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Evolution Of The Nishan Sahib, The Sikh National Standard


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
A new online exhibition exploring the history and tradition of the Nishan Sahib.

Bahi Lehna (later Guru Angad) and his companions visit Baba Nanak
Gurmukhi Manuscript Panj. B40, ca. 1733, India Office Library

Nihang Chieftain and Attendants
ca. 19th century, paint on paper, private collection

Guru Gobind Singh, Image from the exhibition

Seen flying high outside every Sikh place of worship, the Nishan Sahib standard is a beacon of Sikh identity.

What is its significance and what is its history?

Those questions were the initial motivations for a study of the sacred flag of the Sikh Nation that has now culminated in a major new exhibit at SikhMuseum.com. The exhibit is the result of twelve years of painstaking research and is one of the largest studies of its kind undertaken on the subject that helps establish a new benchmark of understanding about the Nishan Sahib and its history.

Delving into the writings of the Gurus, early Sikh chronicles and travel accounts of European explorers, we get an understanding of the basis for the Nishan Sahib and the khanda emblem that we see today.

The flag as we know it today and its elements have a direct lineage to the Sikh Gurus.The exhibit uncovers the early history of the Nishan Sahib and its spiritual connections.

Understand why weapons like the sword have had a special spiritual meaning for Sikhs and learn about the various weapons that have appeared on the Nishan Sahib.

With the establishment of Sikh rule in Punjab leading to the establishment of the Sikh Empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, we see early images of the Nishan Sahib for the first time in paintings and manuscripts.

Rebuilding Darbar Sahib after multiple destructions in the 1760’s, the Nishan Sahib was unfurled across the Land of The Five Rivers as Sikhs could now practice their religion free from persecution for the first time in almost two centuries.

By gathering together and studying a large collection of rare images of the Nishan Sahib, we discover trends and patterns that reveal interesting and unusual designs and emblems from various time periods, many of which have never been seen before by most Sikhs. View a diversity of objects related to the Nishan Sahib, from sculptures to Sikh coins to military emblems.

Rather than just being a broad survey of changing designs and emblems, the exhibit also delves into an analysis of emblems and banners that have often been mistaken for the Nishan Sahib or its khanda emblem. For example, the Aad Chand emblem worn by members of the Nihangs is often mistaken as an old style khanda. In fact it is not a khanda at all but a completely different symbol with its own history and meaning.

Learn what the Aad Chand symbol is, as understood and explained by the Nihangs themselves.

Another case of mistaken identity that the exhibit examines and contextualizes is the Lahore battle standards that the British captured during the Sikh Wars and took back to England to display as war trophies. Trace the history of these unusual banners, study their designs and delve into answering the question of why would Sikh flags have images of local Hindu deities on them.

During the research for this exhibit, a number of exciting discoveries were made including finding a photograph taken by an American tourist visiting Amritsar which is one of the very early images of the modern khanda emblem. Another thrill comes from viewing a turn of the century photograph of the Miri-Piri Nishan Sahibs at the Darbar Sahib, outside the Akal Takht, where one can clearly see unique and unexpected emblems on them.

Of the millions of people that visit Darbar Sahib every year, few are aware that inside the Darbar Sahib, there is actually a painting of Guru Gobind Singh with a Nishan Sahib. It is the only painting of human figures within the Darbar Sahib. View this stunning priceless painting and see how it leads to an important new discovery regarding an early Nishan Sahib symbol that was previously thought to represent the Sikh slogan of ‘Deg Tegh Fateh’.

While we may look at the Nishan Sahib and our modern khanda emblem today and think that they have always been the same, it seems much like our changing turban styles or our changing gurdwara architecture, our sacred flag has also continued to evolve over time, shaped by our history, our hopes and aspirations.

The visual and interactive nature of the exhibit conveys this sense, as one becomes a virtual time traveller across the centuries and with a few clicks of the mouse is able to encompass centuries of the history of the Nishan Sahib.

Visit the Nishan Sahib exhibit at SikhMuseum.com.



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