Dr Amrit Kaur | July 26, 2022 10:31 AM

Until the beginning of the twentieth century the main historical Gurdwaras were
under the control of mahants. It may be added that originally the superior of a
religious establishment was called a mahant. In earlier days the word mahant
referred to the leaders of Nath deras. But during the 18th and 19th centuries many
Gurdwaras were occupied by hereditary controllers who became virtual owners
of their respective Gurdwaras and came to be known as mahants. Many of them
were not initiated Sikhs, they were self-seekers and started exploiting the funds
attached to the Gurdwaras and started using the funds for their pleasure and
immoral activities.

During the Mughal rule the Sikhs were ousted from the Gurdwaras and as such
udasi (members of a sect of Sikhs detached with the worldly pleasures) and
Nirmalas (a sect of Sikhs) started taking care of the Gurdwaras. During this
period because of the Mughal oppression the Sikhs were driven out of theier
homes to seek safety in remote hills and deserts. The tyranny of Mughals
culminated in Chhota Ghallughara (March – June, 1946) and Wadda
Ghallughara ( Feb 5,1762) in each of which approprimately 40,000 Sikhs were

During this period the mahants acted as touts of the Mughal empire and started
considering the Gurudwara property as their personal property. They were given
a free hold by the Mughal rulers to do anything and everything as per their
wishes disregarding the tenets of Sikh religion. The hold of the Sikhs on
Gurdwaras weakened.

During the Sikh rule lumpsum properties were attached to the Gurdwaras to
bear the expenditure. Especially the historical Gurdwaras were endowed with
land grants. Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) made an endowment of about
20,000 acres of land to Sri Nankana Sahib Gurdwara the sacred birth place of
Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first prophet - teacher of the Sikhs for maintenance
of langar ( community kitchen).

After the fall of the Sikh rule in 1849, Punjab came under British control. The
British Government entrusted the management of the shrines at Amritsar and
Tarn Taran Sahib to Sarbarah or manager appointed by the Deputy
Commissioner of Amritsar. The role of the manager was however confined to
general supervision, the priests being autonomous in the conduct of religious
affairs. The priests were not initiated Sikhs and did not care about the Sikh
tenets and Sikh tradition.

The Britishers knew fully well that the Gurdwaras had a deep influence on the
life and practices of Sikhs. A fear lurked in their mind that if the mahants are
removed from the Gurdwaras and the control of the Gurdwaras is handed over
to the Sikhs it could cause a threat to their political power. Hence, they created a
rapport with the mahants and encouraged them to use the Gurdwaras as if it was
their personal property. The mahants started acting as touts of British rulers and
started immoral activities within the Gurdwara premises. Under these
circumstances the Sikh leaders decided to end up the immoral activities of the
mahants and organized a Gurdwara Reform Campaign named Akali Dal Akali
Dal. was given the responsibility to fight for the rights of Sikhs and oust the
mahants from the Gurdwaras. Under the guidance of Akali Dal several morchas
(agitations) were organized wherein the British Government was challenged and
encounters were organized with the mahants. During these encounters the Sikhs
had to undergo gruesome tortures at the hands of mahants.

Before the massacre at Sri Nankana Sahib which took place on February
20,1921, at Tarn Taran Sahib which is 24 kms south of Amristar the mahants
disallowed the holding of Kirtan ( hymn singing) and also insulted several
women. When this information reached Sri Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, one jatha
reached Tarn Taran Sahib. The mahant at Tarn Taran Sahib played a foul game.
On one hand he promised to compromise and on the other got ready for an
encounter. Thus on January 27,1921 at Tarn Taran Sahib in the evening when
the Sikhs reached the Gurdwara Sahib to pay their obeisance the mercenaries of
the mahant invaded them with small axes. broad axes with long helve and battle
axes, Simultaneously some mercenaries of the mahant stationed on a higher
plinth started pelting bricks and stones on the Sikhs During this invasion by the
mahant's hooligans 16 Sikhs. were injured and two Dr.Hazara Singh and Bhai
Hukam Singh were martyred. In the sacred memory of Dr. Hazara Singh and
Bhai Hukam Singh close to Sri Darbar Sahib, Tarn Taran Sahib a monument
has been erected.

