Shabad Kirtan

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Guru Nanak Dev with Bhai Mardana and Bhai Bala singing Shabad Kirtan painting by Sobha Singh

SHABAD KIRTAN or GURMAT SANGEET has been an integral part of Sikh worship from the very beginning. Hymn-singing was in fact the earliest form of devotion for the Sikhs. Even in the time of Guru Nanak, the disciples assembled together to listen and sing shabads, i.e. hymns composed by the Guru and thus to render praise to the Lord.

Kirtan has since been appropriated into the regular gurdwara service. But Sikh kirtan abstains from all outward expression or frenzy in the form of clapping and dancing. Praise is offered to the Supreme Being who is without form (nirankar) and not to a deity in any embodiment or incarnation.

The texts of the shabad kirtan are those that comprise the Holy Book of Sikhs known as the Guru Granth Sahib, or Adi Granth, compiled by Guru Arjan in 1604. Probably no other religion shows a closer relationship between music and its scriptures than does Sikhism. The Holy Book is organized according to ragas, 31 in number, to which the poetic hymns belong.

The total number of hymns is 5,694 with 4,857 (the author's figures) contributed by six of the ten Gurus and 837 by Hindu bhagats, Sikh devotees and Muslim Sufi saints. Under each raga the hymns of the Gurus are recorded first and are arranged in the order of chaupadas and dupadas (hymns of 4 and 2 verses, respectively), astapadis (hymns of 8 verses), longer poems organized around a motif, and chants—hymns of four or six verses, lyrical in character, vars on the pattern of ballads consisting of pauris, each pauri preceded by two or more [sloka]]s, and hymns by bhagats and other devotees similarly arranged.


Bhai Kultar Singh (harmonium), Bhai Ranjit Singh (vocal), Bhai Avtar Singh Ji (Taus) and Bhai Swarn Singh Ji (Jori)(l to r) singing Shabad Kirtan

The Gurus were highly knowledgeable of music and well versed in the classical style. Guru Nanak's constant companion on his travels was a Muslim musician, Bhai Mardana, who played the rabab or rebeck. Guru Nanak wished his hymns to be sung to ragas that express the spirit of the text and in a performance style compatible with the meaning of the hymn. The succeeding Gurus followed his example and often included musicians in their courts. The ragas named in the Holy Book were selected probably because of their suitability for expressing the ideals represented in the texts for which they were to be used. Over the centuries raga names and the exact pitch of the tones may have varied. Lack of a precise national system for Indian music indicates that the preservation of ragas has been dependent upon oral tradition.

Raga variants are those melodies to which a ragi or rababi (musician), may move when beginning a new line of text or when inserting explanatory material. Over the centuries more raga variants have been approved than the few given in the Guru Granth Sahib. Raga variants have some points in common with the main raga but sufficiently different to set off the textual material musically, thus keeping the many verses from becoming musically monotonous. For example, the Gauri group offers many possibilities. A main raga from another section of the Holy Book may also be used as a variant. Talas are left to the discretion of the performer and are usually those of the classical system although regional ones may be used for the lighter forms. Vars (slokas and pauris) may be set to authorized folk tunes, some selected by the Gurus themselves, and treated in light classical style. A var is not counted as one unit but according to the number of slokas, pauris and couplets that are included in it.

At the conclusion of the Guru Granth Sahib is Ragmala, a classification of ragas listing 84 measures. The Holy Book contains only 31, eight of which are not given in this Ragmala. This circumstance can be interpreted to mean that the classification was not done primarily for the Guru Granth Sahib, but was included as it had existed. The purpose of classifying ragas according to a parent and its offspring, raginis and putras, is to clarify and retain the individual character of each raga. Historically this has been the concern of music theorists rather than performing musicians. Since the basic notes of two or more ragas may be the same, the performance rules and the melodic material are the chief means of maintaining the proper mood and individual character.

Details of various Ragas

In the Guru Granth Sahib, a number of affirmations have been made about the virtue of the various ragas to induce piety and devotion. The majority of these are from Guru Amar Das, third in Guru Nanak's line, but the other Gurus too have set forth their experience about the ragas as aids to spiritual experience. About kirtan (music directed to the expression of devotion) it has been said: kirtanu nirmolak hira anand guni gahira—kirtan is an invaluable jewel, bringing bliss, treasure of noble qualities (GG, 893). Guru Arjan says about the beauty and harmony of music to induce the mood of devotion: dhanu su rag surangare alapat sabh tikh jai—which are blessed as the beautiful musical measures when performed all desire then ends (GG, 958).

