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'Guru Nanak with Mardana and Bala', about 1875. Museum no. IM.2(125)-1917

'Guru Nanak with Mardana and Bala', Amritsar or Lahore, about 1875. Museum no. IM.2(125)-1917. Coloured woodcut.

Sikh beliefs

'Sikh' is a Punjabi word deriving from the Sanskrit, shishya, which means 'disciple'. A Sikh is any person who believes in one Immortal Being, the ten Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib, the words and teachings of the ten Gurus, and the baptism given by the tenth Guru. Sikhs believe:

  • in one God without physical attributes or image but present in all people and things
  • in a society where men and women are equal and democracy is practised in everyday life
  • in earning their living honestly and through hard work
  • in sharing what they earn with the poor
  • in serving God and their fellow human beings

A Sikh does not owe allegiance to any other religion. Although the majority of Sikhs have origins in the Panjab, there are people of many different races who have become Sikhs.

The ten Gurus

Guru Nanak, the first Guru, was born in 1469 in the Panjab, some 40 miles from Lahore. He was recognised as a very spiritual person from a young age, but began travelling to preach his message around the age of thirty. His teachings focussed on the oneness of God and the equality between all castes and creeds and men and women. He espoused Sikhism as a uniquely revealed religion. Showing his tolerance of other faiths, he travelled extensively over the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East, often accompanied by Mardana, an aged Muslim musician, and Bala, a Hindu peasant.

Including Guru Nanak, the ten Gurus were:

  • Guru Nanak, 1469 - 1539, G: 1507 (G = start date of guruship)
  • Guru Angad Dev, 1504-52, G: 1539
  • Guru Amur Das, 1479-1574, G: 1552
  • Guru Ram Das, 1534-81, G: 1574
  • Guru Arjan Dev, 1563-1606, G: 1581
  • Guru Har Gobind, 1595-1644, G: 1606
  • Guru Har Raj, 1630-61, G: 1644
  • Guru Hari Krishen, 1656-64, G: 1661
  • Guru Tegh Bahadur, 1621-75, G: 1664
  • Guru Gobind Singh, 1666-1707, G: 1675

The fifth Guru compiled the writings of the Gurus that preceded him. He added hymns written by saintly figures from other faiths into the Adi Granth and placed this scripture in Harmandir Sahib (now also known as the Golden Temple) at Amritsar. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, added some further verses. He announced that there would be no further human Gurus and renamed the Adi Granth the Guru Granth Sahib, directing people to draw spiritual guidance from the scriptures.

Military traditions

The message of the Sikh faith, although peaceful, has a strong theme of justice and upholding human rights running through it. The Gurus criticised oppressive regimes, such as the invading Mughals. The fifth Guru, Guru Arjun, was tortured and put to death by the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir. The sixth Guru then built up an army to defend the rights of the oppressed. Similarly, the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was put to death defending the rights of the Kashmiri Brahmins, people of a different faith to his own, to practice their religion. The tenth and last living Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, is famous for saying that if all other means fail, the raising of the sword is just. Thus the Sikhs built up a strong military tradition which was key to the establishment of the Sikh Kingdom, which lasted until it fell to the British in 1849. During the British Raj, Sikhs became loyal to the British and made up a large proportion of the British Indian Army, fighting in both World Wars.

The Khalsa

In 1699 Guru Gobind Singh called together over 80,000 Sikhs on Vaisakhi Day. Holding up an unsheathed sword, he asked the masses if anyone was prepared 'to offer their head for their Guru and faith'. Five men responded, the Guru leading them in turn into a tent and reappearing each time with a bloodied sword. After some time the Guru reappeared with all five men dressed in saffron robes and carrying swords. He performed an initiation ceremony and proclaimed the five as members of the Khalsa brotherhood. The word Khalsa means 'the pure'. He then bowed down in front of the five and requested that they initiate him. That day many thousands partook 'Amrit' and joined the Khalsa.

Worship, ceremonies and festivals

Vaisakhi, celebrated on 13 or 14 April each year, is the most important date in the Sikh calendar and commemorates the revelation of the Khalsa in 1699. Sikhs also remember the birth anniversaries of the Gurus. Most significant celebrations occur in November for Guru Nanak and December/January for Guru Gobind Singh. The martyrdom days of Guru Arjun Dev (June) and Gur Tegh Bahadur (November/December) are also important. Bandhi Chorr Divas is celebrated on the same day as the Hindu festival of Diwali, as the sixth Guru was freed and arranged the release of other prisoners of conscience on this day.

