“On whose head, He places His Hand [is liberated]. My Lord is the Lord of the helpless. He is the Saviour of the fallen and the Treasure of mercy. Forever and ever, I am a sacrifice to Him.”
– Guru Arjun Dev ji (Guru Granth Sahib, 900)
Guru Gobind Singh ji had challenged the Mughal government for the forceful conversions of Hindus and for the unjust killing of his father and Warrior Saint, Guru Tegh Bahadur ji, who had tried to peacefully persuade the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to stop.
When Guru Gobind Singh ji arrived in the forest of Machhiwara from Chamkaur, he had lost his two older sons Baba Ajit Singh ji and Baba Jujhar Singh ji in the Battle of Chamkaur.
Before the Battle of Chamkaur, he had evacuated his mother, Mata Gujri Devi ji, his wives Mata Jito Devi ji, Mata Sundari Devi ji and Mata Sahib Devi ji and younger sons Baba Zorawar Singh ji and Baba Fateh Singh ji, out of harm’s way.
In the stormy night, the Sirsa river had flooded so crossing it became nearly impossible. Guru ji was separated from his wives, who were separated from his children and their grandmother.
Mata Gujri ji and the Chotte Sahibzade were looking for a sanctuary however they were tricked and captured by the Mughal police. They imprisoned Mata ji and the children of Guru ji in a cold tower (Thanda Burj).
Cold towers in Mughal architecture were built to be a cool place to relax in the summer. They were built as part of their palaces and buildings, and were of varying heights. Not always a tower as we imagine it today. Sometimes they were just raised off the ground by several feet.
But these were winter months so the cold tower was exposed fully to the onslaught of the winter chill.
“With my eyes I look, and I see none other than Hari. My eyes are lovingly fixated, and I cannot speak of anything else.”
– Guru Angad Dev ji (Guru Granth Sahib, 655)
I noticed that I hadn’t done any sketches or paintings of Guru Angad Dev ji. So I had to take some time out and paint Guru ji in a meditative state.
There was a sakhi of Guru ji where He went to meet Guru Nanak Dev ji. When He came to the house of Mata Sulakhini Devi ji, She said that Guru Nanak Dev ji is working in the fields.
Despite wearing His high quality, clean, white robes, He went into the fields and helped Guru Nanak Dev ji carry the crops back and was covered in dirt and the black liquid from the crops.
This painting arose from a state of devotion and surrender. I wanted to capture that feeling at its highest level but I wasn’t able to show this sakhi along with it. However I still wanted to show an iconic feature of Guru Angad Dev ji and highlight that in this painting.
Guru Angad Dev ji instituted the Gurmukhi script. He built schools for children and taught them. He promoted physical activities such as wrestling. He carried forward Guru Nanak Dev ji’s tradition of langar as well as His teachings.
Any of these sakhiyan would be iconic to show. However since this was a portrait, I decided to incorporate the Gurmukhi alphabet into the painting, by featuring the first five letters.
The way Shri Hari ji protected the honour of Dropadi ji, He protects the honour of all His Saints. The fabric came from Shri Hari ji and covered Dropadi ji up as she was being dishonoured. In a similar way, in this painting of Guru Angad Dev ji, the fabric emerges from Shri Hari ji, whose symbol is the Ek Onkar, and wraps around the turban of Guru Angad Dev ji.
The Grace of Shri Hari ji is always upon Guru Angad Dev ji and those who meditate on Him while carrying out their responsibilities.
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“Wherever I look I see the Divine Light residing as the Union of Shiva and Shakti.”
– Guru Nanak Dev ji (Guru Granth Sahib, 21)
In this painting of Shiv-Shakti, the Spiritual Dimension is represented by Shiv ji, and the world, the Material Dimension is represented by Shakti ji.
Shiva and Shakti are the Spiritual and Material Forces of the Universe. In this painting, the Spiritual Force, Shiv ji, is represented by the open and spacious Cosmos and the Material Force, Shakti ji, is represented by the concrete and natural Earth.
These Forces have been personified and shown embracing each other because they are complementary forces. They work in unison, side by side.
Guru Nanak Dev ji ki bani –
ਜਹ ਦੇਖਾ ਤਹ ਰਵਿ ਰਹੇ ਸਿਵ ਸਕਤੀ ਕਾ ਮੇਲੁ ॥
Wherever I look I see the Divine Light residing as the Union of Shiva – Spirit – and Shakti – Matter.
