drawing a design onto stone with a specific grease crayon, then dampening the stone with water which absorbs into the stone but does not absorb where the design is. The artist then applies ink to the stone which adheres to the crayon design, the stone is then put through a press where the design is transferred onto paper. This allows for many copies of one design to be made and saves artists tons of time (Davies 911). Through this process he was able to create amazing calendar art, known as oleography; prints made and texturized to resemble oil paintings. This allowed Varma’s art to become even more accessible to the masses and made his beautiful work more affordable and more popular. These prints often depicted Hindu deities and allowed anyone, no matter their class distinction to have a beautiful print with the deities they worshipped, and stories and tales that were known to them. No one had attempted his particular combination of styles before, Ravi utilized the richness of ancient stories and techniques but also incorporated modern varieties which created something purely unique. He was conscious of his selection of themes, genres, and the mediums in which he desired to paint and print. His representation of historical gods and heroes, the portraits of the rich and powerful as well as the many women he portrayed allowed him to prevail and put western influences to good use when it best suited him (Rupika 158). But, his stylistic choices received heavy criticism from traditional Indian artists, as well as European artists that believed his art was too vulgar, or too subtle, and did not follow the traditional ways of each group (Pande 130). Ravi Varma’s style was something never seen before which gave him an edge over other artists of his time.

Radha on the banks of the Ganga by Raja Ravi Varma. Government Museum, Chennai

In Varma’s portraits of females, the dresses, and jewellery portrayed were used to signify class and ethnic identity. Varma’s ability to capture the realness, vividness, and glow of the jewels these women wore was unsurpassable. Varma’s color palette and skill was said to become the inspiration for many deities now portrayed in temples after his time (Pande 130). His paintings as well as prints also brought forward the beauty and pride that Indian culture held which other colonizers and cultures were not aware of. His sophisticated paintings showed the beauty and dignity of the women, and also the status and power of men. From the colonizer’s point of view, India was a dull landscape of heat and dust, filled with beggars and fakirs, but Varma’s paintings showed the dazzling people of India that no foreigner could discredit (Pande 131). His work aided in the growth and achievement of independence for India by showing the pride and joy Indian people felt and by giving them proper representation and access. He is said to have brought a new visual style and vocabulary to the Indian world of art.

In many of Varma’s paintings he makes the effort to bring light into the private life of men and women in their personal interior spaces. He used a technique called Chiaroscuro, a modern technique, to make interior spaces more compelling and more dramatic to the viewer. This was originally a western practice that Varma took on and used to his advantage in his series of men reading books (Dinkar 2). His beautiful paintings were included in the budget to decorate the homes of the royal families of Mysore and Baroda, his mythological paintings were also frequently seen in these homes. His style and broad skillset is said to bridge the gap between the ancient stories and talents of India with the new, contemporary, and western styles used today (Dinkar 6). His venture into painting deities and mythological beings that were so well known by all of the Indian population, along with his unique style and abilities allowed him to have a career of fame and success. He would become most remembered and known for his mythological paintings and prints (Thakurta 181). One of the many known paintings of Varma’s is called the ‘Hamsa Damayanti’, this images connotes the idea of beauty and womanhood in Indian life, but pictured with this beautiful woman is a swan, which carries the meaning beyond a regular woman and into the mythic character of Damayanti, who is part of an epic legend known in India. This painting is known for conveying the ideas of transformation and transmutation of values (Thakurta 182). His many images and paintings of women became popular and well known because of the myth, aura, and beauty of these figures which gave them the privileged title of ‘real life celestial beauties’ (Rupika 140). These painting were some of the first to draw awards and mounting publicity for Varma (Thakurta 180).

Kicaka approaches Draupadi disguised as Sairandhri by Raja Ravi Varma. Government Museum, Chennai.

