ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Understanding Sikh Museums in Contemporary India

Sikh museums are unusual as their display consists of modern history paintings depicting scenes from the Sikh past rather than historical artefacts. These paintings are ubiquitous in popular visual culture. The key questions examined in this article are: when, why, and by whom are Sikh museums created; the significance of the museum’s presence in popular culture; the notion of heritage in these museums; and their role in contemporary India. A study of Sikh museums is valuable in understanding the museum as an institution and its influence on the heritage politics of contemporary India.


A number of Sikh museums have been established in India since independence. By the term “Sikh museum,” I refer to museums that narrate the history and life of the Sikh gurus, their most dedicated followers, and significant events depicting the history of the Sikh community. Sikh museums are unusual: they contain few artefacts of historical value. The display is almost entirely made up of modern history paintings,1 which narrate events from the Sikh past (Figure 1). Most paintings are oil on canvas done in a Western realist style. Among the most popularly illustrated are the stories from the life of the founder and the first guru, Nanak (1469–1526); examples of his divinity as a child and his travels through the Indian subcontinent; the baptism ceremony and the creation of the Khalsa by the 10th and the last guru, Gobind Singh (1666–1708);2 scenes depicting community service (sewa) and the community kitchens (langar); battles fought by the Sikhs, particularly against the Mughals and the Afghans; and scenes of martyrdom remembering the Sikhs who gave up their lives in defence of their faith.

Sikh museums are often found as adjuncts of gurdwaras; however, some exist independently as well. In large museums, the display can be of a few hundred paintings in a building separate from the gurdwara. In smaller sites, the display may constitute just a few canvases or prints of paintings along a wall. Some recent museums have adopted multimedia displays based on history paintings. The museum display is widely available as religious prints in bazaars, in social media as music videos, animation and as pedagogical material in academic works, children’s books, and popular tracts. These visuals enjoy tremendous popularity in the Sikh community and are a major source of popular history for the Sikhs.

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Updated On : 11th Apr, 2022
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