On the Sikligar Sikhs’ Trail

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WSN editor Jagmohan Singh, an education activist, in a two-part series presents a research monograph on Sikligar Sikhs, amongst whom he has been working for the last eight years pioneering educational and training programs for their children. Sikligars have not forsaken their roots but till recently, their existence has remained eclipsed from the memory and consciousness of the Sikhs.

My search for the Sikligar Sikhs started in 2009 when I visited the Sholapur dera (habitat) of the Sikligar Sikhs in the Indian state of Maharashtra with Sikh activist Kulwant Singh from Mumbai. I have since visited the habitats of these traditional weapon-makers and weapon-polishers in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mysore, Pune, Gwalior, Dabra, Ludhiana, Jaipur, Alwar, Kasganj, Agra, Sultanpuri area of Delhi and Meerut. Since then, I have never looked back.

Some thirty years ago, I had visited a Sikligar Sikh dera in Nagpur as a student volunteer. The image that stayed in my mind was that of poor and determined Sikhs, with minimal knowledge of Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Granth Sahib, hardworking, taking easily to liquor in the evenings to overcome the fatigue due to their rigorous work and the families having many children.

Etymologically speaking, Sikligar is a Persian/Arabic word, comprising Saiqal + gar meaning, ‘polisher/burnisher/furbisher of weapons’.  From weapon polishers -the Sikalgars, over the centuries turned weapon-makers.   

 The Sikligar Sikhs living in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka know that “our forefathers were traditional weapon-makers, so are we and we have come from Nanded.” The one thing that has surely been passed on from one generation to another is “Kesh nahi kaatne hai, chahe jaan chali jaaye.”  

Where did they come from? When did the Sikligars become Sikhs? I did not get any firm answers either from the Sikligars or from activists working in the field. Two schools of thought that are in currency are that they came in touch with the Sikhs, first at the time of Guru Hargobind Sahib and then at the time of Guru Gobind Singh. Prior to that, they were residents of the Marwar area of present day Rajasthan.  Anthropologist Sher Singh Sher, in his magnum opus, published in 1966, The Sikligars of Punjab, which is the only such study of its kind, asserts both the theories.  

It is generally surmised that the Sikligars may have first come in touch with the House of Guru Nanak when Guru Hargobind Sahib visited Gwalior and the other is that they may have associated with Gurughar when Guru Gobind Singh Ji visited Nanded. If either of this is true, it leads us to the corollary which needs historical study and that is, whether the Sikligar Sikhs came to Punjab or did they actually join the path of Sikhism when the respective Gurus travelled through their lands.  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Sikligar Sikhs living in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka know that “our fore-fathers were traditional weapon-makers, so are we and we have come from Nanded.” The one thing that has surely been passed on from one generation to another is “Kesh nahi kaatne hai, chahe jaan chali jaaye.”  

 One of the most fascinating features of the Sikligar Sikhs is their language. Across the spectrum that I visited, I found that they speak multiple languages –the local language where they have their settlement, a smattering of Hindi, their own language without a script –Sikligari –a mixture of Marwari, Hindi and Punjabi with the Punjabi portion containing Gurbani words and their peculiar internal secret language, Parsee.

The Sikligars living in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi trace their origin to Rajasthan, though they too are more aware of their pre-British and post-British pasts only.

 

The mobility of the Sikligar Sikhs combined with their artisanship as weapon makers, made them the cynosure of the British. While I have yet to understand their status and role during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, or even before that during the times of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, it is quite clear from my interviews with the elderly Sikligar Sikhs in Ludhiana, Alwar and Sultanpuri in Delhi that a large number of them were living in various areas of present-day Pakistan, namely Multan and Sindh.

Even today, some of the elderly migrants speak fluent Sindhi, apart from their own spoken language and dialects. Nihal Singh, the eighty-year-old Granthi of the Gurdwara Sahib in Sultanpuri, the seventy-two-year-old-man from Alwar –Hargun Singh (who knew the names of his grandfather and great-grandfather for 8 generations, namely Gharib Singh, Hari Singh, Bhauja Singh, Nagaya Seonh, Chattar Seonh, Poohla Seonh, Chatru and then Bhartu) both told me the interesting story of their travels from Sindh to Karachi to Mumbai to Jaipur to Jodhpur, before finally settling in Alwar and Delhi.

Nihal Singh told me that from Sindh up to their stay in Prem Nagar, Delhi, they never had pucca houses and were essentially vagabonds. Though he could not confirm, he told me that his ancestors had gone from Punjab to Rajasthan and not the other way around. This aspect certainly needs more verification.  Another noteworthy fact that he proudly narrated is that his maternal uncle used to teach him Gurmukhi and Punjabi and his four sons are proficient in performing Kirtan playing the harmonium and tabla, even though they are not professional Kirtaniyas.  

As there have been no census studies of any kind, all talk of numbers is either in the realm of wishful thinking or speculation based on hearsay or statements of political and social activists without basis.  

It is generally said and believed that like the Vanjaras, even the Sikligars were also declared a Criminal Tribe under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 by the British, but the fact is otherwise.   

One fascinating feature of the Sikligar Sikhs is their language. Across the spectrum that I visited, I found that they speak multiple languages –the local language where they have their settlement, a smattering of Hindi, their own language without a script –Sikligari –a mixture of Marwari, Hindi and Punjabi with the Punjabi portion containing Gurbani words and their peculiar internal secret language, Parsee (not to be misunderstood with Parsi or Farsi).

Noted author of The Other Sikhs, Dr Himadri Banerjee says that their language is an intellectual armoury and an even an inner protection wall. It is my considered view that an understanding of Sikligari and Parsee languages can provide us with a totally new vista of knowledge about the origin, settlement and history of the Sikligar Sikhs.  

The names of Sikligar men and women, boys and girls are also unique –I have hardly found a name with more than two syllables, as was the case with most Sikh names of yore. 

The Sikligar Sikhs live in deras and each of these deras comprises of extended families of one or two elderly still living as heads of the deras. The elderly sitting on charpoys appear to be idling but are quietly monitoring the affairs of everyone and are very fond of saying, “Yeh saare mere daade ke parivar ke log hain.”  Most of them live on encroached government land, lying vacant for decades. Now the government and the land mafia are pressuring them to go “elsewhere.”  

With their heads covered with Dupattas all the time, the Sikligar women work in unison with their husbands and even go to do menial jobs to make a living.  There is hardly any gender discrimination and in case a family does not have a daughter by birth, a girl-child is adopted.  Surely, Sikhs in Punjab and the Diaspora, particularly those committing foeticide have an example to emulate.

Time and tide have snatched from them their armoury and ammunition making skill-set, reducing them to repairing drums, buckets, making locks and keys and other agricultural implements, except amongst those still engaged in weapon-making in parts of Maharashtra. Now with the young taking to education in a small but sure way, I foresee the disappearance of their traditional artisanship, if no major step to adopt and patronise the same is taken.   

My associates and I have responded to the call of the Sikligars, will you?

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