One deity of interest to Varma was Mohini, the female form of Visnu. She is the subject of several mythological tales, and her image was used in many paintings done by Varma. He portrayed the goddess as living the normal life of an Indian woman; many of the positions she is seen in connects to forms and sequences of traditional dances, which carry immense meaning in Indian culture. She is also pictured playing instruments such as the violin, as well as playing with a ball as a symbol of togetherness (Rupika 212). Instruments and music had special meaning to Varma as they were key factors and a common activity found in his childhood home (Rupika 211). The intention behind these paintings was to give insight into the private lives of young women who were awaiting and anticipating their future life with their chosen groom. Because of this, these paintings were often aimed to appeal to male audiences because of their curiosity and fascination with women (Rupika 212). This gives more meaning to the painting as they hold traditional Indian styles and values, modern techniques, and personal connections. Varma painted with compassion, purpose, and skill, thus allowing him to convey true emotion, status, and mythologies, which gave deep worth to each painting. These aspects carried over into every one of his prints, all showing his incomparable style and displaying cherished stories held within. These amazing abilities gave him the well-earned title as an original, talented, and respected Indian artist, unforgettably known as Raja Ravi Varma. 

Bibliography and Recommended Readings

Davies, Penelope (2010). “Post-Impressionism.” Janson’s History of Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 911-918.

Dinkar, Niharika (2014) “Private Lives and Interior Spaces: Raja Ravi Varma’s Scholar Paintings.” Wiley Online Library Vol. 37, Issue 3. Accessed January 30, 2020.

Pande, Ira (2010) “Review: A King Among Painters” India International Centre Quarterly Vol. 37, No. 1, 128-133. Accessed January 30, 2020.

Rupika, Chawla (2010) Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India. Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing.

Thakurta, Tapati Guha (1986) “Westernisation and Tradition in South Indian Painting in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of Raja Ravi Varma.” Sage Publications 165-195. Accessed January 30, 2020.

Related Topics

Puranic paintings

Raja Raja Varma

Painting style in Tanjore

Academic Realism

Oil painting



Epic tales           

Hindu goddesses

Chitrasutra, from the Vishudharmottara

Fine Arts exhibitions in India

Hindu deities in art


Mythological stories

Western influence on India

Related Websites

Article written by Camryn Smith (March 2020) who is exclusively responsible for its content.

Rajput Painting

In discussing Rajput painting, it is relevant to discuss the Mughal style of painting, which evolved at the same time, and in the same geographic area as the Rajput style (Beach 11). In Mughal painting, “consciousness of style was extreme and stylistic evolution intense and rapid” (Beach 11). Due to the rapid and dynamic development that Mughal painting underwent, is is difficult to specify typical characteristics of the style (Beach 11). However, in general, the artist is concerned with establishing a hazy and romantic atmosphere, which can be seen in the “softness of his colors” (Beach 11) and the “balance of composition” (Beach 11). The artist is also interested in portraiture, the figures convincingly depict actual people (Beach 12). Most importantly, the artist is concerned with minute details. For example, in the Muhgal painting Lovers on a Terrace from ~1645, one notes the tiny pattern on the bolsters and pillows, the texture of the fabric, and the “way a translucent muslin affects the color of flesh or fabric underneath” (Beach 12). These tiny details are a staple of the kind of refined skill required for Mughal painting. By contrast, a Rajput painting is “built in blocks of color” (Beach 12), which give the work a more emotional quality that constrasts with the more visually realistic style found in Mughal works (Beach 12). The figures in Rajput paintings can be seen to have “rectangular heads and enormous eyes” (Beach 12), which are not derived from realistic depiction, but instead are derived from “careful manipulation of pre-existing formulas” (Beach 12). A love-scene from a Rajput painting is “dynamic and impassioned” (Beach 12), whereas a similar Mughal work is “perhaps the least passionate love-scene imaginable” (Beach 12).

            Mughal paintings were almost exclusively commissioned by Mughal emperors (Beach 11-13). Most of these emperors desired uniqueness in their paintings, which provided the artist an opportunity to express his own individuality (Beach 12-17). In contrast, traditional Hindu village painting styles gave no role to the individual (Beach 17). Because Rajput painting was influenced by both Mughal and village ideals, the individuality displayed by the Rajput artists depended both on the context in which they worked, and the persuasions of the patrons for which they worked (Beach 17).

