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Kirtan Jatha - Late Giani Harjit Singh in Kenya around 1960's

Gurbani Kirtan or Shabad Kirtan simply Kirtan refers to Sikh devotional music that originated in the Hindu tradition as loving songs sung to God. Kirtan is also one of the important aspects of Sikhism that refers to the singing of the Sacred Hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib accompanied by music. The Sikhs place huge value on this type of singing and a Sikh is expected to listen to and/or sing Guru-Kirtan as frequently as possible.

Traditionally the music used to accompany Kirtan has been Indian Classical Music, which is based on Ragas and taal (rhythmic beat patterns). Traditionally the Indian musical instruments the Harmonium and Tabla have been used for this type of music. The Sikh scripture contains 31 Ragas and 17 talas which form the basis for Kirtan musical compositions.

While most Hindus and Sikhs devoutly sing Kirtan in its more traditional form, there are smaller groups that experiment with incorporation of non-Indian instruments such as the guitar. Some have even interspersed Western themes like jazz into the mix.

The Guru has pronounced that Kirtan is the magical formula to keep the human soul afloat in the dark era of Kaljug provided the devotee sings the pure melodies with his or her heart closely focused on the meaning and true spirit of the Gurbani thus:

ਕਲਜੁਗ ਮਹਿ ਕੀਰਤਨੁ ਪਰਧਾਨਾ ॥ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਜਪੀਐ ਲਾਇ ਧਿਆਨਾ ॥
Kaljug meh kīrṯan parḝẖĝnĝ. Gurmukẖ japī­ai lĝ­ė ḝẖi­ĝnĝ.
In this Dark Age of Kali Yuga, the Kirtan of the Lord's Praises are most sublime and exalted.
Become Gurmukh, chant and focus your meditation.

Importance of Kirtan

Of inestimable significance is the composition of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (“SGGS”) in Divine Poetry. Lovers of God invariably choose to express and communicate their mystic experiences in this language of love, language of spirit. Musicality adopted in the composition is also unique. It awakens deeper layers of human heart and consciousness. It encompasses what is otherwise indescribable and incommunicable. Divine wisdom is laced with sweet melodious fragrance. This divine melody tunes the soul with Rhythm Eternal.

It is all composed in mystic poetry. It was cast into 31 musical measures (Ragas). It is a natural flow of the divine ecstasy of Lovers of God. Language used being the spoken language of the people is simple and easily understandable. Music is the medium of expression of deep spirituality. It is natural outcome and flow of religion of love. It transports others also to the realm of divinity. He thus passed on an inexhaustible treasure of Celestial Music and an inexhaustible divine source of Holy Kirtan for posterity. He preaches the whole range of spirituality with his lyrical power, singing the Glory of the Lord to the accompaniment of a Tambura (a musical instrument) with the touch of His Holy Hands.

His Grace flows in torrents through these hymns and fills the hearts with intense devotion, stimulates humility and stirs Amrit Nam latent in the soul.

The influence of Holy Kirtan is deep, profound and divine. Kirtan transports one to the Abode of the Lord. It lifts one out of time and space. It blesses one with a true glimpse of divinity.

In this Dark Age (Kaliyuga) fruition of life lies in singing the praises and glory of the Lord (Holy Kirtan).

Holy Kirtan acts as a powerful arrow piercing through the heart. This is the way the Guru injects love and purity through His powerful Bani.


The Holy Sikh Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (“SGGS”) is the main spiritual authority for the Sikhs. The Sikhs hold unique high regards for their Granth (“scripture”), which is treated as a living Guru (“religious master”). When Kirtan is sung, the lyrics are normally lines from the SGGS.

The Shabads (“Hymns”) of the Sikh Scriptures are primarily arranged in Chapters, which are names of musical Ragas (“ musical theme”). So the main Sikh Holy Scripture is arranged in chapters that bear names of musical ragas. Each of these Ragas is unique and all the Shabads in that Chapter have to be sung in that particular Raga. The title of the Shabad also has a numeric notation, which many believe gives the singers a clear idea of the Tala or musical rhythm or beat that needs to be used for that hymn.

Also See Sikh Kirtan, Raga, Taal

Below is the English Translation from page 14 of the SGGS:

  • raag sireeraag mehlaa pahilaa 1 ghar 1. (Raag Siree Raag, First Section, First House:)
    • If I had a palace made of pearls, inlaid with jewels,
    • Scented with musk, saffron and sandalwood, a sheer delight to behold
    • Seeing this, I might go astray and forget You, and Your Name would not enter into my mind. ||1||

You will notice that the Shabad begins with “Raag Sireeraag” – Siree Raga is an important raga in Indian Classical Music. Further you will notice that the first line ends with ‘ghar 1’ – this conveys to musicians, the Tala or musical beat or rhythms to be used for that Shabad.

Kirtan Tradition

Real Kirtan is performed through words, mind and actions.

The Sikh tradition of Kirtan-Gurmat Sangeet-started by Guru Nanak at Kartarpur in 1521 was strengthened by his successors and particularly by Guru Arjan at Amritsar. In spite of several interruptions, kirtan continued to be performed at the Golden Temple and other historical Gurdwaras with due attention to raga, taal and dhuni.

Sikh Musicians

There are three types of Sikh musicians, all of which continued to flourish during the period of the Gurus:

Guru Nanak started the rababi tradition by engaging Bhai Mardana as his accompanist-musician. Formerly the Muslim singers were known as Mirasis, but Guru Nanak gave them a new name - rababis, because they played on the rabab (rebec) and adopted the Sikh way of life in food, dress and manners. Some of the notable rababis after Mardana were his son Shahjada. Balwand and Satta, Babak - son of Satta, Chatra - the son of Babak, and Saddu and Baddu - the rababis used to perform kirtan regularly at Amritsar before India was Partitioned in 1947. The last of the line of rababis was Bhai Chand whose kirtan the author had the privilege of listening to, before 1947. After the Partition of India, the rababis migrated to Pakistan, the line of rababis is almost dying out without Sikh patronage.

The second type of musicians, ragis, were the amateur singers whom Guru Arjan encouraged to perform kirtan in order to avoid dependence on professional rababis. Some of the bards (bhatts) at the Court of Guru Arjan, whose compositions are included in the Scripture, became ragis and did kirtan before the congregations at different centres. Early in the eighteenth century, Bhai Jassa Singh Ahluwalia - the great warrior-performed kirtan at Mata Sundri’s residence at Delhi, after the passing away of Guru Gobind Singh.

Kirtan at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, was discontinued (on account of the persecution and atrocities of Muslim rulers) for many years in the eighteenth century. When the Sikh missals (confederacies) obtained control of Amritsar, kirtan was restarted at the Golden Temple. Bhai Mansa Singh ragi performed kirtan at the Golden Temple during the regime of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Bhai Sham Singh Adanshabi did kirtan at the Golden Temple for more than seventy years. Outside Amritsar, Sant Attar Singh, Bhai Sujan Singh, Bhai Randhir Singh and his groups proved to be devoted kirtaniyas who did commendable missionary work.

The ragi group generally consists of three persons: one plays the tabla or jori (pair of drums) seldom participating in the singing; the other plays the harmonium, and the third plays a stringed instrument or harmonium or cymbals. The leader of the group sits in the centre and the group is known by his or her name. Even today, ragi-groups are employed by the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to perform kirtan in relays at the Golden Temple and at some historic Gurdwaras in the Punjab. Some of the travelling ragi-parties continue to perform kirtan in different parts of the world where there is a concentration of Sikh residents. Some groups of American Sikhs are particularly devoted to kirtan and sing hymns every morning in their Ashrams or in the local Gurdwara on holidays.

