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Military Sikhs

Sikh warrior wearing an Akali turban, G Western, India, about 1860. Museum no. 0932(IS)

Akali Sikh warrior wearing the distinctive Akali turban, photography by G Western, India, about 1860. Museum no. 0932(IS). Albumen print.

Sikhism began as a peaceful religion, and tolerance always remained one of the fundamental tenets. However, religious persecution led to the development of a martial ethos that was enshrined by Guru Gobind Singh. From the time of the Khalsa in 1699, all men were to adopt the name Singh, meaning lion, and to carry arms. Four of the five outward emblems he prescribed to be worn also have a military interpretation: the sword; the long, uncut hair to provide protection against a sword blow when wound round the head; the steel bangle, symbolising a traditional throwing weapon of the Panjab; and the short, loose trousers which were easier to fight in.

By the late 18th century, the Sikhs already had a reputation as highly effective hit-and-run fighters and superb horsemen. Ranjit Singh's army was particularly formidable, however, because it had a core of professional troops trained along European lines.

Lahore and other centres of the Panjab were renowned for the skills of their armourers and gun makers, and these armed his forces with finely-made weapons that were ruthlessly efficient. The main deficiency of the army was its artillery, a problem solved when the British presented Ranjit Singh with a pair of cannon. These were copied with great skill and inflicted extremely heavy losses on the British forces in the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1846.


Shaster Vidiya - the education of a Sikh warrior
Nidar Singh, 2001

A group of Akali Sikhs, unknown artist, Punjab, about 1860. Museum no. IS.11-1987

A group of Akali Sikhs, Company painting by an unknown artist, Punjab, about 1860. Museum no. IS.11-1987. Watercolour on paper.

Shaster (weapon) Vidiya (knowledge or science) was essential military training for the Sikh warrior - the Akali Nihang Singh Khalsa. The present-day descendants of the Akali Nihangs, the Budha Dal, trace the origins of Sikh Shaster Vidiya to the founder of the religion, Guru Nanak himself. According to their oral tradition, Guru Nanak was summoned to the divine court of God where, alongside receiving the holy Gur mantra, Vah Guru, he also received Shaster Vidiya.

Guru Nanak passed this martial knowledge on to his trusted Sikh, Baba Budha Ji, with the stated intention of claiming it back in his sixth form. It was the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, who received Shaster Vidiya from Baba Budha Ji at an early age. Baba Budha Ji also trained an army of twenty two hundred Sikh warriors who were the soldiers of the Akal Boongah (the Immortal Fort, built in 1606), and known as the Akalis (Immortals).

The Akali army was called the Akal Sena or Akal Fauj but was informally known as the Budha Dal or army of Baba Budha Ji. Its primary function was to defend Sikhism and all who sought the protection of the Sikhs from the then oppressive Mughal empire which had tortured and executed the fifth Guru, Arjandev. It was his son, Akali Guru Har Gobind, with his army of Akalis who engaged the Mughal forces in four battles and gained four successes.

With successive gurus after Guru Har Gobind, the Akal Sena was maintained in its original form until the time of the tenth Guru, Akali Gobind Singh Ji. At some time before the creation of the Khalsa in 1699, he altered the structure of the Akal Sena with the effect that, from then on, only a high ranking soldier of the Akali Sena was to be known as an Akali. A low ranking soldier was designated Nihang, or one who is not attached to life nor fears death.

He quickly realised that in order to defend Sikhism it would not be enough just to rely on the Akal Sena so he decided to make the whole of the Sikh nation (with exception of certain Sikh groups such as the Udasis, Sewa Panthis and the Nirmalas) into a martial nation. Thus, in 1699, the Akali Nihang Singh Khalsa came into being.

After Guru Gobind Singh, it was a successful Khalsa, led by the Akali Nihang Singhs, who fought a life and death struggle for nearly a hundred years against both the Mughal Empire and the invading Afghans. They forged a series of independent kingdoms throughout the Panjab in the late 18th century.

Even when the great Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh fell to the British Empire in the hard-fought Anglo Sikh wars (1845-46 and 1848-49), the majority of Sikhs, to this day, know it was not their ancestors' martial prowess which let them down. The historic evidence strongly points to the fact that they actually won on the fields of battle but lost the wars due to the betrayal by their treacherous Dogra Generals.

Following the annexation of the Panjab in 1849 and the establishment of the British Raj, the traditional Sikh martial traditions and practitioners suffered greatly. In order that the British authorities could establish their rule in the Panjab, they adopted several severe measures, the most significant of which was the effective disarmament of the whole of the Sikh population. Even every-day tools and farming implements which could be used as weapons were banned. A few, such as the Akali Nihangs, who refused to surrender their weapons, were hunted down and killed or driven into hiding by the British authorities. It was at this critical juncture that the traditional martial knowledge, Shaster Vidiya, previously maintained to a high standard by the Sikhs, almost ceased to exist in the Panjab.

In 1857, the Indian Mutiny erupted. By that time, the British had significantly crushed all resistance to their rule in the Panjab. Sikhs who had collaborated with the British had been fully established as the leaders of the 'new' Sikh nation. Thus, in 1857, the Sikhs on whole greatly assisted the British in crushing the mutiny.

As a consequence of the martial assistance provided by the Sikhs, restrictions on martial practices were relaxed in the Panjab but tightened in north eastern regions of India where the mutiny had been strongest. However, the Shaster Vidiya which re-emerged after 1857 in the Panjab had changed.

The construction of the Indian sword, S D Metcalf, V&A Conservation Department, 2001

The construction of the Indian sword, S D Metcalf, V&A Conservation Department, 2001. Punjabi names for the blade parts courtesy of Parmjit Singh. Names for parts of the sword hilt after Manik Rao, 1948, and A V B Norman, 1992.

This new form of Shaster Vidiya was a product of the changing times which had also seen the general Sikh populace of that period begin to accommodate the British Raj by divorcing itself from the sanatni boh-Panthi (traditional pluralistic) Sikhism of the pre-British period. There was a stark contrast between this pluralistic Sikhism (consisting in the main of Udassis, Seva Panthis, Nirmalas and Akali Nihang Singhs) and the British Raj-accommodating Sikhism, or Angrej Sikhi, which was later developed and encouraged by the Tat Khalsa Singh Sabhias.

The new Shaster Vidiya was no longer the lethal art designed to produce soldiers to defend the Sikh nation. Instead, during the 1860s, it had evolved into an inoffensive and ritualistic martial art popularly known as Gatka (derived from the name of the main weapon used, the sword training stick). Gatka was mainly practised in the barracks of the British Indian army and was diligently taken up by Sikh and other Indian soldiers. Later, as Sikh colleges opened in the Panjab during the 1880's, European rules of fencing began to be applied to Gatka. This innovation led to two forms of Gatka developing, namely rasmi (ritualistic) and khel (sport) Gatka.

'An introduction to Shaster Vidiya - the education of a Sikh warrior' was a lecture by Nidar Singh, given as part of the Sikh Arts and Heritage Lecture Series at the V&A, 10 October 2001.

As part of the same lecture series, Simon Metcalf gave a talk focussing on the making of Damascus steel and the weapons traditions in northern India. This diagram showing the construction of the Indian sword was part of that lecture.


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