(Guru Granth Sahib, 21)
The Saints viewed the world as created by the Union of Vishnu ji/Shiv ji (father spirit, paternal, patterns) and Lakshmi ji/Shakti ji (mother matter, maternal, materials).
When a Pattern is imposed on a Material, then it gives birth to beautiful shapes and forms. You take a stamp (pattern), add some ink (matter) and press it on some paper and you get beautiful shapes.
Similarly, when Spirit penetrates Matter, it gives birth to life, to Us, because we are composed of matter and spirit.
Our Body is made of Matter and our Mind is all Spirit.
Our Body consumes Material as Food and relies on Matter to survive. Our Mind consumes Spiritual as Food and relies on Spirit to survive.
(It is even more intertwined as our Body is organized according to certain Patterns of information and our Mind is projected from (brain) Matter, which in itself is ordered according to certain Patterns, which have evolved over millions of years.)
So we are children of the Great Father Spirit and Great Mother Matter.
You may call them Spirit/Pattern and Matter, you may call them Vishnu ji and Lakshmi ji, you may call them Shiv ji and Shakti ji, or you may call them Mahakal ji and Kalika ji.
ਸਰਬ ਕਾਲ ਹੈ ਪਿਤਾ ਅਪਾਰਾ ॥ ਦੇਬਿ ਕਾਲਿਕਾ ਮਾਤ ਹਮਾਰਾ ॥
Mahakal ji is my Limitless Father, Devi Kalika ji is my Mother.
– Dasam Granth
Regardless of what names you give the spiritual and material dimensions of life, these are not phenomenon that you can just read about and know. They must be tasted within the body.
Guru Arjun Dev ji devoted his life to that Being within, through whom we perceive this world.
Guru ji always listened to what this Being had to say. Going within his self, he listened to the speech of the Being. The sounds and the vibrations that play in the presence of the Being are pleasing to listen to.
Guru ji always praised this Being on whom he relied on. The senses collect sensory data, this is transmitted to the Being within, who then reveals to us the world. The Being, who is the source of everything we know, Guru ji always praised Him.
Day and night, Guru ji remembered the Being in his heart. He remembered to place his attention on that dimension within, through which we experience things.
Within his heart, Guru ji imagined the Lotus Feet of the Being. He imagined that one, who is within all men, and the ideal that all men aspire to be. Guru ji imagined himself as the dust of His Lotus Feet.
When I listen to Guru ji’s hymns, I can feel he had enshrined the Image of the Being in his heart. Within himself, he worshipped the Image of that Being, from whom we get all images.
Upon witnessing the radiant Image of the Being, Guru ji bowed down in recognition of its source.
Guru ji recognized that everything he has, comes from the Being within. He performed those actions which served this Being and no other.
The Beauty of the Being, attracted Guru ji to Him. He enjoyed his life, with this Being by his side. Sharing all his ups and downs with the vast emptiness from where those ups and downs emerge.
At all times, Guru ji was aware of the Being who was generating all of his life experiences, and creating all the events in his life. Seeing the power of the Being within, he completely surrendered to the source of his life events.
Guru Arjun Dev ji ki bani –
ਸਾਜਨੜਾ ਮੇਰਾ ਸਾਜਨੜਾ ਨਿਕਟਿ ਖਲੋਇਅੜਾ ਮੇਰਾ ਸਾਜਨੜਾ ॥
Friend, my Friend, is standing near me, my Friend.
ਜਾਨੀਅੜਾ ਹਰਿ ਜਾਨੀਅੜਾ ਨੈਣ ਅਲੋਇਅੜਾ ਹਰਿ ਜਾਨੀਅੜਾ ॥
Beloved, my Beloved Hari ji, I have seen Him with my eyes, my Beloved Hari ji.
ਨੈਣ ਅਲੋਇਆ ਘਟਿ ਘਟਿ ਸੋਇਆ ਅਤਿ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਪ੍ਰਿਅ ਗੂੜਾ ॥
With my eyes I have seen Him, resting within each and every heart; my Beloved is the sweetest ambrosia.
