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Geeta Chopra

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Geeta

Geeta Report 14 Jan 2003 12:10

The status and rank of sangatias was considerably raised by Guru Arjan, 1581-1606. Immediately after his succession he decided to complete the tanks of Amritsar and Santokhsar, extending the hamlet of Ramdaspura and erecting temples in the tanks. This required money. Adopting the practice of the Muslim Zakat,1 Guru Arjan converted voluntary offerings into compulsory contributions.2 He called upon sangatias to collect offerings from the Sikhs at the rate of one-tenth of their income called Daswandh. They were upgraded as masands. Masand is the corrupted Panjabi form of the Persian word musannad which means exalted or raised high. In Sikh terminology it was a title as well as an institution. Mohsin Fani writes: "It may be pointed out that during the rule of Afghan kings the court nobles were addressed as Musannad-e-ali. On account of Its frequent application Indians converted it into masands. As the Sikhs called their Gurus veritable kings (Sachcha- badshah), and considered them real rulers, their agents (gumashta) were called masands. They were also called Ramdas."8 They preached, settled disputes and kept the Sikhs under a regular administrative system. The masands were not paid any salary. They retained a portion of the offerings received by them, with the approval of the Guru. All the offerings were presented every six months by the masands to the Guru on the festival days of Baisakhi and Diwali. Most of the masands were Jats, while a few were Brahmans and Khatris. At the time of departure the Guru bestowed upon masands turbans or robes of honour,"4 called saropas or a covering from head to foot. Through masands number of Sikhs grew to such an extent that the senior ,nasands appointed their own deputies in every place and quarter.5 The masand system worked well during the time of Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind. Guru Har Rae stayed away from his headquarters at Nahan for twelve years. During this period the masands began to assert an independent attitude in the Guru's absence, and remitted to him at their sweet will only a portion of the offering received. The eighth Guru, Har Krishan, was a child, and died when he was only eight years old. At this period there was no check on masands and they became independent for all practical purposes. The office of masand became hereditary. As testified by Bhai Gurdas and Mohsin Fani, the majority of followers of the first four Gurus were Khatris and Aroras. It was during Guru Arjan's time that the Majha Jats flocked to Sikhism. His masands were also mostly Jats. The Khatris and Aroras were traders. They were soft spoken. The Jats were agriculturists. They compelled nature by physical force to yield. As masands they could not get rid of their aggressive character. During the pontificate of Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind they remained submissive, but afterwards they asserted themselves fearlessly. After the death of Guru Har Krishan several descendants of Guru Hargobind claimed guruship, while Tegh Bahadur, the youngest son of the sixth Guru, had been nominated to that office. A claimant to guruship named Dhirmal employed one of his masands to kill Tegh Bahadur. The masand shot a bullet at the Guru and wounded him. He also carried off Tegh Bahadur's property. After his succession Guru Tegh Bahadur remained outside Panjab for six or seven years, and on his return he was involved in a conflict with the Mughal Government. Thus no check was exercised upon masands. They began to gather riches and power for themselves, and became corrupt. Guru Gobind Singh was at Paonta when Ram Rai, the eldest son of Guru Har Rai came from Dehra Dun to see him. Ram Rae had been so much worried over the conduct of his masands that he said: "I am fortunate to have obtained a sight of thee; I have now but a brief time to live. My masands are very proud. When I am gone, protect my family and property." After some time Ram Rai while sitting in meditation fell into a trance. The masands declared him dead. His wife Panjab Kaur protested saying that he often remained in physical insensibility. The masands did not care and cremated him. Then they seized his valuable property. Panjab Kaur sought help from Guru Gobind Singh. She fixed a day for serving a feast in honour of her deceased husband. All the masands gathered there. Just then Guru Gobind Singh appeared on the scene at the head of a strong contingent. In the presence of all the masands, Panjab Kaur told the Guru how the masands had misbehaved. They demanded liquor and opium from Ram Rae's followers. They kept courtezans. They oppressed people. They kept major part of the offerings for themselves. Last of all they had killed their Guru and plundered his property. They were severely punished for their misdeeds.1 On his return to Anandpur, the Guru invited all his masands to attend the fair of Baisakhi. They came with a small part of the offerings collected by them. The Guru said that they had paid nothing since the time of Guru Har Rae, and what they brought was little. The masands replied that the rich Sikhs were dead, and the poor could not afford much. The Guru demanded his full share. The masands left the court and said among themselves. "The Guru is of our own making. If we did not contribute the money necessary for his maintenance, no one would call him a Guru." The Guru came to know that some masands billeted themselves on poor Sikhs and demanded delicious dishes and sweets. In one case a masand threw the boiled pulse at his host's face because he did not like to have simple and plain food. The man was profusely abused and insulted. In the end he sold his wife's clothes to entertain him. Sukha Siugh (1768-l838) says that a Sikh from Bengal gave for the Guru a web of fine Dhaka muslin to masand Suchayya who kept it for himself. After sometime the Sikh came to Anandpur and presented another web of the same material. The Guru liked it immensely. He told the Guru that he had given a similar piece to the masand a year ago for the Guru.3 One day some buffoons acted a mimicry of masands in the durbar of Guru Gobind Siugh. One became a masand, two men his servants and the fourth a courtezan sitting on horseback behind the masand. The clowns showed how the offerings were forcibly exacted and what wickedness was committed by them on poor and innocent Sikhs. A Hukam Nama issued on Phagun Shudi Sammat 1750 (19 February, 1694) asked a sangat to bring the Sikhs and their offerings to the Guru on the Baisakhi day. It means that the masands were functioning in 1694. The Guru decided to rid his disciples of the masands' tyranny and villainy. In the Hukam Namas of 1698, the Guru says that further instructions to the Khalsa would be issued in the new era. It shows that the Guru had made up his mind six months before the foundation of the Khalsa on the New Year Day which would be the beginning of the new era of Sikhism. On 12 March, 1699, be issued a Hukam Nama to the sangat of Machhiwara prohibiting them from handing over any offerings meant for the Guru to a masand and such things should be personally presented. Other Hukam Namas also issued later on contained clear instructions to various sangats not to have anything to do with masands whether men or women.. Immediately after the foundation of the Khalsa he abolished the masand system altogether. He ordered that in future all the offerings should be made to him directly, and no Sikh should pay anything to a masand. This was a great deed and sent a wave of happiness among the Sikhs.2 This measure not only freed the Sikhs from humiliation and oppression but also restored a close personal bond between the Guru and his disciples