Sikh devotee reviving ancient martial art
A feature article about an ancient fighting technique from northern India has sparked a fierce debate on The Independent newspaper’s website about the significance of the sword and militaristic traditions in the Sikh religion.
The article by Jerome Taylor centres on the efforts of a 41-year-old Sikh, Nidar Singh Nihang, to revive a little known Indian martial art, shastar vidiya, at a college training class in Hounslow, West London.
Jerome Taylor begins his story with a vivid description of how three turbaned Sikh warriors frantically battle each other with razor sharp swords. Two younger combatants use “elegant curved swords and small circular shields to attack a taller and older man who is armed with a long double edged blade and a simple dagger”.
An audience of students watches the demonstration and pays wrapt attention as the taller man, Singh Nihang, the master (“gurdev”) at the class, goes on to talk about other techniques in a martial form he believes has been in danger of extinction.
As Chinese and Japanese martial arts thrived and spread worldwide, shastar vidiya languished in the shadows, banned by the British Raj after they suppressed the Sikh warrior class who had battled to protect the Sikh empire in India in the mid 19th century.
Sikhs had established themselves as the pre-eminent practitioners of the fighting technique, said Singh Nihang, a former Wolverhampton food packer who has spent 20 years studying and mastering Indian martial arts.
The British colonial administration allowed a softer ceremonial version of shastar vidiya – “gatka” – which has endured and is a common feature of Sikh festivals today. But Singh Nihang fervently believes the original version should be practised, taught and disseminated.
Students at the Hounslow college learn to fight with wooden sticks before moving on to metal weapons, if they are adjudged to have the necessary skill and control. The truly dedicated are invited to adopt strict religious and martial disciplines,
The Independent article reveals Singh Nihan – a controversial figure in the temples for his sometimes divergent views on traditional Sikhism – as a font of knowledge about Sikh military traditions, particularly the blue turbaned warriors, the Akali Nihangs.
Singh Nihang says he learned the techniques of shastar vidya in the Punjab from a master in his seventies and from further studies in books and documents in the British Library and London’s V&A Museum.
Jerome Taylor’s article has sparked a scholarly but sometimes heated debate on the Independent website on how the sword came to be held in such reverence by Sikhs – but it also reveals a divergence of opinion on the Sikhs as a warrior nation.
The article and readers’ feedback can be accessed here.
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