            Raphel Pettrucci writes that a “very narrow conception, unhappily still predominant, has too long overshadowed the art of painting by insisting that imitation is essential to it” (Petrucci 76). Instead, Petrucci asserts that painting is not just a representation of forms, but also an abstract language, just as illusive, indistinct and powerful as poetry and music (Petrucci 76). Rajput painting, when considered with regard to this point of view, reveals a tradition of essential elements which are borrowed from “epic sources, wherein the philosophy of the world and of life, of nature and of sentiment, is expressed in whatever it possessed of the eternal” (Petrucci 76). In other words, the forms in Rajput paintings are often more than their surface appearance, and are, instead, symbols. The Rajput artists reflect just enough of the real world as to express themselves through suggestion, while retaining their “own austerer power” (Petrucci 76).   Despite often drawing subject matter from Hindu texts, of which many depict savage imagery, such as Asura burning alive in flames cast upon him by Durya, Rajput paintings exhibit a certain sentiment of tenderness and love (Petrucci 76).

            Rajput painting is “both essentially and formally religious” (Coomaraswamy 50), and interprets the experience of human life much like a spiritual drama (Coomaraswamy 50). There is a close relationship between Rajput paintings and vernacular Hindi poetry, and the two often go hand in hand (Coomaraswamy 50. In many cases, the corresponding inscription from the particular Hindi subject is written on either the back of the painting, or on the painting itself (Coomaraswamy 50). The paintings are rarely dated or signed (Coomaraswamy 50). Rajput paintings were sometimes painted directly onto walls as murals, though typically were produced in small-scale works, which were meant to be held in the hand, and were often wrapped in cotton and stored (Coomaraswamy 50).

            In terms of technique, the Rajput style of painting is related to the ancient and modern Indian ‘fresco’ (Coomaraswamy 50). To begin, the artist makes an initial sketch, typically in red, or transfers an already prepared design (Coomaraswamy 50). The sketch is then primed with a white primer (Coomaraswamy 50). After the re-drawing and correcting is finished, the painting is coloured, beginning with the background, then foreground elements like buildings, and last of all forms like human and animal figures (Coomaraswamy 50). Brush strokes are made by free-hand, with single, fluid strokes contouring figures, detailing backgrounds, and outlining features (Coomaraswamy 50). Mughal painting, on the other hand, could be more readily described as a more methodical art-form, almost “an art of stippling” (Coomaraswamy 50).

            A frequent subject of Rajput painters is a “set of illustrations to the thirty-six Ragas and Raginis” (Coomaraswamy 50). These Ragas and Raginis are also described by poems, forming a Ragmala, of which are often inscribed on the corresponding paintings themselves (Coomaraswamy 50). Each Raga and Ragini is associated with a very particular mood, such as day and night, seasons, and rain, amongst countless others (Coomaraswamy 52). Most of these moods are connected to love, in the context of traditional Hindu rhetoric or poetry. (Coomaraswamy 52). Much like the way the music from a raga, or the poetry from the Ragmala can express a mood, Rajput paintings provide yet another medium in which to experience these moods (Coomaraswamy 52).

            In the early fifteenth century Rajput paintings, subject matter was mainly based on book illustrations, such as the Bhagvat-Purana, Ramayan, Gita Govinda and Ragmala series (Agre 570). The Rajput painters “brought the gods down to the level of human beings, depicting through the illustration of the divine, the life of the aristocracy and the common man” (Agre 570). From the 17th century onward, the influence of the Mughal Court begins to show in Rajput painting, and the subject matter shifted (Agre 570). While the book illustrations continued, secular scenes like marriage, battle, hunting, dancing, music, and festivals were favoured (Agre 570). Much can be learned about the lives of Indians from 17th century Rajput paintings, particularly aristocratic lives, as these were the primary figures (Agre 571). Men wore pagri, qaba, jama, and takauchia were the coats that they wore (Agre 571). The lower garment consisted of pajamas, which are typically depicted as being striped (Agre 571). Men frequently wore ornaments such as necklaces, and karas on their wrist which were decorated with precious stones, and rings were worn on the fingers (Agre 571). Women wore ear-rings, finger rings, nose-rings, necklaces over the breast, bazuband on the elbows, and anklets over the ankles (Agre 571). Interestingly, these ornaments are “depicted as worn by all women whether princesses, attendants, musicians, singers or dancers (Agre 571).