At Sri Nankana Sahib the then mahant Narain Das crossed all bounds in
organizing immoral activities within the premises of the Gurdwara Sahib. He
started using the huge income for his voluptuousness. He kept one prostitute in
his house and also misbehaved with many other women who came to the
Gurdwara Sahib to pay their obeisance. His two predecessor mahants
(i) mahant Sadhu Ram and (ii) mahant Kishan Das were also very corrupt
persons. Mahant Sadhu Ram was an immoral person and a drunkard. After his
death mahant Kishan Das who was a gambler and drunkand took over the
charge. He made many promises with the Sikhs but did not stick to them. After
his death mahant Narain Das, who took the charge of the Gurdwara Sahib was
the worst of all. On a request by the Sikh sangat he promised before a
Magistrate that he will not indulge in immoral activities but did not stick to his
promise. He proved to be an extremely evil and voluptuous person. He made the
premises of the Gurdwara Sahib as a place of merry making and adda (specified
place of vice) of fun and frolic. During 1917 he arranged a dance by a prostitute
within the premises of Sri Nankana Sahib Gurdwara. Out of the mahants,
mahant Narrain Das was the richest and the most corrupt person. The Sikhs
submitted many request petitions to the British Government but were not given
any heed. His immoral activities became highlighted when in 1918, two cases of
molestation of women pilgrims were reported.

During 1918, a retired Sindhi officer came to Sri Nankana Sahib with his family
to pay obeisance where a disciple of the mahant raped his 13 year old daughter.
The mahant ignored the incident. During the same year six women of Jharakan
Wala Ilaqa of Lyalpur who came to Sri Nankana Sahib to pay obeisance were
raped by the disciples of the mahant. When the mahant was asked to intervene
he said that this Gurdwara is our personal shop, so do not send your women folk

On October 5, 1920 a Sikh shrine Gurdwara Babe Di Ber at Sialkot was
liberated from the priestly control and taken over by the Sikhs which marked
the beginning of the Gurdwara Reform Movement.

In October, 1920 a congregation of Sikh leaders was held in village
Dharowali, District Sheikhupura (now named District Nankana Sahib) about
146 miles south of Islamabad, Bhai Lachaman Singh Dharowali who had
played a significant rule in the liberation of the Gurdwara in Tarn Taran Sahib
and other places came forward to play a leading rule. In this congregation a
resolution was passed to bring reform at Sri Nankana Sahib. Simultaneously
Mahant Narain Das started collecting 500 men every day from the surrounding
villages. He organized a meeting of the mahants in other Gurdwara Sahibs
numbering 60 to counteract the efforts of the Sikhs. He collected a sum of Rs.60
thousand and bought weapons with this money which included explosive gun
powder, bullets, small axes, broad axes with long helve, battle axes with long
and broad blade long helve, tins of kerosin oil and wood.

Bhai Waryam Singh who had been deputed by the Sikhs to keep an eye
on the activity of Mahant Narain Das informed Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar about
everything. The Sikhs decided to have an encounter with the mahant before
their conference scheduled to be held in March 1921 because the mahant was
expected to be away at Lahore to attend a traditional conference. On February 6,
1921 in a special congregation a committee consisting of five Sikhs (i) Bhai
Lachhaman Singh Dharowali (1885-1921) (ii) Bhai Dalip Singh Sangla (iii)
Bhai Teja Singh Samundri (iv) Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar (v) Bhai Bakhshish
Singh was formed which was made responsible to organize a congregation and
make langar arrangements for langar.

On February 17,1921 a meeting was held at Gurdwara Sachcha Sauda Sahib
which was attended by Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar, Bhai Lachhman Singh
Dharowali and Bhai Boota Singh Lyalpur.

In this meeting it was decided that Bhai Boota Singh should reach Sri Nankana
Sahib with his jatha in the morning of February 19, 1921 and Bhai Lachhman
Singh Dharowali with his jatha should reach Chander Kot 8 kms north of
Nankana Sahib in the night where Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar will meet him
with his jatha and hence forth both the jathas will march together towards Sri
Nankana Sahib and reach there on February 20, 1921.

