Nihangs (also: called Akalis) are a very famous and prestigious armed Sikh order. Early Sikh military history is dominated by the Akali Sikh military order that is particularly noted for the many famous military victories they won, often while they were heavily out-numbered. The Nihungs have historically been held in great affection and respect by Sikhs due the pivotal role they have played in Sikh history and Sikh military history in particular. The Nihang's activities are currently mostly ceremonial, as it is peace time but in times of war for the Sikh religion the Akalis have historically spear-headed the attack on the enemy.
"Nihang", a Persian word meaning Crocodile, was the name given to the Akali's by the invading Mughals who said they fought ferociously like crocodiles.
The Nihangs were also known as Akalis. The term "Akali" is said to be derived from the Sanskrit Akal Purusha (Akal Purukh in Punjabi) - "the Timeless One", a term for God. Thus 'Akali' translates as "A Servent of the Timeless God".
What is Nihang?
Anyone who lives free from fear is called a ‘Nihang’. In Raag Aasa Guru Arjan dev Ji has described ‘Nihang’ in this manner:
|(Ang 392, SGGS)|
| "nirbhau hoeiou bheiaa nihangaa
Being fearless, he becomes a ‘Nihang’ (bold and daring person)."
Describing the Nihang the old Panth Prakaash states:
| "nihang kahaavai so purakh, dukh sukh manne na ang.(praapanpraa)
A person who has forsaken the fear of death and is always ready to embrace martyrdom is called a Nihang."
Nihang Singhs are unattached to worldly materials. They wear blue clothes and tie a turban that is a foot high with a “dumala” on top of it. They always keep several weapons such as chakars or a khanda on themselves.
The Nihangs, the 'Dare Devils' of the Sikh Panth, are members of an order established by Guru Gobind Singh Ji more than 300 years ago. Renowned for their martial skills the Nihangs (men such as Akali Phula Singh) are the Vanguards of the Sikh nation, whose vocation in life is to be a warrior and protect the Gurdwaras and be on the forefront of battles. Though there is no concrete account of how the Nihangs came about, it is told by many Singhs that one day the three Sahibzaadey (princes of Guru Gobind Singh Ji) were performing their battle skills, and the youngest of them all Baba Fateh Singh Ji also wanted to play with his brothers. The other brothers replied: “At the moment you are too small.”
The Sahibzaadey felt so let down, that he went inside the palace and tied a dastaar (turban) as tall as one hand. He put on a blue dress. Placed a Chakar (round disc carried on a belt or worn on the turban) on himself. He adorned himself with a small Khanda. Over his dastaar he wrapped a ‘dumalla’ and in he held in his hand a spear, with wore his Kirpaan. He then went to where his brothers were playing and said, “Now I don’t look small.”
Seeing his son, looking so handsome and beautiful, Guru Ji said: “From this dress the Nihangs will be formed.”
For this reason up to this day Nihang Singhs are called ‘Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s Laddleeaa Faujaa(n) (Beloved Army)’.
Another story relates that Guru Gobind Singh Ji was (so) impressed by Bhai Maha Singh’s dress, character and fighting skills that Guru Ji said, “You will have your own Panth”. However, this story makes no sense. Would Guru Gobind Singh Ji want his Sikhs to follow the Guru’s Panth and path or follow the Panth and path of individual Sikhs? Therefore, these myths can be dismissed.
Guru Gobind Singh Ji said that the Nihangs will be generous, follow strict adherence to Dharma. When the sword is wielded, it will give out sparks like fireworks are going. Fighting in the battlefield in this way it will seem like a crocodile is coming out of the sea:
| "januk lahir daryaav te
niksiyo baddo nihang. dharam ke su dhol dhaam, dharitaa ke dharaadhar, dhaaraa dhar moud shau vinod barsat hai."
The Nihang Singhs were the image of spotless character: (charitr 297)boohaa khol(h) de nisang, aae nee nihang.' “Open the door, do not be afraid, a Nihang has come your house.”}}
They used to lead such an intrepid and unpredictable lifestyle that even their family did not know of their whereabouts. While riding or fighting they always uttered “Akaal, Akaal”. That is why they also become known as “Akaalis”. Their language (the distinct language of the Khalsa) indicated their positive (Chardikala) attitude. For example:
- To die (Marnaa) – Charhaaee karnaa
- Sickness (Beemaaree) – Dharam Raaj di dhee seva kar rehee hai
(literal meaning is ‘daughter of the angel of death’)
- Punishment to a guilty (Kukarmee nu sazaa milann) – Shaheedi maar
- Chickpeas (Sholay) – Badaam
- Salt (Loon) – Sarab rass
- A little (Thoree) – Sawaayaa
(literal meaning is ‘one and a quarter’)
- When there is nothing/ run out (Kujh Naa hon) – Mast
- Grass (Ghaah) – Haraa pallaa
- Shanty (Tuttee hoyee chhann) – Sheesh Mahal
(literal meaning is a ‘mirrored palace’)
- Calamity (Museebat) – Swarag
(literal meaning ‘heaven’)
- Worn out scarf (Godrree) – Hazaar mekhee
- Coarse grain (Mottaa Ann) – Gurmukhi Parshaad
- Rupees – Chhillar
(literal meaning is ‘bark of a tree’)
- Someone loose on Sikh conduct (Rehat vich Dhiley) – Dabrroo Ghusrooh
- One (Ek) – Savaa lakh
(literal meaning is ‘one hundred twenty five thousand’)
- Sleep (Neend) – Dharam Raaj di dhee
- Oneself – Fauj
(literal meaning is ‘army’)
But merely putting on a blue chola (piece of clothing) and learning Shastar Vidiyaa (the art of Sikh weaponry) does not make one a Nihang. Unfortunately in recent years many people who don’t strictly follow the Khalsa reheat (The Sikh way of life) and don't have good moral character, have brought shame to the ‘Nihang’s by claiming to be Nihangs or associating themselves with the Nihang Singhs. In particular in the UK a group of young Sikhs call themselves Nihangs on the fact that they look the part and know how to swing a Kirpaan, however they do not have the strict Rehat (disciplined way of life), Naam abhiyaas, knowledge, and Jeevan (spiritual life) of true Nihangs.
A number of modern Nihang Singhs observe some rituals and practices, which are contrary to Gurmat, for example consuming marijuana (‘bhang’), these customs and traditions crept in to Nihangs during the period when the Mahants (Hindu caretakers) managed and maintained our Gurdwaras in the 18th – early 20th century. During this period the Sikh religion was distorted and many non-Sikh practices infiltrated into the Sikh Panth. Those who follow these anti-gurmat practices claim that they are ‘old traditions’ (Puraatan Maryada) from the Guru’s time, however Gurbaani gives us enlightenment on whether these practices and observances are Gurmat (according to the guru’s teachings) or Manmat (self-willed). Reading and understanding Gurbaani it becomes apparent that some distortions have entered the traditions of the Nihangs and the wider Sikh community.
So much for these old ‘old tradition’s, rituals and practices
In His Book, Thirty-Five Years in the East, J. M. Honigberger, the European Court Physician of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, tells of a Nihang (he spells the word Nahung) who by the order of Maharaja Ranjit Singh had his nose, hands and ears cut off. The Akali had tried to force his way into the tent of the Maharaja while he (the Nihang) was drunk on bhang. His punishment may sound harsh, but the man had cut off the arm of a guard on sentry duty who had attempted to stop him from entering the tent. Later after the bleeding was quenched and the nihang was recovering he was caught as he was trying to end his life by jumping down a well. He was arrested and put under the care of Dr. Honigberger with specific orders not to allow him to commit suicide.
‘Bhang’ or ‘Sukhnidhaan’, which is produced from marijuana (cannabis), used by large number of Nihangs nowadays, is sometimes justified by quoting tales and stories, claiming the use of Bhang to be one of the ‘old traditions'. Most likely they have never read the story above. However, our Guru is eternal and with us forever. Why do we need to refer to stories and justifying traditions by claiming they are ‘old tradition’s passed down when we have Guru Granth Sahib Ji with us to tell us what is in accordance to Gurmat.
Gurbaani clearly condemns the consumption of marijuana. Furthermore, medical studies carried out have proven that consumption of marijuana and cannabis on a regular basis leads to schizophrenia, and mental problems such as memory loss. The sad fact is that nowadays if you go to India you can see some Sikhs claiming to be Nihangs, who drink ‘Bhang’ and have become mentally unstable.
|(Ang 15, SGGS)|
| "'amol galolaa koorr kaa ditaa devannhaar. matee marann visaariaa kushee keetee din chaar. sach miliaa tin sopheeaa raakhan kau darvaar.1.'
Janamsakhi Bhai Bala' states that Babar heard Guru Nanak Dev Ji sang the shabad:
|(Ang 360, SGGS)|
| "kuraasaan kasmaanaa keeaa hindustaan daraaeiaa.'
Having attacked Khuraasaan, Baabar terrified Hindustan…"
Hearing this shabad, Babar called Guru Ji and asked him to sing it again. Guru Ji sang it again. Babur said, "Friends, he is a nice 'Faqeer' (Holy man)." Then, he offered 'Bhang' to Guru Ji and said, "O Saint, eat the 'Bhang'."
However, Guru Ji replied, "Meer Ji, I have eaten the Bhang, whose stimulation never ends". Babur asked, "Which is the Bhang, whose stimulation never ends?"
Guru Ji asked Baba Mardaana Ji to play on 'Rabaab'. Guru Ji recited this shabad: -
|(Ang 721, SGGS)|
| "tilang mehlaa 1, ghar 2, ik ounkaar satgur prasaad. bhau teraa bhaang, khalrree meraa cheet. mai devaanaa bheiaa ateet. kar kaasaa darsan kee bhookh. mai dar maangau neetaa neet.1. tau darsan kee karau samaae. mai dar maangat bheekiaa paae.1.rahaao. kesar kusam mirgamai harnnaa sarab sareeree charrnnaa. chandan bhagtaa jot enehee, sarbe parmal karnnaa.2. ghia patt bhaanddaa kehai na koe. aisaa bhagat varan mehi hoe. terai naam nive rehe liv laae. naanak tin dar bheekiaa paae.3.1.2.'
