Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

The Nihangs: once valiant warriors, now a fragmented community

The 19th century historian Rattan Singh Bhangu described Nihangs as “unaffected by pain or comfort”, “given to meditation, penance and charity” and “complete warriors”.

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The Patiala incident in which a group of Nihangs attacked a Punjab police party and chopped off the hand of an assistant sub-inspector when stopped for a curfew pass, and the subsequent seizure of weapons and narcotics, has put the spotlight on the Nihangs.

Explained: Who is a Nihang?

Nihang is an order of Sikh warriors, characterised by blue robes, antiquated arms such as swords and spears, and decorated turbans surmounted by steel quoits. Sikh historian Dr Balwant Singh Dhillon said, “Etymologically the word nihang in Persian means an alligator, sword and pen but the characteristics of Nihangs seem to stem more from the Sanskrit word nihshank which means without fear, unblemished, pure, carefree and indifferent to worldly gains and comfort.” The 19th century historian Rattan Singh Bhangu described Nihangs as “unaffected by pain or comfort”, “given to meditation, penance and charity” and “complete warriors”.

When was the order formed?

Dhillon said this can be traced back to the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. The word nihang, he says, also occurs in a hymn in the Guru Granth Sahib, where it alludes to a fearless and unrestrained person. “However, there are some sources which trace their origin to Guru Gobind Singh’s younger son, Fateh Singh (1699-1705), who once appeared in the Guru’s presence dressed in a blue chola… and blue turban with a dumala (piece of cloth forming a plume). On seeing his son look so majestic, the Guru remarked that it shall be the dress of Nihangs, the reckless soldiers of the Khalsa,” Dhillon said.

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How were Nihangs different from other Sikhs, and other Sikh warriors?

As per an account by the East India Company’s Colonel James Skinner (1778-1841), Khalsa Sikhs were divided into two groups: “Those who put on blue attire which Guru Gobind Singh used to wear at the time of battle” and those who “do not follow any restrictions on the colour of their dress” though both of them “follow the profession of soldiery and are brave without peer in the art of musketry and chakarbazi, and the use of quoits”. Dhillon said Nihangs observe the Khalsa code of conduct in its strictest sense. “They do not profess any allegiance to an earthly master… Instead of saffron they hoist a blue Nishan Sahib (flag) atop their shrines,” said Dr Dhillon.

Nihangs use the slogans ‘chhardi kala’ (forever in high spirits) and ‘tiar bar tiar’ (state of ever preparedness) for unforeseen events. “The Nihangs are fond of a popular drink called shardai or sharbati degh (sacrament drink) which contains grounded almonds, cardamom seeds, poppy seeds, black pepper, rose petals and melon seeds. When a small measure of cannabis is added to it, it is termed sukhnidhan (treasure of comfort). A higher dose of cannabis in it was known as shaheedi deg, sacrament of martyrdom. It was taken (while) battling enemies,” said Dr Dhillon.

Nihangs: What is their role in Sikh history?

Nihangs had a major role in defending the Sikh panth after the fall of the first Sikh rule (1710-15) when Mughal governors were killing Sikhs, and during the onslaught of Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Durrani (1748-65). When the Khalsa army was divided into five battalions in 1734, one Nihang or Akali battalion was led by Baba Deep Singh Shahid.


Nihangs also took control of the religious affairs of the Sikhs at Akal Bunga (now known as Akal Takht) in Amritsar. They did not consider themselves subordinate to any Sikh chief and thus maintained their independent existence. At Akal Takht, they held the grand council (Sarbat Khalsa) of Sikhs and pronounced the resolution (Gurmata) passed.

Their clout came to an end after the fall of Sikh Empire in 1849 when the British authorities of Punjab appointed a manager (sarbrah) for the administration of the Golden Temple in 1859. “In the recent past, the Nihang chief, Baba Santa Singh, at the instance of Indian Government had fallen afoul of the mainstream Sikhs as he went on to rebuild the Akal Takht that was damaged during Operation Bluestar in June 1984. Some Nihangs, namely Ajit Singh Poohla, collaborated with the Punjab police to eliminate Sikh militants,” said Dr Dhillon.

Nihangs: What is their current status?

Dr Dhillon said the Nihangs today constitute a small community. About a dozen bands, each headed by a jathedar (leader), are still carrying on with the traditional order. Prominent among these are Budha Dal, Taruna Dal and their factions. In the absence of a centralised command, the Nihangs are loosely organised. For the whole year they remain stationed at their respective deras (centres) but set out on their annual pilgrimage of Anandpur Sahib, Damdama Sahib Talwandi Sabo and Amritsar, take part in religious events and exhibit their martial skills and horsemanship. As per Dr Gurmeet Singh Sidhu, professor-in-charge Guru Gobind Singh Chair at Punjabi University, Patiala, “With the advent of modernity, the balance between Bani (Guru Granth Sahib) and Bana (outer form) broke down, resulting in problems and unethical actions. Earlier, Nihangs would never attack an unarmed person.”


Who can become a Nihang?

According to Budha Dal chief Baba Balbir Singh, any person irrespective of caste, creed or religion can be included provided he has unshorn hair as per the Sikh traditions at the time of entering the sect. “That person should also remember the five banis, should wake up at 1 am for daily ablutions, should do his prayers in the morning and evening. Anyone who fulfils these conditions is initiated as a baptised Sikh in an Amrit Sanchar ceremony, following which he is given a new name, robes and weapons similar to the ones carried by Guru Gobind Singh when he founded the Khalsa,” said Balbir Singh, who asserted that the attackers of policemen in Patiala are not associated with Budha Dal. “A Nihang does not attack an unarmed person.”

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First published on: 14-04-2020 at 04:00:59 am
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