Impact of Colebrooke’s Janamsakhi MS. on History of the Sikhs

Dr. Kirpal Singh*

The Colebrooke Janamsakhi manuscript first came to my notice in the early sixties when I was editing and annotating the Janamsakhi Meharban, (Gurumukhi) Manuscript which was published by Khalsa College, Amritsar in 1962. I had the opportunity to make a comparative study of Janamsakhi literature when I wrote ‘Janamsakhi Parampara’ which was published by Panjabi University, Patiala in 1969.

The Janamsakhis are the traditional biographies of Guru Nanak (1469-1539) founder of Sikhism, written during the 17th and 18th centuries in the Punjabi-Gurmukhi script. Biography in its modern form wherein it portrays the important events and influences that shaped the life of an individual from his birth to the last day of his life and the endeavour to assess the works or deeds is a literary genre of recent origin. The Janamsakhis  vary both in form and content. They presented the life of Guru Nanak either in the form of Plantonium dialogues wherein his teachings were highlighted, or in the form of anecdotes or stories delineating his greatness.

The first impulse which brought about the stories of great men was based on the elements of wonder and amazement at the marvellous deeds of the heroes. It is for this reason that Alfred Lyall states that ‘the hazy atmosphere, marvellous and miraculous obscure all early origin of race and religion and clouds the beginning of history.’[1] But this state of affairs did not last long; soon the splendid visions which surround the youth of man begin to fade into common daylight of growing civilization. Thus the dry land of authentic history emerges slowly out the sea of fable until gradually things which appeared natural and acceptable to elder generation become incredible or suspiciously improbable. “The delight in awe and astonishment is superceded by a taste for accurate thought and rigorous evidence. Toynbee has likewise stated that the Historian’s point of view is one of the mankind’s more recent acquisitions.”[2]

The legends about the great heroes in the past form the earliest source of information. A man who has made his mark upon generation, who overtops the rest in bravery, piety or some peculiar powers of mind or body becomes among the unlettered folk the source and subject of legend. These legends rescued and transmitted to posterity are what could be saved out of flood of deep oblivion. Thus, however exaggerated or complicated a legend might be, it is based on a kernel of truth. At times that kernel may be very small.

The traditions about Guru Nanak’s achievements got current when he was still alive. The contemporaries began to talk about his great itineraries, his visits to Mecca, Madina and Baghdad, his discourses with the Pirs of uchh and Multan, his religious debates with Gorakh Panthies, Qazies  and Pandits. This was the starting point of legend formation. The traditions of Guru’s achievements were first recorded in the First Var (Ode) of Bhai Gurdas (d. 1637 A.D.) the nephew of Guru Amar Das the third Sikh Guru. When Bhai Gurdas wrote he had as his close associate Baba Budha who had lived with Guru Nanak and had knowledge about his great deeds. All the Janamsakhis have therefore been greatly influenced by the writings of Bhai Gurdas which preserve the earliest written traditions of Guru Nanak.

The Janamsakhis are of four kinds :

1. Colebrooke’s Janamsakhi. It has two other names - Vilayatvali Janamsakhi as it had been brought from old India Office Library, London. Puratan Janamsakhi was the title given to it by Bhai Vir Singh, an eminent scholar who edited it and got it published in 1926.[3 ]We shall discuss it in details in this paper.

2. Meharban’s Janamsakhi. Meharban was the grandson of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. It was written in the 17th Century. Recently the writer of these lines edited and annotated it and got it published in 1962. It is in the form of dialogues and gives a lot of information.

3. Bhai Balas’s Janamsakhi. It is the most popular Janamsakhi and highlights the achievements of Guru Nanak.

4. Bhai Mani Singh’s Janamsakhi. This was compiled after the death of Guru Gobind Singh. It gives in detail the Guru Nanak’s sojourns in the western side, viz. Central Asian countries. Bhai Mani Singh was an eminent scholar and is reported to be author of a number of books.

