Commemorating Guru Tegh Bahadur This Centenary – Part 4

2021 marks 400 years since birth of Guru Tegh Bahadur. In this final of a 4-part series, NIRMAL SINGH looks at the legacy of the Guru. He outlines three exceptional features to Guru Tegh Bahadur’s life that make him unique in the Sikh annals

BABA BAKALA (31°34`N, 75°16`E), a small town in Amritsar district of the Punjab, is sacred to Guru Hargobind and Guru Tegh Bahadur. The original name of the place was Bakala. As Guru Har Krishan lay on his deathbed in Delhi, he was asked by the sangat to name his successor. All that the Guru could say at that time was \’Baba Bakale\’ meaning that (Guru) Tegh Bahadur, who was the brother of his (Guru Har Krishan\’s) grandfather (baba) and who was living at Bakala, was to be the next Guru. Bakala, thereafter, came to be called Baba Bakala.(Source: The Sikh Encyclopedia)
By Nirmal Singh | Sikh History | Part 4 |

Missionary Activity

The Guru had stayed on in Bakala from the time of demise of Guru Hargobind [1644] till he was called up to Gurgadi after the demise of Guru Har Krishan [1664]. During the intervening years, he had stayed in touch with Guru Har Rai who had suggested to him in 1656 to take on the missionary work in the Eastern part of the country and the Malwa region of Punjab.

Baba Tegh Bahadur left for the sangats in the East and learnt of the passing of Guru Har Rai when at Patna. It was on his return journey, that when he arrived at Delhi, he heard that Guru Har Krishan was in Delhi and he, with his mother, went to see the Guru and pay their condolences on the passing of Guru Har Rai in 1664. He therefore could have been in Eastern UP and Bihar for 3-8 years in his pre-Guru days.

After his Gurgadi, the Guru left Anandpur for the sangats in the East in August 1665 and returned in or after 1671 – after 5 ½ years, half of his ministry. He had revived and added to  Sikh sangats all over the East during his travels to the present day Haryana, UP, Bihar, Bengal, Assam, Orissa and Bangladesh areas.

Commemorating Guru Tegh Bahadur This Centenary Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

The Sikh sangats in the East became a strong backup support and a source of funds for the Sikhs during the time of Guru Tegh Bahadur continuing in the time of Guru Gobind Singh and is speculated to have helped in funding the latter’s resolute resistive struggle against Mughal oppressive rule. This missionary initiative in the East however lost its sheen as it gradually withered away later in the 18th century, possibly due to lack of any continuing active contact, post Guru Gobind Singh that would have facilitated the Sikh sangats in the far flung Eastern areas to transition in tandem with changes taking place in the Punjab region.

The Guru was a very active missionary, leading the missionary activities from the front himself and spending most of the time on missionary work even as he used the Udasis to help as much as they could. He also was the first Guru to have visited and spend few years reviving and extending Sikh foot print in the Eastern parts. What happened that we now hardly come across any local Sikhs from those parts? I found this to be the case in Hyderabad too. I met several Dakhani Sikhs but I found out that their forebears were Sikhs from Punjab. Old Sehjdharis of Hyderabad were Sikh supporters but had melded back into Hindu fold. The same seems to be true of Sehjdharis from Pakistan, they have almost fully merged into Hindus. My sense is that the transition that Sikh sangats of the East missed was amrit parchar. They stayed Sikhs as long as the Guru connection lasted. With Masands also gone, there was no link left to remain Sikhs.

Let us now come to the question of legacy of missionaries in the East. If we go by the simple yardstick of the missionary’s effect on the Faith community, the initiative in the Eastern India may end up creating an increasing burden for the Sikh community as more heritage sites are discovered and activated per their historical significance, with no local Sikh help to maintain the heritage. This is happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Iran and in India too. Nor is this withering away experience unique to the Sikhs. It has happened to the Jewish community, Budhhists, Bahais, Zoroastrians, Jainas and lot more. We have to set our own priorities and thoughtfully select heritage to revive and the manner in which it should be maintained.

The success of Guru’s Malwa missionary to draw converts from Sakhi Sarvar Muslims in the region caused alarm among Muslim Ullama and may have been one additional factor in Aurangzeb’s decision to pass the order for Guru’s execution in 1675. This is a project SGPC might gladly hand over to Rashtriya Sikh Sangat!

