In 1914, the Punjab was in the North West of Undivided India, on the border with Afghanistan. There were more than 20 million (20,000,000) people living in the Punjab, a diverse mix of cultures and beliefs which included Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs.
It was a land of farmers with most of the people living in rural villages much like Britain at the time. Large cities such as Amritsar, Lahore and Rawalpindi were filled with people, shops and businesses, including a thriving textile and pottery industry. The Punjab was considered by the British government to be an area loyal to British rule.
The Punjab is the traditional homeland of the Sikh people. There were around 2,150,000 Sikhs in Punjab in 1914 (10.5% of the total population of the Punjab). Sikhs share a belief in the oneness of God, in equality between men and women of any background, and in the enlightening power of all religions. They also believe that spiritual strength should be matched with the strength to fight oppression.
Many rulers tried to suppress Sikhism and, in fighting to protect their faith, the Sikhs earned a reputation as skilled warriors. For this reason, the British actively recruited Sikh men into their army.
Sikhs wishing to join the army first had to be initiated into the Khalsa, the Sikh warrior order, and take an oath on the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy text. Members of the Khalsa promise to follow rules, such as promising not to smoke and to pray regularly.
Not all Sikhs have to join the Khalsa – you are no less a Sikh if you choose not to join. Those who do become part of the Khalsa take the last name Singh (meaning ‘lion’) for a boy, and Kaur (meaning ‘prince’) for a girl. They also promise to wear the Five Ks:
- kes - uncut hair
- kangha - a small wooden comb
- kara - a steel or iron bracelet
- kirpan - a dagger or small sword
- kacchera - special undergarments
Despite not all Sikh men having to grow a beard or wear a turban, most Sikhs joining the army in 1914 did. In old pictures, Sikh soldiers can be identified by the style of their turban. Sikh turbans do not have a pointed cone at the top but do usually have an under-turban. The beard could sometimes be trickier as not every man was able to grow a beard.