In an attempt to consolidate his position, the Mughal emperor Jahangir sought to appease the powerful Sunni Muslim orthodoxy at his court. In 1606, Jahangir had the fifth Sikh Guru Arjan Dev, the father of Guru Hargobind, tortured and martyred. During his lifetime, the fifth Guru had fully appreciated that in the times ahead, his community will need to defend itself and Dharma at large. With this in mind, he had his young son Hargobind trained and educated in Sanatan Shastar Vidiya. He ensured that other children too were put through martial training in preparation for what was to come.
When news arrived of his father's passing and final instructions, Guru Hargobind immediately set about building a throne dedicated to the all-pervasive immortal One – 'Akal Purakh'. The revered Baba Buddha and Bhai Gurdas (Guru Arjan's highly respected uncle and amanuensis) lent their support in the task. The 'Akal Takht' (immortal throne) was completed within a month on 15th June 1606. It also came to be known as 'Akal Bunga' (immortal fortress), or the 'Takht Akal Bunga' (fortress of the immortal throne) (see Harbans Singh ed., The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, 4 vols. Patiala: Punjabi University (1992–1998), s.v. "Akal Takht").
Although initially a simple stone plinth, the Akal Takht was loaded with potent symbolism. Situated directly opposite the 'Hari Mandir Sahib' (also known as the Golden Temple) in Amritsar, it was intended as a symbol of defiance; erected higher than the imperial Mughal throne at Agra.
Sikhs gathered in large numbers facing the newly built Akal Takht in order to mark the sixth Guru's formal accession ceremony that took place on 24th June 1606 (see The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, s.v. "Hargobind, Guru"). Before addressing the assembly, the young Guru, attired as a prince, called for some of his personal weapons. He proceeded to recite the names of the previous Gurus, and selected two fine curved swords, a 'Kaman' (bow), and a quiver of arrows.
As the Sikhs brought the symbols of the previous Gurus before him, Guru Hargobind made it clear that he, in contrast to earlier Gurus, would mount a war horse and not resort to simply sitting as a peaceful holy man administering to the congregation on a 'manji' (bedstead). Abandoning the 'seli' (hat of silk cord) or 'topi' (silk cap) - traditional symbols of peace, he would a royal turban - the iconic symbol of a Kshatriya warrior.
From this point on, the Guru stated:
"Manji (bedstead) is given to Guru Granth Sahib, 'seli' (hat of silk cord) to Bedis (Guru Nanak's descendants) and 'topi' (silk cap) to the ['Udasi', i.e., missionary] sadhus. I have come for the protection of the Dharma of the Vedas. Now adorn weapons on me because without weapons enemies are not suppressed. On saying like this he put on two swords."
(Gian Singh, Twarikh Guru Khalsa, First edition, (Yantar Guru Gobind Singh Press Sialkot, Babu Rajinder Singh manager, 1891),1:216)
When asked why he held two swords, the 16-year-old, whilst remembering his father's words, explained:
"With one we will take authority as 'miran ki miri' (king of kings). With the other, we shall achieve 'piran ki piri' (spiritual supremacy). All those who come our way seeking refuge shall be saved. Those who oppose us shall lose both [temporal and spiritual authority]."
(Kavi Santokh Singh, Suraj Parkash, 7:2408)
Suitably armed, he "bowed to the seli and topi" (see Giani Gian Singh, Twarikh Guru Khalsa, 1:440) and positioned himself on the Akal Takht taking up the defiant 'bir asan' (warrior posture) with one knee folded beneath him and one standing erect. This poignant moment outlining the Guru's future path and brought about rapturous cheers from the anxious community of Sikhs:
"In a few days help began to reach the Hindu Dharma. The Hindus, who shivered with fear before the Turks, drowning in an ocean of depression and fear caught in the whirlpool of being converted to the faith of the 'Turks' (i.e., Mughals), now feeling they may escape this fate felt relief."
(Ibid, First edition1:216)
Instructed never to cower or to bow before anyone but the Guru, the Sikhs were now expected to serve him in a military capacity; only in the righteous cause of upholding Dharma.
As the Sikhs watched on, Baba Buddha completed the accession ceremony by applying the traditional 'tilak' mark on the forehead of the young warrior Guru. Henceforth, the Akal Takht was fundamental to the community's psyche; it was acknowledged as the highest seat of Sikh temporal and spiritual authority. On that very day, the Guru declared his intention to establish a standing army of highly skilled and fiercely loyal warriors, fulfilling his father's instruction. The aim was to check the 'Turk' (i.e., Mughals whose decedents came from Turkmenistan) and bigotry and injustice synonymous with the race.
