SUTHRASHAHIS, a mendicant order which owes its origin to Suthra Shah (1625-82), a disciple of Guru Hargobind. Not much is known about the life of Suthra Shah. The legend goes diat he was born in a Nanda Khatri family of Bahrampur, now in Gurdasur district, with a black mark on his forehead and with his teeth cut, on which account he was pronounced to be unlucky. His parents neglected him, but Guru Hargobind, sixth in the spiritual line from Guru Nanak, took him under his care.
He named the child then called Kuthra, i.e. dirty or ugly, Suthra which means pure or spotless.Among the Sikhs he came to be known as Suthra Shah, the suffix `Shah` in Punjabi being the equivalent of the English word `esquire.` Suthra Shah was reputed for his devotion to Guru Hargobind and his humorous manner. He was appointed by Guru Har Rai, Guru Hargobind`s successor, to preach Sikh faith. As time passed, Suthra Shah`s followers, drawn from among both Hindus and Muslims, turned into a separate sect.
They sang mystic songs in honour of Guru Nanak, but they had taken to mendicancy and forsworn all established social norms. They received novices into their order after a rigorous testing. They were made to take a pledge to abide by the rules of the order.According to the testimony of a contemporary historian, a candidate seeking admission into the sect was at first dissuaded from the course and warned of the hard and austere life ahead where he was to “subsist by begging, remain celibate and not to quarrel even if abused.” The initiates were required to remain celibate and break off all family ties.
They were to live on alms and to avoid liquor and flesh. Coloured clothes being forbidden for a Suthra, he wore white, with a sehJ`1 (necklet of black wool) round his neck and a kullah (high peaked cap) on head, and such other garments as gave him a funny look. He applied a black mark on his forehead in imitation of the saffron frontal mark of the upperedge Hindu.He invariably carried two small sticks (dandas) each about half a yard in length, which they clashed rhythmically together or struck against their iron bracelets while soliciting alms. These sticks served as a sort of license certifying the holder to be a Suthra sent by the ma.
hant of a dera to beg alms for himself as well as for those who happened to lodge in the dharamsala attached to the dera. This practice of playing of the dandas was introduced by Jhangar Shah who came to this order from tlie aristocratic family of a near relative of Lakhpat Rai, the minister of Nawab Zakariya Khan, governor of Lahore (1726-45) under the Mughals.The Suthrashahis venerated the Guru Granth Sahib and recited hymns from it they had remembered by heart. But when they visited Hindu homes for alms, they sang praise of the Devi, the goddess.
They shared popular Hindu beliefs and observed Hindu customs and rites like burning their dead and consigning the remains to the River Ganga. Suthrashahis owed allegiance to their living guru and had their mahants or priests to manage their deras and dharamsalas in different places. They roamed around extensively and established their centres in distant parts. Besides several in the Punjab in towns such as Sanavari, Behrampur, Batala (all in Gurdaspur district), Nur Mahal (Jalandhar), Amritsar and Lahore, their deras were known to exist in Jaunpur, in South India and in Qandahar, in Afghanistan.
A dharamsala built by Jhangar Shah outside the walled city of Lahore, between the Masti Darwaza and the Raushnai Darwaza, enjoyed the patronage of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and was endowed by him. Some of the Suthrashahi saints wrote religious verse, Vedandc in tone. Suthra Shah himself is credited with having written a baramasa, a calendar poem after the twelve (bara) months (masa). The sect flourished considerably during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, but gradually its members became lax and lost their original religious fervour.
They took to gambling and drinking and paid scant regard to moral and ethical values or the opinion of Sikhs and Hindus. On the other hand, they evolved their own norms of behaviour attractive more for idlers and escapists. This deterioration in their moral standards resulted in the decline of the sect and ultimately in its virtual extinction.
1. Rose, H.A., ed., A Glossary of Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. Lahore, 1911-19
2. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion : Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors. Oxford, 1909
3. Latif, Syad Muhammad, History of the Punjab. Calcutta, 1891
4. Gian Singh, Giani, Twarikh Guru Khalsa [Reprint]. Patiala, 1970
5. Santokh Singh, Bhai, Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth. Amritsar, 1927-35