Bundelas, Sikhs, Jats and Satnamis
The Bundelas are a Rajput clan of central India. The families belonging to this clan ruled several small states in the Bundelkhand region from the 16th century.
The mythical accounts of the Bundela dynasties trace their ancestry to the Suryavansha (solar dynasty). An example of such an account is that of Gorelal or Lal Kavi (c. 1700 CE), who composed a poetic biography of the Bundela king Chhatrasal.
The Bundela claim descent from Manu Vaivasvata, and Ikshvaku, through Lava, the elder son of Lord Rama. From Lava were descended two brothers names, Gagansen or Gaganaspati and Kanaksen. The latter is said to have founded Vallabhipura in Gujarat around 144AD, while the former is said ti have migrated eastwards and founded a kingdom for himself in 182AD. Of the descendants of Gagansenm, nothing is known till Kartraj appears in around 674AD, and who proceeded to Kashi or Banaras where he contrived to oust the local chief, a Sani Rajput. He then married Vara, daughter of the local chief, Magha, and was ancestor of the next 20 Gaharwar rulers of Banaras (674-1048), of whom nothing but the names is known, as follows below. Tradition ascribes the name Bundela to Raja Pancham Vindhyela (also known as Hem Karan), son of the Gaharwar ruler of Benares, Raja Karan Pal, themselves a branch of the early Kannauj Dynasty. He was expelled from his kingdom by his brother, then retired to the shrine of Bindachal and became a votary of Bhawani.
He intended to sacrifice himself to that deity, but after inflicting a wound upon himself was stopped from doing further injury by Bhawani and was promised that his kingdom would be restored, and that in commemoration of the blood already spilt, his descendants were to be called Bundela, derived from ‘bund’. It is probable that the founder of the clan was Hardeo, a son of one of the Gaharwar rulers of Kantit. He took up his residence near Orchha and by treachery acquired the lands of the Khangar Raja of Karar. The Bundelas first settled at Kalinjar, Kalpi and Mahoni, and in the 14th century, Raja Malkhan, founded Orchha. They became a ruling family in the 16th century and gave their name to the tract in which they ruled.
The account goes like this: Brahma originated from Vishnu. The descendants of Brahma were: Marichi, Kashyapa, Surya (the sun; son of Kashyapa and Aditi), Ikshavaku, Dilipa, Raghu, Aja, Dasharatha, Ramachandra, Kusha, Haribrahma, and Vihagaraja. The seventh-generation descendant of Vihagaraja was Kiratdeva, who was the ancestor of Kashi king Virabhadra. The founder of the Bundela dynasty was a descendant of Virabhadra’s son Jagdas (also known as Pancham, Devadasa or Hem Karan).
Jagdas was a son of Virabhadra’s junior queen. After being denied a share in the Kashi kingdom by the four sons of the elder queen, he came to the shrine of the goddess Vindhyavasini. There, he engaged in a long tapasyato seek the goddess’ blessings. After failing to evoke response, he decided to sacrifice his head to the deity. As soon as the first drop of his blood fell on the ground, the goddess appeared before him. She declared that his son, a brave hero and a future ruler, would appear from the drop of the blood. This son – Bundela – was named after the drop (bund). The Bundela dynasties worshipped the Vindhyavasini as their kuladevi(family deity).
According to Bundela legends, Jagdas’ descendant Arjunpal was the ruler of Mahoni. His eldest son Birpal succeeded him as the king of Mahoni, although his younger son Sohanpal was the best warrior. To get his share of the kingdom, Sohanpal sought help from Naga (alias Hurmat Singh), the Khangar ruler of Kurar (Kundar). Naga demanded a matrimonial alliance in return. When Sohanpal refused, Naga tried to detain him and forcibly agree him to the condition. Sohanpal escaped, and unsuccessfully sought help from the Chauhans, the Salingars, and the Kachwahas. Ultimately, a Panwar chief named Panpal (or Punyapal) agreed to help him. Their joint army defeated Naga in 1288 CE. Sohanpal killed all the Khangar men in the fort, but spared the babies on the condition that the Khangars would serve as the servants of the Bundelas. Sohanpal became the king of Kurar, and his daughter married Panpal.
The Bundelas formed “milk brotherhood” with the Ahirs. The Ahir wet nurses (dudh ma or “milk mothers”) nourished the Bundela princes with their milk, while the Ahir men served as warriors in the Bundela armies.
Rudra Pratap Singh (reigned 1501-1531 CE), said to be a descendant of Sohanpal, moved his capital from Garh Kundar to Orchha in 1531 CE. The Orchha State was the parent Bundela kingdom. Datia State (1626 CE) and Panna State (1657 CE) separated from the Orchha State. After the death of Panna’s founder Chhatrasal in 1731, Ajaigarh State, Bijawar State and Charkhari State separated from Panna. The official records of the Chhatarpur State also mentioned the caste of its rulers as “Panwar Bundela”. Its founder was a Panwar, who was in service of the Bundela ruler of Panna State until 1785 CE.
The Bundelkhand (“Bundela domain”) region was named after the Bundelas. The different Bundela chieftains of Bundelkhand often fought against each other which the Mughals often took advantage of.
Rise of the Sikh Power
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak Dev at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Guru Nanak was born on April 15, 1469 in the Western Punjab village of Talwandi. Even as a child, he was given to deep thinking with no interest in worldly life. At the age of thirty, he got enlightenment. Thereafter, he travelled almost the whole of the country and went over to Mecca and Baghdad, preaching his message. On his death he was followed by nine other Gurus in succession.
The Sikh barons were subject to the control of the Sarbat Khalsa, the biannual assembly of the Panth at Amritsar. The frequent use made of the Sarbat Khalsa converted it into a central forum of the panth. It had to elect leader of the Dal Khalsa, and to lay down its political goal and plans of its military strategy. It had also to set out plans for strengthening the Khalsa faith and body politic, besides adjudicating disputes about property and succession. The Akalis were in charge of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, but they did not infringe the sovereignty of the Barons’ kingdoms.
The military head of the Sikh confederacy was democratically elected at Amritsar, in a council by the head of each kingdom.
Past elected Supreme Commanders
- Nawab Kapur Singh.
- Jassa Singh Ahluwalia.
Once every year the head’s of each region of Punjab would convene at Amritsar or Lahore. The misl structure is primarily used to describe the military configuration. The misl name structure is often confused with the politicial structure within each Sikh confederate Kingdom and how they interacted with each other. The name used to describe the military structure is the Misl system. However, (the political system) how each Sikh confederate Kingdom interacted with each other is called the Sikh Confederacy.
Agriculture was the main input to the economy. For each Sikh baron land revenue became the major source of his income. As a rule, the Sikh barons followed the baiai system. 20% of the gross produce was deducted before the division for expenses of cultivation. The remaining four fifths, the baron share varied from one half to one quarter. The general proportion was 55% cultivator’s share, 7.5% proprietor’s share and 37.5% government share. Producers of a few crops such as cotton, sugarcane, poppy and indigo were required to pay revenue in cash. The Khalsa or crown lands remained under the direct control of the Sikh barons.
According to James Browne, a contemporary East India Company employee, the barons collected a very moderate rent, and that mostly in kind. Their soldiery never molested the husbandman; the baron never levied the whole of his share; and in the country, perhaps, never was a cultivator treated with more indulgence.
Moreover, the baron did not interfere with old and hereditary land tenures. The rules of haq shufd did not permit land to be sold to an outsider. New fields, or residential sites could be broken out of waste land as such land was available in plenty. Duties on traders and merchants also brought some revenue. The Sikh barons gave full protection to traders passing through their territories.
George Forster, who travelled to northern India in 1783, observed that extensive and valuable commerce was maintained in their territories which was extended to distant quarters of India, after the British withdrew from India.
The military power levels of the Sikh Confederacy increased dramatically after 1762, this led to rapid increase in territory. Although the political structure of the Sikh Confederacy was still in place, the increase in power saw the introduction of new features, more often seen with empires, such as military treaties with other powers that desired military protection from it e.g. in December 1768, Najib-ud-Daulla entered into a military treaty with the Sikh Confederacy. Rai Mal Gujar and Walter Leuhardt (Samroo) too wanted to join in.
