Background: I teamed up with photographer Gabriella Morton to bring to life and explore the stories of five incredible Sikh women from history. I chose to cover this story out of curiosity for my Sikh heritage and its rich tapestry. Over the last few years, as the voices of people of colour from around the world have gathered momentum, I have found in myself a power—a power that had been hidden away since I first arrived in New Zealand over 20 years ago. This power has led me on a journey to rediscover myself and my multi-layered ancestry. It’s an ancestry that I have not always been proud of—an ancestry that I have in the past tried to wash White in an attempt to become the same as those who “othered” me. I imagine that right now, many immigrants just like me are finding their power too as colonial thinking fades into the background and colourful stories take centre stage. I encourage all Indigenous, Black and People Of Colour to tell their stories and the stories of their people with pride—it is our time to shine.
Credits: Makeup artist extraordinaire Jessica Lee Hunt, Campbell Phillips from Shining N Stylish for his beautiful horse Finn Stylishly Dun, Takanini Gurdwara Sri Kalgidhar Sahib who provided us with the setting to bring Mata Khivi to life, Bollywood Costume Hire, production manager Paul Stokes.
Dedicated to my late biji (grandmother), a true Punjabi storyteller. I still have fond memories of her lying with me and my sisters on a manja (Punjabi for woven outdoor bed) under the stars on our rooftop in India, telling us stories about the night sky—the mysterious yet revealing world beyond our atmosphere.
Throughout history, women have fought for and shaped the world we live in today; however, their stories have often been left on the sidelines. In this photo essay, we present you with five Sikh women who paved the way for a better future through their fight for social justice, gender equality and a more compassionate world.
Mata Khivi: founder of langar (free kitchen)
Langar is a free community kitchen found in gurdwaras across the world. It is a tradition of the Sikh faith steeped in equality, compassion and sewa (meaning service) that invites all people to come together to eat, regardless of their religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status. It was initiated in the 1500s by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and its first guru, and nurtured and made a tradition by Mata Khivi, the wife of Bhai Lehna, who was Sikhism’s second guru. Thirteen-year-old Mata Khivi married 15-year-old Bhai Lehna in 1519 and had four children with him. At the time of marriage, both Mata Khivi and Bhai Lehna were Hindus; however, after meeting Guru Nanak and being drawn to Sikh principles, they adopted the faith and decided to dedicate their lives to its teachings. Guru Nanak found Bhai Lehna to be a devout disciple and made him Sikhism’s second guru. He was also given the name Guru Angad, meaning “my own limb”. When Guru Nanak passed away in 1539, Guru Angad took over and led the Sikh faith. Mata Khivi’s life got very busy after her husband took over as guru, and she was often told by women in her village that he would forsake her because he had become an important holy man. Refusing to allow the naysayers to stir her, Mata Khivi continued standing by her husband, supporting him in all that he did. One of the areas she managed and was passionate about was the langar. She enjoyed cooking delicious vegetarian food for Guru Angad’s visitors, especially the children from the community, who she treated like her own. Over the years, langar became known as Mata Khivi Ji da Langar (Mata Khivi’s langar) because of her commitment to nurturing it and institutionalising it. Langar has survived for over 500 years, and we owe it to Mata Khivi, the compassionate Sikh woman who kept the tradition alive and passed down knowledge of the Sikh way of life to the generations that followed.