Fresh in the Guru's mind were Guru Nanak's words to Babur the founder of the Mughal dynasty; Sikhs would one day tear down Babur's descendants as they became unjust and began persecuting the Indian masses. This army of the 'Akal Takht' came to be called the 'Akal Sena' (immortal army), and its warriors were honoured as the 'Akalis' (the immortals):
"The reason as to why the name of this group is 'Akali' is that, adjacent to the building associated with Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan is 'Akal Bunga', 'The place of Khuda' (i.e., the Almighty), which is associated with Guru Hargobind. The 'Akalis', or 'Khuda's men', as a mark of honour, are associated with this 'Bunga' (fortress). The dress of this group was endorsed to be black in observance of mourning to mark Guru Arjan Dev's bereavement. Subsequently, this roaming community took on weapons of steel and demonstrated fearlessness at the time of a mighty assault."
(Mufti 'Ali ud-Din, Ibratnamah (1854), ed. Muhammad Baqir, 2 vols. Lahore (1961), 1:364–366)
This represents the military origins of the Akalis in the dark age of 'Kalyuga'. The Akalis would later be subdivided by Guru Gobind Singh into the Akali Nihangs and Nihangs, the vanguard of the Singh Khalsa.
Guru Hargobind and his Kshatriya Hindu Sikh warriors would go on defeat the Turk in northern India; a first in over five centuries of domination. The high level of skill of the Guru's warriors was well demonstrated by the likes of Bhai Mathura who demonstrated this in the Guru's third battle of Ruhela Ghat that took place on the Beas in October 1628. The following account is given below:
The Mughal commander Abdulla Khan watched on as so many of his renowned warriors were being killed by the Hindu Sikhs whom the Mughals considered martially insignificant infidels. He summoned Berman Khan to punish the handful of 'kafirs' (non-Muslims) in opposition. As Berman Khan and his men began to drive the Sikhs before them, the Guru commanded the Akali commander Mathura to deal with the mighty Berman Khan. Taking four hundred Akali warriors with him, Mathura began to spread death amongst the Mughals as he sought out Berman Khan. Matchlocks, spears, swords, daggers, clubs, maces, and axes did their deadly work. Mathura spied Berman Khan and angrily sped towards him and challenged him. He roared out in a shrill voice:
"You have killed many warriors but you have not yet met a warrior who can stand before you. Now, come and face me. Do not hesitate to show me how you strike."
Listening to this, Berman Khan laughed:
"You know not the way of weapons. For as long as I do not get angry you [can continue to] kill Turks. You have killed many by cutting their bodies and foreheads."
As Berman Khan stood talking, a musket was fired and a shot struck his horse. On hearing the thunder of the musket aimed at his horse, the Khan quickly moved his horse forward. He saved himself but [his horse's] hind leg was broken. The horse collapsed as it could not move on three legs. Berman Khan stood on the ground, shield and sword in hand.
Becoming alert he began to strike out at the hordes of [Sikh] warriors [converging upon him]. Cutting thus, he dropped many limbs and heads to the ground. He attacked horses and warriors with his sword [while] protecting himself from their blows. Many [Sikh] warriors fell dead, and many more came challenging. The warriors of the Guru surrounded Berman Khan to kill him. He let none strike him and remained unscathed by constantly moving with such dexterous footwork as if he were a dancer dancing a classical Indian dance. On his shield he blocked their blows. Striking with his own sword, he evaded/slipped their blows. The [Sikh] warriors were astonished.
"On seeing this, Mathura got off his horse in anger. [Unarmed, not drawing his weapons, he faced Berman Khan], anticipating his technique; evading/slipping sword blows, he angled off - this way and that; then pounced forward with sudden speed. Anticipating [where the Khan] was applying his strength to the blow he embraced him between both arms. [Berman Khan] desired to escape but Mathura did not let him. With the strength of his arms, he grappled Berman Khan to the ground. Snatching the sword off him, he then decapitated the Khan, and threw the head afar from his body. Seeing the skill of Mathura, the Guru's army was greatly pleased. The Khan's army was greatly dismayed on seeing their leader dead. Then masses of vengeful Mughals fell upon the Akali warrior Mathura, showering him with spears, sword blows and arrows. Being cut to pieces he himself died killing many enemies. The Guru was happy to see him achieve what a powerful man should. All Sikhs said he was great."
(Kavi Santokh Singh, Suraj Parkash, ed. Vir Singh, 8:2930-2932)
Being a spiritual guide to all, the Guru commanded an army which was a composite of all Indians be they Sikh, Hindu or Muslim. One of the great warriors of the Sikh army was a Muslim Pathan named Paindeh Khan, the training partner and beloved friend of Guru Hargobind. History records his battle with Sayyid Didar Ali in April 1634. The account below recalls the bravery of this warrior:
"Paindeh Khan shot dead the horse of Sayyid Didar Ali. The Sayyid questioned Akali Paindeh Khan's skill in killing a horse. Then, he challenged him to a duel. The confident Akali 'Mureed' (Muslim) warrior said he did not need a sword.
