Musicological Study of Sri Guru Granth Sahib

Dr. Kirpal Singh*

@ Connotation of ¡®Musicology¡¯, according to New World Webster¡¯s Dictionary, is "The systematised study of the science, history and methods of music."

* Former Professor and Head of History Dept., Punjabi University, Patiala. Res:1288, Sector 15B, Chandigarh. 160015.

It has been recorded in the Janamsakhi (Bhai Mani Singh) that Guru Nanak was sitting under a tree on the outskirts of Baghdad. He started singing Shabad to the tune of Mardana¡¯s rabab. This attracted the curious crowd which resented the intrusion, since praying in musical tunes is forbidden according to tenets of Islam. Pir Dastgir, the priest of Baghdad came there, addresseed the Guru, "Music tends to divert the mind towards enjoyment of senses. It is, therefore, not proper to use it for holy communion." Guru replied, "Musical sounds originates from God. It is holy in every sense. The best way to worship God is to blend the divine word with holy music. The music for worship is higher than the type of singing indulged in by some for entertainment."1 Guru Ram Das, the fourth Guru has elaborated:

Of all the raags2, Brother, that one is the best

Through which mind gets attuned to God

True is the raag and melody of God, its value is beyond description3

SGGS: 1423

It is believed that air and water were created first on earth. For some time winds blew all over the globe creating two distinct notes - high and low. In this music of Heaven creation was made. Therefore, music is in all the creatures. There is music in the soul of every human being. Therefore, the Sikh Gurus adopted music as a medium for giving their sermons:

There are thirty one ragas in the Adi Guru Granth Sahib. They are in the following order: 1. Sri Rag, 2. Majh Rag, 3. Gauri Rag, 4. Asa Rag, 5. Gujari Rag, 6. Dev Gandhari Rag, 7. Bihagra Rag, 8. Wadhans Rag, 9. Rag Sarath, 10. Rag Dhanasari, 11. Jaitsri Rag, 12. Rag Todi, 13. Rag Bhairavi, 14. Rag Tilang, 15. Rag Suhi, 16, Rag Bilawal, 17. Rag Gaund, 18. Rag Ramkali, 19. Nat Narain, 20. Mali Gaura, 21. Rag Maru, 22. Rag Tukhari, 23. Rag Kedara, 24. Rag Bhairo, 25. Rag Basant, 26. Rag Sarang, 27. Rag Malar, 28. Rag Kanra, 29. Rag Kalyan, 30. Rag Prabhati, 31. Jai Jaiwanti.

According to an old mythology, recorded in the Sanskrit texts, the following six ragas were produced by Mahadeva and his wife Parvati - first five were created by Mahadeva and sixth by Parvati.4 The six principal ragas were:

1. Sri rag, 2. Vasant Rag, 3. Bhairavi Rag, 4. Panchama Rag, 5. Megh Rag, and 6. Nat Narayan Rag.5

According to the version noted above Rag Gauri is the variation of Sri Rag, and Todi the variation of Basant Kalyan that is variation of Nat Narain.5 But the Sikh Gurus have treated all thirtyone ragas as separate entities. Nor the Sikh Gurus have classified them as Ragas and Raginis.

For singing of the hymns of the Rig Veda, a separate Veda, namely, Sam Veda was composed. But in the case of Guru Granth Sahib, no separate volume for singing of holy hymns was needed. In most of the hymns in the Adi Granth except Japji, Bhattan De Swayyas, etc. indication of Raga, the author of hymn and its method of singing in the form of Gharu are given. Gharu, according to Bhai Kahn Singh, means Taal and computation of Swar or Murchhana in relation to Sargam Pras of Raga.6 In Iran, Gharu is called ¡®Gah¡¯.

Another significant features of Guru Granth Sahib is combining music with the sacred verses. It has been stated by Nathan, a renowned author of European music that ¡®unaided by good poetry spell of music is partly broken... Pure composition unites music and poetry in dissoluble bond. And so intimate is their connection, so equal their value, so indispensable the strictness of their union that rules of sense and propriety render them to echo of each other."7 Keeping in view effectiveness of poetry and music, Sikh Gurus combined music with poetry.

During fourteenth century, Amir Khusro introduced Sitar and Tabla in Indian music and invented composition such as Qual (now Qawali) and Tarana by combining Persian and Indian melodies.8 He wrote a number of treatises which are of special interest to musicologists. While this Indo-Muslim cultural contact were being made in the north of India, there developed a schism between North Indian Hindustani style and South Indian or Karnataka style became rigidly fixed during sixteenth century.9 It was reserved for Guru Nanak during sixteenth century to bring South Indian Ragas to North and combined them. In Adi Granth we find Ramkali Dakhani, Gauri Dakhani, Vad-hans Dakhani, etc.

Guru Arjun ushered a new era in the history of religious integration of mankind when he declared that true religion consists of two things only - Love of God and Purity of conduct:

Sagal Dharam mein shrest dharam

Har kau Naam jap nirmal karm

SGGS: Sukhmani

There are about half a dozen Muslim saints, low caste cobbler, weaver and washerman saints whose contributions have been included in the Adi Granth. Toynbee has - rightly - stated: ¡®To have discovered and embraced the deep harmony underlying the historic Hindu-Muslim discord has been a noble spiritual triumph.10 Similarly, Hindu and Muslim ragas have been integrated in the Sikh scriptures. Amir Khusro, the celebrated Persian poet and musician took active interest in development of Indian music. By judicious combination of Persian Makamat and Indian raga, he introduced many derivative melodies. "He introduced new ragas in India viz, Yaman, Firdos, Farzana, Sarpada, Zilaph and many others."11

Guru Arjun has included Yaman Raga in Guru Granth Sahib with the Indian name Kalyan Raga. The Sanskrit name of the Rag is Kalyan and Persian name is Yaman.12 It is 29th raga in the Holy Granth. Among the Chaukis of Kirtan at Hari Mandir Sahib, Amritsar. Kalyan Chowki comes the last, as prescribed by Guru Arjun.13

Gurubani - a Symphony of Ragas: There are various strands of the spectrum of the ragas14 in the Guru Granth Sahib. It is not the music of the singing people. It is a symphony of singing birds and tunes of different countries and melodies of various regions. Besides this a large number of folk tunes and metres from different regions and localities have been used. All these contribute to make a distinct element in the evolution of various branches of music.

Raga named after birds: In the evolution of music, nature and singing birds have played a significant part. In the primitive state of society nothing interested a man more than song of the birds or cries of wildlife. It has been rightly stated ¡®the sounds of animated nature, especially the song of birds, delighted the ancient man and greatly contributed towards the formation of various tunes. It is for this reason that several ragas in the Adi Granth are named after the birds.

1. Rag Bihagrah (pp. 537-556)

Rag Bihag or Bihagrah derives its name from a bird named Bihag.15 This raga is sung in the calm and quiet environment of midnight. It is very sweet and impressive measure which makes us aware of separation and loneliness at midnight and produces in us an inclination to seek unity with the Lord. It is a complete rage of Bilawal Thaat.16

2. Rag Sarang (pp. 1197-1253)

Sarang is a kind of Indian Cuckoo which is believed to drink only rain drops. It is said that it is cool by nature which provides coolth and solace to human mind and puts an end to its wanderings. It is generally sung during the third pahar of the day, i.e. in the afternoon. In the Harimandir Sahib at Amritsar, Sarang di Chauki of Kirtan follows Bilawal di Chauki. It is also said that the hymns sung in this measure cause cessation of all thirst and hunger of mind and leads it to equipoise.