            The paintings also depict social customs, such as marriage, worship, festivals, among others (Agre 571). The growth of smoking as a habit can also be seen (Agre 571). In terms of entertainment, the Rajput paintings from the 17th century portray a wide variety of entertainment, chiefly dance and music, though also present are gambling, hunting, chess, chupar and kite flying (Agre 571). Hunting, in particular, was favoured by the ruling class; aristocrats used pet hawks to aid in their hunts during the 18th century (Agre 571).


Agre, J. (1976) “Social Life Aa Relfected In The Rajput Painting During The Mughal Period”. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 37, 569-575.

Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1918) “Rajput Painting”. Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin,16 (96), 49-62.

Beach, M. (1975) “The Context of Rajput Painting”. Ars Orientalis,10, 11-17.

 Petrucci, R. (1916) “Rajput Painting”. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 29 (158), 74- 79.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Mughal Painting

Mughal Courts

Mewar Painting

Related Websites

Article written by: Cade Sisco (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Kedarnath: Temple and Pilgrimage

 Kedarnath temple is a Saivitepilgrimage place in the Himalayan mountains, where according to tradition, Lord Siva manifested in his form as a linga of light (Whitmore 74). Kedarnath pilgrimage is a member of the four abodes system (char dham). The Kedarnath temple is located amidst the tall Himalayan Mountains and is one of the holiest Hindu places on the Indian subcontinent. The pilgrimage to Kedarnath is a difficult one for the pilgrims (yatris) due to the location of the temple which sits on top of a Himalayan mountain at an altitude of 3553 meters, a region often cited as “land of gods” (dev-Bhumi). Kedarnath is a “crossing-over place” (tirtha) that offers the possibility that one can “cross-over” the ocean of rebirth. Furthermore, Hindus consider pilgrimage (yatra) to Kedarnath as one that grants wishes, heals, and purifies karma. (Whitmore 7). In a general sense, the positioning of Kedarnath is in the shape of a linga. According to Hindu beliefs, by praying to Kedareshwar, one can get one’s desires fulfilled. The importance of the shrine can be further understood from the beliefs that Upamanyu (a rgvedic rsi) prayed to Lord Siva in this place in the Satya Yuga and the Pandavas worshipped Lord Siva here after the Mahabharata war(Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W 9). The journey to Kedarnath is difficult, yet most Hindu pilgrims (yatris) undertake this pilgrimage to destroy their sins (pap) and generate merit (punya) (Whitmore 5). This Yatra is pursued especially by Hindus who are in samnyasin stage of their life. The overview of Kedarnath presents a Hindu pilgrimage (yatri) with a unique opportunity to experience, worship, and to be in the conjoined presence of Siva and Ganga in this world (Sijapati, M. A., & Birkenholtz, J. V. 2).

         The origin of Kedarnath temple is a debatable issue, but the most prominent view by devotees about its construction suggests that the Pandavasconstructed it. It was revived later by Adi Sankaracarya but nothing can be said about the date of construction of the temple with certainty (Thapliyal, U. P 1). Claims like these are common in Hindu religious literature, academics do not regard these myths as historically accurate.

           According to the old accounts, Kedarnath is one of the places correlated with the climb to heaven (swargarohan) of the five Pandavasand their joint wife Draupadi. The Pandavas were desperate to cleanse themselves of the karma generated during the Kurukshetra war in which they killed their own cousins (the Kauravas), narrated in the Mahabharata epic (Whitmore 29). Having felt guilty of killing their own cousins, the Pandavas sought the blessings of Lord Siva for redemption. Siva eluded them repeatedly and while fleeing took refuge at Kedarnath in the form of a bull, a form commonly associated with demons (raksasas). Lord Siva, unhappy with the Pandavas, refused a meeting and left Kasi (Varanasi, U.P), his abode. He appeared as Nandi the bull in Guptakasi. In many versions of this story, the Pandavas identify Siva and grab him to prevent him from leaving. Each of the five Pandavas grabs a part of Siva, parts that remain in the landscape and then become the self-manifest rock lingas found in Kedarnath and the other four temples of the Saivite sect dedicated to god Shiva in the Garhwal region  (Panch Kedar)(Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W. 9).