"Just try to take one of my fist blows. Go ahead, strike with your sword."
When he heard this, the Sayyid was angered.
"First I will cut your hands."
Saying this, he struck his sword but the blow was absorbed on Paindeh Khan's shield. Then [simultaneously] pouncing forward, he landed a powerful fist blow at the 'karan mool' (base of ear). The Sayyid could not take the blow and collapsed like a tree felled by the wind."
Guru Hargobind was also a greatly skilled warrior, famed for his good looks and tall handsome powerful bearing. Another account recalls this moment:
"In this same battle the Mughal commander Mukhilis Khan himself rode up to the Guru:
"Many have died but nothing has been achieved", began the Mughal. "Let us both fight a fierce battle. May the people [other warriors] see and be greatly happy [since by watching two great masters, their fighting knowledge will increase]. Either I will be killed, or I will kill you. Then loss or victory will be [determined]."
The Guru commanded his Akalis to back off. "Now stand back," he told them, "and watch 'run ke dai' [techniques/tactics of the battlefield]."
The warriors of both armies disengaged and watched on in eager anticipation. With both protagonists mounted and circling each other, the duel commenced with bows and arrows. Unequal to the task, Mukhilis Khan quickly acknowledged the Guru's superior archery ability. He shouted to the 38 year old Guru,
"I wish to fight with a sword. You dispense arrows with great strength. I do not possess such archery skills."
In accordance with the traditions of 'dharam yudh' (righteous battle), the Guru gladly acquiesced to the request and dismounted. He exchanged his bow for his Persian sword, a 'shamshir', and brought into play years of painstaking training: In a tiger-like hand he took hold of the tiger-like sword. With it he had cut many pieces of armour. On touching, it cut through iron. [Such a fine weapon as this] has been made for cutting horses and men. It was covered in gold (i.e., the hilt was covered in gold). In his left hand, the Guru clutched a shield. Mukhilis Khan also dismounted and drew his sword. Taking hold of a large metal 'sipar' (Persian shield) he readied himself. He considered many techniques as he skirted one way then the other. Observing the traditions of battle (i.e., conducting duels which required putting up a performance before killing), he moved with the desire to kill. Moving left and right, [circling in out], approaching nearer and nearer, he came face to face with the Guru in his desire to begin fighting. Guru Hargobind said to him,
"Listen, O Khan. All the martial knowledge you have attained, show it all today with confidence, and thus gain praise as you fight with pride. The warriors of both armies are watching. All hope for victory, not for defeat. Now you strike the first strike. Many warriors are watching our strength [of skill]."
"Having patiently listened to the words of the Guru, Mukhilis Khan focused his eyes in his desire to strike. The Guru became alert, and moved like a nimble-footed leopard, leaving no opening for his opponent. The Guru is alert and moving all around. Sword in hand, like a hunter, he stalks. Both waited for an opening but each moved with such agility; planning ahead as a master 'shatranj' (Indian chess) player, all potential attacks were thwarted before they could be launched by correct tactical positioning. Mukhilis Khan suddenly advanced with his sword raised high. Feigning an attack to the upper body, he delivered a low blow at once, but the Guru leapt out of harm's way. With his confidence boosted, the Khan struck a second blow at Guru's body. This blow the Guru caught with a swift deflecting movement of his shield. Thus, drawing the Khan into killing range, the Guru tightened his sword-hand grip as he struck a deadly back-handed blow below the Khan's raised sword arm; cutting across his midsection, he sliced his torso in half. The ribs were cut, and the body fell in two. The head and arms lay on one side, the legs and feet on the other. The Guru's heavily curved Persian 'shamshir' (sword) cut like wire cuts through soap."
As history recounts:
"The Turk forces fled in defeat as the braves of the Guru shouting "Akal Akal" like cheetahs [on the hunt] pounced upon them. Who could then fight leader less?"
(Gian Singh, Twarikh Guru Khalsa, 1:488)
The importance Guru Hargobind placed on Sanatan Shastar Vidiya training can be ascertained from one of his comments made at the end of this battle. Whilst sat on the high burial mound, with a smile and a good degree or satisfaction, he exclaimed to his famed general Bidhi Chand:
Thereafter, Guru Hargobind bequeathed his martial legacy to his grandson Guru Gobind Singh.
"That [Shastar] Vidiya which we train in every day so now it came to our use."
(Kavi Santokh Singh, Suraj Parkash, ed. Vir Singh, 8:2975)