3. Rag Wad-hans (557-594)

Wad-hans is a bird of Swan family. It is known to have discriminating power which can separate milk from water. Wadhans is the eight in the series of ragas used in the Guru Granth Sahib. It can be sung at noon or at midnight. "Ghoris¡¯ which reflect the singer¡¯s joy, and ¡®Alahnian¡¯ which reflect sorrow, are prescribed to be sung in this measure. Fiftythree shabads and many slokas are on record in Sri Guru Granth Sahib representing this raga.17

Ragas named after tribes

In the earliest phase of the history of mankind, there used to be settlement in tribes. The people of one tribe used to live together in order to meet the challenges of wild animals as well as their rivals in the tribal warfare. Some of the tribes used to sing in a particular way. Through centuries their tunes were harmonised and developed into various ragas symbolising the name of their tribes. There are two such ragas in the Adi Guru Granth that represent the tribal origin:

1. Raga Gujari (pp 489-526)

This raga has been developed from the tribe of Gurjaras18 popularly known as Gujar. This tribe has given to India the state called Gujarat. Also Gujarat is a district headquarter in West Punjab (Pakistan). It is the fifth raga in Guru Granth. It is more popular in the northern and central India. It is sung around noon.

2. Raga Bhairvi (pp. 1125-1167)

Another raga based on tribal origin was Bhairvi or Bhairow which was named after Bhairo tribe.19 Bhairavis consisted six measures and has 14 octaves. It is generally sung in the morning. It creates a pleasant and charming atmosphere and provides ecstacy to human heart. 99 hymns are sung by four Gurus in this raga. Kabir¡¯s, Namdev¡¯s and Ravidas¡¯ hymns are also included in this raga.

Ragas belonging to other regions:

Rag Tukhari (pp 1107-1117)

Guru Granth is the only source from where we learn that India had cordial relations with Tukhar country which, according to Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India, by Nandu Lal Dey was the country north of Afghanistan. This measure is sung in the afternoon or in the morning hours in winters. Guru Nanak, Guru Ram Dass and Guru Arjun used this raga.*

Rag Kalyan (pp. 1319-1326)

This was introduced by Amir Khusro, the celebrated Persian poet and musician. He introduced many ragas. The most popular of which was Yaman which is a Persian name.20 Its Sanskrit name is Kalyan. Kalyan measure produces joy in the heart and is generally sung during the hours following dusk. Only Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjun Dev have composed hymns in this measure. There are several variations of this raga. From the time when Guru Arjun Dev gave names to the different Chaukis of Kirtan at the Harimandir Sahib, the last chauki of Kirtan has been known as Kalian Di Chauki.21

Rag Majh (pp. 194-150)

This raga is said to have been born from the folk tunes set to music popular in the Majha (a region of Punjab). It is thus a pure Punjabi raga invented and attributed to Guru Nanak. When the hymns composed by the Gurus in chaste Punjabi, measure, the ecstasy thus produced in hearts of the listeners is beyond words. Guru Arjun Dev, in one of his hymns Bara Maha has depicted the mental state of man during all the twelve months of the year.22

Rag Sorath (pp. 595-659)

This raga derives its origin from Saurashtra region which is now a part of Gujarat state. It is sung in quiet midnight hour and creates cheerfulness. Its pleasing sound resembles Raga Desh.23

Raga Todi (pp. 711-718)

According to B. Chaintanya Deva, its original name is Turushoka Todi which is a foreign name.24 Todi has been a popular measure, widely accepted in the royal courts. It is considered one of the most important of the north Indian ragas. The bards used to sing, in this measure, the eulogies of their patrons, kings and thereby received material gifts and gain from them. In the Guru Granth Sahib, it has been used in 32 shabads to praise the supreme Lord.25

Seasonal Ragas:

Raga Basant (pp 1168-1196)

Some ragas have been divided into six forms and intended to be sung in different seasons of the year. Bhairvi is sing summer. Megh or Malhar in rainy season. Pancham in autumn, Narnarayan in early winter, Sri in winter and Basant in spring. In Sri Guru Granth, it has been recorded ¡®with spring all vegetation is in bloom¡¯:

Banaspat mauli charhia Basant

In Sri Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, on the day of Basant Panchmi, the ragis. Every group of musicians (Ragi Jatha) start the music by singing Basant Raga. This practice continues uptil first day of Vaisakh when Basant Rag is given farewell. Spring (Basant) season is the best of all seasons because during this period one can perceive novelty, colorfulness and joy in every part of the earth. Joyfulness in nature provides pleasure even to dejected souls. Basant measures also imbibe this kind of bliss in human heart. This measure can be sung at any hour during the spring season but preferably it is sung either at night or three house after sunrise. It has relevance and proximity with Indian culture since olden times.