Mai Bhago: warrior woman
Mai Bhago, the warrior who led Sikh troops in battle against invading Mughals in 1705 was an extraordinary woman. She was born in the village of Jhabal Kalan (present-day Amritsar district), India, and grew up to be a devoted Sikh and follower of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and final Sikh Guru. In 1699, she travelled with her father, Malo Shah, from Jhabal Kalan to Anandpur, where she was initiated into the Khalsa, a group founded by Guru Gobind Singh for Sikhs who wanted to offer their life to sewa (service). After she was initiated, she told her father she wanted to stay in Anandpur, learn martial arts and become a sant sipahi (saint-soldier), but her father refused as women at the time did not partake in warfare. Back in Jhabal Kalan, Mai Bhago’s longing for martial arts and joining the Sikh Khalsa Army did not subside so her father ceded and taught her horse riding and the art of warfare. Mai Bhago’s skills were put to use in 1705, during the Battle of Muktsar, when she heard that 40 Sikh soldiers from her region had deserted Guru Gobind Singh mid-battle and given him letters of bedava (abandonment of a Sikh from his Guru). Infuriated, Mai Bhago confronted the deserters, charging them with timidity and lack of faith. She then spread word about the desertion throughout her village and surrounding villages, telling people not to be hospitable to the cowards who disclaimed their guru. Mai Bhago was so committed to righting the soldiers’ wrongs that she even dressed herself in full armour, ready to go to battle alone. Seeing her dedication, the soldiers were both ashamed and inspired and decided to fight another day. With kirpans (daggers) re-strapped and kangas (combs) tightly sealed under their turbans, they hopped on their horses and galloped back to the battlefield in Anandpur, led by Mai Bhago. The battle was won by the Sikhs and although all 40 soldiers who went back into battle that day died, the Sikh faith was able to live on. Mai Bhago was found lying wounded on the battlefield by Guru Gobind Singh and was later made his personal bodyguard. Mai Bhago, the first Sikh warrior woman, defended her faith fiercely and taught the world about the rewards of being gender-inclusive.
Maharani Jind Kaur: the Sikh Empire’s first female leader
Maharani Jind Kaur was the first and last female leader of the Sikh Empire and a powerful force against British rule in India. She was born in 1817 in Chicharwali, a village in the Sialkot district of Punjab in what is now Pakistan. On her 18th birthday, her father Manna Singh Aulakh, a kennel keeper in the palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (the founder of the Sikh Empire), petitioned the maharaja to make Maharani Jind Kaur his wife. Maharani Jind Kaur’s beauty caught the 55-year-old maharaja’s eye and he agreed, making her his youngest wife. In 1838, Maharani Jind Kaur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh had a son, Duleep Singh. Unfortunately, in 1839, just one year after Duleep Singh’s birth, Maharaja Ranjit Singh passed away. His death threw the state of Punjab into chaos and the British saw it as an opportunity to further strengthen their military force and inch their way towards Punjab, the only area on the Indian subcontinent that had not yet fallen under their rule. Four years later, after the assassination of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s first three successors, five-year-old Duleep Singh became the Sikh Empire's youngest maharaja. Since he was too young to rule at the time, Maharani Jind Kaur took control of the Sikh Empire on his behalf. In 1845, the British declared war against the Sikhs in an attempt to take control of the region. Maharani Jind Kaur defended Punjab’s position and sent the Sikh Army to meet British troops at the border. The battle (known as the First Anglo-Sikh War) was won by the British but they were still unable to control Punjab, thanks to its fierce female leader. In 1846, tired of the rebellious maharani and her powerful influence over her people, the British replaced her by a Council of Regency. However, the patriotic maharani’s dedication to her region’s freedom did not falter and she continued to influence her people. In 1847, the British separated Maharani Jind Kaur from her son and imprisoned her in an attempt to break the revolt. A year later, she escaped from imprisonment and found refuge in Nepal. A letter that she left for her British jailers upon escape paints a wonderful picture of this rebel queen: “You put me in a cage and locked me up. For all your locks and your sentries, I got out by magic . . . I had told you plainly not to push me too hard—but don’t think I ran away. Understand well that I escape by myself unaided . . . don’t imagine I got out like a thief.” While it was certainly a great escape, it did not stop the British from making their next move; in 1849, they annexed Punjab, incorporated it within British India and deposed Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was placed under the guardianship of army surgeon John Spencer Logan and his wife Lady Logan to be assimilated and converted to Christianity. When he turned 15, Maharaja Duleep Singh was uprooted from Punjab and deported to England. There, he was presented to Queen Victoria, who immediately took a liking to him and took him under her wing. She described him as “handsome” with “a dignified manner”.
In 1861, after 11 years in asylum, the British no longer saw Maharani Jind Kaur as a threat and she was given permission to see her son. They reunited at Spence’s Hotel in Calcutta, after which they gained further permission to return to England together. Maharani Jind Kaur lived in Abingdon House, Kensington, until her death in 1863. Maharani Jind Kaur, the powerful rebel queen who single-handedly showed the British what a mother would do for the love of her son and country.
