In Persian the
word “Nihang” means a “crocodile”. The Mughals named a fanatic suicide squad in
their army “the Nihang”. That squad used to dress in blue. While Guru
Gobind Singh institutionalised Sikh identity at Anandapur Sahib in 1699, he
formed a squad in his Khalsa army with the same purpose and name and
It is estimated that
about 9000 “taksals” and “deras” operate in Punjab now. Both
these are alternative socio-religious spaces and run parallel to the orthodox
Sikh Panth (Society). In a taksal a boy—often from a poor family—is sent to
learn Sikh scriptures from a Guru. In time he may turn into a Raagi (singer) or
a Granthi (reader) employed by SGPC (Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee) in a
Gurdwara they run. Taksals are semi-independent establishments that manage
through subscriptions collected from patrons and also through revenue earned
from the land they hold. A Nihangs’ dera operates on the same mechanism but it
is not a permanent settlement like a Taksal. A dera’s principal task is to
train a boy into warfare.
Nihangs are a study in
contradiction. A few deras violently supported the Khalistan movement launched
by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, while a dera headed by Santa Singh Nihang
sided with the Government of India to rebuild Akal Takht after Operation Blue
Star—reportedly making the Government spend ₹1,00,000 a day—denying injunctions
issued by all Sikh bodies that mattered in 1984.
Through the year a
dera rarely remains stationary. The Nihangs still consider themselves the 10th
Guru’s suicide squad and they divide their year into trips to different places
connected to the Guru. In mist or in rain a long caravan of blue soldiers
riding together is a common sight in Punjab.
On any day a Nihang Dera looks like a mediaeval army's camping ground. Novice Nihangs burn grass to keep their camp clean, tend to horses and grind bhang or cannabis. They consume it mixed in milk or as a potion. The Nihangs call bhang ‘the Sukha’.
For 20 years this mobile camp has been Amandeep Singh Nihang’s home. Initiated early into a life exposed to the elements, living in tents among horses, mastering the skill of using guns and swords, the Nihang way is an anachronism in modern India.
Horses are the lifeline of an ever-mobile Nihang culture. Boys grow up knowing and caring for their horses. The horses are thoroughly trained to act as mounts during displays of the Nihangs’ fighting skills or to play an equal part in their riding shows. They eventually become a physical extension of their masters.
Nihangs unload a truck-load of fodder at the courtyard of a Gurdwara near Patiala. A Nihang caravan usually consists of 60-70 members on horseback, two to three trucks carrying fodder and all essentials needed to set up camp in the open, sometimes a couple of camels or even an elephant. These days cars are also used besides horses.
For ages Nihangs have been living in the open and they follow certain rules to minimise pollution. Whenever they move out they burn all pollutants collected in the camp. With fire and smoke and departing soldiers in blue their camp looks like a war zone.
Rural fairs are the Nihangs’ playing grounds. They perform the gataka or traditional sport of fighting with swords. A few enterprising Nihang gurus run schools in major towns in Punjab to teach gataka. Urban Sikhs treat the Nihangs with indifference, though.
A Nihang seamlessly dissolves into the texture of rural Punjab. A Sikh at any age can be initiated into the order by a guru and can also remain an independent man living with his family. He only has to remain faithful to his guru’s cause.
Kartar Singh Nihang, 82, reclining on his cot at his dera near Taran Taran. To save their political identity the Sikhs had to fight the Mughals, the Marathas, the Afghans under Ahmed Shah Abdali, the Dogras, and finally the British—either collectively or in turn—between 1699 and 1846. Though very much a symbol of the Guru’s army, Kartar Singh Nihang has sufficiently softened down with age to turn to Guru Nanak's pacifism
As the Sikh Gurus—particularly Gobind Singh—were great chroniclers of history and left behind ample written documents, Sikhism developed as an organised religion with very strong central command and essential symbolism.
There is a small number of Nihang deras that align with secessionist Khalistani ideology. An urban Nihang in Jalandhar appears before a crowd in a shirt printed with the face of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. His dera went as far as to declare Bhindranwale their 11th Guru.
Boys are allowed no boyhood distractions in a Nihang dera, and are made to follow a strict routine. Kind Sikhs empathise with them and pamper them thoroughly when they step out of their dera or are allowed a little relaxation during a festival. A shopkeeper at Talwandi Saboo has vacated his shop to allow the boys to shuffle through Cartoon networks on his television.
Bobby, 6, is the youngest Nihang being brought up in a dera at Damdama Sahib, near Bathinda. Bobby is not shy of holding a firearm—a real one. To make him look warrior-like beyond his age a patron of his dera thrust a revolver into his little palms. Bobby merrily pointed it towards my lens.
The Nihangs’ horses kick up a dust storm during a performance.
Amandeep Singh Nihang and his horses captivating a big gathering with their skill at Damdama Sahib, during Baisakhi. Amandeep frequently sends me WhatsApp messages, telling me about another unknown place deep inside Punjab where he just fought another mock battle.
Nihangs display their martial skill before devotees attending any major religious festival. All Nihang deras converge on Anandpur Sahib during Holi and Damdama Sahib during Baisakhi. Guru Gobind Singh consolidated the martial identity of the Sikhs at Anandapur Sahib, while he wrote the major part of the Dasam Grantha at Damdama Sahib.
Nihangs guard a field attached to their dera near Gurdaspur. Running a dera involves considerable cost and the Nihangs invest what they earn from donation into land, which they rent to farmers to assure fixed annual earnings. Land disputes are common, and Nihangs can protect their land zealously.
Sikh religion and politics are inseparable. A Nihang dera—also called chauuni or cantonment—operates more or less independently, and in a political crisis takes sides according to the wish of the dera head. This opens much space for monetary and other interest-centric negotiations. The Nihangs don't make a cohesive political force, and deras readily come to fight when there occurs a clash of interests.