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The Darbar of The Sikh Gurus - Book By Louis E. Fenech

Introduction to the Book 'The Darbar of The Sikh Gurus' By Louis E. Fenech

The court of the Gurus was central to the changing Sikh socio-political and religious formation. Focusing on documentary evidence available in Punjabi, Hindi, and Persian sources, this book meticulously reconstructs the evolving nature of the darbars of the Sikh Gurus. It explores the significant connections between the process of description and change in Sikh religion and state formation.

Fenech situates the court of the Gurus in the broader historical context and asks pertinent  questions regarding the Indo-Persian influences on its structure and formation. What were the characteristic features of the Sikh court and how did they change over a period of time? What were the terms, symbols, and metaphors utilized to signify royalty, authority, and divinity? He critically analyses the imagery and descriptions of the darbar since the mid-eighteenth century.

The volume explores the ideas and lives of the Gurus and the people in their courts. The author examines the court literature and investigates the various reasons behind the elevation of Nand Lal's poetry as sacred on equal footing with the utterances of Gurus and its connection to the representation of the darbar. The underlying rationale of the Sikh court is suggested through a study of the court of Guru Gobind Singh-of whom most historical information is available.

Fenech also carries the narrative forward into the nineteenth century through the history of the court beyond the Gurus.

Highlighting the links between the darbar and its description in the sources, Fenech provides an understanding of the Sikh religion firmly grounded in the historical context. Based on primary sources, this book will interest scholars, researchers, and students of Sikh studies, religion, and medieval Indian history.


My interest in the court of the Sikh Gurus came about very gradually beginning with my first graduate class in South Asian Studies in January 1988 at the University of Toronto. In this remarkable class, conducted by J. S. Grewal, I was introduced to the Persian poetry of the premiere poet of the tenth Guru's darbar, Bhai Nand Lal Goya. Enthralled by Grewal's lecture and even more so by Nand Lal's poetry I decided that I would immediately begin the study of Persian in order to appreciate the sheer beauty of Nand Lal's compositions in th original. Discovering how little scholarship there was on Nand Lal, I set myself the task of eventually producing an article on our esteemed poet, or something more substantial. Three years later with hundreds of Persian ghazals tucked under my belt, I had translated into English Bhai Nand Lal's collection of ghazals, the Divan-i-Goya thanks to the patient help of Maria Subtelny, who introduced me to the study of classical Persian literature and taught me to read it. The time to write was at hand and I thus produced my first piece, an analysis of Nand Lal's third ghazals as a javab or answer to Hafez Shirazi's famous first which was published in the premiere issue of the International Journal of Punjab Studies in 1994. By the time this article appeared though, my doctoral dissertation was beckoning.

My Nand Lal project was always in the background as I finished my dissertation and the first book which it became. It should elicit little surprise therefore that this book now in hand was originally intended to be a monograph on the life and poetry of Bhai Nand Lal. I began with this intention in mind and though many pitfalls were encountered I always kept to heart the remarks of the mother of the scooter-deprived protagonist in Bhisham Sahni's wonderful short story 'The Theft' which dealt with another, though less prolific Nand Lal: 'It is the lila of Nand Lal [that this work be done].' But notwithstanding such sage prognostications, during the process of research I discovered that the court of the Sikh Gurus to which so many historians and Sikhophiles give voice had an almost silent one of its own in contemporary sources. Could I therefore discuss the poet without discussing the court in which he so lovingly toiled (or so tradition often claims)? I thought not and therefore spent a good deal of time uncovering sources that dealt with the Gurus' courts on the one hand and rereading well-used sources in a hopefully new courtly light on the other. It was at this time that Pashaura Singh sent to me for comment his manuscript copy of what would become The Life and Work of Guru Arjan, whose fourth chapter included many ideas regarding the fourth and the fifth Guru's court. The time for a further examination of the court of the Sikh Gurus thus dawned.

Utimately the examination of the court and of Nand Lal introduced me to the courtly poetry of Nand Lal's fellow court poets in the darbar of Guru Gobind Singh. In so many ways the values and ideals enunciated in their poetry were commensurate with those of the imperial darbar, a point which I felt required analysis and so the book before us. The first chapter of this book thus asks many of these pertinent questions and begins to situate the court of the Sikh Gurus within a cosmopolitan Islamicate framework. It examines what Sikh scholars have said of the darbar of the Gurus since the mid-eighteenth century and also problematizes the study of the Sikh court and solicits answers to such questions regarding the Sikh court which are rarely ever asked by scholars of Sikh history. The second chapter begins with the history of the Indo-Persianite courtly culture from the time of Mahmud of Ghazna (eleventh century) until that of the Indo-Timurids (sixteenth century) beginning with Zahuruddin Babur. With this as base, I then situate the history of the courtly understandings surroundings Guru Nanak and his first four successors to Guru Arjan. Chapter 3, 'Court and Sport,' examines the courts and lives of the next four Gurus (Guru Hargobind to Guru Tegh Bahadur) while the fourth chapter suggests the underlying rationale of the Sikh court by examining the court of the Guru best known to the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. The fifth chapter is dedicated solely to Bhai Nand Lal. After having placed him squarely within the august court of Guru Gobind Singh, the final section in this chapter attempts to answer why only Nand Lal's poetry, in a language little understood by nineteenth - and twentieth-century Sikhs in India, was transformed into sacred Sikh literature and placed on an equal footing with the utterances of the Gurus and the vars of Bhai Gurdas Bhalla. The final chapter concludes this text by briefly examining the history of the tenth Guru's court in his final years and after his death.

