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What is Sikhism?

Helmet with chain mail neckguard, approx. 1820-1840

Helmet with chain mail neckguard, approx. 1820-1840. Pakistan; Probably Lahore, Punjab province. Helmet of iron overlaid with gold; mail neckguard of iron and brass. Gift of the Kapany Collection, 1998.69.

The Sikh religion arose in Punjab, a region that is now divided between India and Pakistan. Its followers consider themselves disciples of ten esteemed gurus, or teachers, the first of whom was Nanak (1469–1539), Sikhism’s historical founder. Although Hindu by birth, Nanak also embraced aspects of Muslim teachings, later proclaiming, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” He emphasized the importance of ethical conduct and the equality of all people before a universal god.

His life and teachings are the focus of illustrated texts known as janam sakhis (life stories). The outward emblems of Sikhism, such as uncut hair and turbans, were not formally adopted until 1699, when Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the tenth guru, established the Khalsa (Order of the Pure) in order to provide persecuted Sikhs with a cohesive identity. Fine weapons and armor reflect the military character that Sikhs were forced to adopt at this time. The spiritual lineage that began with Nanak ended when Gobind Singh named as his successor the Adi Granth (Primal Book), Sikhism’s sacred text. The Adi Granth, considered the eternal guru, is the devotional focus of all Sikh temples.

As their power increased, Sikh rulers commissioned paintings, jewelry, and architectural structures that indicated their positions as heirs to Mughal leadership in northern India. Their kingdoms did not fail to impress European artists, some of whom attempted to capture something of the splendor and unique character of the Punjab in their works.