Literally, mahant means, the headman, and in
Hindu usage a mahant means the manager of a well-established temple.
Amongst the Sikhs, a mahant stands or stood for the manager of a Sikh
gurdw3r3 since most of the historical Sikh shrines had remained under
the management of such Sikh recluses who did not observe the outward
symbols of Sikhism and thus remained safe from the Mughal Persecution.
With the destruction of the Sikh power in Punjab in the middle of the
19th century, these mahants became arbitrarily powerful as they came
to be protected by the civil laws of a non-Sikh power, the British,
in their possession as the hereditary controllers of the properties
of the Sikh historical shrines. Gradually they lapsed into many Hindu
and non-Sikh practices and adopted even anti-Sikh postures, backed as
they were by the British bureaucracy. One such mahant was Narain Dass,
who in the year 1921 massacred about 150 Sikh pilgrims within the precincts
of the Sikh shrine commemorating the birth-place of the founder of Sikhism,
Nankana Sahib, and this tragedy triggered off the Sikh upsurge, called
the Akali movement which openly defied the mahants of the affluent Sikh
shrines as well as the British bureaucracy backing them. After a struggle
of about half a dozen years, the Sikhs succeeded in wresting the control
of most of these shrines from the hands of these mahants and a statutory
management committee called, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee
was set up to control these shrines.