In the process of thus analysing and reconstructing the court of the Sikh Gurus, I have once again incurred vast debts which I can never truly repay. As the slightest of recompense therefore let me begin by noting the extraordinary contribution of my guide, teacher, and friend, a pioneering scholar for whom no word is too lofty in praise, Hew McLeod whose patient advice on individual and collective chapters over the long years of this text's preparation have been most enlightening and encouraging and indeed frustrating, causing me to rework passages late into the night. As well as, to my friend, colleague, and mentor Pashaura Singh I send my heartiest thanks for his critical comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript. His example is also the ideal I strive to embody. Of course the usual scholarly disclaimers here apply.

I would also like to thank the institutions which allowed me to work regularly on this text. First, the University of Northern Iowa, a fellowship from which allowed me an uninterrupted summer of research in the various archives scattered throughout the Punjab and the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust-funded Liberal Arts Core fellowships which familiarized me with much of the technology that went into producing this monograph. Thanks go out to the Vice Chancellor and Head Librarian of Punjabi University, Patiala for graciously hosting me on their campus and allowing me free access to both, the rare manuscripts in their possession and to Ganda Singh's exceptional collections of papers, manuscripts, and books. This was truly enjoyable for me as a keen student of Nand Lal Goya as no scholar of the Sikh tradition has exerted as much energy as Ganda Singh in the attempt to make Nand Lal's life and poetry known to the Sikh world. To him I owe a great debt indeed which I here acknowledge. Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar too deserves thanks for the number of weeks spent with their archival collections of manuscripts as does Kulwant Singh Bajwa who allowed me access to manuscripts at Khalsa College in Amritsar. Within Patiala, the librarians of the Central Library and those of the nearby Bhasha Vibhag Punjab collection assisted me. Patiala was also home to the manuscript collection of the Punjab State Archives of which I made much use before it shifted its location. I would also like to express my thanks to the Sahitya Academy  in Ludhiana and to seminary of the late Baba Sucha Singh of Gurdwara Gur-gian Prakash at Javvadi Taksal for access to rare manuscripts of the Adi Granth and for a CD recording of Nand Lal's ghazals, the first I discovered in well over ten years of attempts. Both Baba ji and the sevadars there received me graciously and while in Ludhiana treated me far better than I deserved. Baba Sucha Singh will be sorely missed. So too do I thank Sardar Harbans Singh and his family for allowing me to stay with them in Ludhiana.

Heroes often unsung in such epic works are the staff of the Interlibrary Loan Office of the Rod Library at the University of Northern Iowa which assisted me in every possible manner with regard to tracking down texts not in our possession. Without their support this work would have never been completed. I would also like to thank the students of my 2004 Mughal History seminar and those in my 2005 Sikh History seminar whose insightful questions gave me a great deal of food for thought.

I must not forget to thank Tony Ballantyne whose call to conference at the University of Otago in 2003 finally allowed me to bring together and share all my early thoughts about Nand Lal and his poetry; Toby Johnson and his wife Gita; N.G. Barrier; Robin Rhinehart; Gurinder Singh Mann; J. S. Grewal; Indu Banga; Shamsur Rahman Faruqi; Jack Hawley; Shinder Thandi; Harish Puri and his wife Vijay; and Maria Subtelny also deserve a note of thanks for their time, help, and patience. Let me also note that colleagues and friends in Cedar Falls deserve a most special mention: Ali Kashef and Farzad Moussavi and their families who spent far too much time scouring the book stores of Tehran hunting down items with my literary shopping list in hand; my colleagues and friends Greg Bruess, Chuck Holcombe, Barbara Cutter, Brian Roberts, Betty DeBerg, Gabi Kuenzli, Wally Hettle, Konrad and Alijia Sadkowski, Tom Connors, Richard Utz, and Bob Martin and Jill Wallace all of whom made our History Department the ideal location for putting thought to paper. My friends Mark and Mary Grey, Isabella Varella, Beth and Steve Stofka-Davie, Hamid Amjadi and Michelle Buchan, Kamyar Enshayan, Jane Lewty, Thomas Newton, and Pedro Fernando Ribeiro also deserve many thanks for their help. Finally I would like to thank the people closest to home: my parents, of course, and my in-laws in Cornwall; my children, Agatha and Hanno, who have borne me with more forbearance than I deserve. Finally thanks to my wife Christine to whom this book is dedicated for a faith support which defies expression.

About the Author 'Louis E. Fenech' of the Book 'The Darbar of The Sikh Gurus'

Louis E. Fenech is Associate Professor of History, University of Northern Iowa.

Table of Contents for 'The Darbar of The Sikh Gurus' By Louis E. Fenech

  Preface ix
  Note on Orthography xiv
  Note on Sources xv
1. The Sikh Darbar 1
2. (Re)forming the Early Sikh Court 49
3. Court and Sport 87
4. Spirit and Structure: The Court of Guru Gobind Singh 122
5. In the Tenth Master's Court: Bhai Nand Lal Goya 199
6. Conclusion 277
  Bibliography 292
  Index 314


Author Louis E. Fenech
Pages 325
Cover Hardbound
Language English

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