– Guru Arjun Dev ji, Ang 924
Seeing Guru ji meditating on the Being within, like this, while being tortured on the Hot-plate, it reduced me to tears. It was such a beautiful vision that it became my inspiration behind creating this painting of Guru ji’s Martyrdom.
On the tati-tavi Guru ji was immersed in the Depth of this Being.
Like a river, this Being, who is within, He Flows on His own Accord.
At all times Guru ji flowed with the Flow of the Being within, and where that Flow lead him, Guru ji followed.
Even through the suffering of the hot-plate, Guru ji flowed with the Flow of the Being. This was done out of True Love for the Being who resides within all Beings.
This is the greatness of Guru Arjun Dev ji.
ਤਖਤਿ ਬੈਠਾ ਅਰਜਨ ਗੁਰੂ ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਕਾ ਖਿਵੈ ਚੰਦੋਆ ॥
On the Throne sits Guru Arjan Dev ji, above him flares the Canopy with the moon pattern.
– Satta ji and Balwand ji, Ang 968
I saw that the King of Kings was seated on the Throne of the Hot-Plate and above Him was the Canopy of the Ladle that poured the Hot Sand, that is the King’s Crown.
When this realization hit me, tears flowed.
I realized then that the meaning of the Gurgaddi, the meaning of playing the game of life at such a high level, is to carry a burden of responsibility far greater than I had ever imagined.
To be a master at spirituality was to carry all this suffering that came with the burden of responsibility, and perform Responsible Actions and Meditation gracefully without becoming jaded or cynical.
What level of Consciousness does it require to be able to bear this burden?
As I contemplate it, my eyes become wet yet again.
The Christians can understand my feeling, if they contemplate Jesus Christ on the cross, with the crown on thorns, in a state of forgiveness.
Why do Saints forgive those who torture them with irresponsible actions?
Guru ji, whatever experiences the Being gives you, you accept it as a gift, immersed in the Flow of the Being.
How can we reach this level of Consciousness?
Guru Arjun Dev ji ki bani –
ਮਨੁ ਲੋਚੈ ਹਰਿ ਮਿਲਣ ਕਉ ਕਿਉ ਦਰਸਨੁ ਪਾਈਆ ॥
My mind yearns to meet Hari ji (the Being within), how can I get a glimpse of Him?
ਮੈ ਲਖ ਵਿੜਤੇ ਸਾਹਿਬਾ ਜੇ ਬਿੰਦ ਬੋੁਲਾਈਆ ॥
I will profit in hundreds of thousands, if my Master calls me to Him even for a second.
ਮੈ ਚਾਰੇ ਕੁੰਡਾ ਭਾਲੀਆ ਤੁਧੁ ਜੇਵਡੁ ਨ ਸਾਈਆ ॥
I have searched in all directions but I have never seen anything like You, Hari ji.
ਮੈ ਦਸਿਹੁ ਮਾਰਗੁ ਸੰਤਹੋ ਕਿਉ ਪ੍ਰਭੂ ਮਿਲਾਈਆ ॥
Hey Saints, tell me the path, on how to find Hari ji (how to find the Being within).
ਮਨੁ ਅਰਪਿਹੁ ਹਉਮੈ ਤਜਹੁ ਇਤੁ ਪੰਥਿ ਜੁਲਾਈਆ ॥
[The Saints advise -] Give the mind (and body) and let go of the Haumai (the sense that I exist as separate from others); walk on this Path.
ਨਿਤ ਸੇਵਿਹੁ ਸਾਹਿਬੁ ਆਪਣਾ ਸਤਸੰਗਿ ਮਿਲਾਈਆ ॥
[The Saints advise -] Serve your Master (the Being within) in Satsang (amongst people who are dedicated to the Being).
ਸਭੇ ਆਸਾ ਪੂਰੀਆ ਗੁਰ ਮਹਲਿ ਬੁਲਾਈਆ ॥
All desires are fulfilled when your Spiritual Teacher calls you into the Mansion (when the mind turns inward into it’s true form, that is Being).
ਤੁਧੁ ਜੇਵਡੁ ਹੋਰੁ ਨ ਸੁਝਈ ਮੇਰੇ ਮਿਤ੍ਰ ਗੋੁਸਾਈਆ ॥੧੨॥
There is nothing else like You, my Friend Gosai ji (the Being within).