Pilgrimage by foot (paidal-yatra) is the iconic form of yatra to the Kedarnath templeand exemplifies the pain (kasht) and inner production of focus and energy (tapas). Walking to Kedarnath barefoot was better and the traditional way for getting the full experience of the location, an experience that involved both pain and pleasure, but not every yatri is able to carry out this traditional method. Most yatris, prefer to ride on horseback, to be carried by porters, or to come by helicopter (Whitmore 127). Families that pursue this pilgrimage to Kedarnath or any other dham mention that one purpose of a yatra is to instill traditional values in the children of the family (Whitmore 127).

       Inside the temple, yatris who enter the temple in the morning are allowed to massage ghee into the linga. The puja itself is standardized and often include consecration (abhisheka) of the linga. Standard puja offerings usually include camphor, sacred thread, rice, incense, mustard oil, forehead adornments, raisins, split chickpeas, nuts, and more expensive pujas add scarves and plastic flower garlands (Whitmore 123). The general ritual procedure in Kedarnath would occur as follows: invocation (avahan), initial vow (sankalp), puja, arati, and offering of flowers (puspanjali), and finally, the ghee malish. Each member of the family would take ghee into their hands and be urged to massage the linga with ghee (clarified butter)while the priest (pujari) recites the mantra (Whitmore 123). For many yatris, massaging the linga, provides them a unique opportunity to experience intimacy with a famous and powerful form of God (Whitmore 78). Everyone irrespective of their skin colour, caste (jati) and creed is permitted to feel, touch, and express their devotion by smearing butter on the linga as a religious ritual (Hiremath, Shobha S. 1.)

Every year around 500,000 yatris visit the Kedarnath Dham valley, spaces in the eco­nomic catchment area of the Kedarnath valley became spaces predominantly aligned around the yatra tourism of middle-class pilgrims, who expect for comfortable travel. Hence, sheer numbers far exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the mountain environment (Whitmore 103). This sudden growth of yatris in the Kedarnath region, the nature of economic development connected to pilgrimage and tourism, and poorly planned infrastructure were not sustainable, leading to vast devastation in the region.

           In 2013, the flash floods in the parts of the north-west Himalayan region caused acute damage in the Uttarakhand state of India. The severity of the floods and damage was the most devastating in the Kedarnath region. It caused the death of about 4000 people and almost a similar number were reported missing. Unofficial reports suggest an even higher number of death and people missing in the region (Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K 193).  The cause of the flash floods was determined to be heavy rainfall, triggering landslides in some places, damaging roads, buildings, and other infrastructure. The extensive damage and large death toll displayed the frangibility of the mountainous region and a lack of synchronized relief and rescue operation (Ziegler, A. D., Wasson, R. J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y. P., Sati, S. P., Juyal, N., … & Saklani, U, 1). Construction of several hydropower projects simultaneously, improper road alignment with poor construction, inadequate consideration of slope stability and faulty engineering techniques were some of the other major factors responsible for the 2013 flash floods (Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K 198).  During the disaster more than 100,000 yatris were in the region. Despite the floods, the Kedarnath shrine persevered, shielded by a massive boulder, a “divine rock” (divya sila), and by its own solid construc­tion, the temple itself held firm but filled up with debris (Whitmore 153). The unpredictability of the landscape and the continued extreme weather made it arduous for up to two days even to deliver supplies to the survivors, and some attempts even resulted in helicopter crashes. During the floods, dead bodies were coming down the Mandakini river and groups of survivors were coming out of the jungles and finding their way to villages in the upper Kedarnath. Consequently, all these events led to the closure of the Kedarnath temple.

       In Kedarnath, there is a tradition that when the shrine is closed it is the turn of divine beings to come to the site on pilgrimage while it is off limits for humans. On October 4, 2013, the first day of the fall Navaratri, Kedarnath re-opened for yatris (Whitmore 164).

       The Kedarnath valley being surrounded by the Himalayas, lakes, rivers, and forests has natural scenic beauty with several places for pilgrimage making the entire region a highly promising tourist destination. The occupation of the people living in the Kedarnath region is directly or indirectly linked with tourism, and tourism has established itself as a primary component in the Kedarnath valley economy. The relationship between residents and tourists can impact positively by providing new opportunities and negatively through restraining individuality with new restrictions (Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K 303).  Today, the accessibility to the Kedarnath temple compared to the last decade has become much more commodious because of better transportation provisions. The helicopter service for the Kedarnath shrine has been started for the pilgrims/tourist.

