Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur :A historical analysis

In this article, we examine how and why was Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed in c.1675 by Mughal Administration. What do we know about this incident? What were the factors behind his execution?

Now we turn to the prevalent narratives and examine them for historicity

Popular narrative

A popular narrative circulates that Guru Tegh Bahadur sacrificed  his life to prevent the forced conversions of Kashmiri Pandits. A group of Kashmiri Pandits implored Tegh Bahadur ji’s help  from Mughal persecutions. Tegh bahadur travelled to Delhi to request Aurangzeb to stop persecuting Kashmiri Pandits. Aurangzeb was incensed and offered Tegh Bahadur an option of conversion or death. The Sikh guru chose the latter.


Is this narrative historically sound? According to the narrative, the head of delegation of Brahmins who went to meet Guru Tegh Bahadur was “Pandit Kirpa Ram Dutt”.  As the name reveals, this person, if he existed at all, should have been a Punjabi and definitely not a Kashmiri Pandit. “Dutt” surname was never in vogue among Kashmiri Pandits. Since the narrative looks suspicious at the first glance, let us examine further

Below, we examine the death of Guru Tegh Bahadurji according to earliest sources

Dasam Granth

One of the  contemporary Sikh sources is the Dasam Granth(Bachitar natak) , an autobiography of Guru Gobind Singh ji(the son of Guru Tegh Bahadur ji ) completed by 1697. It describes the death of Guru as follows[1]

ਹਰੀਕ੍ਰਿਸਨ ਤਿਨ ਕੇ ਸੁਤ ਵਏ ॥ ਤਿਨ ਤੇ ਤੇਗ ਬਹਾਦਰ ਭਏ
Har Krishan (the next Guru) was his son; after him, Tegh Bahadur became the Guru

ਤਿਲਕ ਜੰਵੂ ਰਾਖਾ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਤਾ ਕਾ ॥ ਕੀਨੋ ਬਡੋ ਕਲੂ ਮਹਿ ਸਾਕਾ ॥
He protected his tilak and sacred thread which marked a great event in kaliyuga

ਸਾਧਨ ਹੇਤਿ ਇਤੀ ਜਿਨਿ ਕਰੀ ॥ ਸੀਸੁ ਦੀਆ ਪਰ ਸੀ ਨ ਉਚਰੀ ॥੧੩॥
साधन हेति इती जिनि करी ॥ सीसु दीआ पर सी न उचरी ॥१३॥
For the sake of his saints, he laid down his head without even a sigh..

ਧਰਮ ਹੇਤਿ ਸਾਕਾ ਜਿਨਿ ਕੀਆ ॥ ਸੀਸੁ ਦੀਆ ਪਰ ਸਿਰਰੁ ਨ ਦੀਆ ॥
For the sake of his Dharma, he sacrificed himself. He laid down his head but not his creed.

ਨਾਟਕ ਚੇਟਕ ਕੀਏ ਕੁਕਾਜਾ ॥ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਲੋਗਨ ਕਹ ਆਵਤ ਲਾਜਾ ॥੧੪॥
The saints of the Lord abhor the performance of miracles and malpractices.

ਠੀਕਰਿ ਫੋਰਿ ਦਿਲੀਸਿ ਸਿਰਿ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਪੁਰਿ ਕੀਯਾ ਪਯਾਨ ॥
Breaking the potsherd of his body head of the king of Delhi , He left for the abode of the Lord.

ਤੇਗ ਬਹਾਦਰ ਸੀ ਕ੍ਰਿਆ ਕਰੀ ਨ ਕਿਨਹੂੰ ਆਨ ॥੧੫॥
None could perform such a feat as that of Tegh Bahadur.15.

ਤੇਗ ਬਹਾਦਰ ਕੇ ਚਲਤ ਭਯੋ ਜਗਤ ਕੋ ਸੋਕ ॥
The whole world bemoaned the departure of Tegh Bahadur.

ਹੈ ਹੈ ਹੈ ਸਭ ਜਗ ਭਯੋ ਜੈ ਜੈ ਜੈ ਸੁਰ ਲੋਕਿ ॥੧੬॥
While the world Iamented, the gods hailed his arrival in heavens.

This account shows that Guru Tegh Bahadur ji died protecting his own tilak and Janeu i..e… his own dharma.

Apologists who still uphold that Guru Tegh Bahdur died defending Kashmiri Pandits translate this verse as “he died defending their tilak  and dharma“. As Indologist Koenraad Elst observes [2]

The phrase commonly translated as “the Lord preserved their tilak and sacred thread” (tilak-janjû râkhâ Prabh tâ-kâ), referring to unnamed outsiders assumed to be the Kashmiri Pandits, literally means that He “preserved his tilak and sacred thread”, meaning Tegh Bahadur’s

It would already be unusual poetic liberty to render “their tilak and sacred thread” this way, and even if that were intended, there is still no mention of the Kashmiri Pandits in the story.