It was decided that all the three jathas should reach Sri Nankana Sahib on
February 20,1921. To counteract the efforts of the Sikhs the Mahant put up a
new proposal of a meeting with the Sikh leaders but he did not reach the
scheduled venue. Becoming aware of the deceitful intentions of the Mahant, to
evade the situation of encounter the Sikhs decided to postpone their actions
against the Mahant. Steps were taken to stop the jatha led by Bhai Lachhman
Singh Dharowali which included about 200 Sikhs. The jatha led by S. Kartar
Singh Jhabbar was stopped at the artificial water fall of Chanders Kot, But
before the decision of the Sikh leaders to postone their action reached Bhai
Lachman Singh Dharowali who was unaware of the hooliganism organized by
the Mahant had done ardas ( prayer) for action and as per Sikh tradition once
ardas has been done, no steps can be taken to withdraw Thus it was decided not
to postpone the programmer. Bhai Lachhman Singh Dharowali along with a
jatha of approximately 200 Sikhs reaches Sri Nankana Sahib on the morning of
Feb 20, 1921. In addition to Sri Nankana Sahib Gurdwara six other Gurdwaras
in the town had been under the control of udasi priests ever since the Sikhs had
been driven out of their homes by the Mughal oppression to seek safety in
remote hills and deserts.

On the morning of February 20,1921 as soon as the jatha of Bhai
Lachhman Singh including 200 Sikhs entered the Sacred Shrine at about 6:00
a.m. 400 mercenaries which included Pathans and notorious criminals like
Ranjha and Rehana armed with lethal weapons fell upon the Sikhs who were
peacefully chanting the sacred hymns. As soon as the jatha entered the premises
of the sacred Gurdwara Sahib Mahant Narain Das got the exit door closed.

According to an eye witness on receiving the news of the arrival of the
jatha outside the main gate Mahant Nerain Das with a pistol in his hand and his
face muffled up, started prancing up and down on horseback directing the
mercenaries to carry on the operation and shouting continuously, "Let not a
single long haired Sikh go out alive" It is reported that at this time Bhai Dalip
Singh Sahowal a much respected Sikh who was well known to the Mahant tried
to intercede to stop the bloody carnage. When Bhai Dalip Singh and Bhai
Waryam Singh heard the noise of bullets they hurriedly ran towards the
Gurdwara Sahib. Bhai Dalip Singh shrieked at the Mahant to stop this carnage
but it was all in vain. The Mahant killed him on the spot with a shot from his
pistol. Bhai Dalip Singh was Manager a of Khalsa School, Sangla and when the
Headmaster of this school forbade the students to attend the congregation at
Dharowali he had gone there. Bhai Waryam Singh was cut to pieces with a
broad axe with having a long helve and then thrown into a potter's furnace. Six
other Sikhs coming from outside were butchered and thrown into a potter's kiln.

Bhai Lachman Singh Dhorwali a staunch reformist, a tall and handsome Sikh
was sitting in attendance behind Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) holding and
waving a whisk over it received a volley of bullets while trying to protect
SGGS. Mahant Narain Das dragged Bhai Lachhman Singh Dharowali from his
hair and after chopping off his arms and smashing his head on the ground was
fastened to the Jand tree nearby and burnt alive by throwing kerosin oil on his
body. Other Sikhs were cut to pieces by using small axes, broad axes with long
and broad blade and long helve. The bullets were also showed form the roof of
an adjoining building. Cruelties were showered on all the members of the Jatha.
The total number of Sikhs martyred have been variously estimated, the
consensus being 150-200 Sikhs. Some members of the jatha who had taken
shelter inside the rooms were dragged out, tied to the jand tree and burnt alive
by pouring kerosin oil on them to obliterate all traces of the killed. Mahant's
men burnt the bodies by using kerosin oil and wood.

S. Uttam Singh, the factory owner sent urgent telegrams to the Akali
Leaders and Government officers about this gruesome killing of the Sikhs.

On February 21,1921. Severed prominent Sikhs and an uncountable number of
other Sikhs reached Sri Nankana Sahib. The Deputy Commissioner reached the
Gurdwara Sahib around noon. By this time some Akali Leaders had also arrived
and were agitated over the inaction of the Government officers in providing
protection to the peaceful members of the jatha. The Public Prosecutor
confirmed that "the Mahant had tried to obliterate all traces of the killed by
burning the corpses ". Lord Reading the Viceroy of India, in his report to the
Secretary of State for India also referred to the attempt of the Mahant to burn
the bodies.

Mahant Narain Das and his hunchmen were arrested and sent to Central Jail,
Lohore and the keys of the Gurdwara Sahib were handed over to a committee of
seven Sikhs headed by Sarbarah Harbans Singh Atari, Vice President of
Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee Thus the Gurdwara Sahib was
handed over to the Akails.

In the evening of February, 22,1921 mass cremation of bodies of the
mantrys was done. Charred, mutilated bodies were collected and torn pieces of
flesh were picked form wherever they lay in the blood stained chambers. A
huge funeral pyre was erected.

Bhai Jodh Singh, a respected Sikh scholar and Leader who offered ardas
for the martyrs exhorted the Sikhs "to bear the suffering like their forefathers as
a sacrifice without a reproach or curse" and also said that to wash away the
crime committed in the Holy Shrine a flood of innocent blood was required.

The news of this gruesome saka got spread like wild fire all over the
country. Thousands of Sikhs started going toward Sri Nankana Sahib to have a
holy glimpse.

Sir Edward Maclagan Governor of Punjab visited the site on February
22,1921. Hindu and Muslim leaders which included Mahatma Gandhi, Shaukat
Ali and Muhammad Ali came to Sri Nankana Sahib. Mahatma Gandhi visited
Nankana Sahib on March 3,1921. While condemning the cruel deed of the
Mahant he described the martyrdom of the Akali leaders as an act of national
bravery, Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni a Trustee of the Tribune and author of
"Struggle for Reform in Sikh Shrines" has described a very touching incident
when a very old woman talked to Sir Edward Maclagan, the Governor of Punjab
and said "my child, my four sons and a grandson have been massacred. I request
you for Justice". But how can one expect justice.at the hands of a foreign ruler.

A criminal case against Mahant Narain Das and his men was started on
April 5,1921. The Sessions Court announcing its judgement on October 12,1921
sentenced Mahant Narain Das and seven others to death sentence, eight to life
imprisonment. and 16 Pathan mercenaries were awarded 7 years rigorous
imprisonment . But seemingly under the influence of the British rulers the High
Court delivering its judgement on March 3, 1922 reduced Narain Das's death
sentence to life imprisonment and only three of his hooligans were awarded capital punishment and two were given life terms, all others were let off.

The gruesome incident liberated the Sikh Gurdwaras from the control of
mahants and paved the way for democratic management of the historic
Gurdwara Sahibs.

To observe the centenary of the martyrs of February 20, 1921 on
21 February 2021 programers were held in the village Godharpur, District Gurdaspur, Punjab where the descendants of Bhai Lachhman Singh Dharowali
had migrated after partition of the county.

As a memoried to the Martyrs Shahid Sikh Missionary College was established
at Amritsar.

Hail the Martyrs!

i. Article Saka Nankana Sahib by Dr. Kuldip Singh Haaura included. in Sis
Ganj, Feb 2019, Vol 58, No.2,p.7.
ii. The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism. Part II,III and IV published by Punjabi
University , Patiala,1996,1997,1998.
iii. Giani Bhajan Singh's book Sadde Shaheed (1997)
iv. The book Historical Sikh Shrines by Gurmukh Singh (1955).
v. Article by Mohinder Singh Recounting Tragedy at Nankana Sahib, in The
Tribune, dated 21 February,2021
vi. The book Sikh Shrines in West Pakistan by Waliulla Khan (1962)
vii. Article by Jagir Kaur, Panjabi Tribune dated February 21,2021
Gurdwarian Di Pawitarta Khatar Aapa Waaran Di Missal,p7.


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