Though tourism in Kedarnath and the surrounding Himalayan regions have a huge potential for economic improvement, yet it has negatively affected the education of youth residing in Kedarnath. Much of the youth generation started working at an early age for immediate economic gain, neglecting their basic education (Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K 305).  “Particular constellations of social, political, and economic forces can over centuries transform the character of a particular pilgrimage place almost beyond recognition” (Whitmore 26).  Despite such a devastating flood in the Kedarnath Valley, the state government has no specific policy for develop­ment and planned construction keeping the environmental issues in mind. “Since the state leaders themselves are involved in hospitality and real estate, both overtly and covertly, no one actively discourages illegal construction” (Joshi, Hridayesh 133). Political leaders and the businessmen have not lost sight of the potential to further their own interests at the yatras, and both segments vie for advertising and merchandizing. Yet, Hindus considers it as a religious duty to embark on the pilgrimage of four holy shrines which include Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri (Chardham), the most captivating reason for this Hindu pilgrimage is that this trip washes away all the sins and cleanses the soul for paramount salvation.

                            References and other materials consulted

Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K (2011) Socio-cultural impacts of pilgrimage in Kedarnath and adjoining areas of Garhwal Himalayas. J. Env. Bio-Sci., 2011: Vol. 25 (2): 303-306

Hiremath, Shobha S. (2006) Kedar vairagya peetha: Parampara & Rawal Jagadguru Shri Bheemashankarlinga Shivacharya. Ukhimatha (Ushamath): Himavat Kedar Vairagya Simhasana Mahasamsthana.

Joshi, Hridayesh. (2016) Rage of the River: The Untold Story of Kedarnath Disaster. Translated by Vandana R. Singh. Gurgaon (Haryana), India: Penguin Books India.

Lochtefeld, J. (2010) God’s gateway: identity and meaning in a Hindu pilgrimage place. Oxford University Press.

Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W. (2017) Sacred groves: myths, beliefs, and biodiversity conservation—a case study from Western Himalaya, India. International journal of ecology2017.

Sijapati, M. A., & Birkenholtz, J. V. (Eds.) (2015) Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya. Routledge.

Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K. (2013) The fury of the floods in the north-west Himalayan region: the Kedarnath tragedy. Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 4(3), 193-201.

Thapliyal, U. P.(2005) Historical and Cultural Perspectives, B.R. Publishing Corporation, New Delhi,

Whitmore, L. (2018) Changes in Ritual Practice at the Himalayan Hindu Shrine of Kedarnath. Ritual Innovation: Strategic Interventions in South Asian Religion, 71-90.

Whitmore, L. (2018) Mountain, Water, Rock, God: Understanding Kedarnath in the Twenty-First Century. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Ziegler, A. D., Wasson, R. J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y. P., Sati, S. P., Juyal, N., … & Saklani, U. (2014) Pilgrims, progress, and the political economy of disaster preparedness–the example of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood and Kedarnath disaster. Hydrological Processes, 28(24), 5985-5990.

                             Related Topics for Further Investigation    

Char Dham Yatra





Panch Kedar


                        Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Gagan Preet Singh (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content

Bharata in the Ramayana

            Bharata is a fictional character in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Bharata is the second oldest son of King Dasratha and his second and favorite wife, Kaikeyi. He is the younger brother of Rama, and the older brother of Laksmana and Satrughna. They are the ruling family of the Iksvaku clan, living in the city of Ayodhya (Sattar 56). His appearances in the story are mainly confined to three major parts.

