Having travelled overland from England, I arrived in September 1977 at the Attari-Wagah border-crossing between Pakistan and India, in the Punjab. Among the first people I saw in India were bearded soldiers on duty, dressed in distinctive, electric-blue costumes and sporting lofty turbans. They were equipped with long swords and daggers and stood dutifully. I was informed that these soldiers were Sikh soldiers called Nihang.
The Nihangs are a sect of Sikh soldiers based in the Indian state of Punjab, who form one of several branches of the Sikh religion. The term ‘nihang’ appears in the Gurū Granth Sāhīb (the holy texts of the Sikhs) and suggests a fearless and unrestrained person. As a political group, the Nihangs are represented as the Akālī Ḍāl (‘immortal branch’). Nihangs are also referred to as Akālīs.
Wearing a small, curved knife (kirpān) is traditional for all members of the Sikh religion, as is the wearing of an edged, iron bracelet (kaṛā). These are two of the five symbols (five ‘k’s) worn by all Sikhs, the other three being uncut hair (keś), a comb (kaṅgha) and a cotton undergarment (kachera).
Nihangs additionally wear five miniature weapons in their turbans, namely rings of steel (cakrams), a sword, a dagger, the kirpān and an arrow. The turbans are reinforced with metal, for protection, and the rings of steel (quoits) can be used to slice opponents.
The instituting of Sikh military forces
On March 30th, 1699, the formation of the Sikh khālsā (‘military force’) was formally instituted by the tenth of the Sikh founding gurus, Guru Gobind Singh, who is considered to be the founder of the Sikh nation (Malleson 1885:337–339). This event is celebrated by Sikhs during the festival of vaisākhī/baisākhī, which takes place annually on the 13th or 14th of April.
The term khālsā (originally from Arabic) means ‘pure’ and is used in several different contexts. It refers not only to Sikh military forces but also applies to the Sikh community in general, to those who follow the khālsā panth (‘pure path’). The term khālsā is sometimes used to refer to a Sikh guru (Singh 1974:20, 26) and may also refer generally to someone in authority.
The Nihangs as a fighting force
There are two military branches of the khālsā, one being the Nihangs, dressed in blue; other, regular Sikh soldiers do not wear the blue costume.
Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was the first of the ten foundational gurus of the Sikh tradition. The Nihangs were instituted by Guru Hargobind (1595–1644), who was the sixth of the gurus. Guru Hargobind organized Sikh military units and arranged for the construction of the Akāl Takht (‘the timeless throne’) in Amritsar (in Punjab), after the execution in Lahore of his father, Guru Arjan, by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Guru Hargobind began wearing two swords, one representing spiritual authority (piri) and the other temporal authority (miri) (Cole and Sambhi 1995:32). He fought several wars with Jahangir’s successor, Shah Jahan, and spent perhaps two years in gaol (Cole 1982:26).
From the time of their inception, the Nihangs, organized in independent guerilla squads, were renowned for their bravery. After the first period of Sikh rule in the Punjab, between 1710 and 1715, the Mughals were attacking Sikhs. This was followed by skirmishes with Afghan invaders under Ahmed Shah Durrani, between 1748 and 1765. In both conflicts the Nihangs played a major role protecting Sikh institutions. In 1849, at the end of Sikh rule in the Punjab, there were about eighteen different denominations and branches of Sikhs (Singh 1999:2), including the Nihangs.
The life of Nihangs
Anyone, regardless of caste, creed or religion, can theoretically become a Nihang, provided they have a shaven head at the time of initiation, observe the five bānīs (recitations of passages of Sikh texts) of the Sikh religion, rise at 1.00 a.m. for ablutions, and perform prayers morning and evening. There are around twenty different bands of Nihangs, each headed by a leader (jatṭhedār), which are organized in four main armies. They are heavily armed and swear to protect the Sikh gurdvārās (temples). The Nihangs administer a number of gurdvārās in Punjab. They derive jagīrs (‘payments’) from these institutions, from which some of them subsist.
Although marriage is not prohibited for Nihangs, most remain celibate and single. For about half of the year Nihangs will till land. During the other half of the year the Nihangs are usually itinerant, travelling in groups (ḍals) by horse from village to village, where they will stay for three or four days, sleeping under rough canvas, reciting scriptures, singing devotional sings and serving food. Their tours are planned to coincide with the main Sikh festivals.
