The Satnami Chamars

The Satnami Chamars


There is a city named Begampura; Where pain and sorrow find no place; There is no fear of tribute or tax; There is no sin, nor dread or death.


The story of the Satnami rebellion of 1672 starts with Guru Ravidas (?1373 ?1475) who dreamed of and sang about  a Utopian city named Begampura, literally a city without sorrow, which had no exploitation or tribute. The movement of the untouchables led by Ravidas did not come to an end on his death. His pupil, Udho Das or Udhav Das, kept the anti caste tradition alive from where it was passed on to, Birbhan (?1543?1658). By this time the followers were known as the Sadhus or the Sadhs. Since belief in one God (whom they called Sat Nam i.e. true name) was one of the fundamental tenet of their faith they were also called Satnamis. The unitarianism or the belief in one God was a central tenent of the followers of Kabir, Nanak and Ravidas and indeed it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the hymns of these three. The sect's supposed founder Birbhan was an inhabitant of Brijhisar near Narnaul in the east Punjab near Delhi. The commandments of their sects are contained in their scripture called the Pothi (book). This pothi, equivalent in stature to the Guru Granth Sahib of the Sikhs is written in the ordinry Brajbhasa language in Devanagari script and contained hymns of many saints who opposed the caste system, for example Kabir and Nanak.

Satnami Pothi Commandments

Some of the hukams ( commandments ) contained in the pothi are summarised as follows

1. Never covet anything, either of body or wealth: take not of another. God is the giver of all things, as your trust is in Him so shall you receive.

2. When asked what you are, declare thyself a Sadh, speak not of caste, nor engage in controversy, hold your faith, put not your hope in men.

3. Never eat nor drink intoxicating substances, nor chew pan, nor smell perfume, nor smoke tobacoo, nor chew nor smell opium, hold not up your hands, bow not your head in the presence of idols or of men.

One of their text preserved in the Royal Asiatic Society London preaches "Do not harrass the poor.... Shun the company of an unjust king and a wealthy and dishonest man; do not accept a gift from these or from the king."

Ruling Class and Plebian Renouncers

Contemporary historians called them Vairagis as they led the life of devotees who had not renounced domestic life. Since many Satnamis were armed they were the forerunners of the Sikh saint soldiers.

Another sect called the Nagas (because they went around naked) were in the habit of carrying weapons and using them. Records exist of them having taken part in battles. Some of them, much later, even fought the British whom the latter called faqirs. Moreover the formers were used to levy taxes and at times run a virtually parallel government just as the ninth Guru of the Sikhs and the later day Namdhari Sikhs did.

There were the ruling class sanyasis and the anti-ruling class vairagis.

Romilla Thapar [1978,89] has given an illuminating insight into the ruling class sanyasis:

The proliferation of land grants in the early medieval period accelerated the prosperity of many mathas as did the donations to the temples attached to the mathas, converting them into semi-administrative units with tangible economic viability and trade."..." Even far removed from the ascetic ideal was the organisation of the akharas, or military wings of the mathas. The earliest of these go back to the ninth or the tenth century A.D., were of the Dasnami Nagas. They were maintained by the wealthy mathas almost as a regiment of mercenary soldiers. Some sources maintain that the akharas were manned by sudra recruits. The emphasis was on physical prowess and skillful weaponry, which were used to full effect in later periods in the battles with the Baiagis.

It was no less than the Sankraacharaya himself who was the reputed founder of the Dasnami Nagas.

There, then, were apparently two schools of thought among the renouncers. One school, led by the Nagas, believed in renouncing the world and living on the charity of others initially but later on that of the ruling classes. Like the Dadupanthis in Rajasthan this led them to become the mercenaries of the ruling classes. Hence the Satnami injuntions against accepting anything from the kings.

The other school best shown by the examples the Mundis or Mundiyas or "Shavelings" because as a token gesture they would shave their eyebrows as well. They believed not in renouncing the world but in leading a domestic life while acting as a Sadhu within it. The two ideas were bound to clash and clash they did. According to the author of Dabistan, in the year 1050 of Hijra (that is 1650 AD) a clash took place between the sects in the holy city of Dwarka where a great number of the Mundis were slain. Although the Mundis or the Satnamis lost that battle, their movement flourished. They had their centres all over part of North India now known as Uttar Pradesh and Harayana. A few years later they were challenging the might of emperor Aurangzeb.