“Tilang, First Mehl, Second House: One Universal Creator God. By The Grace Of The True Guru: The Fear of You, O Lord Vaheguru, is my marijuana (cannabis); my consciousness is the pouch, which holds it. I have become an intoxicated hermit. My hands are my begging bowl; I am so hungry for the Blessed Vision of Your Darshan. I beg at Your Door, day after day. "
Guru Ji clearly says that ‘bhau tera bhaang', meaning 'The Fear of You, Vaheguru, is my marijuana (cannabis)'. Thus, Vaheguru's Fear is the true 'Bhang' for a Sikh. Reading this holy shabad, how can anyone say that Guru Ji accepted ‘Bhang' and that he has not condemned it? If Guru Ji was pleased when Babur offered 'Bhang' to him, why did Guru Sahib not drink it? 'Janam saakhi Bhai Bala' does not state that Guru Ji drank 'Bhang', contrary to what some people claim in pursuit of defending their manmat practices.
Gurbaani also tells us:
|(Ang 1377, SGGS)|
| "kabeer bhaang maachhulee suraa paan jo jo praanee khaa(n)hi. teerat barat nem kee-e te sabhe rsaatal jaa(n).233.
O Kabeer! If people after ‘speaking with the Holy’ and go on pilgrimages, perform fasts and practice rituals etc, and those sharaabi, intoxicated, people also consume marijuana and fish (i.e. they attend the Satsang and also consume Sharaab-Kebab and commit immoral deeds) – those persons' pilgrimages, fasts and rituals are totally useless. ((233))"
Bhai Kahn Singh Ji beautifully describes the true character of an Akaali, of someone who associates themselves to Akaal (the Immortal), this passage in particular is used for Nihang Singhs in the Gur Shabd Ratnaakar Mahaan Kosh (1931):
| "vaaheguroo jee kaa khaalsaa.
kamal jayo maayaa jal vich hai alep sadaa sabh daa sanejee chaal sabh to niraalee hai, karke kamaaee khaave mangnnaa haraam jaanne bhaanne vich vipdaa noo manne kush-haalee hai, svaarath to binaa gurduvaariaa(n) daa chaukeedaar dharam de jang le-ee charre mukh laalee hai, phooje naa akaal binaa hor ke-ee devee dev sikh dashmesh daa so keheeai 'akaalee' hai.
The Khalsa belongs to Vaheguru. He who loves all and whose ways are distinct from all, He who eats only that which he earns and considers begging a sin, He who in difficult times has faith in True Guru and remains happy, He who guards the Sikh temples without a desire for material gain, He who is always eager to fight a just and righteous war, He who worships only the Timeless one and not gods or goddesses, Know such a Sikh of the tenth Guru as an Akaali."
In summary it can be said that Nihangs are the official army of the Sikh Panth, who are trained in Shastar Vidiaa and live a life dedicated to serving the Sikh Panth through their battle skills. They are the Boy Scouts of the Sikhs, where there is progression from young Nihangs (Tarna Dal) to older Nihangs (Buddha Dal). They were blessed by Guru Gobind Singh Ji to remain distinct and be fearless warriors, like an official unpaid army without the desire of material gain.
The Nihang attire
The Nihangs differ essentially from all other Sikh orders in being a militaristic organisation. The Nihangs wear chequered dresses of a particular shade of blue known as "electric-blue".bangles or bracelets of steel round their wrists (Kara), and quoits of steel (Chakra) in their lofty conical blue turbans, together with daggers, knives and swords of varying sizes (Kirpan), and an iron chain.
Banda Bahadur, the famous disciple of Guru Gobind Singh and Sikh warrior-general went from being a Hindu to a Sikh and adapted to wearing this attire.
The Akali headquarters was the Akal Bunga at Amritsar, where they assumed the lead in directing religious ceremonies and convoking the Gurmat; indeed, they laid claim to exercise a general leadership of the whole Sikh community. Since Ranjit Singh's time Anandpur has been their real headquarters, but their influence is still being felt in the world today.
Today, Nihangs foregather in their hundreds at Anandpur, on the occasion of the festival of Hola Mohalla and display their martial skills. This tradition has been in place since the time of Guru Gobind Singh.
- By Gurmukh Singh (Panthic Weekly) - www.panthic.org
- Principal Satbir Singh – ‘Sau Suwal’ (Panjabi)
- Dr. Hakam Singh’s translation & commentary of Principal Satbir Singh work – ‘Sau Suwal – One Hundred Questions’ (English)
- Bhai Kahn Singh – ‘the Gur Shabd Ratnaakar Mahaan Kosh’ (Panjabi)
- Photography of the daily lives of the Nihang Singhs of Punjab by photographer Nick Fleming
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