'Hakikat-Rah-Muqaam-Shivnabh-Raje-Ki', Page 624
[p.1248] of an early 18th Century handwritten copy of Bhai Bannu’s Bir[1]

History of the Bhats

The word Bhat is a diminutive of the Sanskrit word meaning ‘bard’.[2] The word ‘Bhatra’ is a corruption of the term Bhat-Rai.

According to the Janam Sakhis,
[3] Guru Nanak Dev Ji visited Sangladip[4] in the year Samvat 1574 (1517 A.D)[5] in his second Udhassi,[6] during the reign of Emperor Babur.
At Sangladip, Guru Nanak visited the Raja Shivnabh.[7]  The scripture Haikat-Rah-Muqaam-Shivnabh-Raje-ke[8] written in Bhai Bannu’s Bir, at the time of Guru Arjan Dev, states ‘prior to Guru Nanak’s visit, here consisted 1400 villages under seven kingdoms, which Baba Nanak united and made Raja Shivnabh the head.’[9]
In Dr Trump’s translation of an early Janam Sakhi, which he names as Janam-Sakhi-of-Baba-Nanak-A, he states ‘In Singhala-dipa [sic] they [the Guru and his companions] went to the Raja Siv-nabhi [sic] and took abode in his garden on the other side of the ocean. At that time the garden of the Raja Siv-nabhi, which was worth nine lakhs, was dried up; it became green again, what bore flowers, got flowers, what bore leaves, got leaves.[10] Punjab. Raja Shivnabh became a disciple of the Guru, and the people of Sangladip followed suit.[11] Guru Nanak conferred upon him and his people the title of ‘Sangat.’ Here the Japji Sahib was recited daily and regular kirtan took place. Guru’s langar was served to the congregations daily. It was recorded that 20 maunds of salt[12] a day were required for the kitchen of Shivnabh’s numerous followers;[13] some of whom who followed the Guru back to the Punjab.
Map of the Travels of Guru Nanak Dev Kin, on his second Udhassi
For years the community became known as ‘Baba Nanak’s Sangat.’ According to 18th century historian Sant Mangal Das,[14] many years later, Raja Shivnabh’s great-grandson 'Changa ji', who gave preference to academic studies rather than getting involved in ruling, went to Kashi for education and training for a period of 14 years. His tmaster or Guru was Chetan Gir. At that time the high-Pandits (well educated graduates) were known as ‘Bhatacharyas.’  Changa ji won all the contests and he was given the title of 'Rai' meaning ‘Raja’, by his Guru as he had beaten all the Bhatacharyas of the Kingdom of Kashi. Hence Changa ji became known as ‘Bhat Rai’ - the ‘Raja of Poets.’ Years later Changa ji after completing his studies returned and visited his step-brother Raja Aryapat Naik at his Court at Nagapattan,[15] Raja Aryaapat Naik questioned him about his years away, and Changa ji replied, singing the praises in musical tunes and in a poetic fashion, boasting of his new learned skills from Kashi in Aryapat’s honour. But Aryapat Naik claimed that Changa had insulted their Clan and fumed that he was of a Ruling class but had lowered himself to the profession of a mere bard. He told Changa ji ‘You are no more a Royal but a Bard.’[16]
Changa ji left the court of Nagapattan, irrated and many of the other courtiers left with him, including the Raja’s own son Taru Dhoni. Changa ji expressed that as well as him that his colleagues will also be known as Bhat-Rai’s. Changa later became known as ‘Changa Bhat’. Hence his followers became known as Bhats or Bhatras. The Bhats established Sikh Sangats in many parts of India, and began spreading the teachings of Guru Nanak.[17]

Changa, Taru and many of their followers settled in Arogapeth [cit] in India, where he was joined by eminent Bhats Mathura, Kirat and Madho.[cit]

