SUTHRĀSHĀHĪS, a mendicant order which owes its origin to Suthrā Shāh (1625-82), a disciple of Gurū Hargobind. Not much is known about the life of Suthrā Shāh. The legend goes that he was born in a Nandā Khatrī family of Bahrāmpur, now in Gurdāspur district, with a black mark on his forehead and with his teeth cut, on which account he was pronounced to be unlucky. His parents neglected him, but Gurū Hargobind, sixth in the spiritual line from Gurū Nānak, took him under his care. He named the child then called Kuthrā, i.e, dirty or ugly, Suthrā which means pure or spotless. Among the Sikhs he came to be known as Suthrā Shāh, the suffix 'Shāh', in Punjabi being the equivalent of the English word 'esquire.' Suthrā Shāh was reputed for his devotion to Gurū Hargobind and his humorous manner. He was appointed by Gurū Har Rāi, Gurū Hargobind's successor, to preach Sikh faith.
As time passed, Suthrā Shāh's followers, drawn from among both Hindus and Muslims, turned into a separate sect. They sang mystic songs in honour of Gurū Nānak, but they had taken to mendicancy and forsworn all established social norms. They received novices into their order after a rigorous testing. They were made to take a pledge to abide by the rules of the order. According to the testimony of a contemporary historian, a candidate seeking admission into the sect was at first dissuaded from the course and warned of the hard and austere life ahead where he was to "subsist by begging, remain celibate and not to quarrel even if abused."
The initiates were required to remain celibate and break off all family ties. They were to live on alms and to avoid liquor and flesh. Coloured clothes being forbidden for a Suthrā, he wore white, with a sehlī (necklet of black wool) round his neck and a kullah (high peaked cap on head, and such other garments as gave him a funny look. He applied a black mark on his forehead in imitation of the saffron frontal mark of the upper-edge Hindu. He invariably carried two small sticks (ḍaṇḍās) each about half a yard in length, which they clashed rhythmically together or struck against their iron bracelets while soliciting alms. These sticks served as a sort of license certifying the holder to be a Suthrā sent by the mahant of a ḍerā to beg alms for himself as well as for those who happened to lodge in the dharamsālā attached to the ḍerā. This practice of playing of the ḍaṇḍās was introduced by Jhangaṛ Shāh who came to this order from the aristocratic family of a near relative of Lakhpat Rāi, the minister of Nawāb Zakarīyā Khān, governor of Lahore (1726-45) under the Mughals. The Suthrāshāhīs venerated the Gurū Granth Sāhib and recited hymns from it they had remembered by heart. But when they visited Hindu homes for alms, they sang praise of the Devī, the goddess. They shared popular Hindu beliefs and observed Hindu customs and rites like burning their dead and consigning the remains to the River Gaṅgā.
Suthrāshāhīs owed allegiance to their living gurū and had their mahants or priests to manage their ḍerās and dharamsālās in different places. They roamed around extensively and established their centres in distant parts. Besides several in the Punjab in towns such as Sanāvarī, Behrāmpur, Baṭālā (all in Gurdāspur district), Nūr Mahal (Jalandhar), Amritsar and Lahore, their ḍerās were known to exist in Jaunpur, in South India and in Qandahār, in Afghanistan. A dharamsālā built by Jhangaṛ Shāh outside the walled city of Lahore, between the Mastī Darwāzā and the Raushnāī Darwāzā, enjoyed the patronage of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh and was endowed by him.
Some of the Suthrāshāhī saints wrote religious verse, Vedantic in tone. Suthrā Shāh himself is credited with having written a bārāmāsā, a calendar poem after the twelve (bārā) months (māsa).
The sect flourished considerably during the reign of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh, but gradually its members became lax and lost their original religious fervour. They took to gambling and drinking and paid scant regard to moral and ethical values or the opinion of Sikhs and Hindus. On the other hand, they evolved their own norms of behaviour attractive more for idlers and escapists. This deterioration in their moral standards resulted in the decline of the sect and ultimately in its virtual extinction.
B. S. Nijjar