RAMDĀSĪĀ SIKHS is how Sikh converts from the community working professionally in leather are usually referred to as a class. The term Ramdāsīās is an adaptation from Ravidāsīās, as some Chamār castes came to be called. They owed their affiliation to the famous Saint, Ravidīās, a pioneer of Vaiṣṇava revival. In Uttar Pradesh, Ramdāsīās are also called Ravidāsīās. Ravidās, being an unfamiliar name in the Punjab, became here Ramdās or Rām Dās, which is the name which also belongs to the Fourth Gurū of the Sikhs.

         Chamār(from Sanskrit charmkāra, worker in leather) is a functional caste of skinners, tanners, curriers and shoe-makers. Chamārs as "untouchables" lay at the lowest level 'of the Hindu social order only slightly higher than the Chūhṛās or scavengers by virtue of their being craftsmen. "Chūhṛā Chamār" was till recently a common pejorative conjoint referring to the two castes. The teachings of the Gurūs with their rejection of the caste system and emphasis on ethnic equality of all human beings naturally appealed to them. Of special significance for them was the canonization of the bāṇī or hymns of Bhagat Ravidās in the Sikh Scripture by Gurū Arjan (1563-1606). Consequently, many Chamārs converted to Sikhism and they were as a class given the respectable name of Ramdāsīā Sikhs. Later, when industrialization and opening up of new avenues of employment facilitated occupational mobility, many Chamārs including Ramdāsīā Sikhs took to weaving, considered to be a cleaner and more honourable occupation than tanning and shoe making. It also brought them better bargaining power through its semi-bartering and semi-money trading economic roles. Conversion of Hindu Chamārs to Sikhism accelerated towards the end of the nineteenth century. This was due to the rise of .Siṅgh Sabhā movement launched in 1873 for the restoration and propagation of Sikh teachings, including the removal of caste distinctions. The fact that one of the leading figures of the movement was himself a Ramdāsīā Sikh, Giānī Ditt Siṅgh, who enjoyed wide esteem in the Sikh community served as an example. The number of Chamārs who declared Sikhism as their religion increased from 100,014 in 1881 to 155,717, in 1931. This was besides 66,080 others listed as Ramdāsīā Sikhs in 1931. The converts were usually very particular about maintaining the five symbols of the Khālsā and were therefore nicknamed Rahitīās, i.e, those meticulously observing the Sikh rahit or code of conduct. Meanwhile the term Ramdāsīā was no longer confined to Sikhs. During the census of 1931, many Hindu Chamārs registered themselves as Ramdāsīās or Ravidāsīās, and still many more who registered themselves Ramdāsīās/Ravidāsias declared Ādi Dharam (lit. the primal faith) as their religion (Ādi Dharamīs, a new category comprising both Chamārs and Chuhṛās and also some other so-called achhut or untouchable classes, denied being Hindus). Yet of all Ramdāsīās/Ravidāsīās nearly 52.8 per cent declared themselves Sikhs.

         Ramdāsīā Sikhs, unlike Mazhabī Sikhs, were generally a docile community. During World War II, however, the British enrolled them in the Indian army. They along with Mazhabī Sikhs formed the Mazhabī and Ramdāsīā Sikh Regiment, later redesignated as Sikh Light Infantry. Recruitment to other service corps was also opened for them. After Independence, at the insistence of the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal, a political party of the Sikhs, Ramdāsīā Sikhs (along with Mazhabī, Kabīrpanthī and Siklīgar Sikhs) were included among the scheduled castes who were granted special rights and privileges guaranteed under the Indian Constitution for some depressed classes. Ramdāsīās now form an integral part of the Sikh community, with additional concessions statutorily provided to them in education, employment and political representation.


    Rose, H.A., ed., A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. Lahore, 1911-19

Parkāsh Siṅgh Jammū