The Akalis (later known as Nihangs) believed in asceticism and celibacy. They also believed in the use of bhang (hashish) also called Sukha or Sukh Nidhan (treasure of bliss) for meditative purposes. They believe in three Granths: The Adi Granth (Primal/First Book), the Dasam Granth (Book of the Tenth Guru) and the Sarob Loh Granth (Book of the All-Steel). They believe that all have equal status and supplement each other; in the Akali/Nihang perspective it is not possible to fully comprehend the Adi Granth without the other two Granths. The Akalis also believe in the itinerant idea of chakravorty, that is to be always on the move. They believe that they are the fifth and only moving Takht (throne of authority) that keeps a check on the four stationary Takhts – which have become institutionalised. However this is not recognised by orthodox Sikhs. The Nihangs believe in the oral tradition of giving kathas (oral discourses on the scripture), and do not write down their history. Today not all Nihangs are celibate, some marry and some till the land. Nihangs believe that they are the real Khalsa who practice martial arts and live their lives as Guru Gobind Singh outlined. The Nihangs therefore strongly believe and rigidly adhere to the rahit (code of conduct).
The Akalis (Immortals, or Followers of the Timeless One), or as they are now known Nihangs (meaning ‘free from worldly cares’), were at their most numerous and impressive in the 18th and early 19th centuries. At this time they were called Akalis and were known to be fearless, skilled and resolute warriors. They saw themselves as forming the elite corpus of the Khalsa. Their origins cannot be substantiated by written sources; however, from their oral tradition, they believe themselves to have originated from the times of Guru Gobind Singh. The Akalis earned a reputation for being valiant soldiers during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Akalis, as armed groups on horseback, offered Sikhs protection from Muslim persecution in the 1750s to the late 1780s. These army groups had various divisions (called misls) which eventually gained control over areas of varying sizes. Initially these groups of horsemen were fighting the Mughals, then the Afghans and finally as the Muslim threats receded, started fighting amongst themselves for land. The eventual conqueror was Ranjit Singh who absorbed and united all the misl groups and ruled an undivided Panjab in the 1800s. One of Ranjit Singh’s most renowned warrior was the celibate Akali Phula Singh (c. 1716-1823), who was the Nihangs greatest leader.
The Nihangs dress is the most distinct and outstanding of all the Sikhs, for they are rigorous followers of the code set down in the rahit literature. They are all therefore Keshdhari (uncut hair), they wear weapons most notably the sword and the steel quoits around their blue turbans. Their overall dress colour is blue, with a long blue shirt (chola). The style of their turbans is also quite unique. It is very tall and probably three to four times the length of normal Khalsa Singh’s turbans. The tall turban called a damala is surmounted by a cloth or a flag (pharhara). Around this turban are placed one or two steel or iron rings/quoits. The vertical position of where this ring is worn signifies the individuals spiritual attainment; the higher the ring the greater the spiritual development. There main diagrammatic symbol for explaining their idea of chakravorty is the swastika: which symbolises rotational movement through four static points around a centre. The four points represent the four established Takhts, and the rotation through them represent the moving fifth Takht of the Nihangs that is meant to keep the four stationary Takhts in check. The Nihangs are divided into four Dals (armies): Tarna Dal, Bab Bidhi Chand Dal, Baba Bhindran Dal, and Baba Budha Dal, (which are named after Akali Leaders known as Jathedars). The supreme commander will nominate a successor, usually a celibate like himself.
Numbers have considerably dropped after many battles. In the 1891 census 231 Hindus and 1,586 Sikhs returned themselves as ‘Akalis’. (Census of India, 1891, Vol.XX and Vol.XXI, The Punjab and its Feudatories, by E.D. Maclagan, Part II and III, Calcutta, 1892, pp.826-9 and pp.572-3.) Today they represent a relatively small number of the overall Sikh population. However there are no official, contemporary numbers
The Nihangs spend half their time moving around the Panjab on horseback and half settled cultivating the land. Whilst moving they set up camps (deras) at various locations. The Five Takhts are: Akal Takht in Amritsar is paramount; Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur, Harimandir Sahib in Patna, Huzur Sahib in Nander, and Damdama Sahib in southern Panjab. These four are all located at sites historically linked with Guru Gobind Singh. Decisions are made (hukam-namas) by the Sarbat Khalsa (‘all’ the represented community) binding on all the Sikhs. These type of orders only issue from the Akal Takht in Amritsar, which conflicts with the present Nihangs and their ostracised position. Nihangs converge on various festivals, most notably at Anandpur for the Holla Mahalla festival, where they demonstrate their martial prowess and give discourses their scriptures.