Keeping the flame alive

As a young man, aged 17, Nidar Singh was visiting the Moh Sahib temple in the Punjab, when he came across some young men listening intently to an elderly gentleman who was describing the ancient Sikh battlefield art of shastar vidya. He paused to listen, and that moment changed his life.

By Denise Marray

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 23 Mar 2012, 10:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 12:34 AM

For unknown to Nidar, the older man, Baba Mohinder Singh, was on a mission. As a Gurdev (master) of shastar vidya — ‘the science of weapons’ — the latter believed it was his sacred duty to pass on the skills and knowledge of the ancient art which he, as a young man, had learnt from his Gurdev, Baba Gian Singh. Sensing his mortality, and fearing he had left it too late to find a suitable apprentice, he had come out of retirement in an effort to search for the right person.

As it happened, Nidar was a keen wrestler and his fitness was immediately noted by the Gurdev, who asked him, “Do you want to learn how to fight?” As a test, he handed Nidar a stick and instructed him to try and strike him. Nidar felt embarrassed as he looked at the frail, older man who was in his mid-sixties. But he did as asked, and was amazed that the old man could misalign and slip all his strikes with ease, tossing him around like ‘a rag doll’. “I couldn’t touch him,” he recalled.

He felt an immediate sense of deep respect for the Gurdev, and much curiosity about the techniques he was using to so effortlessly ward off attacks. Thus began a long journey into the art and philosophy of shastar vidya, which started with Nidar agreeing to become the Gurdev’s pupil.

Every day he would rise before dawn, milk the buffaloes on the farm, and then set off to train in an intensive programme focusing on the five fundamental principles of the art: directly advance upon the opponent in a measured step, appreciate periphery of striking range, step through periphery and misalign incoming strikes, manoeuvre to take up a superior tactical position, and chatka (quick kill).

During his first year of training, Nidar had some family pressures to contend with, as his parents — who had emigrated from the village of Shadipur in the Punjab to the English Midlands in the 1960s — were keen for him to go to university. Nidar had just completed his secondary education when his life-changing encounter with the Gurdev occured.

The Gurdev sensed Nidar’s conflict and, at the end of his year’s training, advised him to make a decision: either fully commit to a life dedicated to the martial art, or study for a degree and pursue a more conventional career.

After careful reflection, Nidar decided the opportunity given him was unique. He began 11 years of training at the hands of his teacher and today, at the age of 44, he has remained true to his calling and teaches students in the UK, India, Canada and Germany.

Shastar vidya is sometimes confused with Gatka, a largely exhibitionist ceremonial stick-fighting technique developed during the British occupation of the Punjab, and widely practised among Sikh soldiers in the British Army. Shastar vidya, by contrast, is the fighting tradition of the Akali Nihang order which formed at the end of the 17th century.

The Nihangs were famed for their battlefield prowess. The word nihang means ‘crocodile’ and owes its origins to Mughal historians who noted the bravery of the monks who fought with the ferocity of the feared creatures. It is a measure of their legendary reputation on the battlefield that the Nihangs once formed the vanguard warriors of the armed forces of Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

However, when the British Raj defeated the Sikh state in 1849, the Nihang were seen as a threat to the establishment and gradually became marginalised.

The Nihangs wear thigh-length tunics of electric blue, bangles or bracelets of iron around their wrists, and quoits of steel in their conical blue turbans. They carry daggers, knives and swords and an iron chain.

Nidar Singh has travelled far and wide to search for the descendents of the Akali Nihangs and add to his impressive weapons collection. To date he has met four people who could claim to be masters, all of whom have died. The last master he met was Ram Singh, who died in 2002. Now, just like his old teacher, Baba Mohinder Singh, Nidar is on a mission to find a young man to carry on the ancient tradition of shastar vidya. In addition to having the physical qualities of a great fighter, that person must also endeavour to develop moral attributes of compassion, charity, control of mind, purity and appreciation of the truth. He must strive to be a spiritually accomplished being.

So is Nidar confident of finding such a person? His answer was unequivocal. “I am determined to find a competent individual... I cannot let it die out on my watch. It’s a tall order but I am quietly confident I will find the right person.”

When asked what were the greatest rewards and challenges for him over the last years, his reply seemed to come from the heart.

“The sense of pride that this timeless martial science has brought me, reconnecting me with my ancestors, is immeasurable. The ability to communicate through this wonderful art the subtle sophistication and awe-inspiring martial and spiritual greatness of my Indian Sikh culture to the world is the greatest of rewards. The greatest challenge is to keep alive for posterity this ancient art and its traditional culture, connecting through it with the rest of the world, to make it better place for all to live.”

More news from