Guru Hargobind first employed the third types of musicians called dhadhis early in the seventeenth century. He instructed them to sing heroic ballads (vaars) in his court to inspire the Sikhs to acts of valour and heroism. Bhai Abdulla - expert in playing the Sarangi, and Bhai Natha - player of dhadh (a small hand-drum) were quite popular. As the clash with tyrannical Muslim rulers appeared imminent the dhadhi-groups performed before the sangat and groups of Sikh soldiers. These groups subsequently became very popular all over the Punjab on account of the use of folk tunes and their zealous and emotional style of singing. These folk singers had hardly any knowledge of Hindustani classical music, but their appeal to the masses was irresistible. A dhadhi group consists of two or three singers, one playing on the sarangi, another playing on the dhadh, and the third may be their leader, discoursing on the contents of their songs. Though they are expected to sing vaars of the Scripture, they usually sing their own poetic compositions on the daring exploits of Sikh warriors and martyrs. One of the famous dhadhi-jathas was that of Bhai Kishen Singh Kartor. Sohan Singh Seetal is also a well-known dhadhi.

Kirtan Tradition

The tradition of kirtan developed over the period of the ten Gurus is as follows:

  • Hymns from the following compositions only are permitted in kirtan: Adi Granth, Dasam Granth, vaars and kabits of Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Nandlal’s poems.
  • The kirtan-group is generally seated on the right side of the palki of Guru Granth Sahib. No special seats or cushions are provided for the singers. However, in big diwans (Assemblies), the use of platform or dais is allowed, provided it is lower than the palki (seat) of Guru Granth Sahib. This is done to enable the ragis and the congregation to have full view of one another.
  • In the morning, kirtan of entire Asa-di-var (24 chhants, salokas and pauris) is completed. The singing of Asa-di-var is not to be interrupted by katha (exposition of a random hymn read from the Scripture) or lecture.
  • Appropriate compositions of Gurbani are sung at certain functions. For example at the time of Anand Karaj (Sikh Wedding) Lavan, Anand and suitable shabads ar sung. At the funeral of a Sikh, appropriate shabads relating to death are sung. Kirtan Sohila is recited before cremating the dead body.
  • Every hymn should be sung in the indicated raga and tala. The singer should use the appropriate laya, tan and palta. However, he must not forget the rasa and the appropriate ethos, mood and spirit of the hymn.
  • Vars should be sung as indicated in the Scripture. For example Gauri var should be sung in Gauri raga, Ramkali var in Ramkali raga, with appropriate dhuni if indicated.
  • Display of musical skill and excess of alaap and tan are not permitted, as they tend to make the minds of singers and listeners mercurial and unstable.
  • Correct pronunciation and intonation of Gurbani is essential so that the audience may understand the wording and the meaning of the hymn. The singer is not supposed to introduce any words of his own or make interpolations in Gurbani [1]. The use of extra words like ha, ji, wahwah, piyara, etc., is against the spirit of Gurmat.
  • The raga-technique and the sounds of instruments are subordinated to the singing of the hymn. What is brought out prominently by the musician is the Gurbani and its rasa, and not the musical expertise. Parallel quotations (parmans) to illustrate the theme are permitted during the kirtan.
  • Any hymn that has been commenced should be completed. Lack of time is no reason for stopping the singing of a hymn before it is finished.
  • No kirtan is permitted during Akhand Path (continuous reading of the Scripture).
  • The listeners should not make offerings (donations) to the musicians while the kirtan is in progress. Offerings can be made at the end of the kirtan. The best way is one followed by Sufi Congregations, where the listeners make the offerings to the president of the function or the organiser who respectfully hands over the collections to the leader of the music-group at the conclusion of the function. No ragi should interrupt his kirtan to acknowledge a donation or offering, nor should he mention the name of the donor. He should make a collective acknowledgement of the offerings at the end of the kirtan. This procedure is in accordance with Resolution No. 5 dated 2nd January 1976 of the Kirtan Sub-Committee of the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar. It is absolutely forbidden to interrupt the performance of any kirtan to praise a donor or office-bearer of the Gurdwara or a distinguished visitor by name, as it is against Gurmat (Guru’s instructions).

