In March 2017, I attended Hola Mohalla, an annual Sikh festival celebrated on or a day after Holi. It marks the establishment of the Khalsa Panth—the martial wing of the Sikhs founded by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. Every year, thousands of devotees throng the holy city of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, where the three-day celebrations see Sikhs flaunt their martial prowess: standing erect while riding two horses, bareback riding, tent pegging, gatka (battling with sticks) performances, among others. Seeing the photographs of the Sikh warriors called Nihangs, dressed in their large blue turbans, displaying their martial skills with swords and on horseback, I knew that Hola Mohalla would be a delight to shoot.
During my research, I learnt how Sikhism was founded on the ideals of social equality, and that led me to wonder what place it afforded the women in the community, especially if she were a Nihang. Theoretically, women have an equal position to men in Sikhism, but the path of a Nihang—which often involves asceticism, austerity, living in deras (camps) and travelling alone, is difficult.
There were about one million people in Anandpur Sahib this year, filling the streets, the gurdwaras and the Charan Ganga stadium. In the crowd, I found Harsangat Raj Kaur, a female Nihang who was being shot for a documentary. She embodied the spiritual determination, resilience and strength it takes to be a Nihang.