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Analysing the relations between the Sikhs and the hill Rajas in history through Miniature Art

Manmeet Kaur

The relationship between Sikhism and the northern Hill States dates back to Guru Nanak\’s travels and has only grown stronger since then. Most intellectuals only contemplate the impact of these factors during the Maharajah Ranjit Singh era of the Sikh Empire, disregarding the connections of the last five Sikh Gurus who periodically visited, lived in, and/or worked in the Hilly regions. As Sikh influence grew in the Punjab Plains and Hills and swayed the Rajput aristocracy in the second half of the eighteenth century, the misldars of the Sikh faith maintained ties with the hill region via the rakhi system in order to collect tax protection money.


Cultures and traditions from the hills and the plains had mutually influenced one another because the northern hilly area had once been a part of erstwhile greater Punjab. These two great Indian kings, Maharaja Sansar Chand (1766-1823) and Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), were the icons of their period. They were the great patrons of arts and cultures. Kangra being the most essential pillar of arts and culture in the 18th century, during the reign of Maharaja Sansar Chand. After Maharaja Ranjit Singh conquered Kangra in 1809, Sikh influences and trends became popular at hills and influences of the Kangra style of miniature painting started flourishing in Punjab plains. The Kangra-Guler and Sikh themes merged to create the Kangra-Sikh style we know today. However, the Sikh style\’s simplicity, loneliness, and formalism set it apart from Kangra miniature paintings until the end of the 19th century.


Indeed, the Sikhs knew something about art and painting as well. During the Sikh era of dominance in the Punjab Plains, the court painters of Guler depicted the opulent lifestyle and fashionable dress of the Sikhs of Lahore. However, the study also seeks to understand the Sikh way of life before, during, and after Maharaja Ranjit Singh and its effect on the hill Rajas as a result of Sikh-Hill relationships. Artwork from both civilisations shows how the two ways of life affected and melded with one another.


This artistic upheaval in the Punjab plains was a direct descendant of the great Himalayan or Pahari School of art and a contemporary of the Sikh school of arts, which itself built on the foundation set by the great Himalayan or Pahari style in the late nineteenth century. While the majority of Sikh art depicts religious figures like gurus and janasakhis, the subject matter of Pahari paintings was much more varied. The artist\’s depictions of the intimate relationship between Sikhs and hill rajas expanded to include scenes from courtly life. It wasn\’t just a record of what was going on but it also revealed the influences and shifts that were taking place in the hills and plains of Punjab through the modifications reflected in things like clothing, jewellery and the fashion of wearing sword belts over the shoulder, turbans, beards, and robs. While in Punjab, we saw an increase in the appearance of military uniforms, weavers, people sitting cross-legged, and other such sights.


As a result of mutual influence and modification, two distinct cultural styles evolved. Although the paintings\’ overall feel is Rajput in origin, the pervasive Sikh influence is clear due to the manipulation or alteration of the exterior features of the aristocracy throughout history. Although the external Sikh influences were not sufficient to completely transform Rajput culture, the Rajputs eventually adapted to and incorporated these influences into their life, so losing their distinctive cultural heritage. The Hill kings and their courtiers favoured the Sikh appearance both in everyday life and at formal events. After the Sikh conquest, the common pahari’s continued to be influenced by the religion and culture of the Sikhs. The Sikh regime collapsed after Punjab was annexed by the British, the art of miniature painting flourished in the Punjab Hills thanks to royal patronage and continued to be practised until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, where it retained its Sikh influences and the image of the Maharaja throughout. To this day, academics continue to recall Ranjit Singh and the splendour of the Sikh Lahore court and the majesty of the Sikh Maharaja.

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