Strategic Value Addition by Eastern Sangats

Another aspect that may bear examination is the likely effect that the initiative to revive and reinforce sangats in the East may have had on the course of Sikh and Indian history at that critical juncture. Later Sikh Gurus saw two imminent threats: oppressive Mughal rulers and dissident truants from Guru household. This caused their move to Shiwaliks that had created financial difficulties. [harji d 1696, sons ousted 1698 minas wikipedia]

Guru Tegh Bahadur no doubt saw two imminent needs: the town, Chak Nanaki, had to be constructed and the Sikhs had to stay fortified for their own safety. They needed the bheta to keep flowing. He had spent some time visiting sangats and knew that they also had experienced similar split and confusion that had hit Sikh in Punjab post the passing of Guru Har Krishan.  He showed excellent astuteness to immediately repair to the East and put the sangats there on path of stability. Our hukamnama based discussion should make that need abundantly clear. It was achieved by the Guru through bringing about changes in personnel, systems and structure. If 18th century Sikh leaders were similarly endowed, the Sikh story may have been truly glorious.

In any case, the changes came. Harji died in 1696 and Minas were ejected in 1698 from Amritsar. After a series of see saw actions, Khalsa finally snatched control over parts of Punjab and were able to hasten the down fall of Mughals. In the long run, the real gain accrued to India as a whole, partly as a consequence of the strategic shift to go East by Guru Tegh Bahadur. This deserves to be recognized and added to his legacy.

Managing Sikhs & Sikhi

The Guru obviously realized that with the wide spread of Sikhs, he needed trustworthy and reliable persons in charge of sangats and an organization to ensure co-ordination and control. He attempted a model of regional, suba and city sangat  set up that seemed to have worked.

His leadership qualities and management style also seemed to have worked. There are a few characteristics relating to these matters that came to notice in the literature scanned for this paper. The main feature that emerges is the use of simple and easily understood language and metaphors in his letters, Bani and surely in his speech. He certainly had the assets of being a great communicator. Apart from that he addressed a cross section of Sikhs, not just his close confidants, and invited suggestions from the sangat members – seen essentially as more participative than paternalistic for the times he lived in. His insistence to seek information on collections for special services shows his penchant for detail and ability to handle relations with the Masands with finesse.

Dwelling a bit further on the above, we know that the participative style of Guru Tegh Bahadur got further developed by Guru Gobind Singh by a series of his actions. One was his demonstration of aapae gur chela and the related institution of panj pyaarae. The next was recognition of inhi kee kripaa sae sajae hum hain – that put Khalsa on a different pedestal as a collective body. The third was the creation of conditions for the eventual emergence and continued evolution of the institution of Guru Panth.

Cumulatively it is these norms of room for individual contribution and initiative within the collective ideal of ek pita ekas kae hum balak and sarbat ka bhalla that make Sikhs vie for sewa, that has been equated to prayer for seeking govind milan or liberation. Sikhs are not perfect and have taken several missteps along the way but eventually the Sikhs will, hopefully, develop a model for their corporate religious life that is sensitively suited for their religious culture. That will be consummation of the modernizing process of Sikh institutions – the legacy of initiating this process belongs to Guru Tegh Bahadur.

Martyrdom & Other Unique Points

There are three exceptional features to Guru Tegh Bahadur’s life that make him unique in the Sikh annals. He was:

  • The only person who was present and available, yet was overlooked twice for the Gurgadi and yet was installed as Guru the third time in a unique sequence of events
  • The only Guru whose Bani was added to Adi Granth after its first installation at the Harmandir Sahib in 1604
  • The only martyrdom of a religious Preceptor at Sikh Guru’s level who put his life on stake for the religious freedom of the followers of another Faith

These points are important for any evaluative analysis of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s life and contribution both for the Sikh causes and the larger issues relating to the amelioration of human foibles and suffering. These have variously been mentioned and explained in our brief discussion but my suggestion would be that the explanation of these points may be more realistic and less biased if attempted through wider consultation.


It was perhaps the divine hand that stayed Tegh Bahadur being picked to be made the Guru when his father died, or when Guru Har Rai passed away, for the call had to come later when the level of oppression were to become unbearable and sacrifice would have been the only way to give voice to the sense of utter helplessness of the people.

The Guru gave life for the sake of freedom for the ‘others’ to be able to nirbhau hoe bhajo bhagwan. This is a Sikhi advisory and an aspiration that Sikhs value. It matters little who was the oppressed and who was the oppressor. The Guru made the sacrifice because of his own belief, not to earn gratitude from any group. Embracing martyrdom is the very ultimate in expression of a high principle and that recognition is its reward.