Rag Malhar (pp. 1254-1293)

This is a seasonal raga sung during rainy season. It has been stated in the Sri Guru Granth:

Malhar shital rag hai hridaya shant hoé

(Soothing in the measure Malhar, meditation on God whereby brings serenity)

SGGS: 283

It is common saying that if the month of Sawan (July-August) is taken out of the calendar, nothing remains behind. It makes clear that the said month is immensely valuable to human life from all aspects. And when Malhar measure is sung during the days of monsoons, it adds further to its splendour. Malhar measures reflects the aspirations of human mind. It provides new desires, new aspirations and joys. Guru Amar Das states in quite unequivocal terms that this measure is of cool temper. It can be sung at any time during the rainy season but otherwise it is sung in the afternoon (third pahar, i.e. portion of the day).26

Sri Raga (pp. 14-93)

In the classical system of ragas, Sri Raga is the first rag. Sri Raga is the first musical measure used in the Guru Granth Sahib and it covers pages 14 to 93 comprising 142 shabads. It is very old but complex raga of the traditional India measures. Only competent and proficient musicians can sing this raga. It is generally sung in the evening. It is considered one of the most famous from among the North Indian classical systems.28 Four Guru (1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th) and two Bhagtas (Kabir and Beni) used this raga.

Rag Gauri (pp. 12-13 and 151-346)

There are two views about the origin of the name of this raga - one that it originated in Bengal and, secondly, Gauri was the wife of Siva, the mythical originator of Sri Raga. It appears that both these ragas are named after goddesses. Hence Gauri raga occupies a very significant place in the evolution of Indian music. Maximum number of hymns have been composed in this measure; reason for this is perhaps the serious nature of the raga. Thus, all serious and sober themes have been dealt with under this measure. The Bani included in the Guru Granth Sahib frees humanmind of evil and endeavours to restore pristine glory to individual self. The accomplishment of this aim is rather difficult. Endeavour has to be made seriously and sincerely. Hymns in the Guru Granth Sahib have been set to twelve different forms of Gauri measure. Such as Gauri Purabi, Gauri Dipaki, Gauri Majh, Gauri Sukhmani, etc. It is an evening raga assigned to autumn and its mood is contemplative.29

Rag Asa (8-12 and 247-488)

It is interesting to note that Raga Asa is not found in the old books of music, like Rag Darpan or Rag Deepika. Nor modern writer, Prof. S. Bandyopadhyaya mentioned it in his book ¡®Origin of Ragas¡¯. Some people surmise that this raga owes its origin to Guru Nanak the founder of Sikhism. Either way it is one of the most important ragas of Guru Granth Sahib. The Asa Di Var is recited daily in all the Gurdwaras including Harimandir Sahib, Amritsar. This is a measure which fulfills desires and which is sung early in the morning when the entire nature enjoys the ecstasy of ambrosial hours. It is also sung around dusk to satiate one¡¯s soul. It is known as a ¡®twilight melody¡¯ inducing a calm mystical mood. Its pleasing and charming sound attracts everyone. Among the contributors who have composed their hymns in this musical measure are: Guru Nanak Dev, Guru Angad Dev, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjun Dev and Guru Tegh Bahadur. Besides hymns of Bhagat Kabir, Bhagat Namdev, Bhagat Ravidas, Bhagat Dhanna and Baba Sheikh Farid have also been included in this raga.

Folk Music

Ths Sikh Gurus had most intimate connection with the masses. Therefore, they never lost sight of folk music. Like the Greek people there had been custom in Punjab to eulogise the bravery of a hero in the form of an ode which was called Var. They had their particular tunes for singing these vars. In the Adi Guru Granth, there are twentytwo vars. Their main subject is praise of God. About nine vars of Guru Arjun, the fifth Guru,30 indicated the then popular tunes in which they were to be sung. The indications of tunes has been given in the beginning of var. Only in the case of Asa Di Var, it has been recommended that it should be sung in tune of Raja Tunda Asraja. There are eight more such indications for singing eight different vars. These popular tunes were sung in the praise of heroic deeds of nobles who fought for moral causes. Their suffering and ultimate victory over evil inspired musicians to compose these vars which were very popular in those days. As already noted, the main theme of the vars included in Guru Granth Sahib is the praise of God.

Besides vars, the Gurus used the folk tunes of ¡®Ghorian¡¯ which are sung by the ladies when bridegroom would ride the mare, or ghori. Similarly, there were four lavan which are now used for marriage ceremony. There is also Alahia metre which is used for morning song. The Guru used these metres but with changed contents. These metres have been based on spirituality. The Gurus only used folk metres to convey their message of spiritual elevation.

* A more plausible interpretation is "Tushari", meaning fulfilment. - Ed. SR


1. Sikh Sacred Music, The Sikh Sacred Music Society, New Delhi, 1907, p. 38.

2. William and Gangy dispute the usual translation of Raga by mode. According to Sir S.M. Tagore ¡®There is no corresponding term in English for Raga. Quoted in Abul Fazal Ain-I-Akbari, 1493, Asiatic Society, Calcutta Ch. III, 1993. p. 263 (footnote).

3. "Sabna raga vich so bhala bhai jo vassiya man aiye. Rag nad sab sach hai kimat kai na jai",
¡ª G.G. Hira.

4. Abdul Fazal, Ain-I-Akbari, Vol III (Chapter Sangita) Asiatic Society, Calcutta 1993. p. 263.

5. Ibid., p. 264.

6. Mahakosh, Bhai Kahn Singh, Language Deptt., Patiala.

7. Quoted in Sourindro Mohan Tagore¡¯s Six Principal Ragas (Delhi 1982) Introduction, page 33.

8. Indian Music: History and Structure, by Emurie Te Nije Ledien Kopon, E.J. Brill, India. p. 7-8.

9. Ibid. p.9.

10. Arnold Toynbee, Selections from the Sacred Writing of the Sikhs, London, p. 10.

11. The Origin of Raga, Prof. S. Bandyopadhyaya, Principal Bharatiya Sangeet Vidyalay, Delhi, p.23-24.

12. Sarup Singh Alag. An introduction to Guru Granth Sahib, Ludhiana 1999, p. 293.

13. Ibid.

14. The credit for introducing the word Raga undoubtedly goes to Kalidasa - concept of Raga singing had developed already. V. Premalatha, ¡®Music through the Ages¡¯, Sandeep Parkashan, Delhi, p. 338.

15. Giri Raj Shah, Indian Heritage, Delhi, 1982, p. 152.

16. Sarup Singh Alag. Introduction to Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Ludhiana, Oct, 1999, p. 271.

17. Sarup Singh Alag, cit.op. p. 272.

18. Giri Raj Shah, Indian Heritage, Delhi, 1982, p. 152.

19. Giri Raj Shah, Indian Heritage, Delhi, 1982, p. 152 also see Indian Music, Chaitanya Deva, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, p. 8.

20. Prof. S. Bandyopadhyaya, The origin of Ragas, Delhi, p. 23-24.

21. Sarup Singh Alag, cit.op., p. 293.

22. Ibid., p. 267.

23. Ibid., p. 274.

24. Indian Music, B. Chaitanya Deva, Indian Council of Cultural Relations, p. 8.

25. Sarup Singh Alag, cit.op. p. 276.

26. Ibid., p. 266.

27. Ayeen-e-akbari, Abul Fazal - translated by Francis Gladewin. Quoted in ¡®The Origin of Raga¡¯, Prof. S. Bandyopadhyaya, Delhi, p. 31.

28. Sarup Singh Alag, cit.op. p. 267.

29. Ibid., p. 268-269.

30. Some writers are of the view that these tunes had been added by Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru. But Bhai Kahn Singh in his Mahakosh has stated that these tunes were added by Guru Arjun Dev.