KŪKĀS or NĀMDHĀRĪS, the name given to the members of a sectarian group that arose among the Sikhs towards the close of the nineteenth century. Kūk, in Punjabi, means a scream or shout. While chanting the sacred hymns at their religious congregations, the adherents of the new order broke into ecstatic cries which led to their being called Kūkās. The other term Nāmdhārīs, also used for them, means devotees of nām, i.e. those attached to God's Name. The sect had its origin it the movement of reform intimations of which first became audible in the northwest corner of the Sikh kingdom of Lahore. It harked back to a way of life more in keeping with the spiritual tradition of the Sikhs. Its principal concern was to spread the true spirit of the faith shorn of empty ritualism which had grown on it since the beginning of Sikh monarchy. These ideas were preached by Bābā Bālak Siṅgh (1797-1862), a pious and saintly man, who collected around him at Hazro, in Attock district in the northwest frontier region, a small following. He was visited one day by a young man, Rām Siṅgh (1816-85), then serving in the Sikh army. Rām Siṅgh was deeply impressed by Bābā Bālak Siṅgh's concern about the decline of Sikh values in the wake of political power and his appeal for a life of simplicity and spirituality. He resigned from the army and dedicated himself to his precept. Before he died, Bābā Bālak Siṅgh named him his successor. Bābā Rām Siṅgh who made Bhaiṇī in Ludhiāṇā district his headquarters, imparted to the movement vigour as well as form. He attached special importance to the administration of the rites of amrit or pāhul, the vows of the Khālsā introduced by Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. Those admitted to the discipline were distinguished by their peculiarly simple style of tying their turbans and by their woollen rosary and white dress. A strict code of conduct was enjoined upon the members. They were to adore the One Formless Being and to acknowledge but one Scripture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib. They were forbidden to worship at tombs and graves and to venerate scions of Soḍhī and Bedī families, then claiming religious popularity. The importance of leading a life of regular prayer and meditation and of abstinence from falsehood, slander, adultery, and from eating flesh and use of liquor, hemp or opium was reiterated. Protection to the cow was made a cardinal principle of the Kūkās' social ethics. Beggary and parasitism were condemned as evil, and industry and charity were applauded. Regard for personal hygiene, likewise, formed an essential ingredient of the Kūkā code. No caste distinctions were recognized. Women were freely admitted to the ranks of the brotherhood and were allowed to participate in all community activity. Female infanticide, enforced widowhood and dowry were forbidden. Simple and inexpensive marrige custom, following Sikh injunctions, was introduced. Bābā Rām Siṅgh asked his followers to breed horses, learn horsemanship and carry clubs in their hands; also, to recite daily Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's martial poem, Chaṇḍī dī Vār. An hierarchical structure comprising sūbās (governors), naib sūbās (deputy governors) and jathedārs operated within their jurisdictions and maintained with the centre at Bhaiṇī Sāhib, as also amongst themselves, regular communication by means of their own private postal service. Special emphasis was laid on the use of svadeshī, homespun cloth, as against the imported mill-made cloth. Education through the medium of English introduced by the British was to be shunned.
The Kūkā activity made the government wary and in April 1863 Bābā Rām Siṅgh and his followers were interrogated by officials at the time of their visit to Amritsar. This was resented by the Kūkās who had among their ranks some old soldiers of the Sikh army and who were generally critical of Christian proselytization as well as of the opening of slaughter-houses by the foreign rulers. Their dīvāns were now marked by added fervour. The news that the head man of a village in Fīrozpur district had turned a Kūkā, burning away in his new zeal his plough, bullock-cart, a bedstead and the spinning wheel, alarmed the district authorities who saw in such accretions the signs of the growing influence of the movement. More than 40 Kūkās trying to convene a meeting at Tharājvālā, in Fīrozpur district, were arrested and seven of them were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment by the deputy commissioner.
The government found further grounds for suspicion in some of the Kūkās' joining the armies of the Indian princes. It was feared that the object of such recruits was to get military training and then return to the Punjab to raise a tumult against the British. Since the Kūkās were averse to seeking service under the English, some of them had visited Mahārājā Ranbīr Siṅgh of Kashmīr in 1869 and offered to join the state forces. The Mahārājā agreed to recruit a new regiment and enlisted about 150 Kūkās under the command of Sūbā Hīrā Siṅgh of Saḍhaurā, but the force was disbanded two years later under pressure from the British government.