Ragas in Kirtan

Ragas have a direct relationship to human moods and the following are the connections between Ragas and feeling:

  • 1. Soohi - joy and separation
  • 2. Bilaaval - happiness
  • 3. Gaund - strangeness, surprise, beauty
  • 4. Sri - satisfaction and balance
  • 5. Maajh - loss, beautification
  • 6. Gauri - seriousness
  • 7. Aasa - making effort
  • 8. Gujri - satisfaction, softness of heart, sadness
  • 9. Devgandhari - no specific feeling but the Raag has a softness
  • 10. Bihaagra - beautification
  • 11. Sorath - motivation
  • 12. Dhanasari - inspiration, motivation
  • 13. Jaitsree - softness, satisfaction, sadness
  • 14. Todi - this being a flexible Raag it is apt for communicating many feelings
  • 15. Bhairaagi - sadness, (Gurus have, however, used it for the message of *Bhakti)
  • 16. Tilang - this is a favourite Raag of Muslims. It denotes feeling of beautification and yearning.
  • 17. Raamkali - calmness
  • 18. Nat Narayan - happiness
  • 19. Maali Gaura - happiness
  • 20. Maaru - giving up of cowardice
  • 21. Tukhari - beautification
  • 22. Kedara - love and beautification
  • 23. Bhairav - seriousness, brings stability of mind
  • 24. Basant - happiness
  • 25. Sarang - sadness
  • 26. Malaar - separation
  • 27. Jaijawanti - viraag
  • 28. Kalyaan - Bhakti Ras
  • 29. Vadhans - vairaag, loss (that is why Alahniya is sung in this Raag when someone passes away)
  • 30. Parbhati - Bhakti and seriousness
  • 31. Kaanra - Bhakti and seriousness

Taals in Kirtan

In connection with Tala or musical beats/rhythms and the ‘Ghar’ in the SGGS, the following can be concluded.

  • GHAR 1 - DADRA TAAL (There are 1 Taalis and the Beat has 6 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 2 - RUPAK TAAL (There are 2 Taalis and the Beat has 7 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 3 - TEEN TAAL (There 3 Taalis and the Beat has 16 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 4 - CHAAR TAAL (There are 4 Taalis and the Beat has 12 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 5 - PUNJ TAAL (There are 5 Taalis and the Beat has 15 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 6 - KHUT TAAL (There are 6 Taalis and the Beat has 18 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 7 - MUT TAAL (There are 7 Taalis and the Beat has 21 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 8 - ASHT MANGAL TAAL (There are 8 Taalis and the Beat has 22 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 9 - MOHINI TAAL (There are 9 Taalis and the Beat has 23 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 10 - BRAHAM TAAL (There are 10 Taalis and the Beat has 28 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 11 - RUDRA TAAL (There are 11 Taalis and the Beat has 32 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 12 - VISHNU TAAL (There are 12 Taalis and the Beat has 36 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 13 - MUCHKUND TAAL (There are 13 Taalis and the Beat has 34 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 14 - MAHASHANI TAAL (There are 14 Taalis and the Beat has 42 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 15 - MISHR BARAN TAAL (There are 15 Taalis and the Beat has 47 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 16 - KUL TAAL (There are 16 Taalis and the Beat has 42 Maatraas)
  • GHAR 17 - CHRCHARI TAAL (There are 17 Taalis and the Beat has 40 Maatraas)

Quotes from Gurbani

The Sikh Gurus gave huge importance to Kirtan and this can be concluded from the following Shabads.

On 107 to 108 Guruji says that illnesses of countless lives are eroded by singing Kirtan, thus:

  • Your humble servant, who obtains the Medicine of the Naam, is rid of the illnesses of countless lifetimes and incarnations.
  • So sing the Kirtan of the Lord’s Praises, day and night. This is the most fruitful occupation. ||3||

On page 178, Guruji says that mind becomes peaceful when Kirtan is sang -

  • Singing the Kirtan of His Praises, my mind has become peaceful;
  • the sins of countless incarnations have been washed away.
  • I have seen all the treasures within my own mind;
  • why should I now go out searching for them? ||2||

On Page 196, Guruji says, Kirtan can only be sung by good fortune, thus:

  • By great good fortune, the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises are sung.
  • O Supreme Lord God, as You give, so do I receive. ||1||Pause||

On Page 199, the SGGS advices that Kirtan keeps the mind awake and alert:

  • Do only that, by which no filth or pollution shall stick to you.
  • Let your mind remain awake and aware, singing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises. ||1||Pause||

