Ever present at Darbar Sahib, Schoefft depicted a few members of the Nihang sect in his painting which are easily distinguishable by their blue robes and weapons in their conical turbans. The fierce Nihangs were once powerful and feared warriors that had significant influence in the Sikh Kingdom. Their headquarters were the Akal Bunga (Akal Takht) at Amritsar and from here they had control and dominance over religious affairs at Amritsar.
Their relationship with the Sikh Royal Court seems to have been a complex one. There was a marginal acceptance by the Nihangs of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule, while maintaining their autonomy as a group. They took great pleasure in a campaign of insults directed towards Maharaja Ranjit Singh in public and this tradition continued to his successors including Maharaja Sher Singh in the time of Schoefft's visit. Schoefft experienced the wrath of the Nihangs first hand on his visit to Darbar Sahib and barely escaped with his life.
In addition to the regular and irregular army the Lahore government has also in its pay a body of irregular cavalry (to the number of between two and three thousand) called Akalees. They are religious fanatics, who acknowledge no ruler or laws but their own ; think nothing of robbery, or even murder, should they happen to be in the humour for it, Runjeet Singh himself having on more than one occasion narrowly escaped assassination by them. They are without any exception the most insolent and worthless race of people under the sun. They move about constantly armed to the teeth, insulting everybody they meet, particularly Europeans. and it is not an uncommon thing to see them riding about with a drawn sword in each hand, two more in their belt, a matchlock at their back, and three or four quoits fastened round their turbans. The quoit is an arm peculiar to this race of people : it is a steel ring, varying from six to nine inches in diameter, and about an inch in breadth, very thin, and the edges ground very sharp : they throw it with more force than dexterity, but not so (as alleged) as to be able to lop off a limb at sixty or eighty yards. In general, the bystanders are in greater danger than the object aimed at. Runjeet Singh did much towards reducing this worthless race of people to a state of subjection, but he only partially succeeded, and latterly they have become more intolerant than ever. They, however, fight with desperation, and are always employed upon the most dangerous service.
Travels in Kashmir and the Panjab
Baron Charles Hugel, translated from German with Notes by Major T.B. Jervis, 1845,
As we approached the Akalees, those savage hordes set up a scornful shout ; some galloped out of the ranks and, with uplifted hands, abused the Maharaja ; His Highness [Maharaja Sher Singh], however, who appeared quite used to this sort of thing, took no notice whatever, and said he was glad that they had not pelted him with mud, as they had frequently done to Runjeet Singh on similar occasions. My elephant unfortunately became tired just at this junction, which afforded these ruthless clamourers a welcome opportunity to manifest their insolence.
Travels in India including Sinde and the Punjab, Vol I
Captain Leopold von Orlich, translated by H. Evans Lloyd, London, 1845
With the end of the Sikh Empire and its annexation by the British, the Nihangs were eventually driven from their power and influence over religious affairs at Amritsar.
The Akalis Tower, Umritzir. For whatever purpose this elegant and fanciful building was erected, its present name is derived from the circumstance in the war of the Sikhs, when a band of Akalis (those furious fanatics, in their blue dresses and bands and chains of steel, who had constituted themselves the guardians of the tank and temple) were persued here after the city was taken, and driven from floor to floor till the remnant finally precipitated themselves from the summit rather than yield and confess themselves vanquished.
Illustrated London News, November 20, 1858