The Satnami revolt

The Satnami revolt


An offshoot of the medieval Bhakti movement, the Satnami movement had its origin in the Sadhs, a Unitarian sect founded in 1543 by Birbhan, of the village Bijesar of Narnaul pargana} It was probably a branch of the Raidasi jamayat (organization) founded after the famous saint Raidasa. Birbhan although claimed to be inspired by Uddhava Dasa, a pupil of Raidasa, like Kabir seems to ‘have wandered rather far from Vaishnava teachings of Ramananda, Raidasa’s master’. The Sadhs call upon God under the name Satnama (the True Name) and among themselves employ Satnami as the name of the sect. They were nick named ‘Mundiyas’ or ‘Shavelings from their habit of shaving the body clean of all hairs.


The Sadhs, under the name of Satnamis appear to have been heroes of the revolt of Hindu devotees against the oppression exercised by Aurangzeb’s revenue officials. ‘The revolt of the Satnami faqirs (May 1672)’ writes J.N. Sarkar, ‘has gained a place in the history of Aurangzeb out of all proportions to its size or political importance. Unlike the popular disturbances of the reign it appealed to the vulgar craze for the supernatural and sent a short thrill of fear through the capital itself. Hence, men greatly marvelled at it and it became the talk of the age’. Their mendicant militancy and puritan professionalism even drew the attention of Khafi Khan who observed


One of the remarkable occurrences of this year (May, 1672) was the outburst of the Hindu devotees called Satnamis, who are also known by the name of Mundihs (i.e., clean shaven fellows). There were four or live ihousand of these, who were house-holders in the parganas of Narnaul and Mewat. These men dress like devotees, but they nevertheless carry on agriculture and trade, though their trade is on a small scale. In tfe way of their religion they have dignified themselves with the title of ‘Good Name’, this being the meaning of Satnam, They are not allowed to acquire wealth in any but a lawful calling. If any one attempts to wrong or oppress them by force, or by exercise of authority, they will not endure it. Many of them have weapons and arms.


Iswara Das Nagar, a contemporary historian, on the other hand, presents quite a contradictory account. He wrote:-


The Satnamis are extremely filthy and wicked. In their rules they make no distinction between Hindus and Musalmans, and eat pigs, and other unclean animals. If a dog is served up before them, they do not show any disgust at it! In sin and immorality they see no blame.


The observation, evidently of an orthodox Hindu need not be given any credence in view of the more reasonable and realistic accounted of Khafi Khan. It may be as pointed out by Grierson ‘false and libellous attacks on a Hindu heresy which acknowledged no caste and refused worship the customary Hindu deities’.


The Satnamis, as is evident from one of their texts (Pothi Giydn Bdnl Sadh Satndmi) denounce caste, begging, hoarding and servitude of the rich. As put by Irfan Habib their injunction ‘do not harass the poor, shun the company of an unjust king and wealthy and dishonest man, do not accept a gift from them or from kings has a revolutionary ring’. It was essentially a social revolt of the lower classes in a common fraternity irrespective of caste, creed or region. It started with a small incident which was symbolic of widespread discontent among the people, and inspired their actions that followed. A Satnami peasant of Narnaul having a quarrel with a piada (foot-soldier) on duty was struck by the latter with a staff. This was the signal for the Satnamis who gathered there in large numbers, to beat the piada. Being informed of the incident, the Shiqdar of Narnaul sent additional force to arrest the offenders. The party could not cope with the large number of Satnamis, was beaten and its arms snatched.  Further, as narrated by Manucci:


[An old sorceress told them that if they would follow her orders she would make them masters of Delhi, the king not having more than ten thousand horsemen, because all his other troops had gone with Shah Alam on the expedition against Shivaji.]


The morale of the Satnamis became high and their numbers large. The swiftness of the movements can very well be gathered from the remarks in the Madsir-h Alamgiri describing the movement as ‘A malignant set of people, inhabitants of Mewat, collected suddenly as white ants spring from the ground, or locusts descend from the sky’. They soon routed the troops of Kartalab Khan, the Faujdar of Narnaul, killed him and captured the towns of Narnaul and Bairat which provided them secure bases for further operation. They demolished mosques and established their own administration in the district, holding it by means of outposts and collecting the revenue from the peasants. Commenting on the initial success of the Satnamis and the worry of Aurangzeb Manucci wrote


[They (the Satnamis) marched with such vigour that when the news reached the court Aurangzeb was particularly disturbed in mind, and sent out against them his ten thousand horsemen. The Mundas fought with such vigour, upheld by the sorceress of the old woman, that they routed Aurangzeb’s army. At this result he was more disturbed than ever. They had already arrived within fifteen leagues of Delhi, when he ordered out all the troops he had been able to raise. Continuous reports were to be sent to him of what went on.]


