Gurbani Calligraphy – a Lost Sikh Tradition

Gurbani calligraphy, or the art of Gurbani handwriting, once was revered as something of high value by members of the Sikh faith. Sikhs living across Punjab and elsewhere took it upon themselves to write their own pothis and gutkas, instead of depending on others to publish Gurbani. This helped to ensure that publishing Gurbani does not become a business and at the same time, it helped keep respect for Gurbani pothis.

Centuries ago when there were no printing presses, individuals would spend good time to master the skill of calligraphy and produce pothis for their own use. In turn, this practice also helped individuals memorize Gurbani, another skill which is diminishing day by day. The toil involved in producing a simple pothi definitely helped instill one with love and reverence for Gurbani.

Historical Reference of Gurbani Calligraphy

Today, many firms are engaged in printing Guru Granth Sahib Ji’s saroops and other Gurbani pothis. This is a clear indication that the art of calligraphy has diminished completely from Sikh households. It should be remembered that this art was started and prescribed by none other than our great Gurus. Guru Arjun Dev Ji had Bhai Gurdas Ji write the first Adi Granth, while many Gursikhs present in the attendance of Guru Gobind Singh Ji also penned Gurbani. These Gursikhs included Baba Deep Singh Ji and Bhai Mani Singh Ji. Reference to Baba Hardas Singh, father of S. Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, is also found in historical texts. Baba Hardas Singh was the courtly scribe of Guru Gobind Singh Ji and penned many pothis. Before the 1984 attack on the Harmandir Sahib, a handwritten saroop by Baba Hardas Singh was enshrined at the Sikh Reference Library.

Beautifully handwritten Saroop of Guru Granth Sahib Ji by courtly scribe Baba Hardas Singh Ji

Importance of Gurbani Calligraphy in Sikh Literature

Reference to how utmost importance was given to Gurbani calligraphy is found in the book “Satwant Kaur” penned by Dr. Bhai Veer Singh. In the novel, it is mentioned that some Sikhs who did not know Gurmukhi offered to pay Bibi Satwant Kaur enormous amounts of money to write them a pothi, but Bibi Satwant Kaur did the seva without taking any money.

Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh (Narangwal) narrates a very beautiful incident in the book “Jot Vigaas” that took place between him and another very high avastha (spiritual state) Gursikh from Nabha. After a discussion takes place between the two, Bhai Randhir Singh unintentionally touches the feet of this Gursikh (whose name is not mentioned in the book). Doing so immediately puts Bhai Randhir Singh in samadhi (full concentration of naam). When asked by Bhai Randhir Singh on how he attained such high avastha, the Gursikh answers that it is through the blessing of writing Gurbani.

In the same book, Bhai Randhir Singh writes the following words to condemn the printing “business” of Gurbani, stating that the Sikhs of today have forsaken the tradition of writing Gurbani and have adopted the printing press:

ਰਚਨਾ ਛਡਿ ਦਿਤੀ ਲਿਖਤ ਬਾਣੀਆਂ ਦੀ, ਨਵਾਂ ਰਾਹੁ ਫੜਿਆ ਫੈਸ਼ਨੋਲਿਆਂ ਦਾ।
ਛਾਪੇ-ਖ਼ਾਨਿਆਂ ਦੀ ਭੈੜੀ ਰੀਤ ਚੱਲੀ
, ਭੈੜਾ ਚਾਲੜਾ ਦੰਮ ਖਟੋਲਿਆਂ ਦਾ।

Composition of hand written Banis has been forsaken, a new worldly way has instead been adopted.
This has brought forth the wicked use of printing presses, the evil path of seeking profit.

Issues with the mass-printing business of Gurbani

A hukamnama from Sri Akal Takht Sahib was issued in 1998 by Jathedar Bhai Ranjit Singh giving only the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee the rights to publish saroops of Guru Granth Sahib. This mandate is badly abused by many organizations across India. Organizations such as the Singh Brothers, Chattar Singh Jeevan Singh & Sons, Delhi Shiromani Gurdwara Management Committee, Lachhman Chela Ram Printing Press and others have been reported to Sri Akal Takht Sahib just in the past few years for defying the mandate.

The recent Akal Takht Sahib management too has not taken this issue seriously despite there being huge sacrilege of printed saroops. In August 2010, over two thousand saroops were recovered from the printing press warehouse of Lachhman (Lakshman) Chela Ram in Delhi. The majority of these saroops were damaged by sewage water.