The Guru’s sacrifice was important then – it is important today, and its importance may continue undiminished as long as the religious differences continue to trigger hate for the ‘other.’ It is for all of us to work towards reduction of the prejudices that sow seeds of hate in us.  This is a shared burden for us all and we should, as individuals, try to get actively engaged in helping to create and maintain peace and harmony in the society we live in.

With the example of sacrifice by the Guru, we should try to promote the dictum ‘bhai kahu ko daet neh, neh bhai maanat aan’ that the Guru persuaded us to internalize. It is a non sectarian call by the Guru that could enhance our ability to overcome difficulties in life and accomplish the near impossible through resurgence of ‘bal hua bandhan chhuttae’ state of mind that he experienced. A crown of glory – Jai jai jai surlok – as said by Guru Gobind Singh certainly awaited the apostle of societal peace and harmony, Guru Tegh Bahadur!



Religious communities develop traditions to honor the memory of their preceptor and leaders in various ways. Sikhs however have displayed a marked indifference to the use of museums to display their faith and faith practices, history, trauma and achievements. One of the inhibiting factors could have been the Sikh opposition to idol worship which can get whipped up easily by activist groups opposing any proposal.

Whatever the reasons, the fact is there is only one Sikh museum worth a visit in India – Virasat–e–Khalsa at Anandpur Sahib that exhibits 500 years of the Sikh history and the 300th anniversary of the birth of Khalsa, based on writings attributed to Guru Gobind Singh. It attracts tourists and pilgrims.

Sikhs realize that little is known about them and their faith by lay public and post 911 have made serious efforts to spread awareness about their Faith, history and culture but still have not paid attention to clear evidence that “Among all the media and means through which a broad swath of the public comes to understand religious lives and traditions, museums have emerged as some of the most prominent social institutions influencing the popular conceptions and imaginaries of religion — museums actively shape how people come to know about beliefs and practices other than their own.” [48]

We, the Sikhs have used various facets of memorializing so that the preserved memory assumes an aura of the sacred and thus turns into a powerful expression to showcase the Sikh survival, renewal and moral victory in the face of extreme adversity.

We also have used oral media like phrases, verses, lyrics, stories et al to summarily describe our traumatic experiences and in many cases to trivialize or even challenge the oppressors in extremely trying circumstances, with view to reinforce the sense of pride and courage in the community.

We have established Gurdwaras at various historical sites associated with our trauma. Gurdwaras Sis Ganj and Rakab Ganj in Delhi respectively are intended to remind us of the martyrdom of Guru Tagh Bahadur and the isolation of Sikhs of Delhi but do not in any way give expression to the event or symbolize the ideals that inspired the Guru to put his life on the stake. We can make some alterations and displays to mould popular religion, narrative and history and let the visitors savor the significant memories that the site would like invoked.

Delhi has been home to all hues of memorials for centuries but Guru Tegh Bahadur still awaits a befitting memorial by Sikhs and a grateful nation. This fourth centenary of the Guru’s birth has the grapevine saying that memory of the Guru is likely to be suitably recognized in a national martyr’s museum to be created in Delhi. We have made brief comments in various segments of this Paper more particularly the legacy part hoping it may trigger some conversation on the subject.



[48] S. Brent Plate, Getting Religion in the Museum, Sacred Matters, May 24, 2017


[Nirmal Singh has written six books on Sikhs and Sikhi and several of his articles have been published in journals like Sikh Review, Journal of Sikh Studies and Comparative Religion and Abstracts of Sikh Sudies (IOSS) as well as in the US mainstream news media. Resident in Orlando, he spends considerable time in Delhi. The article will also appear in The Sikh Review‘s Special 4th Centenary of Birth of Guru Tegh Bahadur issue due 1 May 2021]



Conundrum of religion for peace and tricky reality for Sikhs – Part 1 (Asia Samachar, 20 Jan 2020)

Commemorating Guru Tegh Bahadur This Centenary – Part 2 (Asia Samachar, 23 April 2020)

Commemorating Guru Tegh Bahadur This Centenary – Part 3 (Asia Samachar, 30 April 2020)

The story of Guru Tegh Bahadur reads like a novel (Asia Samachar, 1 Aug 2020)

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