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Who are the Dakhani Sikhs of India’s southernmost states, and how have they modified Sikhism to suit their needs?

Dakhani (southern) Sikhs make up a sizable portion of the community in central and southern parts of India and have developed identities that are distinct from the normative Sikh identity in Punjab, just as Sikhs in Bihar, Bengal, Assam, and Guwahati have identities that stand in contrast to the normative Sikh identity in Punjab. The Sikh community here is just as fragmented as it is anywhere. Among them are the Huzoori Sikhs, who followed Guru Gobind Singh to Nanded at the turn of the 18th century and remained to continue the Sikh faith’s tradition. Then there are those who trace their ancestry back to the Lahori Fauj, the army that Nizam Nasir-ud-daulah hired for Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 19th century (1829-1857). As a result of the linguistic reorganization of nations, the Nizam’s inheritance was split between three different countries.

Five districts in Nanded went to Maharashtra, three districts in Bidar went to Karnataka, and the rest of the territory went to Andhra Pradesh. As a result, Dakhani Sikhs were also split throughout the three states and were exposed to more intense regional influences. As a result of their individual experiences, the Sikh community as a whole has created a nuanced sense of identity that is not necessarily reflected in the community’s prevailing narratives.

The seminal research of Birinder Pal Singh sheds a lot of light on their background. Huzoori Sikhs have a heritage connected to Guru Gobind Singh’s Deccan journey that predates and differentiates them from other Dakhani Sikhs. The eleventh guru made a stop at modern-day Nanded, Maharashtra’s southeast corner, on the banks of the Godavari River. According to Birinder Pal’s findings, the royal party brought along soldiers, maintenance teams like the Sikligars and the Lambada/Labanas, scribes, musicians, chefs, and everything else necessary for a long journey.

The guru was fatally wounded in 1708 after being stabbed by two Pathan brothers in Nanded. Before passing away, he elevated the Granth Sahib to the position of eternal guru of the Sikh community and entrusted his followers with the responsibility of preserving the faith. Some of the Sikhs who had traveled with him went back to Punjab with Banda Bahadur, the warrior-turned-ascetic whom Guru Gobind Singh had motivated to serve his people once more. The remainder remained behind to do the work that had been entrusted to them. In honor of the guru, a modest gurdwara was built.

These Sikhs have grown up with a keen awareness of their unique historical position and their responsibility to protect the new order entrusted to them. They see it as their duty to keep Sikhism alive no matter what. Interestingly, some Sikhs still give the most respect to Guru Gobind Singh, rather than the whole pantheon of ten spiritual leaders. Many aspects of the guru’s life are celebrated in their traditions, some of which may appear strange to outsiders.

This gurdwara, built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh between 1832 and 1837, adheres to a number of customs that are distinct from those mandated by the Sikh Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee. The Guru Granth Sahib and the controversial Dasam Granth are both given prominent placement in the holiest of Sabha spaces, which is forbidden.

The Dasam Granth has been the subject of much dispute amongst Sikhs due to varying opinions on its contents and who wrote it. There are many additional traditions and behaviors that are not only distinct from but also directly contradict the norms now advocated as “correct” Sikh behavior.

Even though Guru Nanak stressed the value of grihasta (householder’s life) for all Sikhs, the custom that the head granthi of the gurdwara must be a bachelor from among the Dakhani Sikhs persists. There are few key differences between this ardaas and the one done in the Singh Sabha gurdwara.

It is contrary to the beliefs of many Sikhs that a bakra (ram) is sacrificed on Hola Mohalla and Baisakhi inside the gurdwara’s grounds. Another is the practice of hallabol on Hola Mohalla or Holi, in which Sikhs rush naked through the streets waving their swords as a reminder of their martial heritage. They carry themselves with the military bearing befitting the martial identity conferred to them by the tenth guru. Their belligerent stance against other groups in the face of intimidation is another manifestation of this.

Historically, conflicts at the gurdwara have stemmed from disagreements with local Muslims over the use of sacred space and the passage of religious processions. By performing gatka (martial drill) and otherwise parading their warrior persona in public, celebrants may give off an extremely violent vibe to bystanders.

It’s not only Huzoori customs that have been kept alive in Nanded. The Sikligars are another ethnic group; they are descended from the people who sharpened and polished the metal weapons used by the guru’s army. Guru Hargobind (1594–1644), the sixth Guru, was the first to organize Sikhs into a military force, and he converted many Rajputs to the Sikh religion. Sikligar Sikhs make up a significant portion of Nanded’s population. They, too, can trace their lineage back to Guru Gobind Singh’s era, and they take great satisfaction in the fact that they are still responsible for cleaning the Guru’s weapons on special occasions. The British government was keeping tabs on the Sikligar people because they were involved in the production and distribution of weapons that were being utilized in subversive and criminal operations.

