The Sword of God
While weapons have always been objects of importance not many have enjoyed such veneration as those of the Sikhs and, even today, these items of functionality and beauty are so closely associated with the Sikh warrior as to be inextricable.
“[You are] the kharag, khanda, asi, dharadhar and the kirpan. The Ksatriya warrior who recites this composition containing thirty-two praises daily will attain victory on the battlefield, decrease his sense of fear, and attain spiritual powers.”
— The Brahm Kavach
The Sikh eulogising of weaponry reached new heights during the late 1600s amidst the reign of the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who presented the sword as “the ultimate symbol of God’s creative and destructive power”. But it was before this, during the long tenure of Guru Har Gobind, that the Sikhs truly began to establish their martial traditions with determination—partly due to the increased hostility they faced from the Mughal rulers.
The sword at this time came to be viewed not merely as a tool or ornament but as an object with such an elevated status that it became associated with the Aadi Shakti, the universe’s primal energy, and it was included three times in the Khanda symbol—an important device of the religion and one that can be seen leading this article. Further illustrations of this devotion can be seen in the Shastar Naam Mala—a long prayer that lists, praises and describes the thousands of different arms and armours recognised by Guru Gobind Singh; and that his throne was deliberately placed lower than a second filled with weaponry to emphasise the latter’s elevated status.
Of course, such a profoundly divine connection to weaponry has survived into modern times and today’s Sikhs continue to own and carry a variety of traditional weapons: khandas, tulwars, zulfiqars, firanghis, teghas and, of course, the kirpan—to list a few.
The kirpan is important as it is one of the ‘five Ks’ that each Sikh must carry once he or she has experienced the Khalsa ceremony, but all weapons, or shastar, are considered equal—even being viewed as friends or teachers—and this is especially the case amongst the warrior class of the Nihungs. The kirpan was once permitted to take many forms but this has since crystallised into a dagger or sword, convenient to wear at all times and believed to be imbued with divine power (a power that the kirpan will lose should its owner use it for an act “void of mercy, righteousness or compassion”). Even something as simple as the consumption of food is associated with weaponry as nothing can be eaten within the gurdwara (place of worship) unless it has first been ‘cut’ by a kirpan. In times past, this veneration of weaponry easily translated into martial prowess and the bravery of the Sikhs has long been noted especially by the British who were at varying times bitter enemies and close allies.
“Just then, another of the [enemy] made a cut at me from behind; and I should have been killed to a certainty had not Ghounem [a Sikh servant] rushed forward, caught the blade in his open left hand, wrenched the fellow’s sword from him with the other, and cut him down.”
— Frederick Atchison, Good Things, 1876.
“The Battle of Saragarhi is considered one of the great battles in Sikh military history. On 12 September 1897 a contingent of twenty-one soldiers from the 36th Sikhs Regiment led by Havildar Ishar Singh held off an Afghan attack of 10,000 men for several hours. All 21 Sikh soldiers chose to fight to the death instead of surrendering. In recognition of their sacrifice, the British Parliament paid them respect, and each one of them was awarded the Indian Order of Merit (equivalent to the Victoria Cross).”
— The Sikh Regiment, Bravest of the Brave.
While not every weapon from the Indian Subcontinent is of Sikh origin, every Sikh weapon has Indian genesis and such exotic arms offer the collector a plethora of rich and diverse examples with which to illuminate their displays. Sweeping curves, precious materials, and exotic features abound but what these sometimes strange forms occasionally belie is their sheer efficacy. This is a sentiment supported by not just the textual evidence but also the photographic. First-hand accounts that sustain this are available to read online but concentrated insights appear in the book Swordsmen of the British Empire by DA Kinsley, should readers wish to explore further.
SOURCES AND FURTHER RESEARCH
Swordsmen of the British Empire by DA Kinsley
Objects of Worship in South Asian Religions: Forms, Practices and Meanings by Knut Jacobsen, Mikael Aktor, Kristina Myrvold
The Rosary of the Names of Weapons: Sastarnam Mala
Arms and Armour by E Jaiwant Paul
There is an excellent series of videos on YouTube by Matt Easton about many aspects of Indian weaponry.