In 2007, just 3 years before the 2010 sacrilege, a large container carrying a hundred saroops of Guru Granth Sahib was found waiting to be shipped at a sea port in Mumbai. According to press reports, the container, stacked with saroops of Guru Granth Sahib remained at the shipment port for over one month before the news was leaked by the customs department about their illegal departure from Mumbai.

Lessons Learned from Past Incidents

The following verse from Guru Granth Sahib narrates truly how blessed is one who not only sings and listens, but also scribes Gurbani.

Those who chant are sanctified. All those who listen are blessed, and those who write save their ancestors.

Just recently, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee acquired land in the United States to start its own printing press. This was done to ensure there was no shortage of saroops of Guru Granth Sahib in North America. Although this move by the SGPC is commendable, it is still debatable if such a printing press is really necessary. The Akal Takht Sahib has already passed a mandate requesting Sikhs living worldwide to abstain from constructing new Gurdwaras without prior approval from the apex Sikh body. What is more necessary is that Sikh organizations are able to hold camps for Sikh Sangat where they not only learn how to read and understand Gurbani, but also gain the skills to scribe Gurbani. If students who undergo religious training are taught how to fully comprehend the grammar of Gurbani and be able to scribe it, it will greatly help give rise to truly educated Granthis and Parchariks.

As we learn from the teachings in the novel Satwant Kaur, if all Sikhs devoted time to writing their own pothis which lived with them for the rest of their lives, Gurbani would become their life companion.

Lately, a few Sikhs have come up to save the art of Gurbani calligraphy from dying.  A few names are being mentioned here for the benefit of our readers:

Pictured left, Master Niranjan Singh from Gurdaspur/California, an active member of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha and on right, Bhai Jaswant Singh Khosa from Malaysia scribing Gurbani.
Pictured left is a beautiful work in progress by Hardeep Singh and right is a shabad scribed by Kamaljeet Kaur.

Possibles Issues with Gurbani Calligraphy

Although it has been stressed that the skill of Gurbani calligraphy must not be lost amidst the mass printing businesses available today, this art must only be taken over with great care.  Writing of Gurbani requires great attention to the words, and any misspelling would also lead to ‘beadbi’ or sacrilege.  Just as there are numerous differences in the printed saroops of Guru Granth Sahib Ji, variances are also found in hand written saroops.  For example, the verse “ਸੁ ਕਹੁ ਟਲ ਗੁਰੁ ਸੇਵੀਐ ਅਹਿਨਿਸਿ ਸਹਜਿ ਸੁਭਾਇ” appears as “ਸੁ ਕਹੁ ਕਲ…” in the saroop scribed by Baba Hardas Singh Ji mentioned above.

When starting to scribe Gurbani, one should start with small banis or shabads instead of writing their own gutka.  As one starts to understand the diacritics of the Gurmukhi script, only then should they consider scribing a gutka or pothi.  Seva of hand-written saroops should only be done by a skilled calligrapher after first performing ardas and taking hukamnama to initiate the task.  Furthermore, as one writes any Gurbani, a cross check must be done carefully with existing saroops possibly by the scribe and another person versed with Gurmukhi script and Gurbani knowledge.

Understanding the Importance of Larrivar Format

As one takes over the art of scribing bani, the importance of writing Gurbani in larrivar format should not be overlooked. Just as our Gurus ordered various scribes to pen Gurbani, they prescribed the larrivar format to be followed at all times. In the larrivar format, all words remain joined to one another and are only separated at the end of sentences with a full stop “||”.

Historically all saroops of Guru Granth Sahib were penned in larrivar format only. It was only with the adoption of printing presses that words in Guru Granth Sahib were “pad-ched” or separated. Sant Kartar Singh Bhindrawale (former Jathedar Damdami Taksal) described this as a great blunder and a horrid mistake which should not be allowed.

Vichaar by Sant Kartar Singh Khalsa Bhindrawale

There are still hukamnamas in place by Sri Akal Takht Sahib condemning the practice of pad-ched printing (printing with spaces) as it changes Gurbani from the way it was originally written.  Gurbani tells us that the Guru is the shabad. The shabad itself is the creator. Sikhs will not be able to progress if we as a Panth mistreat and even reject Gurbani in its most natural and essential forms. Jews still ensure that their holy scriptures are always handwritten and highly regarded—they do not even consider them their Guru!

We must protect our tradition and most sacred scriptures and uphold the respect of our Guru. Sikhs should bring about change by learning Gurbani and recognizing the importance of handwritten Gurbani calligraphy.


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