The Nihangs’ use of bhāṅg
In an earlier blog (‘Radical Sūfīs’) it was explained how bands of radical Sūfīs, known as Qalandarī or Haydarī (and also generally as darvish/faqīr/bābā), who migrated to India in large numbers from Central Asia in then 12th and 13th centuries, were largely influential in introducing bhāṅg culture to north India.
Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikh religion, forbade the use of any intoxicant (opium, alcohol, tobacco or cannabis) and also smoking by Sikhs. He was once offered bhāṅg by the Mughal emperor Babur, but declined to take it (‘Cannabis and Sikhism’ 2020:1). In the Gurū Granth Sāhīb (p. 1662, v. 233) it states that those who consume bhāṅg, fish or wine will go to hell.
However, it seems that bhāṅg culture—drinking bhāṅg but not smoking gāñjā—was adopted by the Nihangs from the time of the sect’s inception under Guru Hargobind. In a collection of references from Sikh texts, the Nihangnama (2013–2019), there are several passages in texts from the 18th century and the 1830s that refer to the use of bhāṅg by Nihangs. Shahid Rattan Singh Bangu is described drinking cannabis (bhāṅg) every morning (Pracīn Pañc Prakāś, v.2). There is a description of the preparation of bhāṅg for Guru Gobind Singh in the Gurpratāp Surāj Prakāś (v. 39–43). Maan Singh is said to enjoy cannabis, as do all Nihangs (Navīn Panth Prakāś, vv. 189–200). At one Sikh temple, Takht Sachkand Sri Hazur Sahib Ji, bhāṅg is offered as holy food (Singh 2008).
The Nihangs prepare bhāṅg as a pale green drink, which is usually referred to as sukh nidhān (‘the abode of happiness’) or śahīdī deg (‘martyr’s cauldron’). It is used as an aid to meditation and for approaching God. The bhāṅg is prepared as a drink in huge quantities for hundreds of people, using giant cauldrons and enormous mortars and pestles. It is traditionally made and consumed during important religious festivals, such as hola mohalla, dassera and vaisākhī,when many hundreds of Nihangs display their proficiency in horsemanship, musketry, cakkarbāźī (a folk dance) and martial arts (see ‘Nihangs prepare Sukhnidhan,’ 2017; ‘The Nihangs – A Secret History of the Sikhs,’ 2009).
As a result of a general anti-narcotic campaign in India and opposition by various Sikh organizations, the use of bhāṅg was forbidden for Nihangs at the holla mohalla festival in 2001 (Tribune News Service 2001a). However, this was challenged by many Nihangs, who argued that they had been using bhāṅg since the inception of their sect (Tribune News Service, 2001b). They wished to continue to consume bhāṅg, which they revere.
‘Cannabis and Sikhism’ (2020). Wikipedia. (accessed 3/09/2020)
Cole, W. Owen (1982). The Guru in Sikhism. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
Cole, W. Owen, and Piara Singh Sambhi (1995) . The Sikhs: Their Religious Practices and Beliefs, 2nd revised edn. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press.
Gurū Granth Sāhīb (trans. Kulbir Singh Thind and Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa) (n.d.). Sentence by Sentence English Translation & Translation of Siri Guru Granth Sahib. Tuscon, Arizona: Hand Made Books.
Malleson, Colonel G. B. (1885). The Decisive Battles of India: From 1746 to 1849 Inclusive (Second Edition with an Additional Chapter). Delhi: Low Price Publications.
Nihangnama (The Nihang Treatise) (2013–2019). Mangalacharan (ed.), pp. 1–39. ‘Nihangs prepare Sukhnidan (bhaang/Cannabis)’ (2017), Feb 15th.
‘The Nihang – A Secret History of the Sikhs’ (2009). https://vimeo.com/7283523 (accessed 3/08/2020).
Oberoi, Harjot (1997). The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Singh, Amrit Pal (2008). ‘The “Sukhnidhaan” or “Bhang” (cannabis)’. Amrit World. (accessed 20/08/2020)
Singh, Sulakhan (1999). Heterodoxy in the Sikh Tradition. Jalandhar: ABS Publications.
Singh, Teja (1974). The Sikh Religion: An Outline of its Doctrines. Amritsar: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
Tribune News Service (2001a). ‘No ‘bhang’ at Hola Mohalla’. 10th March.
Tribune News Service (2001b). ‘Nihangs ‘not to accept’ ban on bhang’. 25th March: