NIHANGS or Nihang Singhs, originally known as Akalis or Akah Nihangs, are endearingly designated the Guru`s Knights or the Guru`s beloved, for the military ambience they still carry about them and the heroic style they continue to cultivate. They constitute a distinctive order among the Sikhs and are readily recognized by their dark blue loose apparel and their ample, peaked turbans festooned with quoits, insignia of the Khalsa and rosaries, all made of steel. They are always armed, and are usually seen mounted heavily laden with weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, rifles, shotguns and pistols.
Etymologically, the term Nihang is traced back to Persian nihang (alligator, sword) or to Sanskrit nihsanka (fearless, carefree). In the former sense, it seems to refer to the reckless courage members of the order displayed in battle. The word could also be a modified form of nisang often used in the Sikh scriptures to mean nirlep (unsinearcd, sinless, not attached to anything). In Guru Gobind Singh`s Vdr Sn Bhagauti Ji, 47, it is used for swordsmen warriors of the vanguard.
Whatever its origin, the term signifies the characteristic qualities of the clantheir freedom from fear of danger or death, readiness for action and non attachment to worldly possessions.There are three different accounts current about the origin of the Nihangs. One of these recalls an amusing prank by Guru Gobind Singh`s infant son, Fateh Singh (1699-1705), who once appeared in the Guru`s presence dressed in a blue chold (loose shirt hanging skirllike below the knees), fastened at the waist with a linen girdle, and a large blue turban with a dumald (piece of cloth forming a plume).
The Guru was pleased to see his son so arrayed and remarked that that was a dress fit for Akalis, the soldiers of God. This, according to some, was how a band of warriors sworn to this regalia arose.Another view is that Guru Gobind Singh after his escape from Chamkaur donned blue dress as a disguise which, upon reaching the village of Dhilvari, near Kot Kapura, in December 1705, he discarded and burnt. Man Singh, his attendant, saved a piece of the blue garment and stuck it on top of his turban. This, it is said, led to the vogue among some to take to blue and wear a dumald on the head following the style of Man Singh.
According to yet another version, the adoption of peaked turban and dumald is traced to Naina Singh Akali, one of the leaders of Nishanarivali (lit. standardbearing) misi which provided ensigns to the Dal Khalsa, the eighteenth century confederated Sikh army.Naina Singh introduced a tightly tied tall turban with a dumald signifying the flag so that the ensign would be conspicuous even when his standard is broken or destroyed. The style, it is surmised, gained currency and those who adopted it were ranked as Akali Nihangs.
As Sikh mis Is or chief ships which had in the latter half of the eighteenth century established their sway in the Punjab succumbed in course of time to mutual rival ries and to self aggrandizement, the Akali or Nihang bands (they were affiliates mainly of the Nishanarivall and Shahid divisions) kept themselves aloof from the race for power or property.This self discipline and the privilege they had gained of convening at the Akal Takht general assemblies of the Khalsa, brought them importance far out of proportion to their numbers or political authority. In the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), who established a sovereign State superseding the scattered principalities, the Akali Nihangs maintained their independent existence.
By their puritan standards and disregard of material advantage, they had acquired a rare moral prestige. Their leader Akali Phula Singh Nihang, then custodian of the Akal Takht, was the voice of the religious and moral conscience of the State and at times he censured and chastised the Sovereign himself.The shrewd Maharaja valued their qualities of valour and persuaded them (they would not become salaried servants of anyone) to join a special wing of his army. Nihang troops under Jathedar Sadhu Singh and Akali Phula Singh performed a crucial role in some of the arduous military campaigns of the Maharaja, such as those of Kasur (1807), Multan (1818), Kashmir (1819) and Nowshera (1823).
Decline in the influence of Nihangs set in with the death of Ranjit Singh. During the Sikh rule, Nihangs had been openly antagonistic towards the European officers of the State and towards the occasional embassies sent out to the Punjab by the British East India Company.The Britishers, as they came into power in the Punjab, dealt with them harshly. The process of suppression had in fact started even before the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. In 1848 a Nihang leader, Ganda Singh, who refused to vacate one of the minarets adjoining the Golden Temple, was arrested along with his men, and taken to Lahore.
