For Saintly Sacrifice

The article "For Saintly Sacrifice" briefs the history of Sikh persecution and willingness of martyrdom by the Sikhs during the Misl-era [1720s-1799], detailing the martyrdom of 9 Sikh individuals from 1732-1762. The article sheds light on how Sikhs can perceive the respective martyrdoms and their application in the modern age.
March 3, 2024
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14 minutes

To say Sikhi was not built upon sacrifice is like saying humans do not breathe. The Gurmat (Doctrine) that Guru Nanak brought being so revealing and uplifting, broke away the bond commoners had with kaljug. Entering such enlightenment by shedding said ties, the immoral mortal can then become a moral immortal. This is, in all honesty, conceivably dangerous for the state and institution. Guru Nanak’s Sikhi to this day launches one to an immensely lifting state and particularly at the time, challenged the status quo with context to the Indian subcontinent. Guru Nanak from his first to tenth forms worked tirelessly in sowing these seeds amidst his ever-growing Panth. 

Our story begins in an era of Sikh history often overlooked and little discussed in our Sikh institutions. The Misl-era [1720s-1799] emerging in Panjab after the Shaheedi (martyrdom) of Commander Baba Gurbakhsh Singh Banda Bahadur in 1716 at times proves to be a difficult time to reliably look into and analyze. Indeed, many factors, parties and interests were at play throughout the decades. But one consistency remained – sacrifice. Shaheedis in this era grew exponentially as persecution continued. Five consecutive Subedars (Governors) of Lahore for 40 years wasted away both effort and funds from the Lahore Toshkhana (Treasury) in an inevitably losing battle on either pacifying or eliminating the Sikhs entirely. These five Subedars were:1

  1. Abd us-Samad Khan [r. 1713-1726, d. 1737].
  2. Zakariya Khan [r. 1726-1745].
  3. Yahiya Khan [r. 1745-1747].
  4. Shah Nawaz Khan [r. 1747-1748].
  5. Muin ul-Mulk “Mir Mannu” [r. 1748-1753].

In this time period from the Shaheedi of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur from 1716 to the Fall of Sirhind in 1764, we shall take a look at nine captivating and defining different Shaheedis from 1732 to 1764, and subsequently tie them into what as Sikhs can we take from these events and apply into the modern world.


Bhai Tara Singh was born sometime in 1702 and was the eldest son of one Bhai Gurdas Singh, who received Amrit from Guru Gobind Singh and was a veteran of the Battle of Amritsar (6 April 1709) that was fought before the arrival of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur to Panjab. Bhai Tara Singh himself received Amrit from Jathedar Bhai Mani Singh and trained heavily in the Sikh martial arts. As Sikh persecution increased, Nihang Bhai Tara Singh gathered with him an armed Sikh jatha of youths, himself only being roughly 30 years old. Bhai Tara Singh committed himself to station around the village of Vaan, in the Majha region. Sahib Rai of the village of Naushera Pannuan complained to the Faujdar of Patti, Jafar Beg, that Bhai Tara Singh was hosting criminals in his land. Jafar Beg dispatched a platoon of 80 soldiers and 25 horses to Bhai Tara Singh’s location. However, Bhai Tara Singh and his jatha fought valiantly, leaving several Mughal troops dead including the commander of the contingent – a nephew of Faujdar Jafar Beg. Jafar Beg sent a complaint to Subedar Zakariya Khan, who in turn dispatched 2,000 cavalry, 40 light guns, 5 elephants and 4 cannons to face Nihang Bhai Tara Singh and 22 of his Sikh Sipahis. Throughout the night, Bhai Tara Singh held back the Mughal forces. But by the following day on 24 December 1732, Bhai Tara Singh and his Khalsa jatha fell in the hand-to-hand combat.2

ਹਰਿ ਦਰੁ ਸੇਵੇ ਅਲਖ ਅਭੇਵੇ ਨਿਹਚਲੁ ਆਸਣੁ ਪਾਇਆ ॥                                                                   
ਤਹ ਜਨਮ ਨ ਮਰਣੁ ਨ ਆਵਣ ਜਾਣਾ ਸੰਸਾ ਦੂਖੁ ਮਿਟਾਇਆ ॥
“One who serves at the Door of the Imperceptible and Unfathomable Lord, obtains this eternal position. There is no birth or death there, no coming or going – anguish and anxiety are ended.”
— Guru Arjan Sahib in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Sri Raag]; Ang 79.