               Early in the Ramayana, Bharata, with Satrughna, is sent to live with his uncle and grandfather (on his mother’s side) in the kingdom of the Kekeyas. Here, he is educated and pampered (Sattar 105). It is during this time that King Dasratha decides to anoint Rama as his heir to the throne. Upon seeing the riches and glamour being produced to celebrate this, Kaikeyi is approached by her handmaiden (of unknown birth and origins), the hunchback Manthara. Manthara is able to convince Kaikeyi that Rama will not share the throne, and most likely exile or kill Bharata and his mother to secure power (Sattar 112-115). Kaikeyi reminds the king of two boons he promised her after she cared for him after a battle, to be used in the future. She asks that Rama be exiled to the forest for 14 years, and for Bharata to be anointed as heir to the throne. King Dasratha, due to following dharma and keeping his word, is forced to grant her wishes. Rama is exiled, and word is sent to bring Bharata back to Ayodhya. King Dasratha dies of heartbreak before Bharata returns home. His mother informs him of what has happened, and how she did it, but Bharata is furious with her, and declares her banished. Bharata performs the funeral rites for his father, and mourns for 10 days (Sattar 168).

            In his second part, having no interest in the throne, Bharata seeks out Rama in exile to bring him home to be king. He marches with all his armies, to approach Rama in a manner befitting a king (Richman 2001:51). Upon meeting, Rama gives as much advice on statesmanship as he can to his brother, and is later heartbroken at the news of his fathers passing, but chooses to follow dharma and fulfill his father’s orders to remain in exile for 14 years. Rama removes his sandals and presents them to Bharata, who declares that he will take them back to Ayodhya to serve as inspiration for his kingdom, as he acts as a regent until the exile is over. He declares that he will live an ascetic life as Rama is, matting his hair and wearing animal hides, and eating only roots and fruit, for 14 years (Sattar 191). He returns to Ayodhya only to place Rama’s sandals on the throne, and moves the court to the city of Nardigrama, as he will not take a throne that he does not believe is his (Sattar 193).

            In the third and final of Bharata’s parts, Rama sends Hanuman to inform Bharata that they are coming home after the 14-year exile, and to tell him of their adventures. Hanuman remarks that Bharata looks like an emaciated renouncer, but glows like a great Rsi (Sattar 500). Rama states that if Bharata shows any sign of not wanting to give up the throne, he will refuse it (Goldman 52). After ruling for 14 years, Bharata briefly considers not turning the kingdom over to his brother. However, when Rama returns, Bharata touches his feet, put his sandals on for him, and returns the kingdom to his older brother (Sattar 503).

As Rama is considered the avatara of Visnu, Bharata and his younger brothers are considered to be one quarter of Visnu. Bharata specifically is Visnu’s essence of valour. Bharata, like his brothers, was endowed with all the virtues (Goldman 159). He is prudent, all-knowing, and far-sighted, but modest (Sattar 57). While Rama is a famed archer and warrior (Sattar 56), he acknowledges Bharata’s abilities when he remarks to Laksmana (when Bharata brings his army to visit them in the forest, making Laksmana think they are under attack from Bharata) that his younger brother would not need an army to kill them (Sattar 178). The brothers love and care for each other greatly, but there is a deep bond between Bharata and Satrughna. Bharata loves Satrughna “more than the breath of life itself, while Satrughna loved him just as much” (Goldman 160). Satrughna cares for and protects Bharata in a similar fashion to the relationship between Laksmana and Rama.

Bharata’s character can be called one of dharma and propriety. In the Ramnami sect of devotional worship, Bharata’s parts in the Ramayana are considered examples of the proper ways to worship Rama (Richman 1991:242). Bharata follows his duties regardless of his feelings, as demonstrated when Rama refuses to accept his brothers offer to return and serve as king (a duty Bharata did not feel was rightfully his own), or when he follows Rama’s orders sending him and Laksmana into battle (and almost certainly to their deaths), remarking “To die in battle is the dharma of the kshatriya” (Richman 2001:258). However, Bharata is not wholly perfect. Despite his propriety and virtuous nature, he insults his father and king over his exile of Rama, and is abusive towards his mother over her part in it (Richman 1991:183).


Sattar, Arshia (1996) Valmiki’s Ramayana. Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield.

Goldman, Robert P. (1984) The Ramayana of Valmiki Volume 1: Balakanda. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Richman, Paula (1991) Many Ramayanas. Oxford, England: University of California Press.

Richman, Paula (2001) Questioning Ramayanas. Oxford, England: University of California Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation









Ramnami Sect


Article written by: Ryland Schinbein (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.