The Gurdwara Barambala in Hyderabad, now in ruins, was originally built at Sikh Chhawniat. Many people in Punjab may not be aware of the distinct characteristics of Sikhs living in the Deccan region. Among them, there are three main types: Punjabi, Dakhani, and the tribal Sikligars and Banjaras. For locals, Sikhs are recognized by their beards and turbans when they visit the Sikh "temple." In times of need, Sikh neighbors are often the first to offer help. It's heartening to see that they adhere to the essential principles of Sikhism. 

They assert their identity with pride,“Asin Sikhi sambhi hoyi’ai. Punjab’ch tan bura haal’ai.”

Sikhs in Deccan as protective forces 

The extravagant Nagar Kirtans, the devotees proudly displaying Siri Sahibs and other weapons, and the impressive skills of Gatka players all contribute to this fear. The atmosphere at Halla Bol Chowk in Nanded during Holla Mohalla is reminiscent of a real war. These festivities, with their "warlike" nature, serve to highlight the bravery of the Sikh forces from the past.This ambience creates a sense of fear in the local residents.

These "warlike" festivities remind people of the bravery of past Sikh soldiers. People affectionately share stories of how the mere presence of a Sikh would instill confidence in the minds of villagers. Sikh soldiers were known for providing security to both people and valuable materials, as acknowledged by the Nizam. The awe and fear associated with Sikhs continue to linger in the collective memory of the people.

Rich and courageous history 

Dakhni Sikhs find pride and dignity in their lineage, deeply valuing their ancestors' emphasis on self-respect. When the Nizam granted them the jagir of Nirmal, they demonstrated their defiance by rolling the royal decree into the muzzle of a gun and firing it away, symbolizing their rejection of subjugation and assertion of their autonomy, saying “We get salary from our Maharaja. Who is he to give us jagir?” The past and the present thus reinforce each other. They boast: “Singhan da dabdba poora hai ji.”

The Dakhani Sikhs trace their lineage back to Sikh warriors dispatched by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to aid the Nizam. Arriving in 1832, they found a region plagued by poor administration and financial chaos, as an English observer noted. Despite British influence, the area was riddled with problems, with Arabs and Rohillas exerting dominance over the countryside. In response to these challenges, the Sikhs erected Gurdwara Barambala in Sikh Chhawniat, Kishan Bagh, now a ruinous reminder of their presence.

Following Maharaja Ranjit Singh's demise, some soldiers returned home, while others stayed, integrating into the local culture by marrying indigenous women and adopting their language and customs. Today, Dakhani Sikh women often wear sarees indoors and salwar-kameez when visiting gurdwaras, showcasing their blending of traditions. They are more fluent in Telugu than Punjabi, speaking Hindi at home, a fact frowned upon by some Punjabi Sikhs who question their Sikh identity, stating, "Sikh ho ke Punjabi nahin bolde," implying that they are somehow deficient in their Sikhism. However, in the Telugu-speaking region, Punjabi cannot serve as their primary language.

Diving deep into the Sikh culture in the deccan region 

Dakhani Sikhs follow the tradition of samuhik vivah, where mass weddings are conducted once in May at Sikh Chhawniat and twice at Hazur Sahib in April and December. Recently, in Hyderabad, 22 couples exchanged vows in this manner. The process begins with engagement, followed by the solemnization of marriage the next day. During the ceremony, the couples are arranged in a semi-circle, each assigned a numbered seat, which they also wear on their shoulders. After the Anand Karaj ceremony, the doli, or bridal palanquin, leaves from the premises of the Guru Nanak School. Additionally, langar, a community meal, is served to all attendees. As part of the tradition, each bride receives gifts like a television, a cycle, and a sewing machine, valued at Rs. 15,000. In the past, even affluent families preferred this form of marriage, though some now choose to host receptions against the customary directive.

Among Dakhani Sikhs, all claim to be amritdhari, or initiated into the Khalsa faith, but adherence to rehat maryada, or Sikh code of conduct, varies. Those who have undergone the khande di pahul ceremony tend to be stricter in observance compared to those who have taken amrit with kirpan. Notably, this latter practice was initially more common among women.

The Punjabi Sikhs, as they refer to themselves, are wealthy and prosperous. Many of them moved to other places in 1947 and afterwards to pursue business opportunities. They have succeeded in various trades, with motor parts being their specialty. In Hyderabad, you can find Bagga Wines welcoming you wherever you go. They maintain an elegant and glossy directory of their own, reflecting their prosperity and prominence in the region.

Community of Sikhs

Dakhani Sikhs live in tight-knit communities, mostly residing in slums that lack basic amenities. Despite a few individuals making strides through hard work and education, the majority rely on low-level government jobs or work as auto/taxi drivers or engage in small-scale trading to sustain themselves.

A notable contrast exists between Punjabi and Dakhani Sikhs in Hyderabad. While they interact and support one another, they maintain separate identities, including distinct gurdwaras with their own management. Despite these differences, they come together to collectively celebrate significant gurpurabs at designated gurdwaras allocated to the Dakhani Sikh community in the city.

Despite their challenges and differences, the Dakhani Sikh community in Hyderabad demonstrates resilience and unity, finding ways to maintain their cultural heritage while adapting to their circumstances.

Manna Singh: A Sikh instilling fear in the minds of people 

Sikligar and Banjara Sikhs face difficult circumstances in their lives. Despite their adherence to traditions like flowing beards and kirpans, their existence is far from ideal. For instance, Manna Singh from Mortad lives in a humble kulli by the roadside, covered in tattered polythene with holes. His family, including his wife, two sons, a daughter-in-law, two hens, and a dog, barely manage on two cots. Similarly, Surjan Singh from Nizamabad struggles even more with his 33-member family squeezed into a single room.

The area of Mortad holds historical significance as the domain of Narayan Singh Mortad, a Sikh soldier who rebelled against the Nizam, earning a reputation akin to Robin Hood. Narayan Singh Pahar, named after him, bears witness to his tales of strength and bravery. Despite his defiance, he met a tragic end, poisoned and later shot by himself, draped in a chadar that struck fear into the hearts of the police. His legend lives on in Naxalite songs, echoing the valor of his resistance.

Meanwhile, the tribal Banjaras residing near Nanded are embracing Sikhism, finding solace and purpose in its teachings. Many participate in kirtani jathas across Deccan gurdwaras, with Takht Sach Khand being a significant hub. They receive education and training at Gurdwara Banda Ghat, Nanded, with the majority of its 80 students hailing from their community. While some students choose to become pathis, others form their own kirtani jathas upon completing their studies, marking a significant shift in their lives as first-generation converts who find contentment in their newfound faith.

The Sikhs in the Deccan region embody resilience and unity, upholding their heritage with pride. From historical tales to present-day challenges, their journey reflects a rich tapestry of tradition and adaptation. 

*Based on an article by Birinder Pal Singh, published in The Tribune on 1st November 2012


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