Globalization has allowed the Hindu festival of Holi to spread almost everywhere—at least where there is an Indian community—with its irresistible springtime joy and colors. However, another lesser-known festival often takes place around the same time, typically on March 21: a Sikh event called Vaisakhi, which has a strong agrarian aspect and also commemorates the founding of the Khalsa, an internal Sikh brotherhood whose altruistic ideology resembles that of medieval knights and today constitutes one of the three major groups of this faith.

March is a particularly active month for Hindus. The day after Holi, Hola Mohalla is celebrated by Sikhs, replacing pigment battles from the previous day with reenactments of armed combat and poetry contests, along with kirtan (religious songs). Vaisakhi, which follows, marks the beginning of the solar calendar and the harvest in Punjab, in the same way other parts of India have similar festivals. Additionally, it is one of the three major Sikh festivals along with Maghi and Diwali. However, Vaisakhi adds a special characteristic, as it is the founding festival of the aforementioned Khalsa.

One must go back to 1699 when the tenth guru (prophet) of Sikhism, Gobind Rai, decided to create the Panth Khalsa (Order of the Pure), after his father, Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded by order of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, in accordance with sharia law. In 1675, Bahadur, the ninth guru, had intervened in defense of Hindu pandits (scholars) from Kashmir, who were being forced by the Mughals to convert to Islam, and that’s why Aurangzeb wanted to make an example of him through execution. He wasn’t the first to die this way; in 1606, the emperor Jahangir had also ordered the death of the fifth guru, Arjan Dev.

Sikhs during the Vaisakhi celebration
Sikhs during the Vaisakhi celebration. Credit: Michael Clark / Wikimedia Commons

That persecution led the Sikhs to try to defend themselves, and if the sixth guru, Hargobind, organized them militarily by creating the Nihang (or Akali) warrior order, Gobind Rai now founded the aforementioned Khalsa based on the previous one. Its members would take an oath to defend the innocent from any religious persecution, after completing an initiation ceremony and adopting a code of conduct that superseded the system embodied by the masand (a type of missionary who preached, baptized, and collected tithes). The new code, the Rehit Maryada, which wasn’t a closed regulation but had variations, would be adopted by all Sikhism in 1945.

Originally, Khalsa was an administrative term derived from Arabic and used administratively to denote land ownership, later adopted to distinguish from the masand, who collected for the Sikhs, and the jagir, who did so for the emperor (and received land in return). Thus, it came to signify purity and righteousness among the faithful to the guru against the growing corruption of the tax collectors. This consideration was extended to Sikhs in general after Gobind Rai called for a gathering in Anandpur Sahib (a city in Punjab) on April 13, 1699.

As mentioned earlier, this was Vaisakhi; a holiday, hence the massive congregation. Tradition holds that Gobind Rai addressed the crowd from atop the Kesgarh Sahib hill, where he had pitched his tent. He unsheathed his sword and asked for a volunteer willing to lose their head in sacrifice. One person came forward, and they entered the tent together. A while later, the guru emerged with his blood-stained weapon. The scene repeated four more times with as many volunteers: Daya Ram, Dharam Das, Himmat Rai, Mohkam Chand, and Sahib Chand.

Keshgarh Sahib Gurudwara on the hill of Anandpur Sahib, Pumyab, birthplace of the Khalsa
Keshgarh Sahib Gurudwara on the hill of Anandpur Sahib, Pumyab, birthplace of the Khalsa. Credit: Hari Singh / Wikimedia Commons

In the end, it turned out he hadn’t killed them; the blood was from goats, and that quintet of brave men became the Panj Pyare or the Five Beloved, the leaders upon whom the Khalsa would be built. Because this order was created with such a literary act and a ritual consisting of preparing a sweetened water-based drink, Amrit (Nectar), stirred with a double-edged sword, which the chosen ones consumed in what was essentially a baptism called Amrit Sanskar (“Rite of the Water of Immortality”) or Khanda ka paul (“Initiation with the Double-Edged Sword”).

Next, all added the suffix Singh (“Lion”) to their names, customary among Sikhs to establish social equality, overcoming the caste system. Notably, it wasn’t just men; about eighty thousand people joined the Khalsa over the following days, both men and women, as there was no gender discrimination. While men used Singh, women adopted Kaur (“Princess”). In fact, even a child could undergo the Amrit Sanskar if adequately prepared and adhered to the four principles: commitment to God, to divine creation, to themselves, and renouncing self-centeredness.

The order’s ideology broke with almost everything established. First, it abolished the masand system in favor of a more centralized one. Not everyone agreed with this change, leading to Sikhs dividing into two groups: the Khalsa (initiated, seen as a separate subgroup) and the nanak-panthi (those loyal to orthodoxy), known today as sahajdhari, the non-initiated, versus amritdhari or initiated; a third group, the majority (three-quarters), are the keshdari, who aren’t initiated but follow many precepts, making them difficult to distinguish. Despite these differences, often due to minor issues, this internal pluralism doesn’t affect the general concept of Sikhism.

With this hukamnama (edict) dated 1698, Gobind Singh ordered all Sikhs to be initiated into the Khalsa he was about to found
With this hukamnama (edict) dated 1698, Gobind Singh ordered all Sikhs to be initiated into the Khalsa he was about to found. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Amritdhari maintain the observance of the five articles of faith established by Gobind Singh, based on his predecessor Hargobind, popularly known as the five Ks: kesh (long hair, typically wrapped in a dastar or turban), kangha (wooden comb often kept in the dastar), kara (steel bracelet or bangle, symbolizing eternity), kachera (short unisex undergarment, symbolizing chastity and more practical in combat than the traditional Indian dhoti), and kirpan (curved blade, a dagger in the West but a longer sword in Punjab). They formed the Panj Kapde or characteristic attire along with other items like the chola (tunic, often in electric blue), kamar kasa (sash), and hazooria (scarf).

