NIHAṄGS or Nihaṅg Siṅghs, originally known as Akālīs or Akālī Nihaṅgs, are endearingly designated the Gurū's Knights or the Gurū'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 Khālsā 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, shot-guns and pistols.
Etymologically, the term Nihaṅg is traced back to Persian nihaṅg (alligator, sword) or to Sanskrit nihśaṇka (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 nisaṅg often used in the Sikh scriptures to mean nirlep (unsmeared, sinless, not attached to anything). In Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's Vār Srī Bhagautī Jī, 47, it is used for swordsmen warriors of the vanguard. Whatever its origin, the term signifies the characteristic qualities of the clan — their 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 Nihaṅgs. One of these recalls an amusing prank by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's infant son, Fateh Siṅgh (1699-1705), who once appeared in the Gurū's presence dressed in a blue cholā (loose shirt hanging skirt-like below the knees), fastened at the waist with a linen girdle, and a large blue turban with a dumālā (piece of cloth forming a plume). The Gurū was pleased to see his son so arrayed and, remarked that that was a dress fit for Akālīs, the soldiers of God. This, according to some, was how a band of warriors sworn to this regalia arose. Another view is that Gurū Gobind Siṅgh after his escape from Chamkaur donned blue dress as a disguise which, upon reaching the village of ḍhilvāṅ, near Koṭ Kapūrā, in December 1705, he discarded and burnt. Mān Siṅgh, 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 dumālā on the head following the style of Mān Siṅgh. According to yet another version, the adoption of peaked turban and dumālā is traced to Naiṇā Siṅgh Akālī, one of the leaders of Nishānāṅvālī (lit. standard bearing) misl which provided ensigns to the Dal Khālsā, the eighteenth-century confederated Sikh army. Naiṇā Siṅgh introduced a tightly-tied tall turban with a dumālā 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 Akālī Nihaṅgs.
As Sikh misls or chiefships which had in the latter half of the eighteenth century established their sway in the Punjab succumbed in course of time to mutual rivalries and to self-aggrandizement, the Akālī or Nihaṅg bands (they were affiliates mainly of the Nishānāṅvālī and Shahīd divisions) kept themselves aloof from the race for power or property. This self-discipline and the privilege they had gained of convening at the Akāl Takht general assemblies of the Khālsā, brought them importance far out of proportion to their numbers or political authority. In the time of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh (1780-1839), who established a sovereign State superseding the scattered principalities, the Akālī Nihaṅgs maintained their independent existence. By their puritan standards and disregard of material advantage, they had acquired a rare moral prestige. Their leader Akālī Phūlā Siṅgh Nihaṅg, then custodian of the Akāl 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 Mahārājā valued their qualities of valour and persuaded them (they would not become salaried servants of anyone) to join a special wing of his army. Nihaṅg troops under Jathedār Sādhū Siṅgh and Akālī Phūlā Siṅgh performed a crucial role in some of the arduous military campaigns of the Mahārājā, such as those of Kasūr (1807), Multān (1818), Kashmīr (1819) and Nowsherā (1823).
Decline in the influence of Nihaṅgs set in with the death of Raṇjīt Siṅgh. During the Sikh rule, Nihaṅgs 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 Nihaṅg leader, Gaṇḍā Siṅgh, who refused to vacate one of the minarets adjoining the Golden Temple, was arrested along with his men, and taken to Lahore. Gaṇḍā Siṅgh and two of his close companions were sentenced to death and the rest were imprisoned for seven years.
The Nihaṅgs are today divided into several groups, each with its own chhāoṇī (cantonment), but are loosely organized into two dals (forces) — Buḍḍhā Dal and Taruṇā Dal, names initially given the two sections into which the Khālsā army was divided in 1733. The Buḍḍhā Dal, calling itself Chhiānaveṅ Karoṛī Chaldā Vahīr (960-million-strong column ever on the move), has its headquarters at Talvaṇḍī Sābo, in Baṭhiṇḍā district, while the principal chhāoṇī of the Taruṇā Dal Nihaṅgs is at Bābā Bakālā, in Amritsar district. Anandpur Sāhib, the birthplace of the Khālsā, remains the main centre of Nihaṅg gatherings. They assemble there in their thousands in March every year to celebrate Hold Mahallā, a Sikh festival introduced by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. On that occasion, they holā tournaments of military skills, including mock battles. The most spectacular part of the Holā Mahallā at Anandpur is the magnificent procession of Nihaṅgs 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 Nihaṅgs try to preserve the form and content of the Khālsā practice established by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh and strictly observed by the early Akālīs of the eighteenth century. Rising early, a Nihaṅg recites nitnem (daily prayers) which includes bānīs from Gurū Granth Sāhib, the Dasam Granth and the Sarab Loh Granth. He then joins the saṅgat in the gurdwārā where kīrtan (hymn-singing) and kathā (discourse) take place. He tends his horse and performs other acts of sevā or self-abnegating service to which he may be assigned by his jathedār or leader. These may include working in the Gurū kā Laṅgar or community kitchen and foraging for the camp's cattle and horses. Nihaṅgs are strict teetotallers, and will not stand smoking in their presence even by non-Sikhs. Yet they are fond of Sukkhā, a potion of Indian hemp thoroughly crushed with heavy wooden pestle in a mortar, and do not object to opium eating. Sukkhā to them is deg (the kettle or sacrament) or sukh-nidhān (treasure of comfort). Mostly non-vegetarians, they would not buy meat from the market but must slaughter the animals themselves. Faithful to the sarab-loh (all-steel) symbolism propounded by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, all accoutrements of Nihaṅgs, Nihaṅg's weapons, utensils, trappings, even rosaries, must be of steel. Besides the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the Nihaṅgs 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 Brijnād, the king of demons. Likewise, they are attached to Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's poem Chaṇḍī dī Vār, describing the titanic contest between the gods led by the goddess Durgā and the demons, and they daily recite it with deep fervour to recreate for themselves that martial tempo.
The Nihaṅg 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) Khālsā 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 elephant a buffalo-calf, and sugar, a rare luxury for men in exile, ashes. He will add the word siṅgh 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.
K. S. Kaṅg