Nidar Singh Nihang is looking for an apprentice to keep the ‘Shastar Vidiya’ tradition alive
Shyam Bhatia in London
Former commandos of the British Army are reputed to be a tough breed. So, when they come looking for inspiration from an Indian martial arts instructor, they are looking for something very special, if not unique.
These are the qualities they have found in a former factory worker from the British city of Wolverhampton. They flock to him for lessons in ‘Shastar Vidiya’, as do bankers, teachers and computer analysts of all nationalities, including Indians, Chinese and Malaysians.
Some would say Nidar Singh Nihang, whose ancestors hail from Jalandhar, incorporates within himself a United Nations university of martial arts. Nidar himself is totally focused about who his students are and what he teaches them.
“They come from all walks of life,” he told The Tribune. “The types of people we don’t encourage are thugs, criminals and religious fanatics. We get bankers; most of my students are university types, bankers, computer analysts, teachers, company directors.”
It was pure chance that got Nidar interested in the art of Shastar Vidiya. Although born in the UK, his parents made sure he didn’t lose contact with his roots by arranging for him to live with his grandparents for five years — from the age of five to 10 years — in Shadipur, Jalandhar.
It was when he returned to Shadipur six years later and was working on his aunt’s farm that Nidar met the last surviving master of Shastar Vidiya, Mohinder Singh, who lived in the neighbouring village of Mausav in Phillaur.
As he tells his story to The Tribune, which has now also attracted the attention of the British popular Press, and others, “I was clean shaven, I was 17, I did a lot of sports here and I considered myself quite strong. When I met Gurudev, he was in his late 70s-80s. He had me attack him with a stick and he threw me back effortlessly. To defeat strength, he employed technique. To defeat speed, he used agility. When an 80-year-old throws a young man about, the young man wants to know how to fight. Then I got more and more into it.”
Initially, it was all about technique -- how to break arms and necks, kill people and so on, recalls Nidar. “Then he started linking me back to Sikh and Hindu scriptures, all the way back to the Gods. It fascinated me and I got hooked,” he said.
So impressed was Nidar that he stayed back in Shadipur for the next 11 years and enrolled himself as a pupil of Mohinder Singh. He describes him as “my Gurudev, my Vidya Guru and also my Shastra Gurudev.”
Elaborating on what he was taught, Nidar explains, “The proper name is Sanatam Shastra Vidya. It’s the science of weapons, traditional Indian martial arts traced to ancient times and then it comes down to the Sikhs. So it’s a traditional North Indian, combat battlefield martial art.”
Shastar Vidiya was prevalent throughout India until the first half of the 19th century. It went underground after the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1845-1849 and was further suppressed after the First War of Independence in 1857.
“After 1849, you couldn’t carry a knife that had a blade longer than six inches. Swords, firearms, all these were banned,” explains Nidar. “Sikhs today carry ceremonial blades, even the turban style has changed. The science died and only bits and pieces survived.”
Mohinder Singh, Nidar’s teacher, was one of the very few who managed to keep the tradition alive. When he died in 1995, Nidar, in his own words, became the last Sikh warrior and the ninth Gurudev of the Baba Darbara Singh Shastar Vidiya Akhara.
He is in the rudest of health and holds classes three days a week. He teaches unarmed combat and also how to use knives, daggers and spears, some of them antiques dating back to the 16th century.
Nidar, who has been training 70 hours a week for the past 30 years, is now looking for a disciple to keep the Shastar Vidiya tradition alive. Whether his chosen successor will be a British ex-soldier, a Malaysian banker or a Chinese computer analyst remains to be seen. What matters is that he is both dedicated and committed to an ancient battle tradition that legend says goes back to the time of Shiva.