This is confirmed by one of the following lines in Govind’s poem about his father’s martyrdom: “He suffered martyrdom for the sake of his faith.”

As Elst rightly notes, there is no mention of Kashmiri Pandits even if such liberties were taken.  As the next phrase “For the sake of his Dharma, he sacrificed himself” indicates, the act was done for defending his own dharma(religion), not that of Kashmiri Pandits

Apologists argue that Since Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji was a Sikh, he could not have his own tilak and the phrase must be referring to Kashmiri pandits. However, such an argument is based on a flawed premise. It is clear from Guru Granth Sahib that Guru were adorned with tilak on initiation. The below verse describes how Guru Ram Das was anointed with tilak on his ascension to guruship[3]

The Guru then blessed the Sodhi Ram Das with the ceremonial tilak mark, the insignia
of the True Word of the Shabad


All the paintings of Sikh Gurus before 1880 depict them with tilak , such as the one illustrated below




The story of Guru Tegh Bahadur meeting Aurangzeb to request him to end  the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits is self-negating. As leading Sikh historian Hardip Singh Syan observes[4]

But the narratives(of kashmiri pandits begging Guru’s help) also suggest the futility of his mission., because Aurangzeb is  portrayed as dogmatic puritan who was too far from divinity to accede to Guru Tegh Bahadur’s request.

Further, he says[5]

The major issue with this  explanation of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s execution is the predominance given to the personal religious motivation of the Mughal emperor and the equally simplistic homogenisation of sikhs within the hargobind lineage… Tegh Bahadur was not the only ‘sikh’ guru of this period. Other ‘Gurus’ included Guru Harji, Guru Dhir Mal, Guru Ram Rai and possibly many other minor figures.It seems unlikely that Aurangzeb would have targeted a specific Sikh guru on purely religious grounds

The apologist stand  is annihilated by the words of Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji himself. Sikh sources say that when Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji was summoned and asked to embrace Islam, he replied[6]

My religion is Hindu and how can I abandon what is so dear to me? This religion helps you in this world and that, and only a fool would abandon it. God himself is the protector of this religion and no one can destroy it

This excerpt is taken from Guru Pratap Suraj Granth written by Kavi Santokh Singh(c.1800), one of the greatest ever Sikh Scholars. Its ‘Katha’ (Religious Discourse) in almost all prominent Gurdwaras is the gauge of its authenticity and popularity among the Sikh masses.

Finally, there is no mention of Tegh Bahadur ji in any kashmiri chronicle. As Elst observes, there is no record of Aurangzeb’s bigotry in kashmir(which is totally attested elsewhere) and large scale prosecution/mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits during his reign [7]

In any case, the story of forced mass conversions in Kashmir by the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb is not supported by the detailed record of his reign by Muslim chronicles who narrate many accounts of his bigotry

Sri Gursobha

We now examine another contemporary  Sikh source which describes Guru Tegh Bahadur ji’s execution. Sri Gursobha was written by a Sikh scholar named Sainapati (c.1700 CE). The following is its account of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s Martyrdom[8]

Then Har Rai was Guru,
Followed by Guru Har Krishan. |13|
Guru Tegh Bahadur emerged,
He covered all of creation with his protection.
He protected karam and dharam,
His eternal story was witnessed in the Kaliyug.|14|
His fame spread across the world like this,
He safeguarded all dharam.
Whose praise resounds in the three worlds,
Satiguru, protected honor in this way.|15|
Forehead mark, sacred thread, and places of worship
They became firm because of his compassion.
For the sake of dharam, he went to the abode of God,
Known as Guru Gobind Singh

It is noteworthy that Gursobha again makes no mention of Kashmiri Pandits. The same narrative  is repeated in Das Gur Katha composed by Kavi Kankan and Suraj Pratap Granth by Bhai Santokh Singh that we have noted above. The above Granths refer to Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji sacrificing his life for the sake of dharam(roughly religion). But what did Sikhs themselves write about the reason for Guru Tegh Bahadur ji’s execution?

Sohan Lal Suri (c.1820)was a professional  historian employed  by Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh. His explanation of Guru Tegh Bahadur ji’s execution is as follows[9]

Guru Tegh bahadur went into the country of Malwa and stayed there to give instrucion to his followers in a befitting manner.With Passage of time thousands of soldiers and horsemen used to be with him. camels and goods of all kinds remained at his disposal. Furthermore, those who were refractory towards the amils, the zamindars, the ijaradars, the diwans and the officers in general used to take refuge with Guru Tegh Bahadur. Regardless of the number of people with Guru, they were all fed by him.