When Changa ji died at Arogapeth,[cit] Bhai Taru became the head of the Sangat. Bhat Mathura, Kirat and Madho travelled Northwards with compositions written by the various Bhats which had been recorded in the Bhat-Vahis, and reached the durbar of Guru Angad Dev ji who at the time was compiling the Guru Granth Sahib ji.[cit] Guru Angad Dev ji included the works of 17 Bhats. The Bhats contributed to a total of 123 compositions in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS, pp.1389-1409), ‘recorded under the title of ‘Savaiyye’ known as Bhata de Bani.
Bhats in the Punjab
Since Bhat Sikhs were itinerant missionaries, they did not take to settled life.[18] In the 16th and 17th century the mobility of the Nanakpanthi Bhats saw the scattering of the community in several parts of India. As the small band of bard singers travelled northwards to the Punjab, their numbers increased substantially from the host villages they sheltered and preached to. The Punjab was where they gained their greatest numbers from and where many settled. Most of the Punjabis from all walks of life that embraced Guru Nanak’s teachings from hearing the Bards of these travellers, joined the Bhats and became Sikhs. Hence Bhats surnames include those from Jats, Khatris and Rajputs among others.

According to historian H.A.Rose, ‘many Bhats first settled along the banks of the Ganges
in the Bijnor district of the United Provinces. They then migrated to Hoshiarpur and Sialkot, and later were to be found in the great town and places all over India. Communities had also spread to Rawalpindi and Lahore, as well as East Punjab. Of the 22 Gauts (surnames), India’s Colonial historian, H.A.Rose lists 13 found in Sialkot in 1911, namely Bance, Bhatti, Potiwal, Digwa, Gami, Gojra, Kag, Kasbia, Lande, Larr, Lohia, Rathore and Raud.[19]

By the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Bhat Sikhs whilst on their missionary work, travelling from village to village and town to town became familiar to pedling. Selling goods and merchandise on their travels throughout India
. Their success lay in their spirit of enterprise, price manipulation and extension of price[cit]
However their religious duties were kept up. Those Bhat Sikhs of Brahminical origin even began astrology and fortune telling whilst pedling to customers. Gradually as the community became resourceful, they would start pedling further a field such as Singapore and Malaysia. By the 1920’s they were travelling to Europe and in particular, Britain, where they took over the pedling profession from the Jewish community.[20]

During the partition of the Punjab
in 1947, many Bhat Sikhs were affected, and were uprooted as a large majority resided in West Punjab, including in Sialkot, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Lyallpur.[21] Many settled in East Punjab in India after 1947, whilst others scattered to other states such as Haryana (Ambala), Rajasthan, Delhi and even in Calcutta. Partition also further gave the Bhat Sikhs a reason to move abroad to such places where the male members had been earlier pedling to.

The Bhat Sikhs today are concentrated now mainly in Patiala
, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Bhatinda districts in the Punjab. The profession of pedling is almost extinct, carried on by a handful in India, whilst most have gone into other fields, including professions and businesses. A considerable number are involved in preaching and many priests and Gyanis at the most sacred historical Sikh Temples, such as Takht Anandpur Sahib and Sachkand Sri Hazur Sahib are from the Bhat community.