There was strong collaboration together in defence against Afghan incursions initiated by the Afghan king, Ahmed Shah Abdali. Amritsar was attacked numerous times, with the intention of ethnic cleansing and the destruction of the Sikh faith.
The time is remembered by Sikh historians as the “Heroic Century”. This is mainly to describe the rise of Sikhs to political power against massive odds. The circumstances were hostile religious environment against Sikhs, a tiny Sikh population compared to other religious and political powers, which were much larger and stronger in the region than the Sikhs. The military power levels of the Sikh Confederacy increased dramatically after 1762, this led to rapid increase in territory.
These Sikh confederate states were disbanded following the Coronation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Lahore, 1801 AD, and the creation of the Sikh Empire.
Unification under Maharaja Ranjit Singh
The Sikh Empire (from 1801-1849) was formed on the foundations of the Sikh Confederacy by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Empire extended from the Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north (touching) the border’s of Tibet, to the Sind River in the south and in the east to Himachal Pradesh. The main geographical footprint of the empire was Punjab (historical Punjab region). The religious population demography of the Sikh Empire was Muslim (60%), mainly in larger areas of Kashmir, Jammu, Multan, Peshawar, Hazara, Sialkot, Attock, Rawalpindi areas. Hindu (25%), mainly in Kangra, Chamba, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur, Una, Jammu, Kashmir, Gujranwala, areas. Their were 10 million Sikhs, mainly in Amritsar, Lahore, Jalandhar, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Kapurthala, Kasur, Kashmir, and Jammu areas. The once strong empire, severely weakened after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839. The story of the Empire ends, with the British Empire annexing its territory in 1849, after the Second Anglo-Sikh War.
- The era of the ten gurus of Sikhism spans from the birth of Nanak Dev in 1469, through the life of Guru Gobind Singh.
- At the time of Guru Gobind Singh’s death in 1708, he passed the title of Guru to the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth.
- Guru Nanak Dev – Guru from 1469 to 1539
- Guru Nanak Dev, first of the 10 gurus, founded the Sikh faith, introducing the concept of one God.
- He started the institution of Guru Ka Langar. Langar is the term in the Sikh religion refers to the common kitchen where food is served to everyone without any discrimination.
- He emphasized the equality of women and rejected the path of renunciation and he rejected the authority of the Vedas.
- He was the contemporary of Mughal emperor – Babur.
- Guru Angad Dev – Guru from 1539 to 1552
- Guru Angad Dev, second of the 10 gurus, invented and introduced the Gurmukhi (written form of Punjabi) script.
- He compiled the writings of Nanak Dev in Guru Granth Sahib in Gurmukhi Script.
- Popularized and expanded the institution of Guru ka Langar which was started by Guru Nanak Dev.
- Guru Amardas Sahib – Guru from 1552 to 1574
- Guru Amardas introduced the Anand Karaj marriage ceremony for the Sikhs, replacing the Hindu form.
- He established Manji & Piri system of religious missions for men and women respectively.
- He strengthened the tradition of Guru Ka Langar.
- He also completely abolished amongst the Sikhs, the custom of Sati and purdah system.
- He was the contemporary of Mughal emperor – Akbar.
- Guru Ram Das – Guru from 1574 to 1581
- Guru Ram Das, fourth of the 10 gurus, founded the city of Amritsar.
- He started the construction of the famous Golden Temple at Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs.
- He requested the Muslim Sufi, Mian Mir to lay the cornerstone of the Harmandir Sahib.
- Guru Arjan Dev – Guru from 1581 to 1606
- He compiled the Adi Granth, the scriptures of the Sikhs.
- He completed construction of Sri Darbar Sahib also known as Golden Temple in Amritsar.
- He founded the town of Tarn Taran Sahib near Goindwal Sahib.
- He became the first great martyr in Sikh history when Emperor Jahangir ordered his execution. Thus, he was hailed as Shaheedan-de-Sartaj (The crown of martyrs).
- Guru Har Gobind Sahib – Guru from 1606 to 1644
- He was the son of Guru Arjan Dev and was known as a “soldier saint”.
- He organised a small army and became the first Guru to take up arms to defend the faith.
- He waged wars against Mughal rulers Jahangir and Shah Jahan.