Some deranged persons warned the emperor that if no notice of Guru was taken he would be an incitement to insurrection. If he was allowed to continue his activities for a long time, it would be extremely difficult to deal with him.

Upon this, the emperor sent experienced soldiers to bring the Guru to Shahjahanabad. They hastened to deliver Emperor’s message. The emperor desired a miracle from the Guru and would make him famous. The Guru replied that he was a faqir who renounced worldly ambitions and was content with his existence. But to no avail.

At Delhi, the emperor Aurangzeb insisted that Tegh Bahadur should work a miracle.

Knowing that self-sacrifice was unavoidable, he agreed to perform a miracle : he asserted that no sword would be effective against him. When the sword struck him, his head was severed from his body. A piece of paper was found tied on his neck with the following words : ‘the man  gave up his head but not the secret .’

Notably, this standard account does not even mention Kashmiri Pandits. It attributes the reason of his execution to his increasing influence and his refuge to refractory groups. The Mughal officers were threatened with his influence. As historian Hardeep Syan says, Guruji was gaining supporters who were armed and disgruntled with local power. It is likely that his supporters saw him as an independent Raja and his collection of donations were seen by local Mughal powers as collection of taxes

Persian sources-

Written in 1783 by Ghulam Husain Taba-Tabai,  The Siyar-ul-Mutakharin gives a brief account of Guru Tegh Bahadur ji’s death[10]

Tegh Bahadur, gathering many disciples, became powerful, and thousands of people accompanied him. A contemporary of his, Hafiz Adam, who was a Muslim belonging to the order of Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, had gathered about him a great multitude of followers. Both of these took to the practice of levying forcible exactions and moved about in the land of the Punjab. Tegh Bahadur took money from Hindus and Hafiz Adam from Mussalmans. The royal news writers wrote to the Emperor that the two fakirs, one Hindu and the other Muslim named so-and-so, had taken to the practice. It would not be strange if, with the increase of their influence, they created trouble

Aurangzeb decided that the Muslim be banished, but the Sikh guru be executed.

According to this account, Guru Tegh Bahadur ji teamed up with a certain Adam Hafiz and began levying forcible exactions. This account concurs with  Sohan Lal Suri’s  record examined above that Tegh Bahadur Ji was seen as a threat to Mughal administration. Notable again is the complete absence of any mention of Kashmiri Pandits.

It is striking that in both the Sikh and Muslim narratives of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s Martyrdom, there is no mention of kashmiri Pandits. What was the origin of this myth?

The myth of Guru sacrificing his life for kashmiri pandits first finds mention in the during the British age. Captain Murray wanted to get Sikh history recorded. He came in contact with Ratan Singh Bhangu and requested the latter to acquaint him with Sikh History. To this end, Bhangu wrote Guru Panth Prakash in 1841. This was the first book to mention this legend.  In c.1909,  McAuliffe`s “Sikh religion: Its Gurus, Sacred writings, and authors” was published. He states in the introduction how he had inserted an oath of loyalty to the British administration in the Khalsa initiation ritual. He is widely accredited for the translation of the Guru Granth Sahib from Gurmukhi to English

His intentions behind writing this book, in his own words, are[11]

It seems, at any rate politic to place before the Sikh soldiery their Gurus prophecies in favor of the English and the texts of their sacred writings which foster their loyalty


It is fairly clear that Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji’s influence was seen as a threat by  Mughal administration and this was the reason for his execution. The narrative Tegh Bhadur sacrificing his life for  Kashmiri Pandits has no historical background whatsoever and is a product of colonial British writings


  1.  Dasam Granth P.131
  2. Elst, Koenraad .”Who is a Hindu”(2002)
  3. Sri Guru Granth Sahib P.923
  4. Syan, Hardeep Singh. “Sikh Militancy in the Seventeenth Century” (2013)
  5. Ibid (2013)
  6. Gur Pratap Suraj Granth VOL 12 P.467
  7. Elst, Koenraad .”Who is a Hindu”(2002)
  8. Sri Gursobha. 235
  9. Syan, Hardeep Singh. “Sikh Militancy in the Seventeenth Century” (2013)
  10. The Punjab: Past and Present: Essays in Honour of Dr. Ganda Singh
  11. The Sikh Religion,1909, M.A. Macauliffe, Preface xxii Volume 1, By Max Arthur MacAuliffe p. 13