On page 208, Guruji tells us those whose hearts are alight with God, sing Kirtan:

  • Between the Lord and His Saint, there is no difference at all. Among hundreds of thousands and millions, there is scarcely one humble being.
  • Those whose hearts are illuminated by God, sing the Kirtan of His Praises night and day with their tongues. ||3||

Also on the same page, Guruji says that ‘Kirtan is my treasure’:

  • To sing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises is my treasure. ||1||Pause||
  • You are my delight, You are my praise. You are my beauty, You are my love.
  • O God, You are my hope and support. ||1||

On page 214 Guruji tell us that by singing Kirtan we will be saved, thus:

  • As the Guru has taught me, so have I spoken.
  • Says Nanak, listen, people: sing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises, and you shall be saved. ||4||1||158||

On page 297, Guruji tells us that even death is overcome by singing Kirtan:

  • One is saved from hell, suffering is destroyed, countless pains depart, death is overcome, and one escapes the Messenger of Death, by absorption in the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises.
  • Fear departs, and one savors the Ambrosial Nectar, imbued with the Love of the Formless Lord.

'On page 322, Guruji says ‘lives of those who sing Kirtan are approved’, thus:

  • Those who are attached to the hem of the Lord`s robe, do not suffer birth and death.
  • Those who remain awake to the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises - their lives are approved.

Guruji on page 363 tell us by singing Kirtan, Naam (God’s remembrance) is instilled in the mind thus:

  • Without the Shabad, no one is approved.
  • Singing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises, the Naam abides within the mind.
  • He Himself gives His gifts, without hesitation. ||2||

Guruji on page 454 tell us that all sins and sorrows depart when Kirtan is sang:

  • Sing the Kirtan, the Praises of the Lord of the Universe, and all sins and sorrows shall depart.
  • Says Nanak, chant the Hymns of the Lord, the Lord of the Universe, O mind, and enshrine love for the Lord; love the Lord this way in your mind. ||1||

On Page 642, Guruji tells us that singing Kirtan is the ‘highest of all actions’ that we can perform:

  • Singing the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises in the Saadh Sangat, the Company of the Holy, is the highest of all actions.
  • Says Nanak, he alone obtains it, who is pre-destined to receive it. ||8||

Guruji on Page 683 tell us clearly that ‘All desires, power, pleasure, joy and lasting bliss’ are found by singing Kirtan:

  • All desires, power, pleasure, joy and lasting bliss, are found by chanting the Naam, the Name of the Lord, and singing the Kirtan of His Praises.
  • That humble servant of the Lord, who has such karma pre-ordained by the Creator Lord, O Nanak - his efforts are brought to perfect fruition. ||2||20||51||

On page 1300, Guruji say by singing Kirtan, all Evil-mindedness is removed:

  • Whoever speaks and listens to the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises is rid of evil-mindedness.
  • All hopes and desires, O Nanak, are fulfilled. ||2||1||12||

On Page 1337, Guruji advises us that singing Kirtan is equal to bathing at 68 sacred holy places, thus:

  • Listen, O mind: the Kirtan of the Lord`s Praises is equal to bathing at the sixty-eight sacred shrines of pilgrimage.
  • Listen, O mind: as Gurmukh, you shall be blessed with honor. ||1||

On page 1356, Guruji tell us how by singing Kirtan, the entire world and Pride, Attachment, Greed, Anger and Lust (PAGAL, the five thieves) are conquered, thus:

  • They walk fearlessly through the armies of their enemies; they attack them with the Kirtan of God`s Praises.
  • They conquer the entire world, O Nanak, and overpower the five thieves. ||29||

And finally, on page 1075 to 1076 Guruji tell us that in this era of the ‘Kal Juug’ Kirtan is supreme, thus:

  • In this Dark Age of Kali Yuga, the singing of Kirtan (Lord’s Praises) is the most dominating force.
  • Become Gurmukh, chant and focus your meditation.
  • You shall save yourself, and save all your generations as well. You shall go to the Court of the Lord with honor. ||6||

See Also

External Links

Gurbani FM - 24 Hrs Internet Gurbani Radio