In the early seventies of the 19th century, events moved at a catastrophic pace bringing the career of the Kūkā revolution to a dramatic climax. In their zeal for protecting the cow, some Kūkās attacked a slaughterhouse in the sacred city of Amritsar on the night of 15 June 1871. Four butchers were killed and three seriously wounded. Seven of the Kūkās were apprehended out of whom four paid the extreme penalty of the law. Exactly a month later, a similar incident took place at Rāikoṭ, in Ludhiāṇā district, where three butchers were killed . Five Kūkās including Giānī Ratan Siṅgh, esteemed as a scholar, were awarded death penalty. Returning from the Māghī fair at Bhaiṇī Sāhib at the beginning of 1872, a group of Kūkās planned to plunder the armoury at Mālerkoṭlā, the capital of a princely state. On the way, they attacked the house of the Sikh chief of Malaud to rob it of arms and horses which they needed for their assault on Mālerkoṭlā. At Mālerkoṭlā, the Kūkās, more than a hundred strong, were challenged by police as they scaled the city wall on the morning of 15 January 1872 to enter the treasury. In the fracas that followed eight policemen and seven Kūkās lost their lives. Sixty eight of the Kūkās, including two women, were captured by Mīr Niāz 'Alī, an officer of the Paṭiālā state, at Raṛ, a nearby village to which they had retired. Under orders of the British deputy commissioner of Ludhiāṇā, all of them, except the women prisoners who were made over to Paṭiālā authorities, were executed --- 49 blown off by cannon and one put to the sword on 17 January and the remaining 16 again killed at gunmouth. Bābā Rām Siṅgh was exiled from the Punjab along with ten of his Sūbās, and taken to Allāhābād from where he was transferred to Rangoon and detained under the Bengal Act of 1818. The Sūbās were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. A police post was stationed at Bhaiṇī Sāhib, the Kūkā headquarters, and the entire setup placed under strict surveillance. Village functionaries, zaildārs and nambardārs, were ordered to report under penalty of deprivation of office or other punishment the movements of Kūkās within their respective areas. The assembly of more than five Kūkās was forbidden throughout the Punjab as also the carrying in public of axes, iron knobbed sticks and other weapons.
Despite these repressive measures, the movement was sustained by the mystique that grew around Bābā Rām Siṅgh. His followers continued to believe that he would one day reappear among them and lead them to freedom from British rule. A few even made the hazardous journey to Rangoon to see him, circumventing the guards, and bring messages from him. In the Punjab, Bābā Rām Siṅgh's brother, Budh Siṅgh, who now assumed the name of Harī Siṅgh, took his place. One of the Sūbās, Gurcharan Siṅgh and after him Bishan Siṅgh, made secret trips across the borders to make contact with the Russians. Prophecies, in the name of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, were circulated predicting that Russia would invade the Punjab and drive away the British. The Kūkās were also active in campaign for the restoration of Mahārājā Duleep Siṅgh, the last Sikh sovereign of the Punjab, who had been dethroned after the second Anglo-Sikh war.
With the turn of the century, the excitement had ebbed away. The Kūkās retained their religious fervour and evolved over the years a distinct identity. The process received great stimulus from the personality of Bābā Partāp Siṅgh who succeeded Bābā Harī Siṅgh upon his death in 1906. Kūkās emerged, under his leadership, as a cohesive social and religious group. Their numbers increased and they flourished in their chosen trades such as animal husbandry, agriculture and small industry. Bābā Partāp Siṅgh died in 1959 and was succeeded by Bābā Jagjīt Siṅgh. Bhaiṇī Sāhib, in Ludhiāṇā district in the Punjab, and Jīvan Nagar, in Hissar district in Haryāṇā, are today the two principal centres of the Nāmdhārīs, term which is now more commonly used. The Nāmdhārīs generally go to their own gurdwārās. They instal the Gurū Granth Sāhib in their gurdwārās, but believe in living Gurūs, Bābā Jagjīt Siṅgh being their present pontiff. The Namdhārīs are known for their simple living and rigid code of conduct. They wear white homespun and wind round their heads mull or longcloth without any semblance of embellishment. They are strict vegetarians. Marriages are performed inexpensively usually in groups on special occasion such as Holā Mahallā.