- Guru Har Rai Sahib – Guru from 1644 to 1661
- Though he was a man of peace, he never disbanded the armed sikh warriors who were earlier maintained by Guru Har Gobind.
- He gave shelter to Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal Ruler Shah Jahan, who was later persecuted by Aurangazeb.
- He cautiously avoided conflict with Emperor Aurangzeb and devoted his efforts to missionary work.
- Guru Har Krishan Sahib – Guru from 1661 to 1664
- Guru Har Krishan was the youngest of the Gurus. He was installed as Guru at the age of five.
- He was contemporary of Aurangazeb and summoned to Delhi by him under framed charges of anti-Islamic blasphemy.
- Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib – Guru from 1665 to 1675
- He established the town of Anandpur.
- He opposed the forced conversion of the Hindu Kashmiri Pandits by Mughal ruler Aurangazeb and he was consequently persecuted for this.
- Guru Gobind Singh Sahib – Guru from 1675 to 1708
- He became Guru after the martyrdom of his father Guru Tegh Bahadur.
- He created the Khalsa in 1699, changing the Sikhs into a saint-soldier order for protecting themselves.
- Last Sikh Guru in human form and he passed the Guruship of the Sikhs to the Guru Granth Sahib.
- Guru Granth Sahib
- Guru Granth Sahib (also known as the Adi Granth) is the scripture of the Sikhs.
- The Granth was written in Gurmukhi script and it contains the actual words and verses as uttered by the Sikh Gurus.
- It is considered the Supreme Spiritual Authority and Head of the Sikh religion, rather than any living person.
Ranjit Singh died in June 1839 at the age of fifty-eight. Though a Sikh, he had created a state that was unique for its time in its secular nature. He hired talented Hindus, Muslims and even Christian Europeans to serve at his court and train his army, and honoured all their religious traditions equally. Though he was a tough warrior, he was remarkably merciful to defeated rulers, reinstating them as long as they promised to be loyal; capital punishment, even for serious crimes was unknown in his kingdom.
By the end of his reign, Ranjit Singh had restored peace and prosperity to a region that had known only ceaseless violence for a century and created a powerful state that stood as the last obstacle to British supremacy in India. Thus the scale of the grief expressed by nobles and commoners alike at the old Maharaja’s passing was astounding, something the foreigners at his court repeatedly emphasized in their writings.
Ranjit Singh’ personal habits however, were much less salubrious. These merit somediscussion since they greatly influenced how his court was perceived by foreign eyes and invariablyinfluenced the British stance towards the Sikh Empire after his death.
The Maharaja’s fondness for horses meant he went to extraordinary lengths to acquire finespecimens. In 1831, the British, desiring to obtain intelligence on the navigability of the Indus as a onduit for trade, used this weakness as an opportunity.
On the pretext of presenting the Maharaja with a gift of English horses, they obtained permission to sail up the Indus to Lahore and managed to survey it surreptitiously. The other great love of Ranjit Singh was women and he had a large harem, marrying women of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim faith, despite the opposition of the conservative Akali Takht, the Sikh religious establishment (who opposed Sikhs marrying Muslims).
Consequently, intrigues and power struggles developed in the harem with his queens jostling to place their respective off spring first in line for the succession and conniving courtiers feting various princes in hope of advancing their own careers.
Adding to the disapproval of his religious preceptors and physicians, the Maharaja consumed large amounts of alcohol to which he added crushed pearl, musk and other questionable substances, badly damaging his fragile health.
After a mild stroke in 1831, he also took to smoking opium. In1838, he suffered more strokes that paralyzed the right side of his body, confining him to his bed until his death a year later.
Sunset on the Lahore Durbar
Ranjit Singh was succeeded by his eldest son, Kharak Singh in 1839. Weak-willed, he was a hopeless opium addict and beholden to his court favourite, the knavish Chet Singh. Chet Singh foolishly tried to use his influence over the Maharaja to dislodge the Dogras whose connections at court were as strong as ever. Angered, they spread rumours the Maharaja was plotting to accept British protection and disband the army.
