Sikhs appear to be many
more than they really are because of their distinct appearance: all
adult males wear turbans and sport beards. As a matter of fact, they
form less than 2 per cent of India’s one billion people.They can be
seen all over India: driving taxis and trucks from northernmost Kashmir
to southernmost Kanyakumari and from the western seaport of Bombay to
the easternmost jungles of Manipur; they farm lands in the remote
malarial swamps of Nepal Terai and the once desert wastes of Ganganagar
district of Rajasthan. There are Sikh shopkeepers, tradesmen,
industrialists, academicians, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, and just
about everything else, scattered all over the country. However, their
largest concentration is not in their homeland Punjab, but in the
The Sikh’s favourite profession is farming; over 80 per cent of the community live off the soil. And next to farming, soldiering; at one time almost a quarter of the British Indian Army were Sikhs; even today one out of every ten Indians in uniform is a Sikh.
The Sikhs have a lot in
common with the Jews: indeed most Sikh patriarchs look like Jewish rabbis.
Both the Jews and the Sikhs have known persecution; the Jews for
nearly 2,000 years at the hands of the Christians and Muslims; the Sikhs
for about 200 years at the hands of the Muslim conquerors and rulers of
northern India. It never got them down. Like the Jews, the Sikhs regard
themselves as the chosen people. A well-known Sikh historian wrote: ‘Where
there is one Sikh there is one Sikh; where there are two Sikhs, there is
an assembly of saints; where there are five Sikhs, there is God.’
Not many people share the Sikhs’ self-esteem. On the contrary, they regard them as slow-witted and aggressive, rustic types, good only to be used as cannon-fodder. ‘The only culture the Sikhs know is agriculture,’ they say. There is some truth in these back-handed compliments. The Sikhs do happen to be India’s best farmers. They, more than any other people, have brought the Green Revolution to India by trebling the wheat yield of the acre and are definitely the most prosperous peasantry of India. In a country teeming with beggars, it is rare to see a Sikh stretch out his hands for alms. Their aggressiveness is born out of an innate sense of one-upmanship — anything anyone else can do, the Sikh can do better. Three of the nine Indians who scaled Mount Everest were Sikhs; more than a third of all India’s athletic teams are usually Sikhs. A clue to what makes the Sikh ethos can be found in their religion and history.
The Sikh Way of Life
Nine out of every ten
Sikhs live in villages and hamlets, most of them in comfortable homes
with expansive courtyards where their cattle are tethered. Families of
sons of the same father live under one roof till their land is divided.
Almost every Sikh home today has a transistor radio and a fair
proportion own television sets as well. The more prosperous amongst them
own their tractors and tubewells.
A Sikh village invariably has a gurdwara which can be recognised from a distance, because of its tall flagpole draped in yellow and the triangular flag bearing the Sikh emblem consisting of a quoit with a double-edged dagger in the centre and two crossed swords beneath.
Sikh peasants are great eaters. Although not vegetarian, they seldom manage to eat meat except on occasions like weddings. Then their preference is for goat meat which they honour with the name mahaprasad — the great offering. The Sikhs’ staple diet consists of wheat, buffalo milk and milk products like curd, buttermilk and clarified butter (ghee). During the winter months their favourite food is mustard leaf mash (sarson ka saag) capped with blobs of fresh home-made butter eaten with whole meal bread of chickpeas (makkai ki roti) or millet (baajra). All this is washed down with gallons of buttermilk. This diet is both wholesome and nourishment and explains the Sikhs’ excellent physique, vitality and stamina. An English dietician, who experimented with diets of different Indian communities by feeding rats on the food eaten by Pathans, Rajputs, Marathas and Gurkhas, found that the ‘Sikh rat’ was healthier than the rats of other martial communities.
What is in a Sikh name
Every male Sikh bears the name Singh, as does every female Sikh the name Kaur. However, although all Sikhs are Singhs or Kaurs, all Singhs and Kaurs are not Sikhs. The word Singh means a lion; its female counterpart Kaur means both princess and lioness. Both were common amongst Hindus, notably in the martial classes like the Rajputs, Jats and Gurkhas, long before Guru Gobind Singh made them obligatory for his followers. In doing so the Guru had two objectives. In India, one way of telling a person’s caste is by his name. In making all Sikhs Singhs (and Kaurs) he made them into one casteless fraternity. In choosing Singh and Kaur, he also emphasised martial traits which he hoped to infuse in them.
Although the vast
majority of Sikhs abide by the Guru’s ordinance and are content to
remain plain and simple Singhs, a growing number now attach their caste
or village names to themselves. Thus those belonging to Guru Nanak’s
caste describe themselves as Bedis, e.g. the cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi.
Those belonging to the caste of the last six Gurus add Sodhi to theirs,
e.g. Kartar Sodhi. As a consequence, most Hindu caste names can be found
amongst Sikhs, e.g. Justice M.S. Joshi (Brahmin), Comrade (Communist
leader) Avtar Singh Malhotra (Kshatriya), General Jagjit Singh Aurora (Vaishya).
The lower castes often take on surnames of higher castes, Jat tribal
names like Randhawa, Gill, Grewal, Sandhu and Siddhu are commonly used.
Equally common is to add the name of the village, e.g. Harchand Singh
Longowal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Parkash Singh Badal. Sikh poets often
follow the convention common among Urdu poets and add their pseudonyms
to their names , e.g.Pritam Singh Safeer (envoy). Sometimes the
combination of names can be quite incongruous, e.g. Gopal Singh Dardi,
which literally translated, would mean cow-protector-lion who feels the
anguish of others.
Love for martial
traditions is reflected in Sikh names like Laftain (Lieutenant), Kaptaan
(Captain), Major and Jarnail (General). A child born in his maternal
grandfather’s house (naankey) as was Guru Nanak, may be named
Nanak Singh, the girl Nanki. One born on Basant Panchmi, may be a
Basant Singh or Basant Kaur. Nihang Sikhs often give themselves wishful
names. During Mughal rule a favourite name was Dil Tor Singh (the lion
who will destroy Delhi); during British rule, London Tor Singh, Amongst
the peasantry, if the child is fair, he may be named Angrez (English)
Singh or Angrez Kaur or just Bugga (white) Singh. Then there are names
that are not found among city dwellers but can be found among peasants,
e.g. Shanghara, Jhimma, Balakara.
Sikh names, like their faith, derive both from Hindu and Muslim sources. Names like Iqbal, Nawab, Qurban and Mubarak are Persian and of Muslim ancestry. However, the majority are of Hindu-Sanskrit lineage. e.g. Ranjit, Surjit, Baljit (victors of battle); Baldev (good of war). Even English names have come into vogue amongst aristocratic families, e.g. Peter, Billy, David, Cecil (the House of Patiala); Anne, Pearl, Honey (the House of Jind).
The fact that most Sikhs are Singhs and there are not too many first names to choose from does not cause as much confusion as one might imagine. Quite often descriptive appendages are coined to distinguished incumbents of the same name.Thus two Kartar Singhs living in the same locality may be distinguished from each other as Kartar Singh Dhiddal (the pot-bellied) and Kartar Singh Ainkee (one who wears glasses).
Any name is grist to the Sikh-naming mill. A well-meaning but somewhat anglicised father in Delhi is said to have named his four sons Gentle Singh, Humble Singh, Noble Singh and Simple Singh.
Excerpted from The Sikhs
published by Lustree Press/Roli Books