Additionally, the warriors of the Khalsa were forbidden to smoke, go uncovered, wear earrings or piercings, consume meat sacrificed in Islamic style, or have extramarital affairs. They also avoided associations with rivals or their descendants, and generally, they had to be honest, treat everyone equally, meditate on God while staying faithful, resist tyranny, and confront religious persecution, whether against individuals or the community. This was complemented by over fifty hukams or regulations; breaking one of them meant excommunication and the need to start the initiation process over again to regain acceptance.

Apart from individual professions, defending against persecution required learning weaponry skills, and since Sikhs were being persecuted by Muslims, the Khalsa took shape as an organization to combat this situation. Within a decade, the first organized uprising against the Mughals occurred. It was in 1708, led by Banda Singh Bahadur, the successor to Gobind Singh, who had already defeated the hill rajahs of Siwalik seven years earlier when they attacked him for being considered dangerous.

Three of the five K's: kirpan, kangha, and kara
Three of the five K’s: kirpan, kangha, and kara. Credit: Hari Singh / Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1670, Banda Singh was still a teenager when he retired to a monastery for an ascetic life, but he abandoned it when summoned by the guru to lead the army as jhatedar (general, commander). The assassination of Gobind Singh by two henchmen, possibly sent by the Mughal governor, maybe under orders from the emperor Bahadur Shah I, was the turning point in the conflict.

After convincing several villages in Punjab to join him, Banda Singh captured a series of cities, whose wealth allowed him to increase his forces and equipment. Sometimes using ambushes, sometimes open battles, and sometimes a combination of both, he gained increasingly significant victories, thanks to which he was able to proclaim a Sikh republic in the region. Known as ‘the defender of the faith and the champion of the oppressed’, he established his capital in Mukhlisgarh (later renamed Lohgarh) and even minted coins, controlling part of Punjab and disrupting communications between Delhi and Lahore.

This was becoming a serious threat, and in 1710, the emperor formed a significant army (to avoid Sikh spies infiltrating, he ordered all soldiers to shave their beards), which succeeded in defeating the rebels. However, Banda Singh managed to escape and hide in the forests of Chamba. The emperor, furious, ordered the extermination of all Sikhs. The movement was able to reorganize and launch a counterattack in 1712, but in the end, they were besieged in Gurdas Nagal. They resisted for eight months, at the end of which the Mughals captured the fort, arrested all defenders—including Banda Singh—and paraded them through Delhi during a triumphal procession, locked in cages along with carts full of severed heads.

Possible portrait of Banda Singh fighting on horseback at the battle of Sirhind, 1710, although the painting is about sixty years later
Possible portrait of Banda Singh fighting on horseback at the battle of Sirhind, 1710, although the painting is about sixty years later. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

They numbered just under eight hundred and all those who refused to embrace Islam were executed. Banda Singh had to witness the death of his four-year-old son before being forced to eat his heart. Afterwards, he himself was martyred: his eyes and skin were gouged out, his limbs were amputated and he was finished off by having his head cut off. The Khalsa survived in hiding until it re-emerged under the leadership of Nawab Kapur Singh and, with a new army, the Dal Khalsa, confronted both the Mughals and the Afghans.

As a result, the misls were born, a series of small aristocratic and autonomous states united in a confederation; they would be the seed of the Sikh Empire, which dominated Punjab for half a century, from 1799 to 1849, after gaining independence from the Durrani (Afghan) Empire. It was called Sarkar-i-Khalsa, which means Government of the Khalsa, and its borders stretched from Tibet to Afghanistan and from Kashmir to the Sutlej, including regions like Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ladakh, etc.

The Khalsa, as its name suggests, didn’t disappear but became the Sikh army, which modernized with European weapons and tactics, allowing it to defeat all its emerging enemies (Afghans, rebellious misls, Chinese, Tibetans, Gurkhas, etc.). In 1839, it comprised one hundred twenty thousand men and two hundred fifty cannons, but although it was strong militarily, it began to weaken politically due to internal centrifugal dissensions.

Sculptural group in Delhi depicting the martyrdom of Banda Singh Bahadur and his son
Sculptural group in Delhi depicting the martyrdom of Banda Singh Bahadur and his son. Credit: aadhunik / Wikimedia Commons

This is something the British East India Company took advantage of to initiate the so-called Anglo-Sikh Wars, which ended with European victory in battles like Sobraon (1846) or Firozpur (1849), with the empire divided into smaller territories (the Punjab province, administered by the Crown through a governor, along with several smaller principalities).

This marked the end of the Sikh state and the Khalsa as a military force, though it still exists today, albeit adapted to modern times, as the warrior aspect is limited to weapon handling displays, parades, and mock battles.

Another new development is the more or less full inclusion of women, thanks to the Singh Sabha Movement, which from the last quarter of the 19th century promoted numerous reforms influenced by the work of Christian missionaries and the need to stop the loss of followers. Currently, it’s estimated that there are around twenty-five to thirty million Sikhs who are members of the Khalsa.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 24, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Khalsa, los guerreros sijs que tenían el deber de proteger a los inocentes de cualquier forma de persecución religiosa


Gurinder Singh Mann, El sijismo | Agustín Pániker, Los sikhs: Historia, identidad y religión | Eleanor Nesbitt, Sikhism: A very short introduction | Amardeep S. Dahiya, Founder of the Khalsa. The life and times of Guru Gobind Singh | Louise E. Fenech y W. H. McLeod, Historical dictionary of Sikhism | Wikipedia

  • Share this article:

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.