Guru Nanak, warning the mind against voluptuous indulgence in music such as had been current in India particularly among the upper classes, says:

git raga ghan tal si kure,

trihu-guna upjai binasai dure; duji durmati dardu na jai, chhutai gurmakhi daru guna ga False are such songs, musical measures and reverberating accompaniments As arouse the Three Qualities and, destroying devotion, draw the self away from God. By duality and evil thinking is suffering not removed: Liberation by the Master's guidance comes. Chanting Divine laudations is the true remedy for life’s ills

(GG, 832)

Guru Nanak (in Raga Asa) on the ecstasy devotional music evokes:

rag ratan paria parvar;

tisu vichi upjai amritu sar; nanak karte ka ihu dhanu malu je ko bujhai ehu bicharu. The jewel music, born of the fairy family, Is source of the essence of amrita; This wealth to the Creator belongs— Few are there this to realize

(GG, 351)

The musical directions given in the text of the Guru Granth Sahib are detailed so as to guide the composer and performer to adhere to the proper classical tradition in music. On page 838, at the opening of the composition bearing the title Thitin (the dates) in the measure Bilaval, the musical direction is ghar 10, jati. This refers to the particular score in which the music is composed as also to the rhythm on the tabla or drum.

Guru Amar Das, whose attachment to music and its modes is deep and ecstatic, has set down his impressions of some of the musical measures in which he has composed his bani. On Sri Raga:

raga vichi sri ragu hai je sachi dhare piaru;

sada hari sachu mani vasai nihchal mati aparu. Sri Raga is to be reckoned superior to the other ragas only if it induces love for holy Truth, whereby the holy Lord should in the self be lodged, and the mind find poise.

(GG, 83)

On Gauri believed to be a female Ragini:

gauri ragi sulakhani je khasmai chiti karei;

bhanai chalai Satiguru. kai aisa sigaru karei. . . The Raga Gauri is reckoned noble, should she in the Lord fix the self; Induce obedience to the Divine Will Which is the best make-up.

(GG, 311)

Suhi (literally vermilion) is woven into a figure (GG, 785). Not the flashy vermilion dye, symbolical of voluptuous pleasures but the fast red of madder (majith) symbolizing constancy in devotion is commanded.

Bilaval, in Bilaval ki Var (GG, 849-55), is mentioned to express constancy of devotion, twice by Guru Amar Das and twice by Guru Ram Das. Bilaval is the raga expressive of joy. True joy, however, comes not from melody but from the holy Name of God. Says Guru Amar Das:

bilavalu tab hi kijiai jab mukhi hovai namu;

raga nada sabadi sohane ja lagai sahaji dhianu. raga nada chhodi Hari sevai ta dargah paiai manu; nanak gurmukhi brahmu bichariai chukai mani abhimanu. True joy comes only by utterance of the holy name; Music, melody and the words acquire beauty from the mind in poise fixed. Leave aside music, melody and words; serve the Lord; thereby may ye be honoured at the Divine Portal. Saith Nanak: By contemplation of the Supreme Being through the Master's guidance is egoism from the mind banished.

(GG, 849)

On the same page occurs another sloka:

bilavalu karihu tum piariho ekasu siu liv lae. . .

Ye loved ones, in devotion to the Sole Supreme Being, find you joy; Thus will your suffering of transmigration be annulled, and in Truth shall ye be absorbed. Ever shall ye live in joy (bilaval) and bliss, should you obey the holy Preceptor's will. . .

(GG, 849)

Guru Ram Das, earlier on the same page, at the opening of this Var, thus expresses the joy of Bilaval, the word itself implying "joy".

hari utamu hari prabhu gavia kari nadu bilavalu ragu;

upadesu guru suni mannia dhuri mastaki pura bhagu. . . The Lord exalted, Supreme Master have I lauded in the tune of Bilaval; The Master's teaching have I followed, by Supreme good luck ordained in Primal Time. Day and night have I ever uttered the Lord's praise with devotion for Him in my heart lodged. My mind and body, in bloom, are like a garden fresh. By the lamp of Enlightenment by the Master lit, The gloom of ignorance is lifted. Nanak, servant of God, finds life from beholding the Lord's face, even though it be for a short hour.

(GG, 849)

Thus Guru Amar Das on Ramkali:

ramkali ramu mani vasia ta bania sigaru. . .

In chanting Ramkali as the Lord in the self is lodged, that is the truest self-decoration; As through the Master's land is abloom the lotus of the heart, On the seeker is bestowed the treasure of devotion. With illusion gone is the self awakened, And gloom of ignorance lifted. She alone has true beauty that with the Lord is in love; A woman of good repute, everlasting bliss has she with the beloved. Egoists know not of the true make-up, Their life is all lost. One that has the make-up of other than devotion, In transmigration remains caught.

(GG, 950)

On Sorathi, the same vision is expressed by Guru Nanak and Guru Ram Das. Guru Nanak in the opening sloka of Ragu Sorathi Var M. IV Ki:

sorathi sada suhavani je sacha mani hoi. . .

Sorathi is pleasing should it bring to mind the holy Lord. It is pleasing, should teeth not be fouled by food unjustly obtained. And on the tongue should run the Lord's holy Name.

(GG, 642)

Guru Ram Das in the same Var (the same page):

sorathi tami suhavani ja hari namu dhandhole. . .

