The janam-sākhīs (literally ‘birth testimonies’) or prose hagiographies of Gurū Nānak (1469–1539), consist of collections of anecdotes drawn from the life of the first Gurū of the Sikhs. They exist in several versions and were initially transmitted orally among the faithful. The first known recording of janam-sākhī material dates back to the early 17th century.

The manuscript of the B40 Janam-sākhī

This manuscript, known as the B40 Janam-sākhī, takes its name from the catalogue number assigned to it by the India Office Library following its acquisition in 1907. The text is in Gurmukhī script and the work includes 57 full and half-page coloured illustrations which accompany the sākhīs. The scribe records that the manuscript was commissioned by a certain Bhāī Saṅgū Mal. He gives his own name as Daiā Rām Abrolu, and identifies the artist as Ālam(u)cand Rāj. The date of completion is given as 3 Bhādroṃ sudī Samvat 1790, a date corresponding to 31 August 1733.

What is its significance?

The B40 Janam-sākhī is thought to be the third oldest extant illustrated janam-sākhī manuscript. The presence of a colophon containing information on the date of completion and the names of the scribe and the artist (identified as a mason by caste), as well as the patron who commissioned it, provide important historical evidence that is not available for other janam-sākhī manuscripts. Different versions of the sākhīs, built upon oral traditions which in all likelihood had begun to circulate during Gurū Nānak’s lifetime, started to be recorded. The janam-sākhīs now available to us may be grouped into a number of ‘traditions’; the most important being the Purātan, the Miharbān and the Bālā traditions, as well as a version known as the Ādi Sākhīs. Within these different traditions, various stages of evolution in the structure of the stories can be identified.

Although the B40 Janam-sākhī is of relatively late date and is an 18th-century manuscript, the text represents a primitive collection of sākhīs, closely related to the Purātan tradition, making it fundamentally a 17th-century janam-sākhī in content. In its later portions elements from the other traditions are also found.