The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 1, 2001
Lead Article

The Sikhs

Text by Khushwant Singh and photos by Raghu Rai

ASK a Sikh how many of them there are in the world and he may well reply one and a half billion. This is a vast but understandable exaggeration as every Sikh looks upon himself as sava lakh (equal to 125,000) or a fauj (army). Actually, there are no more than 19 million Sikhs, most of them concentrated in the Punjab, which is on the north-western frontier of India bordering on Pakistan.

Sikhs at a religious gathering

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 capital, Delhi.


Nihangs admiring a hawk
Nihangs admiring a hawk

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.’

Schoolboys with saffron patkas
Schoolboys with saffron patkas

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 bride being blessed after Anandkaraj
A bride being blessed after Anandkaraj

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.

Mustard fields of Punjab
Mustard fields of Punjab

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.

A mural of Guru Gobind Singh at Nanded
A mural of Guru Gobind Singh at Nanded

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

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