The Satnami revolt despite its religious origins cannot be turned as merely a Hindu revolt, which would be minimizing its secular character. The refusal of some Muslim as well as Rajput commanders of the Mughal army to fight with them justifies


It is no wonder that the movement assumed larger proportion and stories became current that it was sustained by magical and supernatural power. The insurgents after closing in on Delhi cut off its grain supplies. A large army was then sent to repel them but as it reached Rewari it lost heart and fled. The emperor finally decided to send a strong force under his best commanders Radandaz Khan, Hamid Khan, Yahya Khan, Najib Khan, Rumi Khan, Kamaluddin, Purdil, Isfandyar Bakshi, under the overall command of Prince Muhammad Akbar. To keep high morale of his armies Aurangzeb himself wrote hymns and magical figures on papers ‘and sent them to be hung on the heads of the elephants and horses, and on the standards, fatiguing himself greatly with the preparation of all these papers’. (Aurangzeb) wearied himself thus’, writes Manucci, ‘it was from the great importance of the matter, for it was a question of losing kingdom and life, since, without exaggeration, Aurangzeb found himself at this moment in greater danger than at any time in the rest of his life’.


A deadly encounter between the contending parties took place at \irnaul. Although inadequately equipped and lacking in discipline and training, the Sun imis put a heroic resistance to their oppressors. ‘They the Satnamis) enacted the scene of the great war of the Mahabharata’. Though ultimately overpowered by numbers, they fell fighting to their last man. About 5000 Satnamis are estimated to have sacrificed their lives for their cause. The casualities on the Mughal side were no less. ‘Many of the Muslims were slain or wounded’. Bishnu Singh Kachhwa, who had fought most gallantly, had his elephant wounded at seven places. Thus ended one of the most spectacular popular rising of the region against oppressive rule of Aurangzeb. Although failed to produce a heirarchy of able leadership which could have revived it even after disaster, it left the field open for other people of the region to continue the struggle against oppression for long time to come.


Aurangzeb’s policy of intolerance did not end with the suppression of the Mewatis and the Satnamis. It now turned to the destruction of the sacred places of the region (a notorious administrative measure of that reign). Several temples were destroyed at Kurukshetra and a castle (called Mughalpura) was built in the midst of a lake from where Mughal soldiers could fire upon pilgrims who came to bathe there. Near the Sarvesvara Mahadeva temple, the remains of a castle with pillars on four sides are still visible testifying to Aurangzeb’s oppressive rule. According to local tradition, the castle was demolished later on by the Marathas who also removed the pilgrim tax which required the Hindu pilgrims to pay one rupee for a small pot of water of the holy tank and five rupees for a dip in it {eka rupaya lota aurapaficha rupaya goto) and that the Marathas rebuilt the Sthanesvara Mahadeva temple which had been destroyed and replaced by a mosque during this period. A careful look at the present temple reveals the existence of Muslim structures — a mosque with domes and beautifully painted arches. It appears that at a still later stage further attempt was made to remove the Muslim signs by putting Hindu religious paintings in the walls.


The Akhhardt (the official news bulletins of Aurangzeb’s (court) throw light on the destruction of some religious establishments at Thanesar. The Akhbar dated 30 May, 1667 reports:-


The Brahmins of pargana Thanesar presented a complaint that the sons of Shaikh Mir on their way from Lahore dismantled the places where Hindus used to sit on the tank. The sons of the Shaikh petitioned that the Hindus were indulging greatly in irreligious acts. It was ordered that the tank should be destroyed so that water could not be stored there.


Thanesar formed a part of the jagir of Hoshdarkhan, governor of Akbarabad (Agra), whose agent thought that the tank was indispensable for cultivation.


The Akhbar of I June, 1667 reports a similar complaint. Aurangzeb summoned the Qazi of Thanesar to his court. After hearing the Qazi, the Emperor ordered Abdul Aziz Khan, Faujdar of Thanesar, that ‘the waters of the tank be released from all the four quarters so that after this the Hindus may not gather there. It seems that this order was not immediately implemented for the Akhbar dated 18 June, 1667 records that ‘Abdul Aziz Khan who had been ordered to destroy the tank at Thanesar was reported (by Hoshdarkhan) to have harassed the ryots who were greatly benefited by the tank. The Emperor also referred to a similar request previously made by Begam Saheb. The Emperor, however, ordered (although without having received any formal complaint) the suppression of the aforesaid irreligious acts, but allowed the tank to be restored to its former condition.


As early as 24 October, 1754 by a special of Alamgir (the Mughal Emperor), the Hingne Brothers, Peshwa’s agents at Delhi, were authorised to lookafter Kurukshetra and Gaya, the two holy places of the Hindus. The temples at Kurukshetra were built, reconstructed or renovated during Maratha rule in Haryana which lasted from 1784-1803. The local tradition attributes this credit to Sadashiv Rao Bhau but the latter had no time to visit Kurukshetra.

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