Satnami Progressive Attitide Towards Women

The Satnami way of life condemned living on the charity of others. Most of them were either petty farmers, petty traders or farm labourers. In this they differed radically from to other Sanyasis who had also suuposedly renounced the world completely. The Satnamis had no priesthood and their hymn singing services were simple affairs attended by both men and women. Women apparently played an important role among the Satanamis. According to the enemy's accounts one of their leaders, a prophetess like Joan of Arc is described as a "toothless old witch who promised them invenerability to bullets". Women must have taken active part in the fighting for a contemporary historian to make a remark about the Satanami women riding as an advanced guard on "magic wooden horses."

Indian Historian's Antipathy towards Satnamis

The contemporary ruling class historians did not have any sympathy for the Satnamis. Even the modern high caste historians have paid no regard to the importance of the Satnamis. For example according to Sir Jadunath Sarkar a reputed historian who specialised in history of Aurangzeb:

The Satnamis are extremly filthy and wicked. In their rules they make no distinction between the Hindus and the Muslmans, and they eat pigs and other unclean animals. If a dog is served up before them, they do not show any disgust towards it. On sin and morality they see no blame.

While quoting the above The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics [Ed Hastings, 1910, ] has this to add:

This, however is evidently written by a bigoted Hindu, and, in the light of Hafi Han's (Khafi Khan's) remark, it may be considered as a false and a libellous attack on a Hindu heresy which acknowleged no caste and refused to worship the cutomary Hindu deities.

On the one hand Jadunath Sarkar tries to belittle the importance of the Satanami rebellion by stating that their account is exeggerated out of all proportion compared with the reality. In the same book (A History of Aurangzeb) he informs his readers that the imperial gunnery had to position all their canons outside Delhi in order to fight the impending Satnami attack because it was feared that the rebels were about to conquer that city!

One would expect the Sikh historians to take a more objective view of history. But alas, so affected are the Sikhs with their Jat chauvanism and elitism that they end up separating the history of the Sikhs from the other Indian people in the same period and in the same area. They denigrate the predeccesors of the Sikh movement so as to present Guru Gobind Singh as a semi-super natural being an epithet the Guru himself rejected. Even Jagjit Singh, a writers claiming to be progressive, states

The Radical Bhaktas did not even think of entering politics. But their ideology all the same melted imperceptibly into the caste ideology without making any significant social or political contrubution at any stage.


point to be noted is that nothing was heard of the Satnami resistance either before this uprising or after it. The Bhakti ideology had awakened a spirit of equality and freedom among the plebian Satnamis, but this has not been organised into a militant movement. There is no evidence to suggest that the Satnamis, before this outbreak had ever conceived of challenging the Mogul authority.

Such patronising attitude betrays the idealistic tendency of the author. It would be possible to write an entire book refuting the above assertion. However we would merely say that challenging the caste system in India is to enter the arena of politics, as the caste structure has a political dimension. Just as Guru Nanak's pacifism gave way to the actively defiant militancy of the later Gurus, so in the same way the theological rebellion of Guru Ravidas developed into the rebellion of the Satnamis who rightly regarded themselves as the torch bearers of Ravidas's mission.

Survivial of the Satnami Rebellion

As to "their (the Satnami') ideology all the same melting imperceptibly into the caste ideology without making any significant social or political contribution at any stage" let history speak for itself. Again the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics

On the basis of various Settlement Reports of British India has this to say about the Satnamis at the turn of the century. All over India Chamars are one of the lowest and the most despised castes and there can be no doubt that, as in the case of the Rai Dasis (This is a variation of Ravi Das's name) and similar sects, the success of Ghasi Das's teaching was primarily due to his decree that caste was abolished, and that consequently a Chamar was as good as a Hindu. It is this that has aroused the bitter hostility to the sect on the part of the Hindus of the higher caste a hostility which is repaid by its members. The women now wear noserings an ornament hitherto forbidden to the lower castes and the Satnamis show their contempt for the higher castes by parodying the Hindu sacred festivals. They insist on travelling in the trains in the same compartment as the caste Hindus, who are defiled by their touch and against whom they do not hesitate to jostle. This anticaste feeling has operated in more ways than one. It has created a feeling of independence among the downtrodden people, which in its basis, is worthy of all commendation; but its assertion has given rise to bitter class antagonism. The relations between a Chamar tenent and his Hindu landlord are often seriously strained, one side or the other or both being to blame, and many Chamars have turned into dangerous criminals, restrained only by their cowardice from the worst outrages against persons and property.

