SIKH MEN OF STEEL: THEN AND NOW

May 27, 2010

When the Sikh Empire was being established two hundred years ago, swords were used in  hand-to-hand combat. Sikh commandos called Nihangs, who fought these dangerous battles, were created by the Tenth Guru. Like the Christian Crusaders and the Muslim Ghazies, they were spiritually motivated fighters who staged do-and-die battles with tenacious zeal. Even today, you can recognize bands of Nihangs by their bright blue clothes, bangles of steel on their wrists and bands of steel in their tall blue turbans. They still carry swords, shields and spears along with iron chains.

Nihang is a Persian word that means “crocodile” coined by Mughal historians who saw brave Sikh monks fight as ferociously as crocodiles. But the Nihangs were not ruthless brutes like their enemies: they called themselves Akali after the timeless nature of God, literally fighting to immortality as they followed the code of the Sikh Khalsa.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

The Nihangs helped Maharaja Ranjit Singh expand the boundaries of the Sikh empire into Punjab in northern India.  After a thousand years of plunder and dominance of India by the ruthless Pashtuns, it was the Nihangs who finally subdued them. This gave the leader of the Nihangs, Akali Phula Singh, enormous power and prestige in the Sikh empire. The Maharaja, on his part, humbly submitted that he ruled courtesy the Khalsa – the Pure – thus giving his rule its due spiritual underpinning.

When Maharaja Ranjit Singh married a Muslim woman, it was Akali Phula Singh who declared that the Maharaja had become a non-Sikh and dared to summon him for punishment. Maharaja Ranjit Singh came and humbly admitted his mistake. When Akali Phula Singh ordered fifty lashes on him, the Maharaja took off his shirt to receive his punishment. Seeing what a great guy he was, Akali Phula Singh recommended that he be forgiven. Such is, even now, the caliber of the true Khalsa – fearless but always fair.

The two men continued to work together. When the Maharaja decided to invade North West Frontier Province, the home of the Pashtuns, it was the first time that any non-Muslim from India had invaded their territory.

Sikh Warriors Ride Into BattleThe Maharaja himself led the expedition with Akali Phula Singh right in front. As soon as the Sikh army was within firing range, they were showered with bullets by the Pashtuns who were well placed upon the high ground ahead of them. Akali Phula Singh pretended to retreat. The Pashtuns, who knew the Akali’s reputation, were gleeful that they had made the Sikhs run for their lives and came down cheering. Once they were all out in the open, Akali Phula Singh turned around his Sikhs and attacked the partying Pashtuns. Hand-to-hand combat followed. The battlefield was strewn with dead Pashtuns and Nihangs. The Pashtun leader ran away with his surviving men. The people of Peshawar vacated their city when they heard the Sikhs had arrived.

Such was the fear of the Nihangs that the Sikhs occupied Peshawar without a fight. Yar Mohammad Khan, the Governor of the Pashtuns, had already run away but came down from the Khyber Pass with gifts to show his loyalty to the Sikh Maharaja. The gifts were accepted and peace declared but when Yar Mohammad Khan proved rebellious later on, he was defeated by Akali Phula Singh’s Nihangs. In honor of their great heritage, even today, the Nihangs wear the electric blue turban and the Katchha – the short pants.

Sikh warriors at weapons training

Maharajah Ranjit Singh was the only one able to control the Akali Nihangs.

2 Responses to “SIKH MEN OF STEEL: THEN AND NOW”


  1. Great article on the Akali Nihangs if you don’t mind i will be adding this to my blog.

    Wahe Guru Ji Ka khalsa Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh


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