Nihangs Singhs have been the standard bearers of the Sikh warrior tradition for over three hundred years. Formed at a time when the Sikh way of life was under attack from the Mogul rulers and their proxies, Nihangs soon gained a formidable reputation for their fighting qualities and indomitable spirit. Heavily armed and dressed in distinctive blue uniform these ascetic and uncompromising warriors fought solely to protect their religion from oppression and tyranny. The fact that it survived at all largely rested upon their fearsome courage, skill at arms and their devotion to the Guru’s word.
The troops of horse backed Nihangs, or Dals as they are called, are the ones I have spent most time photographing. Their itinerant life is tough and uncomplicated, living under canvas or out in the open, preparing and cooking food in the field. Their role in today’s society, as it has been explained to me, and has been for many years now, is to travel from village to village reinforcing the Gurus’ message, reminding the Sikhs of their spiritual heritage and projecting the traditions of the Khalsa.
They generally never spend more than three or four days in any one place but their arrival is a cause for celebration. Their stay is marked by prayers, the recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib, devotional songs and the serving of food. They are always invited to an area or village by a family or group of supporters and it is quite common to find that a particular Dal has been visiting the same sites for many years. A Dal’s progress is planned well in advance so that they attend the significant annual events in the Sikh calendar. To see them gathered in large numbers at festivals such as Hola Mohalla is to get just the merest glimpse of what it must have been like to have seen massed columns of these proud, fearless horsemen riding across the plains of the Punjab to close with their enemies. Their lifestyle, often misunderstood and rebuked, is nurtured and maintained in a deliberate way and for a very good reason. As one very senior Nihang once said to me “who are we to change a tradition that goes back generations?”