The iconic and much revered Bhai Mani Singh was a contemporary of his supreme Guru Gobind Singh. From becoming the custodian of the Akal Takht in 1696 to hosting the Sarbat Khalsa General Assemblies and working in the early compilation of the Dasam Granth, Bhai Mani Singh had an integral part in Sikhi. Although not having been the Akal Takht Jathedar anymore, as one Diwan Baba Darbara Singh had assumed the esteemed position by roughly 1726, Bhai Mani Singh still held an important place in the Sikh Sangat and Khalsa Panth. In 1737, Bhai Mani Singh following diplomacy sought permission from Subedar Zakariya Khan to host the annual Deep Mala/Diwali/Bandi Chhor Diwas gathering at Amritsar. Zakariya Khan agreed on the condition that a tax of 5,000 rupees be paid. Simultaneously, Zakariya Khan had enabled his minister Diwan Lakhpat Rai to reach Amritsar with a strong detachment of soldiers in order to catch the Sikhs off guard and massacre them. Bhai Mani Singh after hearing of such plans nearing the date told the Sikhs to disperse and that the celebration was cancelled. Zakariya Khan however, still charged Bhai Mani Singh for having not paid the tax. Bhai Mani Singh was given the choice to either convert to Islam or accept death. He without hesitation chose the latter. Bhai Mani Singh was subsequently chopped limb by limb.3

ਸਬਦਿ ਮਰੈ ਸੋ ਮਰਿ ਰਹੈ ਫਿਰਿ ਮਰੈ ਨ ਦੂਜੀ ਵਾਰ ॥ ਸਬਦੈ ਹੀ ਤੇ ਪਾਈਐ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮੇ ਲਗੈ ਪਿਆਰੁ ॥
“One who dies in Sabad [Holy Word] is beyond death, they shall never die again. Through the Sabad, we find Him and embrace love for the Name of The Lord.”
— Guru Nanak Sahib in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Sri Raag]; Ang 58.


Nihang Bhai Bota Singh was living the same lifestyle as many of his warrior Sikh brethren – hiding in the jungles whilst occasionally attacking Mughal brigades yet protecting the Sikh needy. At night, he would seek food in villages from those offering and sometimes would take a holy dip in the Sarovar at Amritsar. Lurking around the forests of Tarn Taran, he was once spotted by some commoners in which one remarked if he was a Sikh. Another replied that he would not be as Sikhs would not choose to remain hidden. This hurt Bhai Bota Singh and he committed to now making himself known. He was joined by his friend Nihang Bhai Garja Singh Ranghreta and the duo took up a spot on the Grand Trunk Road passing through Tarn Taran, whereby all passersby were made to pay a toll whilst proclaiming Khalsa sovereignty. Bhai Bota Singh soon sent a letter to Subedar Zakariya Khan openly taunting him. The latter then dispatched 100 horsemen under Jalal Din to arrest them and return them to Lahore alive. Jalal Din asked for the duo to surrender and that he would secure their release. The duo declined, signing only to Khalsa authority. They then fought valiantly, meeting their end.4

ਫਰੀਦਾ ਮੰਡਪ ਮਾਲੁ ਨ ਲਾਇ ਮਰਗ ਸਤਾਣੀ ਚਿਤਿ ਧਰਿ ॥ ਸਾਈ ਜਾਇ ਸਮ੍ਲਿ ਜਿਥੈ ਹੀ ਤਉ ਵੰਞਣਾ ॥੫੮॥
“Farid, do not focus on mansions and wealth – centre your consciousness on death; thy powerful enemy. Remember such place, where thou must depart to.”
— Sheikh Baba Farid Ji in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Salok Baba Farid]; Ang 1,380-1,381.


