Because of its location, the Panjab has always been particularly susceptible to foreign conquest. Since the time of Harappa and Takshashila, over a period of two millennia the region witnessed invasions by the Indo-Aryans, Muslims and Europeans. The Mahabharata epic is based on historical battles between the warring kings of Karnal. Sikhs and Panjabis in general were known throughout South Asia for their stature and comparatively large build. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was born into a kyshatria family and according to Nihang tradition was taught the art of combat by sadhus of the Natha sect. His successor, Guru Angad Dev, taught followers to train the body physically, mentally and spiritually, encouraging the practice of martial arts. One of Guru Nanak’s early disciples, Baba Buddha, taught the boy who would eventually become the sixth Sikh patriarch, Guru Hargobind.
Guru Hargobind founded the original Sikh fighting school, the Ranjit Akhara (lit. “invincible training hall”) at Amritsar, with its armed force known as the Akal Sena or “immortal army”. He propagated the theory of the warrior-saint (miri-piri) and emphasized the need to practice fighting for self-defence against the Mughal rulers due to growing animosities.The Guru began the practice of laying out weapons in the form of a lotus flower for saluting and worshipping before a training session. The weapons were a straight khanda (sword) representing Mahakala and a curved talwar (sabre) representing Bhavani. These would be stuck to a plaque mounted with idols of Hindu gods and designated a chief’s rank. This symbol, known as a “rose-blade”, was said to include “those weapons which everyone has”, indicating common arms. The Prem Sumārag tells that these are the katara (dagger), churi (knife), jamadār (poniard), kirpan (sword), kamān (bow), and dhāla (shield).
The tenth patriarch Guru Gobind Singh was a master of armed fighting who carried five weapons (pancha shastra): the karaga (sword), kamān (bow), chakram (war-quoit), katara (dagger), and banduk (rifle). In 1699 he galvanized the martial energies of the Sikh community by founding the Khalsa brotherhood. Under his leadership, the Sikh community turned from a scattered movement of socio-religious reform to a prominent military force and quickly developed a reputation as a warrior people which would carry into the present day. Supporters of this more confrontational stance came from around north India. Addressing the Sikh community, he declared that they “will love the weapons of war, be excellent horsemen, marksmen and wielders of the sword, the chakram and the spear. Physical prowess will be as sacred to you as spiritual sensitivity.”
The Khalsa’s aims were to fight oppression, assist the poor, worship the one God, abandon superstition, and defend the freedom of faiths. This is symbolised by the kirpan or dagger, one of the five Ks which every baptised Sikh is required to carry. In regards to training the brotherhood, Guru Gobind Singh pledged that he would “teach the sparrow to fight the hawk”. Women faced no restriction from learning the use of weapons, due to the Guru’s teaching of gender equality. The Nihang, a strict warrior order of Sikhs, exemplified his principles of combining spirituality with combat training.
After the Guru and his sons were assassinated in the early 1700s, the disciple Banda Singh Bahadur began collecting arms and followers. Though poorly armed, Banda’s followers were well-trained in the martial arts and managed to systematically storm the region’s Muslim towns. The continued onslaught of the emperor forced Banda and his sympathisers to flee to the hills, and he was eventually captured and killed along with 700 other Sikhs. But by following his example, the Sikhs managed to subvert the foundations of Mughal power until the province was in total disarray by the mid-18th century.
Even from childhood, Sikhs would supplement their training with martial games or sonchi which were meant to develop physical fitness, endurance, flexibility and agility. The famous commander Nawab Kapur Singh is recorded as playing such a game during his childhood by organizing the boys into two armies who would engage each other in mock warfare. Their fights were aggressive and hardly less dangerous than real combat. During one training exercise Kapur Singh himself was struck in the shoulder with a blow so deep that the doctors believed he would not recover.
Following the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848 to 1849 and the establishment of the British Raj, the northwest Indian martial traditions and practitioners suffered greatly. Ever wary of the Sikhs, the British ordered effective disarmament of the entire community. The Nihang, considered the keepers of all Sikh traditions, were regarded as disloyal to the colonists. More than 1,500 Nihang were killed by the British for plotting rebellion. According to folklore, some fled and spent the rest of their lives in the northern mountains.
During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Sikhs assisted the British in crushing the mutiny. As a consequence of this assistance, restrictions on fighting practices were relaxed. The old method of sword training was used by the Khalsa Army in the 1860s as practice for hand-to-hand combat. Richard F. Burton describes gatka matches in which the swordsmen fight with a ribboned stick in one hand and a small shield in the other.
As Sikh colleges opened during the 1880s, European rules of fencing were applied to create what is now called khel or sport gatka. The European colonists also brought Sikhs from India to other British colonies to work as soldiers and security guards. Gatka is still practiced by the Sikh communities of former British colonies and neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand. Due to the large overseas Panjabi-Sikh community, it is has become a common misconception that gatka is practiced only by Sikhs.