[1] [Private Collection] This early manuscript of ‘Bhai Bannu’s Bir’ was discovered at Nanded, and is dated Samvat 1761 (1704 A.D.)
[2] Singh, Harbans, Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, PunajbUniversity, Patiala, Vol. I, p. 350
[3] All Janam Sakhi’s mention Guru Nanak’s visit to Sangladip
[4] Some historians believe Sangaldip to be Ceylon (Modern day Sri Lanka) but this is not conclusive. Sangladip means a ‘chain of Islands, and according to Haqiqat Ra-Mouqam it took 3 days and 3 nights to reach Sangaldip by boat, whilst Sri Lanka would have taken a mere few hours.
[5] The B40 Janam Sakhi at the India Office (London), p.408 states the year as 1574 as does the ‘Janam Sakhi Bhai Vir Singh’
[6] Some historians state that Guru Nanak visited a town called Muttiakullam, now modern day Batticaloa, where an inscription to his name was discovered in the 1960’s.[6] Late 19th century historian Bhai Gurbaksh Singh Shaheed, author of ‘Gur Shabad Rattan Prakash’ gave the place of Guru Ji’s visit as Mattiakullam. On page 34 of this book, Bhai Gurbaksh states: ‘Eight miles from Battiacalo is a place called Kurukal Madap (an old Dharamsala belonging to jogis) where a marble pillar with Japji is written in Sangli script, and underneath this inscription reads ‘The sewa of this has been undertaken by Guru Sewak Changa Bhatra.’ Bhai Gurbaksh also mentioned as second stone inscription which Dr Kirpal Singh of Punjab University Patiala also investigated and discovered that according to him 12 miles from Batticaloa, a place called Kurukal Madap enshrining the memory of a visit, some 450 years ago of a Sidh Baba, this approximately the same time as Guru Nanak. At the time of Kirpal Singh’s investigation, an International Seminar was organized by the Punjabi University in connection with the 500th Birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in 1969, where Dr W S Karunaratna, assistant director of Colombo’s Archaeological department presented a paper in which he announced the recent discovery of an inscription giving an account of a dialogue between the Raja of Kotte and ‘Nanakcharya’ which the author believed to be Guru Nanak.’
[7] Sant Mangal Das from Rishikesh visited Sangladip in sambat 1713 (1656 AD) and recorded in his ‘Sanagladip de Ruhtas’ (The copy of this is  in the possession of the family of Samundar Singh Historian at Patiala.) that the descendants of Raja Shivnabh were as follows: Raja Shivnabh – Rai Singh Doni – Raja Maya Doni – 2sons Raja Ayrapat Naik Doni & Baba Changa Rai Doni
[8] The authorship of ‘Haikat-Rah-Muqaam-Shivnabh-Raje-ke’ is unconfirmed, however it was written during the time of Guru Arjan Dev as an open letter, for Paira Mokha and Bhai Bannu, who were sent to Ceylon by Guru Arjan Dev to collect the verses of Guru Nanak. The works that were collected from that place were known as ‘Praan Sangli’ but were never included in the Guru Granth Sahib. However when Bhai Bannu was sent to bind the Guru Granth Sahib for Guru Arjan Dev, he included the ‘Open letter’ of Haikat-Rah-Muqaam-Shivnabh-Raje-ke in his own version of the bir, which became known as Bhai Bannu’s Bir or Khari Bir.
[9] Hakikat Rah Muqaam Shivnabh Raja Ki, Bhai Banni’s Bir, p. 624, handwritten manuscript, 18th century in private collection.
[10] Trump, Dr Ernest, Adi Granth, 1877, p. xxxvii
[11] Trump states that Guru Nanak’s companion ‘Saido’ a Jat of the Gheho tribe (‘Siho’ was the other companion), gave Raja Shivnabh pahul by the order of the Guru [Trump, Adi Granth, p.xxxviii]
[12] The figure varies in different account. The Shikarpurwali Janam Sakhi (written in 1758 samvat/1701 A.D.) states 20 maunds
[13] Thakur Das Fakir’s Janam Sakhi, p.74 [printed copy in Patiala University]
[14] Sant Mangal Das from Rishikesh went to Sangladip in 1713 sambat (1656 AD) in search for the history of Raja Shivnabh. All his research was complied into a tome called ‘Sanagladip de Ruhtas’. The copy of this in the possession of the family of Samundar Singh Historian at Patiala.
[15] This place is in Tamil Nadu, South East India)
[16] Mangal Das, ‘Sanagladip de Ruhtas’
[17] Singh, Harbans, Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, PunjabUniversity, Patiala, Vol. I, p. 350
[18] Singh, Harbans, Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, PunjabUniversity, Patiala, Vol. I, p. 350
[19] Rose, H. A., Glossary of Punjab Tribes and Castes, 1911
[20] Bance, Peter, The Sikhs In Britain, The History Press, 2004
[21] Now known as Faisalabad