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Holy call

The three-day festival of Hola Mohalla is marked by a spectacular display of

martial strength by Nihangs, writes Kanwarjit Singh Kang.

Tribune India,Saturday, February

20, 2010

Lakhs of devotees throng

Anandpur Sahib to
participate in the three-day
festival of colour and gaiety
Hola Mohalla, which is
celebrated a day after Holi. It
is believed that Guru Gobind
Singh ordained Sikhs to
assemble there on this day
to display the martial spirit,
perform mock-battles and
military exercises in order to
keep reminding his people of
defence preparedness.

Among the devotees, the

most conspicuous are the
Nihangs, who congregate Dressed in cloth and steel, these Nihangs perform mock battles
there in large numbers. The and military exercises at Anandpur Sahib. Photo: Pradeep Tiwari
most spectacular part of Hola
Mohalla is the magnificent procession of Nihangs on horses, elephants or on foot,
carrying a variety of arms and weapons. Many hold the religious flag while others
bear kettle-drums, dressed half in cloth and half in steel, performing daring feats
such as gatka (mock encounter with real weapons), tent pegging, bareback horse
riding, standing astride on two speeding horses and various other feats of bravery.

The Nihang Singhs, originally known as Akali Nihangs, are a group of Sikh devotees
who look conspicuous in their dark blue dress and peaked turbans often surmounted
with steel quoits or have daggers and plumes affixed on them. This imposing
headgear together with their moustaches, trained up to their eyes, give them a
peculiar expression of energy.

Scholars differ about the origin of the Akali-Nihangs but most attribute their
inception to the patronage of Guru Gobind Singh who, through the famous baptismal
ceremony, transformed a sect of pacifists into a militant brotherhood of crusaders.
This change was made operative by the military corporation of zealots, who came to
be known as Akali-Nihangs. Nihangs also means free from care. The word Akali is
derived from akal, a compound term of ‘kal’ or death and the Sanskrit prefix ‘a’,
which means immortal.
During the time of Sikh
confederacies, the Nihangs
became very powerful.
Invested with the privilege of
calling the national council of
Sikhs at Akal Takht in
Amritsar, their influence on
the Sikhs grew considerably.
The observation made at the
beginning of the 19th
century by Brigadier Malcolm
makes a worthwhile quote:
“When a Gurmat or great
national council is called, as
it always is, or ought to be,
when any imminent danger Their dark blue dresses, coupled with peaked turbans, often
threatens the country, or any surmounted with steel rings, daggers and plumes affixed, give
large expedition is to be them a peculiar expression of energy.
undertaken, all Sikh chiefs assemble at Amritsar. The assembly, which is called
Gurmat, is convened by the Akalis (Nihangs); and when the chiefs meet upon this
solemn occasion, it is concluded that all private animosities cease and that every
man sacrifices his personal feelings at the shrine of the general good; and, actuated
by principles of pure patriotism, thinks of nothing but the interest of the religion and
commonwealth to which he belongs. When the chiefs and principal leaders are
seated, the Adi Granth and Dasam Padshah Ka Granth are placed before them. They
all bend before the scriptures and exclaim: Wahe Guruji ka Khalsa, Wahe Guruji ki
fateh (The Khalsa are the chosen of God, Victory to our God).

When the prayers are over, the Akalis exclaim: ‘Sardars, this is a Gurmat’ on which
prayers are again said aloud. After this, the chiefs sit closer and say to each other:
‘The sacred granth is betwixt us, let us swear by our scripture to forget all internal
dispute and to be united’. This moment of religious fervour and ardent patriotism is
taken to reconcile all animosities. Then they proceed to consider the danger with
which they are threatened, to settle the plans for averting it.”

The Akali-Nihangs have played a constructive role in Sikh affairs and from their seat
at Akal Takht, wielded a reconciliatory and almost authoritative influence on the Sikh
confederacies, which were weakened by the rival ambitions of their chiefs.

Throughout the three-day festival of Hola Mohalla, groups of ballad singers conjure
up images of bygone chivalry and heroism of the Nihangs. They sing particularly of
the dare devil Akali Achilles, Phula Singh, who lived from 1761 to 1823, feared and
revered by both the princes and the peasants.

A legend lingers: seated on an elephant like a traditional victor, Maharaja Ranjit

Singh asked a blue-turbaned Nihang why he had refused to bow before the royal
authority. The Nihang adjusted his arrow, squared his shoulders and retorted: “I can
only command”. Ranjit Singh examined his conical turban, assessed the steel in his
eyes, dismounted from his horse and exclaimed: “If there are a few more like you,
the freedom of the country is secure.”
The Nihangs were divided into two main groups: Buddha Dal and Taruna Dal.
Nihangs above 40 years were taken into the Buddha Dal and those below this in the
Taruna Dal. Their duties were also different, the former would preach Sikh thought,
construct and look after the shrines and attend to the well being of the old and the
later would play defensive and offensive during the raids of enemies.

The Nihangs generally remain on the move from one place to another and call this
Chalda Vaheer (roaming battalion). Tents, horses and paraphernalia also move with
them. The life style of the Nihangs remains almost immune to the transition in India.
However, with educated youth joining their ranks they are now set for some kind of
change but their resistance to innovations in religion is as much marked today as it
was in the past.