AKHĀṚĀ, from Sanskrit akṣpālā or akṣvālā meaning stage or theatre or arena, is in common use a sectarian monastery, seminary or seat of Hindu anchorites such as Sannyāsīs and Bairāgīs and Sikh ascetics, Udāsīs and Nirmalās. Located at prominent places of pilgrimage, they provide facilities for board and lodging to inmates as well as to travellers. They also serve as centres of study and training for neophytes. Whereas Sannyāsī and Bairāgī akhāṛās had existed at various places since ancient times, it was Mahant Prītam Dās Nirbān (1753-1831), an Udāsī saint, who first conceived the idea of establishing separate akhāṛās for Udāsīs. During his travels in South India, he persuaded Nānak Chand, uncle of Dīwān Chandū Lāl of Hyderābād state, to make a donation of money for this purpose. This led to the setting up of the Pañchāitī Central Akhāṛā of Udāsīs in 1779 at Prayāg (Allāhābād), with branches at several other pilgrimage centres. Two years later, Mahant Prītam Dās founded Nirbān Akhāṛā, popularly called Saṅgalvālā Akhāṛā, at Amritsar, of which he himself was the head. Some other Udāsī saints also set up their own akhāṛās around the Darbār Sāhib complex at Amritsar. Many of them were taken over by the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee as the agitation for Gurdwārā reform got under way during the 1920's. The latest one was Brahm Būṭā Akhāṛā acquired towards the end of the 1980's. Saṅgat Sāhib (Bhāī Pherū) branch of Udāsī Sikhs had established a separate central institution at Kankhal, near Haridvār, in 1839. It was named Srī Guru Nayā Akhāṛā Udāsīṅ, but is popularly known as Udāsīāṅ dā Chhoṭā Akhāṛā.
Nirmalā Sikhs also established their own central akhāṛā in 1862 at Paṭiālā with funds provided by the rulers of Phūlkīāṅ states of Paṭiālā, Nābhā and Jīnd (See NIRMAL PAÑCHĀITĪ AKHĀṚĀ). Named Dharam Dhujā Akhāṛā Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, it is still in existence with branches at several towns throughout north India including those at Haridvār, Kankhal, Allāhābād, Ujjain, Nāsik and Kurukshetra. The central (Pañchāitī) Akhāṛā of Nirmalā Sikhs is now located at Kankhal.
Mohinder Siṅgh Gill