NIRMALĀ, derived from Sanskrit nirmala meaning spotless, unsullied, pure, bright, etc., is the name of a sect of Sikhs primarily engaged in religious study and preaching. The members of the sect are called Nirmalā Sikhs or simply Nirmalās. The sect arose during the time of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh (1666-1708), though some, on the authority of a line in the first vār of Bhāī Gurdās (d. 1636), claim, like the Udāsīs, Gurū Nānak (1469-1539) himself to be the founder. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh wanted his followers not only to train in soldierly arts but also to cultivate letters. Especially during his stay at Pāoṇṭā, on the bank of the River Yamunā, from 1685 to 1688, he had engaged a number of scholars to translate Sanskrit classics into current Braj or Punjabi, in order to bring them within easy reach of the less educated laity. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh once asked one of these scholars, Paṇḍit Raghunāth, to teach Sikhs Sanskrit. The latter politely excused himself on the plea that Sanskrit was deva bhāṣā, language of the gods, and could not be taught to Śūdras, i.e. members of the low castes. To even this caste bias Gurū Gobind Siṅgh sent five of his Sikhs, namely Karam Siṅgh, Vīr Siṅgh, Gaṇḍā Siṅgh, Saiṇā Siṅgh and Rām Siṅgh, dressed as upper-class students, to Vārāṇasī, the centre of Hindu learning. These Sikhs worked diligently for several years and returned to Anandpur as accomplished scholars of classical Indian theology and philosophy. In view of their piety and their sophisticated manner, they and their students came to be known as Nirmalās, and were later recognized as a separate sect. After the evacuation of Anandpur in 1705, the Nirmalā preachers went to different places outside the Punjab, particularly to Haridvār, Allāhābād and Vārāṅasī where they established centres of learning that exist to this day—Kankhal, near Haridvār, Pakkī Saṅgat at Allāhābād, and Chetan Maṭh and Chhoṭī Saṅgat at Vārāṇasī. When, during the second half of the eighteenth century, the Sikhs established their sway over the Punjab, some of the Nirmalā saints came back here and founded at different places centres which were liberally endowed by Sikh chiefs.
It was customary for Nirmalā scholars to attend, along with their disciples, religious fairs at prominent pilgrimage centres such as Haridvār, Allāhābād and Gayā, where they, like other sādhūs, took out shāhīs or processions and held philosophical debates with scholars of other religious denominations as a part of their preaching activity. Sometimes these scholastic exercises led to bitter rivalry and even physical confrontation. During the Haridvār Kumbh in 1855, a general meeting of the Nirmalās held in their principal ḍerā at Kankhal took the first concrete step towards setting up a central body by electing Mahitāb Siṅgh of Rishīkesh, reputed scholar of the sect, as their Srī Mahant or principal priest. Mahitāb Siṅgh attracted attention of the rulers of Paṭiālā, Nabhā and Jīnd with whose help a pañchāitī akhāṛā named Dharam Dhujā was established at Paṭiālā in 1861. Its formal inauguration took place on 7 August 1862. The headquarters of the sect, however, remained at Kankhal. The sect comprises several sampradāyas or sub-sects each with its own ḍerā and its own following.
The Nirmalās believe in the Ten Gurūs and Gurū Granth Sāhib. Taking the baptism of the Khālsā is not compulsory nor common among them. As a distinguishing mark of the sect they don at least one of the garment in ochre colour. They generally practise celibacy and are devoted to scriptural and philosophical study, but by tradition they are inclined towards classical Hindu philosophy especially Vedānta. Their contribution towards the preaching of Sikh doctrine and production of philosophical literature in Sanskrit, Braj, Hindi and Punjabi is considerable. Some of the important works that contributed to Sikh learning in general and the elucidation and regeneration of Sikh principles in particular are as follows: Saṇgam Sār Chandrikā by Paṇḍit Saddā Siṅgh of Chetan Maṭh, Vārāṇasī, is commentary on a Sanskrit work on Advait philosophy, Advait Siddhi; Paṇḍit Tārā Siṅgh Narotam (1822-91) wrote several books of which Gurmat Nirṇaya Sāgar (1877) and Guru Girārath Kosh in two volumes (1889) deal with philosophy of Sikh religion. His Srī Guru Tīrath Saṅgrahi is a pioneer work on historical Sikh shrines in and outside India. Another famous Nirmalā scholar Paṇḍit Sādhū Siṅgh wrote Shrī Mukh Vākya Sidhānt Jyotī and Gurū Sikhyā Prabhākar (1893). Giānī Giān Siṅgh (1822-1921) is known for his contribution to Sikh history. His Panth Prakāsh in verse appeared in 1880 and Twārīkh Gurū Khālsā in prose in 1891.
Shamsher Siṅgh Ashok