The last living master of an ancient martial art of the Sikhs was born in England. He wields a 400-year-old sword and has the piercing glance of the born warrior. Nidar Singh Nihang, born in the English Midlands town of Wolverhampton 44 years ago, is the last guru of Shastar Vidiya in the world. In skill, speed and lethality, it ranks alongside Kung Fu and the Samurai Bushido. Yet little is known about this centuries-old ancient Indian martial art from Punjab. The Sikhs who faced hostile Muslim and Hindu forces created it as a fledgling martial art in the 17th century. It was banned by the British after the Anglo-Sikh wars between 1845 and 1846. Fearing its deadly techniques, the British shot Sikh fighters on sight for just carrying a sword. Now, nearly two centuries later, the last master, Nidar, is searching for a successor, to pass on the secrets of Shastar Vidiya. He is determined the martial art will not be lost to the next generation. Nidar Singh’s journey is revealed in a film made by British born Indian, Hardeep Singh Kohli, for BBC World Service.
On March 9, 1846, the Treaty of Lahore was signed between Sir Henry Hardinge and the seven-year-old Maharaja of Punjab Duleep Singh Bahadur. Ironically, this also paved the way for the creation of a separate Kashmir, which until then was part of Sikh-held territory. The British demanded payment of `1.5 crore as reparations for the cost of the war. With no money, Duleep Singh’s government gave Hazara and Kashmir along with a personal royal fine of `60 lakh. The British then sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh, the Raja of Jammu, for `75 lakh on March 16, 1846 in the Treaty of Amritsar. Gulab Singh thus became the founder and first Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The British forced the Sikhs to give up their arms. Sikh warriors who wore distinctive blue turbans were shot everywhere.
Shastar Vidiya went into exile, kept alive by a handful of people through generations. Baba Mohinder Singh was one such warrior. It was he who taught Nidar the art when the Wolverhampton Sikh was visiting his grandparents in the Punjab. Then neither Nidar nor his parents were particularly religious. He had short hair and did not wear a turban. His encounter with Mohinder Singh changed all that. The frail teacher lived in the neighbouring village. He was impressed by Nidar’s physique and offered to teach him Shastar Vidiya. The first thing he asked his 17-year-old visitor would be familiar to The Karate Kid fans: Nidar was ordered to attack the master with a stick. He did, and instantly found himself prostrate on the floor. “I thought it might be a fluke, but I did it over and over again and each time he threw me around like a rag doll,” said Nidar in an interview. Nidar’s Miyagi was then in his 80s! This was a turning point in the young Sikh’s life; he lived with Mohinder in the village for 11 years, studying both the physical and philosophical aspects of Shastar Vidiya, for without the spirit, the warrior is nothing more than an automation. It also made Nidar Singh Nihang a devout Sikh.
“When Mohinder died, I became the last Sikh warrior. Now I am looking for someone to succeed me,” Nidar says in the interview. “It is a part of our history and culture and without it we lose our character. Shastar Vidiya has changed history and produced great warriors. For it to die out now would be a tragedy.” Nidar says he has met only four masters of Shastar Vidiya. All are dead.
Nidar started teaching the art in 1995. He became so successful that he gave up his job in a food factory in 2002 to become a full-time teacher, holding classes in Birmingham, the Black Country, Leicester and London. He also travels to Canada and Germany to teach the martial art. His students are taught how to use swords, daggers and spears, most of which have been used to slay people in real ancient battles. Ninety-five per cent of these weapons are antiques, some even dating back to the 16th century and have been passed down through generations of Sikh families. His seven-year-old son Jai who started learning at the age of three helps Nidar teach other children. Shastar Vidiya is not an art meant only for men; Nidar has women students as well. He has Christian and Muslim pupils, too. The martial art popularly associated with Sikhs is Gutka, but Nidar dismisses it as an exhibition art using swords and sticks. The student of Shastar Vidiya is taught to kill; Nidar ensures that students are allowed to handle a blade only after years of perfecting their techniques. Shastar Vidya — or the science of weapons — is a five-step movement: advance, hit the enemy’s flank, deflect the incoming attack, take the commanding position and strike the final blow. Nidar is not afraid of the blows he gets sometimes. He has received more than 80 death threats from other Sikh groups who are opposed to Shastar Vidiya and Nihangs. Nihang is less orthodox than mainstream Sikhism, retaining some Hindu influences of the past.
There is something epic about Nidar Singh’s journeys to India and Pakistan; the last master looking to find someone to pass on his knowledge to. He hopes he will. Or else, a part of the martial past of a warrior race will die along with him. Nidar is determined for that not to happen.