NISHAN SAHIB is the name for the tall Sikh flag which marks all gurudwaras and other religious premises of the Sikhs. Nishdn is a Persian word with multiple meanings, one of these being a flag or standard. Sahib, an Arabic word with the applied meaning of lord or master, is here used as an honorific. Thus Nishan Sahib in the Sikh tradition means the holy flag or exalted ensign. A synonymous term is Jhanda Sahib (jhandd also meaning a flag or banner). The Sikh pennant, made out of saffron coloured, occasionally out of blue coloured, mainly in the case of Nihangs, cloth is triangular in shape, normally each of the two equal sides being double of the shorter one.

The pennant is stitched to the mast sheath at the top which is also of the same cloth. On it is commonly printed or embroidered the Sikh emblem, comprising a khandd (two edged sword) and chakra (an edged circular weapon, a disc or quoit) and two kirpdns which cross each other at the handles, with the blades flanking the chakra. Sometimes the flag would have inscribed on it Ik Onkdr, term in the Mul Mantra signifying the Supreme Reality. The flagstaff has a steel khandd fixed on the top of it. No size is laid down for the Nishan Sahib. The two flags standing adjacent to each other betwixt the Harimandar and the Akal Takht at Amritsar are approximately 40 metres high.

Nishan Sahib is hoisted either in the compound of a gurudwara or on the top of the building itself. Sometimes there are two flags in a gurudwara, one in the premises and the other atop the edifice. Outside of gurudwaras, the Nishan Sahib is seen carried at the head of Sikh processions. In such public marches which generally take place on religious occasions, five Sikhs, designated as Panj Piare, carry one each of the five Nishan Sahibs in front of the palanquin in which the holy Guru Granth Sahib is seated. Sikh public congregations as often as not open with the flaghoisting ceremony at which Nishan Sahib is unfurled by an eminent member of the Panth.

Earlier in the time of Guru Gobind Singh and during the eighteenth century, the Sikh armies, when on the march or in the battlefield, had the Sikh standard carried in front by nishdnchis (standardbearers). One of the Sikh misis, which in addition to being a fighting formation in its own right, perhaps provided nishdnchis to other misis, was for this reason named Nishanarivali misl. In their ardds, routine supplicatory prayer, Sikhs daily, and in fact every time they pray individually or collectively, recall nishdndn dhdmdn di kamdi, the grandeur of their flags and holy places, and supplicate: chauktdn, jhande, bunge jugo jug atal (may our choirs, standards and citadels flourish forever).

The origin of the Nishan Sahib is traced to the time of Guru Hargobind who hoist ed a flag over the Akal Takht (or Akal Bunga) at Amritsar as it was erected in 1606. The flag, the first of its kind in Sikh tradition was called Akal Dhuja (the immortal flag) or Satguru ka Nishan (standard of the true Guru). The flag on the top of the Harimandar was first installed by Sardar Jhanda Singh of the Bhangi clan in 1771. In 1783, Udasi Mahants Santokh Das and Pritam Das brought from Dera Ram Rai (Dehra Dun) a tall sal tree in one piece and using it as the flag post raised a Nishan Sahib in front of a bungd (a hospice or resting place) next to the Akal Takht, whence this bungd acquired the name Jhanda Bungd.

In 1820, Sardar Desa Singh Majithia whom Maharaja Ranjit Singh had entrusted with the management of Darbar Sahib, replaced the wooden flag post with a steel one covered with gilded copper sheets. Later, a similar flag post was also presented by the Maharaja himself, but this was not erected till 1841 when the one installed by the Majithia sarddr was damaged in a storm. Then the damaged flag post was also got repaired and erected by Desa Singh`s son, Lahina Singh Majithia, and two Nishan Sahibs of equal height have been flying in front of Jhanda Bunga since then.

Both these flag posts were of solid iron. After it had been decided to widen the parikramd (circumambulatory terrace around the sarover), the two Nishan Sahibs were pulled out and refixed a few metres away from the former site in 1923. In 1962, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee replaced them with new ones of steel pipes similarly sheathed with gilded copper sheets so that electric cables leading to the lights on top could pass through them.

References :

1. Kahn Singh, Bhai, Curmat Martand. Amritsar, 1962
2. Sumer Singh, Baba, Sri Gurpad Prem Prakash. Lahore, 1882
3. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909
4. Cole, W.Owen and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Delhi, 1978