The Nihang, also known as Akali, is a historical warrior order of the Sikh community that originated in the Indian subcontinent. They are believed to have originated from either the attire worn by Fateh Singh or from the "Akali" army founded by Guru Hargobind. The Nihang played a significant role in early Sikh military history, known for their bravery and fighting skills despite being outnumbered. They traditionally served as irregular guerilla squad in the Sikh Khalsa Army during the Sikh Empire.
The term Akali/Akaali refers to the concept of timelessness or immortality, meaning someone who is subject to none but God only. The terms Akali, Khalsa and Sikh are interchangeable, with Akali first being used during the time of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib and becoming popular in the late 18th century. It is associated with qualities such as commitment, fearlessness, boldness, struggle, and justice.
The word Nihang is believed to have originated from the Persian word for a mythical sea creature, "Nahang," which was used by Mughal historians to compare the fierce nature of Akali with that of a crocodile. However, in Sikhism, the term Akali refers to the immortal army of Akal (God).
According to Pashaura Singh and Louis E. Fenech, there are three main theories about the origin of Nihangs: the first theory is that they began with the son of Guru Gobind Singh, Fateh Singh, and his blue clothing and turban, which the Guru prescribed as a uniform for his warriors. The second theory is that they originate from the disguise of Guru Gobind Singh when he escaped from Chamkaur in 1704 or 1705. The third theory postulates that they can be traced back to the garb of Akali Naina Singh of the Nishanwalia Misl.
Arms and Attire
The traditional attire of Nihangs is known as Khalsa Swarupa, which includes a full outfit of bright blue, chosen by Guru Gobind Singh after conflicts with Vazir Khan, the Mughal Governor of Sirhind. It features several edged bracelets of iron around each wrist, called jangi kara, and steel quoits, called chakram, tied in their tall, conical blue turbans. They also wear either a dori kirpan, which is a type of open-blade dagger worn with a rope, or a pesh kabaz, a precursor to the modern kirpan.
When fully armed, Nihangs also carry one or two swords, such as the curved talwar or the straight khanda, a dagger called katar on the left hip, a buffalo-hide buckler called dhal on the back, a large chakram around the neck, and an iron chain. In times of war, they may also carry a bow or spear. Their armor includes sanjo or iron chainmail worn under an iron breastplate, called char aina, and war-shoes made of iron at the toe, which can inflict cuts and stab wounds. Rarely, they might also be armed with a musket or matchlock.
They were particularly known for their high turbans, called dastar bunga, and their use of the chakram or war-quoit. These turbans were often pointed at the top and outfitted with a trident called astbhuja, or sometimes with an iron claw called bagh naka, and one or several chakrams to slice at an opponent's eyes. These steel-reinforced turbans, it was said, afforded enough protection so that there was no need for any other form of headgear.
Today, Nihangs still wear miniature versions of five weapons, called pancha shastra, in their turbans, namely the chakram, the khanda (sword), the karud (dagger), the kirpan, and the tir (arrow).
Nihang Factions Today
The Budha Dal is a group that was originally created by splitting the Dal Khalsa into two, for older members (over 40).
The Taruna Dal, also created by splitting the Dal Khalsa, is intended for younger members (under 40). The Taruna Dal was further divided into five jathas, each with 1300 to 2000 men, and a separate drum and banner.
The Bidhi Chand Dal descends from the lineage of Bidhi Chand, a contemporary warrior and companion of the Sikh Gurus.
The Ranghreta (or Rangreta) Dal is prominent amongst Mazhabi Sikhs. These last two groups are much less prominent than the first two.
Each Dal consists of both a mobile and stationary group. The mobile group of the Budha Dal, for example, is the Dalpanth. There have been incidents of conflict in the past between different groups of Akalis, even within the same faction.
The Nihangs uphold the original teachings of Sikhism and wear traditional navy/electric blue and bright yellow or basanti attire, including a tegha, Dhal (shield), and katar. Yellow in Punjabi culture symbolizes sacrifice, revolt, and honor, while blue represents courage, bravery, and patriotism. The Gurus stated that these colors, usually associated with the Khalsa and Kshatriyas, are the colors of the casteless Khalsa.