– Guru Arjun Dev ji, Ang 1098
This Black and White Portrait of Aaron’s Bibi ji was inspired by the painting of Guru Arjun Dev ji – Spiritual Blossoming. Aaron was impressed by the painting and wanted me to paint Bibi ji in a similar fashion, surrounded by the garden in which she always worked in.
“If blood gets on one’s clothes, we say the garment has become polluted. Those who suck the blood of human beings, how can their consciousness be pure? Guru Nanak Dev ji says [perform Responsible Actions and] Meditate on the Name of the Supreme Consciousness, with a pure heart. Everything else is just a pretentious display, and the practice of irresponsible actions.”
– Guru Nanak Dev ji (Guru Granth Sahib, 140)
In my latest Sikh Painting, Guru Nanak Dev ji demonstrates that Bhai Lalo ji’s bread, earned through Responsible Actions and Meditation, is dripping with Milk. It nourishes everyone around Bhai Sahib, who bows to the Guru. Whereas the bread of Malik Bhago, earned through irresponsible actions, is dripping with Blood. It sucks the blood of those around Malik Bhago, who is looking shocked by the revelation. Standing behind Guru ji, Bhai Mardana ji watches the miracle in awe.
Painting Guru ji’s Four Symbols
Ever since I learned that Guru nanak dev ji wore Four Symbols – Topi, Seli, Tilak and Mala I always wanted to paint Him with these symbols.
Guru Granth Sahib ji and our Puratan Itihaasic scriptures all talk about Guru ji’s 4 symbols. Bhai Kahn Singh ji’s Mahan Kosh also mentions them.
These were Symbols worn by Saints of Medieval India, those who taught Bhagti.
1. Topi is an Old Style of Cap. In puratan art, we see Guru Nanak Dev ji depicted with 3 styles of Caps, which people wear in Himachal Pradesh, Tibet and Afghanistan, in the modern day.
2. Seli is a Black String. Sometimes worn on the cap, sometimes around neck (like a necklace or like a gatra), sometimes both. No current practice of wearing such a string exists in modern day. But it is spoken of and depicted in ancient literature and art.
3. Tilak is a Forehead Mark. It can be seen amongst Sadhus in modern day.
4. Mala is a Rosary. It’s well known today as a Tool for practicing meditation.
Hidden Away in History
This knowledge is nowhere to be found within our community. No one knows about it or talks about it. Even I didn’t know and when I found out, I was taken aback and it caused me to reflect on our situation. I recognized the need within the community of more knowledge and more historically authentic paintings.
Seeing this need I thought I should do a painting where Guru ji is wearing His 4 symbols. However I thought people do not see Him as such and would not want to own such a painting.
To be honest, at that time I did not see Guru ji with His 4 symbols either however I knew that the current style of turban we see him in, is a modern invention.
Meditating on Guru ji
So I started drawing Guru Nanak Dev ji everyday with seli and topi (I would later add the tilak and mala as well). At first it seemed odd. The drawing looked like Guru Nanak Dev ji and looked familiar however it also looked strange at the same time.
Nonetheless I was fascinated by Guru ji’s appearance.
I drew him more and more. Many of these sketches I later shared on my social media.
As I drew Him my mind was absorbed in His feet. In moments of complete absorption, I knew what I was drawing was the Guru and that He was guiding me to draw Him. So despite having reluctance and reservations, I carried on doing this process.
Days and nights I meditated as I drew Guru Nanak Dev ji. If I went out, I would park my vehicle and draw him for 40-50 minutes or so.
In those moments I felt like –
ਜਿਥੈ ਜਾਇ ਬਹੈ ਮੇਰਾ ਸਤਿਗੁਰੂ ਸੋ ਥਾਨੁ ਸੁਹਾਵਾ ਰਾਮ ਰਾਜੇ ॥
Raja Ram ji, wherever my Guru goes, that place is the most beautiful to me. (Ang 450)
I was in bliss.
This went on for a year or more, I can’t remember. Every time I would go somewhere I would take my sketchbook and draw Guru Nanak Dev ji in seli, topi, tilak and mala, while meditating.
It got to the point where sometimes my eyes would tear up as I enjoyed the emotions of the meditation.
Sikh Art for Gurpurab 550 Years
A few months ago I heard the community was celebrating Guru Nanak Dev ji’s 550th Gurpurab and I thought what better way to showcase the 4 symbols of Guru Nanak than to paint something for the 550th Gurpurab.
Several years ago I had started a painting of Guru Nanak Dev ji with seli topi holding the roti of Bhai Lalo ji and the roti of Malik Bhago, and showing the difference between one who performs Responsible Actions and Meditation, which nourishes the calves around them, and one who performs irresponsible actions which sucks the blood of the beings around them.
Originally I had Guru ji wearing wearing seli topi however part way through the process I changed it into a turban. Although I made progress on it, I started to lose interest and I stopped working on the painting.
I had tampered with my original vision, which came from Guru sahib and changed it to a turban to appease the insecure part of myself. In hindsight, that was not a good idea. (This was many years ago.)
After the past few years, after my experiences of drawing Guru sahib, I went back and changed the painting back to seli topi and it rejuvenated the painting.
The inspiration that came from that allowed me to do significant amount of work on the painting in a short amount of time.
The lessons I learned, I still try to ingrain them deeper into my being because the mind wanders from Guru ji’s teaching.
Guru ji said to not worry about other people, to let go of insecurities and to simply focus on Him. I would lose sight of this and He would again come and tell me to focus on what He said.
During the month of October with Diwali coming up ahead, I started to translate Guru ji’s bani on a daily basis and each day I would contemplate His teachings and focus my mind on Ram naam.
Doubt and fear are activities of the mind. They are like waves in the ocean. They come and go. This was the insight that came. I felt it deeply within.
Over my journey as an artist, Guru ji has taught me to dive into the ocean and taught me to swim as a free spirit alongside His other fish.
Some people say to keep spiritual experiences private, hidden from the public. While I keep almost all of them to myself, sometimes it becomes necessary to share a few with you guys so that you can understand the evolution in my art, and where it is coming from.
Of course there are people who will never understand this state of being nor the evolution that follows it. But for most people, it may be necessary from time to time, to explain the art, to add context to the image, so that they can enjoy it better.
About the Painting
This is a Puratan Style painting of Guru Nanak Dev ji, where Guru ji is dressed as he is shown in Puratan Sikh Art.
The style of painting is Puratan as well, but from Italy. I am a big fan of the Master Artist, Caravaggio, a 16th century artist, from the renaissance period of Italy. I have learned many things from him, despite never meeting him.
You can see his direct influence on my painting of Guru Arjun Dev ji’s martyrdom.
There is a famous painting of Guru Nanak Dev ji by Ustaad Sobha Singh ji, where Guru ji is shown blessing the viewer. Whereas Sobha Singh ji set a modern look for Guru sahib. I wanted to take the viewer back to Guru ji’s Puratan look, perhaps His original historical look, and show that off to newer generations.
So I painted the puratan look of Guru Nanak Dev ji that we see in Janamsakhis of 1700s, but with the puratan style of Ustaad Caravaggio ji from 1500s.
With that I hope I have given you guys a glimpse into our history with this piece.
The intention is not to offend anyone’s faith or belief system but simply to express our Itihaasic relics and artifacts that show us our past, and move forward under the guidance of Guru ji.
Bhagat, do you think Sikhs should wear a Seli and Topi?
The tradition of Seli and Topi was changed by the sixth Guru to that of Gatra and Dumalla (see Gurbilas Patshahi 6).
My intention here is only to show Guru Nanak Dev ji’s historical form and appearance, not to suggest to anyone to wear it.
My message to the community is to follow Guru ji’s teachings to us, in His sixth form, and continue to wear a Turban and a Sword belt as per His instructions.
If you don’t wear a Turban, my message to you is – start to think about where you belong, and who you worship. If you worship the Gurus then understand the depth of their message and the importance of the traditions they started.
When we go to the Gurudwara and benefit from a free meal, we should first think – “Am I performing responsible actions and meditation?” and then think – “Am I giving back to the Guru’s tradition by wearing the physical appearance that He blessed me with?”
If we benefit from one sikh tradition, langar tradition, but do not give back into the community by following other sikh tradition of maintaining uncut hair and turban, then we must take a serious look at our life.
In my view we should all wear turbans over our long hair, as that is Guru ji’s order. But it is also important to share Guru Nanak Dev ji’s original appearance, as it revealed itself to me in puratan literature and puratan artwork, and then in my Being.