The first of two Shaheedis on this list that appear in the Sikh Ardas (standing prayer) and a Gurmukh of Guru Nanak living up to the exemplary qualities of Gurmat, Bhai Taru Singh Sandhu was a simple farmer. Born in 1720, whatever savings he had from his harvests and work, did seva and kindly fed the exiled Sikh populous and warriors alike. A government informant by the name of Aqil Das Harbhagat Niranjania of Jandiala however, had been spying on Bhai Taru Singh long enough to have a complaint lodged against him in the court of Subedar Zakariya Khan. Bhai Taru Singh was summoned and upon entering the court and seeing Zakariya Khan, Bhai Taru Singh greeted him with Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh. The enraged Zakariya Khan offered Bhai Taru Singh the choice of Islam or death. Bhai Taru Singh responded by asking whether or not if Muslims never die? The execution was delivered to Bhai Taru Singh via scalping, or the cutting and removal of the scalp at only 25 years old.5

ਪ੍ਰਭ ਕੀ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ਇਹੁ ਭਵਜਲੁ ਤਰੈ ॥ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਕੀ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ਜਮ ਤੇ ਨਹੀ ਡਰੈ ॥  ਪ੍ਰਭ ਕੀ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ਸਗਲ ਉਧਾਰੈ ॥
“In the Love of God, one crosses over this terrible world-ocean. In the Love of God, one does not fear death. In the Love of God, all are saved.”
— Guru Arjan Sahib in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Raag Asa]; Ang 391.


The final of two Shaheedis on this list that appear in the Sikh Ardas are the father-son duo of Subeg Singh and Shahbaz Singh. The father, Subeg Singh, was born at Jhambar in the Lahore district, and was well learned in both Arabic and Farsi. He first began his work as a government contractor under Subedar Zakariya Khan. His first proper position given to him was the official Vakil, or Court Lawyer, for the Subedar. During the 1733 Deep Mala Sarbat Khalsa, it was one Vakil Subeg Singh who approached the Sangat and Panth in Amritsar with an offer of a jagir (titular estate grant) and the title of Nawab on behalf of Zakariya Khan. Although he was a government worker, known popularly as the Vakil, and had to explain himself to the Akalis guarding Harmandir Sahib-Akal Takht, Subeg Singh wholly supported the Sikh cause against Mughal rule. His son Shahbaz Singh too excelled in Arabic and Farsi in his state-run Islamic school. So much was he a great pupil, that his Maulvi (Islamic Jurisprudential Doctor) wanted to convert Shahbaz Singh to Islam. Later on, even various Mullahs and Qazis of Lahore attempted to entice the young Shahbaz Singh as well. However, he firmly rejected all attempts. After Zakariya Khan died and his son Yahiya Khan became the Subedar of Lahore, he turned hostile to then Kotwal (police chief) Subeg Singh. Eventually, Yahiya Khan got both father and son on false charges of speaking against Islam. As both readily accepted death over Islam, Shahbaz Singh was first tied to a spiked wheel. Subeg Singh did not fall when seeing his son impaled to death. He too was subsequently tortured and killed.6

ਕਾਜੀ ਸਾਹਿਬੁ ਏਕੁ ਤੋਹੀ ਮਹਿ ਤੇਰਾ ਸੋਚਿ ਬਿਚਾਰਿ ਨ ਦੇਖੈ ॥                                                             
ਖਬਰਿ ਨ ਕਰਹਿ ਦੀਨ ਕੇ ਬਉਰੇ ਤਾ ਤੇ ਜਨਮੁ ਅਲੇਖੈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥                                                       
ਸਾਚੁ ਕਤੇਬ ਬਖਾਨੈ ਅਲਹੁ ਨਾਰਿ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਹੀ ਕੋਈ ॥                                                                          
ਪਢੇ ਗੁਨੇ ਨਾਹੀ ਕਛੁ ਬਉਰੇ ਜਉ ਦਿਲ ਮਹਿ ਖਬਰਿ ਨ ਹੋਈ ॥੨॥
“O Qazi, The One Lord is within you, but you fail to behold Him by deep contemplation. You do not care for others, thou art a religious fanatic and your life is of no account at all. Your Holy Scriptures say Allah is True; that He is neither male nor female. But you gain nothing by reading and studying, O mad-man, if you do not gain understanding in your heart.”
— Bhagat Kabir Ji in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Raag Asa]; Ang 483.


