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They 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, shot-guns and pistols.

Etymologically, the term Nihangs 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 nihang often used in the Sikh scriptures to mean nirlep (unsmeared, sinless, not attached to anything). In Guru Gobind Singh's var Sri Bhagauti ji, 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.

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 Akali or Nihang bands (they were affiliates mainly of the Nishananvali 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 are today divided into several groups, each with its own chhoni (cantonment), but are loosely organized into two dals (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 Chhianaven Karori Chalda Vahir (960-million-strong column ever on the move), has its headquarters at Talvandi Sabo, in Bathinda district, while the principal, chhoni 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 Akalis of the eighteenth century. Rising early, a Nihang recites nitnem (daily prayers) which includes banis from Guru Granth Sahib, the Dasam Granth and the Sarab Loh Granth. He then joins the sangat in the gurdwara where kirtan(hymn-singing) and katha (discourse) take place. He tends his horse and performs other acts of seva or self-abnegating service to which he may be assigned by his jathedar or leader. These may include working in the Guru ka Langar 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 sukkha, a potion of Indian hemp thoroughly crushed with heavy wooden pestle in a mortar, and do not object to opiumeating. Sukkha to them is deg (the kettle or sacrament) or sukhnidhan (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 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 di Var, 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 (125, 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.

NIHANG BOLE, grandiloquent patois peculiar to the Nihangs, a chivalrous order among the Sikhs. It comprises euphemisms and jargon symbolic of high-spirited confidence and courage. Another term for this language of defiance and optimism is Gargajj Bole, lit. thunderous utterances. Nihang is interpreted, among other connotations such as sword, charger, alligator, pure, etc., as one without fear of death. Up to the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh the Nihangs often served as "death squads" who carried out their military tasks that defied the common tactics of the regular army. Their distinctive garb-blue robes and elaborate weaponry they wore on their persons is said to have originated with Guru Gobind Singh's youngest son Fateh Singh, who once appeared before his father so dressed.

To match their martial accoutrement and character, the Nihangs developed baddm a special vocabulary of their own by adopting hilarious euphemisms and humorous paral lels to words and expressions in common use. Thus they made light of hardships, especially in the days of persecution. A single Nihang would announce himself as an army of a lakh and a quarter. Adversities would be described in a language of challenge and bravado, and articles of worldly comfort and glory belittled to the point of ridicule. Death was called an expedition of the Khalsa into the next world. One with empty stomach would call himself maddened with prosperity. Taking a meal of parched gram of necessity a Nihang would describe himself as eating almonds. Even now onions for Nihangs are silver pieces, rupees on the other hand mere pebbles, and a club the repository of isdom. In their separate camps and also in their converse with the common people, the Nihangs use such euphemistic or derogative terms for things of common use or for act of daily occurrence which create humour or conceal, in a quixotic manner, the material limitations of the speaker. A large number of these have gone out of use and some even out of common memory.

(Encyclopaedia of Sikhism)

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