Sikhs worship at any time and anywhere they happen to be by remembering God and reading verses from the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs also pray together in the gurdwara (place of worship), which is open to everyone. Inside the gurdwara, verses from the Guru Granth Sahib are read and sung to music. The langar, a free community kitchen, is an important part of the gurdwara. The most well known Sikh building is the Harmandir Sahib (temple of God). It was established by the fifth Guru, with the foundation stone being laid by a prominent Muslim. It was built with four doors to show that it was open to people from all places.

There are also personal rites of passage for Sikhs. After a child is born, the parents visit the gurdwara, pray and open the Guru Granth Sahib at random. The first letter of the first hymn on that page is taken as the first letter of the child's name. The second name of a boy is usually Singh and of a girl is Kaur, names given to all Sikhs by the tenth Guru on the first Vaisakhi. The Khande di Pahul or Amrit ceremony is an initiation bringing Sikhs into membership of the Khalsa. The marriage ceremony, based on the potential of creating a happy and loving home together, takes place in the gurdwara with the couple sitting in front of the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs are usually cremated and the daily bedtime prayer is read during the cremation. Family and friends normally gather at a gurdwara and relevant verses are sung.


Sikhs follow certain standards of behaviour. They should not remove hair from their bodies, should not commit adultery and are forbidden to smoke or chew tobacco or related substances or to eat meat from ritually killed animals. Men generally wear turbans to cover their hair and women often keep their hair covered with a scarf.

The five Ks are five religious symbols beginning with the Panjabi letter which sounds identical to 'k'.

  • Kesh (uncut or long hair) - Sikhs believe hair should not be cut from any part of the body
  • Kanga (small wooden comb) - required to keep long hair groomed
  • Kara (steel bangle) - steel representing strength and the circle of continuity
  • Kirpan (small sword) - a symbol of self-defence and the fight against injustice
  • Kachhera (a pair of shorts now usually worn under the clothes) - part of the military uniform under Guru Gobind Singh and also a symbol of sexual restraint

Sikhs today in the Panjab and in Britain

There are more than 20 million Sikhs in the world today and most of them live in the Panjab where they form 60% of the population, compared to 2% of the population of India as a whole. The Panjab is considered the homeland of the Sikhs. When India and Pakistan were divided and given independence in 1947, the Sikhs did not demand a separate homeland, but were promised 'the glow of freedom' by Indian leaders. The Panjab was split into two and 2.5 million Sikhs had to leave their homes, lands and gurdwaras and move to India as refugees. However, the Indian authorities did not live up to their promises and Sikhism was not even recognised as a distinct religion in the Indian constitution. The Sikhs tried to establish Panjabi Suba and fought for their fair share in education, employment, industry and politics, but in 1966 the state of Panjab was further divided. Today the Panjab is still part of the Indian state, though many Sikhs continue to strive for an independent homeland.

Approximately 600,000 Sikhs live in Britain, forming the largest community outside India. There are another 450,000 in the USA and Canada and a number of smaller communities in many countries including East Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Iran, Fiji, Australia, Thailand, Germany and Hong Kong. In Britain, while the gurdwaras continue to be a strong feature of community life, many young Sikhs born and brought up away from India are creating a new culture which bridges the traditional and the contemporary. Many Sikhs occupy responsible and professional positions but others have suffered discrimination - in the early period Sikh men often found it difficult to get jobs unless they stopped wearing turbans. While women play a leading role in the services and organisation of the gurdwaras and have jobs outside the home, there are different expectations for men and women within the family. As with all other communities, their lives today are determined by economic, political and social circumstances as well as cultural and religious factors.

Sikhism - V&A Collections

The Asian Collections at the V&A contain a treasury of objects from the Panjab, the homeland of the Sikhs. The wealth of cultural and artistic achievements from this part of the Indian sub-continent is evidenced by subtle prints and paintings, intricate wood carving and embroidery, and beautiful works in metal and tile. The museum holds varied examples of the work of artists and craftspeople from all over the region during the periods of Sikh and British rule. Additionally, the interaction between the Sikh kingdoms and the West in the 19th century are recorded in watercolours and early photographs.

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