Ganda Singh and two of his close companions were sentenced to death and the rest were imprisoned for seven years. The Nihangs arc today divided into several groups, each with its own chhdom (cantonment) , but are loosely organized into two dais (forces)Buddha Dal and Taruna Dal, names initially given the two sections into which the Khalsa army was divided in 1733.The Buddha Dal, calling itself Chhianavcri Karon Chalda Vahir (960 million strong column ever on the move), has its headquarters at TalvandT Sabo, in Bathinda district, while the principal chhdom of the Taruna Dal Nihangs is at Baba Bakala, in Amritsar district. Anandpur Sahib, the birthplace of the Khalsa, remains the main centre of Nihang gatherings.
They assemble there in their thousands in March every year to celebrate Hola Mahalla, a Sikh festival introduced by Guru Gobind Singh. On that occasion, they hold tournaments of military skills, including mock battles. The most spectacular part of the Hola Mahalla at Anandpur is the magnificent procession of Nihangs on horses and elephants and on foot in their typical costumes carrying a variety of traditional and modern weapons and demonstrating their skill in using them.Apart from their distinguishable mode of dress, the Nihangs try to preserve the form and content of the Khalsa practice established by Guru Gobind Singh and strictly observed by the early Akalls of the eighteenth century.
Rising early, a Nihang recites nitnem (daily prayers) which includes barns from Guru Granth Sahib, the Dasam Granth and the SarabLoh Granth. He then joins the sangat in the giirdwdrd where ^n/an(hymn singing) and katha (discourse) take place. He tends his horse and performs other acts of sevd or self abnegating service to which he may be assigned by hisjatheddror leader. These may include working in the Guru ka Larigar or community kitchen and foraging for the camp`s cattle and horses. Nihangs are strict teetotallers, and will not stand smoking in their presence even by non Sikhs.
Yet they are fond of sukkhd, a potion of Indian hemp thoroughly crushed with heavy wooden pestle in a mortar, and do not object to opiumeating. Sukkhd to them is cleg (the kettle or sacrament) or sukhnidhdn (treasure of comfort ). Mostly nonvegetarians, they would not buy meat from the market but must slaughter the animals themselves. Faithful to the sarabloh (all steel) symbolism propounded by Guru Gobind Singh, all accoutrements of Nihangs, Nihang`s weapons, utensils, trappings, even rosaries, must be of steel. Besides the Guru Granth Sahib, the Nihangs accord a high place to the Dasam Granth in their religious ministration.
They reserve special veneration for the Sarab Loh Granth, which depicts in primordial symbols the eternal fight between good and evil in this instance between Sarab Loh, All Steel incarnation of God, and Brijnad, the king of demons. Likewise, they are attached to Guru Gobind Singh`s poem Chandi d1 Vdr, describing the titanic contest between the gods led by the goddess Durga and the demons, and they daily recite it with deep fervour to recreate for themselves that martial tempo.
The Nihang today lives in his own world of past memory, not divorced from fancy. Besides his traditional investiture, his tall pyramidical turban, the ensemble of weapons he carries on his person and his lanky horse, what helps him to sustain him in his isolated domain is the magniloquent patois he has acquired. This vocabulary, coined in the hard days when he suffered fierce persecution at the hands of the Mughal rulers, indicates how light he made of adversity. He still dreams of armies, and he thinks in lakhs. If he is alone he will say, ” A lakh and a quarter (1,25,000) Khalsa are present.” You ask him how he is, he will reply, “The army is well. “You enquire from where he is coming.
He will say, “The `army` have been marching from Muktsar.” If he is eating parched gram, he will say he was eating almonds. For him hunger is intoxication, a miserable pony an Arab and Iraqi steed, begging would be raising revenue and dying would be proceeding on an expedition. Expressing his disdain for worldly goods, he would call money husks, an elphant a buffalo calf, and sugar, a rare luxury for men in exile, ashes. He will add the word singh as an affix to all substantives and sometimes to other elements of speech as well, and he will transpose all feminine nouns into the masculine gender.
1. Gargi, Balwant, ed., Nihangs: Knight Errants of the Guru. Chandigarh, n.d.
2. Tradition and Customs of Nihangs,” in The Spokesman Weekly. 13 February, 1978
3. Cunningham, Joseph Davey, A History of the Sikhs. London,1849
4. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, vol I. Princeton, 1963