Nanak to Gobind Singh: How did the attire of Sikh gurus change so dramatically?

Nanak's attire was meant to obfuscate his religious identity but Gobind's clothing was meant to make him stand out.
Published January 24, 2019

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In all the posters I have seen that depict the 10 Sikh gurus, the images of Nanak (the first guru) and Gobind Singh (the 10th guru) are always prominently displayed.

My first memory of these images comes from a visit I made to Nankana Sahib 10 years ago, on the occasion of Nanak Jayanti. The façade of Gurdwara Janamastham, which came up at the spot where Nanak was born, was brightly lit up, with a giant banner hanging at its entrance.

On one side of this banner was an image of Nanak, his right hand held up in blessing. He had a thick white beard and wore a saffron robe. His shoulders were draped in a brown shawl and he wore a turban tied in the simple Dumalla style.

This is a ubiquitous image of Nanak. It is, of course, hard to say for certain if Nanak actually dressed like that. In 2006, there was a controversy regarding his depiction in school textbooks in California. The image used in these texts was a 19th century painting of Nanak in which he wore a crown and had a trimmed beard.

This was criticised as an Islamicised version of Nanak. After the Sikh community protested, the image was removed. Still, it is hard to say what Nanak really wore and what style of beard he kept.

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There is a narrative that suggests Nanak deliberately chose a garb that would make it difficult for people to associate him with any one religious identity.

It was aligned with what was to be his philosophical message: there is no one exclusive path to truth, neither Hindu nor Muslim.

Nanak is known to have worn a long robe, similar to the ones Muslim dervishes wore. But instead of green, his robe was ochre, the colour of the Hindu sanyasi.

He wore a white cloth belt around his waist, similar to that of faqir (a Sufi ascetic), while a short turban covered his head in the style of the Qalandars (wandering Sufi dervishes). He wore wooden sandals favoured by devotees of all religious denominations.

These narratives suggest that Nanak’s clothes were an extension of his message that saw truth as a culmination of all religious philosophies, syncretism and a dilution of rigid religious identities.

Guru Gobind Singh’s attire

On the other end of the banner was a depiction of Gobind Singh, who is believed to have completed the spiritual movement that Nanak began.

Staring into the distance, he held a white falcon in his left hand. He wore several necklaces and a bejeweled turban, and carried a bow on his shoulder. His beard, slightly shorter than Nanak’s, was jet black.

If Nanak’s attire was meant to obfuscate his religious identity, the clothing of Gobind Singh was meant to make him stand out. After all, he was the guru who institutionalised the Sikh identity through the formation of the Khalsa.

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The two images cannot be more different, and yet they are seen as part of the same tradition. After Nanak, each subsequent guru carried within him the essence of the first guru.

In the process, they too became Nanak, which is how they are referred to in the Guru Granth Sahib, the living guru. But how did the image of Nanak with his simple clothes transform into the grandeur of Gobind Singh?

The answer lies in the eight Sikh gurus who came between Nanak and Gobind Singh. In the 239 years that covered the lives of these 10 Sikh gurus, the institution of the guru was transformed by external historical realities.

The transformation

At the time of Nanak’s death, his followers were limited in number and geographical space. With every subsequent guru, the number of followers increased as did the guru’s political influence.

But every guru after Nanak was challenged by rivals — some of who were sons of previous gurus. A tussle erupted, leading to the execution of Arjan, the fifth guru.

According to one narrative, he was put to death on the orders of Emperor Jahangir through the machinations of Arjan’s brother Prithi Chan, who wanted the institution of the guru for himself.

It is here that the institution of the guru experienced its greatest threat. How was a group of unarmed devotees to combat the mighty Mughal empire? Thus emerged Hargobind, the sixth guru, who was Arjan’s son.

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It was during his time as guru that an elaborate turban replaced the simple headgear worn by the previous gurus. The bejeweled turban was intended to be a crown. Hargobind wore necklaces of precious stones, and had two swords at his waist.

This was the first time a Sikh guru had taken a weapon. The swords represented the concept of miri-piri or temporal and spiritual power.

He sat on the Akal Takht or the Eternal Throne and his followers defiantly called him the sacha padshah. Jahangir might have been the emperor of the Mughal empire, but Hargobind was their true king.

In religious posters, the transition from the simple clothing of Nanak, Angad Dev, Amar Das, Ram Das and Arjan to the elaborate attire of Hargobind is depicted quite clearly.

The execution of Arjan had transformed the institution of the guru and also heralded the beginning of contentious relations between the Mughals and the gurus.

A few decades later Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, was executed in Delhi by Emperor Aurangzeb. This was when Gobind Singh, the grandson of Hargobind, emerged to become the 10th Sikh guru.

Like his grandfather, Gobind Singh became the head of the Sikh community at a tumultuous moment. This is possibly why he modeled his attire on Hargobind’s regal style.

This piece originally appeared on and has been reproduced with permission.