It was the British who had stopped a virtual class war breaking out between the Satnamis and the high castes. The so called "cowardice" of the Chamar was no doubt hesitancy in the face of insurmountable odds. In this the Satnamis anti caste ideology would appear to be more authentic than that of the Sikhs of the same period who would stop Mazhbi (ex sweeper caste) Sikhs offering the sacramental food at the Golden Temple!

Satnami Bhaktas only or Saint Soldiers?

As to the contention that there was no evidence to suggest that the Satnamis, before this outbreak, had ever conceived of challenging the Mogul authority, we would quote the following testimony by the very same Mogul authority:

One of the remarkable occurences of this year was the outburst of the Hindu devotees called the Satnamis who are also known by the name of Mundhis. There were four or five thousands of those, who were householders in the parganas of Narnaul and Mewat..... They are not allowed to acquire wealth in any but a lawful calling. If anyone attempts to wrong or oppress them by force or by exercise of authourity, they will not endure it. Many of them have weapons and arms.

Again from the same source:

It is a cause for wonder that a gang of bloody, miserable rebels, landless peasants, carpenters, sweepers, tanners and other ignoble beings, braggarts and fools of all descriptions, should become so puffed up with vainglory as to cast themselves headlong into the pit of self destruction. This is how it came to pass. A malignant set of people, inhabitants of Mewat, collected suddenly as white ants spring from the ground or locusts descend from the skies. It is affirmed that these people considered themselves immortal; seventy lives was the reward promised to those who fell in action. A body of about 5000 had collected in the nerighbourhood of Narnaul and were in open rebellion. Cities and district were plundered.

Great rajas and veteran amirs were sent against them with powerful armies. But the revolters were eager for a fight, and advanced to a site about sixteen or seventeen kos (about 50 miles) from Delhi. The martial qualities of the Satnamis which were due in part to their good organisation, helped their reputation to grow quickly. Incredible stories attributed witchcaft to them by which they could supposedly become invulnerable to swords, arrows and musketballs. So afraid was the supreme master of India, Aurangzeb, of these alleged powers that: He then wrote some prayers and devices with his own hands, which he ordered to be sewn on the banners and standards, and carried against the rebels.

The Satnami rebellion was defeated none too soon as for as Aurangzeb was concerned: The royal forces marched to the encounter; the insurgents showed a bold front, and although totally unprovided with the implements of war, made good use of arms that they had. They fought with all the valour of former rebels whose deeds are recorded in history, and the people of Hind have called this battle Mahabharat,( by comparison) on account of the great slaughter of elephants of that trying day.

Even though on many occasions the court chroniclers of Auranzeb praised the Sikhs for their bravery, it was to the Satnamis that they attributed aweaspiring supernatural powers. In view of the testimony of these contemporary historians the opinion of Jagjit Singh, the Sikh historian, begin to sound rather hollow. Since the Sikhs were often nearly wiped out, it would appear that it was by virtue of the fact that the time and place of battle was in their favour, rather than on the basis of any special intrinsic quality that the Sikhs managed to get the state power and write their own history. The Satnamis who were parallel and serial manifestation of the same anti-caste anti-feudal phenomena as the Sikhs, did not manage to do so. While it is true that the Satnami rebellion of Aurengzeb's time was crushed, no progressive person would call it a failure. To quote a well known progressive giant Marx was also able to appreciate that there are moments in history when a desprate struggle of the masses, even for hopeless cause, is essential for a further schooling of these masses and their training for the next struggle.

Banda Bahadur and Satnamis

The next struggle in that part of India would be led by Banda Bahadur, another "mysterious Vairagi", and the leader of the Sikhs after the Tenth Guru.

Banda arrived at Narnaul in 1709. There he saw the complete destruction of he Satnamis with his own eyes. His blood boiled on learning that the entire sect of the Satnami men, women and childern, one and all, had been wiped out of existence. It was here that Banda made up his mind to retaliate upon Muslims.

Banda of course had many untouchables and other so-called low-castes in his army.

The Satnami movement did not die without leaving a trace. It was revived again, but in a different form, by one Jagjivan Das of Barabanki District in the United Provinces in 1682. Satnamis in the Chattisgarh district in the Central Provinces trace their origins to Jagjivan Das and Ravi Das or Rohi Das as they call him.

Perhaps the struggle of the Satnamis can still be useful in educating and mentally training the Dalit masses in their militant tradition.

In a typical fashion of denying Dalits even their own history and claiming all the credit for themselves some Sikhs claim the Satnamis to be as some sort of offshoot of Sikhism. See for a very confusing Sikh idea of what a Satnami was.

To be edited....


 Print  Email