Saturday, 20 February 2010

Holla Mohalla: The Holy call to Arms

The three-day festival of Hola Mohalla is marked by a spectacular display of martial strength by Nihangs, writes Kanwarjit Singh Kang

Dressed in cloth and steel, these Nihangs perform mock battles and military exercises at Anandpur Sahib.

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 there in large numbers. The 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.

Their dark blue dresses, coupled with peaked turbans, often surmounted with steel rings, daggers and plumes affixed, give them a peculiar expression of energy.

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 threatens the country, or any large expedition is to be 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.

Tribune India, Saturday, February 20, 2010

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