Sorathi is pleasing should she go out in quest of the Lord’s name The Master, exalted being, should she propitiate, And by wisdom granted by the Master, the Name Divine utter; Day and night should she with Divine love be surcharged. And dyed in God, her vest In the dye of God should she dip.

(GG, 642)

Guru Amar Das thus expresses himself on the measure Kedara:

kedara raga vichi janiai bhai sabde kare piaru. . .

Brother! Consider Kedara exalted among the ragas, Should one chanting it be in love with the holy Word, Should join holy company, and to the holy Lord be devoted; Casting off one's own impurity, may save one's whole clan; Should garner the wealth of noble attributes, and cast off evil qualities. Saith Nanak: Truly united is he who turns not away from the Master, And forms not devotion to another.

(GG, 1087)

Maru raga, whose name comes from marusthal (dry land), is thus celebrated by Guru Amar Das:

maru te sitalu kare manurahu kanchanu hoi. . .

The burning hot desert He turns to coolness; Rusted iron he turns into gold; Praised be the Holy Lord, Supreme over all.

(GG, 994)

Malar, the raga associated with the rainy season and joys of romantic love, is thus transmuted into a spiritual experience by Guru Amar Das.

malaru sital ragu hai hari dhiaiai santi hoi. . .

Malar's music is cooling; true peace comes from meditation on the Lord.

(GG, 1283)

Below is given a detailed statement of the functions and atmosphere ascribed traditionally to the various ragas, along with the banis composed to each, within the corpus of the Guru Granth Sahib. In this statement the bhaktas and other devotees using them are not mentioned. Only the Gurus are included.

The Guru's 31 Ragas


(Siri or Shri)

Raga Sri was favoured by the Hindus for religious occasions and is found in many of the old treatises. In the Ragmala listed as a parent raga, it currently is a member of the purvi thata. Still a popular concert raga today, it is considered one of the most famous from among the North Indian classical system. Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, and Guru Arjan composed to this raga. Traditionally performed at sunset, it is assigned to the rainy season as well as the months of November and December. Its mood is one of majesty combined with prayerful meditation. This raga is always referred to as "Siri Raga" rather than placing the term raga before the name. It accompanies about 142 sabdas.

  • Aroh: Sa Re M'a, Pa Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha, Pa M'a Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Sa, Re Re Pa, Pa M'a Ga Re, Re Re, Sa
  • Vadi: Re
  • Samvadi: Pa


This raga is attributed to Guru Nanak, who developed it from a Punjabi folk tune. It does not appear in the Ragmala nor does it seem to be a classical raga today. Possibly it has been reserved purely for gurbani sangit. Majh was the setting for compositions by Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan. No information about this raga is available from English sources. The reader is referred to a Punjabi text Gurmat Sangit by Bhai Vir Singh, published by the Chief Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ma Pa Dha Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi: Ma
  • Samvadi: Sa


Gauri is one of several Gauri ragas and appears in the Ragmala as a ragini of Siri Raga. This is an evening raga assigned to autumn and its mood is contemplative. The composition in Gauri is very voluminous. Gauri was used by Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur. Several forms of Gauri exist historically and this probably accounts for the large number of variants: Gauri Cheti, Gauri Bairagan, Gauri Dipaki, Gauri Purbi-Dipaki, Gauri Guareri, Gauri-Majh, Gauri Malava, Gauri Mala, Gauri Sorath, Gauri Dakhani.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ga Re Ma Pa Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Ma Pa, Dha Pa Ma Ga, Ga Re Sa Ni Sa
  • Vadi: Re
  • Samvadi: Pa

Occasionally Re is performed with a vibrate as in Siri Raga which has the same vadis. Ni is given prominence through either stopping or lingering on this note.


Asa is a very old raga, once popular in the Punjab but seldom heard in concerts today. In the Ragmala this is a ragini of raga Megha. However, today it is assigned to the Bilaval thata. Asa is a devotional raga for the cold season and is performed in the early morning just before sunrise. However, it is also known as a twilight melody with a calm mystical mood. Raga Asa was used by Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ma Pa Dha Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi: Ma
  • Samvadi: Sa

Asa is a crooked (vakra) raga in that approaches to certain notes have to be made from a set position. Its variants as given in the Holy Book are Kafi and Asavari, both of which have many features in common with Asa. This raga may have originated in Maharashtra about the time of the major Muslim invasions. Its pleasing sound made it suitable for bhajans by the Hindu devotees.


The name Gujari probably refers to the state of Gujarat. This raga was in existence at the time of Raja Man Singh of Gwalior (1486-1517) who lived at a time of high musical achievement and referred to this raga in his writings about music. Gujari is rarely used as a concert raga today and little is known about its form. In modern times it has been supplanted by Gujari-Todi. In the Ragmala, Gujari is listed as a ragini of Raga Dipak. Today Gujari-Todi belongs to the Todi thata. Gujari-Todi may be performed during any season of the year and is assigned to the early morning hours. It produces a mood of thoughtfulness that reaches deep into the heart. Texts set to this raga strip away all subterfuge and make man see himself as he is and search within for the truth. While not one of the most frequently used ragas, Gujari was the setting for compositions by Guru Nanak, Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, and Guru Arjan.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ga M'a Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha M'a Ga Re, Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Sa Dha, Ma, Dha Ni Sa, Ni Dha M'a Ga, Re, Ga Re Sa
  • Savar: Re Ga Dha M'a
  • Vadi: Dha
  • Samvadi: Re


Today Devagandhari is a rare, little known, ancient raga. Its performance time is the morning hours. Historically it has had three forms; the less ornamented type is described here. In the Ragmala, Devagandhari is a ragini of Malkaunsa. Today it belongs to the Asavari thata. Its mood is one of prayerful supplication presenting a heroic effect. The texts set to this raga reveal a heroic search for these qualities which lead one to the Lord. This raga was used primarily by Guru Arjan. Forty-Seven hymns were composed to it including three by Guru Tegh Bahadur and six by Guru Ram Das.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ma Pa Dha Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa, Ma Pa, Dha Ni Dha Pa, Ma Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Dha Ni Dha Pa, Ma Ga, Sa Re Ma, Ga Sa Re Ga Sa
  • Vadi: Ma
  • Samvadi: Sa


Bihagara is very similar to the modern and very popular raga Bihag. The resemblance is so close that many performers have trouble maintaining the significance of each. Bihagara is not given in the Ragmala. Today it is classified under the Bilaval thata. Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur set a total of 17 sabdas, chhants and a var to this raga. The performance time is between 9 p.m. and midnight, and the mood is devotional and tranquil. The texts composed to this raga describe the complete peace and response that come to man when he surrenders all to the Lord.

  • Aroh: Ni Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa Ni Dha Pa Dha Ga Ma Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi: Ma
  • Samvadi: Sa


Little has been written about this rare raga. It is not in the Ragmala, and today it is ascribed to the Kafi thata. Fifty-three sabdas plus numerous slokas represent the total number composed to this raga by Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan. Vadahans is considered suitable for the cold season and is assigned to the afternoon hours. Its mood is quiet and tender. Texts set to the raga explain how the Guru alone can lead one to the Lord. Without the Lord one is likened to a woman without the love of her spouse.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ma Pa, Dha Ni Pa, Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Pa, Dha Ma Ga Re, Sa Ni Sa
  • Vadi: Re
  • Samvadi: Pa


Raga Sorathi appears in the Ragmala as a ragini of Raga Megha; today it belongs to the Khamaj thata. Besides Guru Nanak, Sorathi was used by Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur for a total of 150 hymns plus numerous slokas. Sorathi belongs to the cold season and is performed in the first quarter of night. The mood is light and cheerful, with a pleasing sound resembling Raga Desh. The texts composed to this raga show how the words of the Guru can enlighten the mind. All fears vanish and one is filled with bliss.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ma Pa Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Re Ni Dha, Ma Pa Dha Ma Ga Re Ni Sa
  • Vadi: Re
  • Samvadi: Dha

The melodies are characterized by sweeping phrases with glides connecting all leaps, even the shorter ones. Movement is moderately fast.


Raga Dhanasri appears in the Ragmala as a ragini of Malkaunsa and currently is a member of the Kafi thata. It closely resembles Bhimpalasi in musical content but the vadis and moods are different. Dhanasri is performed in the early afternoon and presents a cheerful, happy mood. It provided the setting for hymns by Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur for a total of 101 hymns. These texts stress that man reaps what he sows. Only in the Lord may be found the riches that dispel fear and ignorance and thus cause man to realize his true self.

  • Aroh: Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Pa Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi: Pa
  • Samvadi: Sa

Pa is given considerable emphasis and Ni and Pa receive sliding approaches, a characteristic of this raga. The pentatonic ascent provides some of the melodic features of this raga.


Jaitsri does not appear in the Ragmala nor is it found in the modern literature on the subject. Bhatkhande gives Jait-Kalyan but this is not to be confused with the above. However, Jaitsri does appear in a 17th century classification, but not in later ones. Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur composed 30 hymns, a var and several slokas to this raga. Today Raga Jait is found under the Marva thata and is assigned to the evening hours. A mood of gentle quietness and mystery pervades this raga. The texts describe the meditative thoughts of a devotee who has surrendered himself to his Guru and Lord. Raga Jait has two forms and the second includes some elements from Siri Raga and perhaps this is nearest the original Jaitsri.

  • Aroh: Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Sa, Ga Pa M'a Dha Pa M'a Ga, M'a Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi: Ga
  • Samvadi: Ni

Because of the two different ways of singing this raga, melodic patterns are not fixed.


A ragini of Dipak in the Ragmala, Todi is today the head of a thata. It is considered one of the most important of the north Indian ragas. Todi was used by the Gurus for 32 hymns. This is a raga for the late morning hours and the mood is gentle, with an aura of adoration. The texts composed to this raga emphasize that no matter what problems man meets or what worldly affairs distract the mind, devotion to the Lord brings one back to the path of release from worldliness.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ga M'a Pa Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa M'a Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Dha Ni Sa, Re Ga, Re Sa, M'a Ga Pa M'a Ga, Re Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi: Dha
  • Samvadi: Re


This raga appears in the Ragmala as the first ragini of Siri Raga. In the Mesakarna Ragmala (1509), which is almost the same as that of the Guru Granth Sahib, the first ragini of Siri Raga is given as Vairati. However, modern sources do not give Bairari nor Vairati but Barari and Varari as well as Varati are listed. Kaufmann believes that all of these names refer to the same raga, Barari. Whether this is the same as the old Bairari is open to question. The possibility always exists that Bairari was a regional tune. It was used by Guru Ram Das for six short hymns and by Guru Arjan for one. The performance time for Bairari is during the evening hours and it is currently assigned to the Marva thata. It resembles Purva Kalyan, the main difference being the use of Pa which is strong in Bairari and weak in Purva-Kalyan. Popley places Bairari in the same group as Siri Raga and this would agree with the Ragmala.

  • Aroh: Ni Re Ga Pa, M'a Ga, M'a Dha Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha P'a, M'a Ga, Pa Ga, Re Sa
  • Vadi: Ga
  • Samvadi: Dha


Favoured by Muslims, this raga occurs in the Ragmala as a ragini of Hindol. Today, it belongs to the Khamaj thata. Tilang was used by Guru Nanak (6 hymns), Guru Ram Das (3), Guru Arjan (5), Guru Tegh Bahadur (3), Kabir (1) and Namdev (2) for a total of 20 hymns. Tilang is performed at night and has a calm and pleasing mood. In the texts composed for this raga, the question is asked why man should cling to all the evils of this life when Guru Nanak has shown the way to true happiness and fulfilment.

  • Aroh: Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Pa Ma Ga Sa
  • Vadi: Ga
  • Samvadi: Ni


Suhi is classified in the Ragmala as a ragini of Megha. It was a favourite with Muslims and was considered proper for the hot season. Today this raga belongs to the Kah thata and its performance time is late morning. In the Holy Book one variant is given, Raga Suhi Lalit. Suhi was used by Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan for 130 hymns, a var plus many slokas.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Ni Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa, Ma Ga, Re Ga Re, Sa
  • Vadi: Pa
  • Samvadi: Sa


(ancient name Velavali)

Bilaval had become the basic scale for North Indian music by the early part of the 19th century. Its tonal relationships are comparable to the Western C - major scale. Bilaval appears in the Ragmala as a ragini of Bhairava, but today it is the head of the Bilaval thata. The Ragmala gives Bilaval as a putra (son) of Bhairav, but no relation between these two ragas is made today. Bilaval is a morning raga to be sung with a feeling of deep devotion and repose, often performed during the hot months. Over 170 hymns were composed to this raga by Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ga, Ma Pa, Dha, Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha, Pa, Ma Ga, Re Sa
  • Pakar: Ga Re, Ga Ma Dha Pa, Ma Ga, Ma Re Sa
  • Vadi: Dha
  • Samvadi: Ga


The Ragmala records Gaund and Gund as putras (sons) of Siri Raga, but does not give Gond. The possibility exists that Gond is a regional raga derived from that group of ragas with similar names and characterized by phrases from other ragas e.g. Bilaval, Kanara and Malar. Such names as Gaunda, Gand, Gounda, Gaundi, Goundgiri, and Gunda appear in classifications from the 11th to the 17th centuries. For those still known today (Gaudi, Goundgiri, and Goud) performance rules are obscure. Performance time is late afternoon or early evening and the mood is contemplative and dignified. Gond was used by Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan (29 hymns). The texts beseech man to depend solely on the Lord for all benefits since it is He who has given him all his blessings.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ga Ma, Pa Dha Ni Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Ni Dha Pa, Ma Ga, Re Sa
  • Pakar: Re Ga Ma, Pa Ma, Ma Pa Ni Dha Ni Dha Ni Sa, Ni Dha Ni Pa, Dha Ma
  • Vadi: Sa
  • Samvadi: Ma


Ramkali is not given in the Ragmala but is one of the most important ragas of the Guru Granth Sahib. All Gurus, including Guru Tegh Bahadur, have composed verses to this raga. The total number of sabdas comes to over three hundred. Ramkali is a morning raga performed after sunrise usually during the hot season. The mood is such as to inspire lofty thoughts. In the Guru Granth Sahib, a number of hymns in Ramkali expound True Yoga and other spiritual issues. Some celebrated compositions such as Sidha Gosti, Anandu, Sadd, Oankar and the Var by Satta and Balvand are composed to this raga. Some of the verses also contain analogies to music and musical instruments. Four forms of this raga are recognized, although only two are in general use today. The raga belongs to the Bhairav thata.

  • Aroh: Sa Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa, M'a Pa Dha Ni Dha Pa, Ga Ma Re Sa
  • Pakar: Dha Pa, Ma Pa, Dha Ni Dha Pa, Ga, Ma Re Sa
  • Vadi: Pa .
  • Samvadi: Re


In the Ragmala, Nat is given as putra (son) of Megha while today Nat Narain appears under the Bilaval thata and is assigned to the evening hours. This raga was used by Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan. Nat Narain is pictured as a warrior riding to battle. In the Holy Book, the fight against sin is never-ending but those who seek refuge in the Lord have their suffering removed.

  • Aroh: Sa Ga Ma Re, M'a Pa Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Dha Pa M'a Dha Pa, Ga Ma Re Sa
  • Pakar: Sa Ma Ga Ma Pa, Dha Pa, Ma, Ga Ma Re Sa
  • Vadi: Sa
  • Samvadi: Re


Gaura is listed in the Ragmala as a putra (son) of Dipak, but not Mali Gaura. Currently classified under the Marva thata. Mali Gaura is performed in the evening at sunset. In recent years it is rarely heard in concert. Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan composed to this raga 14 hymns included in the Holy Book.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Sa Ni Dha Sa Re Ga M'a Pa, Dha Ni Dha Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa, M'a Ni Dha M'a Ga, Re Sa
  • Vadi: Re
  • Samvadi: Pa


Maru is an old raga seldom heard in concerts today. Some theorists equate it with Maruva or Marva. In the Ragmala, Maru is a putra (son) of Malkaunsa. It is found in other classifications from the 14th to the early l9th century. Maru was used by Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur for 144 hymns, two vars plus a large number of slokas. One of its variations is Maru Kafi. Maru is assigned to the hours of sunset and is considered suitable for the cold season. The mood is quiet and contemplative. The tonal material given here is for Maru Bihag, Bilaval thata.

  • Aroh: Sa Ga Ma Pa, Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa, M'a Pa Dha Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Pa Dha Ni Dha Pa Ma Pa Ma Ga, Pa Dha Pa Ga Re, Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi: Pa
  • Samvadi: Ni


Tukhari was probably based on a folk tune and was very likely developed by Guru Nanak into a raga for the singing of certain sabdas. No raga of this name appears in the classifications of the period when sabdas were being composed and the Holy Book compiled. A raga called Mukhari may be found in the classifications of Karnataka (South Indian) ragas during the period from the 15th to the l8th centuries. Tukhari was used by Guru Nanak, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan. Guru Nanak's composition Bara Maha is set to this Raga. It appears to be a raga for the morning hours to be sung in winter. Its name Tukhari is the popular form of tushar (Sanskrit for winter frost). No melodic material for the Tukhari is available but, for the sake of comparison, the scale of Mukhari is given:

  • Aroh: Ni Sa, Ga Ma Pa, Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa, Ni Dha Pa, M'a Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Ni Ni Dha Pa, Ma Pa, Ma Ga, Re Sa
  • Vadi: Pa
  • Samvadi Sa


Kedara is an old raga dating from Guru Nanak's time or even earlier which has become a very important and popular North Indian raga today. It is supposed to possess magical qualities, if correctly performed, which can heal the sick. In the Ragmala, Kedara is a putra (son) of Megha but currently is in the Kalyan thata. Kedara was used by Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan for a few short hymns. Several forms of Kedara have been and still are in use. Thus considerable freedom of choice may be exercised by the performer as to how this raga be performed in association with a given text. In the most commonly used form, Kedara is performed during the first quarter of the night and is particularly auspicious when the moon is visible, a planet with which it has long been associated. The mood is one of contemplation associated with a sort of ascetic idealism. The sadness expressed in Ragmala paintings suggests the longing of man for the Supreme Being when this raga accompanies a sabda. The Kedara scale is vakra (crooked) with unusual intervals:

  • Aroh: Sa Ma, Ma Pa, Dha Pa, Ni Dha Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa, M'a Pa Dha Pa Ma, Ma Re Sa
  • Vadi: Ma
  • Samvadi: Sa


Bhairon was an important raga at the time of Guru Nanak and has continued to retain its significance and popularity. Bhairon (not to be confused with Bhairavi) appears in the Ragmala as husband of Bhairavi and four other raginis. Today it is the head raga for one of the ten thatas. The Raga Sagara, a treatise of circa 8th century, describes this raga as awe-inspiring and as expressing the "fulfilment of the desire of worship." Mesakarna (1509) calls this morning melody of the autumn season one of awesome grandeur. Performed before sunrise, this raga was used by Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, and Guru Arjan for 99 hymns.

  • Aroh: Sa Re, Ga Ma Pa Dha, Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni, Dha Dha Pa, Ma Ga, Re Re Sa
  • Vadi: Dha
  • Samvadi: Re

The vadis are performed with a slow, wide vibrato which may begin with the vadi itself or the highest limit to which it will extend. In descent the vibrato must begin with upper limit. Otherwise Bhairon has few characteristic phrases.


The name Basant is from Sanskrit vasant meaning spring, and during that season of the year Basant may be performed at any time of the day or night. Otherwise, it is reserved for the night between 9 p.m. and midnight. The Ragmala gives Basant as a putra (son) of Hindol, also a spring raga. Today it belongs to the Purvi thata. The only variant noted in the Holy Book is Basant-Hindol. Basant is a very old raga dating from the 8th century. Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur composed sabdas to this raga. Performed in slow tempo, this gentle melody depicts quiet joy. The descending scale is usually found at the beginning of a composition with the ascending form following later.

  • Aroh: Sa Ga Ma Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma, Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi: Sa
  • Samvadi: Ma


Sarang is reputed to have acquired its name from the famous 14th century music theorist, Sarangadeva. The Sarang raga consists of a group of seven, each of which is combined with some other raga. Today when Sarang is given as the raga, it usually means Brindavani-Saranga, a member of the Kafi thata. Performed during the midday period, its mood is quiet and peaceful. In the Ragmala, Sarang is listed as a putra (son) of Siri Raga. Sarang is an important raga in the Guru Granth Sahib and was used extensively by Guru Arjan. However, Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das and Guru Tegh Bahadur also composed sabdas to this raga and Guru Angad used it for some slokas.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ma Pa Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Pa Ma Re, Sa
  • Pakar: Ni Sa Re, Ma Re, Pa Ma Re, Ni Sa
  • Vadi: Re
  • Samvadi: Pa



Malar is one of the rainy-season ragas performed from June to September. During the monsoons, Malar can be sung at any time of the day or night; otherwise, it is designated for late evening or early morning. Its mood is joyful because the rains cause the crops to grow and the flowers to bloom. Malar is frequently combined with other ragas, particularly Megha. Tansen added some changes to Malhar and this raga is known as Mian ki Malhar. In the Ragmala, Gaund-Malar is described as a ragini of Megha and is the only one with a Malhar name. Today the Malhar ragas are assigned to the Kafi thata. A favourite of Hindu musicians, Malhar was used by Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, and Guru Arjan. The pure Malhar is seldom performed today, and it might be heard in one of its combinations.

  • Aroh: Sa, Re Ga Ma, Ma Re Pa, Ni Dha Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa, Dha Ni Pa, Ma Ga Ma, Re Sa
  • Pakar: Sa Re Ga Ma, Ma Re Pa, Dha Ni Pa, Ma Re Sa
  • Vadi: Ma
  • Samvadi Sa



The modern name for this raga appears to be "Kanada", probably a matter of transliteration from its original name. Under the Kanara spelling this raga was prevalent in the classifications of 16th and 17th centuries. However, in one instance, Kanara and Kanada both appear in the same ragmala. This would indicate that at one time these were two distinctly different ragas. Kanara was used by Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan for 69 hymns, a var plus numerous slokas. In the Ragmala, Kanara is a putra of Dipak. The modern Kanada is one of a group of many Kanada ragas which are combinations of Kanada with other ragas; one of the most popular is Darbari-Kanada classified under the Asavari thata. Assigned to the night hours, its mood is quiet and full of majesty. Darbari-Kanada is performed in slow tempo and is a popular concert form today. The details of this raga:

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ga, Ma Pa, Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa, Ni Pa, Ma Pa, Ga Ma Re Sa
  • Vadi: Pa
  • Samvadi: Sa


The Indian Sanskrit name for this raga is Kalyan and the Persian is Yuman. In the Ragmala, Kalian is the son of Dipak while today it is the head of the Kalian thata. It is performed during the first part of the night and is considered a blessing bringing all good into one's life. Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan composed 23 hymns to this raga. The texts exalt the far-reaching and all-pervading power of the Lord. In the Holy Book the only raga variant given is Bhopali (Bhupali).

  • Aroh: Ni Re Ga, M'a Pa, Dha, Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha, Pa, M'a Ga, Re Sa
  • Pakar: Ni Re Ga, Re Sa, Pa M'a Ga, Re Sa
  • Vadi; Ga
  • Samvadi: Ni


Prabhati does not appear in the Ragmala; the nearest to it in name is Prabal. Prabhati belongs to the Bhairav thata and is often combined with Raga Bhairav. Prabhati was the setting used for some 58 hymns by Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan. This is a morning raga to be performed in a slow and dignified manner.

  • Aroh: Sa Re Ga Pa Dha Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Ni Pa Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Pa Pa Sa, Ni Dha Ni Pa, Pa Dha Ga Pa, Dha Pa Dha
  • Vadi: Sa
  • Samvadi: Pa


Jaijavanti was used only by Guru Tegh Bahadur for four hymns. This raga does not appear in the Ragmala but was known as Javanta as early as the 14th century. Today it is regarded as an important raga belonging to the Khamaj thata. This majestic and highly arresting raga is assigned to the night hours.

  • Aroh: Sa, Re Ga Ma Pa, Ni Sa
  • Avroh: Sa Ni Dha Pa, Dha Ma, Re Ga Re Sa
  • Pakar: Re Ga Re Sa, Ni Dha Pa Re
  • Vadi: Re
  • Samvadi: Pa

Other Compositions

Besides the sabdas, there are 22 vars or ballads in the Holy Book of the Sikhs which form a class by themselves. Var, a genre mainly of Punjabi origin, comprises a number of stanzas called pauris, sung by performing groups of three or four dhadis each to the accompaniment of dhaddhs, small two-faced drums held in one hand and played by the fingers of the other, and a sarangi. Vars in the Guru Granth Sahib also have two or more slokas preceding each pauri. The slokas are recited solo by the dhadis (or ragis) in turn while pauris are sung in unison by the group in traditional tunes of various folk ballads. To some of the vars Guru Arjan, who compiled the Holy Book, added directions with regard to the tunes in which they were to be sung.

Compositions of the bhaktas and other devotees included in the Guru Granth Sahib are also placed under appropriate ragas and are to be sung accordingly. Besides the contents of the Guru Granth Sahib, compositions of Guru Gobind Singh whose writings form a separate Book, the Dasam Granth, Bhai Gurdas (d. 1636) and Bhai Nand Lal Goya are approved canon for recitation as part of gurdwara service. In his voluminous corpus, Guru Gobind Singh employs a vast variety of prosodic forms and metres, but hymns usually sung by ragis are his kabitts, svaiyyas and sabdas. The work of Bhai Gurdas comprises vars and kabitts and savaiyyas, the first-named in chaste Punjabi and the two latter in sadhukari, a form of Hindi mixed with regional diction. Bhai Nand Lal wrote primarily in Persian using ghazal as his principal poetic form.

Dating from the time of the Gurus, the preservation of the correct performance style has always been a major concern. Mardana is reputed to have been the first to create a school for such training. Guru Arjan is credited with establishing the gurmat sangit or the approved style of hymn-singing for the training of ragis and rababis. He, himself, undertook the teaching of the pupils and was particular about the accurate rendering of the sabdas. Old musical structure and style have survived through some traditional families. Some venerable centres have continued over the generations the programme of instruction for gurdwara musicians, among them the one at Daudhar. A few other places that have contributed to the preservation of the style are the Pracharak Vidyala at Tarn Taran, near Amritsar, the Sis Ganj Gurdwara in Delhi and the Shahid Sikh Missionary College, Amritsar.

Sikh music has some limitations placed upon it in order that the religious requirements of the performance may be retained. Emphasis is placed on the melodic line so as to enhance the meaning of the text. The purpose of the musical settings of the words of the Gurus is to impress these upon the consciousness of the listeners through emotional as well as intellectual appeal. The Gurus aimed at conveying experience through the "feelings" to make the maximum impact. Therefore, important words of the text should fall on important notes of the raga. Poetic pauses should also be observed. The message must reach the listener through clearly enunciated words. Hymns should be sung with affirmation in a full voice and this gives Sikh music its distinctive character. Tempos may be only slow and medium, not fast. Sargam (singing with Sa-Re-Ga) and fast tans (rhythmic-melodic figurations) are not permitted because they attract attention to themselves.

Gamaks or ornaments are limited to those essential to the correct performance of a raga, such as glides between notes, to maintain a connected melodic line. Words must be pronounced clearly and accurately with no adjustments for musical effects. Ragas to be used may include only those specified or authorized, so that the emotional content may not be varied by the ragis. The music must be free of secular characteristics which may be in vogue at any given time. However, the purpose is not to inhibit the creative faculties of the performers lest the vitality of the music be sacrificed. Hand gestures and clapping, so much a part of classical performance, are not in keeping with the required mood of tranquillity. Hence these are totally prohibited. No appreciation may be shown to the musicians except in the dignified ways ordained by the Sikh religion. Congregational singing is encouraged on certain occasions. For this the ragi sings a phrase or line and the congregation repeats. Or, sometimes, the congregation divides itself in two parts, each of them alternately singing lines in unison.

External Links


  • 1. Tara Singh, Pandit, Granth Guru Girarath Kos. Lahore, 1895
  • 2. Charan Singh, Sri Guru Granth Bani Beura. Amritsar, 1860
  • 3. Gian Singh, Gurbani Sangit. Amritsar, 1961
  • 4. Avtar Singh, Bhai, and Bhai Gurcharan Singh, Gurbani Sangit Prachin Rit Ratnavali. Patiala, 1979
  • 5. Simriti Granth: Aduti Gurmat-Sangit Samelan. Ludhiana, 1991
  • 6. Jasbir Kaur, Gurmat Sangit da Itihasik Vikas (unpublished Ph.D. Thesis). Chandigarh: Panjab University, 1993