Gulab Singh then thoroughly convinced the Crown Prince, Nau Nihal Singh that his father had gone mad and was plotting the downfall of the kingdom. The Dogras then killed Chet Singh, imprisoned the hapless Kharak Singh and crowned Nau Nihal Singh Maharaja. The deposed Maharaja later poisoned to forestall his return to power.
Nau Nihal Singh was now cultivated as the Dogras’ pawn while they continued to milk the fruits of courtly privilege. Just a few months into his reign however, the Maharaja was injured by falling masonry from an archway and subsequently died from his wounds.
With no clear choice for the throne, the wily Wazir, Dhyan Singh now played court factions off each other. To hedge his bets, Dhyan Singh informed the Dowager, Chand Kaur as well as another of Ranjit Singh’s surviving ons, Sher Singh that he would support their respective bids to be the next ruler. When Sher Singh, appeared at Lahore to claim his throne, Chand Kaur panicked and shut the city gates to his forces. A siege ensued, with Gulab Singh, as the Wazir’s secret agent in the Maharani’s coterie, negotiating a settlement with Sher Singh. Finally, conceding her position as hopeless, Chand Kaur surrendered the throne to Sher Singh. Sher Singh’s reign was plagued by turmoil from the start. The Sandhan walia clan contested his right to rule while simultaneously the army was becoming increasingly ill-disciplined in its idleness. In an effort to butter-up the Khalsa, Sher Singh raised soldiers’ salaries and allowed them to freely enlist their relatives in large numbers as well!
Amidst this trend to lawlessness, the soldiers resorted to a panchayat system for collective decision-making, in the manner of a village council, disregarding entirely the command hierarchy and only accepting officer command for leadership in battle; all decisions were made by council elections. Sher Singh, as former general under Ranjit Singh should have halted this development but as Amarinder Singh points out, due to swirling allegations of him being a bastard and hence illegitimate, he constantly felt insecure. He was also partial to indolence and pleasure, and left matters of government in the hands of the Wazir.
The Sandhan walias now decided to strike back; in September 1843, they assassinated both the Maharaja and Wazir Dhyan Singh. With no other viable claimants, five-year old Dalip Singh, youngest son of Ranjit Singh was crowned Maharaja, with his mother Maharani Jindan as Regent and Dhyan Singh’s son, Hira Singh the new Wazir.
When Hira Singh himself was assassinated in 1844, the Maharani was left isolated andvulnerable against the increasingly belligerent Khalsa. In desperation, she turned to two nefarious characters: Lal Singh, her lover, whom she appointed Wazir, and Tej Singh, an incompetent courtier, who was given command of the army. Facing a complete loss of control over the Khalsa, the Durbar decided on a radical course of action. Alexander Gardner described its solution as “throwing the snake into the enemy’s bosom.” The Khalsa, according to him was “evilly-disposed, violent yet a powerful and splendid army;”it was to be hurled against the British and thus destroyed. The Maharani hypothesized that if, as expected, the army was defeated, the British would restore the court to dominance with Dalip Singh under its protection. On the other hand, if the army somehow triumphed, then her kingdom could potentially be aggrandized by vast new territory up to the gates of Delhi. In December 1945, the Khalsa under the command of Tej Singh crossed the Sutlej, initiating hostilities with Britain.
The rise of the Sikh Empire was so swift that historians often likened Ranjit Singh to a Napoleon in miniature, no small part due to his remarkable martial prowess and charismatic leadership. However, this association does not fully capture the complexity of his personality. Ranjit Singh was cautious more often than reckless and avoided antagonizing enemies he was not sure he could defeat.
He moulded the brave but impetuous Sikhs through iron discipline into a formidable fighting force since he knew the army could be the only guarantor of Sikh independence against foes lurking on all sides. Yet, even as he was ruthless in battle, he governed his multi-ethnic, multi-religious subjects equitably and effectively. His successors lacked his foresight and his bravery; pandering to noisome forces, they resorting to scheming to entrench their positions, all failing miserably.
The Dogras, particularly Gulab Singh, though loyal to the Maharaja during his lifetime, upon his death, seized the opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Finally, the institution of the Khalsa, the prime defender of the state, once free of Ranjit Singh’s restraints, ran wild and brought about its own ignominious demise. Britain saw in Ranjit Singh a reasonable interlocutor, who bore the costs of taming the Afghans; by reducing them to impotency, he served British interests. When these interests were replaced by a nun compromising imperialist ambition in the 1840s however, the Sikh Empire was doomed.