Gulab Kaur: immigrant with a cause
Gulab Kaur, also known as Ghadri Gulab Kaur, was an Indian freedom fighter. She was born in 1890 in Bakshiwala, a small village in Punjab’s Sangrur district in India. Gulab Kaur was married at a young age to a man from her village named Mann Singh. Soon after, she moved with him to Manila, Philippines, with the intention of ultimately migrating to the United States. However, the universe had other plans for Gulab Kaur and they did not include running away from the hardships caused by British rule in India or being a housewife. In Manila, Gulab Kaur and Mann Singh came across the Ghadar Party, an organisation made up of mostly expatriate Punjabis dedicated to overthrowing British rule in India. The Ghadar Party was initially based in California but later spread to India and Indian diasporic communities around the world. Within the Ghadar, Gulab Kaur found her calling—to fight for Indian liberation. In 1913, she officially joined the party and from there quickly became one of the movement’s core leaders, travelling across Manila to help spread the group’s message. As the role became more involved, she made the decision to move back to Punjab so she could play an active part in the rebellion against British rule. Her husband, while supportive of the party, decided to stick to their initial life path and moved to the United States. Back in Punjab, Gulab Kaur, disguised as a journalist, distributed arms to Ghadarites in Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur and Jalandhar, mobilised masses and disseminated literature about the Indian freedom struggle far and wide. She was eventually found out, arrested by the British and imprisoned in Lahore’s Shahi Qila for two years, where she endured serious abuse and torture. Gulab Kaur did not let her time in prison dim her fire though; once she was released, she continued her revolutionary work with the Ghadar Party until her death in 1931. Gulab Kaur, the Sikh freedom fighter fought for Indian independence until the very end.
Princess Sophia Duleep Kaur Singh: a royal socialite-turned-activist
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was a suffragette and leading campaigner for women’s rights in the United Kingdom. Her heritage was a remarkable one: Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last maharaja of the Sikh Empire, who was dethroned as a young boy and exiled to England by the British Raj, was her father; Bamba Muller, the daughter of an Ethiopian slave was her mother; Maharani Jind Kaur, the Sikh Empire's first female leader was her grandmother; and Queen Victoria who ruled between 1819 and 1901 was her godmother. She was born in Central London in 1876 and was brought up among the British aristocracy. Queen Victoria had a soft spot for Princess Sophia Duleep Singh who she “took under her wing” after her mother died of alcoholism and her father’s life spiralled out of control as he questioned the legitimacy of the treaty he had been forced to sign as a child and chased the futile goal of reclaiming the throne that was taken from him. In the end, Maharaja Duleep Singh’s obsession with getting the throne back led to his demise—in 1893 he died in Paris, alone and broke. Queen Victoria encouraged Princess Sophia Duleep Singh to become a socialite and granted her an apartment in Hampton Court as a grace and favour. While Princess Sophia Duleep Singh enjoyed the luxuries afforded to her and explored the life of a socialite—attending every notable social event and appearing in high-end magazines for her exquisite taste in fashion—she was eventually drawn to activism, in particular British women’s rights. It is said that her passion for activism was sparked in 1903 when she went on a forbidden trip to India and attended the Delhi Durbar, an event that celebrated the succession of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark as Emperor and Empress of India. While in Delhi, she expected she would be treated like royalty the way she was in London but instead she was mostly ignored and blended into a crowd of brown faces. In Delhi, she saw famine, poverty and suffering and the dark side of British rule in India. She returned to London a new woman and spent much of her adult life a suffragette, fighting for women’s voting rights. She attended meetings, joined demonstrations and led the famous Black Friday march of 1910 with Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the United Kingdom’s suffragette movement. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, the daughter of a man who woke up to stockholm syndrome, the granddaughter of a maharani whose son was taken from her, the goddaughter of an abuser and the woman who used her complicated heritage the best way she could and forged her own path—one dedicated to the betterment of women and female empowerment.