It’s a cold, overcast October morning. The mist created as I exhale dances in front of me. As I follow it, captivated by its movement as though it were the first breath I ever saw leave my body, my eyes settle on the house that was my destination two hours ago. It’s an ordinary house, in an ordinary street, in a city like any other. But as I walk towards it, today seems anything but ordinary. The man that lives in that house is a man like no other. He is a master of traditional North Indian battlefield arts, the last Sikh master swordsman. He is Nidar Singh Nihang.
I knock. Not loudly - I’m careful to not appear obnoxious - but loud enough so he thinks I’m nonchalant, indifferent to the reputation that precedes the lord of the manor. As I have never knowingly before tried to knock on a front door in an indifferent and nonchalant fashion, I’m unsure whether or not I’ve managed to pull it off. No matter. A figure I see through the glass appears with such swiftness that it feels as though it has arrived even before my knuckles have announced my presence. The door opens. In the first few moments I am aware of nothing but a pair of eyes. Piercing. Cold. Inquisitive. Demanding. Eyes framed in a physique as imposing as could be imagined. This man is tall, barrel chested, and with powerful shoulders. He is adorned with menacing weapons and crowned impressively with a turban of cotton and steel. His knees are bent slightly and he is leaning towards me a little, as though ready to spring into action.
‘Nidar Singh?’ I enquire. ‘I’m Jagjit. We spoke yesterday.’
The cold frozen brown eyes instantly melt into welcoming amber. He ushers me in and leads me into a room at the back of the house and offers me a seat. He brings me tea and we waltz through the initial pleasantries with an urgency that betrays both our desire to get to the real purpose of today’s meeting: the Sikh martial tradition and the unique role that Nidar Singh plays in it.
As a consequence of the socio-political climate in late 15th and early 16th century India, and in particular Punjab, a new religious movement emerged. This movement was founded at a time of great conflict between the prevailing Islamic and Hindu faiths of the time. Its tenets and teachings were not claimed to be original or revolutionary but were said to be those already in existence but that had been forgotten by the masses, doing away with hypocrisy and fanaticism and building bridges between people. This movement was Sikhism and its founder was Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Over the years this peace loving faith had, through prejudice and persecution, been transformed into a martial creed. The vanguard of the newly militarised Sikhs became the Nihangs. Fast forward 300 years and we arrive here, in this room at the back of an ordinary house, in an ordinary street, in a city like any other, in the presence of a modern day Nihang.
My first question to Nidar Singh is the most obvious one. Waving my hand up and down in his direction I ask, ‘How?’
‘I was born and brought up in England’, he begins. ‘At the age of 17 during a family holiday to Punjab, I had a chance meeting with a 70 year old man. This man claimed to have intimate knowledge of a very special art and to be skilled in its practice. This art was Shastar Vidiya, or The Science of Weapons, and the man was Baba Mohinder Singh, the last surviving master of Sikh battlefield arts.’
After initially seeing in Nidar Singh a natural strength and athleticism, Baba Mohinder selected Nidar Singh to be his sole student. Over the course of the next 7 years he was to impart to him the almost extinct combat art which the Sikhs had used to defend the oppressed peoples of Punjab from, amongst others, the Mughals of 17th and 18th century India, the invading Afghans of the 18th century and the 19th century British colonialists. At the time of their meeting Nidar Singh had no religious or ideological biases and the Baba saw in him a blank canvas on which he could paint the traditional, pluralistic form of Sikhism, which was by that time being seen and acknowledged all too rarely.
‘After our time together, during which I had become proficient in the Vidiya, Baba Mohinder Singh sent me to seek out other masters across India so that I might learn from them and go on to improve and further develop my technique’, says Nidar Singh. After I had completed my training, I was proclaimed as being the next master. Aged 28, and after 11 years in India, I returned home to England with a wife, a daughter, and one of the most deadly combat arts in the known world. The year was 1995.’
When Nidar Singh began his training in 1984 it was a time of great confusion and chaos in Punjab. Political events had overtaken the Sikh community and Punjab was essentially in a state of civil war. The culmination of all these events was Operation Blue Star, the storming of the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, by the Indian Army. After completing his education in Shastar Vidiya in secret, partly to avoid the avaricious eyes of those that had been denied the Vidiya by Baba Mohinder Singh, and partly to avoid arousing the suspicion of the Indian security forces, Nidar Singh arrives back in England to find huge conflict within the Sikh community. Traditionalists, extremists, pacifists, all vying to get their voices heard. It was in these difficult and tumultuous times that Nidar Singh began to teach the Vidiya.
‘I am wholehearedly opposed to extremism.’ he says. ‘I know that I cannot live forever and that I must teach the Vidiya - I am willing to teach anyone that wishes to learn. I can, if I choose, spend hours alone, developing my technique further but, if I want this Vidiya to survive I must teach, and I must have students that are willing to perform the necessary sacrifices and devote the necessary time demanded to learn it. I will teach any person from any background but as an enemy of extremism I have one condition: I only teach students that are able to display a discerning intellect.’
I ask Nidar Singh about the origins of Shastar Vidiya and how the Sikhs in particular came to master it.
‘Shastar Vidiya’, he explains ‘is traced back to Shiva, whose conceptual form we revere, and the sages of Shiva. This knowledge was then transferred from generation to generation through the ages. Guru Nanak Dev Ji was then said to have learnt this vidiya from Nath babas. The sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, establishes the Akaalis, or immortals, who became the foremost exponents of the vidiya. Under the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, these Akaalis become known as Akaali Nihangs. It is these Nihangs that worship the Goddess Chandi as the form of The Formless One. It is Chandi that rides her Singhs, i.e. her lions, into battle.’
After taking me on an historical tour de force spanning thousands of years, we arrive at the question of the future. What does Nidar Singh see as his role in the world today with all the staggering knowledge and skills he has accumulated?
‘As Nihangs we are linked to The Timeless One through our vidiya. The practice of it is our form of worship. All aspects of our technique, every movement, every action is linked to The Creator. It is through shastar vidiya and understanding the science behind it that we, as a people, are able to appreciate our traditions. Only by understanding our traditions will we be able to value them. Once we comprehend the importance of them only then will we have the desire to uphold them.’
Sitting with Nidar Singh one quickly realises that he is not just a warrior. He is infinitely more: a philosopher, a poet, a theologian, a humanist. He is also a historian having co-authored a secret history of the Sikhs, 'In the Master's Presence', available to purchase at www.kashihouse.com and www.gt1588.com. Foremost, however, he is a master of his art. His Shastar Vidiya classes run across the UK and he can also be found giving lectures and performing demonstrations countrywide.
Nidar Singh is single-handedly keeping alive this ancient art and passing it on to the next generation of masters.
And he also makes great tea!
Nidar Singh is the subject of a forthcoming radio programme on the BBC world Service, entitled 'The Last Sikh Warrior'. In this this extraordinary documentary, the British writer, radio & television presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli tells the story of how this Sikh master is striving to keep his ancient martial tradition alive. The programme is due to be broadcast as part of the Heart & Soul series at 1230 (GMT) on Saturday 29th October 2011 (to be repeated on Sunday 30th and Monday 31st).
Raj Hundal - click here for more images www.beyondexposure.co.uk