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Sikhism was born in the Punjab area of South Asia, which now falls into the present day states of India and Pakistan. The main religions of the area at the time were Hinduism and Islam. The Sikh faith began around 1500 CE, when Guru Nanak began teaching a faith that was quite distinct from Hinduism and Islam. Nine Gurus followed Nanak and developed the Sikh faith and community over the next centuries.
Militarisation of the Sikhs
Sikhism was well established by the time of Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru. Guru Arjan completed the establishment of Amritsar as the capital of the Sikh world, and compiled the first authorised book of Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth. However, during Arjan’s time Sikhism was seen as a threat by the state and Guru Arjan was eventually executed for his faith in 1606. The sixth Guru, Hargobind, started to militarise the community so that they would be able to resist any oppression. The Sikhs fought a number of battles to preserve their faith. The Sikhs then lived in relative peace with the political rulers until the time of the Moghal Emperor, Aurangzeb, who used force to make his subjects accept Islam. Aurangzeb had the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, arrested and executed in 1675.
The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, recreated the Sikhs as a military group of men and women called the Khalsa in 1699, with the intention that the Sikhs should for ever be able to defend their faith. Gobind Singh established the Sikh rite of initiation (called khandey di pahul) and the 5 Ks which give Sikhs their unique appearance. Gobind Singh was the last human Guru. Sikhs now treat their scriptures as their Guru.
After the Gurus
The first military leader of the Sikhs to follow the Gurus was Banda Singh Bahadur. He led a successful campaign against the Moghals until he was captured and executed in 1716. In the middle of the century the Sikhs rose up again, and over the next 50 years took over more and more territory. In 1799 Ranjit Singh captured Lahore, and in 1801 established the Punjab as an independent state, with himself as Maharaja. He proved an adept ruler of a state in which Sikhs were still in a minority. Although a devout Sikh, he took part in religious acts with Muslims and Hindus as well.
Defeated by the British
After Ranjit Singh died in 1839 the Sikh state crumbled, damaged by vicious internal battles for the leadership. In 1845-6 troops of the British Empire defeated the Sikh armies, and took over much Sikh territory. The Sikhs rebelled again in 1849, and were defeated by the British, this time conclusively.
The Sikhs and the British Raj
After this final battle, the Sikhs and the British discovered they had much in common and built a good relationship. The tradition began of Sikhs serving with great distinction in the British Army. The Sikhs got on well with the British partly because they came to think of themselves less as subjects of the Raj than as partners of the British. The British helped themselves get a favourable religious spin when they took control of the Sikh religious establishment by putting their own choices in control of the Gurdwaras. Good relations between Sikhs and British came to an end in 1919 with the Amritsar massacre.
Central Gurdwara Glasgow Singh Sabha 2016.