The much esteemed and fondly remembered Baba Deep Singh, studying his life and contribution to Sikhi is worth an entire discussion on its own. However, his Shaheedi is very much cherished and recalled in the grander Sikh lore of sacrifice. At the age of 75, after having learned one of Ahmad Shah Abdali’s generals Jahan Khan, destroyed the Ram Rauni Qila in Amritsar and defiled the Holy Sarovar, Baba Deep Singh set out from Takht Sri Damdama Sahib Talwandi Sabo with his warrior band and by reaching Tarn Taran his army grew up to 5,000 Sikh warriors. At Gohlwar, south of Amritsar, a fierce battle took place between the Khalsa Fauj and Jahan Khan’s Army on 11 November 1757. Baba Deep Singh was committed on reaching the Harmandir Sahib and suffered a severe blow to his neck, leaving his head being attached to his body by only a few tendons. Although by this point much of the battle was over with immense bloodshed on both sides, the sight of the old Baba Deep Singh spewing blood from his neck yet still standing is said to have terrified any remaining invading Afghans. Soon afterwards, he would fall.7

ਇਕਨਾ ਨੋ ਹਰਿ ਲਾਭੁ ਦੇਇ ਜੋ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਥੀਵੇ ॥ ਤਿਨ ਜਮਕਾਲੁ ਨ ਵਿਆਪਈ ਜਿਨ ਸਚੁ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਪੀਵੇ ॥           
ਓਇ ਆਪਿ ਛੁਟੇ ਪਰਵਾਰ ਸਿਉ ਤਿਨ ਪਿਛੈ ਸਭੁ ਜਗਤੁ ਛੁਟੀਵੇ ॥੩॥
“The Lord bestows His Profits on those who become Gurmukh. The Messenger of Death does not touch those who drink in the True Ambrosial Nectar. They themselves are saved, along with family and those who are their followers.”
— Guru Ram Das Sahib in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Sri Raag]; Ang 83.


The lesser known Akali to have attainted Shaheedi in defence of the Harmandir Sahib-Akal Takht, Akali Baba Gurbakhsh Singh was also the successor to Akali Baba Deep Singh as the 3rd Jathedar of the Damdami Taksal Sikh school of thought. Having been aged 76 at the time, Baba Gurbakhsh Singh was already stationed in Amritsar for defence. This time around however, the aged Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan was crossing through Panjab to raid India for his seventh time – leading a force of roughly 30,000 soldiers. Baba Gurbakhsh Singh in turn led his small jatha of only 30 Akalis. As the Afghan force passed through Amritsar, in an instance the Akali jatha pounced on the Afghans. Heavily outnumbered, Baba Gurbakhsh Singh and his Sikhs would slaughter many Afghans before they themselves were ultimately eliminated on 1 December 1764.8

ਮਰਣੈ ਤੇ ਜਗਤੁ ਡਰੈ ਜੀਵਿਆ ਲੋੜੈ ਸਭੁ ਕੋਇ ॥  ਗੁਰ ਪਰਸਾਦੀ ਜੀਵਤੁ ਮਰੈ ਹੁਕਮੈ ਬੂਝੈ ਸੋਇ ॥                    
ਨਾਨਕ ਐਸੀ ਮਰਨੀ ਜੋ ਮਰੈ ਤਾ ਸਦ ਜੀਵਣੁ ਹੋਇ ॥੨॥
“The world is terrified of death, all yearn to live. By the Guru’s Grace, one who dies whilst still alive understands The Lord’s Will. O Nanak, one who dies such a death lives forever.”
— Guru Amar Das Sahib in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Raag Bihaagraa]; Ang 555.

With the examples from Gurbani given to each case, one can get a clear understanding of what Sikhi meant to each Shaheed. It can go two ways: either so invaluable was Sikhi to each Shaheed that life did not matter or Sikhi taught to each Shaheed that compared to the soul, life in this physical form was only temporary to begin with. As Guru Nanak writes: 

