The Akālis or Nihangs are a fanatical order of Sikh ascetics. The following extract is taken from Sir E. Maclagan’s account of them:3
“The Akālis came into prominence very early by their stout resistance to the innovations introduced by the Bairāgi Banda after the death of Guru Govind; but they do not appear to have had much influence during the following century until the days of Mahārāja Ranjit Singh. They constituted at once the most unruly and the bravest portion of the very unruly and brave Sikh army. Their headquarters were at Amritsar, where they constituted themselves the guardians of the faith and assumed the right to convoke synods. They levied offerings by force and were the terror of the Sikh chiefs. Their good qualities were, however, well appreciated by the Mahārāja, and when there were specially fierce foes to meet, such as the Pathāns beyond the Indus, the Akālis were always to the front.
“The Akāli is distinguished very conspicuously by his dark-blue and checked dress, his peaked turban, often surmounted with steel quoits, and by the fact of his strutting about like Ali Bāba’s prince with his ‘thorax and abdomen festooned with curious cutlery.’ He is most particular in retaining the five Kakkas, and in preserving every outward form prescribed by Guru Govind Singh. Some of the Akālis wear a yellow turban underneath the blue one, leaving a yellow band across the forehead. The yellow turban is worn by many Sikhs at the Basant Panchmi, and the Akālis are fond of wearing it at all times. There is a couplet by Bhai Gurdās which says:
Siah, Sufed, Surkh, Zardae,
Jo pahne, sot Gurbhai;
or, ‘Those that wear black (the Akālis), white (the Nirmalas), red (the Udāsis) or yellow, are all members of the brotherhood of the Sikhs.’
“The Akālis do not, it is true, drink spirits or eat meat as other Sikhs do, but they are immoderate in the consumption of bhāng. They are in other respects such purists that they will avoid Hindu rites even in their marriage ceremonies.
“The Akāli is full of memories of the glorious day of the Khālsa; and he is nothing if he is not a soldier, a soldier of the Guru. He dreams of armies, and he thinks in lakhs. If he wishes to imply that five Akālis are present, he will say that ‘five lakhs are before you’; or if he would explain he is alone, he will say that he is with ‘one and a quarter lakhs of the Khālsa.’ You ask him how he is, and he replies that ‘The army is well’; you inquire where he has come from, and he says, ‘The troops marched from Lahore.’ The name Akāli means ‘immortal.’ When Sikhism was politically dominant, the Akālis were accustomed to extort alms by accusing the principal chiefs of crimes, imposing fines upon them, and in the event of their refusing to pay, preventing them from performing their ablutions or going through any of the religious ceremonies at Amritsar.”
7. The Sikh Council or Guru-Māta. Their communal meal.
The following account was given by Sir J. Malcolm of the Guru-Māta or great Council of the Sikhs and their religious meal:4 “When a Guru-Māta or great national Council is called on the occasion of any danger to the country, all the Sikh chiefs assemble at Amritsar. The assembly is convened by the Akālis; 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.
“When the chiefs and principal leaders are seated, the Adi-Granth and Dasama Pādshāh Ka Granth5 are placed before them. They all bend their heads before the Scriptures and exclaim, ‘Wah Guruji ka Khālsa! wah Guruji ka Fateh!’6 A great quantity of cakes made of wheat, butter and sugar are then placed before the volumes of their sacred writings and covered with a cloth. These holy cakes, which are in commemoration of the injunction of Nānak to eat and to give to others to eat next receive the salutation of the assembly, who then rise, while the Akālis pray aloud and the musicians play. The Akālis, when the prayers are finished, desire the Council to be seated. They sit down, and the cakes are uncovered and eaten by all classes of the Sikhs, those distinctions of tribe and caste which are on other occasions kept up being now laid aside in token of their general and complete union in one cause. The Akālis proclaim the Guru-Māta, and prayers are again said aloud. The chiefs after this sit closer and say to each other, ‘The sacred Granth is between us, let us swear by our Scriptures to forget all internal disputes and to be united.’ This moment of religious fervour is taken to reconcile all animosities. They then proceed to consider the danger with which they are threatened, to devise the best plans for averting it and to choose the generals who are to lead their armies against the common enemy.” The first Guru-Māta was assembled by Guru Govind, and the latest was called in 1805, when the British Army pursued Holkar into the Punjab. The Sikh Army was known as Dal Khālsa, or the Army of God, khālsa being an Arabic word meaning one’s own.7 At the height of the Sikh power the followers of this religion only numbered a small fraction of the population of the Punjab, and its strength is now declining. In 1911 the Sikhs were only three millions in the Punjab population of twenty-four millions.
The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India
Macmillan and Co., London.
An Early Portrayal of the Sikhs
an 18th Century Etchings by Baltazard Solvyns