By Iride Aparicio


A Portrait of Sikhism founder Guru NANAK (1469-1539) who proclaimed  the religious unity of  the two principal contemporary faiths at the time: Hinduism and Islam. The  painting was done about three hundred years after the Guru’s death, and depicts him  wearing the headdress of a Muslin Saint, and the robes of a Hindu Holy man.                                  Photo courtesy: Asian Museum

SAN FRANCISCO, CA— We all have seen them walking on the streets, riding  on the trains,  or working in our place  of  work.  They are the Sikhs, the Indian men with long beards and mustaches who wear elaborate turbans as a headdress.  State statistics show that the Sikhs have lived in California for centuries, yet many of us know very little about them.

From this month on and until June 24th, THE ASIAN MUSEUM in San Francisco, located across from City Hall, at 200 Larkin Street, in an special  exhibition named  “SAINTS AND KINGS” will give their visitors  the opportunity to learn  about the Sikh’s religion and its Art and Culture in a collection which include  30 rare paintings, military artifacts, textiles, photographs, jewelry and other objects that reveal the multi-facet history of this South Asian community.  

Watching the objects in the exhibition, and perusing  the bits of information which describes them, will open a visitor’s  mind to the fascinating cultural and  religious philosophy  of the Sikhs' identity derived from one man, Guru NANAK (1469-1539)

Born in the Punjab Region  (now located between India and Pakistan) at the time when Hinduism and Islam were the principal religions in the region.  Guru NANAK  synthesized what he saw as the essential truths of contemporary faith practices with his own insights, into the nature of a divine path to ethical conduct.

The main concept, of the Sikh religion  is the idea of one God (Monotheism) who is timeless, eternal, and beyond representation, which is  the reason why the Sikh do not venerate images. They also lack priesthood.

Their Religious philosophy emphasizes, honesty, hard work, devotion to family life, participation in community and generosity to the less fortunate. It also conveys a message of equality ( that was considered radical at the time) advocating that persons from all backgrounds and occupations could eat, commune and worship together, and that men and women are equal in religion and society. This was a ground-breaking idea at the time when women were considered to be subservient to men.

Guru NANAK  (center)  meeting with PRALADH

 Guru NANAK  (center)  meeting with PRALADH, from a manuscript of JANAM SAKHI (Life Stories) l800-l900          Photo by: Antonio Gadong

Some  of the stories related to Guru NANAK have him interacting with Hindu and Islamic religious figures such as he is in the above picture. While some incidents are historical events, from NANAK’s lifetimes, others are not such as the one depicted in the picture. PRALADH was a learned man who lived before NANAK’s time.

Guru NANAK (CR) with Muslim clerics
This watercolor  lively portrait may have been of a gracious conversation, or an scholarly sermon of Guru NANAK (CR) with Muslim clerics in  on one of his five  major journeys during the course of his spiritual quest.  From a Manuscript of JANAM SAKHI (Life Stories) l800-l900 Photo Courtesy: Asian Museum

Another picture of Guru NANAK related to his journey, is his visit to Mecca, where he is depicted taking with their clerics.  The painting is also from the Manuscript of JANAM SAKHI (Life Stories) l800-l900.
An interesting feature in the painting is the artistic imagined rendering of the Ka’aba, Islam holiest shrine. The real cube-shaped structure made of bricks and covered with a black cloth, is depicted in the painting as a mosque with three domes and four minarets, which are elements of the Islamic tombs and the Hindu temples

Guru NANAK (Center in Orange)
Dressed in a tunic, like the three other clerics, and also wearing a turban, but bigger in size than the other  five figures in the painting, and receiving  the “sacred”  smoke emanating  from the vase of one of the three clerics, is Guru NANAK (Center in Orange)   Photo courtesy: The Asian Museum

After NANAK’s death (l539) his legacy was continued by nine Gurus, until in the year l708, GABIN SINGH the l0th Guru declared that they would no longer have human gurus. He also declared  that the sacred text written by Adi GRANTH (Guru GRANTH) would be the text to teach them.

Guru GRANTH SAHIB (Adi Granth) is considered to be the everlasting Guru. He expressed Sikhism synthesizing nature through the diverse authority of hymns and verses, with ARJAN DEV (1563-1606) composing more than two thousand of its hymns and Guru NANAK 974 and other Gurus added other hymns. The manuscript (which may be described as the Sikhs Sacred Book) was compiled by the 5th Guru ARJAN DEV. Today the Sikhs scriptures also include compositions by Hindu bhaktas (devotees) and Muslin Sufis dating from the XII and XVI centuries.

Located in the front galleries of the second floor, of the Museum, the exhibition, is small in size but because every object exhibited is identified with a long caption, it takes time to cover it.

Battle Standard
Red Battle Standard
 (l830-1849) Photo
 Courtesy: Asian Museum.

Shown on the picture above, is the silk with gold battle standard painted with decorations. It was probable attached to a wooden pole when the Sikh armies carried it  into battle. The solar symbol at the center is associated with auspicious strength in victory. The standard is said to have been used in l849 in the last battle of the second Anglo-Sikh war in l849.  The war occurred during Dalhousie’s tenure leading to the British annexation of the Punjab Region.

Honorific Parasol
Honorific Parasol Depicting Guru NANAK and his companions. (1800-1900) Photo courtesy: Antonio Gadong 

Asian Religion traditions.

Historically, parasols (Chattri) such as the one pictured above, served to mark the place where the l0 Gurus Sikh once preached. The tradition of covering a holy person or a sacred object or structure with a parasol goes back thousands of years in the South Asian Religious tradition. The parasol shown in the above photograph once hung over GURU GRANTH SAHIB, the Holy Sikh’s book

Jewelry Box
Made out of fragrant sandalwood and inlaid in tortoiseshell. Photo courtesy: Asian Museum.

This box is reported to have belonged to RANJID SINGH himself. Was a luxury item in the Punjab court. The geometrical and vegetal designs and its workmanship are representative of the XVII Century decorative work of the  western India and Pakistan.    

Emerald and gold ring
Emerald and gold ring belonged to  Maraha RANJIT SINGH the Lion of Punjab (l802-l813) Photo courtesy: Antonio Gadong

This ring is one of the surviving personal artifacts in the museum. It is both an item of adornment and an emblem of statecraft. The ring velvet lined case has two plates with the words that may be translated as “With the help of the eternal one” Invoking the monotheistic idea (one God) of Sikhism.

The exhibition also draws attention to the community's special relation to theWest Coast. Sikhs were among the first indian immigrants to North America, arriving in the early l900: a imoqie jostpru recemtly honored as part of our school curriculum.

For information about the exhibition you can call at (415) 581-3500 or go online


View Finder - Sikhs in America

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