The Janamsakhi discovered by Henry Thomas Colebrooke is associated with his name. He was the son of George Colebrook, Chairman of East Indian Company in 1769. Henry Thomas was born in 1765, educated privately and was appointed as assistant Collector in India in 1782-83. For sometime he was the professor of Hindu Law in the Fort William College. He took keen interest in the work of Asiatic Society and was made its Vice President in 1803 A.D.[4] He was the president of the Society from 1807-1814. After his retirement he went to England where he founded the Royal Asiatic Society in 1823. He died in 1837.[5] He was a great Sanskrit scholar, wrote several research monographs. He donated his Sanskrit manuscript collection to the East India Company’s library in 1818 A.D.[6] But the records of Old India Office Library indicate that the Gurmukhi manuscript, now known as Janamsakhi, was donated in 1815-16.[7 ]Perhaps he could not decipher it owing to its peculiar Gurmukhi characters. In the India Office Library  it remained unidentified for more than half a century.[8]

In 1869 Dr. Ernst Trumpp, a German scholar was appointed to translate the Adi Granth, the Sikh scripture as its contents were known to the Western world. While studying the Gurmukhi manuscript preserved in India Office Library he was able to decipher and translate it into English. In the introduction of his ‘The Adi Granth’ he gave detailed reference to the Janamsakhi which later on came to be known as Colebrooke’s Janamsakhi. With the publication of his Adi Granth the contents of the Janamsakhi came to be known to the Sikhs in 1877 A.D.

Since the Janamsakhi was quite different from the current Janamsakhi, there started a stir among the Sikhs who made a request to the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Sir Charles Aitchison to have the manuscript brought to India for study. He arranged some zincographic copies which were distributed to the selected institutions.

Colebrooke’s Janamsakhi manuscript does not indicate the name of its author nor the date of its compilation. However, Dr. Trumpp writes in this connection: “There is the obvious age of the language and that of script both of which resemble the Kartarpur version of the Adi Granth". The language and diction of manuscript especially use of vowel sound in place of preposition, are akin to that of the Adi Granth. Besides this it has been stated in the Janamsakhi that ‘Kaljug Char hazar Sat Sai paintes bars Vartya’ which means Kaljug has passed 4735 years. If we calculate with the help of Indian Emphemeris the above noted indication gives the year 1634 A.D. So it can be safely presumed that it was compiled or copied in 1634 A.D.

There has been very wide impact of Puratan or Colebrooke’s Janamsakhi. The study of its contents caused a lot of excitement among the Sikhs. The correctness of the date of birth of Guru Nanak began to be debated, as it had been stated there that Guru Nanak was born on Vaisakh shudi 3 Sambat 1526 B.K., whereas the Sikhs following the Janamsakhi of Bhai Bala, the most popular Janamsakhi, have been celebrating the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak on Kartik Poornima, as it was stated there the Guru was born on Kartik Poornima Sambat 1526 B.K. Strangely enough, there was not even a single reference to Bhai Bala in the Puratan Janamsakhi, whereas in Bhai Bala’s Janamsakhi, Bala dominates. The close study of the texts of two Janamsakhi especially the names and nomenclature used there leads us to conclude that the Puratan Janamsakhi was older. Take, for instance, Syedpur mentioned in Puratan Janamsakhi.  It is a small town - Eminabad in the modern district of Gujranwala - now Pakistan. Syedpur has been mentioned in Tuzak-i-Babri as it was attacked by the Babar’s forces. In Bhai Bala’s Janamsakhi the name of the same town mentioned is Eminabad which came to be used much later. Similarly for carpenter the word used in Puratan Janamsakhi is Badisut, whereas in Bhai Bala’s Janamsakhi the word used for carpenter is ‘tarkhan’ which was used later. Keeping all this in view it appears that Dr. E. Trumpp’s following assessment appears to be correct :- “The later tradition which pretend to have knowledge of all the details of the life of Nanak was, therefore, compelled to put forth as voucher for its sundry tales and stories. Bhai Bala who is said to have been constant companion of Nanak from his youth up, whereas our old Janamsakhi does not even once mentioned Bhai Bala. If Bhai Bala had been constant companion of Nanak, and a sort of mentor to him, as he appears now in the current Janamsakhi it would be quite incomprehensive why never a single allusion should have been made to him in old tradition.

As an impact of Puratan Janamsakhi there had been controversy between Khalsa Dewan, Amritsar and Khalsa Dewan Lahore during the last decades of 19th Century. The majority of the former believed that the Guru’s birthday was in Kartik, whereas the majority of the latter stressed that it was Vaisakh. When Bhai Gurmukh Singh, a leader of Khalsa Dewan Lahore was ex-communicated, one of the charges was that he did not believe in Bhai Bala’s Janamsakhi.

