Other equally famous Ravidass Deras are ‘Temple Ravidass Chak Hakim’ (Phagwara) and ‘Dera of Sant Jagatjit Giri’ (Pathankot). The Ravidass Deras of Ballan and Chak Hakim shot into prominence for the first time during the Ad Dharm movement. They were instrumental in bringing social consciousness among the Dalits of Punjab. Mangoo Ram, the founder of the Ad Dharm movement visited the Dera Ballan and sought its support in popularising the image of Ravidass among the Dalits of Punjab. The association of the Dera with the Ad Dharm movement further becomes clear from the fact that Sant Sarwan Dass, the then head of the Dera Ballan, offered juice to Mangoo Ram to break his fast-unto-death, undertaken as a counter measure to that of Mahatma Gandhi’s fast against the communal award in 1932.
Although this movement petered out after the first general election in independent India, Deras such as that of Sachkhand Ballan remain popular centres of attraction for the lower castes in Punjab. Founded by Sant Pipal Dass, father of sant Sarwan Dass, Dera Sachkhand Ballan is popularly known as Dera Sant Sarwan Das or simply Dera Ballan.
Within a short span of time, Dera Ballan became a paragon of Ravidass movement in Northwest India and a centre for the veneration of Guru Ravidass. Considered as a site of pilgrimage for lower castes, it made concerted efforts for the construction of a separate Dalit identity, independent of both Sikhism and Hinduism. The saints of Ballan developed their own religious symbols, flags, prayers, dress, salutations and rituals of worship. The architecture of Dera Ballan also gave it a unique outlook. It resembles both a temple and a Gurdwara at the same time. Though Guru Granth Sahib, the holy Sikh scripture, is placed in the Dera, unlike a Gurdwara, the idols of Guru Ravidass and the late heads of the Dera Ballan are also installed in its premises and are worshipped along with Guru Granth Sahib. In the Ravidass Deras, Ravidass is considered as Guru.
Moreover, Gaddi Nashins (heads) of the Ravidass Deras are also considered as Gurus. Sant Niranjan Dass, who was attacked recently at Vienna along with his deputy, is the fifth Gaddi Nashin in the line of individual Gurus in the Dera Ballan. However, in Sikh religion Ravidass is known as Bhakta. The issue of Bhakta versus Guru has not only pitted the Ravidassia community and dominant caste Sikhs against each other in Punjab, but also led to polarisation between them in North America and Europe as well. The recent attack on the two topmost Ravidassia sants of Dera Ballan in a Ravidass Temple in Vienna is alleged to be the outcome of such a controversy. But the controversy is founded on wrong interpretations of the structure and resonances of the philosophy of Dera Sachkhand Ballan.
Dera Ballan is not a Sikh institution nor are the Ravidassia sants residing thereupon Sikhs. They look like Amritdhari (baptised) Sikhs. However, some of them were/are clean-shaven. The sants of Ravidass Deras and their followers are not necessarily Hindu either. The Ravidassia samaj is different from both Hindu and Sikh religion. Since they are not Sikhs, they reiterate the Sikh code of conduct does not apply to them.
Of all the major contributions made by the Dera Ballan, the construction of a mammoth ‘Shri Guru Ravidass Janam Asthan Mandir’ at Guru Ravidass’ birthplace at Seer Goverdhanpur in Varanasi, is the most significant. Dalits from India and abroad helped build the temple. This temple has acquired, perhaps, the same importance for Dalits as the Mecca for Muslims and the Golden Temple for Sikhs. Every year on the anniversary of Ravidass’ birth, the temple attracts millions of devotees from India and abroad.
The saints of Ballan also regularly visit their devotees abroad in order to enlighten them about the bani (preachings) of Ravidass. The Dera has also composed a Gurbani programme called ‘Amrit Bani: Shri Guru Ravidassji’, which is telecast every Friday. The first of its kind, this program has a unique importance for the Dalits, who in the past were forbidden from reading and hearing the sacred text. Now they feel proud of projecting their religion on national television network at par with the other mainstream religious bodies. It has contributed significantly in building their self-esteem, which in turn has sharpened their social and political consciousness.
Primary education and healthcare have been two other topmost concerns for the dera sants. Opening of quality schools and full-fledged hospitals helped boost the popularity of the dera among the Dalits.
(The writer is Chairman, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh)