This Needs Research - III: T. SHER SINGH
“What Is The Origin Of The Khanda Symbol?”
EDITOR’S PREFACE: We live at a time when all the tools are at our disposal to do excellent research and make serious inroads into areas of Sikh history and thought which have hitherto been neglected.
There are good men and women around the world who have dedicated their careers to Sikh Studies and have both the independence and the resources to turn their attention to important questions which remain either unanswered to date or remain vague in the fog of time.
This is the third in a new series on sikhchic.com wherein we will attempt to pose some of these questions which come to mind, hoping that those entrusted with the mantle of scholarship will then find them worthy of attention, if they aren‘t already being delved into.
We invite readers to share with us any questions or areas of interest which intrigues them as deserving new or continuing research, and also explain briefly why such fields should be explored.
Today’s question: “What is the origin of the Khanda symbol?”
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The Khanda -- the symbol consisting of the double-edged sword (also known as a khanda) atop a quoit, and circled by two kirpans -- is now universally recognised as a representative icon of the Sikh Religion, not unlike the Cross of the Christian faith, the Crescent of Islam and the Star of David of Judaism.
Little seems to be known of the origin of this icon: when it began, who designed it, how it came about to be our identifier, when it became the central icon on the Sikh Standard, the Nishaan Sahib? … and so on.
The era following the annexation of the Sikh Empire of Ranjit Singh by the British ultimately led to the first prolonged period which allowed the Sikh community to turn to matters other than existential survival and gave it its first breathing space to collect, review, clarify and consolidate its philosophical underpinnings. Not surprisingly, not before long, the Singh Sabha Movement was born.
Was the Khanda then a product of the Singh Sabha period? The icon does not seem to have been prevalent before the renaissance triggered by the movement’s great stalwarts.
Does it ever appear during the Guru period? On Guru Hargobind Sahib's Miri-Piri standards? On any of the flags used by the Misls? In Ranjit Singh's reign?
The Khanda certainly captures the quintessence of Sikh beliefs and values. But who was behind its creation or revival, or it being planted in the public mind as the widely accepted symbol it has become today.
The answers probably lurk not far from the surface and may even lie in neglected tomes sitting on some dusty shelves in dark, long-forgotten rooms.
It would certainly serve the community well if definitive research is carried out on the subject and presented to the worldwide sangat.
December 18, 2016
Conversation about this article
1: Bhupinder Singh Mahal (Dundas, Ontario, Canada), December 18, 2016, 2:14 PM.
Here's some info on the history of the double-edged sword before it became a significant icon for Sikhs in the form of the khanda sword. It can be traced to the Scythians — a confederation of nomadic tribes — who wandered about the steppes of central Asia and about 700 BCE some of them moved westward, dislodged a kindred group known as Cimmerians from their lands around the Black Sea, and established their own empire. The short double-curved bow, a Scythian tour de force, made them a feared mounted cavalry. They first saw the sword in the hands of the Cimmerians. The Scythians, known for their innovations of cutting-edge weaponry, advanced the profile of the single edged sword of the Cimmerians to a two-edged parallel-sided, known as the Scythian sword, for wielding the sword effectively from a mounted position. The double-edged sword featured prominently in Scythian rituals. The god of war was the only deity worshipped by the Scythians, to whom they built altars. In veneration of their deity Scythians would build a small sacrificial knoll atop which was placed the double-edged sword to perform blood rituals. Historian Edward Gibbon writes, in reference to the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage from 264 BCE to 146 BCE: “As soon as the Roman had darted his pilum, he drew his sword, and rushed forwards to close with the enemy. His sword was a short well-tempered Spanish blade, that carried a double edge, and was alike suited to the purpose of striking or of pushing; but the soldier was always instructed to prefer the latter use of his weapon, as his own body remained less exposed, whilst he inflicted a more dangerous wound on his adversary.” There were four known migratory penetrations of Scythian nomads into the Indus Valley region starting 519 BCE, when after defeating the Massagetae (the stout Getae) Darius relocated a substantial of their numbers to the far eastern reaches of the Makran region including parts of Indus and Sindh. In 95 BCE Scythian tribes led by their Saka chieftain Maus invaded northern India and established his kingdom in Taxila. The memory of the worship of the sword had stayed with Indo-Scythians as they settled down in Punjab.
2: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), December 19, 2016, 3:20 PM.
I undertook a extensive research project on this topic over a 10 year period. The results of this research can be found at the online exhibit 'Nishan Sahib: History of the Sacred Banner & its Symbols' at www.SikhMuseum.com.
3: Raghbir Singh (Slough, United Kingdom), December 19, 2016, 5:43 PM.
There is an 18th century chain mail (sanjoa) at the central museum at Darbar Sahib with the khanda symbol just visible on the left breast in gold. This means that the symbol was designed no later than the 1700s, much earlier than the Singh Sabha movement which is often credited with its creation.
4: R Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), December 19, 2016, 5:48 PM.
Sikhi is beyond ethnicity!
5: Saran Kaur (San Francisco, California, USA), December 19, 2016, 6:42 PM.
I can see from merely reading the comments above why T. Sher Singh is suggesting that it is high time such questions were looked into by academic professionals in accordance with clearly-defined and time-tested methods. To take but one example, one commentator has gone off completely off the subject by talking about the (dubious) origins of the double-edged sword. The question posed in the article is over the origin of the Khanda icon, not the double-edged sword ... which incidentally, I should add, (the origin of the double-edged sword) has to be as pre-historically elusive as the invention of a simple knife, and certainly not within the bailiwick of any particular ethnicity.
6: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), December 20, 2016, 1:12 AM.
It is a very timely question to search the origin, role in the history of Sikhs, and role of the Khanda icon in today’s Sikh world. The Khanda is certainly our insignia and Nishaan. I am thankful to Sardar Sandeep Singh Brar to remind your readers of his labor to dig out many aspects of the history of the Khanda and its evolution in our recent past. I highly recommend your readers to review his postings on his Sikh museum web site and also review his article published on sikhchic.com sometime ago. As you outlined, the Khanda consists of the double-edged sword (also known as a khanda) atop a quoit, and circled by two kirpans. You said it right. What I like to remind right at the start of this discussion is that although the Khanda is our accepted insignia, the symbol that our Guru used for Sikhi, Gurmat or Gurus’ nishaans is the symbol of Ek Onkaar, especially given to us by the founder himself, Guru Nanak. All of our Gurus used Ek Onkaar as their signatures and the Nishaan of sangats as well as scholarly activaties. No wonder Guru Nanak fixed it as the commencing symbol in our sacred scripture.
7: Sarvjit (Millis, Massachussets, USA), December 20, 2016, 7:44 PM.
Good discussion. In the older copies of the Guru Granth in Nanded, the cover page had just a Khanda. The Khandas depicted in 100+ year old photos/paintings show just a quoit with a khanda on the top. However, it is for sure the Nishaan Sahib was incorporated by the Sixth Guru much earlier - did it have the Khanda icon? Worthy of note: the symbol on the Iranian Flag (formally adopted by Khomeini) looks similar to our Khanda icon. [Khomeini grew up in, inter alia, Ferozepur, Punjab.]