The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 mandated that these once nomadic people must now establish permanent communities. They had to check in with the authorities on a regular basis and were restricted to a certain region. The Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1952, long after independence. Because of this, the tribes are now known as the Denotified Tribes.

These compounds are now classified as DNTs. Most of them still rely on makeshift tents or shacks as their homes, and they use bicycles to go to adjacent towns to peddle their items. They have dwindled down to gathering scrap from junkyards and forging it into crude blades and utensils, or to sharpening kitchen knives and mending locks and keys, from creating and maintaining weaponry.

Others have found work at Huzoor Sahib, Nanded, maintaining Guru Gobind Singh’s weaponry. These Sikligars live in abject poverty because they lack the means and motivation to provide for their children’s education or raise their social standing.

A national committee was established in 2005 to investigate the denotified, nomadic, and semi-nomadic tribes’ appalling living circumstances and low educational attainment. Their plight has been addressed by many succeeding commissions. Due to the suggestions, the federal government provided pre- and post-matric scholarships and built dormitories for DNT students in 2014-2015. Some Sikligars, who are included in this group, are putting their children through school there. However, the little resources available are not being used to their maximum potential due to a lack of knowledge.

The Labana or Banjara Sikhs, a class of itinerant merchants and bearers of products, date back to Guru Gobind Singh’s period as well. They supplied the Guru’s marching army with food, ammunition, and weapons. They had to abandon their customary way of life and take up farming as a result of the British policy of not permitting floating populations. Many of them did not grow up as Sikhs and just lately began practicing the religion.

They have a long history with music and are learning kirtan in Sikh seminaries near Nanded. These days, Banjaras make up a sizable proportion of the kirtaniyas. Because of the increased status and wealth that comes with the change, they are serving as an inspiration to others in the community. Hyderabad is home to people descended from the contingents of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army, who landed there about 1830-1832 to assist quell civil disturbances in the Nizam’s empire, as opposed to the descendants of Huzoori Sikhs in Nanded.

Among the Arab and Rohilla men in the Nizam’s army, the powerful minister Chandu Lal consolidated his own position by recruiting a Sikh force from Punjab. They were referred to as the Lahori Fauj, and there were perhaps 1,500 of them. Due to the nature of the expedition, Maharaja Ranjit Singh personally covered their wages. The Nizam provided them with around 200 acres of land on the outskirts of Hyderabad to build a cantonment. Eventually, the Jamait-i-Sikhan, as the group became known, were so strong that they were called upon to perform all of the rituals and even deliver the royal revenues to the coffers in place of the elite Arab army. They helped bring law and order to the region, winning the respect of the local government and the gratitude of the populace.

According to legend, all it took was one Sikh soldier stationed in a community to keep criminals at bay. Since they were loyal to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, these men had no fear of the Nizam or his forces. Legend has it that they refused to take favors from anybody other than their ruler, so one day they inserted a farman (royal decree) from the Nizam awarding them a jagir (fiefdom) and pulled the trigger. Birinder Pal Singh sheds light on the lives of these Sikhs, who have for a long time been marginalized.

Many of the Lahori Fauj Sikhs, it seems, made their homes near the gurdwara they established in Barambala, Hyderabad. Their offspring still reside here; a recent census counted about 550 Dakhani Sikh homes. In addition to Gowliguda, Ameerpet, and Rahmat Nagar (Guru Ramdas Nagar), the Dakhani Sikhs have established themselves in other parts of Hyderabad. The largest concentration of Dakhani Sikhs may be found in the central district of Gowliguda.

These Sikhs are mostly cluster-dwellers from lower socioeconomic classes. Most of them are self-employed, and just a select minority work for the government. Many of them are employed as drivers, either for private companies or for the government. Some of them are low-ranking police officers, office workers, or company owners. For some, lending money is a side hustle. Clientele are often persons with low incomes who borrow modest amounts of money for short periods of time or who lend money to those in need. In the case of property disputes, some of them act as mediators, especially in Hyderabad.

Their historical status as “tamers of marauders and miscreants” is advantageous in this situation. Many members of the Lahori Fauj married women from the surrounding population, but only after they had converted to Sikhism via baptism. Therefore, throughout all time periods, the vast majority of women in the community are Sikhs. But this in no way lessens the impact of local traditions on the neighborhood.

According to Birinder Pal Singh’s research, the majority of women in Punjab do not speak Punjabi and, in cases when they do, they often mix the language with others like Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu. Except while visiting the gurdwara, most ladies wear saris. Local food is what most households consume. Despite these cultural dilutions, all the males in the tribe still preserve their hair and the five Ks (kakars). They take great pride in the fact that they are preserving the true essence of Sikhism, something that not even most Punjabis have done.

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