There had been clear differences over this issue. Giani Gian Singh famous author of Twarikh-Guru Khalsa believed Bala’s Janamsakhi to be correct. Karam Singh, a researcher of Sikh history wrote a monograph, in Punjabi, entitled ‘Katak Ke Vaisakh’ and got it published in 1912 A.D. in which he proved that Guru Nanak was born in Vaisakh. This controversy has now been settled to some extent because some old manuscripts like Janamsakhi Meharban, Nanak Bans Parkash, etc. have been found which corroborate the Puratan Janamsakhi that Guru Nanak was born in the month of Vaisakh.

The Western scholars have taken different views about Puratan or Colebrooke’s Janamsakhi. Macauliffe has written : “It contains much less mythological matter than any other Gurmukhi life of the Guru and it is much more rational, consistent and satisfactory narrative"...

Dr. W.H.[ ]McLeod, in his ‘Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion’ (1968) has levelled some criticism. It may not be out of place to discuss his point of view :-

(i) In the Puratan Janamsakhi, Sakhi No. 42, there is a mention of Dhanasri des. There is also a specific mention of a river and cannibal tribes. Dr. McLeod describes ‘Dhanasri’ as an ‘unidentifiable and evidently non-existent place’ (page 70 of his book.) Imperial Gazetteer Vol. XI (The Oxford University press 1908) page 286 gives the following description of Dhanasri Valley : “Upper portion of dhanasiri Valley is a plain of considerable width shut between Nagas and Mukir Hills, covered with dense tree forests except in neighbourhood of Golaghat’.

(ii) Again, on page 80 he mentions ‘non-existent land of Asa’ mentioned in the Puratan Janamsakhi. But in the Sakhi there is specific mention of Raja Samunder whom McLeod has read as Sham Sunder. According to Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (New York 1958, Vol. II, page 135) it is stated ‘In still earlier times when Ahmos entered the Brahmaputra Valley, there were twelve subordinate rulers or chiefs who were known as Bara Bhuiya, and these claimed to be the descendants of Samundra.’ Hence the ‘Land of Asa’ is Assam. It may be pointed out that, during the 16th century when Guru Nanak visited Assam, there existed two kingdoms. One was in Kamrup and other was Assam, East of Assam was the Dhanasari Valley - all three have been distinctly mentioned by Puratan Janamsakhi. Hieun-Tsang, however, has described the whole of modern Assam Region as Kamrup. Ain-i-Akbari mentions Kamrup and Assam as two separate entities as there existed two independent kingdoms.

(iii) Guru Nanak’s visit to Sumer has been rejected on the ground, “First there is the mythical location which is given as the setting for discourse. Mount Sumeru exists only in legend, not in fact.” The Deputy Commissioner, Almora, Mr. Charles A. Cherring in his “Western Tibet & British Borderland" (published in London 1906) at page 3 quoting Waddell from his book ‘Buddhism in Tibet’ writes : ‘And in the very centre is the king of mountains Meru, Kailash, towering erect, like handle of a milestone, while half way up its side is the great wishing tree, the prototype of our Christmas tree.’ This has been confirmed by several authors who have written on the history and geography of this region. Thus the mountain Sumer is not  mythical. It is Kailash which has been visited by the Sadhus since the times immemorial. The various routes to Kailash followed by the pilgrims have been described by Charles A. Cherring in the book noted above.

(iv) Regarding Guru Nanak’s visit  to Nanakmata as described in Puratan Janamsakhi,. McLeod writes, ‘The connection with Nath Yogis explains the claim made in later Janamsakhi tradition that original name was “Gorakhmata. This claim may well be true, but it is most unlikely that original context was an incident involving Guru Nanak.’ Regarding Nanakmata, there is specific mention in Khulasatut-Twarikh compiled by Sujan Raj Bhandari of Batala in 1697 AD. It has been stated therein that Guru Nanak visited Nanakmata and the very name of the place indicated his visit there. The revenue records preserved at Gurdwara indicate that the place was hallowed by Guru Nanak.

In the light of above stated arguments, it becomes evident that Colebrooke’s Janamsakhi has not been properly studied. Dr. W.H. McLeod’s criticism appears to be wholly superficial.

Now the time has come when the old Indian literature may be studied with an open mind and re-assessed. In this way we would find Puratan Janamsakhi to be a very valuable historic piece of literature.