Kids Corner


The Zafarnamah of Guru Gobind Singh:
by Louis E. Fenech





This is the SECOND in a new series on titled “SCHOLARLY PURSUITS”.




The Zafarnama is one of the most fascinating and unusual of early Sikh texts.

It is preserved in the Dasam Granth, the collection of a large number of heterogeneous texts associated with the tenth and last Master, Guru Gobind Singh.

Much controversy has come to surround the authorship of many of these often very lengthy compositions, which are nearly all written in Brajbhasha, whereas the Zafarnama ('Epistle of Victory') is a short Persian composition of 111 verses in the heroic style and metre of Firdausi's Shahnama.

Addressed as a missive to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, it is generally accepted to  have been composed by Guru Gobind  Singh himself in the aftermath  of the  capture in 1704 of the Sikh stronghold of Anandpur by Mughal forces who had treacherously offered safe conduct out of the fortress to the Guru's forces.

This betrayal of a sacred oath by Aurangzeb's officers provokes the Zafarnama to denounce the unrighteousness of the emperor and to exalt the justness before God of the Guru's cause.

Most studies of the Zafarnama have tended to focus somewhat narrowly upon its status as an historical document. Fenech's fine monograph is the first approach to this peculiarly interesting text to aim to do proper justice, not just to the immediate setting of its contents, but also to the richness of the broader cultural and literary context in which it was produced. 

So after the opening chapter has described the general status of the diplomatic documents associated with the Tenth Guru, Fenech proceeds to examine the connection between the Zafarnama and two immediately related texts.

He is able to rebut convincingly the supposition that the so-called Fathnaima, a fragmentary Persian text of superficially similar character to the Zafarnama but which is not included in the Dasam Granth and which possesses only a  dubious  twentieth-century  provenance,  is the  follow-up  letter from the Guru's pen that  is described in the hagiographic accounts of his life.

By contrast, in the face of the conventional modern supposition of a sharp separation between the Zafarnama as the authentic utterance of the Guru and the immediately following items in the Dasam Granth, the Persian Hikaitan, which are rejected as an idle set of mostly romantic tales, Fenech offers a conclusive demonstration of the close links between them.

A similar literary sensitivity informs the next chapter's exploration of the wider inter-textual links between the Zafarnama and its classical exemplars in the high Persian tradition that helped define the shared Mughal courtly culture to whose values the Guru is able to appeal in his message to the unjust emperor. 

Here a close look at immediate parallels in the text of the Shahnama helps illuminate the rhetorical strategy of the Zafarnama. Fenech also deals with the less widely recognised parallels between the Zafarnama and two other core texts of the Persian tradition, Sa'di's Bustan and Gulistan, the source of the famous verse 22: chu kar az hama hillate dar guzasht,  halal ast burdan ba-shamsher dast ('When the hand is foiled at every turn, it is then permitted to draw the sword'). 

There  is  a most  interesting demonstration of the reasons underlying the fact that nowadays, when Persian has become a language unfamiliar to most Sikhs, this verse is the only fragment of the Zafarnama still to be commonly cited, albeit usually out of context.

Readers should be particularly intrigued by the memorable illustration of the modern physical employment of the verse as an inscription written over a gate recently constructed at the village where the Zafarnama is supposed originally to have been composed.

With the ground well prepared by this extensive literary contextualisation in terms of its relationships with classical Persian texts, questions that have been raised about the authorship and the intention of this unusual composition are then explored in more detail with reference to early Sikh texts of the post-scriptural period, including an illuminating discussion of the historiography of the Zafarnama. 

It is hardly possible to summarise all the arguments of the book here, since it is precisely its wide­ranging character that is one of its most attractive features. Fenech's enthusiastic immersion in his subject leads him to cite numerous illustrative quotations not just in English translation but also in their original form, variously reproduced as appropriate in Persian or Gurmukhi script.

As in his stimulating previous study, The Darbar of the Sikh Gurus (2008), the same enthusiasm has led to the generation of an exceptionally rich body of endnotes, which here is at least as long as the main text, and which constitutes a series of fascinating expansions and asides often to be enjoyed in their own right and certainly to be appreciated by all scholarly readers of this valuable study.

[Courtesy: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Edited for]
May 12, 2014

Conversation about this article

Comment on "The Zafarnamah of Guru Gobind Singh:
by Louis E. Fenech"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.