ਮਰਣੁ ਨ ਮੰਦਾ ਲੋਕਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਜੇ ਕੋਈ ਮਰਿ ਜਾਣੈ ॥੨॥ ਮਰਣੁ ਮੁਣਸਾ ਸੂਰਿਆ ਹਕੁ ਹੈ ਜੋ ਹੋਇ ਮਰਨਿ ਪਰਵਾਣੋ ॥ ਸੂਰੇ ਸੇਈ ਆਗੈ ਆਖੀਅਹਿ ਦਰਗਹ ਪਾਵਹਿ ਸਾਚੀ ਮਾਣੋ ॥ ਦਰਗਹ ਮਾਣੁ ਪਾਵਹਿ ਪਤਿ ਸਿਉ ਜਾਵਹਿ ਆਗੈ ਦੂਖੁ ਨ ਲਾਗੈ ॥ ਕਰਿ ਏਕੁ ਧਿਆਵਹਿ ਤਾਂ ਫਲੁ ਪਾਵਹਿ ਜਿਤੁ ਸੇਵਿਐ ਭਉ ਭਾਗੈ ॥
“Death is not an evil, O People, should one know how to truly die. The death of heroic men is holy, should they lay down their lives for a righteous cause. They alone are acclaimed as brave warriors in the world hereafter, who receive true honour in the Court of The Lord. Honoured in the Holy Court, so too they depart and not suffer pain in the hereafter. They meditate on the One Lord and obtain the fruits of their rewards – serving The Lord, fear is dispelled.”
— Guru Nanak Sahib in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [Alahnian in Raag Vadhans]; Ang 579-580.

Guru Nanak here posits that fighting for righteousness, even which may lead to one’s death, ought to never be seen as a bad virtue or destination, as he did in his 5th form as Guru Arjan Sahib 9th form as Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib. Throughout his Alahnian found across Raag Vadhans, he argues for the inevitability of death – a theme that continues vastly and is heavily expanded upon across the Guru Granth Sahib. In today’s era, although we may never find ourselves in the same circumstances as our Misl-era ancestors and Shaheeds, there is much to take away from their sacrifices. Commitment, conviction and dedication to the supreme and ultimate truth is arguably the forerunner of ideals. No matter the circumstance, Gurmat argues to stand your ground for the persistence and upholding of truthful ethics and morals. Whether we may find our struggles at home, school or work, remember in working earnestly, justly and for the progression of your cause in the most truthful way possible. Let Bhai Tara Singh’s Shaheedi signify safety. Let Bhai Mani Singh’s Shaheedi signify truthful pursuits. Let Bhai Bota Singh’s and Bhai Garja Singh’s Shaheedis signify the right of existence. Let Bhai Taru Singh’s Shaheedi signify reality. Let Bhai Subeg Singh and Bhai Shahbaz Singh’s Shaheedis signify contentment. Let Baba Deep Singh’s Shaheedi signify obligation. And let Baba Gurbakhsh Singh’s Shaheedi signify commitment. 


1 All dates are cited from the respective reference entries in Harbans Singh, et. al, The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Vols. 1-4, Punjabi University, Patiala.

2 Harbans Singh, et. al. (2004). “Tara Singh, Bhai” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume IV [S-Z], pg. 310-311.

3 Harbans Singh, et. al. (2011). “Mani Singh, Bhai” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume III [M-R], pg. 39-40.

4 Harbans Singh, et. al. (2002). “Bota Singh” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume I [A-D], pg. 387-388.

5a Harbans Singh, et. al. (2004). “Taru Singh, Bhai” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume IV [S-Z], pg. 325-326.

5b Harbans Singh, et. al. (2002). “Akil Das” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume I [A-D], pg. 72.

6a Harbans Singh, et. al. (2004). “Subeg Singh” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume IV [S-Z], pg. 257.

6b Harbans Singh, et. al. (2004). “Shahbaz Singh” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume IV [S-Z], pg. 93.

7 Harbans Singh, et. al. (2002). “Dip Singh Shahid, Baba” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume I [A-D], pg. 587-588.

8 Harbans Singh, et. al. (2011). “Gurbakhsh Singh, Bhai” in The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume II [E-L], pg. 131.


Anmol Singh Rode

Anmol Singh Rode is a researcher and historian based out of Toronto, Canada and specializes in Panjabi and Sikh military history during the Misl-era [1720s-1799] and the World Wars [1914-1918, 1939-1945]. He emphasizes and works towards Gurmat-Academic integration, diasporic interpretation, cultural dialogue and Sikh intellectualism.

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