The Jats are a large Indo-Aryan ethnic community dominating the regions of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Some historians claim that they are descendents of the Indo-Scythians who entered India from Central Asia, while others go further, linking them to the ancient Getae and Scythian Massagetae. Jat, traditionally rural ethnic group of northern India and Pakistan. In the early 21st century the Jats constituted about one-fourth of the populations of Punjab and Haryana; nearly 10 percent of the population of Balochistan, Rajasthan, and Delhi; and from 2 to 5 percent of the populations of Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Uttar Pradesh. The Jats of Pakistan are mainly Muslim by faith. The Jats of India are mostly divided into two large communities of about equal size: one Sikh, concentrated in Punjab, and the other Hindu. They were mainly agriculturists and warriors, and were later categorised by the British as a martial race and inducted in the army on a large scale.
The Jats are mainly Hindus, but Jats had also embraced Sikhism in a major way and the best-known example of a Jat Sikh was Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the first Sikh empire in the nineteenth century. There are records of several other Hindu Jat kings in history. One of these was the raja of Umarkot in 1540, when the Mughal emperor, Humayun, sought refuge with him.
Jat Kings of Bharatpur (AD 1686 – 1947)
The Jats came to prominence in the seventeenth century, when they rebelled against the atrocities carried out by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. In 1661, the Jats of Bharatpur were stirred up when a Muslim officer destroyed a temple to replace it with a mosque. He also apparently harassed the populace on a regular basis. Resentment boiled over and an uprising occurred in 1669, led by a Jat village chieftain by the name of Gokula and backed up by twenty thousand followers. The uprising failed, and Gokula was captured and put to death in 1670.
The more successful second rebellion began in 1686, and continued past the death of Aurangzeb. He was the last truly powerful Moghul ruler, so the Jats were able to establish an independent kingdom with Bharatpur as its capital. Several other Jat kingdoms followed, both major and minor. The major kingdoms included Bharatpur, Gohad, and Dholpur (all now in Rajasthan), Kuchesar, Ballabhgarh, and Mursan(all now in Uttar Pradesh).
If Badan Singh laid the foundation of a Jat State, Suraj Mal consolidated it first as Regent and later on as a King, by his sheer resourcefulness, perseverance and strength of character. He rose to be the greatest Raja in the whole of contemporary India possessing not only a spacious kingdom but also the richest overflowing treasury and the strongest army.
The Jats under him rose to the heights of playing an important role in the history of the Mughal Empire. The imperial Wazir, Safdar Jang, sought his friendship and Imad-ul-Mulk craved for his patronage. And the history of the Panipat battle, perhaps, would have been different if Bhau had not sidetracked his advice. The renowned diplomat Najb-ud-Daula also desired to come to terms with him. The Jat King had no pretensions for ruling over the distant provinces even though he possessed the requisite strength. Excepting 1757,the Jat principality always turned out to be a safe and ready haven of refuge for the “helpless, afflicted and indigent” lot.2
Improving upon his father (who kept aside the revenue of a village to be distributed among the beggars) Suraj Mal is said to have set up a charity department with Somnath Charturvedi as Its head. In this light Wendel’s claim , accepted uncritically by Professor Jadunath Sarkar, that Suraj Mal had a “base” incorrigible lust for others property, that he employed robbers for a regular hunt for money and that his miserliness made his family and troops languish in poverty, seems to be unfounded. Far from supporting Wendel, Nur-ud-Din (who being the servant of Imad
Satnami sect, any of several groups in India that have challenged political and religious authority by rallying around an understanding of God as satnam (from Sanskrit satyanaman, “he whose name is truth”).