A Mahishasuramardini from Iran



This silver rhyton has been discovered at Deylaman, Northern Iran.The inscription as well as leading art historians identify the artefact as representing “Durga mahishasuramardini”[1]

Interestingly, it gives new insights into high quality production of silver icons. Its provenance is taken to be in Eastern Afghanistan. It was looted during the Arab Muslim raids on shahi and Zunbil kingdoms of Southern eastern Afghanistan in the latter half of seventh century[2]. Its provenance  beyond the Hindu Kush is not surprising  as archaeology attests to the presence of Durga Icons and worship  in pre Islamic Afghanistan. Arabs referred to the land beyond river Helmand in western Afghanistan as “Al-hind”. Arab Chronicles refer to the ruler of Helmand as “the king of  Al-Hind, who bore the title Zunbil”[3]. Many other Durga Mahishamardini figurines(of primarily marble) dating from c.400CE  to c.800CE  have been discovered from South-Eastern Afghanistan[4] Kabul valley was strongly Hindu in religion during the Pre Islamic age. In the city of Kapisa alone, Xuanzang(c.630) talks about 10 Brahmanical temples and around a 1000 aesthetics


Xuanzang(c.630) relates that Kabul Shahis made donations of 18 foot silver images of buddha[5]. The source of Shahi silver was the mines of panjshir[6] . Our silver rhyton  bears an imprint of “Hadda classicism” collated with a “Gupta sensuousness”[7]. The crescent motive (chandrabindu/aad chand) on forehead is reminiscent of shaivite signs found elsewhere. Our silver rhyton could  be compared to a figurine discovered under Khona Masjid in Surkh kotal[8] The figurine is dated to early Post-Kushana period and provides an iconographical model khona




It is remarkable that in the Surkh Kotal inscription, Kushan emperor Kanishka explicitly identified Durga(Uma) with their native goddess Nana[9].

Kanishka’s worship and identification of Durga with Nana is apparent in these lines of the inscription

Then King Kanishka gave orders to Shafar the karalrang [8] *at this . . . to make the sanctuary which is called B . . . ab, in the *plain of Ka . . ., for these [9] gods, (of) whom the glorious Umma leads the *service here, (namely:) the *lady Nana and the [10] lady Umma, Aurmuzd, the gracious one, Sroshard, Narasa, (and) Mihr.

Such  synthesis and fusion lasted well into our times. The Goddess referred to as “Hingla devi” by Indic speakers is referred to as “bibi Nani(Nana)” by  Iranic speakers of Balochistan and Afghanistan[10]. Thus, it seems that kushans played a prominent role in sprouting up the trade routes, facilitating cultural as well as material contacts and dispersing the worship of Indic gods into  the heartlands of  Afghanistan

It is striking that these minor kingdoms of Shahis and zunbils were able to provide stiff resistance to invading Islamic armies of saffarids and Arabs. It took the Islamic armies just 20 years to conquer all of Iran. By contrast, these kingdoms of Afghanistan resisted Islamic onslaught until Ghazni’s father Subutegin wrested Laghman(Afghanistan) from Shahi ruler Jayapala during c.990 CE. Not only that the Hindu Kabul Shahis withstood onslaughts by mighty Arab empire(which extended from Spain to Talas in china) for over three centuries , the zunbils managed to raid westwards deep into Arab territory of Nimruz[11]
It has been argued by historians that the Hindu kingdoms of Kabul valley offered the best resistance to Islamic kingdom because these mountain tribes and militant chieftains were harder to be conquered in comparison to the dehqani farmers of Iran[12]
Whatever the reason, it is certain that Kabul Shahis by withstanding mighty Arab and Turkish onslaughts at the gateways of Al-Hind delayed an Islamic conquest of mainland India for a few centuries


1)Martha L. Carter  Artibus Asiae, Vol. 41, No. 4

2)Ibid pp.325

3)Wink, Andre Al-hind: The Making of the Indo-islamic World V.1

4)Collections of Kabul museum

5)Beal, op. cit Vol 1 p.551

6)Walker, A catalogue of Arab-Byzantine and post reform Umayyad coins, London 1956 PP.3

7)Martha L. Carter  Artibus Asiae, Vol. 41, No. 4 (1979)

8)D Schlumberger “De rhyton de Khona Masjid”(1971) PP.3

9) Kanishka Inscription at Rabatak(Surkh Kotal) 10-11. Translation by Bactrian linguist Nicholas Sims williams

10) DT Potts “Nana in Bactria”(2001) PP.23

11)Wink, Andre Al-hind: The Making of the Indo-islamic World V.1

12)R Frye, The Golden age of Persia PP.95-96