Ghasi Das the founder
Guru Ghasidas was the propounder of the Satnand sect in the Chattisgarh region. Chishlom, an English Officer regarded Sant Ghasi Das as an incarnation of a divine being in human form. The socio-political and economic condition of Chhatisgarh during this period was a deplorable one. The society was mainly influenced by the Saivites, Vaisnavites and Kabirpanthis, who gave importance on casteism. The lower caste people were the worst sufferers in the prevailing social system. They were oppressed under the rule of the Bhonsale and the British Government. During that time all types of vices and corruption were prevailing in the society and the people had forgotten their duties. In this critical juncture Guru Ghasidas emerged and tried to bring some changes in the society. The all round development which took place during the last half of the 18th century and first half of the 19th century in Chhatisgarh region was mainly due to Baba Ghasidas who was a follower of truth and non-violence.
The earliest Satnamis were a sect of mendicants and householders founded by Birbhan in Narnaul in eastern Punjab in 1657. In 1672 they defied the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and were crushed by his army. Remnants of that sect may have contributed to the formation of another, known as Sadhs (i.e., sadhu, “good”), in the early 19th century, who also designated their deity as satnam. A similar and roughly contemporary group under the leadership of Jagjivandas of Barabanki district, near Lucknow, was said to have been influenced by a disciple of the Sufi mystic Yari Shah (1668–1725). He projected an image of an overarching creator God as nirguna (“devoid of sensible qualities”), best worshipped through a regimen of self-discipline and by use of the “true name” alone. Yet Jagjivandas also wrote works about Hindu deities, and the elimination of caste, a central part of the Satnami creed, was not part of his message.
Subsequent History of the Satnimis
The creed enunciated by Ghasi Das was of creditable simplicity and purity, of too elevated a nature for the Chamars. The religion was originally of a high order of morality. But it rapidly got degraded to its own level, when adopted by a people who were incapable of living upto it. The crude myths, associated with the story of Ghasi Das made the religion obscured. It is related that one day Ghasi Das’s son brought him a fish to eat. So when he was about to consume it the fish spoke and forbade him to do so. Ghasidas then refrained from eating it but his wife and two sons insisted on eating the fish and shortly afterwards they died. Overcome with grief Ghasi Das tried to commit suicide by throwing himself down from a tree in the forest. But the bough of the tree bent with him and he could not fall. Finally, the deity appeared, bringing his two sons and commended Ghasi Das for his piety, at the same time bidding him to go and proclaim theSatnami doctrine to the world.
Ghasi Das thereupon went and dug up the body of his wife, who arose saying ‘Satnam’. Afterwards the whole family dedicated themselves for the spread of the Satnami Cult. Ghasi Das lived up to eighty years and died- in 1850 A.D. The number of disciples then were more than a quarter of a million. He was succeeded in the office of high priest by – his eldest son Balak Das. Balak Das, however, managed things badly. He outraged the feelings of the Hindus by assuming the sacred thread’ and parading it ostentatiously in public occasions. He became very hostile and was finally assassinated at night by a party of Rajputs at the rest house of Amabandha on his way to Raipur. The murder was committed in 1860 A.D. and its perpetrators were never discovered. Since then the family had fallen upon evil times. Balak Das was in love with the daughter of a Chitari (painter) and married her, proclaiming a revelation that the next Chamar guru should be the offspring of a Chitari girl.
Accordingly, his son by her, Sahib Das, succeeded to the office. But the real power remained in the hands of Agar Das, brother of Balak Das, who married his chitari widow. By her Agar Das had a son, Ajab Das. But he had also another son Agarman Das by his legitimate wife and they both claimed succession. They became joint high priests. The property was also partitioned between them. The chief guru of the Satnamis was having a large income by the contributions of Chamars on his tours. He received a rupee from each house in the villages which he visited for his propagation. So he built a house in Bhandar, situated 56 kilometre to the northeast of Raipur, with having golden pinnacles. Since the later gurus were extravagant and became involved in debt, both the house and the village have been foreclosed by the then Raja Gakul Das. It is also believed that a wealthy disciple repurchased the house for the Guru.
An annual fair was held at Bhandara to which all Satnamis went and drank the water in which the guru had dipped his big toe. Each Satnami disciple gave him not less than a rupee and sometimes as much as fifty rupees. But the fair is no longer held and now the Satnamis only give a coconut to the guru — “when he goes on tour. The Satnamis also have a fair in Ratanpur, a sacred place of the Hindus, where they assemble and bathe in a tank of their own, as they are not allowed to bathe in the Hindu tanks.
The most-important Satnami group was founded in 1820 in the Chattisgarh region of middle India by Ghasidas, a farm servant and member of the Chamar caste (a Dalit caste whose hereditary occupation was leather tanning, a task regarded by Hindus as polluting). His Satnam Panth (“Path of the True Name”) succeeded in providing a religious and social identity for large numbers of Chattisgarhi Chamars (who formed one-sixth of the total population of the region), in defiance of their derogatory treatment by upper-caste Hindus and their exclusion from Hindu temple worship. Ghasidas is remembered for having thrown images of Hindu gods onto a rubbish heap. He preached a code of ethical and dietary self-restraint and social equality. Connections with the Kabir Panth have been historically important at certain stages, and over time Satnamis have negotiated their place within a wider Hindu order in complex ways.
Its relation with Kabirpanthis and Hinduism
Chhatisgarh was in former times hateful to orthodox Hindus as the abode of Dasyus (aboriginal tribes) and witches. It was also the headquarters of dissent, as its secluded wilds offered a refuge to those who had to fly from persecution for the profession of beliefs conflicting with ordinary Hinduism. A large population belongs to the two great dissenting sects of Kabir panthis and Satnamis and the observance of the Hindu religion sits lightly on the bulk of population.
The origin of both the Kabir panthi and Satnami Sects may be attributed to a reaction against Hinduism and the despised position to which the lower classes are relegated by the Caste system. Kabir panthism represents the revolt of the weavers and the Satnamism that of the tanners, the former having been founded by Kabir, a weaver and the later by Ghasi Das, a chamar. The unconscious genesis of these revolts may be taken to be social rather religious. They represent the efforts of the lower and impure castes to free themselves from the tyranny of the caste system and the Brahmanas who stand at the head of the system. The abolition of caste was the fundamental tenet of both sects and they are always in conflict with orthodox Hinduism and Brahmanas. Ghasi Das himself had been deeply impressed by the misery and debasement of the Chamar community.
The increased bitterness and tension produced by the hostility of the Brahmanas and the murder of Balak Das, for the assumption of the sacred thread, the Satnami movement practically took its real character of a social revolt. There was permanent antagonism between the Chamars and Hindus in Chhatisgarh and this the Chamar cultivators carry into their relations with their Hindu landlords by refusing to pay rent. A large portion of the Satnami Chamars are owners or tenants of land and this intensified their feeling of revolt against the degraded position to which they were relegated by the Hindus. The Satnami women now wear nose-rings, an ornament hitherto forbidden to the lower castes, and the Satnamis show their contempt for orthodox Hinduism by rudely parodying Hindu sacred festivals. They insist on travelling in the trains in the same compartments with Caste Hindus who are defiled by their touch and against whom they do not hesitate to jostle. This anti-caste feeling has operated in more ways than one. The records of the criminal courts contain many cases arising from collisions between the Chamars and the Hindus, several of which resulted in riot and murder.
The spread of Christianity among the Chamars in Chhatisgarh is in one respect a replica of the Satnami movement. By becoming a Christian the Chamar hopes to throw off the social bondage of Hinduism. However, Ghasi Das created self-confidence amongst the depressed section of the society for their fight against injustice and untouchability. They started establishing their own identify and courage to fight against injustice.
Though a religious sect, the Satnamis are to be classified as a separate caste group on account of a decision of Local Government in 1926. In 1961 Census, they are classified as a synonymous group of Chamars and are listed in the Scheduled Caste. They are the dominant scheduled caste and found to be 8.18 per cent of its population against 12.7 percent in 1931. They attained the status of an independent caste in 1927 and — disclaiming all association with the Chamars. In the villages the Satnamis would be generally found living separately from other communities. The Satnamis are mostly found in Durg, Kawarda, Bemetera, Rajnangaon, Raipur and Bilaspur area. Of these Bilaspur and Raipur are their principal areas of concentration. Hence, the Satnamis originate as a religious sect but were successful in getting the status of a caste by the end of twenties.
The Government of Chhattisgarh renamed a part of Sanjay-Dubri Tiger Reserve after him, that is Guru Ghasidas National Park. They also opened a Central University called “Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya.